Bread And Butter; Bread And Roses

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Not long ago I opened the paper and discovered, without surprise, that the final figures were in on the 1996 election campaign and that it had been—at $2.2 billion—the most expensive in our history (so far). Of the top ten contributing organizations (Philip Morris was first), seven were unions. The piece fed a rising tide of speculation that a once-mighty labor movement, after long hibernation in a wintry climate of public opinion, was reviving. This seemed especially true when Congress killed President Clinton’s request for fast-track authority to make free-trade agreements, particular targets of union dislike. Almost simultaneously, however, labor’s supposedly improving public image was spattered by scandal when a federal overseer invalidated the election of Ron Carey as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters on grounds of improper diversion of union funds to his own campaign.

Union power, union corruption#8212;what are the realities? It’s by no means a new story. I was particularly reminded of the past record when I read the responses of two current labor leaders to the Teamsters story. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, declared, “There is no more corruption in unions than there is in business or in Congress.” But Douglas Fraser, former head of the United Auto Workers, said: “That’s not an adequate answer. . . . Business is about making money, but labor leaders are supposed to be about helping workers.”

Bravo, Fraser, but the labor movement is heir to a century and more of debate on just what “helping workers” entails. Does it mean helping them by getting them more money, period? If so, what kinds of unions do that best? And by what means? Or are labor organizations most meaningful over time only if they provide their members with goals, visions, community, and a sense of dignity and rights? Good questions all, but most pointed when condensed into a single frame: Should a labor movement be aflame with zeal to remake society in a better image? Or should unions simply enhance the power of workers to sell their labor in a market economy? The answer that predominates in any given era, right up to the present, is what shapes the labor movement of that era, and the battle was rarely joined with as much clarity and passion as in the early part of this century, when the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) clashed with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

I can almost hear the ghostly voice of William D. (“Big Bill”) Haywood, the best-known spokesman of the IWW, yelling about the charge that so-called labor bosses are exerting too much power. “Power? Nine workers out of ten still unorganized? And union dues going to bribe middle-class politicians? You call that power ?”

Power meant something very different to Haywood and IWW members, also known as Wobblies. The 1905 founding convention of the organization declared that workers and owners had nothing in common and that the struggle between them would have to continue until the workers took possession of the means of production and abolished the wage system entirely. That great day would come after massive work stoppages to bring capitalism to its knees. Until then American wage slaves should not sign any contracts with employers or make any deals with political parties. For politicians, one and all, were not producers but windbags.

It would be hard to think of a doctrine more frightening to middle-class Americans or more radically opposed to the practice of the American Federation of Labor, dating from 1886. The AFL accepted the existence of capitalism, enrolled its membership from unions of skilled craftspeople, and pulled them off the production line only for pragmatic objectives like higher pay and shorter hours. It wanted a bigger slice of the pie, not control of the bakery#8212;or as Samuel Gompers, AFL president from its birth until his own death in 1924 (save for one year), put it most simply in answer to a congressional questioner: “More.”

The contrast between Gompers and Haywood was striking in personal as well as political terms. Big Bill was a Westerner, an ex-homesteader, an ex-miner, an individualist who preached collectivism and whose earthy attractiveness charmed immigrant millworkers and Greenwich Village Bohemians alike. Gompers was a different kind of commoner. He came to New York after a working-class childhood in London, and he became a cigar maker, a skilled occupation dominated by Germans in his youth and carried on in small shops in a guildlike atmosphere. The widely read Gompers impatiently dismissed doctrinaire reformers, especially the Socialists, whom he declared to be economically unsound, socially wrong, and industrially “impossible.” Only “bread-and-butter unionism,” he believed, could ever hold any lasting attraction for American workers. And only hard-to-replace craft unionists could exercise real power in a strike.