The workers movement in the USA
American capitalism in the nineteenth century was an historically progressive force, and the victory of the North laid the basis for the economic expansion and domination of the US on a world scale. It freed up a massive labor pool for capitalist enterprise, and allowed for the domination of a handful of industrialists, paving the way for the giant trusts and monopolies of the 1890s. While the working class was fighting and dying in the war against slavery, the monopolists-to-be were busily enriching themselves in the lucrative war industry. The early fortunes of Carnegie, Mellon, Armour, Gould, Rockefeller, Fisk, Morgan, Cooke, Stanford, Hill, and Huntington were made during this period.
Up to 1860 the government of the United States was largely in the hands of the landowners of the South. From 1865 the Northern capitalist oligarchs pushed them aside and took over the power. The attitude of these men was shown by the words of Commodore Vanderbilt: "Law! What do I care about law? Hain't I got the power?" Yes, the Vanderbilts and their like had the power, and they still have it.
The triumph of capitalism in the USA signified an unprecedented development of the productive forces. This is nest shown by the explosive growth of the railroads:
In 1860 there were 30,000 miles of railroad track in the USA.
In 1880 there were three times as much - 90,000 miles.
By 1930 the figure was 260,000 miles.
Progress was tremendous, but the fruits of progress were not equally enjoyed by all. In 1892 the People's Party noted in its platform:
"The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal wealth for a few […]
"Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery. If any will not work, neither shall he eat […]
"We believe that the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads […] Transportation being a means of exchange and a public necessity, the government should own and operate the railroads in the interests of the people […]
"The telegraph and telephone, like the post office system, being a necessity for the transmission of news, should be owned and operated by the government in the interest of the people…"
The growth of the economic might of the USA signified a simultaneous growth in the power of Big Business. By 1904 the Standard Oil Company controlled over 86 per cent of the refined illuminating oil of the country. By 1890, gigantic corporations were in control of each great industry. The Aluminum Company produced 100 per cent of the output of virgin aluminium in the United States. The Ford Motor Company and the General Motors Corporation together produced three out of every four cars. The Bell Telephone Company owned four out of every five telephones in the United States. The Singer Sewing Machine Company made at least three out of every four sewing machines sold in the United States. And so on.
The huge polarization between Labor and Capital, between rich and poor, was the real basis on which the class struggle developed on the soil of the United States. In the old days the difference between rich and poor were so small that a man like de Tocqueville could regard them as insignificant. But for the last hundred years or more the gulf between rich and poor, between haves and haves not, has widened into an abyss.
The roots of the labor movement were already well established in the nineteenth century. William Sylvis, an early trade union activist, founded the Iron Molders' Union, and helped found the National Labor Union, which he wanted to affiliate to the International Workingmen's Association - the body in which Marx played the leading role. He was far ahead of his day on issues of black workers and women - he wanted them in the unions - against considerable opposition. This great advocate of working class unity, cutting across all artificial lines, died in great poverty at age 41.
The attempts of working people to defend themselves against rapacious employers were met with extreme brutality. As one contemporary labor leader wrote: "a great deal of bitterness was evinced against trade union organizations, and men were blacklisted to an extent hardly ever equaled." In response the workers formed a clandestine union - The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor - founded in 1869 in Philadelphia. The Knights of Labor had a very advanced program that called for the eight hour day, equal pay for equal work for women, the abolition of convict and child labor, the public ownership of utilities and the establishment of co-operatives. The terrible conditions and brutality of the bosses sometimes provoked a violent response. The Molly Maguires were a secret society of Irish immigrant coal miners who fought for better working conditions in the coalfields of northeastern Pennsylvania. Called murderers and framed, 14 of their leaders were imprisoned and ten of them were hanged in 1876.
