Labor: An Analysis of Past Strikes, Political Strikes ,Present and Future Struggles




                The trade union movement today remains in deep crisis.  The bad news is abundant.  The number of workers in private sector unions is single digit, back to what it was before the New Deal.  Only the higher percentage of public employees, who were not unionized in the pre New Deal era, keeps the total above single digits.

 And public employees and their unions are under massive attack at the state and local level.  Although the Obama administration especially has appointed better people to the NLRB, there has been no labor law reform in the interests of workers in this country since Kennedy administration action legalizing federal public employee unions a half a century ago.

 When the long-term economic expansion of the post WWII era ended in the mid 1970s and what the late John Kenneth Galbriath called the "truce on equality" (the main trade union leadership's  return to a more narrow "business unionist "in exchange for protection from the Democratic party in holding on to their New Deal era gains)  was broken by the corporations, AFL-CIO attempts to gain labor law reform were rebuffed by the Carter administration. 

The Reagan administration then launched the greatest assault on trade unions since the 1920s while encouraging through its deregulation policies a huge increase in the export of capital from the U.S.  These policies were moderated substantially by the Clinton administration, but neither the policies nor the losses were reversed.  The Bush II   administration took up where Reagan and Bush I left off.    The Obama administration's positive policies have been undermined by right Republican gains in major industrial states in the 2010 elections, which have resulted in  the  most extensive and concerted attempt to destroy public employee unions  at the state and local level since their rise in the 1960s. 

This is the bad news. Some in the labor movement see this weakness as a reason for more caution, inaction, and a traditional policy to hold on to what little is left even if those policies have contributed to the losses labor has suffered.

  What can history do to provide us with a guide that will help us create good news in the future?

 First, some have suggested the possibility of political strikes, which played a major part in the rise of the labor and socialist movements in European countries and continue to be part of European/British resistance to reactionary "austerity policies" today. Some see in the Occupy movement a hopeful expression of such actions.  Let me look at U.S. history to examine this idea.

 Political strikes have played a role in U.S. history-but that history is different in major aspects from European or British labor history  

"Universal suffrage" aka male and in the U.S. white male suffrage was established generations later in European countries than in the U.S. 

Marxists in the last decades of the 19th century fought to gain suffrage and other democratic political rights for the working class and to build both trade unions and socialist political parties which would strengthen each other and empower the working class to transform its growing political power into economic power---to use state action in the interests of the working class. 

In Italy, Germany, France, and other European countries, political strikes of workers in the last decades of the 19th century were important in rescinding anti-trade union, anti- strike, and anti-socialist laws and permitting large socialist parties and influential trade union movements to develop.

In the U.S. though, there were no national laws against unions or for that matter strikes.  However, employers could with impunity hire strike breakers, use labor spies, and when needed gain anti-strike "injunctions" from pliable judges to break strikes.  They could also fire and blacklist workers for any trade union activity. 

And if all that failed, they could use their political power to have governors send in state militia and even presidents to  send in the U.S. army to break strikes.  Although workers had the right to vote in the U.S., the parties that they voted for did little to provide them with any protection of their trade union rights.

 Also, the decentralized nature of U.S. politics-broad police powers for local and state governments, gave corporations,  increasingly national corporations, a series of both private and public weapons to use against workers that unions did not have.  In the U.S., it was never a question of "rescinding" anti-labor legislation, but enacting legislation that would protect workers right to form trade unions from a multi-faceted predatory political system that was fixed in the interests of employers.

In European countries Marxists engaged in political struggles with labor or "Communist" anarchists (those whom Lenin would later call anarcho syndicalists) who rejected the organization of socialist parties and unions and the use of the state to intervene in the interests of workers. 

These anarchists, some of whom formed their own political parties while others worked within existing socialist parties, advocated "political strikes" that would snowball into a revolutionary "general strike" which would lead to a workers revolution and the collapse of the capitalist state, with workers then reorganizing the economy and society on a collectivist basis from the bottom up

Some Twists, Turns, and Detours in U.S. Labor History

In the U.S. beginning on May 1, 1886, the Knights of Labor, then the leading trade union federation, called for strikes and demonstrations through the nation demanding an eight hour work day.  While they did not call for government legislation to achieve this end, this was in effect a national strike with a clear political dimension.

 The Knights of Labor advocated workers cooperatives and were not generally sympathetic to strikes.    They were however supportive of workers democracy and the organization of workers (and  self employed artisans  small capitalists, and women and African-Americans) on a non discriminatory basis.  The anarchist wing of the labor movement, whose aims were different than the Knights, supported the May demonstrations and in Chicago played the leading role in mobilizing them.  The resulting Haymarket "riot" and trials and executions in Chicago led to a wave of red scare repression nationally against the Knights and  other labor activists.   

