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Archive for December, 2005

Over My Shoulder #4: Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is again from Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor.

Paradoxically and simultaneously, industrial unionism—though born of the radicalism of Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco—became a new mode of enforcing the contract. Attempts to seize back the initiative from foremen and time-study experts were met, now, with directives from industrial union leaders to stay in line until a greivance could be properly negotiated. Soon, union dues would be deducted automatically from wages, so that officials no longer needed to bother making personal contact and monthly appeals to the loyalty of members.

Meany, treating industrial unionists at large as enemies, could not for many years grasp that events were bringing the CIO’s elected officials closer to him. He was steeped in a craft tradition to which the very idea of workers united into a single, roughly roughly egalitarian body hinted at revolutionary transformation. But many less conservative sectors were equally surprised by the course of the more democratic CIO unions toward the end of the 1930s. A triangle of government, business, and labor leadership brought about a compact that served mutual interest in stability, though often not in the interests of the workers left out of this power arrangement.

Not until 1937 did business unionism confirm its institutional form, when the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act. Now, a legitimate union (that is to say, a union legitimated by the National Labor Relation Board) with more than 50 percent of the vote in a union election became the sole bargaining agent for all. Unions stood on the brink of a membership gold-rush. The left-led Farm Equipment union could that same year, for instance, win a tremendous victory of five thousand workers at International Harvester in Chicago without a strike, thanks to the NLRB-sanctioned vote. But union leaders also prepared to reciprocate the assistance with a crackdown against membership indiscipline. The United Auto Workers, a case in point, arose out of Wobbly traditions mixed with a 1920s Communist-led Auto Workers Union and an amalgam of radicals’ efforts to work within early CIO formations. The fate of the industry, which fought back furiously against unionization, was set by the famed 1937 sit-down strikes centered in Flint,which seemed for a moment to bring the region close to class and civil war. Only the personal intercession of Michigan’s liberal Governor Murphy, it was widely believed, had prevented a bloodbath of employers’ armed goons retaking the basic means of production and setting off something like a class war. Therein lay a contradiction which the likes of George Meany could appreciate without being able to comprehend fully. The notorious willingness of UAW members to halt production until their greivances were met did not end because the union had employed the good offices of the goveronr (and the appeals of Franklin Roosevelt) to bring union recognition. On the one hand, a vast social movement of the unemployed grew up around the auto workers’ strongholds in Michigan, generating a sustained classwide movement of employed and unemployed, lasting until wartime brought near full employment. On the other hand, union leaders, including UAW leaders, swiftly traded off benefits for discipline in an uneven process complicated by strategic and often-changing conflicts within the political left.

The continuing struggle for more complete democratic participation was often restricted to the local or the particularistic, and thanks to a long-standing tradition of autonomy, sometimes to insular circles of AFL veterans. For instance, in heavily French-Canadian Woonsocket, Rhode Island, a vibrant Independent Textile Union had sprung up out of a history of severe repression and the riotous 1934 general textile strike. The ITU remained outside the CIO and set about organizing workers in many industries across Woonsocket; then, after a conservatizing wartime phase, it died slowly with the postwar shutdown of the mills. To take another example, the All Workers Union of Austin, Minnesota—an IWW-like entity which would reappear in spirit during the 1980s as rebellious Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers—held out for several years in the 1930s against merger. A model par excellence of horizontal, unionism with wide democratic participation and public support, the AWU (urged by Communist regulars and Trotskyists alike) willingly yielded its autonomy, and in so doing also its internal democracy, to the overwhelming influence of the CIO. In yet another case, the Progressive Miners of America, which grew out of a grassroots rebellion against John L. Lewis’s autocratic rule, attempted to place itself in th AFL that Lewis abandoned, on the basis of rank-and-file democracy with a strong dose of anti-foreign and sometimes anti-Semitic rhetoric. Or again: the AFL Seaman’s Union of the Pacific, reacting ferociously to Communist efforts to discipline the sea lanes, stirred syndicalist energies and like the PMA simultaneously drew upon a racist exclusionary streak far more typical of the AFL than the CIO.

These and many less dramatic experiments died or collapsed into the mainstream by wartime. But for industrial unionism at large, the damage had already been done to the possibilities of resisting creeping bureaucratization. Indeed, only where union delegates themselves decreed safety measures of decentralization, as in the UAW in 1939 (against the advice of Communists and their rivals), did conventions emerge guaranteeing participation from below, to some significant degree.

—Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor, 119-121.

Over My Shoulder #3: from William Lloyd Garrison’s On the Constitution and the Union, December 29, 1832

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This week’s is not bus reading; it’s plane reading. Also a source for transcriptions for the Fair Use Repository (a note about that shortly). I give you a passage from William Lloyd Garrison’s On the Constitution and the Union, from The Liberator of December 29, 1832:

There is much declamation about the sacredness of the compact which was formed between the free and slave states, on the adoption of the Constitution. A sacred compact, forsooth! We pronounce it the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villany ever exhibited on earth. Yes—we recognize the compact, but with feelings of shame and indignation, and it will be held in everlasting infamy by the friends of justice and humanity throughout the world. It was a compact formed at the sacrifice of the bodies and souls of millions of our race, for the sake of achieving a political object—an unblushing and monstrous coalition to do evil that good might come. Such a compact was, in the nature of things and according to the law of God, null and void from the beginning. No body of men ever had the right to guarantee the holding of human beings in bondage. Who or what were the framers of our government, that they should dare confirm and authorise such high-handed villany—such flagrant robbery of the inalienable rights of man—such a glaring violation of all the precepts and injunctions of the gospel—such a savage war upon a sixth part of our whole population?—They were men, like ourselves—as fallible, as sinful, as weak, as ourselves. By the infamous bargain which they made between themselves, they virtually dethroned the Most High God, and trampled beneath their feet their own solemn and heaven-attested Declaration, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights—among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They had no lawful power to bind themselves, or their posterity, for one hour—for one moment—by such an unholy alliance. It was not valid then—it is not valid now. Still they persisted in maintaining it—and still do their successors, the people of Massachussetts, of New-England, and of the twelve free States, persist in maintaining it. A sacred compact! A sacred compact! What, then, is wicked and ignominious?

—William Lloyd Garrison (1832), On the Constitution and the Union, from William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections from The Liberator. Edited with an Introduction by William E. Cain. The Bedford Series in History and Culture.

Post your own on your website or in the comments, as you see fit.

Over My Shoulder #2: from Adam B. Ulam’s Stalin: The Man and His Era

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This week’s is again from reading on the bus; this time, it’s from Ulam’s Stalin: The Man and His Era.

The first and fundamental battle touched on the role of the trade unions. Here his [Lenin’s] success in repulsing the demands that the unions run the economy, and that Russia should have in effect workers’ control of industry, was greatly helped by Trotsky’s impolitic intervention in the debate. The War Commissar spelled out what Lenin was thinking but was too diplomatic to say, and did so with brutal explicitness: it was sheer nonsense to babble about proletarian democracy when Russia’s economy was in ruins and required military methods to get going again, he argued. The unions had to be strictly controlled by the Party. All democratic and egalitarian compunction had to yield to the drive for higher production. Marxism, he reminded the Party, never promised equality until the final stage of abundance of Communism was reached. Men work because they have to, and work well because of material incentives. Just as the Civil War could not have been won without military specialists, so the war for production for socialism could not be carried on without skilled managers and engineers.

Trotsky’s frankness enabled Lenin to play the role of a moderate, of an arbiter between the anarchosyndicalist Shlyapnikov and the militarist Trotsky. God forbid that the workers’ state should abolish the workers’ unions or turn them into purely administrative agencies! No, trade unions should function freely, they should be schools of Communism. But the state (i.e., the Party) should control the economy. With Trotsky once again serving as the lightning rod for antiauthoritarian and egalitarian forces, Lenin’s position was endorsed by the Ninth and Tenth Party Congresses in 1920 and 1921.

