The Hoax of Business Unionism

The Hoax of Business Unionism

Michael Hough

An Uncastrated History of the American Labor Movement

An absurd ideological ritual has consumed American revolutionaries, radicals and reformers since 1881. Like reverse pall-bearers carrying a corpse back into the world of the living, every generation attempts to connect with the experience of old popular movements, political organizations and ideologies, and in the process become infected with the folly of the past. But it isn’t a matter of an eternal recurrence and simply repeating the mistakes of dead generations over and over again– it’s worse: each generation validates the lies of long dead liars, the schemes of long dead schemers, and contributes their own new and unique additions to a monument of obfuscation that has been under construction for 125 years. The national debut of Samuel Gompers, Peter McGuire and Adolph Strasser in the American labor movement with the formation of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1881 and its transformation into the American Federation of Labor in 1886 is the foundation upon which an ideological narrative was planted in the consciousness of American reform, radical and revolutionary milieus. At that historic moment an oppositional perspective was crafted that ignored the objective content of the real-existing class struggle and denied the lived experience of the working-class. Since 1881 the definitive test of every American reform, radical and revolutionary movement, organization and ideology are their conception of and relation to the Federation and its constituent trade unions. Forces as diverse as 19th century Lassalleans and 20th century Maoists, actors as diverse as Eugene Debs and Herbert Marcuse, were beholden to the same ideological narratives crafted by Samuel Gompers’ opponents in the 1870’s-90’s; that is, crafted by a collection of union wreckers, scabs, dilettantes, demagogues and fanatics who have been placed on a pedestal by their contemporary acolytes. The significance of this narrative can be seen in the way in which individuals are affected by their conversion to it.  Like Appalachian Pentecostals when they break out the snakes, the faithful become zealous partisans of an infectious ideology—it’s what John Reed was feeling when he presumed to teach the Russians what is and isn’t revolutionary at the 2nd Congress of the Communist International, or what Farrell Dobbs was feeling when he abruptly abandoned his influential and important position in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to help the Socialist Workers Party oppose American entry into World War II and raise funds to hire bodyguards for Leon Trotsky in Mexico. This ideological narrative infected the socialist movement with the degeneration of the Socialist Labor Party into a De Leonist cult and would present symptoms in both the self-flagellating model of the Industrial Workers of the World and in the importance of American cadre in launching Trotskyism as an international enterprise. Beyond the socialist movement it has led to the total penetration of the ideological narrative into the academic fields of labor studies and labor history, which in turn creates an echo chamber that constantly regurgitates the same content across the social and political spectrum– whether in a university funded history book, a government research paper or on the websites of small socialist groups and political parties. The theory of business unionism is the crystallization of this ideological narrative and gets around like political chlamydia. Euthanizing business unionism as a living concept requires an alternate history, beginning with the origin of class struggle trade unionism in America.


The Marxist faction in the International Workingmen’s Association provided the basic theoretical pillars of trade unionism, which are still evident today. They did this by first affirming that the class struggle is the dominant force in society, and then by arguing that labor’s class struggles over wage demands affect the capitalists’ rate of profit—by seeking to return a greater portion of the value created by the worker to them as wages at the expense of the surplus value appropriated by their employer—rather than directly raising the price of commodities. Put another way, wages and profits are in a direct and proportional relation with each other. These theories were expressed through the Marxists’ programmatic combat with the other tendencies of the international labor movement both within and outside of the First International i.e. the Lassalleans, Proudhonists, Bakuninists, Mazzinists, Blanquists, etc. Marxism would enter the United States through a variety of channels, such as the relocation of Marx’s co-workers like Joseph Weydemeyer and Friedrich Sorge to the United States within a wave of politicized and radicalized immigrant workers from across all of Europe and the creation of numerous American sections affiliated to the IWMA. Parallel to these developments, the domestic working-class had generated a cluster of new national and international trade union formations beginning with the constitution of the National Typographical Union in 1852 followed by similar formations for the coopers, iron molders, hatters, granite cutters, cigar makers and other trades over the next 25 years where these diverse elements converged. The diffusion of the fruits of the programmatic combat waged by the Marxists in the First International found its testing ground in the American labor movement, which at that time was second only to the British in terms of its stage of development. A practice of permanent resistance developed at this particular historic moment in the class struggle with the introduction of permanent trade unions as a fixed form for organized and organizing labor. It was the moment when the working-class began to accumulate its dead class struggles in mock complement to the way in which the capitalists accumulate dead labor:

“Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks” (Marx)

“The capitalist has the advantage of past accumulations; the laborer, unassisted by combinations, has not” (The Carpenter, Vol. I number 1, May 1881)

A handful of young workers, primarily first and second generation immigrants, were first entering the workforce at this historic conjuncture when the international class movements unleashed by the European revolutions of 1848 crystallized as new political and economic labor organizations in the subsequent decades. They learned and practiced different trades but in the context of this highly politicized workers’ movement would find like-minded collaborators who shared a common commitment to action. Adolph Strasser (born 1843), Peter McGuire (born 1852) and Samuel Gompers (born 1850) would form the nucleus of what would become the American Federation of Labor, the agents who would merge Marxist principles with this developmental stage of permanent trade union organization in America. McGuire the carpenter and Gompers the cigar maker met as teenagers in the 1860’s at New York’s Cooper Institute, while Strasser emigrated to NYC around 1871 where he would meet Gompers who in turn introduced him to McGuire. Other trade unionists of similar age and aspiration or equally shaped by the First International would also have roles to play after the Gompers group began making moves. For many years Adolph Strasser was an exemplary socialist and trade unionist, the personification of nascent Marxism in the working-class with his natural leadership qualities and a capacity to unify the socialist programme with the real-existing class struggle, mediated through political party and trade union. After arriving in New York City from Austria-Hungary he began working as a cigar maker. The industry was rapidly changing with the introduction of cigar molds to the production process and the emigration of Bohemian tobacco workers to NYC. Small workshops employing 1-3 skilled hand-rolling cigar makers were being replaced by larger factories and the tenement system of manufacture, in which workers rented tenements from their employer and turned these apartments into workshops. The Cigar Makers’ International Union formally excluded workers who used molds (‘bunch-makers’) and women from membership until 1875, and had only recently allowed black cigar makers to join in 1872. Strasser began organizing the workers who were excluded by the CMIU into a new union called the United Cigar Makers. Formed in 1872, the United Cigar Makers within a year had organized 1,700 NYC cigar makers, which was nearly equal to the total membership of the CMIU for all of North America. Shortly thereafter he joined with Samuel Gompers and other socialist cigar makers to merge the United Cigar Makers with CMIU Local 15 in NYC, creating Local 144 of the CMIU in 1875. At the same time, Strasser emerged as a leader of the North American Federation-NYC section 5 of the IWMA. Peter McGuire shared fealty to the socialist programme and a strong commitment to action with Strasser. Born in NYC to Irish immigrants, McGuire learned the carpenters’ trade as an apprentice joiner at Haynes Piano Company, where he joined the cabinet makers’ union and became involved in socialist politics prior to moving to St Louis and becoming active in the Knights of Labor in 1878. McGuire and Strasser would collaborate in forming the Social Democratic Party of North America in 1874. When the First International was dissolved at the Philadelphia Congress of 1876, the American sections of the disbanded IWMA immediately organized a new political party: the Workingmen’s Party of the United States (renamed Socialist Labor Party in 1878) of which the Social Democratic Party was a founding component. Lacking the zeal of McGuire and the dominating personality of Strasser, the London-born Jewish immigrant Samuel Gompers was of far more patient stock, acting as student and agent in the developing labor movement in which he found himself. Both Samuel Gompers and his father joined the English-speaking CMIU Local 15 in 1864, where he wasn’t particularly active. In 1873 he went to work at a cigar factory owned by a radical German immigrant, David Hirsch, where Gompers met and worked alongside many socialists with strong connections to the Marxist and Lassallean milieus. The most important individual he met at Hirsch’s factory was the exiled former leader of the Scandinavian Federation of the First International and an elected member of the IWMA General Council, a Swede named Ferdinand Laurrell. A co-worker of Marx and Engels, Laurrell was always credited by Gompers as being the greatest single influence on his views. It was in this environment at Hirsch’s factory that Gompers became intimately familiar with the works of the socialist movement and its leading figures, and where he came across a pamphlet written by a member of the General German Workingmen’s Association named Carl Hillmann titled, Practical Suggestions For Emancipation, which provided the theoretical basis for Gompers’ programmatic and structural innovations in the American labor movement. By then he and the other IWMA cigar makers had brought Adolph Strasser into CMIU Local 15 at the same time that he organized and led the United Cigar Makers, all for the purpose of bringing that organization’s dynamism into the stagnating CMIU in an effort to transform it. As early as 1873 the New York Cigarmakers’ State Union, a joint council representing all of the New York CMIU locals, had endorsed the United Cigar Makers and promoted its merger into the CMIU. At the 1875 Cigar Makers’ International Union convention, the workers’ delegates voted to open the union to women workers and those who worked with cigar molds and in tenement manufactures. In addition, the New York joint-council endorsement was ratified and the United Cigar Makers were merged with CMIU Local 15, becoming CMIU Local 144 with Samuel Gompers as President and Adolph Strasser as Financial Secretary of the new organization. It was through the Marxists and IWMA men in CMIU Local 15 and the class struggle constitution of the United Cigar Makers that the Gompers group had a mass base in an established trade union from which they would revolutionize the American labor movement. 1873 would be known to history as the start of the Long Depression, a cyclical economic crisis which metastasized into the death rattle of competitive capitalism and the birth cry of monopoly capitalism, and would be the definitive event in the lives of Gompers, Strasser and McGuire and the future of class struggle trade unionism in America. From the beginning of American trade unionism in the 1790’s, a single lock-out, failed strike, attack by vigilantes/deputies/militia, arrest of local leaders or economic downturn was enough to obliterate the fragile structures characteristic of organized labor. 1873 was no different in the sense that all of the new national and international trade unions suffered severe losses and setbacks. The Cigar Makers’ International Union was no exception. To combat the effects of the Long Depression and reinforce the organization to withstand the common trials of every labor organization, the new Local 144 turned into a kind of structural experiment. New members were required to pay a high initiation fee to join and high dues to maintain membership. This increased revenue was used to establish a credible strike fund and implement the service benefits commonly connected to mutual benefit societies such as a death benefit fund, sickness fund, etc. The constitution was rewritten to reflect the class struggle and the place of the trade union as both an offensive and defensive instrument of labor within it. Most of the practical steps taken in this restructuring already existed in various forms and degrees in other unions—particularly the British trade unions–but together they represented a novel step toward a universal model for the new permanent trade unions in America able to weather capital’s cyclical crises, lost strikes, employer lock-outs and forces of repression. The successful measures and methods of Local 144 in the midst of capital’s latest crisis led both radical cigar makers to rise within the structure of the CMIU. Strasser took over as editor of the Cigar Makers’ Official Journal followed by his ascension to vice president of the International in 1876 and president in 1877. As president of the Cigar Makers’ International Union, Strasser continued to collaborate with Gompers, who was the leader of the largest local in the union, and rapidly applied the experience of Local 144 to thoroughly restructure an international union still suffering from the Long Depression which was then in its fourth year. Despite a long history of broken and failed strikes similar to that of every trade union of the period, the CMIU under Strasser’s leadership began launching and winning strikes throughout its jurisdiction based on the model of Local 144 and its exemplary organization. At the same time, Peter McGuire had emerged as a leader among the union carpenters of District Assembly 17 of the Knights of Labor in St Louis at the end of the 1870’s, where he, like many other trade unionists, was beginning to question and oppose the programme, structure and tactics of the Knights of Labor. The American proletariat had up to that point generated two truly national organizations, the National Labor Union in 1866 and the Knights of Labor in 1869. The NLU was established shortly after the International Workingmen’s Association, to which it maintained friendly relations and contact despite never officially joining. Many of the defining demands of organized labor for the next 75 years were first articulated in the US by the NLU: the 8 hour workday, international solidarity, equal rights for women and black workers, etc. Yet the NLU suffered from the absence of a central organ that would lead between its conventions, as well as from confused attempts to transform trade unionism into a general movement for political reforms and a vehicle to build worker cooperatives. Land, labor and monetary reform movements (Greenbackers, free-landers, utopians) hijacked the mission of this first national trade union center, leading to its collapse and dissolution at the NLU’s 1872 convention. The Knights of Labor then became the magnet for militant class energies for the next 15 years during which time it rapidly expanded in size and power. It was a bridge between the secret rites and oaths leftover from the colonial era, the confused reform schemes of utopians and social messiahs and the class struggles of a modern working-class at the precipice of the new epoch of monopoly capitalism—the same historic moment that the Marxist faction of the First International fought successfully to make scientific socialism the dominant theory of the world labor movement. The KoL was primarily a geographic-centered organization based on local mixed-trade labor assemblies grouped into direct assemblies, but unlike the NLU, it had a powerful central organ, the General Executive Board, with a strong executive officer, the Grand Master Workman, who ran the operations of the organization between conventions called General Assemblies. All manner of groups and individuals were free to join the organization with the KoL being closed to only 3 professions: bankers, lawyers and liquor dealers. Employers were free to join the organization, as were farmers and professionals in addition to workers—all of whom were deemed ‘producers’. It was a vast empire of contradictions, in which strikes were railed against by the leadership at the same time that its local (and later national) affiliates led the largest and most significant strikes of the period. It was a place where millionaires, preachers, cooperatives, teetotalers and trade unionists intermingled. It sought to use the leverage of its membership to win reforms for all ‘producers’ politically and build a counter-economy through cooperatives, seeking the harmonious Cooperative Commonwealth at the expense of its mostly proletarian membership and the real-existing class struggle. Whereas the NLU had too little centralization, the Knights had a surplus. The nature of mixed trade, geographic, general organization allows workers from multiple enterprises a lever to act in common, as in the case of the city Central Labor Unions and local Trade and Labor Federations, but it also led to local, regional and national leaders in the KoL with no connection to particular workplaces, trades or industries who could’ve come from the ranks of the employers or the professional strata wielding the power to call or end strikes, impose agreements and otherwise meddle in worker-members’ affairs. Lack of fixed organizational boundaries gave careerists, property owners and an army of petty or would-be politicians a vehicle to advance their particular interests at the expense of the working-class. The Knights would turn on the trade unions and trade unionists several times, giving impetus to the formation of a new central organization, based on the theoretical legacy of the First International which would go on to introduce class struggle trade unionism to America.