 But the events were followed closely by workers organizations through the world.  In 1889, at a congress of workers organizations and socialist parties on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the French revolution, delegates decided in memory of and honor of the American workers at Haymarket to make May 1, 1890 a day of demonstrations and strikes for the eight hour day through the world, but that this demand be made not only of workers but of capitalist governments.  

These demonstrations came to be repeated annually through the world (May Day) and also helped to spark a new international organization of socialist parties and affiliated trade unions(known to history as the Second International).  Ironically, Marxists, in their political struggles with anarchists, were able by the mid 1890s to make political action and demands by labor upon governments criteria for membership in the International, thus effectively excluding anarchist labor organizations.

In the U.S. though, the riseat this tim of great corporations in the context of the two party decentralized U.S. political system saw major defensive strikes in Steel (Homestead, 1892) and the railroad industry (Pullman, 1894) which were crushed, along with their unions.

 The American Federation of Labor, founded in the mid 1880s.  and gaining strength after Haymarket and the collapse of the Knights of Labor, adopted under the leadership of Samuel Gompers by the end of the century a narrow "business" or "bread and butter" unionist approach, modeled after the one that the British Trade Unions adopted after the destruction of the Paris  Paris Commune and their  withdrawal of support for   the First International-British labor rejected the formation of a Labor or Socialist party and supported  the Liberal Party to protect Labor's interests against the Conservatives.

 While the British Trade Unions would move away from this policy by the early 20th century after decades of agitation and organization by Marxist and non Marxist (Fabian) socialists, and formed  the British Labor Party, the American Federation of Labor pursued this policy, which continues in a sense to this very day,  initially in an even more conservative manner -supporting both Democrats and Republicans on an ad hoc basis based on their promise to support specific policies.  "Reward you friends and punish your enemies" was Gompers slogan when it came to trade  union political  action "More" was Gompers angry answer to his socialist opponents when they demanded he speak on labor's long-range goals.

In reality this meant more in wages and benefits for the members of individual  AFL craft  unions without government assistance and without much interest in the fate of the great majority of workers, since AFL policy did little to organize non craft, industrial workers, service workers, women and even accepted Jim Crow clauses in craft union constitutions barring Blacks from union membership.

Socialists like party presidential candidate Eugene Debs and industrial unionists were active in 1905 in the creation of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) which they hoped would be a labor federation which would emulate the policies o f European labor federations and work in concert with a mass socialist and/or labor party.  But labor anarchists after a number of years became the most important force in the IWW.

 In a sense all of the IWW strikes, those won and lost, were political strikes.  Political agitation and political strikes that would eventually lead to the general strike was the goal of IWW activity.  To some extent what the IWW lacked in theory it made up in courageous and innovative practice.  Its Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike, uniting diverse groups of immigrant workers, was a victory.  Its "free speech" campaigns against local laws aimed at its street speakers helped to make the first amendment right real.  Its activities in the failed Patterson, New Jersey textile strike (1913) saw artists and intellectuals rallying publically to the side of strike workers in the Madison Square Garden pageant, which John Reed helped to organize.

 But it built no lasting labor organization, and did not try to elect   candidates to political office. Even with its militancy and courage, and its recruitment of women and African-American activists at a much higher level than the socialist party and in opposition to the AFL's racist and sexist exclusionary policies, it did not survive the massive repression it faced during WWI and the postwar red scare.

Some of the leading IWW activists joined the postwar Communist Party USA(Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and others ) and the Communist Party USA in the 1920s and 1930s, combined  the IWW commitment to inclusionary industrial unionism with a variety of  more advanced  trade union policies-the socialists "boring from within" policies in existing AFL unions, attempts to form new industrial unions in areas where the AFL did nothing to organize like Auto and Steel, and connecting labor struggles with larger political struggles.

The trade union movement won its greatest victories both in numbers and in pro labor legislation during the 1930s and 1940s.  Multi-faceted worker militancy and a great upsurge in strikes in the period 1934-1938, focused by dedicated and experienced CPUSA activists, men and women who fitted Lenin's characterization of Communists as "professional revolutionaries" more than any others at any time in U.S. history, even though they did not make a revolution, played a central role in making and consolidating  these  gains.

These victories remain the greatest in U.S. labor history.  While history does not repeat it narrowly and one can't expect them to be repeated in their old form, they remain the best learning experience for trade union activists today.

