The Limit of the Union-Form
The importance of the trade union question for the socialist movement is beyond the scope of this article. Rather, the focus will be solely on the limit of the union-form in labor’s class struggle. The lessons of the proletariat’s accumulated experience of the class struggle elaborate the folly of revolutionaries when they try to gain structural control of the trade unions outside of revolutionary situations, and at the same time express the absolute limit of the union-form for the working-class.
At its core, this limit manifests in the routine behavior of trade unions, in the innumerable mutual encroachments between labor and capital in the real production and reproduction of capitalist society, the capitalist mode of production and capital itself. Sacrifice of the interests and needs of the minority for the majority is indicative of this core internal to trade union organizations, while sacrifice of the interests and needs of the majority for the minority is indicative of this core external to trade union organizations. This can be seen internally in the innumerable compromises and concessions when fractions of a trade union’s membership are surrendered to capital to maintain the integrity of the rest of the organization—for example, when a particular job classification in an organized workplace is eliminated through employer subcontracting as part of a new collective bargaining agreement. This can be seen externally in the innumerable examples of a particular trade union maneuvering to benefit at the expense of another organization or when a trade union maneuvers to benefit at the expense of the unorganized majority of the working-class—for example, when an organization provides political support to politicians and regimes which promise special treatment and concessions for a particular fraction of organized labor while viciously attacking the rest of the class.
This core of the limit of the union-form is the origin of the blind spot that has been present in the American trade unions from the beginning. Within Jimmy Hoffa’s only authorized biography is an anecdote that encapsulates this blind spot, recounting an incident that took place while Hoffa was incarcerated in which he organized a prisoners’ complaint committee to improve the conditions at the prison:
“I went back to my cell and wrote out a total of nineteen complaints. . . First we went over my list and then one of our guys started on a racial issue, how the guards discriminated against various races. This was true enough, because those 5 percenters among the guards took great delight in harassing blacks, Puerto Ricans, Jews, and, in particular, anybody alleged to have so-called Mafia connections. But I didn’t feel this was the time for that.
‘Hold it,’ I ordered. ‘Just a minute. We’re not here to talk about discrimination. We’re here to get the prison straightened out for everybody.’”
(Hoffa: The Real Story by James R. Hoffa as told to Oscar Fraley, p. 201)
It’s important to remember that of all the unflattering facts and innuendos about Hoffa, he was regarded in his own time and by posterity as a relatively progressive labor leader on the subject of race. He personally promoted black Teamsters to positions of significant power in the organization, designed and pursued the signing of the National Master Freight Agreement, which raised the working and living conditions of tens of thousands of working-class minorities in one of the most significant single episodes of trade unionism, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters under his leadership refused to charter segregated local unions—as recounted in official Teamsters’ history:
“From the inception of the union, many Teamsters understood that racial divisions play into the bosses’ ploy to divide and weaken the working class. Black unionists were at the center of the Teamsters since our founding in 1903. At a time when Jim Crow held sway in the south and discrimination against African Americans was commonplace nationwide, the Teamsters called for “no color line” in the union as early as 1906.
In 1917, black women working with the Teamsters won a contract that mandated equal pay among black and white laundry workers. The union took a stand for equal pay and against Jim Crow laws in the south. Hoffa himself strongly rejected segregation within the union, even if it meant forgoing new members who opposed integration. While organizing a chemical plant in New Orleans in the 1950s, he refused white workers’ demands for a separate local for black workers knowing it might – and did – result in a vote against the union. “We don’t need ‘em. Their way is not the Teamster way,” Hoffa said.”
The anecdote in Hoffa’s biography about his union-inspired organizing while in prison came near the end of his lifetime spent as a trade union member, organizer and leader at all levels and represents something very different than racism. Even within the most advanced fractions of the working-class (including its revolutionary minority), simply not being racist is not a tangible gain. Eugene Debs’ and the Socialist Party’s conscious decision to ignore the oppression of blacks in America largely rested on the hollow platitude that the victory of socialism would liberate them from exploitation, while as we see in the Hoffa anecdote (which is absolutely representative of a common trait in the American trade unions throughout history), the core limit of the union-form internal to the trade unions consists of sacrificing the needs and interests of the minority for those of the majority within the union, which necessarily means in practice the subordination of racial discrimination and racial prejudice to the category of “special interests” (needs and interests of the minority).