The Class Trade Union

The same forces which wrecked the National Labor Union between 1866 and 1872, the utopians and free-landers and Greenbackers and semi-socialists, would initiate the call for a new trade union center through the labor and socialist press in 1881. At the same time, a combination of New York Socialist Labor Party members and Knights of Labor leaders sought to meddle in the internal affairs of the Gompers-led cigar makers’ Local 144, ultimately trying to subvert and conquer the largest local of the CMIU, pushing Gompers into the growing camp of disaffected and disgruntled ex and soon to be ex-Knights (he carried a KoL card for a total of 12 years). The initial call for a convention to be held in Terre Haute, Indiana in August 1881 was made in April of that year, a call that was heavily supported by the International Typographical Union (having changed its name to reflect its expansion into Canada in 1869) which was the largest and best organized trade union of the period. It’s worth noting that this phenomenon, of the largest or best organized forward outpost of labor acting as the vanguard of historic shifts in the forms or methods of the proletariat, repeats constantly: the Iron Molders’ National Union and the National Labor Union, the International Typographical Union and what became the American Federation of Labor, the United Mine Workers of America and the CIO, or on a lesser scale Federal Labor Union 18368 of Philco radio set plant workers and what became the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, it always starts with a victorious segment of the class realizing that it must drag along the rest as the only means to consolidate and defend their gains. At the same time that Gompers was fighting KoL interference in his home local, Peter McGuire had moved from NYC to St Louis, joined the KoL and had established himself as an effective leader of his carpenters’ trade assembly. But his years of experience in the socialist milieu led him to oppose the programme, structure and methods of the Knights, particularly when compared to the lessons of the First International and the preceding 25 years of American trade unionism. McGuire and the St Louis carpenters established a committee for the formation of a national carpenters’ union, and published the first issue of a new journal, The Carpenter, in May 1881 to communicate with the disparate local unions, KoL assemblies and immigrant carpenters’ associations across the country to achieve this end. Just as the convention in Indiana met in August 1881 to form a new trade union center, McGuire and his committee held a convention in Chicago to form a new national carpenters union, the Brotherhood of Carpenters, on August 8, 1881. The Brotherhood was crafted from the start along the lines of the Strasser-Gompers restructured Cigar Makers’ International Union and CMIU Local 144, from its constitution and official journal to its benefit funds, dues structure and class struggle orientation. Meanwhile in Indiana, the utopians and free-landers and Greenbackers and semi-socialists nearly accomplished enough wrecking in 1 day as took them 6 years in the National Labor Union, at which point the trade unionists present rallied together to call a second convention with narrowed criterion, to be held in November 1881 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Gompers attended the Pittsburgh convention as a delegate of the CMIU and McGuire’s proxies attended as delegates for the new-born Brotherhood of Carpenters (he was in Switzerland participating in the International Workers’ Congress at Chur as the Socialist Labor Party delegate, one of the preliminary formations of the Second International), though they were outnumbered by the delegates from the typographers, flint glass workers, iron molders, lake seamen, granite cutters, iron and steel workers and coopers unions who were themselves outnumbered by the delegates from 46 Knights of Labor assemblies who also attended. Though in a tiny minority among the 107 delegates present, Gompers and McGuire’s proxies combined maneuvering in the convention’s various committees with patient persuasion to construct a federation in the image of the restructured Cigar Makers’ International Union and its Local 144, based on a class struggle programme and inheriting the lessons of the International Workingmen’s Association, the National Labor Union and Knights of Labor. The new organization, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, would hold annual conventions to elect officers and determine policy, with a 5-member executive council including a president, 2 vice presidents, a secretary and a treasurer governing the affairs of the Federation between conventions. In Pittsburgh it was resolved that all affiliated labor organizations, trade and geographic, would receive proportional representation based on each affiliates total membership. However, after the Pittsburgh convention, the Knights of Labor would abandon the FOTLU to the trade unionists believing it would collapse on its own without them. The trade unionists in turn would alter this governing method so that trade unions would receive proportional representation based on the total number of members in good standing of each affiliated union at annual conventions, while affiliated geographic labor organizations, regardless of size, would be afforded 1 delegate each. Political parties, reform groups and cooperatives would be excluded from directly affiliating with the Federation in a late recognition that such forms had wrecked the NLU and were then wrecking the KoL. This representation scheme also placed the focus on workplace rather than geographic organizing, the opposite of the model of the Knights of Labor in an implied statement that workers’ control/power is rooted at the point of production. However, this didn’t mean a total break with geographic organizing. Vice president of the iron molders’ union Frank Roney fought to make the participation of Federation affiliates’ local unions in city central labor unions, trade and labor assemblies or local federations of labor mandatory, including forming them where they didn’t already exist. Against the Cooperative Commonwealth ideology then prevailing in the Knights and semi-socialist sects, the Federation was founded on the class struggle as espoused by the Marxists of the First International:

“Whereas, A struggle is going on in all the nations of the civilized world, between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between the capitalist and the laborer, which grows in intensity from year to year, and will work disastrous results to the toiling millions, if they are not combined for mutual protection and benefit.

It therefore behooves the representatives of the Trades and Labor Unions of America, in Convention, assembled, to adopt such measures and disseminate such principles among the mechanics and laborers of our country as will permanently unite them, to secure the recognition of the rights to which they are justly entitled.

We therefore declare ourselves in favor of the formation of a thorough Federation, embracing every Trade and Labor Organization in America”

This preamble to the FOTLU constitution, which remained in place for decades after the FOTLU became the American Federation of Labor in 1886, obviously demonstrates the influence of the Provisional Rules of the IWMA drafted by Marx in 1864 and ratified by the IWMA General Council in 1866 which reads, “the emancipation of the working-class must be the act of the working-class themselves,” a political position applied by Gompers and McGuire against the policy of the Knights of Labor who admitted both workers and capitalists into their organization. The new Federation endorsed trade autonomy with the absence of a mechanism for the Executive Council and Federation president to interfere directly in the internal life of affiliated unions. It was to be a voluntary federation, with the central organs and advanced affiliates guiding the more backward segments of the class through persuasion and practical leadership. CMIU Local 144’s model was endorsed and became a template for all trades and industries. High initiation fees to join, high dues to maintain membership, integration of mutual benefit funds for burial, sickness, travel and later unemployment sought to incentivize workers to maintain membership in their union outside of those acute moments in the class struggle that result in strikes and lockouts. Jack Elliott, a friend and accomplice of McGuire and Gompers who like Strasser was a leader of a US section of the First International, would note that, “the more money a man invests in an organization the more interest he takes in its welfare” [1]. Guided by a class struggle programme, Federation affiliates were urged to build and maintain credible strike funds to use as leverage against employers, extracting greater material gains with the implied threat of a well-orchestrated and prolonged strike while also serving a tangible purpose in the inevitable course of labor’s guerilla war with capital. Constituent organizations would also pay a per capita tax at a rate of 3 cents per member in good standing per year, payable to the Federation quarterly. Affiliates would pay or would be ineligible to send delegates to the annual conventions and thus stripped of representation at the Federation level. FOTLU’s relatively small and stagnant membership numbers didn’t reflect the influence of its work. Jack Elliott, the Baltimore house painter, would found the Brotherhood of Painters and Decorators in 1885 with a constitution lifted almost entirely from that of the Brotherhood of Carpenters. New national and international trade unions for the barbers, tailors, brewers, bakers and many other trades were constructed according to the teachings, instructions and influence of the Federation, and would become the second cluster of permanent trade union formations in American labor history, roughly corresponding to 1883-1904. Rapid growth followed these formations, as in the case of the Journeymen Bakers’ National Union whose membership by 1889 consisted of nearly 80 local unions while Elliott’s Brotherhood of Painters and Decorators in just over one year chartered nearly 100 local unions. The false conflict of skilled vs unskilled labor, beginning with the formative years of the first cluster of national and international trade unions (1852-1877), had become an acute political issue with the second cluster of national and international trade union formations—particularly when compared to the then-contemporary general organizations of the Knights of Labor. However, most of the new permanent trade unions in America included substantial numbers of members engaged in unskilled or semi-skilled labor with significant overlap. Every trade includes jobs of varying skill level, which would naturally reflect in the life of trade unions; this includes all of the ancillary jobs attached to each particular trade, which have been called ‘allied trades’ or ‘helpers’ at different times and in different settings who often carried the same union card as skilled journeymen. At the 7th Federation Convention held in 1887 one year after the FOTLU became the AFL, on the question of skilled and unskilled trade union membership, Gompers said, “It is hard to draw the line; for instance, my friends of the Typographical Union spoke about distinctions. In the Typographical Union there are unskilled workmen. In my union there are packers, rollers, bunch breakers, strippers and selectors, and every man working in the trade is eligible” [2]. Here Gompers cautioned against restricting trade union membership solely to skilled labor by recalling the history of the Cigar Makers’ International Union Local 144. But the nature of skill among the working-class at the transitional phase from competitive to monopoly capitalism forced growing pains on the new permanent trade union structures, exemplified in the experience of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ and Bartenders’ International Union founded in 1891 as part of the second cluster of national and international trade union formations:

“In the catering trade, for example, the turnover of union members had been so great that in the International’s first ten years [Secretary-Treasurer] Jere Sullivan had seen three-quarters of 191 locals that had been chartered disappear. . .

In January, 1901, out of 153 locals reported on the roster, 94 were exclusively bartenders’, 30 were waiters’ and waitresses’, and only 6 were cooks’ unions; the rest, ‘mixed’ locals, were also largely made up of bartenders, who constituted about 70 to 75 percent of the total membership. Within a few years (by 1904) a majority of the country’s male bartenders, whose number had been reported at 21,000 in the 1900 census, were unionized. But out of more than 300,000 culinary and dining room workers reported as employed in 1900, only about 3 percent were enrolled in the union. . .

The methods pursued by Jere Sullivan and his colleagues have been much criticized in later years as being based on too narrow craft union lines. They were, however, the methods pursued with success. . . by most of the leading unions of the AFL. . .The objective was to gather in, above all, steady workers who would pay dues year in and year out, and fight for control of the job [3]

Rather than the origins of a labor aristocracy, it was the moment that the working-class began to recognize itself as a permanent class of capitalist society and organize accordingly. The beginning of this second cluster of national and international trade union formations corresponded to a mass defection of trade unionists from the Knights of Labor from 1884-1890, leading the FOTLU to absorb the diffused militant energies and become the American Federation of Labor in December 1886.

Federal Labor Unions

The subterranean engine of the working-class, every manifestation of organized and organizing labor, is its practice of spontaneous resistance to and contingent demands of capital as the practice of trade unionism. The substance of trade unionism—concerted and mass actions–create participants who are selected and distilled in the course of these struggles, articulating and defining material gains to become the vehicle for the consolidation and defense of these gains as the trade union structure—all of which is only the application of time to the class struggle. The course of history (determined by capitalism) alternates between creating and removing the conditions for the transformation of a new human architecture of the class in its real movement into the structure of new trade unions. The Federation sought to centralize and integrate the organic course of labor’s class struggles i.e. the real-existing class struggle into the new permanent trade unions, building a practice of permanent resistance on the accumulated remains of labor’s dead class struggles. The most important and unique contribution of the Federation would be enshrined in the first constitution of the AFL (Article VIII section 3) in 1886:

“Any seven wage workers of good character, and favorable to Trades Unions, and not members of any body affiliated with this Federation, who will subscribe to this Constitution, shall have the power to form a local body, to be known as a “Federal Labor Union,” and they shall hold regular meetings for the purpose of strengthening and advancing the Trades Union movement, and shall have the power to make their own rules in conformity with this Constitution, and shall be granted a local charter by the President of this Federation, provided the request for a charter be endorsed by the nearest Local or National Trades Union officials connected with this Federation”

This simple administrative mechanism would become the concrete means that labor’s class struggles, the spontaneous resistance to “the incessant encroachments of capital. . . to questions of wages and time of labor” (Marx) and contingent demands made by workers regarding the organization, terms and conditions of labor unique to their workplace, would be linked to the new permanent trade unions in a new practice of permanent resistance. Federal labor unions (FLU’s) would be directly-affiliated to the American Federation of Labor, pay their per capita tax and submit reports of their progress directly to the Federation. All stages of the union-form were eligible to apply for an FLU charter and directly affiliate to the trade union center: from embryonic combinations of a dozen workers at a particular enterprise formed after a wage cut to long organized local assemblies just breaking from the Knights of Labor to scattered local unions of a trade or industry that as yet had no national or international trade union with which to affiliate to coordinating centers for socialist, women and minority workers. At any given time FLU’s were forming or dissolving, restructuring according to Federation norms or breaking away to go at it alone as independent organizations, being merged into existing trade unions or working with other FLU’s and independents of similar trade or industry to construct a new nationally chartered organization. It was the form of the transmission belt connecting the unabridged (uncastrated) class struggle to the collective experience and historic memory of labor’s class struggles represented in the permanent trade union structures as the tangible-physical accumulation of labor’s dead class struggles, and would provide the dynamic constitution and reconstitution / generation and regeneration of the trade union bureaucracy. Gompers was very explicit on the significance of the FLUs, writing to Chicago cigar maker Louis Hartmann in June 1888 that, “I feel the necessity of organizing the entire proletariat, and will ever strive to realize this much to be desired result. . . Again, the feature of the F.L.U’s is an innovation in trade union organization. I regard it as a most progressive step, and as such fraught with possibilities for good or evil. It opens the door to an immense number who previously could not identify themselves with the labor movement proper. Therefore, it is necessary that all who desire progress should jealously conserve and ardently defend this advanced post known as Federal Labor Unions. Too much vigilance cannot be exercised in this direction” [4]. The crucial function of the FLU was to provide the means for workers at any stage of self-organization to benefit from the practical experience of their class as represented in the trade union center, while at the same time being forced to develop their own understanding and application of this experience. They were not artificially centralized and attached to an existing organizational form, but had to construct their own organization, secrete their own leaders and cultivate their own legitimacy before their fellow workers through action.

