September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
What should a union offer its members? A century-old fight heats up again.
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.
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.”