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The Rise and Fall of Unionism in the United States

March 2, 2019


Edited by Nuevo Curso. We are presenting the second part of the series on the history of American socialism and the legacy of Daniel de León.


“The three types of problems, which encompass all the others, amply demonstrate the reactionary conservatism of unions and the fact that it is impossible for the workers to progress without coming up against them. Their ability to adjust to the reactionary transformation of society was largely overlooked by even the most far-seeing revolutionaries. An exception must be made for an almost unknown theoretician, Daniel de León, whose thoughts on this subject have proven visionary. From 1905 De León saw that unions and the ‘official’ workers' parties harbored serious counter-revolutionary dangers. The work in which he succinctly expressed his ideas deserves the attention of all revolutionaries.”


- Grandizo Munis, Unions Against Revolution, 1960


In April 1902, Daniel de León gave two talks at the Manhattan Lyceum in New York on behalf of the Socialist Labor Party. Taken down in shorthand, they were to be published the following year as “Two pages from Roman history”. It is a fundamental text in the history of the workers' movement. At the height of the Second International, when the union bureaucracy was playing an increasingly decisive role, de León analyzed the role of the "labor leaders", that is, the union bureaucrats, and compared them with the Plebs leaders. The novelty of his critique is that, unlike for example Rosa Luxemburg, de León realized that "labor leaders" not only served capital with their opportunist political positions but that they had a material interest in the capitalist system. Like the Plebs leaders, they served as intermediaries between the exploiting class and the exploited class and were valued and rewarded by the former for their ability to quell the revolt of the latter.


On that basis, trade union reformism takes on a new meaning: it is a useful tool for channelling the explosive energies of the proletariat into the state’s accumulation and development. Moreover, the trade union tendency to reject internationalism began long before the trade union bureaucracy pushed the big socialist parties to act as recruiters for the First World War. The unions soon begin to identify themselves as one more monopoly, that of labor power, and consequently to understand their interests as part of the national capital that already points to tendencies toward state capitalism. An example, then and now, is the anti-immigration laws, defended by the unions under the idea that they "protect wages" from competition and that migrant workers "are not like us.”


“Anti-immigration laws are the fruit of these two purposes. Such laws kill two flies with one slap; they draw attention away from the nerve that aches, and simultaneously they help the set the workers of the land in racial and creed hostility against the newcomers, who, of course, the Capitalist Class itself sees to shall not be lacking. Obviously, it is in the interest of the Working Class that this brace of fatal delusions be dispelled from their minds. What does the Labor Leader do? He helps nurse both delusions. It is no accident that the Edward F. McSweeneys of the Shoemakers’ Union, the McKims’ of the Carpenters’, the T.V. Powderlys of Knights of Labor antecedents, and now a Frank P. Sargeant, Grand Master of the Locomotive Firemen, are the ones picked out by the Capitalist Presidents, and are found ready to fill the places in the Department of the Comissioner of Immigration.”


- Daniel de León, Two Pages from Roman History (1902)


Stalinist historiography presents Daniel de León’s criticism of unions like the KOL and the AFL as being based on his supposed lassalleanism and accuses him of having rejected practical struggles. In reality De León was perfectly aware of the need to leave lassalleanism behind as soon as he entered the SLP. He understood that communists had to provide leadership to the workers' movement and that they, therefore, had to intervene in the struggles beyond what the SLP itself had done until then, which had essentially been limited to the propagation of socialist ideas. In fact, in opposition to the lassalleans and in continuity with the Marxists, he insisted on the need to participate in the unions. It was not out of any sympathy for Lassalle that led to his criticism of the big unions but was rather informed by the frustrations that the SLP experienced in trying to “bore into” them.


Although Daniel de León denounced the leaders of the “pure and simple” unions, systematically pointing out their links with capital, he neither undervalued practical struggles nor rejected unions themselves. In fact, his greatest weakness was that he was unable to cast the union form away from his political imagination and had even believed that unions could be the organs through which workers would exercise their dictatorship. Why? Because it was not until the 1905 revolution that mass strikes and workers councils appeared. The fusion in the forms, instruments, and ends between immediate and revolutionary struggle did not take place until then -- when capitalism was already ceasing to be a historically progressive mode of production - something that Marxists have only begun to understand to a fuller extent much later.