First, while the strikes were not political strikes per se, there was a major political dimension to them.  Beginning in 1930, Communists organized unemployed councils to fight against home evictions and fight for public jobs ("work relief" it was then called) unemployment insurance for the unemployed and direct aid to those who could not work, especially women with dependent children ("home relief" it was then called)

Uniting the employed with the unemployed to prevent capital from using the latter against the former was a policy that Communists successfully advanced.  Communists also used the labor provisions of the New Deal government's National Recovery Act, whose purpose was to "bailout" capital by fixing prices and production, but which did  establish on paper collective bargaining rights, as a mandate to intensify trade union organizing campaigns  independent of the AFL and also to launch campaigns through all of its mass organizations and the professional associations its activists belonged to  pressure the AFL to organize the unorganized and establish industrial unions. 

In 1934, victories in the Toledo Auto late Strike, the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike, and the West Coast organizing strike  of the International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union(ILWU), which was transformed into the San Francisco General Strike, the only truly successful General Strike in U.S. history, provided a background for the New Deal government's enactment of the National Labor Relations Act(NLRA) in 1935, in which the Federal government intervened to provide a democratic electoral process for trade union certification and collective bargaining agreements.

In other legislation that year, the New Deal government established old age pensions (social security) unemployment insurance (which Communists had largely developed as an issue), a substantial public jobs program, the WPA ("the work relief" Communists had called for years) and aid to families with dependent children (the "home relief" Communists had called for years)

The focused grassroots struggles made the legislation, most of which had been considered "impossible" before the depression, a reality. 

The strikes and the  legislation then led a pro industrial union fact of the AFL, led by John L. Lewis, to fight at the AFL's 1935 convention for a policy of chartering industrial unions.  When the old guard leadership voted this down, it would have been relatively easy for Lewis to put his head down and go along with them.  He was after all, a registered Republican with a record of red-baiting in the union in the 1920s, but he saw both the necessity and the opportunity for industrial unionism.  He and others broke with the AFL, formed a Committee  which later became the Congress of Industrial Unions(CIO) formed a de facto alliance with CPUSA activists, and opened a new page in U.S. labor history.

In the U.S. context, a version of the long established Marxist strategy of uniting trade union and political action bore fruit.  Roosevelt's and New Deal Democrats sweeping 1936  victory provided the context for the greatest strike victory won by U.S. workers in  history, the General Motors sit-down strike of 1937, which led GM to accept the UAW as an industrial union and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with it. 

This victory, before the Supreme Court disappointed the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and virtually the whole U.S. capitalist class by declaring the NLRA constitutional was followed by U.S. Steel's acceptance of the Steel Workers Union to prevent a sit down strike.  The wave of sit down strikes continued, state governors, including Democrats elected with labor support, suppressed strikes in the old fashioned way, a sharp recession enabled anti-New Deal Republicans, who had forged an alliance with conservative primarily Southern Democrats to make  major gains in the 1938 elections and establish a "conservative coalition" that would stalemate most subsequent New Deal legislation.

 But the new unions held their gains, minimum wage and forty hour week(meaning 8 hour day) legislation was enacted, along with the outlawing of child labor.   Before the cold war induced postwar repression, the number of workers in trade unions had grown from under 3 million to nearly at the low point of the depression to nearly 15 million, from less than 10 percent of the non agricultural work force to around a 35 percent of the non agricultural work force.

The Lessons for Today

The bad news is that the labor movement even  at its height, when it involved itself massively and successfully in national and local politics, built industrial unions which in a number of cases were led by Communist Party USA activists and close allies, never overcame in the long run negative decentralized aspects of the U.S. political system and did not develop an independent labor and/ or mass socialist party . 

Had that developed out of the New Deal era, labor  might have been able to assist postwar drives to organize the unorganized, particularly in the South, repeal the pernicious Taft-Hartley law, which allowed states to pass anti-union shop "right to work law" to undermine the NLRA, and of course enact national health care under social security, full employment legislation and other advanced progressive policies which were on the New Deal's postwar agenda when WWII ended.

The good news is that we have a mass upsurge against reaction that has taken and spread through the Occupy Movement, bringing to tens of millions  the concept that the present capitalist system exploits and oppresses the 99% for the benefit of the 1%.  The good news  also is that the AFL-CI0 leadership is more fully committed to anti-racist and anti-chauvinist policies and more open to militancy than at any time since the early post WWII era.  Now we must bring these two together.

The strength of the Occupy Movement, like the IWW, is their  innovation, their courage, their engagement in mass action that gains the attention and also inspires working people.  Their weakness,like the IWW, is their lack of a developmental strategy

There is also  the significant anarchist tendency within the movement which encourages the view among some that there will be expanding Occupations and perhaps one Big Occupation that will provide victory for the 99% over the 1%. 