The United States has a population composed of a white majority with significant minority communities and a steady flow of immigrants from around the world entering the country. This has been true ever since the genocide of indigenous peoples within its geographic boundaries and the genuine emergence of an American nation-state. In this demographic setup, racial minorities who confront an oppression that is not experienced by their white co-workers are thus relegated to remain—permanently—the minority whose needs and interests are sacrificed for those of the (white) majority in the trade unions.
At the 10th Convention of the American Federation of Labor in 1890, the issue of combating the ‘color bar’ in certain trade unions became a top priority for the union delegates. While the issue of race in the highest levels of the American labor movement had manifested many times prior to this AF of L convention (including within the Federation), going back to the formation of the National Labor Union in 1866, this was likely the first time that a truly national and representative convention of workers’ delegates from all trades and industries, regions of the country including black, immigrant, women and socialist workers, explicitly took up the cause of equality in the labor movement and mandated steps for its realization. In that context, the struggle centered around 1 particular organization: the National Association of Machinists, which at that time was not an AF of L affiliate.
In 1888, nearing the peak of the war between the Knights of Labor (KoL) and the trade unionists, a group of ex-KoL railroad machinists led by a worker named Thomas Talbot in Atlanta organized what became the National Association of Machinists, a new machinists’ trade union. It adopted many of the structural innovations of the AF of L, but kept the secret rituals and passwords of the KoL—and wrote the exclusion of black, women and immigrant workers from membership into the organization’s constitution and by-laws. The new organization expanded rapidly, primarily in the Southern United States, over the next several years. The machinists’ union was like many other embryonic and nascent trade unions of that particular period in the sense that it moved away from the education, cooperative and politics-centered KoL and into the workplace-centered trade union movement of the AF of L. However, the racial restrictions of the machinists’ union repulsed a large number of trade unionists (even those regarded as conservative), and it was decided at all levels of the AF of L to make the elimination of these exclusionary policies a top priority, or else a dual machinists’ union would be founded without such racial restrictions. 8 months before the 10th Convention, Samuel Gompers wrote a letter to Thomas Talbot, founder and Grand Master Machinist of the machinists’ union. It reads in part:
“In compliance with former letters I again call your attention to what I regard as an essential feature to the success of your organization namely, to eliminate certain objectionable features from the constitution in order to cultivate fraternal relations with the machinists of the entire country.
Hitherto I have mentioned the fact that a number of machinists have given expression to sentiments that were in antagonism to attaching themselves to organizations that discriminate against any wage-workers of any trade.
They say that our employers care very little what nationality or color or previous condition of life the wage-workers has been or is in so long as he will consent to work cheap.
. . . I also believe that were your organization to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor it would not only be performing what would be proper but advance the interests of the machinists of the country, [and] would be performing its duty towards ameliorating the condition of the wage-workers who are engaged in this contest for justice and right” (The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume II, p. 296-297, 1987)
In reply, Talbot claimed the machinists’ union could not make the change immediately but would likely do so at its next national convention. The workers’ delegates to the 10th Convention responded by officially opposing racial restrictions to membership in any labor organization and mandated the AF of L Executive Council and President Gompers to form and charter a new dual machinists’ union without such racial restrictions—which was done 6 months after the convention in June 1891 with the formation and official chartering of the International Machinists’ Union of America. The purpose of this maneuver was to coerce the National Association of Machinists (which soon changed its name to what it is known as today: the International Association of Machinists) into dropping its reactionary policy; everyone involved said as much at the time, including Gompers, who told Talbot and co. that the AF of L-affiliate would amalgamate with their organization as soon as the racial restrictions were dropped. This was formally done in 1895, and as promised, the dual machinists’ union disbanded and its members joined the Talbot organization; though this was not the end of the racist-exclusionary policies in the IAM.
In a letter written by Samuel Gompers just 4 months after the 10th Convention to Richard Coles, principal of a trade school for black workers in St Louis, Missouri, the real issue emerges:
“Permit me to say that the sentiment of organized labor of the country is decidedly in favor of maintaining and encouraging the recognition of equality between the colored and white laborers, so much so, that at the last convention of the American Federation of Labor a question arose as to the existence of a national union of machinists which is particularly located in the South and which prohibits colored machinists from becoming members.