Internal Life

The working-class is practical, by virtue of definitively owning nothing but its labor-power to sell and so able to break free of the ideological fetishes and idealism injected into it by the other classes, and able to dispassionately evaluate its own experience of the class struggle to organize its own emancipation. In its real movement the working-class constructs its own methods of decision making, its own ethics and discipline, always guided foremost by what is helpful and what is harmful to both its present amelioration and final liberation. For the Federation, decision making authority would be vested in the progressively greater or higher mandates of the workers’ chosen (appointed or elected) delegates and the mass meetings of the Federation’s annual conventions to make policy, including the election of the executive council officers who would apply the mandates and decisions of the conventions. The Federation president was accountable to the executive council, and the executive council was accountable to the conventions of workers’ delegates—all of whom were bound by the uniform laws set out in the Federation’s constitution. But the unity of all of organized and organizing labor, the advanced along with the backward segments, required perpetual struggle to maintain not just formal but organic unity. Thomas Talbot, Grand Master Machinist of the National Association of Machinists, presided over an organization that combined the medieval oaths, rituals and secret passwords of the early Knights of Labor with the new structural model of the AFL, and built one of the ugliest manifestations of systemic racial exclusion, leading the fight to keep black workers out of the labor movement for generations—despite affiliating to a Federation founded on the socialist opposition to divisions by gender, creed, nationality or race in the proletariat. Men like Talbot and organizations like the Machinists’ union needed to be brought into the labor movement proper to be beaten into shape by their more advanced fellow workers; white chauvinism, like every reactionary prejudice or ideology of capitalist society, cannot be administratively purged or decreed away and may only be shattered in the course of labor’s lived experience. Proletarian ethics evolved out of the divisive actions of those who split labor organizations or engaged in dual unionism, since such actions hindered the ability of workers to win and protect material gains. When the Knights of Labor and the Socialist Labor Party declared war on the Federation, they did so by accepting known scabs, wreckers and other undesirables expelled from the trade unions, fostering or engineering splits and chartering dual unions that would compete with Federation affiliates by scabbing on their strikes and undercutting the wage scales established or demanded by the trade unions. Labor unity in a system of one legitimate organization per trade or industry became the highest virtue by increasing the likelihood of victory for the organized workers, raising their capabilities to extract durable and substantial material gains from their employers. Acceptable norms of behavior were to be judged on whether an action could jeopardize the wages, working conditions, hours of labor and established level of organization of the working-class—and those that could benefit an employer over a worker by undercutting a strike, encouraging or fomenting splits in the trade unions, etc. were combatted through all available means, moral and physical. Proletarian discipline derived from the mandate of legitimacy the class endows in its chosen organizations and representatives. Workers develop their own practice of spontaneous resistance/contingent demands—manifested in substance as concerted and mass actions, select their own leaders from among their co-participants in labor’s class struggles, who articulate and define material gains and act as the agents for the consolidation and defense of these now defined gains as the structure of trade unionism. Artificial schemes with no basis in the real-existing class struggle, such as ideal One Big Unions or the vastly inflated jurisdictional claims of small local or regional unions, were opposed vigorously. Since the Federation president was empowered to grant new charters for both FLU’s and national or international organizations, Gompers often declined to issue charters that would in effect create dual unions, even when the existing alternative meant sending interested workers into the Knights of Labor at the peak of acrimony between the two centers. The Federation had absorbed a fundamental lesson that the class demonstrates repeatedly. Foster observed that under the conditions of Bismarck’s anti-socialist law of 1878 in Germany most trade unions suffered a worse fate than the socialist party since a trade union cannot go underground, forcing several of the national organizations (tobacco workers, glass workers, carpenters, metal workers, shoe workers, miners, etc.) to dissolve due to having an organic connection, in programme and structure, with the socialist party. Despite this, “two marked improvements in the structure and ideology of the trade union movement took place during the course of this hard struggle—they became more centralized, disciplined and politicized, and they accepted more than ever the political leadership of the Social Democratic Party. The artificially cultivated Christian and bourgeois trade unions stagnated [5]. Beneath the life support which sustains dual unions (political parties, governments, employers), the working-class chooses for itself which trade union receives a mandate of legitimacy. Class discipline derives from this legitimacy. In Germany, the socialists were able to earn through action and programme their leadership role and mandate of legitimacy from the class. In the United States during the same decade, the socialists had earned a terrible reputation, exacerbated by a vibrant Lassalleanism still entrenched among immigrant workers and an affinity for the verbal radicalism of the British left by English-speaking socialists, which evolved from a jealous impotence in the 1880’s from their lack of influence into a perennial obsession with abstract democracy and dual unionism that still haunts us more than a century later.

Characteristics of the anti-AFL

‘Business unionism’ today attacks the history of American trade unionism in two ways: by opposing concrete actions taken by trade unions or the Federation center (ex. dues check-off, incorporation of trade unions, no-strike clauses) and by opposing the general trajectory of real working-class development with superficially radical abstractions like Lynd’s theory of “solidarity unionism”. But as a relatively recent mutation of an old illness, it has a specific function which is nothing less than the liquidation of the historic experience and memory of the working-class, i.e. of the only thing the proletariat can accumulate. Radicalism and abstraction have proven durable opponents of labor’s self-organization, existing as conjoined obstacles to overcome from the earliest manifestations of the labor movement. The foundation of the narrative of which business unionism is a component centers on the Industrial Workers of the World, both in the history of the various individuals and constituents which joined together to form it in 1905 and in the lie that a substantively different labor movement was both possible and desirable as implied in its formation. Examining some of these elements gives a more accurate account of what the Wobblies represent and why this contrast is important:

The United Metal Workers’ International Union

Charles O. Sherman was the general secretary of the United Metal Workers’ International Union in 1905 when he attended the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World, June 27 – July 8, where he was empowered to merge the organization into the new ‘One Big Union’. Sherman was elected to be the first president of the IWW, with the president’s office being abolished in the IWW after his acrimonious departure. Thompson and Bekken in their The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First 100 Years claim that in 1900, Sherman received a charter from Gompers to turn three Chicago-area Federal Labor Unions into a new nationally chartered trade union, the United Metal Workers, who were endowed with extensive jurisdiction over all workers in the different metal industries. As an industrial union, they would go on to achieve significant successes, all of which would be wrenched from their organization and parted out among the craft unions—for example the claim that the United Metal Workers had organize 95% of the nation’s coppersmiths, who were awarded to the Sheet Metal Workers International Association by the AFL executive council, or large numbers of members who were “lopped off” and given to the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers in 1902. The source for these claims is a dubious 1905 article in the De Leonist newspaper The People [6]. Dubofsky’s We Shall Be All says that Sherman “might have been” a rail worker blacklisted after the 1894 Pullman strike, who was brought into contact with the American Federation of Labor due to the Federation’s longstanding assistance programs for blacklisted workers that goes back to the FOTLU days, where he was given a commission as an AFL general organizer in “1902 or 1903”. In this position of oversight of Federal Labor Unions, he supposedly applied for and was granted a charter for a “paper union” of his own creation under the name of United Metal Workers’ International Union around 1904, all of which with the intention of building personal wealth and power on the back of organized labor—a “duplicity” he carried into the IWW project after realizing he wouldn’t get very far in the AFL [7]. However, Philip Foner quotes a lengthy intervention made by Sherman as general secretary of the United Metal Workers at the 1903 AFL convention on the topic of jurisdictional disputes, meaning he was already a recognized trade union leader by that time [8]. There is a possibility that neither account is historically accurate, in part or in full. Three letters from 1888 reference the Metal Workers’ Union of North America, whose general secretary was a man named George Appell from 1886-1889. This organization sought to compel all existing metalworkers’ unions to affiliate by various means and ensure that all future organizing of metalworkers be conducted by the MWU of NA. For example, it demanded that the AFL Executive Council force the Architectural Sheet Iron Cornice Workers’ Union of Philadelphia to join with the Metal Workers’ Union by claiming that the Philadelphia union was an affiliate who had become lapsed in their per capita tax payments and were suspended from the MWU of NA (and could then be ordered to pay their arrears and resume active affiliation), when in reality the Cornice Workers’ Union was a Knights of Labor affiliate immediately prior to receiving a Federal Labor Union charter from the AFL. In addition, the MWU of NA demanded that the newly-formed ‘National Tinners Union’ (Tin, Sheet Iron and Cornice Workers’ International Association) be ordered to affiliate with them, despite the fact that this new trade union was not affiliated to the AFL at that time. In a letter to the AFL Executive Council of May 8, 1888, Gompers relates that, “I wrote to Mr. Appell inquiring how far he claimed jurisdiction for the Metal Workers’ Union of North America as in previous conversations with him, he claimed jurisdiction for his organization over all metal workers, gold, silver, steel, iron, brass, copper, tin, in short, all.” Two days later on May 10, 1888, Gompers forwarded a copy of the MWU of NA constitution preamble to the AFL executive council to prove their overinflated jurisdictional claims, of which he would say, “While the purposes and motives may be lofty and praiseworthy, it seems rather premature and artificial. If there is to be a Federation of all Metal Workers it will evolve out of the organization of each branch in that industry. But a body of 400 or 500 men to claim jurisdiction over all Metal Workers Unions is both unnatural and must fail.” Two weeks later Gompers would write a letter to George Appell dated May 22, 1888 to inform him of the executive council’s decision: “The E.C. have decided not to compel the Cornice Makers Union of [Philadelphia] to join either the MWU of NA or the Tinners National Union at present. . . Upon investigation it is shown that the Cornice Makers Union is not the body you refer to, inasmuch as they never belonged to the MWU of NA and consequently never did secede from it nor owed it any per capita tax for which it could be suspended. That at present it would be inadvisable to force all Tin, Sheet Iron, and all forms of Metal Workers Unions into your organization. That it would be more advisable to have the various branches of Metal Workers organized in their respective Unions and finally to endeavor to bring about a general amalgamation of all Metal Workers Unions into one grand Organization” [9]. The ‘National Tinners Union’ or Tin, Sheet Iron and Cornice Workers’ International Association would change its name to the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association, and the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, founded 1896, would be another such metal trades union founded later according to the model of the Federation. It seems likely that rather than representing a wholly new organization, the ‘United Metal Workers’ International Union’ described by Thompson and Bekken and Dubofsky was merely the ‘Metal Workers’ Union of North America’ founded in 1886 that fought with Gompers and the AFL Executive Council over precisely the same issues with the same organizations involved. Rather than a ‘United Metal Workers’ International Union’ being founded around 1900-04, it’s possible that the proper name of the organization was always “United Metal Workers”, since Gompers and his contemporaries often substituted alternate or abbreviated organization names in their correspondence, and the designation ‘United’ in the name of a union suggests it is built on a merged mixed-craft industrial basis rather than a single trade or an amalgamated membership (ex. United Cigar Makers, United Brewery Workmen, United Mine Workers, United Garment Workers, etc.). Instead of a trailblazing industrial union beset on all sides by selfish, narrow-minded craft unionists, the United Metal Workers/MWU of NA appears to be an organization no different in size or circumstance than the dozens of others in its industry, but who was willing to use any means to assert its self-decreed leadership over all organized labor in the metal working industries, past, present and future—a mission it thought it could accomplish with greater success in the IWW project.

American Labor Union

Dual union center founded by the Western Federation of Miners out of their first dual union, the Western Labor Union. Only 3 significant affiliates, the WFM, the American sections of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and United Brotherhood of Railway Employees; though the American Labor Union infrastructure in Chicago (its offices, furniture and supplies) were inherited and used by the IWW after its formation.

Western Federation of Miners

No force in the creation of the IWW was more important than the Western Federation of Miners. American capital had proven itself in the 19th century to be the most ferocious national capital in its development. Far removed from the liberal intelligentsia and mass proletarian centers of the East, the hard rock/metal mines of Montana, Colorado, etc. and associated industries were governed by force according to the passing interest of the mine operators and their representatives. Their circumstances led many of them into the radical labor and socialist movements almost from the beginning, like Americanized Jura watchmakers but forced to live under constant threat of private police, armed evictions, the gallows, bullpens and martial law. However, their fellow miners in the coal counties of Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia suffered through similar manifestations of extraordinary capitalist power but did not evolve the same way. The WFM affiliated and disaffiliated from the American Federation of Labor, formed the Western Labor Union at the peak of internal acrimony between Eastern and Western trade unionists within the AFL and later, due to the toxic intervention of Eugene Debs at a Western Labor Union convention, the American Labor Union as a dual union movement to force the rest of organized labor to build and sustain a movement that could resist this bayonet capitalism in the Rockies and “organize the unorganized” into KoL-type organizations. But their efforts didn’t amount to much beyond reinforcing their own miners’ unions with ancillary workers in Western mining towns and starting a fratricidal war on the AFL. Frustrated by their isolation, which seemed to get worse with the dual union experiments of the Western Labor Union, American Labor Union and later the IWW, the national convention of the WFM voted to leave the IWW in 1907. It would eventually re-affiliate to the AFL and change its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers.

Amalgamated Society of Engineers

The ASE was a British trade union founded in 1861 that had a small presence in the United States. It was the source of some jurisdictional disputes with AFL affiliates and joined the American Labor Union. The WFM, ASE and United Brotherhood of Railway Employees were the only real constituents of the ALU, though the ASE was a small and relatively insignificant organization in America.

Dorothy Day

A middle-class dilettante of lukewarm convictions, wedded to vague ideas of social betterment but firmly opposed to the class struggle, flirted with socialism and syndicalism, who would go on to found (and lead) the reactionary ‘Catholic Worker’ movement.

Thomas Hagerty

Thomas Hagerty was a Catholic priest who was won over by extremist rhetoric in the most radical sections of the labor movement. He was an embarrassment to his archdiocese, which shuffled him around before eventually sending him to rural Western parishes out in the desert where he made contact with the Western Federation of Miners and became editor of the American Labor Union’s newspaper ‘The Voice of Labor’. It was from this position that he was able to participate in the founding of the IWW. He drew that ridiculous organizational scheme known as ‘Hagerty’s Wheel’ that compartmentalized the working-class into departments and branches and various subdivisions in an ideal-on-paper organization and wrote the preamble to the IWW constitution. His wheel scheme and preamble were endorsed by the founding convention of the IWW, begging the question: which Industrial Union Department does a Catholic priest join?