The strength of the labor movement is its new progressive orientations and the fact that even with its losses, it remains the foundation for the protection of workers'' rights and progressive political action in the U.S. 

Its weakness remains its continued function as a political interest group, great caution in working politically in the Democratic party (here I am not talking about a third party, a labor party, but labor's timidity in challenging Democratic party leaders who undermine labor and peoples movements through their deals with the Republican right and in some cases actually play the leading role in attacking public unions)

What labor and the left can learn from the achievements of the past is to start to think again in terms of labor and the left.   Under the leadership of John Sweeney and today even more so Richard Trumka, the national leadership of the AFL-CI0 has come to identify with and support peoples movements for civil rights, the rights of undocumented workers, environmental protection, and the unity of public and private sector workers. 

 We can and must build on this improved relationship to unite organized workers with the tens of millions of non union people who support these movements, not to build paper coalitions which will raise funds and make endorsements, but organizations which will engage in mass actions that advance policies and legislation to strengthen the movements-legislation like public control over the banking system, public works and real foreclosure and debt relief to "bail out the people." 

 What we can also learn from the achievements of the past is to develop a much more effective relationship with the Obama administration.

  Remember that Communist activists in effect began to forge such a relationship when the New Deal government through its major policies was trying to "bail out" the banks and corporations and commercial agriculture from the top, and then led the struggles which tipped the balance in favor of labor and peoples movements in the second half of Roosevelt's first term.  There was improvement in the economy then (of course the crisis was much greater and the social protections were just beginning to be established) as the economy is improving now.

 Capital and much of the political establishment, including the Democratic Party congressional leadership, looked to continuing these capital "bailout"  policies.  But the strikes, the unity forged between the employed and the unemployed, the fact that in victory and in defeat those committed to building a new labor movement kept on coming---provided the context in which the New Deal government would support major policy victories in legislation that would stimulate great labor victories which would in turn sustain the legislation.

The lesson today is not only to work for Obama's re-election out of fear of what the right Republicans would do if they gained control of the federal government, although such fears are totally justified, but to begin through this campaign to lay the groundwork for major advances in a second Obama administration of the kind that many hoped would transpire in the first Obama administration.  Here labor can and must play a larger role in the campaign, working with the new forces, youth especially, who rallied to Obama's candidacy in 2008.

 These forces represented a broad left, anti-racist, anti-corporate, against police state repression movement.  But they largely dissipated after the victory.  They really were not their politically in 2010.  Just as the CIO came into existence in 1935, helped to bring about the landslide of 1936, and then used that landslide to win huge victories and set the stage for the Fair Labor Standards Act  in 1937-1938,  we should work to bring the trade union movement together with both the broad forces which supported Obama in 2008 and the Occupy movement today in a broad based national organization that can help defeat the Republican right in the elections and then move forward with that victory to achieve trade union and peoples victories in national policy and legislation.

These are enormously difficult tasks.  Some may see them as very unlikely. However, this is, as I see it, the only realistic model that we have given U.S. conditions today and U.S. history.

Just as industrial unions, national labor legislation, social security and unemployment insurance, minimum wages and the forty hour week, were seen by conventional wisdom as virtually impossible in the U.S. (including the leadership of the AFL)  shortly before they were won through both mass struggle and the intervention of a progressive government, a real national public health program, progressive taxation, progressive labor law,  full employment policy, and public sector and infrastructure reconstruction and revitalization, all of which conventional wisdom sees as unlikely if not impossible , can be won today 






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  • Great summary of main developments in US union history.

    Posted by Beatrice Lumpkin, 04/18/2012 6:50pm (7 years ago)

  • Sorry, that Scott Marshal article was in PW, not in PA.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 04/12/2012 10:34am (7 years ago)

  • Excellent article Norman Markowitz.
    The late 19th century strikes mentioned here included the 1877 strike in the St. Louis metropolitan area, that our Scott Marshal writes an excellent piece on in PA, 21 July 2011-"1877 St. Louis General Strike : Lesson for Today", featuring leaders like historian Rose Feurer, activist Ed Sadlowski and others.
    Education leaders and socialists like Peter H. Clark participated in this movement, contributing mightily with powerful if unconventional wisdom to the prospect and need for socialism, then and now-accentuated by-political strikes.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 04/10/2012 6:03pm (7 years ago)

  • The IWW actually did survive WW1 and the red scare, and is still around today. It actually grew in the early '20s before a split in 1924, combined with technological change in agriculture, caused its membership to decline.

    Posted by J, 04/04/2012 3:11pm (7 years ago)

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