The Federation resolved to call for a convention of all machinists unions for the purpose of forming a national union which shall recognize no color line. There are very many other instances of the same character to which your attention might be called, but I have not the time to search for verification just now.
The colored mechanics are admissible into very nearly all the trade unions of the country. In some localities where the race prejudice predominates the white and colored mechanics of the same trade or calling are organized in separate local unions, but attached to the same national organizations with the same rights, duties and privileges. In many of the industrial centres of the South the hod carriers and day laborers are very well organized. There are not many skilled mechanics among the colored workmen of the South.
As to the question whether skilled mechanics are in the increase among the colored men, it can only be answered relatively since as a matter of fact the opposition of the employing and corporate classes to all forms of apprenticeship system, desired by the unions of labor, together with the division and subdivision of labor, the degree of skill in all mechanism is on the decline.”
(The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume III, p. 62-63, 1987)
Here we see how this struggle for the machinists’ union played out on all sides. The machinists’ union was formed and prospered primarily in the Southern United States, where the post-slavery structures of racial segregation were an omnipresent factor in the oppression of black labor and the dominant reactionary ideology firmly rooted within huge swathes of white labor, which manifested in the whites-only constitution and by-laws. More advanced workers in the rest of the country organized in the trade unions intervened to eliminate racial requirements to membership in labor organization—going so far as to compel the highest organs of American trade unionism (represented in the AF of L Executive Council and its President Samuel Gompers) to charter a dual union that would compete directly with the existing machinists’ union in an effort to force them to eliminate their racial requirements for membership and open the organization to all eligible workers in their trade—even though dual unionism was and is regarded as a treasonous act by giving employers the opportunity to play one union off another in a divide and conquer strategy (and so deteriorate the working and living conditions of all workers in the trade).
Technically, this maneuver was successful: the Talbot organization did formally remove racial requirements for membership. But in doing so, it simply mirrored the transition from slavery to Jim Crow in Southern society by allowing black machinists to seek, gain and maintain membership in the union but in segregated local unions.
Here we see that Gompers has sacrificed the interests of the minority (Southern black machinists) for the interest of the majority (white machinists in the rest of North America) on the basis of 2 characteristic policies of the AF of L: trade autonomy and 1 trade/1 organization.
There are several valuable and important lessons in these experiences. The first is in the personal trajectory of Samuel Gompers, who had regressed from a Marxist to a trade union bureaucrat. Less than 20 years before this incident with Thomas Talbot and the machinists’ union, Samuel Gompers was part of a group of socialist workers and ex-International Workingmen’s Association leaders in the cigar factories of New York. It was through this group’s consistent line of class unity inside and outside of the Cigar Makers’ International Union (CMIU) that they were able to open membership in the union in New York to women, immigrants and unskilled workers, capture the entire union structure and reorganize the whole International union (beginning with lifting exclusionary membership requirements throughout the organization).
How could a man who had successfully led the practical, concrete struggle for class unity in a trade union and explicitly reform it on a class struggle basis—and lead the effort to restructure and reform the entire structure of American trade unionism as such—regress into behavior such as that exhibited in the machinists’ union incident, chartering an organization that promoted racially segregated affiliated local unions (keeping in mind that as President of the AF of L, Gompers was personally in charge of issuing, suspending and revoking all charters)?
There are two answers to that question. The first is that the limit of the union-form is something inherent to the union-form. As the permanent labor organization under the conditions of the capitalist social relation and dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, permanent mobilization by any greater or lesser segment of the working-class is an historic impossibility; trade union intransigence is impossible lest any organization risk its status of being ‘permanent’. In the course of the class struggle under these conditions, the mutual encroachments of labor upon capital and capital upon labor, trade unions will both extract concessions from capital and be compelled to grant concessions to capital. This is the motor force of the limit of the union-form for the working-class, this is what perpetuates the perennial feature of the union-form to sacrifice the needs and interests of the minority for the majority (internally) and sacrifice the needs and interests of the majority for the minority (externally).