In reply to the labor movement the bosses sent in their shock troops, the Pinkerton Detective Agency - those hated private cops of the monopolists, scabs, strike breakers, hired guns and murderers - to fight the workers. The bosses also had at their disposal the forces of the state. Workers were imprisoned, beaten up and killed for the "crime" of fighting for their rights. Pursued by private interests, in particular Lehigh Valley Railroad founder, Asa Packer, as well as Franklin Gowen of Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the coal company bosses who wanted to squelch the fledgling labor organizations.
In 1892 the Homestead strike by the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers at the Carnegie steel mills in Homestead Pa., resulted in the death of several strikers and Pinkerton guards. The strike ended in defeat and the workers were sacked from most of the mills in the Pennsylvania area. Two years later a strike of the American railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs against the Pullman Co., was defeated by the use of injunctions and federal troops sent into the Chicago area. Debs and others were imprisoned for violating the injunctions, and the union was defeated.
The Chicago Martyrs and May Day
The list of the martyrs of American Labor is endless, the most celebrated being the Chicago martyrs of 1886 -as a result of which the American working class gave May Day to the rest of the world. It is ironic that in the USA, "Labor Day" is now held at the beginning of September, far from the more significant date of May 1. It is generally seen as a last 3-day weekend of summer with lots of grilling and beer drinking. The union marches in major cities have been emasculated in order to reduce the importance of May Day by moving it to September and making it a "fun" weekend. In this way the ruling class in the USA does everything possible to make the working class forget its own history and traditions.
On May 1, 1886, Albert Parsons (Lucy his wife was a tireless activist who campaigned to have him pardoned), the head of the Chicago Knights of Labor, led a demonstration of 80,000 people through the city's streets in support of the eight-hour day. In the next few days they were joined nationwide by 350,000 workers who went on strike at 1,200 factories, including 70,000 in Chicago. On May 4, Spies, Parsons, and Samuel Fielden were speaking at a rally of 2,500 people held to protest the police massacre when 180 police officers arrived, led by the Chicago police chief. While he was calling for the meeting to disperse, a bomb exploded, killing one policeman. The police retaliated, killing seven of their own men in the crossfire, plus four others; almost two hundred were wounded. The identity of the bomb thrower remains unknown.
Of course another Red Scare was invoked ("Communism in Chicago!") when all the workers were fighting for was the eight-hour day. On June 21, 1886, eight labor leaders, including Spies, Fielden, and Parsons went on trial, charged with responsibility for the bombing. The trial was rife with lies and contradictions, and the state prosecutor appealed to the jury: "Convict these men, make an example of them, hang them, and you save our institutions."
Even though only two were present at the time of the bombing (Parsons had gone to a nearby tavern), seven were sentenced to die, one to fifteen years imprisonment. The Chicago bar condemned the trial, and several years later Governor John P. Altgeld pardoned all eight, releasing the three survivors (two of them had had their sentences reduced from hanging to life imprisonment). Unfortunately, the events surrounding the execution of the Haymarket martyrs fueled the stereotype of radical activists as alien and violent, thereby contributing to ongoing repression. On November 11, 1886, four anarchist leaders were hanged; Louis Lingg had committed suicide hours before. Two hundred thousand people took part in the funeral procession, either lining the streets or marching behind the hearses.
As the crisis develops, workers need to arm themselves with a program that can answer their needs and aspirations. In doing so they need to reclaim May Day's tradition of struggle. May Day itself was born out of struggle. The fight for the 8-hour working day in the United States in the 1880s was the issue that gave birth to May Day as International Labor Day. In 1884 the Convention of the Federation of Organized Trades raised a resolution that was to act as a beacon to the whole working class: "that eight hours shall constitute a legal days labor from and after 1st May 1886". This call was taken up by the Labor movement with the creation of Eight Hour Leagues, which rung significant concessions out of the bosses, and witnessed the doubling of trade union membership.