The Knights of Labor

In the early 1860s, Uriah Stephens and other members of a small union of garment cutters reacted against the decline of their union by forming the Knights of Labor (KOL), a secret fraternity that, like so many others at the time, made intensive use of rituals and ceremonies. It functioned like this until 1879, when it became a public union. Its original name was Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. Its founder, Uriah Stephens, was a freemason and member of several paramasonic organizations such as the Odd Fellows or the Knights of Pythias. The co-founders, the general secretary and, Terence Powderly, who would become the Grand Master Workman of the KOL in 1879, also belonged to various fraternities and secret societies.[1] These individuals not only inherited ritualism from the vast and colorful American paramasonic world of which they were part, as well as from the masonry of the Ango-Saxon world that was at its root; they also carried over restrictions from that world, such as the non-admission of women. Above all, these individuals of the KOL inherited the practice of conciliation between classes. If the KOL had socialist tendencies, they certainly could not be found in its national direction.




“Open and public association having failed after a struggle of centuries to protect or advance the interest of labor, we have lawfully constituted this Assembly...in using this power of organized effort and co-operation, we but imitate the example of capital heretofore set in numberless instances...in all the multifarious branches of trade, capital has its combinations, and whether intended or not, it crushes the manly hopes of labor and tramples poor humanity into the dust. [However], we mean no conflict with legitimate enterprise, no antagonism to necessary capital. We mean to create a healthy opinion on the subject of labor, (the only creator of values or capital) and the justice of its receiving a full, just share of the values or capital it has created. We shall with all our strength, support laws made to harmonize the interests of labor and capital, for labor alone gives life and value to capital, and also those laws which tend the lighten the exhaustiveness of toil”.


Since its formation, the KOL accepted workers of all trades, not just garment-cutters. They recruited mainly in places that had suffered the collapse of their national unions in 1873. They expanded into Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, but no further west than Pittsburgh. The secret of the Order, however, soon began to prove burdensome. The repression of the Molly Maguires, an Irish secret society that articulated the resistance of Pennsylvania's miners, raised suspicions about any workers' secret society. In addition, the secret nature of the order made it difficult to gain new members. An 1875 petition from Local Assembly 82, for example, detailed the difficulties he had in gaining members, asking his district assembly to “take steps to make the name of the Order public, so that the workingmen would know of its existence.”[2]


Once the KOL made their organization public and open, they restructured it to include many more workers in their ranks. Unlike many other American unions of the time, they came to accept unskilled workers, women, and blacks. Shed of their old mystical skin, they turned into a union that was capable of playing an extraordinarily significant role in the American labor movement. The key: they maintained the paramasonic practice of organizing into local sections, i.e.,they broke the trades division of the artisan unions. By making themselves public and opening their doors to other workers, they had the ability to organize the majority of the working class.


Marx and Engels believed that a trade union movement of this kind, which transcended the limits of craft division, played at that time an essential role in the constitution of the proletariat as a class. Not surprisingly, Engels considered that, in order for the American labor movement to thrive, socialists needed to work with and on the Knights of Labor. Engels correctly pointed out that the union was not only a genuine expression of the proletariat in the U.S. but was its first unitary organization of national extension. He believed that its numerous internal tensions were natural since it was an organization that was still trying to find its political direction.[3]


Terence Powderly and the abuses of the conservative leadership 


The leadership of Terence Powderly, who had "opened up" the union, represented the conservative tendency within it, he constantly called for arbitration as an alternative to strike to resolve labor disputes because, according to him, strikes were a "relic of barbarism."[4] Despite this, the KOL grew because of strikes, even the ones that were not organized by its members.


