Speech at Labor Notes Conference - September 2003
By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

GOOD EVENING. LET ME begin by thanking Labor Notes, and Jane Slaughter in
particular, for extending an invitation to me to speak with you. I would
also like to thank Peter Rachleff from Macalaster College and Jim Green
from UMASS-Boston for the extensive assistance that they offered me in
thinking through the issues I wish to address tonight.

My hope is to present some lessons from an earlier period in US history,
the 1920s and early 1930s in particular, when the working class was facing
most difficult challenges. These are questions many of us have been
grappling with for years. I became radicalized in high school and entered
the labor movement after college, some 25 years ago. At that point too many
of us all too often  glamorized and romanticized the past rather than truly
understood it. The implicit question in looking at the period of the 1920s
and early 1930s is this: how was trade union organization able to survive?
How was it that in the 1920s the death of organized labor was regularly
predicted, but several years later there was nothing short of a labor
renaissance with the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations
(CIO) and the organizing of millions of workers? Answering this question
has great relevance to our current situation where the working class, and
organized labor in particular, exist in nothing short of a de facto 'state
of siege.'

Consider, for a moment, some of the features of the 1920s. This was the era
of what was referenced as 'welfare capitalism.' Unions appeared to be
demonstrating themselves to be useless to workers as capitalists advanced
various paternalistic schemes.

Labor peace was the watch word. Employee-involvement programs and
organizations were created in order to give workers a sense of involvement
in the system. By 1929, David Brody reports, industrial disputes involved
less than 1/6 the number of workers involved in 1916, and 1/17 the number
of those involved in the peak year of 1919. In the 1920s, and contrary to
popular wisdom, there was a demonstrable trend of children breaking with
their parents and ceasing to identify with the working class in general,
and trade unions in particular. Workers were moving further and further
from their places of employment. I reference this because we act as if this
is a new phenomenon. It has been in the makings for nearly a century.

The 1920s was a period of severe political repression. The infamous Palmer
Raids of 1919 led to the jailing and deporting of thousands of anarchists,
socialists, communists and other leftists. Much like the activities of
Attorney General Ashcroft and the crackdown on alleged terrorists, anyone
on the political Left was in jeopardy of imprisonment, irrespective of
cause or evidence, with the soon to be incarcerated being led through the
streets of Boston like Gallic prisoners following Caesar's chariots. The
Garvey Movement, the largest that Black America has ever seen which aimed
at Black awareness and a return to Africa, was repressed, eventually
leading to the jailing and deportation of Garvey himself. The Industrial
Workers of the World, otherwise known as the Wobblies, weakened during
World War I due to a massive government crackdown and the arrest of its key
leaders resulting from their anti-war stand, was essentially finished off
in the early 1920s.

In a phrase, the 1920s represented a period of an offensive of capital.
This offensive took various forms, but two important lessons we have to
keep in mind is that when capital occupies state power it, by definition,
has the advantage. In other words, when those who control the gold rule
either directly or indirectly, they are in the driving seat. We are always
playing catch up, but this does not mean that we cannot win. We can have no
illusions about the situation, however. The so-called "Open Shop Offensive"
during the 1920s was aimed at making that point to the working class.

The second lesson is one that is much more difficult for progressive
activists to accept. Most workers, and most people for that matter, want
social peace. They desire quiet and stability. They are not looking for
upsurges, even though an upsurge might alleviate the pain that they feel on
a daily basis. Capital offers the illusion of labor/management peace to the
worker, at least peace on their terms. This can take the form of the
illusion of upward mobility or the myth of rugged individualism. In the
1920s through various schemes associated with welfare capitalism, capital
seemed to offer-much as it did in the 1980s and 1990s-a place in the sun
for individual workers, at the same time that they were crushing workers
and their organizations. The notion of a partnership with capital, and I
mean that in a strategic sense rather than a tactical sense as is often
found in collective bargaining agreements, is seductive. The 1920s
demonstrated that this appeal had a resonance among many workers,
particularly those that were fortunate enough to be employed by larger
corporations. But it was not only them. The problem that was faced at that
time, and which we continue to face, is equally illustrated by the fear
many workers have of tax increases ON THE WEALTHY, i.e., yes, these are
the wealthy today, but.. .hold on.. .I MIGHT BE WEALTHY TOMORROW!  Any
illusion, accepted by workers, can become a material obstacle to the
development of class consciousness and the blocking of forward motion.

In such an inhospitable world, what could be done? What was done?