Stalin eschewed a prominent part in this trade union dispute—wisely for his future career. Though there was some superficial similarity between the Workers’ Opposition postulates and those of the military opposition during the Civil War, the background of the dispute was quite different. The opponents of military specialists had often been motivated by their own ambitions to command; here, whatever the personal motives of Shlyapnikov or Kollontay, there was a genuine grassroots feeling of resentment among the workers at the return of the capitalist boss, rechristened economic specialist. Stalin may even have shared this feeling. Class hatred was not the least prominent among his many hatreds. As dictator he licensed the trials of managers and engineers who were made to confess to belonging to a fictitious industrial party, etc. But of course he was also the man who would subjugate trade unions and submit the workers to a discipline undreamed of by Trotsky at his most authoritarian, and who would create that Soviet managerial elite whose emoluments and privileges made the special benefits of the bourgeois specialists of the 1920s seem puny by comparison. Now he stood firmly behind Lenin and his allegedly compromise position. It gave him a welcome opportunity to assail Trotsky—a man, he said, who does not understand the difference between the army and the working class. Persuasion rather than compulsion, as Trotsky would have it, should be used to harness the labor unions in the task of reviving the economy.

Another of Stalin’s infrequent interventions in the issue that rocked Russian Communism for about three years was on the opposite front, that against what Lenin called the anarchosyndicalist deviation of Shlyapnikov. Despite the several condemnations of Workers’ Opposition postulates by Party Congresses and Conferences, this deviation kept popping up like some medieval heresy condemned by Church councils but embedded in the simple faith of laymen. The regime therefore resorted to chicanery against the more prominent Opposition leaders. They were sent on missions abroad—thus began Mme. Kollontay’s long diplomatic career. Michael Tomsky, who was enormously popular with workers, showed himself not free from error: it was discovered that he was badly needed for Party work in Turkestan. A few months among the sands of Central Asia, and he came back chastened and ready to support Lenin. In a secret vote the Tenth Party Congress authorized the Central Committee to throw out people from the Party for factionalism. Still the damnable heresy persisted. It raised its head at the Fourth All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions in May 1921. And somebody in the Party Secretariat (it shows what a mess its affairs were in before Stalin took over) had the fantastic idea of delegating Ryazanov to defend the official Party line before the Communist caucus of the Congress.

To be sure, the old eccentric had supported Lenin on the issue. Always ready with a quip, Ryazanov convulsed the gathering by declaring that Mme. Kollontay’s proletarian zeal reminded him of those wellborn maidens who in the 1870s went to the people to instruct the benighted peasants in the latest political fashions. But he was a hopeless individualist, and it occurred to him while he was speaking that, by God, it was true that the unions were being run in an undemocratic way! So he proposed an amendment, which carried, stipulating that union officials should be elected according to scrupulous democratic norms. Lenin, Stalin, and Bukharin had to rush in to try to undo the damage. This sudden emergency had the usual effect on Stalin of transforming him from a skillful and judicious political manipulator into a violent and threatening accuser. He lashed out at Ryazanov and those who supported him. Shut up, you fool! he shouted, when Ryazanov interrupted his speech. It fell to Lenin to sooth tempers and to persuade the delegates to reverse their vote. Ryazanov, who had answered Stalin tit for tat, was henceforth banned from any activity connected with trade unions.

—Adam B. Ulam (1973), Stalin: The Man and His Era. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 199-202.

Post your own on your website or in the comments, as you see fit.

Over my shoulder #1 (or: Friday Book-Bragging)

Everyone’s got their own Friday afternoon game to play, and this one’s mine. I’m introducing a new recurring feature for the Rad Geek People’s Daily: Over My Shoulder, quotes (mostly without commentary) from something I’ve been reading this week. Irony to one side, this isn’t really intended as bragging about my reading list; the point is that what I’m reading is a way of getting at things I’ve been thinking about, even if I don’t yet have a confident position to stake out yet; and also that there are a lot of people out there who are smarter than I am, and not everything they write is something I can link to in online commentary or read the whole thing weblog posts. So here’s the rules.

  1. The quote should be something that I have read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It has to be something I’ve actually read, and not something that I’ve “read” a page of just in order to be able to post my favorite quote.)

  2. It should be a matter of one or a few paragraphs.

  3. There’s no commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  4. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t. Whether I do or not isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

If you like this idea, feel free to repeat it or adapt it as you see fit on your own page or in the comments. (Just please don’t call it a meme: there’s no such thing. Thanks.)

And we’re off. The inaugural selection is a bit I read yesterday on the bus, from the first chapter of Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor (all emphasis is in the original):

Fraina argued that what he called state capitalism, an expansive capitalist state embracing administrative centralization and militarization, had rendered the old socialist expectations irrelevant. Liberalism, as it had taken ideological form (Fraina found fault in the philosophy of pragmatism), now offered the intellectual counterpart to AFL unionism, narrowing the range of radical thought, aiding and assisting the upper classes and upper strata of labor against the threat of the irrational lower classes and of the world’s suffering peoples at large.