It was not the only issue on which Powderly, who supported the lassallean Phillip Van Patten[5], who was the secretary of the SLP until 1883, soon proved to be a hindrance. Although under his leadership the union accepted black workers as members[6], its official position toward the “coolies,” Chinese migrant workers, was virulently xenophobic. The “coolies” worked for meager wages building the Houston and Texas central railroad, the California dams, and the South Pacific and Central Pacific railroad in the Sierra Nevada mountains. They were systematically mistreated and mistrusted by other workers who felt their own jobs were being threatened and their wages were being eroded by competition. The unions, led by the KOLs, strengthened these prejudices by denying them membership and campaigning for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.[7]


This racist/xenophobic position had produced a death spiral. On the one hand, it divided the workers into two isolated groups, alienating the Chinese workers from the struggle of the workers as a whole and facilitating their use as scabs by the company. On the other hand, it exacerbated the class violence against the scabs by taking it to extremes that were then used to reaffirm the racism of the union leadership and create a chasm not between scabs and strikers, but between the “coolies” and everyone else.


This was the dynamic in an episode known as the "Rock Springs Massacre". In 1874, the Union Pacific Coal Company reduced miners' wages by 20% and increased working hours at the same time. Workers responded to the wage cuts by striking and joining the KOL. The company responded by replacing striking miners with Chinese workers[8]. The strikers, many of them members of the Knights of Labor, attacked a scab settlement, leaving dozens of dead bodies in their path. The comments of Terence Powderly had, in this case, no trace of "conciliation" between classes. On the contrary, he used the facts of the incident to bolster a xenophobic message and divert class violence towards the most repugnant racism. The same union leadership that insisted that there was always a possibility of an agreement with the boss and that the strike was a "relic of barbarism", demanded to exclude by law all Chinese workers, dehumanizing them and legitimizing violence against them. No wonder Terence Powderly ended up as U.S. Commissioner General of Immigration in 1897. His "understanding" of migrants was most useful for the ruling class.


“On September 2, 1885, the coal miners at Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, massacred between thirty and forty Chinese, burned their dwellings, and drove many others from the place. That this act of inhumanity and butchery is inexcusable is true, but the precedent had been established that the [Chinese exclusion] law could be violated with impunity by the Chinese, and by those who desired to employ them. Exasperated by the success with which they had evaded the law and insinuated themselves into their places along the Pacific railway, the white workmen became desperate and wreaked a terrible revenge on the Chinese. If steps had been taken to observe the law, and had the Chinese been as rigidly excluded, as they should have been, the Rock Springs workers would not have steeped their hands in the blood of a people whose very presence in this country is contamination, whose influence is wholly bad, and whose effect on the morals of whatever community they inhabit tends to degrade and brutalize all with whom they come into contact”.[9]




However, the universal character of the class also began to overcome the erected barrier. Little by little there appeared cases in which the workers themselves hired as scabs ended up going on strike some time later. Such an instance was the case in Belleville, New Jersey, where the Chinese workers that had scabbed on striking washerwomen of the "Passaic Steam Laundry" went on strike a year later. They weren't the only "coolies" fighting. In 1884, a large number of hop pickers in Kern County, California, went on strike as well. These were still ethnified movements, "Chinese worker" strikes that had not yet broken the division between local and migrant workers. But they clearly showed that Chinese migrants were part of the class and began to develop class consciousness accordingly. The socialist tendency of the Knights of Labor (DA 49) then organized assemblies in New York with Chinese migrants only to clash once again with Terence Powderly and the national leadership that immediately ordered the dissolution of the assemblies.[10]


In 1886, after the Haymarket anarchist riot, while the unions, socialists, and anarchists were repressed, Terence Powderly, instead of defending the victims of the repression, condemned them and assumed that they were guilty of the crimes of which they were accused. The socialist tendency of the KOL (DA 49), on the contrary, made a joint resolution with the New York Central Labor Union in their defense. Daniel de León, supported this joint resolution. He was teaching at Columbia University at the time and had not yet joined the SLP, but his ties with the DA 49 were already deep nevertheless. His disgust with the event even brought him to refer to the the trial as a "judicial crime" in a rally at Cooper Union.[11]




A phase was reaching to its end. The succession of failed strikes, the tensions between the skilled workers represented and the pawns organized in the KOL, as well as the tensions between the different assemblies of the KOL itself, led to a rapid decline of the KOL after the repression.