The second is that trade union necessity is not necessarily class struggle necessity. Samuel Gompers’ biography, the trajectory of his life which was spent in the diverse manifestations of the labor movement (social, political, economic), is a lesson in why the socialist minority of the proletariat cannot seek to seize the trade unions (become their formal leaders) or form new ideal-on-paper trade unions or organizations which seek to carry out trade union-type functions as a revolutionary strategy. Under the conditions outlined in the preceding paragraph, the inevitable result of such actions, if successful, would inevitably place revolutionaries in the same position as Gompers—having to choose between the transient, momentary, contingent interests and needs of the organization and its members (i.e. being forced into a position to sacrifice the minority of the organization’s members for the majority, or the majority of the class outside of the organization for the minority of the class inside of the organization) as a matter of trade union necessity, or potentially deteriorate the working and living conditions of its members– endangering the accumulated material gains of the organization’s membership– by abandoning trade union necessity for class struggle necessity. In short: what is good for the trade unions can only potentially be good for the working-class, but what is bad for the trade unions is bad for the working-class.
At the most direct and immediate level, things stand as former Secretary of the AF of L August McCraith described at the end of the 19th century: “no criticism of the trade unions can be made that does not apply to the whole working-class.” White chauvinism , nationalist jingoism, religious sectarianism, obscurantism and extremism, xenophobia and other reactionary ideologies, prejudices and habits exist as functional elements of capitalism and as the dominant ideologies, prejudices and habits of capitalist society, these inevitably manifest in the working-class. Trade unionism merely presents opportunities to challenge and overcome such reactionary ideologies, prejudices and habits on a class basis through the class struggle.
It was around the time of Gompers’ pre-10th Convention, April 1892 letter to Thomas Talbot that Gompers also wrote a letter to an AF of L general organizer explaining his rationale for segregated local unions. George Norton was Secretary of the St Louis Marine Firemen’s Protective Union (Federal Labor Union 5464) and in May 1892 was commissioned by Gompers for the specific purpose of organizing black waterfront workers on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers for the AF of L. Norton, a black man, quickly made an enemy of Ed Donnegan, who was Secretary of the Car Drivers Union (Federal Labor Union 5490)– a whites-only trade union in New Orleans—who promptly complained to the AF of L President.
It appears that Norton objected to the segregated car drivers’ union and attempted to use his authority as AF of L general organizer to abolish these racial divisions, while at the same time he requested that Gompers reject a request for a union charter from a ‘Marine and Stationary Firemen’s Union’ in New Orleans on the same basis.
In his correspondence with Norton, Gompers explicitly outlined his (and by extension, the AF of L’s) policy regarding segregated local unions in 2 letters from May 16 and 17, 1892:
“… you must be aware of the fact that so far as I am concerned I never have made distinction between the white and the black man in the matter of our identity of interests and the necessity of organizing and bringing them together in one fold, but you are no doubt aware of the feeling and race prejudices existing in the South and that it will take some time before it can be abated.” (The Samuel Gompers Papers, Vol. III, p.171, 1987)
“… I regret that I had not yet received your letter when the one of yesterday was written you, not that I have any reason to complain of what I have written, but because I could have somewhat amplified it. The letters I received from the Car Drivers just mention the very circumstance to which I refer in my letter to you. The race prejudice exists to such an extent that it seems it were better under the circumstances, to give the white men and the colored men the opportunity of organizing separate unions rather than to have them not organize at all. It is only when men begin to organize that they also begin to realize that their interests are much more closely allied regardless of color, nationality, religious or other prejudice.
It is because of this that I wrote you in the strain that I did yesterday, and it hurt me very much to be compelled to ask you to exercise greater discretion and not run counter to the men who have these prejudices, and possibly in that way obviate rather than intensity the feeling of bitterness.
In any Union which has sufficiently advanced in their conception of the identity of the interests of labor regardless of color, you are fully authorized to proceed, but in those cases where it would hurt yourself, the colored workmen, the white workmen, as well as the general interests of the American Federation of Labor, I kindly suggest to you to be very discreet and allow our agitation and time to work the desired change.” (The Samuel Gompers Papers, Vol. III, p. 172, 1987)
We see Gompers elaborate his position in these letters that the victory of labor unity over racial prejudice will be incremental and based on accumulated shared experience and self-organization. This position was likely informed by his own personal experience in the Cigar Makers’ International Union in the 1860s-70s and that of the other national and International unions of that time (like the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers). On this basis, what is most critical is that workers be organized, no matter how backward their organization is at its formation. This is the baseline, year zero, from which everything becomes possible.