Shortly after the Chicago tragedy of May 1886, which became known thereafter as international workers day, workers representatives set up the Second (Socialist) International in 1889, under the banner of workers' internationalism. A key resolution of the Congress was that on every May Day workers in every country would strike and demonstrate for the 8-hour day. On May 1,1890 workers struck all over Europe, with 100,000 demonstrating in Barcelona, 120,000 in Stockholm, 8,000 in Warsaw, while thousands stayed at home in Austria and Hungary where demonstrations were banned. Strikes spread throughout Italy and France. Ten workers were shot dead in Northern France. In the words of the Austrian Social Democratic leader, Adler, "Entire layers of the working class with which we would otherwise have made no contact, have been shaken out of their lethargy."
In Britain and Germany, huge demonstrations were held on the Sunday following May Day. The importance of these developments was not lost on Frederick Engels, the lifelong comrade of Karl Marx, who had lived through the long period of quiescence in the British Labor movement after the great Chartists days of the 1840s. He wrote enthusiastically about May Day: "more than 100,000 in a column, on 4th May 1890, the English working class joined up in the great international army, its long winter sleep broken at last. The grandchildren of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle." Yet again, a great tradition of international labor was "made in the USA".
The rise of American capitalism as a world power in the last decades of the 19th century was marked by a sharp upturn of the productive forces, booming industries and high profits that permitted certain concessions to the upper layer of the working class in the skilled trades. This "labor aristocracy" formed the basis of the kind of craft unionism typified by the AFL.
In 1881, six prominent unions, the printers, iron and steel workers, molders, cigar-makers, carpenters and glassworkers met together with other groups to launch the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU), led by Samuel Gompers and Adolph Strasser. With only 45,000 members, it was initially weak and overshadowed by the Knights of Labor. But on the basis of the booming economy, the tendency towards class collaborationism gathered ground. In the 1880s the tendency of "practical trade unionism" or "pure and simple unionism" gained ground at the expense of the Knights of Labor who, by 1890, had only 100,000 members. The strength of the AFL - as it later became - was primarily in the crafts already named. It began with a membership of around 138,000 in 1886 and slowly doubled that number in the next twelve years. Samuel Gompers, a real bosses' man, was elected first president and held onto the position until his death in 1924.
The rise of this so-called trade unionism "pure and simple" was no accident, but flowed from the material conditions at that time. In the exceptionally privileged position of US capitalism, which was already beginning to challenge Britain's position as the main industrial power by the beginning of the 20th century, concessions could be given to buy off the labor aristocracy. A similar situation led to the national-reformist degeneration of the labor and Social Democratic organizations in Britain, France and Germany in the years before 1914. From 1900 to 1904, the membership of the AFL went from half a million to a million and a half, and then to two million on the eve of the First World War. During and immediately following the War, membership again increased rapidly to more than four million in 1920. During this period, an estimated 70 to 80 percent of all unionized workers in the USA were in the AFL.
However, the great strength of the unions was accompanied by a process of bureaucratic degeneration at the top. In this period the basis was laid for the policies of class collaboration and non-political, that is for yellow, trade unionism that has characterized the leadership of the AFL ever since. Leaders like Gompers and Meany accommodated themselves to capitalism, preaching the unity of interest between Capital and Labor - which is like preaching the unity of interest between horse and rider. Meanwhile, the vast majority of American workers remained unorganized, unrepresented and oppressed.
Moreover, the class collaboration views of the AFL leaders were not at all shared by the bosses, who viewed the growth of trade unionism with alarm. Caroll Dougherty writes in his book Labor Problems in American Industry:
"Most of the powerful ones [employers], believing that unionism was growing too strong and fearing further encroachments on their control of industry, decided to break off relations, and in the years from 1912 to World War 1, were characterized by a definitely increasing anti-unionism. […]
"Scientific management and 'efficiency' systems were introduced in many plants, much to the discomfiture of many skilled craft unions. A variety of union-smashing tactics were adopted by employers. Vigilante groups and citizens' committees were fostered to resist unionization activities. Court decisions upheld as a rule most of the employers' anti-union practices. In the face of these new difficulties, the membership of the AFL at first fell off a little and then resumed growth at a much slower rate than before 1902."