Contrary to the wishes of the capitalists, the 1920s was a period of great
turbulence. The problem, from the standpoint of progressives, is that this
turbulence did not ignite into a mass conflagration. Take, for instance,
the Garvey movement. The Universal Negro Improvement Association, organized
millions of African Americans as well as West Indian immigrants. Yet, the
Garvey movement was not, primarily, a confrontational movement. Garvey
hoped that he could achieve some sort of detente with white supremacy
resulting in the peaceful exodus of African Americans from the USA,
returning to Africa. This did not happen, but the experience and
organization of the Garvey movement not only laid the foundation for
subsequent nationalist movements, but it, as well, provided many of the
seeds for pro-CIO organizing that would take place in the 1930s. Some
explicitly Black worker organizing did take place in the 1920s and early
1930s through A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and
through the American Negro Labor Congress, organized at the initiative of
the Communist Party.

Organizing took place in the Southwest, particularly among miners. This
included the work of IWW affiliates or influenced groups, but it also
included work by independent Mexican and Chicano labor unions, in some
cases affiliated with labor bodies in Mexico itself. The American
Federation of Labor, of course, regularly ignored such workers as

In Hawaii, significant organizing took place led, originally, by the
Japanese Federation of Labor and the Filipino Federation of Labor,
ethnic-based organizations within Hawaii itself. By 1920 both groups
decided that organizing on ethnic lines was problematic and moved to merge
into the Hawaii Labor Association.

On the mainland, real possibilities for a breakthrough by progressives took
place when long-time radical trade unionist and later Communist Party
leader William Z. Foster helped form the Trade Union Educational League.
What was particularly interesting about the TUEL was that it was not a
separate union or union federation.  Though it had chapters, it was more of
a network, at least as we use the term today. In some respects similar to
Labor Notes and a group out of the 1980s called the National Rank & File
Against Concessions, this organization brought together activists from
various AFL unions who were committed to transforming the union movement.
It had an explicit program for the renewal of the trade union movement and,
for a while, had substantial ties not only within the left-wing of labor
but as well among more middle or Center forces. Foster's notion of a
"militant minority, " at least originally, was not a sectarian notion, but
included the possibility for a relationship between the Left and the
Center. Unfortunately, for progressives, due to sectarianism on the part of
the Communist Party, and an unrealistic assessment of the period, the TUEL
isolated itself and lost its effectiveness. The TUEL underestimated the
need for united fronts; overestimated the political consciousness of most
AFL workers; underestimated the resiliency of the AFL leaders, regardless
of their being decrepit; and, much like many of us to this day, the TUEL
failed to acknowledge that reactionary union leaders DO have a social base
within the memberships of their unions (that is, these leaders are not
floating on the surface without some ties to the base). While it is true
that the right-wing of the AFL did everything that they could to destroy
the TUEL and the Left, the TUEL made that job easier through its poor
tactics and often misguided strategy. Thus, the late 1920s decision by the
CP to essentially abandon work within the AFL in favor of the creation of
its own federation, the Trade Union Unity League, was both the logical
extension of this sectarianism, but as well the result of active purges by
the AFL bureaucracy. Let me hasten to add, that separate and apart from the
national efforts, such as the TUEL, there were in this pre-CIO period,
locally based initiatives, particularly in the period from
1932-1935. Staughton Lynd calls them forms of alternative unionism, and
while I do not necessarily agree with Lynd on his conclusions about the
role of these formations, I think that it is critical that we keep in mind
that there were a myriad of forms of organization that were taking place in
the fight to save trade unionism from oblivion.

If I had more time I would love to have the chance to delve into this
period in far more depth. This evening that will not work, so in the
interest of time I would like to suggest to you some concrete lessons from
the pre-CIO period that we should reflect upon when doing our work in the
struggle against capital and reactionary politicians.

    * Social movements are not willed into existence: This is critically
important for us to keep in mind. As I mentioned earlier, most people are
looking for security and stability. It takes a number of different factors
to influence a social eruption.  Social movements, at the scale of what we
saw in the 1890s with the Populists and labor movements, 1930s, 1960s/early
1970s, tend to result from the coming together of different influences and
different movements. The 1960s was not just the Civil Rights movement, or
the anti-Vietnam war movement, but was a series of movements that came to
influence one another. It is much like the igniting of an atomic bomb.
There has to be critical mass in order for the explosion to take place.
That critical mass, when it comes to social movements, may be struggles
taking place in different sectors that come to influence one another.
Organizing in one sector demonstrates to others that organizing, and
success, is possible. Civil Rights organizing influenced anti-war
organizing, and the women's movement, which influenced the development of
rank & file reform movements in organized labor and ultimately
revolutionary caucuses in unions.

    * Mass campaigns are critical as training grounds for activists as well
as forces for influencing public opinion: In addition to the Garvey
movement, which was not exactly a campaign, there were two significant
campaigns initiated by the Left that helped to lay the foundation for the
eruptions of the 1930s. The campaign in support of the trade union
anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, accused of a murder during a robbery, was a
mass campaign that united Italian immigrants, trade unionists, civil
libertarians and the Left. While the campaign was unsuccessful in
preventing their execution, it was in many respects an earth-shattering
experience for those who participated in it, and for the country as a
whole. In the early 1930s, the Scottsboro Boys case, which was led by the
Communist Party in defense of Black men accused of raping a white woman,
played a similar role. I would suggest to you that the Scottsboro case
should also be seen as part of the embryonic elements of what came to be
known as the Civil Rights Movement.

