Union Leaders and the Left (RE: Laying Bets: W Will Win

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at yale.edu
Thu Aug 17 12:25:09 PDT 2000

On Thu, 17 Aug 2000, John Madziarczyk wrote:

> You must not know very much about union history to
> suggest that there's always been a split between
> intellectual leftists and union members. Just to give
> you an idea of how off the track this is, it would be
> useful to consider that the socialist party,leaded by
> Deb's organized strikes and helped union drives. He
> also helped found the IWW which of course combined the
> intellectual and the practical, unionizing people the
> AFL woundn't touch.

And just as DeLeon had a generation earlier broken with the AFL, Debs soon broke with the IWW (who largely refused to engage in political campaigns). Big Bill Haywood played some role in straddling the division, but the division was very real and helped weaken both the Socialists and the IWW - helping set them up for the repression after WWI that largely wiped out the leadership of both groups.

I love the IWW but its very existence as a marginal dual union was part of the very split between fundamentalist leftists and the broader labor movement (since the IWW never had more than a tiny fraction of members compared to the AFL).

The more interesting socialist organizer in the same period was Sidney Hillman, whose cadre of organizers formed the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union as an independent union, but kept strong enough relationships with the AFL to eventually rejoin the broader labor movement. And he used that position to team up with John Lewis and launch the CIO. Sidney Hillman's pragmatic socialism is probably the most important and least remembered element in the revival of the union movement that came in the 1930s.

William Z. Foster of the CP
> organized the Great Steel Strike and and actively
> recruited unions for TUEL and TUUL, the CP backed
> orgs.
> Earl Browder and the CP basicly put the muscle in to
> found the CIO among other union orgs during the great
> depression. The Socialist Workers Party attempted to
> organize and infiltrate for the Needle Trades Union.
> The furriers union was CP affiliated.

The creation of the TUEL and TUUL were part of the general collapse of unionism in the 1920s - fundamentalist separations from the rest of the AFL that achieved little or no real organizing success.

It was only when Foster and Browder abandoned them and hooked up with progressive unionists in the Steelworkers, Autoworkers and other emerging industries, including making a number of pragmatic compromises, that the CIO was able to be launched successfully.

And it was when they abandoned those alliances - partly during WWII when they subordinated labor concerns to war production concerns and partly after the war when Cold War issues pushed them to support Henry Wallace and break other alliances with progressive allies - that the CIO lurched to the right and ended up in the embrace of the AFL.

>As for DSA being more
> radical than socialist groups on the continent, have
> you ever actually looked at the SPD's
> platform?Codetermination, workers self management,
> decentralizatoin, planning, nationalization, immensely
> strong unions. Have you ever heard of the Jusos,the
> youth arm of the SPD?Their radicalism puts DSA to
> shame.

I was comparing DSA to other social democratic parties, not to the Communist or ex-Communist parties of the continent. The question was why the US doesn't even have a strong social democratic party which challenges for power, not just why it doesn't have radical marginal parties like the SPD.

But even looking at the SPD, or the French Communist Party or the Italian Communists (and even Communist Refoundation) highlights the pragamatism of the European Left versus the US left. The SPD has readily gone into coalition with Social Democrats in local government - no stupid illusions that the SPD is not better than the Christian Democrats. The Communist Party of France shared government with the Socialists under Mitterand and rejoined a coalition recently. The three shards of the old Italian Communist Party are either in the left coalition of parties in that country or (in the case of Communist Refoundation) have critically supported it most of the time. They have the advantages of proportional representation in most cases, so the Nader spoiler problem is not as acute. But from the social democratic to the communist left, there is a history of pragmatic engagement and compromise that the US left has only sporadically matched. And the periodic bouts of US left purism and disengagement have been devastating throughout US history.

-- Nathan Newman

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