This is the eternal contradiction of reformist politics in general - that it produces results that are the exact opposite to those intended. The compromising attitude of the labor leaders always leads to a hardening of attitudes on the part of the employers: weakness invites aggression.
If you ever visit Moscow and take a stroll around the Kremlin walls, you will find among the tombs of famous Russian revolutionaries the graves of two outstanding Americans - "Big" Bill Haywood and John Reed, the celebrated American writer and journalist who was the central character of the movie Reds. John Reed, who was active in the American labor and socialist movement before the First World War is best remembered for his marvelous book about the Russian Revolution Ten Days that Shook the World, which Lenin himself described as a most truthful account of the October revolution. After Trotsky's monumental History of the Russian Revolution it is the best book one could read about this subject.
But John Reed was by no means an exception. In the stormy years before and after the First World War, the labor movement in the USA was alive and vibrant. This was a period of giants - like Eugene Debs, the "grand old man" of U.S. labor. Born in Terre Haute, Ind., Debs left home at 14 to work in the railroad shops. As a locomotive fireman, he became an early advocate of industrial unionism, and was elected president of the American Railway Union in 1893. His involvement in the Pullman Strike led to a six-month prison term in 1895. In 1898 he helped found the U.S. Socialist Party; he would run as its presidential candidate five times (1900-20). In 1905 he helped found the Industrial Workers of the World. Debs was charged with sedition in 1918 after denouncing the 1917 Espionage Act; he conducted his last presidential campaign from prison, winning 915,000 votes, before being released by presidential order in 1921.
The most significant development of this period, however, was the formation of the IWW. In 1905 a handful of the nation's most radical political and labor figures met in Chicago. Featuring Big Bill Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners and Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party, the group aimed to ignite a grassroots fire that would sweep the nation and pull down an evil and unjust system, brick by brick.
During the early 1900s, mass production industries had expanded rapidly. Most of the workers in these industries lacked union representation. The AFL opposed unionizing these largely unskilled or semi-skilled workers, arguing that such attempts would fail. This view was challenged - successfully - by one of the most extraordinary militant union movements ever seen in any country. The Industrial Workers of the World (the I.W.W.), also known by their nickname of Wobblies- would prove to be the most radical and militant movement in the nation's labor history.
The IWW, engaged in militant action in the years before the war. Led by larger-than-life figures like Joe Hill and Big Bill Haywood, the "Wobblies" succeeded in organizing layers of the working class that had never been organized. They were free from all routinism, reformist prejudices and craft narrowness, and approached the class struggle with enthusiasm and verve. Fresh from his acquittal on murder charges in Idaho, Bill Haywood soon became a driving force for the IWW. Convinced that the Western Federation of Miners was not the answer, Haywood wanted the IWW to represent all workers in one big union - and to bring that union into a head-on clash with the centers of power in America.
The ideas of the IWW were a peculiar and colorful mixture of anarco-syndicalism and Marxism. At its founding convention in 1905, it adopted a preamble that was a stirring statement of the class struggle: "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things.
"Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political, as well as the industrial, field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor, through an economic organization of the working class without affiliation with any political party."
The IWW declared war on the kind of narrow craft unionism represented by the AFL:
"The rapid gathering of wealth and the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands make the trade unions unable to cope with the ever-growing power of the employing class, because the trade unions foster a state of things which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in the wage wars."
The answer of the IWW was to fight for the principle of industrial unionism under their famous slogan One Big Union. In combating craft narrowness and fighting to organize all workers in one union, they were undoubtedly on the right lines, and although their policies were distorted by some anarco-syndicalist prejudices, they led the way with militant class politics. In 1908 they approved another preamble, which ended with a call for the abolition of capitalism:
"Instead of the conservative motto 'A fair day's pay for a fair day's work', we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wage system'.
"It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for the everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the old."