Mother Jones

Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones like the priest Hagerty and the dilettante Day was a self-ordained ally of labor, a category which often meant they could bask in the glory of their positive accomplishments and minimize the depth of their betrayals with no one to hold them accountable. After injecting himself into the internal life of the Western Federation of Miners on the authority of his papist office and making good use of firebreathing rhetoric in the dual unionism of the ALU and IWW, Hagerty disappeared from the labor movement; Day, who liked to philosophize abstractly about the evils of the theory of the class struggle would decide to impose her middle class values on the proletariat by openly opposing the then latest expression of the revolutionary workers’ movement (the Communist Party) with her well-funded ‘Catholic Worker’ movement. Mother Jones may have done a lot for the organized coal miners around the turn of the century as a staunch ally and advocate. But she would decide to use the leverage of her past accomplishments and reputation to lie to the spontaneous assembly of armed union miners in Lens Creek, West Virginia just before the Battle of Blair Mountain (1920-21) in an effort to dissipate and quash the incipient insurrection. Various atrocities committed by the coal operators and the private detectives of the Baldwin-Felts agency in Mingo County, of a similar nature to those faced by the WFM members in the Rockies, led to a spontaneous decision of West Virginia UMWA members to arm themselves and march South to organize the mines by force. Mother Jones gathered the men’s attention at the staging area for this ‘March on Mingo’ at Lens Creek and began to read a telegram that was supposedly sent by US President Harding which said, “I request that you abandon your purpose and return to your homes, and I assure you that my good offices will be used to forever eliminate the gunman system from the state of West Virginia.” Fred Mooney and Frank Keeney, leaders of UMWA District 17, demanded to see the telegram and were refused. Mooney is reported to have yelled to the miners, “It’s a damn lie!” followed by Keeney to the effect that “the old lady has turned against her boys, the telegram is a fake” [10]. Her own autobiography describes working with Mooney in 1919 (Chapter 23), but skips the million rounds of ammunition exchanged between armed union miners and the forces of the coal operators in 1921 and her role in the Battle of Blair Mountain. Whether talking about a self-righteous radical priest, or a bored middle-class dilettante, or a lifelong ally of trade unionists, the accountability of individuals not organically connected to labor’s combinations isn’t then to their fellow workers, but only to their own consciences and precarious sense of morality.

Eugene Debs

Debs was a rail worker and an official of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen when he became involved in an effort by various rail workers to create a single ‘industrial’ union that would replace the 16 trade unions then existing for the different railroad crafts. This ‘American Railway Union’ would win a strike against the Great Northern Railway, defeating a company imposed wage cut. Shortly thereafter it became the chosen vehicle for a strike by Pullman Company factory workers, leading to an ARU-sponsored boycott of Pullman cars which effectively shut down rail traffic in the US in a semi-spontaneous national rail strike similar to 1877 and those of the 1880’s. Debs and other ARU leaders were jailed during the Pullman strike of 1894. While in prison Debs was won to the socialist programme largely through the efforts of the Milwaukee socialist leader Victor Berger. What’s most interesting about Debs are the actions he took after he got out of prison, which continued the great American tradition of trying to parlay trade unionism into political reform movements and quack social panaceas. Following the pattern that wrecked the National Labor Union and Knights of Labor, Debs decided to merge the American Railway Union with the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth, a vaguely socialist group whose sole accomplishment was building a utopian intentional community in Washington state called the ‘Equality Colony’, forming the Social Democracy of America in 1897. It took Buddha-esque patience on the part of socialists like Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit to explain scientific socialism in a way that Debs could understand. Unfortunately, despite his organic leadership qualities, charisma and stature, he would remain a half-digested semi-socialist until he died in 1926; an American Plekhanov or Kautsky he wasn’t. He was also the instigator of the dual unionism of the Western Federation of Miners, when, as an observer to a Western Labor Union convention, he won virtually unanimous support from the workers’ delegates to transform the WLU into the ‘American Labor Union’ that would compete with the AFL nationwide. This went against the established line of the young Socialist Party of America to which he belonged and in effect created another ‘Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance’– two socialist parties (SLP and SPA) with parallel dual union centers under their control, at war with each other but both at war with the AFL.

United Brotherhood of Railway Employees

Many rail workers involved in the dual ‘industrial’ union project of the ARU objected to their leader liquidating their organization and selling them out to a fringe political group after the failure of the Pullman strike. A faction of the ARU center in Chicago resented the forced merger with the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth. At the same time, George Estes, who was a founding member of the Order of Railroad Telegraphers, orchestrated a split in the trade union he helped found rather than struggle within the organization to combat tendencies he didn’t like. This rump ORT met up with the fallout of the ARU in Chicago and established another dual industrial union: the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees, a name it borrowed from the ARU’s precursor. It affiliated to the American Labor Union and was then folded into the IWW. It’s interesting that the man who was solely responsible for the liquidation of the American Railway Union, plus this contingent of ARU hardliners, would share space at the 1905 convention and both contribute to the formation of the IWW.

William Trautmann

Trautmann came to the US near the end of the exodus of European radicals, this time in response to Bismarck’s anti-socialist law. He became active in the socialist movement and worked as an organizer for the United Brewery Workmen in New England, eventually taking over as editor of the union’s official journal, the Brauer-Zeitung (before being fired for his venomous anti-Gompers polemics in 1905). Of the 203 ‘delegates’ who participated in the founding convention of the IWW in June-July 1905, virtually none of them represented a legitimate mandate from the organizations to which they belonged. In almost every case they represented themselves as individuals. Trautmann was no different; he didn’t even tell the United Brewery Workmen that he was involved in the IWW project. When the FOTLU was formed, delegates with legitimate mandates to represent their organizations participated in the founding convention. Decisions made at the Federation’s conventions were arrived at through the participation of mandated delegates, decisions which would be ratified and returned by the delegates to their organizations to be put into practice. Trautmann is the best representative of the type of person who founded the IWW: individuals with radical opinions, with varying degrees of influence among their fellow workers, who were frustrated by their inability to affect change in the various manifestations of organized labor. His lust for radicalism and extremist purity led him to turn against the IWW and line up with the splitters who founded the Workers International Industrial Union/“Detroit IWW”.

Daniel ‘De Leon’ Loeb and the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance

A New York lawyer and ex-professor named Daniel Loeb is a man who bears almost sole responsibility for the backwardness of the American socialist movement. Many socialist militants in history took on a nom de guerre, but Daniel ‘De Leon’ was more than a simple Party name, it was a fully fictitious person complete with an elaborate and fantastic biography– born in Curacao in the small Portuguese-Spanish enclave of the Dutch colony to a noble family, etc. What we do know for certain is that he entered the Socialist Labor Party in New York City in 1890, quickly becoming editor of their English language newspaper ‘The People’, which he would use to set himself up as de facto leader of the party and arbiter of its policy. An English speaker in a primarily German-speaking and insular party, a party that had entered the Knights of Labor in the 1880’s in an effort to dominate that organization, a party that Engels condemned, a party that had by then reverted to the discredited Lassallean theory of wages to justify their active participation in the Knights’ intrigues to destroy the trade unions in form and substance, a party that the Marxists—like Adolph Strasser, Peter McGuire and Friedrich Sorge—had abandoned by 1890; the conman and demagogue Daniel ‘De Leon’ Loeb had entered history at an opportune moment for himself and filled this intellectual vacuum. By the late 1880’s the Grand Master Workman of the KoL, Terence Powderly, sought to destroy the FOTLU-AFL and the Socialist Labor Party was an active anti-trade union constituency within the Knights. There are innumerable examples of union wrecking and scabbing conducted by the SLP and KoL before Loeb joined the party. One of the more memorable and important incidents was the chartering of Local Assembly 2814 by District Assembly 49 in New York, the SLP-dominated District Assembly with important ties to the KoL’s General Executive Board. Local Assembly 2814 was the ‘Progressive Cigar Makers’ Union local 1’, an organization formed by SLP splitters in 1882 that would be composed of suspended and expelled members of CMIU Local 144 whose sole purpose was to subvert and replace the CMIU after failing to capture it in 1881; to achieve these ends, the Knights-affiliated Progressive Cigar Makers, chartered by the KoL in 1883, would offer to supply scabs during CMIU strikes and offered to work under a lower wage scale than the CMIU members (which they did). Daniel ‘De Leon’ Loeb joined the SLP at the moment that the AFL had overtaken the KoL as the dominant center of working-class organization in America, after the trickle of trade unionists defecting from the Knights over the preceding years grew into a mass exodus and many wholesale disaffiliations. It was the peak of the open conflict between the Federation and the Knights, Gompers and Powderly. However there was another reason the SLP displayed hostility to the Federation: it didn’t let them affiliate as a political party, which prevented them from sending delegates to the Federation’s annual conventions which discussed and set policy. Gompers let the 10th Federation convention held in 1890 decide the matter once and for all, and gave SLP members a forum within the AFL to make their argument and attempt to sway the convention delegates to allow the SLP to directly-affiliate and thus have the same say in AFL policy as the workers’ delegates. He even hired a professional stenographer to take down every word of the proceedings so that no one could say the proceedings were unfair after the fact. Needless to say the SLP engaged in maneuvering of a type that would be familiar to and typical of Trotskyism decades later and didn’t sway the workers’ delegates to their position on affiliation. All attention was then focused on winning the Knights of Labor, which seemed more plausible as it declined. Daniel ‘De Leon’ Loeb’s background in law was a valuable asset for these Machiavellian schemes and would shape his destructive influence on American socialism and trade unionism for the rest of his life. Loeb had joined the Knights of Labor’s SLP-dominated District Assembly 49 and within a few years was the subject of some controversy since his profession had always been constitutionally barred from entering the KoL: no bankers, liquor dealers or lawyers. This was the basis for the leaders of the Knights to disenfranchise the SLP at their 1895 General Assembly since the party and its KoL faction were led by 2 lawyers (‘De Leon’ Loeb and Hugo Vogt), and soon after Loeb and the SLP were expelled from the Knights. After being excluded by the Knights of Labor and already having lost several battles to increase SLP influence in the AFL, Loeb would craft a new orientation to split the American labor movement and wreck the majority of organized labor that was not under his total control. A dual union center named the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance was formed in 1895 months after Loeb and the SLP were expelled from the Knights of Labor. Dissident-led local unions and local assemblies were pulled out of the AFL and KoL and enrolled in the new Socialist Labor Party-front where they entered into a war against organized labor. For example, CMIU Local 144 went on strike against the cigar manufacturer Seidenberg & co. in 1898 against a wage cut. Shortly thereafter representatives of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance in New York–the old KoL District 49 group– met with the employer and offered to provide scab ‘socialist workers’ at the lower wage scale being sought by the company. Local 144 with help from Gompers and the AFL successfully prevented this De Leonist scheme from being implemented, having learned from painful experience the ways of the SLP during the initial ‘Progressive Cigar Makers Union’ episode, successfully fought the wage cuts and reestablished the closed shop. Many trades reported similar tactics employed against their organizations by the SLP before Loeb joined the party, but under his leadership the scale and degree of these attacks dramatically escalated. Rather than organizing the unorganized, the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance was organized cannibalism, concerned first and foremost with consuming existing unions and their members and when this couldn’t be accomplished, busting the legitimate organization was an acceptable outcome. Due to this the STLA never expanded beyond the SLP sycophants, expelled trade unionists and scabs that made up its membership from the beginning. By 1904 Loeb turned his attention to the dual unionist American Labor Union. He entered into contact with it just as the ALU-WFM were involved in the preliminary steps to form the Industrial Workers of the World—a project that fit Loeb and the STLA perfectly. Loeb’s clique would be just as destructive in the IWW as it had been in the KoL and AFL, leading to a split in 1908 in which the SLP-STLA-Loeb forces set up another dual union—only this new dual union would seek to subvert not just the AFL and the (by then) limping KoL, but the IWW as well. Such was the life of the ‘Detroit IWW’/Workers’ International Industrial Union. Loeb died in 1914 as a career union wrecker who learned from and nurtured the worst elements of a young socialist movement in America, and personally amputated the organic connection linking the socialist and trade union movements that existed from the IWMA days through the founding of the FOTLU.

