Every Month Is Labor History Month
Labor’s Untold Story, Richard O. Boyer and Herbert Morais, United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers Of America (UE), New York, 1976,
As I have often noted this space is dedicated to the struggles of the American (and international) working class and their allies. Part of understanding those struggles is to know where we have been in order to have a better grasp of where we need to head in order to create a more just, socially-inclined world. In my travels over the past few years I have noted, even among those who proclaim themselves progressives, radicals, and revolutionaries, a woeful, and in some cases willful, lack of knowledge about the history and traditions of the American labor movement. In order to help rectify that lack I will, occasionally, post entries relating to various events, places and personalities that have helped form what was a very militant if, frustratingly, apolitical(if not purely anti-political, especially against its left-wing)labor history.
In order to provide a starting point for these snapshots in time I am using what I think is a very useful book, Labor’s Untold Story, Richard O. Boyer and Herbert Morais, United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers Of America (UE), New York, 1976, that I can recommend to all those militants interested in getting at least a first taste of what the once mighty organized American labor movement was all about. For those unfamiliar with labor history the UE, cited here as the publisher, was a left-wing union that was split by the main labor federations (AFL and CIO) during the “red scare” of the 1950’s for being “under Communist influence” and refusing to expel its Communist Party supporters. The other organization created at the time was the International Brotherhood Of Electrical Workers (IBEW). The history of that split, and its timing, that caused a wasteful break in the struggle for a single industry-wide union that had been the goal of all thoughtful labor militants will, of course, be the subject of one of these entries at a later date.
That UE imprimatur, for this writer at least, is something of a plus but you know upfront already that this is a pro-labor history so I will not belabor the point. That said, this 400 page book is chock full of events, large and small, complete with very helpful footnotes giving greater detail (mercifully placed at the bottom of the page where the subject is mentioned), that helped turned the American labor movement from an atomized, motley group of conflicting racial, ethnic and political tendencies in the last part of the 19th century to something like a very powerful and somewhat self-confident organized force by the 1940’s. After that period there is a long term decline that, for the book, ends with the period of the “red scare” noted above, and for the rest of us continues until this day.
Here you will learn about the embryonic stages of the modern labor movement after the American Civil War with its urgent industrial demands to provide goods for a pent-up, war-ravaged market and creation of a transportation and information system adequate to meet those needs. Needless to say labor received short shrift in the bargain, especially at first before it was even minimally organized. The story here it should be made clear, the story anytime labor is the subject of discourse, is organized labor. The atomized working class, one pitted against the other by the bosses, as a whole minus this organization did not exist as a historical force. That, my friends, is a great lesson for today as well.
As such, it important to note the establishment in the 1870s of the National Labor Union and its offshoots, later the Knights of Labor and the role of its class collaborationist leaders. Also noted is the fight in the coal mines of the East and the legendary saga of the Irish “Molly McGuires” in Pennsylvania, our first well-know labor martyrs. Then the fight moves west to the lead, copper, silver and gold mines. That push west could only mean a look at the establishment of the Western Federation of Miners, the emergence of the paragon of an American labor leader, "Big Bill" Haywood, his frame-up for murder in 1905 and the subsequent rise of the Industrial Workers of The World. Wobblies (IWW). Along the way there had been various attempts to form a workers party, the most promising, if amorphous, being the Tom Watson-led Populist Party in 1892 before the somewhat more class-based Socialist Party took hold.
Of course no political study of the American working class is complete without a big tip of the hat to the tireless work of Eugene V. Debs, his labor organizing, and his various presidential campaigns up through 1920. While today Debs’ efforts have to be seen in a different light by the fact that our attitude toward labor militants running for executive offices in the capitalist state and his ‘soft’ attitude on the question of the political organization of the working class with an undifferentiated party of the whole class have changed, he stands head and shoulders above most of the other political labor leaders of the day, especially that early renegade from Marxism, Samuel Gompers.
The first “red scare” (immediately after World War I) and its effect on the formation of the first American communist organizations responding to the creation of the first workers state in Russia( and of the subsequrny establishment of the internationally-oriented Communist International), the quiescent of the American labor movement in the 1920s (a position not unlike the state of the American working class today), the rise of the organized labor movement into a mass industrial organization in response to the ups and downs of the Great Depression, the ‘labor peace’ hiatus of World War II, the labor upsurge in the immediate post-World War II period and the “night of the long knives” of the anti-communist “red scare” of the 1950s brings the story up to the time of first publication of the book. As to be expected of a book that pre-dates the rise of the black civil right movement, the women’s liberation movement, and the struggle for gay and lesbian rights there is much less about the role of race, gender and sexual preference in this history of the American labor movement. Not to worry, the black, feminist, and gender scholars have been hard at work rectifying those omissions. And I have been busy reviewing that work elsewhere in this space. But here is your start.
A Short Note On The Pro-Stalinist Perspective Of "Labor's Untold Story"
Okay, okay before I get ripped apart for being some kind of Pollyanna in my review of today’s book Labor’s Untold Story let me make a preemptive strike. I am, painfully, aware, that, at least back in the days when such things counted, the United Electrical Workers union (UE) was dominated by supporters of the Stalinist American Communist Party. The reason that I am painfully aware of this fact was that, back in that same day, I organized the unorganized under the auspices of that union. On more than one occasion various middle level figures in that union took me up short every time I tried to “step on the toes” (that is a quote from a real conversation, by the way) of some member of their vaunted “anti-monopolist” coalition. That coalition, my friends, was (and, is, for any unrepentant Stalinist still around) code for various politicos associated with the American Democratic Party. That, I hope, will tell the tale.
Notwithstanding that experience, I still think that Labor’s Untold Story is a very good secondary source for trying to link together the various pieces of our common American labor history. The period before World War I, that is, the period before the creation of the American Communist Party and its subsequent Stalinization, is fairly honestly covered since there is no particular political reason not to do so. The authors begin their “soft-soap” when we get to the 1920s and the Lafollette presidential campaign of 1924 and then really get up a head of steam when discussing the role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the labor struggles of the 1930s in the interest of the Popular Front (read: the 1930s version of that “anti-monopolist” coalition mentioned above) up until about 1939.
Then, please do not forget, the authors make the ‘turn’ in the party-line during the short period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 when there was nothing that a good right-wing American First Committee member could not have applauded. Of course, once the Soviet Union was invaded the authors went all out in their version of defense of that country (a correct position) when World War II heated up by supporting wholesale the “no strike” pledge and assorted other anti-labor actions (incorrect positions). Then when the Cold War descended in the aftermath of the war and the “red scare” hit the unions big time they cried foul when the capitalists circled the wagons against the Soviet Union and its supporters. Yes, I knew all that well before I re-read the book and wrote the review. Still this is one of the few books which gives you, in one place, virtually every important labor issue from the post-Civil War period to the 1960s (when the book ends). Be forewarned then, and get this little book and learn about our common labor history.