However, as an AF of L general organizer, George Norton was tireless in his efforts to organize trade unions that were explicitly formed on the basis of racial unity between white and black labor while directly confronting segregated local unions. This policy of actively promoting class unity and actively challenging racial prejudice within organized labor was the driving force of the dynamic that became the New Orleans general strike in November 1892. It’s interesting that in their profile of the 1892 general strike the New Orleans Historical, a project of the University of New Orleans and Tulane University, writes:
“The 1880s had been marked by several integrated labor strikes and demonstrations, but stirrings of the general strike originated in May 1892, when the streetcar operators’ successful walkout won recognition for a closed shop and shorter hours, from 16 to 12 hours per day. Local labor unity was enhanced throughout the year, as the American Federation of Labor’s (AFL) organizing campaign added 30 new unions to the previous 65. African-American labor organizer George Norton was mostly responsible for the AFL’s success in chartering biracial unions.”
May 1892 being the month and year that Norton was commissioned by Samuel Gompers and dispatched to New Orleans, this historical profile further reinforces that Norton’s individual efforts, backed by the AF of L, were largely responsible for the spike in labor organizing, racial unity and the escalation of the class struggle into a local general strike later that year.
In a long letter written in November 1892 to another AF of L general organizer in New Orleans and a leader of the general strike, John Callaghan (member of the Cotton Screwmans’ Union), Gompers gives full approval of the workers’ actions with an undisguised enthusiasm that jumps off the page. This particular letter was quoted (in part) by Philip Foner in his 10 volume History of the Labor Movement in the United States where he uses it to demonstrate the, “militant class-consciousness of the American Federation of Labor in its formative years” (Volume II, From The Founding of the AF of L to the Emergence of American Imperialism, p. 203, 1955).
There is nothing contradictory in this story. Samuel Gompers the Marxist could support racial equality and integrated trade unions while Samuel Gompers the trade union bureaucrat could support the formation of segregated local unions; Samuel Gompers the individual trade union member could be electrified by the militant class struggle and racial unity of the New Orleans general strike while Samuel Gompers the President of the AF of L could oppose the general strike tactic. He could support Thomas Talbot at the same time he supported George Norton, with the former representing the most backward and the latter the most advanced segment of the class.
The limit of the union-form compels trade union leaders to accommodate the most backward segments of the class while holding back the most advanced segments. This is but another example of sacrificing the interests of the minority for the majority or the majority for the minority. Both Talbot and Norton were trade union leaders. Their sole fundamental disagreement was on the permissibility for trade unionists to tolerate racial exclusion and racial segregation in labor organizations— and it was decided in practice not to compel workers like Talbot to accommodate workers like Norton, but workers like Norton were compelled to accommodate workers like Talbot in the interest of formal trade union unity rather than class unity.
That white chauvinism manifested in the machinists’ union is not indicative of trade unionism being inherently racist—it’s indicative of something else. It’s indicative of the enduring blind spot of white labor in America through which the oppression and discrimination of racial minorities are viewed as ‘special interests’ affecting only a minority of workers and so must be secondary to the needs and interests which affect all workers (the white majority first and foremost) as in the case of the Hoffa anecdote, and creates a vector for the proletariat’s expression of the dominant ideologies, prejudices and habits of capitalist society which manifest within its own organizations as in the case of the machinists’ union.
Two characteristic policies of the AF of L– trade autonomy and 1 trade/1 organization– which led Gompers to both actively oppose the racist membership requirements in the machinists’ union while simultaneously accepting their apparent capitulation by allowing black machinists to join the organization (but in segregated local organizations where white members objected to their presence) did represent significant advances over earlier trade union policies in the American labor movement. Trade autonomy allowed workers to organically develop their own self-organization in their own workplaces through their own organizations without those divorced from those workplaces and organizations making decisions for them. This was especially pronounced in organizations like the KoL, which allowed non-workers to not only join but become leaders, with authority and decision-making power over the workers and their organizations. Federation or association with other trades and labor organizations was thus strictly voluntary, and so created a system of gradual centralization and concentration of labor’s collective, organized strength as each particular fraction and segment of the working-class cultivated its own organizations, leaders and development.