Fraina directed the sharpest of his polemics against William English Walling, a renowned socialist intellectual en route to becoming an AFL spokesman. Walling had observed shrewdly that socialists had been blind to the inner strengths of capitalism, the increased power and strength that it will gain through state capitalism and the increased wealth that will come through a beneficent and scientific policy of production. Being regulated, the system would be successively transformed by the mechanics of a complex struggle: a state capitalism under the hegemony of big and petty bourgeoisie would besupplanted by a state socialism under the petty bourgeoisie and the skilled workers. In the process, the allegedly messianic character of socialism would fall away entirely, and the social question would become no more than the struggle by those who have less, against those who have more in matters of income, hours, leisure, places of living, associations, and opportunity. Such a struggle could be properly ordered, guided by reform through existing institutions. The disorder implied by the ideas and very constituency of the IWW was, finally, a danger to the social d�tente which could make this benign process possible.

Even in AFL circles, confidence in such a benign outcome wavered. As the class conflicts of 1909-1913 took shape, skilled workers once again began to perceive that the emerging system often delivered fewer benefits for them than thinkers like Walling predicted. Solidarity campaigns of mutual support in strikes, like a dramatic one by railroad workers over several years, violated the AFL norm of workers with union contracts crossing picket lines and in effect scabbing on those still striking. The attempt at coordination by railroad brotherhoods, the appearance of metal trades councils, and (by the time of the war) the appeal for solidarity among the skilled and unskilled often bypassed the idea of political or electoral socialism altogether for a more popular American idea: workers’ control of production. Many local AFL members and even leaders unmoved by socialism mulled the idea, while Gompers’s circle rejected it out of hand as impossible and undesirable, an erasure of the line between labor’s prerogative and capital’s rights.

Conservative chiefs of AFL unions ranging from the hatters and pattern-makers to tailors, sheet metal workers, carpenters, and machinists, all lost their offices to socialist-backed candidates during 1911-1912 on grounds of solidarity versus conciliation with employers. A combination of administrative manipulation, political alliances with Democrats inside labor, and forceful support of labor conservatives by the Catholic Church was required to bring anti-socialist functionaries back into union office. The renewed victory of Gompers was sealed by the events of the First World War. As labor surged forward, anti-war ideas were in many parts of the country forbidden in published or spoken form, and those who voiced them faced deportation, arrest, beatings by vigilantes, and even lynching. The IWW, which carefully refrained from any political statements, was nevertheless suppressed in a fashion unknown hitherto in the United States, save perhaps for the attacks on Reconstructionist radicals in the post-Civil War South. This time, the modern version of the Ku Klux Klan had the presidential seal of approval and top labor leaders’ avid cooperation. Gompers demanded political acquiescence to the war, or at least silence, as the price of admission for newcomers to the AFL’s own swelling wartime bureaucracy. Upwardly mobile intellectuals around labor, like Walling, made their contribution by insisting that the U.S. economic empire that had expanded dramatically in wartime was benevolent, and that the leaders of the AFL, in their appeals for loyalty to government and indifference to those suppressed, accurately represented the interests of the working class.

Regulated state capitalism did indeed take shape, even by 1917, though it more resembled Fraina’s nightmares than Walling’s dreams. As newspapers were suppressed, Socialist Party offices destroyed, and local and national anti-war spokespeople, including Eugene Debs, sentenced to long terms in prison, Fraina acutely observed that the newly regulated system included the extension of the functions of the federal government, regulation equally of capital and labor, the Strong Man policy of administrative centralization, and the mobilization of everything by a national administrative control of industry. Having failed to organize an international system to regulate the transfer of profits among ruling groups, capitalism now rended the world, and (as Fraina correctly anticipated the worse horrors to come in the next world war and after) prepared the basis for future global conflicts. In that process, Fraina argued, leaders like Gompers could be depended upon to serve their true masters, while former socialists like Walling would tag along and rationalize the process—as perhaps termporarily dreadful but inevitable, and ultimately beneficial.

— Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor, pp. 69-71.