In reality, the organizations of the labor movement in the USA and every other country are just that: the embryo of the new society that has taken shape and is slowly maturing in the womb of the old. That is why the capitalists have historically shown such bitter hostility to the unions and try to destroy, by one means or another, any attempt of the workers to organize in defense of their class interests. The IWW, uniting in its ranks the most advanced, resolute and revolutionary elements of the American working class, led a series of militant strikes before the First World War, in the teeth of the most ferocious repression by the employers and their state. Among other mass actions, they organized a brilliantly successful strike by textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. The Wobblies used many varied weapons in their fight against Capital, including art, poetry and music. One of the participants in the Lawrence strike recalled:
"It is the first strike I ever saw which sang. I shall never forget the curious lift, the strange sudden fire of the mingled nationalities at the strike meetings when they broke into the universal language of song. And not only at the meetings did they sing, but in the soup houses and in the streets. I saw one group of women strikers who were peeling potatoes at a relief station suddenly break into the swing of the Internationale. They have a whole book of sings fitted to familiar tunes - The Eight Hour Song, The Banners of Labor, Workers, Shall the Masters Rule Us? But the favorite was the Internationale." (Ray Stannard Baker, The Revolutionary Strike, in The American Magazine, May, 1912.)
The IWW also used that most devastating proletarian weapon, particularly important in the United States: humor. This is a good example:
"On one occasion a non-union man entered a butcher's shop to purchase a calf's head. As the butcher was about to wrap it up for him the customer noticed the union shop card.
"'Say, is that a union calf's head?' he asked.
"'Yes, sir,' answered the butcher.
"'Well, I'm not a union man and I don't want union meat,' said the customer.
"'I can make it non-union,' said the meat man, picking it up and retiring to the back room. He returned in a few minutes and laid the head on the counter with the remark, 'It's all right now.'
"'What did you do to make it non-union?' asked the prospective buyer.
"'I just took the brains out of it.'"
"Tomorrow I expect to take a trip to the planet Mars and, if so, will immediately commence to organize the Mars canal workers into the IWW and we will learn to sing the good old songs so loud that the learned star-gazers on earth will once and for all get positive proof that the planet Mars is really inhabited […] I have nothing to say for myself only that I have always tried to make this earth a little better for the great producing class, and I can pass off into the great unknown with the pleasure of knowing that I have never in my life double-crossed a man, woman or child." (Joe Hill to editor Ben Williams, Solidarity, October 9, 1915.)
On November 19, 1915, a 33 year-old Wobbly writer was executed by a firing squad in the prison yard of the Utah State Penitentiary, framed on a murder charge. Thus ended the life of one of the most extraordinary figures of the history of American labor - Joe Hill.
Joe Hill was born in Gavle, Sweden, on 7 October 1879, Joe Hill, also known as Joseph Hillstrom and Joel Hagglund, was an American labor songwriter and martyr who immigrated to the lower east side Bowery section of New York City via Ellis Island in 1902. His naive idealism about American society was soon shattered by the harsh conditions and exploitation of immigrant workers that he witnessed. He became an itinerant laborer, working in mines, the lumber industry, and as a longshoreman. He also developed skills as a hobo, traveling on freight trains and living off the land.
He joined the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies) around the year 1910 and became the Wobbly bard, showing tremendous ability as a poet and songwriter. He was the author of dozens of Wobbly songs, which were printed on song cards and published in the Industrial Worker, Solidarity and in the IWW's little red songbook. These songs were based on his personal experience of the lives of the ordinary working people of his day. His most famous songs, including Rebel Girl, The Preacher and the Slave, and Casey Jones, became world-famous and were used in labor organizing drives and in rallies supporting strikes. They were not written only for amusement. They were weapons of struggle.
