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Bread And Butter; Bread And Roses
What should a union offer its members? A century-old fight heats up again.
September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
The excitement and zeal that the IWW generated may be critical elements in successful unionism.
The story of the two organizations in the dozen years following 1905 is also a study in opposites. The IWW is still surrounded with something of a romantic halo. It organized primarily among those whom the AFL passed by: the unskilled and the unattached, most notably migrant harvest workers, lumberjacks, and miners in the far West, precisely those whose working conditions were the most appalling. However, the banner triumph of the IWW was the winning of a textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. Haywood and others held together an unlikely coalition of immigrant workers speaking as many as fifteen different languages and skillfully courted public sympathy (with plenty of help from especially clumsy reactionary employers) by making the fight one for simple human rights. Who could fail to be moved when mill girls carried picket signs that read: WE WANT BREAD AND ROSES, TOO .
The Wobblies were a singing union ("Solidarity Forever,” their best-known ballad, was by a Wobbly bard, Ralph Chaplin). They pioneered confrontational tactics like the sit-in strike, and they invented a “fill up the jails” technique later employed by civil rights activists of the sixties. Nevertheless they were feared and hated, and not without reason. They advocated sabotage, and militant Wobs were accused of killing some opponents. More damaging to the organization, however, was its very lack of organization. It failed to consolidate its victories, and its numbers never grew beyond a few hundred thousand at most.
The AFL, on the other hand, starting from a base of some five hundred thousand members in 1900, grew to more than four million by 1920 under Gompers’s cautious leadership. His acceptance of political neutrality for the most part was rewarded by increasing respectability and friendly legislation like the Clayton Anti Trust Act of 1914, which specifically exempted unions from its restraint-of-trade penalties. The crowning prize came, however, when Gompers and the AFL supported American entry into World War I, and the former cigar maker was made a member of the Council of National Defense, which ran the wartime economy. In return for a no-strike pledge, unionized workers enjoyed high wartime wages. Far different was the story with the IWW, which resisted the war as a quarrel among competing capitalist governments using working-class youth as cannon fodder. Under wartime sedition laws the government closed IWW offices, tried hundreds of its officials (Haywood included), and gave them jail terms. Big Bill jumped bail and fled to Bolshevik Russia, where he died in 1928. The others were pardoned after a few years, but the back of the organization was broken, as much through left-wing infighting over whether to join the Communists as by previous persecutions.
Up to this point the moral of the story seems clear enough: Gompers had the winning formula, and in the light of the later total collapse of theories of inevitable proletarian revolution, the IWW clearly condemned itself to the junk pile of failed Utopian expectations. Yet the AFL had its losses too. During the twenties its membership shrank by nearly a million, and by the start of the Depression, it was down to nearly half its 1920 strength. Its leadership was remote, many of its constituent unions were under a cloud of scandal, and it was ripe for a challenge that came at last from a rebellious breakaway group that in 1935 formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO boldly organized unskilled workers in key industries like automobiles, rubber, and steel, fought major strikes using some of the IWW’s tactics, and appealed to the ideal of social justice under a capitalist welfare state. Unionized labor reached its best years in the 1940s and 1950s, when it enlisted a quarter of the work force and won substantial gains like pensions, vacations, and health care that certainly qualified as “bread and butter.” By then old feuds had been patched up; the AFL and CIO were reunited, but another long decline in vitality was soon to set in.
I am far from arguing that unions do well only when mobilized around revolutionary programs, which are doomed in a country like ours where competitive individualism is a dominant faith and upward mobility a cherished dream. Yet the excitement and zeal that the IWW (and the early CIO) generated seem to me to be critical elements in successful unionism and are a strong protection against corruption and inertia at the top levels of unions that are simply about “making money.”