Trotskyism retroactively fell in love with the IWW because it could serve as a ventriloquist’s puppet for their own similar ideologically motivated conceptions which are equally divorced from the real-existing class struggle and the actual trajectory of working-class self-organization. The IWW has the appearance of a legitimate rank and file uprising against the then-dominant mode of trade unionism, against all of the (real or imagined) flaws in the American Federation of Labor, labor leaders and the trade union bureaucracy. But it simply wasn’t such an uprising. The IWW was formed by a collection of opinionated individuals with tenuous links to real class organizations. Foster places the number of workers represented at the founding 1905 convention at 90,000, but in virtually every case individuals and officers with no mandate attended and contributed, meaning that the members of their unions (Brewers, etc.) were not ‘represented’. With the exception of the Western Federation of Miners (under the influence of Debs) and United Brotherhood of Railway Employees (current and former followers of Debs), the biggest contributor to the IWW at its founding was ‘De Leon’/Loeb’s collection of sycophants, wreckers and scabs. But the bulk of the WFM would pull out of the IWW shortly after its founding and rejoin the legitimate labor movement while the SLP-STLA-Loeb would lead another split and form another dual union, leaving only a small core group of ideologues and zealous partisans of Wobblyism to preside over an organization that rarely built anything. Wobbly cadres would focus on the workers’ practice of spontaneous resistance and contingent demands, subvert the substance of trade unionism– those manifestations of concerted and mass actions (strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, etc.)– into the pre-fab forms designated by the IWW and leech the workers’ organic leaders from the structure of trade unionism by winning over such natural leaders, selected from among participants in labor’s class struggles, and graft them onto the core nucleus of the IWW who then became demagogic radicals themselves rather than act as the agents for the consolidation and defense of these now-defined gains in the struggle in their workplace. This mode of operation is evident in the growing influence of the traveling IWW worker-organizer and the almost complete lack of durable labor organizations established by the Wobblies. This explains why those IWW affiliates which lasted more than a few months like the Philadelphia longshoremen led by Ben Fletcher as Marine Transport Workers Local 8 are so special to Wobbly partisans. But it was not originally intended to be that way. It happened due to their false conception of the class struggle that in turn reinforced their own unique, peculiar and corrosive ideology. An old derisive term used by English leftists for affiliates of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was ‘Coffin Societies’, so-called for the mortuary/death benefit funds offered by the trade unions. The IWW would adopt this and similar terminology to contrast their vision of unionism compared to that practiced by the AFL. Due to Wobbly ideological opposition to the practice of permanent resistance emanating from the permanent trade unions based on the AFL model, those embryonic workers’ combinations that would be led by IWW-influenced militants often lost all that they had won when they didn’t just lose outright. Without a structure (bureaucracy) to police and enforce the gains won through the practice of spontaneous resistance and contingent demands, the substance of concerted and mass actions and the structure made of participants selected and distilled from these concerted/mass actions who articulate and define, consolidate and defend material gains, employers of wage labor easily roll back concessions and re-impose their will while the workers drift away. How many Wobbly strikes are recorded as heroic efforts of sacrifice and will power, conducted with exemplary solidarity and ultra-democratic forms, but ended in defeat or only a brief and nominal victory (Lawrence, Paterson, McKees Rocks, etc.)? Bureaucracy is the basis of functionality for the union-form as the administration of the social and physical fact of labor’s accumulated class struggles in the workplace and in the class. Permanent mobilization by any greater or lesser segment of the working-class is an historic impossibility; organized and organizing labor produces representations of its class struggles in the trade union structure/trade union bureaucracy to police and enforce the material gains articulated and defined, consolidated and defended through concerted and mass actions. The most significant actions by the IWW then didn’t occur on the industrial terrain but through episodes like the ‘Free Speech’ fights in places like Spokane, events which attracted more middle class reformers, dilettantes and radicals who joined as individuals (Carlo Tresca, James Cannon, etc.) and further hardened the opposition to the legitimate labor movement. However their organizational (and not just verbal) war on the AFL officially began at Goldfield, Nevada in 1905-06. After the Western Federation of Miners affiliated with the IWW wholesale, their local in Goldfield expanded and organized nearly all of the workers in the mining town. It was heralded as a fortress for One Big Unionism and the first of many more to come. Rather than consolidate and defend their organization, the Goldfield IWW sought to coerce the small number of organized workers of the building trades in the town to abandon their AFL affiliates and thus liquidate their local organizations, even though these represented but a small fraction of the town’s total workforce. American dual unionism always gauges its success through its capability to smash the existing, legitimate labor movement; so it was for the Knights’ national trade assemblies, ‘De Leon’/Loeb’s Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, Debs and the American Labor Union and the Industrial Workers of the World. Goldfield is just another bit of debris scattered by the bluster and fireworks of empty promises wired into the Wobbly project and the line running through De Leonism, the IWW, Trotskyism and similar variations of the same opposition to the real-existing class struggle, proletarian self-organization and the authentic history of class struggle trade unionism: all of which can be distilled into the retrospective opposition of these forces, then and now, to the appearance of the American Federation of Labor in history.

Falsification Is Liquidation

The Trades Union Congress and the American Federation of Labor were in the vanguard of the historic moment that the world working-class developed its practice of permanent resistance by building permanent trade unions. They were the beginning of the wave of trade union center formations across the advanced capitalist nations (CGT in France, CGL in Italy, GGD in Germany, UGT in Spain etc.) as each section of the working-class developed a similar organizational capacity to produce a single center of resistance in each nation alongside the evolution of specifically capitalist industry. The significance of this historic moment has been lost to generations of American socialists by being obfuscated along with the entire history of the Federation by the narrative that recently spawned the theory of business unionism. Opposition to various formal aspects of historic and/or contemporary trade unionism, whether the incorporation of trade unions, bonding of local union officers, signing collective bargaining agreements or dues check-off agreements, is a defining characteristic of business unionism and enters an abstract terrain; it’s the same with the extreme attachment to and proselytizing of formal democracy in labor organizations (like the direct election of union officers by secret ballot) which is inevitably attached to such opposition. Abstract commitments to democracy and abstract opposition to the superficial aspects of labor organization are unable to solve the practical problems associated with the real-existing class struggle. The incorporation of trade unions was a demand to force the capitalist state to concede that workers’ combinations were not common law conspiracies; local union officers were to be bonded to mitigate the very real problem of safeguarding union treasuries from unscrupulous or tempted and weak officers; signing collective bargaining agreements, beginning with the simple posting of desired wage scales in a workshop, and later dues check-off agreements served as a means to consolidate and defend the material gains extracted from employers of wage labor by burrowing the union-form ever deeper into the workplace as the social and physical fact of past concerted and mass actions (accumulated dead class struggles) of which the union is itself both a material gain and representation. Embedded in Foner’s multi-volume history of the American labor movement is the most comprehensive and likely the most serious attempt to define what business unionism is. To his credit, he says that the generalization of the organizational template of the AFL, born from the experience of CMIU Local 144 during the Long Depression at the transition from competitive to monopoly capitalism, was “inevitable and necessary” for the creation of labor organizations “able to fight effectively for the improvement of the wages, hours and working conditions of the membership”. However, this recognition is accompanied by a reductive accusation that the germ of business unionism was inherent to this model, beginning with Local 144 and carried over into the restructured cigar makers’ International, the FOTLU and then on to the AFL and beyond. Foner’s chronology of business unionism begins with the introduction of a new structural element to the AFL model trade union: a full-time, salaried union staff member with broad responsibilities—the business agent alternatively known as the walking delegate. Unlike the structure/bureaucracy of the trade union, the business agent is not necessarily derived from the same source or raw material as organic leaders who must be selected from among co-participants in labor’s class struggles. They may be elected, appointed or simply hired by the leadership, which is the source of their legitimacy. Foner himself provides a convincing explanation and defense of the business agent:

“In the late ‘eighties and ‘nineties, the trade unions faced savage attacks by employers. Spies infiltrated and wrecked local after local; militant unionists were blacklisted. If a committee of workingmen approached an employer with demands for improved conditions, they were likely fired. In the face of this employers’ offensive, the youthful AF of L unions found it necessary to delegate authority to organize workers and represent them in negotiations to full-time organizers who would not be dependent upon employers for their livelihood. The man who filled this job was the ‘walking delegate’, also called the business agent.” [11]

The business agent appeared in history just like every other solution to a practical problem rising directly from labor’s class struggles. Despite offering such an articulate and concise outline of a practical problem and the solution discovered in the course of the real-existing class struggle, Foner vacillates between his honest account of history and the ideological conclusions he wants to draw from it. The structural innovation of the business agent is portrayed as the first step in the alienation of the rank and file workers from their own organizations– the moment that business unionism was born, American labor’s original sin. Unable to openly confront and combat trade unionism through the traditional weapons of intimidation, terminations and blacklists, employers were forced to make concessions to organized and organizing labor. Rather than recognize and support the rising trajectory of workers’ control made possible through this structural evolution of trade unionism, Foner goes on to list the worst bureaucratic excesses he could find in the history of the business agents of the AFL to characterize this historic moment as the transition to a maturing business unionism, and from the excesses of the business agents to the excesses of trade union officers, to graft and racketeering, and finally ending with the various expressions of anti-democratic conduct of particular organizations or leaders. Despite beginning with a genuine observation, in that the introduction into the trade union structure of a new element which derives its legitimacy exclusively from the structure (bureaucracy) is indeed a further stage of estrangement of labor from its class struggles, he tries to force feed every subsequent negative phenomena in the development of the AFL into the business agent innovation until its inflated into a complete concept. Incidents of racketeering and graft, including inflated leadership salaries (and particularly opulent lifestyles) as well as all expressions of anti-democratic behaviors are tied to this estrangement when the trade union structure, from the Federation’s highest organs down to the local unions of affiliates, grew needs and interests apart from that of the membership or working-class in general. Some have taken this conception of business unionism to absurd extremes, like the Trotskyists who claim that trade union leaders and the trade union bureaucracy constitute a ‘caste’ or (for some) even a separate class. Foner reduces Gompers’ susceptibility to flattery from political and industry leaders, John L. Lewis’ autocratic policies against any internal opposition to his leadership of UMWA or the collusion of a few Teamsters officers with gangsters to expressions of the same bad gene inherent to the AFL model—the underlying core of the theory and living concept of business unionism. However, trade unions are host to the contradiction of an organized conspiracy against private property and property rights while simultaneously meeting capital’s needs to sustain the social and physical fact of their existence. The penetration of the thought and habits of capitalist society into labor’s organs is inevitable; the penetration of foreign class influences is inevitable. But it doesn’t alter trade unionism as the content of labor’s class struggles under the capitalist social relation.

One particular incident that is used by the professional radical and academic Paul Buhle to attack Gompers and bolster the theory of business unionism in his book Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland and the Tragedy of American Labor is the voided election of Samuel Schimkowitz for president of CMIU Local 144 in 1881. His treatment of this incident is important because it allows us to vivisect the application of the theory of business unionism to labor history. He writes:

“On the verge of launching the AFL, Gompers had already come a long way from his socialist days a decade earlier. When his lieutenant Adolph Strasser voided the election of a left-winger to the Cigarmakers’ largest local in 1881 and appointed a Gompers (and Strasser) stooge, Gompers had come a long way from labor democracy, too” [12]

It was asserted by some members of Local 144 in 1881 that the recently elected local president Samuel Schimkowitz was an employer, not a worker, so International president Adolph Strasser suspended the election results pending an investigation. Samuel Gompers as local president chaired the investigative committee for the local which recommended the election be voided, International president Strasser agreed, writing to the members that, “I have received a complaint from several members… stating that at the last election of officers, a manufacturer was elected to fill the position of President, which is clearly a violation of the Constitution. The men or women who work for wages have no interest in common with manufacturers, be they large or small.” The new Cigar Makers’ International Union Constitution, originating with the Gompers group and ratified at the 12th CMIU Convention in 1879, clearly excluded Schimkowitz from membership and by extension running for local union office:

“Article I, Sec. 3: No Employer or Foreman shall be eligible to become a member of any local union”

The would-be local union president appealed to the Executive Board of the CMIU who then set aside Strasser’s suspension and ordered another local investigation. This time the investigation was led by local vice president Rosenberg, who also found Schimkowitz to be ineligible and again the election was voided. After the election was voided the first time by International president Strasser, Schimkowitz attempted to take possession of the local union’s $17,000 treasury, membership rolls and the local’s headquarters—for which he and his faction were all suspended for ‘conduct unbecoming of union men’. After the second and final void of his election, Schimkowitz and his followers split from CMIU Local 144 and established a dual union, the Progressive Cigar Makers’ Union local 1 in July 1882. The constituencies for Schimkowitz were German and Czech immigrants that identified strongly with the Lassalleanism of the Socialist Labor Party; he was merely a figurehead for their faction in Local 144. It is beyond dispute that Samuel Schimkowitz was an employer and the argument over his eligibility to be local president hinged on whether he had given up his manufacturer’s license before he joined CMIU Local 144 or after. The main programmatic grievance held by the splitters manifested in their organized opposition to the official strategy of the local union to abolish the tenement system of cigar manufacture in New York City. For Strasser and Gompers, history had demonstrated that any amelioration granted the working-class through the capitalist legislature could just as easily be taken away by the same means, or would remain a dead letter law. Only extensive and disciplined self-organization at the point of production could guarantee the meaningful passage of desired reform measures for the proletariat, enforced by control over the substance of trade unionism, those manifestations of concerted/mass actions: strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, insurrections, etc. For the Lassalleans backing Schimkowitz their strategy was the opposite: trade unions were only suited to be vote-getting machines since economic gains would be rendered meaningless by associated rising consumer prices, so the only significant reforms the proletariat could win were through socialist electoral action. In their view and as recorded in the preliminary factional meetings and the founding convention of the ‘Progressive Cigar Makers Union’, the tenement system of cigar manufacture could only be abolished through electing independent candidates to the state legislature, just like their answer to every other problem confronting the working-class [13]. We’ve already covered the subsequent actions of this ignoble sect, acting as the refuse bin for rejected CMIU members, from perpetually lapsed dues-payers to De Leonite sycophants to scabs, and the role of the SLP and Knights of Labor in scabbing and union busting. It’s not an oversight that Buhle would add this incident to his list of evidence that Samuel Gompers opposed ‘labor democracy’ from the very beginning. Defending the right of an employer of wage labor to join, run for and serve as president of a local union is absurd on its face, let alone defense of such a right against a Strasser-Gompers-Rosenberg machine intent on defiling an abstract ‘labor democracy’. Such defense is a commitment to the formal trappings of democracy when it serves the declared enemies of the legitimate labor movement. If the proletariat is host to any kind of democracy, it is always a practical democracy. When the first American trade union delegation to the Soviet Union arrived in 1927, one of its members asked Mikhail Tomsky of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions if the method of voting by a show of hands could lead to intimidation and stifle trade union freedom—he replied that, Our workers are not meek and cringing. They know how to vote, not only with one hand, but with two fists if necessary[14]. In the case of Schimkowitz, he exhausted the internal mechanisms set out in the constitution of the local and the International union to protect the members and the organization. Unlike the Knights of Labor where he and his faction would be welcomed, an employer of wage labor was constitutionally barred from joining the CMIU, which makes a farce of the SLP-engineered maneuver to remove the formal barrier to his membership and running for local union president by having him turn in his manufacturer’s license. His suspension was still in effect as his appeal was pending when he attempted to take possession of the local union’s assets and membership rolls—labor democracy and union democracy then is only real and living when it benefits the belligerent or renegade, and is absent, snuffed out, when it goes against him. This was true when this incident was ongoing. Gompers wrote a letter to the SLP newspaper in New York to present the other side of the dispute over the issue that led to the Schimkowitz affair: the local’s strategy to abolish the tenement system of cigar manufacture and was refused publication. The reason for this refusal given to Gompers was that he was, “throwing monstrous suspicion upon our [SLP] members, and stirring up hatred; and for the benefit of our Union [we] will not publish it” [15]. For Buhle, like the rest of the ‘business unionism’ proponents today, democracy is a weapon, a device for ‘shaking up’ labor’s organizations regardless of what the members think or want and a retroactive panacea for every problem in the history of organized labor. In this case, a single incident is portrayed as an open and shut case of Gompers, Strasser and Rosenberg throwing out an election that went against them and their model of trade unionism—ostensibly an example of unadulterated struggle by rank and file workers against a bureaucracy opposed to their interests. The rest of the story or what could be called the complete story is liquidated. All that remains are enough of the facts, diluted and obfuscated, to cast a shadow of credibility on the ideological motives of the narrative being constructed, upheld and peddled. In this case, the election of a nominal left-winger to local union president was thrown out by Gompers and Strasser—for completely legitimate reasons. Business unionism, like every other incarnation of the ideological narrative so embedded in America, is itself a weapon, liberally applied to labor’s organs generation after generation—primarily by radicalized middle class elements who insist on attaching themselves to the organized working-class. The proletariat, a class definitively without property or the prospect of owning anything but its own labor power to sell, can only accumulate its lived experiences; finding fault with the historic leaders, organizations and theories of organized and organizing labor is only legitimate when the real experiences and legacies of these leaders, organizations and theories are evaluated for what they were rather than what the narrative suggests they are. Far more than a just a false theory, business unionism is a hoax knowingly perpetuated by the partisans of an ideological lobotomy which seeks to revise, rewrite and liquidate all traces of the historic memory of the working-class that hasn’t already, in full or in part, become infected with their narrative.