The socialists expected nothing more than reformism from a trade union, but reformism would have already represented an advance over the conciliationism of the lassallean leadership of the "Knights of Labor," as long as their form of organization was maintained. Therein lay the potential that the communists of the time saw, beginning with Marx and Engels. The guild organization, by trades and levels, divided the working class in the same workplace. An organization with large national trade unions, with local and cross-company sections, including the unskilled and low-paid, was the basis for organizing the class as such at the national level.


Such a vision, while emphasizing the importance of unionism, contrasted sharply with the model of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) under the leadership of Samuel Gompers. The AFL, unlike the KOL, exclusively organized skilled workers and excluded, in practice, women, black people, and immigrants. It is small wonder why it shared the KOL leadership's position on Chinese workers. Samuel Gompers promoted "pure and simple” unionism, meaning a form of unionism that rejected political activity. It was inspired by the British trade unions, where the integration of trade unions in the state would be consolidated even before the First World War.




Its model of national organization signified a shift from an industrial trade unionism that cut across lines of craft, capable of uniting different trades at the national level, to a "professional" model in which "national" trade unions represented the particular interests of a particularly skilled worker. Following the model of the British Trade Union Congress, the AFL emphasized collective bargaining, high membership dues, and craft particularism.[12] It thus expressed a willingness to uphold a differentiated "labor aristocracy" confronted against the vast majority of the class, made up of millions of immigrants in unskilled jobs. In fact, in 1897, the AFL supported an immigrant literacy test to reduce the influx of new contingents of workers into the United States. In 1898, the AFL convention passed a resolution opposing the organization of female workers, since the “labor aristocracy” saw them as potential competition, and essentially told them to go back the home where they “belong.”[13]


These are just a couple of examples of the destructive role that the AFL played in the labor movement. They convey very well the continuity of a certain union perspective, feudal, reactionary, which sees in the development and growth of the class a danger to the wages and status of skilled workers. In the new industrial conditions, the tradition of the trade monopoly, with its technical secrets and the importance of the continuity of knowledge in the guild, could only translate into sexism, racism, xenophobia and in general any form of exclusion.


Moreover, these reactionary tendencies will inevitably reproduce themselves over and over again in unions that apparently consolidate, in an inevitable illusion of class collaboration between their leaderships and employers, relative advantages for a given group of workers. As early as 1871, Engels was able to observe the obstacle that this type of trade union could pose to the workers' movement.


“The trade-union movement, among all the big, strong and rich trade unions, has become more an obstacle to the general movement than an instrument of its progress; and outside of the trade unions there are an immense mass of workers in London who have kept quite a distance away from the political movement for several years, and as a result are very ignorant. But on the other hand they are also free of the many traditional prejudices of the trade unions and their other old sects, and therefore form excellent material with which one can work”.[14]


Engels would later celebrate the "new unionism" that rejected exclusive craftsmanship and class collaboration. In a letter to Friedrich Adolph Sorge in 1889, he said that the labor movement in England at that time was "a trade union movement, but utterly different from that of the old trade unions, the skilled laborers, the aristocracy of labor.” These unions flourished with strikes like the London Dock Strike of 1889 or the London matchgirls strike of 1888. This perspective, the promotion of the "new unions," formed the theoretical basis of ST&LA and, later, of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).




The Central Labor Federation and the fight for a “new unionism”


The Central Labor Federation (CLF) was formed in 1890. It was a central trade union body that promoted a "new unionism". It emphasized independent political action as well as the economic organization of the working class. It merged with the Central Labor Union (CLU) in 1889 but split in 1890 during the 1889 election campaign. Both the Workmen's Advocate and the Volkszeitung, the two main socialist newspapers of the time, denounced the corruption of the CLU during this campaign. In retaliation, the CLU expelled reporters from both newspapers, which in turn led CLF to separate from CLU.