1 trade/1 organization was not a strictly enforced policy, but more of an ethical position born from the simple recognition that a greater concentration of labor’s forces will be better able to defend existing conditions and extract new concessions from capital than dispersed groupings of workers in a trade or industry– especially when these dispersed groupings are in competition with one another for members and so may be pitted against each other by capital.
That these were fundamentally positive policies in the evolution of the trade unions does not change that they were also used to shelter or absolve organizations and leaders who pursued reactionary, anti-class policies in the labor movement.
But the legacy of the struggle against racism in the American trade unions painfully elaborates how these apparent (but pseudo) contradictions are possible at all. If the working-class, prior to its self-organization into existing trade unions or its formation of new ones, hosts the dominant ideologies, prejudices and habits of capitalist society, that means the trade unions become a frontline in the struggle against these dominant ideologies, prejudices and habits as the permanent form of labor organization under the conditions of the capitalist social relation and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
If an auto plant in Tennessee is undergoing an organizing campaign and the skilled trades and semi-skilled assembly positions are exclusively occupied by white workers, while the most dangerous, most physically demanding and lowest paid positions in the plant are exclusively occupied by black workers, socialists must work toward class unity on the basis of reciprocal solidarity: unifying the demands of the skilled and semi-skilled workers (usually issues like grievance procedures, seniority rights and wage increases) with the end to discriminatory hiring practices and making internal advancement a priority (through concrete measures like employer-paid training opportunities). However, the typical response from the trade unions would be to unionize first and leave the latter issues of discrimination for some indeterminate future time; in other words, sacrificing the interests and needs of the minority for the majority on the same basis as that articulated by Hoffa—“We’re not here to talk about discrimination. We’re here to get the [plant] straightened out for everybody.”
Socialists must always be intransigent in elaborating and pursuing a proletarian, class line. In such a scenario, should socialists seek to be the ones in charge of the organizing campaign and the union involved? If the success of the campaign through the unionization of the plant is contingent upon dropping the demands related to discrimination, then the socialists leading the campaign will either be responsible for sacrificing the minority for the majority for the sake of a victorious organizing campaign or responsible for orchestrating the defeat of the campaign by refusing to drop the demands related to discrimination.
The kernel of this hypothetical scenario is found everywhere that socialists have attempted or succeeded in forming unions or capturing the leadership of a trade union. Whether looking at innumerable such examples from the life of Samuel Gompers and those ex-IWMA cadre who founded the AF of L with him, including his rubber-stamp approval of racially segregated local unions in the American labor movement as outlined above, or Socialist Labor Party leaders forming dual unions that scabbed on AF of L strikes, or Communist Party cadre who actively enforced the CIO no-strike pledge during World War II, there are revolutionaries who fell into the trap inherent to the limit of the union-form—they surrendered the independence necessary for socialists to be (as they must always be) intransigent in exchange for formal leadership positions in trade unions and so were inevitably forced into situations where it was impossible to maintain an intransigent proletarian, class line.
It’s at the point of production, in the workplace, where the full of diversity of the working-class in America is, as it always has been, herded involuntarily to work for a wage, among co-workers who they may not (or likely wouldn’t) have met or associated with in their personal life, that the dominant ideologies, prejudices and habits of capitalist society will manifest in the proletariat. Trade unionism emerges regardless of how deeply entrenched such ideologies, prejudices and habits are. It’s an ugly process and always has been. For every inspiring story of genuine spontaneous solidarity and class unity there are dozens of visceral stories of chauvinism and violence.
However, within this history is the process through which trade unionism creates a path for workers to abandon the dominant ideologies, prejudices and habits of capitalist society and find their way to class unity.
In the 19th century, this sometimes took the form of employers importing black workers from the South to break virtually all-white trade unions during strikes and lock-outs. Such actions usually triggered visceral racism which associated scabbing with black skin. But, they also planted the idea in a minority of white workers that it is in their material interest to actively promote the organization of black workers into the trade unions. This formed the basis of class unity as a material necessity and not just a nice idea from which bloomed more substantive links between and among racially diverse segments of the class.