The Industrial Union Chimera

Industrial unionism is subject to a contextual definition much like business unionism. But it originally had a concrete meaning that was subverted. Proponents of industrial unionism are able to use the ideological narrative to justify their political practice. For example, the trick of invalidating the experience of organizations like the United Mine Workers and United Garment Workers as industrial unions with the theory of business unionism while upholding the legacy of the National Union of United Brewery Workmen or American Railway Union, etc. The historic debates within the American Federation of Labor are portrayed as a divide between ‘craft union’ advocates and the forces of progress embodied in industrial unionism. But it’s all a veneer, the real issue under discussion then and now is the character of the entire organized labor movement—to support or oppose ‘One Big Unionism’. Many disagreements separate the various groups which have supported a One Big Union philosophy at that time or retrospectively sympathize with the so-called industrial unionists of that era, but they all share opposition to the formation and development of the AFL. Beginning with the maneuvers of the New York Socialist Labor Party and factions of the General Executive Board of the Knights of Labor in the 1880’s, an edifice of liquidation was conceived and constructed, in which the workers’ lived experience of the class struggle was filtered through their ideological narrative while simultaneously adding to it. Every point of conflict between the sectarian socialists and self-aggrandizing KoL leaders with the leaders of the trade unions, Gompers, the Executive Council of the AFL and their allies in the socialist movement was turned into a propaganda war and accumulated into a falsified record of events, constantly growing over time. The appearance of Daniel ‘De Leon’ Loeb accelerated the pace of liquidation, severing the organic link between the American socialist and trade union movements and acting as the medium for a permanent and insurmountable breach between them that continues today. Past lies and obfuscations told and recorded for political value began to be used for contemporary evaluations in which the socialists relied on their own revised history as the basis for their understanding of the class struggle and history of the working-class that in turn seeped into reform, radical and academic milieus. The ideology of One Big Unionism is a pillar supporting the edifice of liquidation.

United Brewery Workmen

National Union of United Brewery Workmen, International Union of United Brewery Workers—the center of the ideological narrative of industrial unionism starts in 1886 with the formation of a national brewers’ trade union . The organization began as a series of local journeymen brewers’ local unions, which absorbed  the influence of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in the 1880’s and applied for a national charter soon after the FOTLU became the AFL, along with many other trades on a similar trajectory (bakers, painters, tailors, barbers, etc.). A key moment in the construction of the ideological narrative of industrial unionism is that the brewers were granted an industrial jurisdiction:

“The charter was granted and the jurisdiction set forth in it gave the Brewery Workers the right to include in its membership ‘any person or persons, in accordance with its own laws’” Philip S. Foner [16]

In two lines, Foner’s interpretation lays the groundwork for the ideological narrative: if the brewers’ union received carte blanche One Big Union jurisdiction when they received their AFL charter in 1887, any subsequent actions on the part of the AFL Executive Council to limit this jurisdiction would be duplicitous or hypocritical. This is the major cornerstone of the ideological narrative of industrial unionism. If the story of the brewers’ union passed down through the politically-motivated labor histories is accurate, then it would confirm that the American Federation of Labor was structurally opposed to alternate organizational models, regardless of their relative success or ostensibly progressive character. From its formation as a national union, the brewers developed along traditional trade union lines, reaching a membership of approximately 5,000-6,000 in less than 2 years. Similar to the foundational process of many emerging capitalist industries, some master brewers were transformed into boss brewers by the combination of their pre-existing business relationships, leadership position in the shops and most crucially through their ownership of the means of production, facilitating the transition to mass manufacture and social division of labor under the capital-wage labor relation in their industry. These boss brewers formed the United States Brewer’s Association in 1862 which gradually morphed into a Beer Trust. The United Brewery Workmen and U.S. Brewer’s Association had negotiated a collective bargaining agreement which ran from 1886 to April 1, 1888 covering approximately 5,000 workers, but the trust locked-out the journeymen brewers on April 16, 1888 rather than negotiate a new contract. From this date until the end of the year, the United Brewery Workmen lost approximately 2/3 of its membership in the 10-city lock-out. Immediately following the full lock-out, the AFL Executive Council and president Gompers launched a Federation-wide campaign to organize solidarity efforts and raise funds for the locked-out brewery workers, actions which were significant in that this incident developed AFL policies in real-time regarding financial assessments for fellow trade unionists in hardship situations; if they ought to be voluntary or mandatory, for fixed terms or open ended based on the judgment of the Executive Council. The 8th Convention of the AFL held in 1888 officially pledged financial support for the United Brewery Workmen to sustain their locked-out members. Aside from the New York locals, who launched a boycott of the Lager Beer Brewers’ Board of Trade of New York and Vicinity of the U.S. Brewers’ Association in 1888 (and on whose behalf Gompers became personally involved and intervened in the New York struggle) that would last for 14 years before finally resulting in reinstatement of the workers on union terms, most locked-out members across the country abandoned their union went to work on company terms in less than a year. This cataclysmic struggle early in the life of the young United Brewery Workmen dispels many of the inherited inferences and innuendos made by labor historians and political ideologues. Not only was the AFL the incubator of a national brewers’ union, providing the programmatic and structural template for its formation, but at the highest levels—the AFL Executive Council, Samuel Gompers personally and the sovereign convention of workers’ delegates– all gave unconditional support when the brewery workers faced the prospect of being broken up by the nationwide lock-out.

Prior to the journeymen brewers forming their own national trade union, the archetypal American industrial union, the National Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers, had been in existence for many years and had organizational predecessors that were involved in the formation of the FOTLU in 1881 and its transformation into the AFL in 1886. During the exodus of trade unionists and trade unions from the Knights of Labor, the coal miners’ KoL national trade assembly merged with the miners’ federation to create the United Mine Workers of America in 1890. An agreement reached between UMWA and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in 1914 exemplifies the basis of the kind of constructive relationship between labor organizations of varying type or stages of development with overlapping jurisdictions:

“That all carpenters working as handy men employed permanently, or handy men employed in or about the mines, whether repairing or constructing, shall be members of the United Mine Workers of America.

That all carpenters employed in building or rebuilding breakers, tipples, washers, houses, or other buildings, shall be members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners” [17]

William Z. Foster noted that the general organic course of trade union development begins with local isolation, followed by federation, amalgamation, and finally in truly industrial organization over the course of time i.e. experience of the class struggle; but there were exceptions. Miners and longshoremen for example maintained an industrial structure from the beginning, with many trades growing into amalgamated unions like the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen which then developed industrial union tendencies. Despite the support of Gompers, the AFL Executive Council and AFL Convention during the nationwide Beer Trust lock-out of 1888, the struggle dramatically altered many things about the United Brewery Workmen, from its programme and structure to composition and methods. The Socialist Labor Party invaded the weakened UBW and began rearranging things to suit their purposes after its near collapse; an increase in the number of German immigrants changed its membership composition, an amenable national secretary, Ernst Kurzenknabe, was elected, and SLP functionaries like Ernest Bohm and radical migrants like William Trautmann took up staff positions within the organization. Trautmann, who learned the brewers’ trade in Europe at the time he traveled the continent like many revolutionaries of his time, came to the United States in 1890 as a result of Bismarck’s anti-socialist law. He joined the UBW in New England, working as a brewer, union organizer and SLP functionary. Soon thereafter he was appointed editor of the union’s official paper, the Brauer-Zeitung. The SLP wasted no time in fortifying the brewers’ union as their beachhead in the American Federation of Labor, launching sorties against Gompers, the Executive Council and the other affiliated trade unions.

“. . . the Brewery Workmen, not content with the control of the men directly employed in the process of beer brewing, have organized bottlers, coopers, painters, teamsters, freight-handlers, engineers and firemen, in short, every manual workman employed in or about the brewery” [18]

Trautmann turned the union’s official journal into an anti-Gompers pulpit, while the SLP functionaries exploited the defeat of 1888 to win the remaining members to two critical policy changes:

  1. Dual carding in the Knights of Labor despite the dubious platform and record of scabbing, snitching and shirking from the lowest to the highest levels of that organization
  2. Launching a campaign of poaching and raiding on their fellow trade unionists and affiliates of the AFL, the same organizations and leaders who saved the United Brewery Workmen from total collapse and financially sustained the locked-out members during their year-long battle with the Beer Trust

But before these internal changes manifested any obvious results, an acute issue would express the dramatically altered character of the United Brewery Workmen and reset the relation of the UBW to the rest of the organized working-class in America: the place of the Socialist Labor Party within the American Federation of Labor. A local controversy involving the New York Central Labor Union at the end of the 1880’s grew into a Federation-wide policy discussion on the role of political parties in the trade unions. The 10th Convention of workers’ delegates of the American Federation of Labor held in December 1890 debated whether the Socialist Labor Party could affiliate directly to the AFL and thus receive proportional representation equal to that of affiliated trade unions and central labor bodies. It was at this convention, held just 2 years after the 8th Convention which voted to give full assistance and support to the brewers’ union, that the restructured UBW morphed from a trade union of brewers into the most important weapon of the Socialist Labor Party in its combat against the Federation and Samuel Gompers. It begins with the delegate sent by the UBW to the 10th AFL Convention, Ernest Bohm:

“Mr. Gompers: . . . Well, Mr. Bohm, who is a bookkeeper by occupation and who, until a few weeks ago, or until about November [1890], was secretary of the Socialist Labor Party Campaign Committee, and thereafter manager for the Cloak Makers’ Union, is now representing the National Beer Brewers’ Union.

Mr. Bohm: May I explain that I am also secretary of Local Union #33 [Ale and Porter Brewers’ Union Local 33, UBW], am a member of it. It is a local union attached to the national organization of German Brewers of the United States, and I desire to explain how I came to be elected a delegate to this convention. . .

I desire to have the delegates understand my position. The National Executive Committee of the Brewers’ organization at its meeting, decided to send the Secretary of the St Louis union as their representative, but his organization would not allow him to come to this convention, and the Executive Committee looked around for another person. The National Secretary of the Brewers’ Union could not go on account of sickness, and they requested me to come in his stead” [19]

It had been established earlier in the Convention that Ernest Bohm was a member of the Federation of Bookkeepers, the union of his trade, and also a functionary of the SLP’s campaign committee, corresponding secretary of the New York Central Labor Federation, business manager of the Cloak Makers’ Union, and a “member” and official of a brewers’ local union—the last position allowing him to attend the 10th Convention as a delegate for the United Brewery Workmen. Like the 1881 maneuver in Gompers’ home local, cigar makers’ Local 144, when the Socialist Labor Party induced a boss cigar maker (Samuel Schimkowitz) to tear up his manufacturer’s license and run for local union president in an attempted putsch to take control of the Cigar Makers’ International Union through taking control of its largest local union, lies and distortions obfuscated what was really happening behind the scenes. Another version of the Bohm story is that a deal was struck in which Kurzenknabe, who had been re-elected as national secretary of the United Brewery Workmen and as its AFL convention delegate earlier in the year, would resign from both positions and Bohm would take his place– all at the behest of the SLP and SLP-dominated Executive Committee of the UBW, under the pretext that his poor English would present a barrier to his representation of the national union as its convention delegate. Was Ernest Kurzenknabe suffering from an illness, was his English so bad that he could not represent a national union that he was re-elected to lead at the UBW convention—or was he a Socialist Labor Party puppet, of a similar character to their would-be puppet Samuel Schimkowitz in the cigar makers’ union, or a De Leonist simply carrying out his orders? It’s helpful to look at the other SLP pieces in play at the 10th Convention: Lucien Saniel, one of the top national leaders of the SLP represented the SLP-dominated New York Central Labor Federation and led the effort to get the NYCLF a charter and thus set a precedent to allow the Socialist Labor Party to directly affiliate to the AFL at all levels nationwide; Richard Braunschweig, a former anarchist follower of Johann Most, was a carpenter elected as a delegate of the furniture workers’ union with a specific mandate to vote for the SLP platform at the 10th Convention; August Waldinger, SLP member and delegate representing the ‘United Machinists of New York’, fought for the party platform on the floor of the convention; Thomas Morgan, SLP member and delegate for either the brass finishers’ or the machinists’ union, fought for the party platform on the floor of the convention. Sharp arguments and counter-arguments between Samuel Gompers and each of these men fill the stenographic record of the 10th AFL Convention. While the core issue was whether a central labor body in New York could receive an AFL charter while that geographic organization allowed a political party, the SLP, to remain directly affiliated to it, the practical implications of granting this charter would have been immense. In every central labor body in the country and within the individual trade unions, the Socialist Labor Party could directly affiliate at every level and receive official sanction and be entitled to representation equal to that of the organized workers of the trade unions in every meeting and convention, have an equal say in policy and officer elections, etc. Every party asset within the AFL was put into motion and utilized to the extent of their usefulness, and the United Brewery Workmen was a prized piece because it was the only national AFL affiliate under their complete control. But the maneuvering backfired, as both the special committee assigned to the question as well as the vote of the full convention refused to accept Lucien Saniel’s credentials from the New York Central Labor Federation, affirming the position of Gompers and the AFL Executive Council in refusing to grant them a charter and upheld the Federation’s policy regarding the affiliation of political parties. From the end of 1888 to December 1890, the United Brewery Workmen had reversed course and turned against their primary protector and advocate and became an appendage to the SLP’s schemes to subvert Samuel Gompers and wreck the AFL. Prior to the 10th AFL Convention this was a hidden scheme with hidden machinations, but from that point forward, the United Brewery Workmen would emerge as the vanguard of the anti-Gompers, anti-trade union forces within the Federation. Kurzenknabe would remain national secretary of the brewers’ union until 1899. A few years after the convention debacle, he would preside over another SLP-engineered maneuver involving the United Brewery Workmen. In 1893, many years after the overwhelming majority of trade unionists and trade unions had abandoned the secret rituals, reform panaceas, politicians and careerists of the Knights of Labor, the national UBW leadership went a step further from their 1889 support and recommendation that its members dual card in the KoL to affiliate the entire national brewers’ union from the top down and bottom up with the Knights of Labor. This was part of the general effort of the Socialist Labor Party, by then under the leadership of the career union-wrecker and demagogue Daniel ‘De Leon’ Loeb, to take over the entire Knights of Labor as it rapidly declined similar to the ways and means by which the Socialist Labor Party took over the United Brewery Workmen just a few years earlier. However, Gompers and the Executive Council threatened to revoke the brewers’ charter if they remained in the Knights of Labor, as that organization had become the locus of anti-trade union forces within and on the fringes of the labor movement, with the SLP itself forming a strong anti-trade union constituency within the Knights. But ‘De Leon’ Loeb and the SLP’s bulwark in the KoL—District Assembly 49, the ‘Home Club’—stirred up so much trouble with their constant maneuvering and politicking that they were expelled at the 1895 Knights of Labor General Assembly. Having failed to subvert the American Federation of Labor or to win the rotting-on-its-feet Knights of Labor, ‘De Leon’ Loeb and the SLP pulled some of their members out of the Federation and all from the Knights (since they were unable to remain within it due to the expulsion) and formed the dual unionist ‘Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance’—but the United Brewery Workmen remained affiliated to the AFL. After officially entering and leaving the KoL under threat of de facto expulsion from the AFL, the brewers’ union then aggressively pursued the De Leonist brand of ‘industrial unionism’—combining the general organization and panacea-minded legacy of the Knights of Labor with the union wrecking theories of labor radicals and Lassallean extremists. The ideology of One Big Unionism but called industrial unionism became the new cover for the SLP’s maneuvers and intrigues and would serve as a durable anchor for the old anti-Federation, anti-Gompers forces in the American labor movement for several decades. The United Brewery Workmen unilaterally re-interpreted their jurisdiction to include any worker or group of workers it decided belonged to them according to the whims of the leadership, never mind that the organizations whose jurisdictions they invaded were among those who had made real sacrifices of their own to support the UBW during the lock-out that almost destroyed the brewers’ union in 1888. The SLP extremist William Trautmann, by this time editor of the UBW official journal, used his position to cultivate a fortress mentality within the brewers’ union by writing increasingly vicious anti-Gompers, anti-‘craft union’ editorials. For the next several years the brewers would organize workers of dozens of trades that had even the slightest connection to the breweries in the name of industrial unionism as One Big Unionism. However this was a provocation against the AFL Executive Council rather than a legitimate effort at organizing the unorganized. Despite their vindictive and provocative posturing, acting as the cat’s paw of the Socialist Labor Party, the AFL continued to accommodate the United Brewery Workmen over and over again:

“In 1899 the Executive Council ordered the brewers to issue no more charters to unions of brewery engineers or firemen and to recognize the cards of those belonging to their craft organizations. Individual engineers and firemen already belonging to the U.B.W. might retain their membership and their cards were to be recognized by the unions of the engineers and firemen” [20]

The 1900 AFL Convention took up the issue and decided to allow the UBW to maintain its “composite character”—just like the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, United Mine Workers, Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, International Longshoremen’s Association and other affiliated organizations—but insisted that it stop issuing provocative charters. Instead, the brewers’ union leadership would selectively apply the decisions of the Executive Council and AFL Conventions to excuse their conduct and ignore those that were inconvenient. After the 1900 Convention, the AFL correctly identified the United Brewery Workmen as the vanguard of the Socialist Labor Party effort to rejuvenate the decentralized general One Big Unionism organizational model of the Knights of Labor, and took a stronger line in dealing with the brewers. Unlike the KoL, for whom the purpose of their organization was educational and political, the SLP claimed that eliminating the boundaries of the trade unions and decentering the union-form from the workplace was not a retrograde step but the next evolutionary stage—industrial unionism—which would be the form and the prelude to the working-class struggling against the wage system before ultimately abolishing capitalism:

“. . . everyone at the convention knew that the forces of industrial unionism were captained by the socialists. . .

After the 1903 convention, the A.F. of L. leaders became more specific, repeatedly identified industrial unionism with socialism, and charged that the industrial unionists were involved in a sinister conspiracy of the Socialists to destroy the A.F. of L.” [21]

The evidence suggests that there was indeed a Socialist Labor Party-led effort to destroy the AFL all the way back to its earlier incarnation as the FOTLU and even its original cocoon in cigar makers’ Local 144, and the United Brewery Workmen became a key element of this old effort. William Trautmann would secretly conspire with other like-minded men on the fringes of the labor movement who together drafted the One Big Union/‘industrial union’ program and laid the foundation for a new dual union movement in 1904 by organizing the 1905 conference that would found the Industrial Workers of the World. He would be deposed as editor of the brewers’ official journal, the Brauer-Zeitung, for his increasingly vitriolic and venomous editorials in 1905 and serve as a founding father of the IWW; acting as a leader of that organization until eventually splitting from it with the De Leonist sycophants to form the Workers International Industrial Union. Despite losing their most visible and vocal asset within the brewers’ union, the Socialist Labor Party was still firmly rooted in the UBW. Ignoring warning after warning and sanction after sanction for over 15 years, the AFL formally expelled the United Brewery Workmen in 1906 and revoked their charter in 1907. The UBW was allowed back into the AFL in 1909 on the basis of the earlier, binding decisions of past conventions and resolutions of the Executive Council.

The actions of Gompers, the Executive Council and the annual conventions of workers’ delegates were always measured, deliberate and above all forgiving. They tried through practical leadership, moral pressure and trade union discipline to beat the United Brewery Workmen into shape and abandon the self-serving and destructive union wrecking lines of the SLP. Jurisdictional disputes had proven a serious problem for the AFL, but were a symptom of its success rather than a sign of its failures. The brewers’ union often pointed to the other industrial and quasi-industrial unions within the Federation who were not the subject of similar actions, warnings and sanctions as evidence that there was a politically motivated drive to punish them for their SLP loyalties and success in organizing the unorganized into a single organization. But, as seen in the agreement between the coal miners and carpenters, these unions handled their disputes in a totally different manner and above all else were not engaged in an effort to undermine, subvert and ultimately destroy the Federation. Never mind that many socialists within the Federation delineated constructive from destructive political work in the labor movement, which included current and former members and leaders of the American socialist movement who became the highest leaders in the AFL (Strasser and the cigar makers, Elliott and the painters, McGuire and the carpenters, Hayes and the typographers, not to mention Gompers himself) and opponents of the increasingly insular, sectarian and anti-Marxist line of the Socialist Labor Party.

Peter McGuire, a founding member of the Socialist Labor Party who served as its mandated delegate to the International Workers’ Congress at Chur in 1881 and was also a founder and pioneer of the AFL, astutely recognized the danger of the One Big Union/‘industrial union’ ideology prevailing in the UBW, writing to Gompers in January 1900 that, “The Brewery Workers are possessed of the obsolete K.O.L. notion of bringing all branches of labor employed in a brewery under one centralized head, regardless of their affinity,” and as noted by Foner, “P.J. McGuire warned Gompers that the entire Executive Council must take a firm stand to prevent other unions in the A.F. of L. from ‘travelling down the same impracticable Debsian road as the Brewery Workers” [22]

McGuire’s remarks can be easily misconstrued much like those of the other founding members of class struggle trade unionism in America. To fully appreciate his comments as they relate to the United Brewery Workmen, we have to move on to another piece of the foundation of the ideological narrative of industrial unionism: the American Railway Union.

American Railway Union

Of all things, a state sanctioned investigative report on the 1894 Pullman Strike captures the essence of the American Railway Union, Eugene Debs and the absurdity of that particular moment:

“It is undoubtedly true that the officers and directors of the American Railway Union did not want a strike at Pullman, and that they advised against it, but the exaggerated idea of the power of the union, which induced the workmen at Pullman to join the order, led to their striking against this advice. Having struck, the union could do nothing less, upon the theory at its base, than support them. . .” United States Strike Commission Report, Senate Executive Document No. 7, 53d Congress, 3d session, pp. xxii-xxvii

There is no better summation of the entire experience of the ARU, of Debs and his followers, of the Pullman debacle, than in this paragraph of this government report. That alone speaks to the power of the ideological narrative, its hold over the various reform, radical and revolutionary movements, organizations and ideologies, and the academic labor studies and labor history fields, most of which tell a very different story of what happened in 1894. The American Railway Union can barely be called a union in any meaningful sense. In an interview published in the Terre Haute Express on January 1, 1894 several months before the Pullman strike Debs said that workers who joined the ARU would not be expelled for non-payment of dues. The ramifications of this policy in a trade union would have been disastrous. Prior to the integration of the high initiation fees and high dues rates to build credible strike funds and establish functioning mutual benefit funds for a variety of purposes (burial, sickness, unemployment, travel, etc.) under union control, American trade unions could not sustain themselves through strikes, lock-outs, state repression and company gun thugs, economic crises, technological change in the production process, etc. The success of Samuel Gompers and the old International Workingmen’s Association cadre around him in building a new practice of permanent resistance in the permanent trade unions was due to the application of Marxism to labor organization. The Knights of Labor were opposed to trade unionism and trade union methods despite harboring within itself all stages and incarnations of trade unionism, since the KoL was based on political action, member education and supporting the cooperative movement—not on the class struggles of wage labor against capital at the point of production even if it unwittingly hosted them. A problem that plagued the Brotherhood of Painters and Decorators founded by IWMA veteran Jack Elliott was its low dues structure. Despite mirroring the constitution and by-laws, structure and mode of operation of his friend and co-worker McGuire’s Brotherhood of Carpenters, the painters’ union was known as a cheap union with substantially lower initiation fees and dues than the other building trades unions. This problem plagued the painters’ union for decades, sapping its ability to provide adequate organizing support, strike support, operational efficiency or implement member-demanded services. This mirrored Gompers’ experience in transforming the Cigar Makers’ International Union when first introducing these structural reforms into the wider labor movement, and led him to constantly repeat the same phrase to the members of newly formed and embryonic trade unions: that cheap unions produce cheap members. At the root of the issue of trade union dues is the question of trade union discipline. Without uniform rules to regulate internal functioning, there is no basis for discipline; without discipline, labor is unable to tactically deploy its forces, maneuver its reserves and strangle its needs and interests from capital. Debs and the ARU reflected a retrograde step away from the organic development of trade unions into federated, amalgamated and finally truly industrial organizations and back into the rudderless mire of general organization while presenting itself through its fervently ideological and idealistic propaganda as a kind of avant-garde formation. It was an infantile rejection of the structural model of the American Federation of Labor and a naïve and superficial analysis of the forces operating in the workplace and in capitalist society. By rejecting the AFL model which was just gaining traction in the independent Railroad Brotherhoods, Debs and his accomplices rejected the real-existing class struggles of the modern working-class in the emerging epoch of monopoly capitalism, in which ever stronger, more disciplined organization stood any chance at defending workers against and wresting concessions from an increasingly centralized-trustified-monopolized capital. Lenin would write that the ideological unity of the working-class has to be consolidated as material unity; absent real organization– that is, absent an organization capable of commanding and enforcing internal discipline– you have only a flaccid and inherently precarious ideological unity. This would become apparent in the strike at the Pullman Palace Car Company and the nationwide boycott of Pullman sleeping cars that turned into a de facto national rail strike. The first exhibit that what Debs and co. described as industrial unionism was merely a vulgar general One Big Unionism was the dissonance in forming a dual union with the purpose of taking in all railroad workers and replacing the 16 separate trade unions operating in the field while becoming in fact the organizing vehicle for factory workers who happened to produce railcars. The Pullman factory was a hot shop, and the relative ease with which ARU organizers were able to recruit in this company town is a testament to this. A nearly identical mode of operation would be rebranded as IWW organizing 10 years later. However, the Pullman workers were recruited by an idea, not an organization. Against the advice of the ARU leadership, the factory workers struck on May 11, 1894. Rather than focus on the situation at Pullman, Debs doubled down on the ‘Direct Action Gets The Goods’ infinite escalation theory at the root of his project and sanctioned a national boycott of Pullman cars—and due to the proliferation of Pullman cars across the various rail systems, this was a call for a national rail strike. Over 250,000 rail workers across the US responded to the call to support the 4,000 Pullman factory workers. But this was not something new but the culmination of 20 years of union wrecking in the rail industry:

“The railroad craft unions were still in their infancy when the radical minorities began to set afloat their all-inclusive dual industrial unions. And the radicals have stuck to this separatist policy for over a generation, up till the present day. During this period they have launched many such unions, all of which have gone down to defeat” [23]

Between the 1860’s-70’s, permanent trade unions of rail workers were being formed, such as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (1863), Order of Railroad Conductors (1868) and Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (1873). In 1873 and 1874, a number of regional rail strikes set the template for a unique pattern in the class struggles of railroad workers. The interconnected rail systems led to an environment in which self-generalizing mass action was a natural outgrowth of the integrated production relations between the various trades, geographic regions and enterprises of the industry. Similar conditions for factory workers would not develop for another 20 or 30 years with the debut of the mass strike in the huge urban factory districts, the ‘worker fortresses’, at the turn of the 20th century. Unfortunately for the rail workers, this foreshadowing of the future forms of the class struggles between wage labor-capital came when their trade unions were still embryonic and underdeveloped. With the spontaneous regional mass strikes of 1873-74, a forerunner of the ideology of the Knights of Labor took hold and a general railroad laborers’ organization was formed by R.H. Ammon in Pittsburgh. The collapse of this railroad ‘One Big Union’ was followed by the large mass strike wave and railroad general strike of 1877. The Knights of Labor picked up where Ammon’s group left off, pushing the vulgar pseudo-socialist ‘Cooperative Commonwealth’ and One Big Union ideology and taking in hundreds of thousands of rail workers across the US but primarily centered in the West and Southwest. Again, as fast as the workers joined, large strikes were undertaken and despite contingent victories or defeats, the KoL One Big Union declined and disappeared just as rapidly as it had grown. With the rise of class struggle trade unionism through the new permanent trade unions and the AFL model, the Railroad Brotherhoods and AFL-affiliated rail trades unions began to mature and consolidate. Despite this brief respite between the decline of the KoL from 1886 and the formation of the ARU in 1893, the seductive lure of One Big Union ideology remained entrenched. Debs himself was an official of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen when he became involved in establishing and leading what became the American Railway Union. In terms of the peculiarities of the Pullman strike, it was in continuity with the trends that had been constant in the class struggles of rail workers for 20 years. Structurally the ARU did not differ fundamentally from earlier One Big Unions among rail workers. But it took the One Big Union theory to its ultimate conclusion: a largely spontaneous, loosely organized, nationwide mass confrontation with capital and its state power. Brecher, an ardent proponent and vector of the ideological narrative who has nothing but ebullient praise for Debs captures the absurdity of his own position:

“Initially, it made perfect sense to follow Debs’ policy and, “do everything in their power to maintain order. . .” Yet at the point where the courts and army intervened despite the legal and non-violent policy of the strikers, the A.R.U. was unable to change its approach. It was therefore doomed to failure, for as Debs later pointed out, even “if all the railroad men in the country were organized within one brotherhood and acted together it would be impossible for them to succeed.