The CLF then attempted to regain its former AFL affiliation. Samuel Gompers refused to give the CLF a charter on the grounds that the CLF had admitted SLP members as delegates, which he said contradicted the apolitical character of the AFL. Gompers even wrote to Engels asking what his opinion was of the situation. He argued in the letter that was not being antisocialist, but that AFL could only admit trade unions. Engels agreed that the AFL had "the formal right to reject anyone who was coming as the representative of a labor organization that is not a trade-union, or to reject delegates of an association to which such organizations are admitted.” However, according to the SLP, Gompers had refused to grant membership in the CLF even after the SLP had formally abandoned it. But regardless of whether the CLF was in the right or not, these events would lead to the establishment of the CLF as an independent socialist trade union. The CLF decided at that time that it was time to abandon "pure and simple" trade unionism and urged in 1890 the organizations that remained in the CLU to withdraw because:


“For years there have been men in the Central Labor Union who, instead of attending exclusively and conscientiously to the interests of labor, have notoriously neglected and betrayed those interests and unscrupulously acted as the direct or indirect agents of the local political parties.

Prominent among men of this character stands James P. Archibald, who from the very seat of recording secretary which he still occupies, openly boasted of having received $60 for his services for the Democratic Party. And instead of expelling him for contempt, your delegates not only sustained him but expelled the reporters of the only labor papers of this city because these papers contended that such a man was not a fit representative of labor”.


A clause in the preamble to the constitution of the Central Federation of Labor, states that:


“Resolved, That every union affiliating with this Central Labor Federation of New York declares that it is opposed to the existing political parties of the capitalists, and favors independent political action by organized labor."


Around the same time as the CLF, similar organizations were cropping up. The United Central Labor Federations (UCLF) had a close relationship with the SLP and prohibited the central organizations from endorsing “the candidates of any party other than a bona fide labor party" or allowing "any of its constituents to do so”. Two years later, the Central Labor Federation of New York called for the formation of a national union composed of central union bodies. The UCLF general executive board then printed 200 charters for the central bodies. This is all to say that the SLP's attempt to influence the KOL and the AFL did not suddenly arise. The impulse did not originally sprout from the mind of Daniel de León but was brought forth by the very evolution of the workers' movement seeking to centralize itself and find its own political direction.


At the AFL's Chicago convention in 1893, the socialists presented Plank 10, which called for the "the collective ownership by the people of all means of production and distribution”.The socialist delegates managed to put the plank to a referendum and won the vote. But instead of including it in the constitution in the next convention in 1894, the anti-socialists were able to get it discarded.


In addition, the socialists of the KOL tried to get Terence Powderly replaced from his position. An attempt that ended in failure, because, although another replaced Terence Powderly, his replacement propagated the populist utopia of "free silver" in the official KOL newspaper. Worse still, H.B. Martin got the job of editor and received money from the Democratic Party for publishing Democratic propaganda. Later, at the 1895 general assembly, the representation of Local Assembly 1563, the assembly of Daniel de León was rejected through a barrage of corrupt maneuvers.


In the end, the unions that tried to change the course of unionism were frustrated. Their attempts to change the official direction of the big unions failed one after the other. The "apparatus" always won, with or without support. As the SLP described it,


“The crooks showed that they would never surrender to the socialists, thus emphasizing their role as labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.”[15]


The Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (ST&LA)




This is the context in which the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (ST&LA) is born. As Daniel de León pointed out in his debate with Job Harriman, it was about recognizing a basic fact.


 “That the Trade Union which can do good to the workingmen must be a Trade Union which has a certain central characteristic; it must recognize the class struggle between the capitalist class and the working class.”


In contrast to what leftists may claim Daniel de León was not a lassallean who decided to abstain from union activity out of an adherence to the "iron law of wages." On the contrary, as a Marxist, he understood that the labor movement needed the unions. Like Marx and Engels, he understood that the working class had to organize itself into unions that had the capacity to organize as many workers as possible -- as workers, as a class, not as members of a trade or owners of a particular type of knowledge. The labor movement needed unions that had not been born to collaborate with capital and that would encourage class independence of the proletariat. Such was the basis of his aversion to Samuel Gompers's "pure and simple" unionism and Terence Powderly's collaborationism. Instead of rejecting the unions, he believed, on the contrary, that a "new unionism" had to be fought for and such was the basis of the controversial Socialist Trade and Labour Alliance (ST&LA).