    * Organization & Vision: I want to make a general point here and
another point at the end of my remarks. The general point is that the
pre-CIO period was not about the good activity of individuals.
Organization, through various forms, was essential. Whether the Universal
Negro Improvement Association, the Wobblies, the TUEL, the Hawaiian Labor
Association, each such organization was not simply a structure, but
contained within itself a vision of a different world. In 1985 I had the
honor and opportunity to interview Harry Bridges, the legendary founding
leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the split-off
from the East Coast-based International Longshoremen's Association. My
interview was 5 years prior to Bridges' passing. It became very clear to me
in listening to him, that what sustained Bridges during the difficult times
prior to the 1934 SF General Strike that he led and which shut down San
Francisco, was a vision of what could be different, but as well feeling
part of an international movement. In some sense I think that one can see
this as grounding him at a point when virtually everything in his
environment mitigated against success. This grounding for Bridges was in
Marxism and his alignment with the Communist Party. Other great leaders and
many unknown greats were equally grounded, albeit within any number of groups.

    * The fight for legislation should be an integral part of our
struggles, and such victories help to provide us with legitimacy: There has
been a debate for years about whether the passing of Section 7 of the
National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, and later the National Labor
Relations Act in 1935 ignited a movement or were the results of a movement.
I think that the honest answer is both. Clearly, sections of the ruling
class aligned with Franklin Roosevelt sought an arrangement with organized
labor. Section 7 was part of the deal. It was also the case that the
agitation and organizing that had preceded Section 7 made its passing and
that of the NLRA, possible. But I would ask you to recall my earlier
remarks about consciousness. Section 7 and the NLRA gave legitimacy to the
workers' demands for self-organization and collective bargaining. One need
only remember that famous FDR quote that many a CIO organizer used where
the President said: "If I were to go to work in a factory, the first thing
I would do would be to join a union." As my friend, AFSCME Regional
Director Jose La Luz reminds us, why could we not get such a quote out of
Clinton? What did it mean that the movement could get one from FDR?

    * My final point: Please forgive me if I step on toes or if I go beyond
my mandate. It seems to me that many of us who are progressive in the labor
movementattempt to construct a strategy for renewal by drawing selectively
on lessons from the past. We discuss organizing the unorganized, for
instance, and reference the 1930s without acknowledging that the demand or
insistence on organizing the unorganized was part of a larger demand or
struggle for democracy. The movement in the 1930s was not simply insisting
that labor needed to grow, but it connected this growth directly to the
need for a broad democratic social movement to combat fascism and to
construct a different USA. It also contained the seeds of what came to be
the early Civil Rights Movement. This is just as true when it comes to
questions of organization. Were it not for the existence of the Communist
Party, the Socialist Party, the Muste-ites, the Trotskyists, I think that
it is fair to say that the sort of labor renaissance that we witnessed
would not have taken place. It was not just that the Left provided the best
organizers, a point that John L. Lewis was regularly prepared to admit. It
was that during the difficult times, organization and vision kept members
and supporters going. Strategies were developed, in some cases erroneous,
in other cases brilliant, which pointed in the direction forward.
Too many of us today act as if we need no such organization and no such
vision. We act as if it is enough to plow away in our fields by ourselves
or with a few friends. We act as if the existence of an organized Left, and
specifically an organized Left anti-capitalist political party is a nice
idea but not particularly essential in order to carry out our tasks. We act
as if we expect that spontaneously the dispossessed and oppressed in the
USA will somehow come together and unite for social justice, perhaps
through the use of  Merlin and his magic wand! We act as if we can
influence coming generations through force of personality rather than
through organization and struggle.

We are missing the mark. What the organized Left brought to the pre-CIO
period was not simply trade union strategy but a  connection between what
was going on in the trade union movement and what was taking place in other
movements. The former African Blood Brotherhood, through its merger with the
Communist Party, ended up influencing not only the African American movement,
but as well the trade union movement. This is only one of countless examples.

Thus, I would suggest to you that in learning the lessons of the pre-CIO
period, let us truly leam the lessons. Let us understand that we need more
than fighting overtime grievances; more, indeed, than organizing the
unorganized. We need a vision of a different USA, and indeed a different
world. We need an organized Left which challenges activists to look beyond
the borders of the USA and see allies, rather than charity recipients. We
need an organized Left that challenges activists to reformulate our
strategies such that we incorporate issues of race AND gender, not as
afterthoughts, but as the kernels of our process. We need, in other words,
a Left-wing framework in order to both understand the world, but more
importantly, to change it.

Thank you very much.

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