Thursday, February 26, 2009

USH15: Organizing the Workers

By 1920, the US government had done major damage to the anarchists, socialists, and the IWW (see my post of 2/14/09 for details). But in 1919, just as the Palmer Raids were getting underway, a new organization emerged, built from the left wing of the Socialist Party and the remains of the IWW, but taking their orders from Russia. I refer, of course, to the Communist Party.

Beginning around 1921, the Communists worked on organizing unemployed workers into "Councils of Action". This work increased in 1929, as the Depression began, and the Communists branched out into union organizing, and began advocating for the rights of African-Americans.

Meanwhile, also in 1929, A J Muste, chairman of the Brookwood Labor College, founded the Conference for Progressive Labor Action to promote industrial unions. At first, the goal was to reform the American Federation of Labor--a rather conservative union. But by 1933, the Conference had been transformed into the American Workers Party, a socialist organization, and began organizing 'Unemployed Leagues'.

Eventually the Socialists, who had been opposed to organizing unemployed workers and felt it was better to work for unemployment insurance, began organizing committees on unemployment. By 1932, they were taking the first steps toward developing a national organization for the unemployed.

In 1935 it all came together. The Communist, Socialist, and Muste-influenced groups all joined together to form the Worker's Alliance of America. Unfortunately, the organization (at least according to Piven and Cloward) put its energy into lobbying and building a bureaucracy. The original demonstrations put on by the various groups of unemployed that caused ruckuses and got concessions from local government were replaced by working within the system, and getting a lot less for it. As a result, millions of the unemployed that might have had relief benefits if they continued agitating for them ended up simply impoverished.

But what of those workers that were employed? I had always heard of the thirties as a time of labor organizing, of strikes and pickets and the growth of the unions.

In fact, major strikes had been going on in the US during the so-called 'prosperous' twenties. In 1922, for example, there were coal mining, railroad, and textile workers strikes. And in 1929, textile strikes spread from Tennessee to North and South Carolina. The National Textile Workers Union (a group with Communist leadership) organized white and black workers throughout the area.

During the thirties, with the economic depression and with hopes raised by the election of Roosevelt and passing of the National Industrial Recovery Act (which included a passage about the right to bargain collectively), strikes began escalating. Between 1932 and 1933 the number of strikes tripled.

Four major strikes occurred in 1934. The first was in Toledo, Ohio, at the Electric Auto-Lite Company where unionizing demands were rebuffed. Workers began picketing the plant and were joined by members of one of Muste's Unemployed Leagues. When the company got a court order against those picketing, the Unemployed Leaguers kept the picket lines up and local Communists got involved as well. The police began arresting the demonstrators but this only got more workers involved and the numbers on the picket lines grew until it became a crowd of almost ten thousand. The crowd broke into battles with the National Guard, but in spite of the deaths of a couple of the workers, things kept building until it reached a point where the company closed the plant and eventually agreed to a wage increase and limited union recognition. A similar battle occurred in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Teamster (a truck driver's union) organizing, led by Socialist Workers Party (Trotskists), built into a strike which practically paralyzed the city. After confrontations with the National Guard (where again workers were killed), collective bargaining was finally agreed to. A longshoremen's strike on the West Coast (led by Communists and other radicals) immobilized the city of San Francisco, as Teamsters and members of both the Communist and AFL unions (AFL being the American Federation of Labor--the mainstream union) joined in. Another confrontation with the National Guard (yes, there is a pattern here) resulted in, once more, a couple of workers being killed. This time, however, the funeral procession engulfed the streets, as perhaps as much as thirty thousand marchers streamed in its wake. A general strike in the city followed as twenty unions went out in sympathy. But the AFL leadership was against the strike and reined their members in, and the longshoremen has to settle for a compromise agreement.

The largest strike of 1934 was a textile workers strike that started in the Southern US and spread to New England. It eventually involved more than four hundred thousand textile workers across the country, and, of course, Guardsmen were called out and as many as fifteen strikers were killed. Eventually Roosevelt stepped in and a board of mediation was set up.

In 1936, a new kind of strike began. It started at the Firestone Tire plant in Akron, Ohio, when wages were cut and workers laid off. Rather than going out on strike, workers sat down in the plant and refused to move. This had definite advantages over the picket lines--it made it difficult to bring in strikebreakers and meant the strikers didn't have to be outside in whatever weather but could stay in the shelter of the building. The sitdown part of the strike was only a minor portion of the process in the Akron, but the workers won concessions and the idea of sitdown strikes spread. A sitdown strike at a General Motors factory in Flint, Michigan, precipitated a shutdown of the whole GM system. Sitdown strike followed sitdown strike, many of them leading to partial wins, and one turning into a forty-day community which organized meals, recreation, postal service, and even classes. Eventually the workers forced GM into collective bargaining. Sitdown strikes spread across the country: 48 different strikes in 1936 and 477 in 1937 (including members of the same National Guard unit that had been called out on the Flint GM workers that now struck themselves when they weren't paid).

Unfortunately, as unionizing took hold, the unions themselves (including the CIO, which emerged as a counter to the more conservative AFL) reined in the workers. Piven and Cloward point out that most of the concessions won during the 1930s were won through mass struggle and the efforts of workers on the bottom--even though they worked for unionization, often the union leadership betrayed them. "..the Congress of Industrial Organizations did not create the strike movement of industrial workers; it was the strike movement that created the CIO." And even the Communists, who started off as agitators, eventually supported the union leadership--but the leadership of those unions developed cozy relationships with company management and often turned in the Communists as 'Reds'.

There were other movements in the thirties. As I mentioned a few times, the Communists (and other radicals) organized black workers--at that point these were the only groups that crossed color barriers. There were also self-help movements formed--from a bartering system developed by fishermen in Seattle to unemployed miners in Pennsylvania who dug their own little mines, helped themselves to the coal, and sold it in the cities. Who organized the workers during the depression? In many cases, the workers organized themselves.

Quote of the day: "When they tie the can to a union man, sit down! Sit down!
When they give him the sack, they'll take him back, sit down! Sit down!
When the speed up comes, just twiddle your thumbs, sit down! Sit down!
When the boss won't talk, don't take a walk, sit down! Sit down!
Sit down, just take a seat, sit down and rest your feet, sit down, you've got 'em beat.
Sit down! Sit down!" - Worker's song

Staughton Lynd, Nonviolence in America
Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People's Movements
Wikipedia, various articles (particularly on the Communist Party USA and A J Muste)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

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