The ST&LA is often caricatured as a sectarian movement created by Daniel de León which was disastrous for the SLP and its ability to intervene in the labor movement. Many of these interpretations are based on the accounts of Morris Hillquit, a staunch supporter of the AFL, which the vast majority of ST&LA critics at the time also supported. The critics of the ST&LA, historians, and stalinist political organizations alike, paint the new union as a lassallean plot to destroy the unions... when in reality it was in continuity with the efforts of the Marxists to promote an inclusive and class-independent union... and would later merge into the industrial union of the IWW.


The ST&LA was, in reality, an attempt to utilize the trade unions as a tool for class struggle. It was a reaction to the fact that the big unions of that time had already begun to play a collaborative role in the state without having even detached themselves from collaborationist discourse and ideology.

The ST&LA was formed from District Assembly 49, which represented the heart of the socialist tendency of the KOL, the CLF, the Socialist Labor Federation, the United Hebrew Trades, and a small central agency in New Jersey.[16] However, it could not organize many strikes of impact. Its most important strikes took place in Slatersville - Rhode Island - and Pittsburgh. The first, against the Steel Pressed Car Company, ended with a triumph, but the second, a strike of textile workers, ended in failure with the closure of the company.[17] The time of company strikes, in the "old style" of ascendant capitalism, was already passing. 1905 and the first Russian Revolution would give a warning and the mark of the new phase was later confirmed by the 1909 movements in Spain and Chile. The new strikes tended to spread by territoy, grouped very different industries, and took an openly revolutionary turn. The same year of the Russian Revolution of 1905, the ST&LA would be integrated into the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).




- KJ





[1] Robert E. Weir, Beyond Labor’s Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, 1996), 22


[2] John Rodgers Commons, David Joseph Saposs, Helen Laura Sumner, Edward Becker Mittelman, Henry Elmer Hoagland, John Bertram Andrews, Selig Perlman, Don Divance Lescohier, Elizabeth Brandeis, Philip Taft, History of Labour in the United States: Nationalisation (1860-1877) (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1918), 197-201


[3] Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England (New York, 1887), 4-5


[4] Craig Phelan, Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor (Westport Connecticut: Craig Phelan, 2000), 58


[5] Knights of Labor, Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor: Issue 11


[6] Although, it was permitted to have sections that were segregated by race


[7] Theresa A. Case, The Great Southwest Railroad Strike and Free Labor (United States of America: Texas A&M University Press, 2010) 72-76


[8] Encyclopedia of Chinese-American Relations, s.v., «Rock Springs Massacre (1885)». North Carolina : McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006


[9] Terence Vincent Powderly, Thirty Years of Labor, 1859-1889 (Columbus, Ohio: Excelsior Publishing House, 1889), 420-421


[10] Robert G. Lee, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 66


[11] Carl Reeve, The Life and Times of Daniel de León (New York: Humanities Press, Inc., 1972), 18-19


[12] Britain and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, Volume II, s.v., “Labor Movement, British-US”. Oxford, England: ABC-CLIO, 2005


[13] Erik Loomis, A History of America in Ten Strikes (New York: New Press, 2018)


[14] Friedrich Engels, (letter to Cafiero), July 16, 1871


[15] Socialist Labor Party of America, Preceding the ST&LA


[16] Rudolph Schwab, Henry Kuhn, Olive M. Johnson, Rudolph Katz, Chas. H. Ross, F.B.Guarnier, Sam J. French, Ch. H. Corregan, Daniel de León, the Man and His Work, A Symposium (National Executive Committee Socialist Labor Party of America, 1919) 10-12


[17] Stephen Coleman, Daniel de León (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1990), 51

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