When the troops came in, making legal success impossible, workers throughout the country responded with mass direct action. But for the A.R.U. to adopt such a policy would have meant a challenge to the entire social order—a step from which it recoiled. Thus we are presented with the spectacle of Eugene Victor Debs, perhaps the greatest example of a courageous, radical, and uncorruptable trade union official in American history, trying to end the strike in order to prevent it from becoming an insurrection” Jeremy Brecher [24]

Several things should be remembered after reading the above quotation:

  • When Pullman factory workers joined the ARU, they were determined to strike—Debs and the ARU leadership opposed a strike at the Pullman factory
  • When the factory workers went on strike anyway, militant rail workers demanded a national boycott (general sympathy strike)—Debs and the ARU leadership opposed a union-sanctioned boycott of Pullman cars
  • When the ARU membership launched the national boycott anyway, Debs and the ARU Executive Board merely rubber stamped local initiatives—unable to command any semblance of trade union discipline or give any practical leadership to the strike
  • When this deficit of leadership and discipline led to a contest of force against force with the capitalist state personified in Federal troops and judges’ injunctions—the first real act of leadership given by Debs during the strike was to call it off and say it was fated to be an unwinnable battle from the start

For Debs and the other ARU leaders there never was a tangible purpose for their ideology, organization, or their egregiously harmful influence on all of American labor in 1894. Following the 1955 convention that amalgamated the AFL and CIO as the AFL-CIO, that lifelong carrier of the ideological narrative, James Cannon, would write, “The organized labor movement as it stands today, with industrial unionism predominant, owes a lot to Debs, but his name was not mentioned at the merger convention. Debs was the greatest of the pioneers of industrial unionism who prepared the way. . .” [25]. But Debs was not a pioneer. Both industrial unionism and ‘One Big Unionism’ had existed in the American labor movement for decades prior to his rise in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and his descent into the American Railway Union. Brecher took a much tougher stance against the archetypal American industrial union—the United Mine Workers—and its new acting president– John L. Lewis– during the national coal miners’ strike of 1919. Despite facing a completely parallel situation, the UMWA was a more disciplined organization, deeply rooted in the working-class, based on the AFL model, and did not subscribe to the One Big Union idolatry characteristic of Debs and the ARU. When the Federal courts issued injunctions and another US President sent in Federal troops against striking workers in another basic industry, John L. Lewis called off the strike for similar reasons as Debs; however Brecher is not so retrospectively magnanimous to Lewis or the other UMWA leaders. Unlike Debs, Lewis and the coal miners didn’t lose sight of their concrete objectives, the articulated and defined material gains at the center of their struggle with the coal operators, while Debs and the ARU never tried to orient the extraordinary forces at their disposal during the national boycott to win the demands of the Pullman factory workers and create a path to victory from the struggle.

“However much of a defeat the Pullman strike may have been in terms of its immediate objectives, its real significance, as Debs saw, was the unprecedented sense of solidarity it reflected, something not embodied in any particular organization, but in what he called ‘the spirit of organization’” [26]

This is the essence of ‘One Big Unionism’. It is to the trade union movement what Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism was to the socialist movement. What else is Debs, Brecher, Cannon and co. trying to say if not ‘the final goal is nothing, the movement is everything’ (Bernstein’s catechism)? For the subjects, hosts and carriers of the ideological narrative, the concrete objectives of labor’s class struggles are nothing, the forms, scale, depth of its struggles are everything. Aside from nurturing a trade union Bernsteinism in the American labor movement, this is the connecting thread from the De Leonists to the Trotskyists, Debs to Cannon—the identification of the organizational form of industrial unionism with the ideological content of One Big Unionism, subverting a term with a definition established from the lived experience of the working-class, of labor’s class struggles with capital, until it ceases to mean a trade union with a merged, rather than amalgamated, mixed-craft membership (most often designated by the term ‘United’ in the organization name) and instead means an undefined general labor organization. It is this terminological shell game that creates the difficult problem for carriers, hosts, vectors like Brecher and Foner to explain the earliest industrial unions, the formation of the CIO, the return of the CIO to the AFL, etc. without resorting to the hoax of business unionism to bridge the gap in the ideological narrative. When Peter McGuire warned Gompers that the AFL Executive Council must take a firm stand to prevent other affiliated unions from “travelling down the same impracticable Debsian road as the Brewery Workers” in 1900, it was an attempt to quarantine the destructive influence of One Big Unionism, which had infiltrated the Federation under the cover of ‘industrial unionism’ following the total bankruptcy and implosion of the Knights of Labor in the preceding decade. In other words, McGuire saw the immediate threat posed by that “obsolete KoL notion” to wreck all of the progress that had been made since 1881 to place the American trade union movement on the basis of scientific socialism, confirmed with the effects of One Big Unionism on the development and trajectory of the Railroad Brotherhoods from 1877-1894 and United Brewery Workmen after 1888. Brooks’ account of the influence of the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905 on McGuire’s United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners led him to conclude that the Wobblies “proved to be another radical chimera”, quoting UBCJ President Huber at the 1906 union convention that the IWW was, “. . . a few fool dreamers who, hiding their nefarious designs and hypocrisy under the guise of organized principles, now ordain and declare the trades unions, as presently formed, are ages behind the times, and boast that our unions must succumb to the inevitable and be disrupted, divided and torn apart” [27]. It was the offspring of the ideological intercourse of every experience of One Big Unionism over the preceding 30 years, from the Knights of Labor, the Great Upheaval of 1877, the dual unionism fomented by American socialists, the regional particularism of the Western Labor Union, the dual-One Big Union centers of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance and American Labor Union, the ‘industrial’ unionism of the United Brewery Workmen after the national lock-out of 1888 and the American Railway Union in 1893-94. It was at that moment in 1904-05 that the disparate forces of One Big Unionism reassembled after having failed to subvert and take over the American Federation of Labor from within, became centralized for a brief period within the IWW, before splintering over and over again into competing factions as is their perennial habit.

Craft Unionism vs Industrial Unionism

What was at stake in the internal and external combat of the American labor movement at the end of the 19th century was not craft unionism vs industrial unionism, but trade unionism vs One Big Unionism. At the same time that Gompers, the AFL Executive Council and the trade union leaders were fighting the One Big Unionism proponents, they also had to fight with those who sought to charter tiny unions based on the slightest craft differentiation. As the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners succeeded in defining and defending its wage scale, work rules and jurisdiction in North America, a movement to Balkanize the carpenters’ trade took root. Brooks notes that, “Locomotive Wood Workers, the Agricultural Wood Workers, the Railway Bridge Builders, Millwrights, Shinglers Dock, Wharf and Bridge Builders, Metal Ceiling Wood Workers and Carpenters’ Helpers were among those seeking A. F. of L. charters in 1903 and 1904. The [UBCJ’s] protests, however, headed off a Federation comprised of tiny, ineffectual unions fragmented by marginal crafts skills” [28]. Just as that patent medicine of One Big Unionism was a retrograde step from the scientific socialism at the core of the AFL model trade unions, so too was the chartering of ever smaller and more specialized unions when compared to the accumulated experience, leverage and power of the established organizations.

The position of the American Federation of Labor, beginning with Cigar Makers’ International Union Local 144 in 1875, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1881 and the official establishment of the AFL in 1886, has been to build and sustain trade unions based on the class struggles of wage labor against capital, with mutual benefit funds integrated into the trade union structure to promote permanent rather than contingent union membership, with strategic and tactical use of concerted/mass actions and viable strike funds to extract and defend greater material gains, all while operating on the organic basis of labor’s class struggles for present amelioration and future emancipation and the active process of perfecting labor’s organizations. There was neither an opposition to industrial unionism nor a defense of narrow craft differentiation; it was not a monolithic Gompers fiefdom but the meeting place of every stage and variant of labor’s self-organization, from the small and isolated single-craft trade unions to the Federal Labor Unions and central labor councils to the industrial unions all sharing Federation affiliation. Even anti-AFL affiliates like the United Brewery Workmen and Western Federation of Miners either remained within its orbit or sought to re-affiliate after their time in the wilderness. Dual union centers like the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, American Labor Union and Industrial Workers of the World were all formed at the behest of the two Socialist parties at war with the AFL over the latter’s refusal to cede their members, treasuries and organizations to self-proclaimed leaders of the working-class. It’s no surprise then that the forces of industrial unionism grouped into the Committee for Industrial Organization were treated with extreme skepticism by the leaders of the AFL in the 1930’s, since the socialist-engineered conspiracies to wreck the AFL under cover of ‘industrial unionism’ had only occurred a generation earlier, within living memory. IWW-Debs-‘De Leon’ partisans congratulate themselves on foreseeing the need for and the spectacular rise of industrial unionism among mass production workers; yet in the period of the Depression union growth spurt 1935-1942 the AFL organized 2.7 million members to the CIO’s 2.5 million [29], with a far larger share of membership gains for the AFL during formal American involvement in World War II while the CIO stagnated before committing harikari and excising its Communist Party-led affiliates in 1949. All of which led the splitters of the CIO to return to the Federation in 1955, just like the United Brewery Workmen and Western Federation of Miners before them. Even this historic salvation of the ideology of One Big Unionism as industrial unionism with the coalescence of dual unionists and AFL model industrial unions in the CIO is distorted.

Liquidation as History

With our collective history held hostage by ideological narratives, there is no basis for contemporary socialist theory and practice. If our politics are derived from the inherited legacy of past incarnations of the socialist movement, the honesty and integrity of dead generations must be evaluated. Business unionism is a hoax supported by a fanciful rendition of labor history in the ideology of One Big Unionism, which says that another kind of labor movement was both possible and desirable compared to the one that was in fact built. Samuel Gompers is the perennial Machiavellian agent of the capitalists, the American Federation of Labor is the omnipotent and omnipresent empire of false consciousness, all based on the word of long dead union wreckers, demagogues, scabs and extremists. The history of class struggle trade unionism in America does not support such a claim, while the dialectic of trade unionism repudiates it. Euthanizing the theory and living concept of business unionism and returning to the origin of class struggle trade unionism in America are necessary steps to reconstruct a legitimate and therefore useable history of labor.


[1] One Union: The History of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades 1887-2003, Aspatore Books (2004), p. 23.

[2] The Samuel Gompers Papers Volume II: The Early Years of the American Federation of Labor, edited by Stuart B. Kaufman (1987), p. 73

[3] Matthew Josephson, Union House, Union Bar: The History of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union AFL-CIO, Random House (1956), p. 39-42.

[4] The Samuel Gompers Papers Volume II: The Early Years of the American Federation of Labor, edited by Stuart B. Kaufman (1987), p.128.

[5] William Z. Foster, Outline History of the World Trade Union Movement, International Publishers (1956), p. 123.

[6] Fred Thompson and John Bekken, The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First 100 Years (1998), p. 2.

[7] Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (2000 ed.), p.59-60.

[8] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement of the United States Volume III, The Policies and Practices of the American Federation of Labor 1900 – 1909 (2009), p. 209.

[9] The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume II: The Early Years of the American Federation of Labor 1887-90, edited by Stuart B. Kaufman (1987), p. 111-112 and p. 115-116.

[10] Lon Savage, Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-21, University of Pittsburgh Press (1990), p. 78-79.

[11] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement of the United States Volume III, The Policies and Practices of the American Federation of Labor 1900 – 1909 (2009), Chapter 6: Business Unionism, p. 136-173.

[12] Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland the Tragedy of American Labor (1999), p. 41.

[13] The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume I: The Making of a Union Leader 1850-86, edited by Stuart B. Kaufman (1987), p. 247 – 273.

[14] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States Volume X, The T.U.E.L. 1925-1929 (1994), p. 318.

[15] The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume I: The Making of a Union Leader 1850-86, edited by Stuart B. Kaufman (1987), p. 253 – 254.

[16] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States Vol. III: The Policies and Practices of the American Federation of Labor 1900-1909 (1994), p. 211.

[17] Thomas R. Brooks, The Road to Dignity, A Century of Conflict (1981), p. 137.

[18] Solomon Blum, Jurisdictional Disputes Resulting From Structural Differences in American Trade Unions, University of California Publications in Economics vol 3, #3 (1913), pp. 409-447.

[19] The Samuel Gompers Papers, Volume II: The Early Years of the American Federation of Labor 1887-90, edited by Stuart B. Kaufman (1987), p. 397.

[20] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement of the United States vol. III, The Policies and Practices of the American Federation of Labor 1900-1909 (1994), p. 211.

[21] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement of the United States vol. III, The Policies and Practices of the American Federation of Labor 1900-1909 (1994), p. 210.

[22] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement of the United States vol. III, The Policies and Practices of the American Federation of Labor 1900-1909 (1994), p. 196 and p. 211

[23] William Z. Foster, Railroaders’ Next Steps, Labor Herald Pamphlet #1, Trade Union Educational League (1921)

[24] Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (1972), p. 95.

[25] James Cannon, E.V. Debs, Fourth International vol. 17 #1 (1956)

[26] Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (1972), p. 96.

[27] James R. Brooks, The Road to Dignity, A Century of Conflict (1981), p. 67.

[28] James R. Brooks, The Road to Dignity, A Century of Conflict (1981), p.70.

[29] Richard Freeman, Spurts in Union Growth: Defining Moments and Social Processes (1997), p. 23.