An archetypal example of this process can be seen in the iron and steel workers’ unions. During the Civil War and the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the United States, a large contingent of metalworkers fought in the Northern armies and in certain noteworthy examples, their labor press made the connection that the struggles against chattel slavery and wage slavery were essentially the same struggle—and after the war, with the abolition of slavery in the South, it was believed that the struggle was now one for the emancipation of wage laborers (themes emerged which suggested that just as wage laborers fought to emancipate the slaves, the former slaves would now join the fight to emancipate all workers from wage labor). This history is outlined elsewhere, though the story of the lock-out of 1874-75 is worth repeating:
Numerous local unions, each isolated to one craft in one mill, emerged in the American iron industry at the end of the 1840’s. With the Panic of 1857, which led to significant wage cuts and lay-offs, these isolated local unions began to forge alliances with one another. They formed the Sons of Vulcan, a national iron boilers’ union, in 1858 as a federation of these existing local unions. In the rise of the Sons of Vulcan and other metalworkers’ unions after the Civil War in the 1860’s and their decline in the economic crises of the 1870’s, lack of solidarity between the iron crafts led each group of workers to fight the mill owners alone while their co-workers continued working. When the 1866 and 1874 lock-outs resulted in bitter struggles and victories that were won at great cost, the Sons of Vulcan and two other metalworkers’ unions (roll hands and finishers) amalgamated in 1876—creating the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers.
Within the new union, the most advanced fractions of the amalgamated membership fought for an intransigent class line over who would be eligible to carry a union card in the Amalgamated Association.
Few of the union men scabbed during the lock-out of 1874, so the iron manufacturers imported skilled black iron puddlers from Richmond, Virginia to replace the locked-out members of the Sons of Vulcan. Blacklegging was immediately associated with black skin, and a vicious, racist smear campaign by the union was implemented. Because the Sons of Vulcan also did not admit boilers’ helpers or other trades in the iron mills, they were obliged to strike or endure lockouts alone without the active support of the other metalworkers (primarily the skilled heaters, roll hands and other finishers who could keep a mill running). These policies resulted in isolating the union’s members and allowed their employers to roll back past gains and significantly diminish the strength of the organization. A year later the Sons of Vulcan became the kernel of the effort to amalgamate the metalworkers’ trades into one grand organization, which became the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in 1876. Beginning in 1877, some of its members began agitating for removing racial requirements for membership and promoted organizing skilled black metalworkers into the union. Over the next 3 years they continued to agitate and finally won in 1881, when the union constitution was amended to grant black metalworkers full membership rights and privileges—this broadening also extended to iron boilers’ helpers as well. Racial exclusion and craft isolation were defeated on the basis of solidarity as a material necessity rather than a nice idea. Racist metalworkers were beaten into shape by the minority of their advanced co-workers and by the tangible consequences of their actions, which conspired to compel them to change, whether they wanted to or not.
At the time that Samuel Gompers and the group around him (Adolph Strasser, Peter McGuire, Jack Elliott, etc.) were beginning to launch their campaign to transform the Cigar Makers’ International Union, the cigarmakers’ union had already gone through a process similar to that of the metalworkers’ union in opening membership to black cigarmakers in 1872 after the question was first raised at the union’s 2nd Convention in 1865. Such examples were preludes to the much larger and dynamic efforts toward full equality in the CIO affiliated trade unions in the 1930’s, which included a much larger and dynamic effort by socialists to pursue an intransigent proletarian, class line.
Socialists can’t stand aside from such processes and struggles because the class, in greater or lesser fractions, regurgitates the dominant ideologies, prejudices and habits of capitalist society. It’s our obligation and responsibility to be active in such processes and struggles on the basis of our intransigent proletarian, class line—to nurture such organic developments when and as they present themselves and foster them where they haven’t yet emerged. To abandon greater or lesser fractions of the working-class to the bourgeoisie because they host and display reactionary ideologies, prejudices and habits inherited from capitalist society is to say that building class unity is impossible; while adopting a revolutionary strategy which is oriented toward taking over trade union structures is to be complicit in sacrificing the minority of union members for the majority (internally) and sacrificing the majority of workers outside the trade union(s) for the minority within (externally).