Joe Hill arrived in Utah in 1913 and found employment in the Park City mines while becoming acquainted with the Swedish community in Murray, Utah. In 1914 he was accused of the murder of a Salt Lake City storeowner, John A. Morrison, and convicted on circumstantial evidence. There ensued an international battle to prevent his execution by the State of Utah. Hill's supporters claimed that the business interests of the West, especially the Copper Bosses of Utah, had conspired to eliminate him. What exactly happened can never be ascertained. The bosses used all manner of dirty methods against the labor movement but were always careful to cover their tracks. What is undeniable is that the climate of opinion in the West and in Utah was decidedly hostile to the IWW and to Joe Hill and he never got a fair trial. Under today's laws, Joe Hill would not have been executed on the evidence presented at his trial. President Woodrow Wilson intervened twice in an attempt to prevent the execution, but Hill was executed at the Utah State Prison in Sugar House, Utah, on November 19, 1915.
Since Hill's execution, he has become a folk hero and labor martyr, a symbol of the American revolutionary tradition and the quest for economic and social justice for society's disadvantaged. One of his final statements, "Don't mourn, organize!" has become a labor-rallying cry. There can be few more moving human documents in world literature than Joe Hill's Last Will, written while he was awaiting execution in the condemned cell:
"My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to decide.
My kin don't need to fuss and moan -
'Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.
"My body? - Oh! - If I could choose,
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.
"Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will.
Good luck to all of you.
There have been many attempts to portray Hill's life in different media over the years; biographies, novels, songs, plays, and movies have been written about him. I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson has become an American folk song of enduring quality. Today the songs of Joe Hill, the wobbly bard, class fighter and martyr of the American labor movement, are known, loved, and sung around the world.
Literature and revolution
Joe Hill showed how music and poetry could be powerful weapons in the class struggle. His example was followed by others, including the great Woody Guthrie. The beloved "dust bowl" and "hobo" folksinger, established a new genre of radical folk song that marries the best traditions of the songs of the American West with revolutionary class politics. Spokesperson of the working class, one of greatest American songwriters of any genre, and a continued influence on musicians today, especially singers and songwriters like Bob Dylan. Although most Americans know the song "This Land is Your Land", few know that it is a socialist song - as the song says - "this land was made for you and me"!
It is a shame that many young Americans today are unaware that there was a great American tradition of left wing writers, starting with Jack London who was a committed and active socialist. Jack London, at his peak, was the highest paid and the most popular of all living writers. He is best known as author of wildlife novels Call of the Wild and White Fang, which remain popular with young readers. But how many have ever read his inspiring essays such as War of the Classes, Revolution, and How I became a Socialist One of the most interesting is the autographical sketch called What Life Means to Me:
"So I went back to the working-class, in which I had been born and where I belonged. I care no longer to climb. The imposing edifice of society above my head holds no delights for me. It is the foundation of the edifice that interests me. There I am content to labor, crowbar in hand, shoulder to shoulder with intellectuals, idealists, and class-conscious workingmen, getting a solid pry now and again and setting the whole edifice rocking. Some day, when we get a few more hands and crowbars to work, we'll topple it over, along with all its rotten life and unburied dead. Its monstrous selfishness and sodden materialism. Then we'll cleanse the cellar and build a new habitation for mankind, in which there will be no parlor floor, in which all the rooms will be bright and airy, and where the air that is breathed will be clean, noble, and alive.
"Such is my outlook. I look forward to a time when man shall progress upon something worthier and higher than his stomach, when there will be a incentive to impel men to action than the incentive of to-day, which is the incentive of stomach. I retain my belief in the nobility and excellence of the human. I believe that spiritual sweetness and unselfishness will conquer the gross gluttony of today. And last of all, my faith is in the working-class. As some Frenchman as said, 'The stairway of time is ever echoing with the wooden shoe going up, the polished boot descending'."
One of Jack London's most remarkable works is his novel the Iron Heel, which both Lenin and Trotsky admired. In it he predicts the rise of fascism and depicts the heroic struggle of the American workers for socialism - long before the Russian Revolution and the rise of Hitler proved how eerily accurate he was.
"In reading it," states Trotsky in his introduction, "one does not believe his own eyes: it is precisely the picture of fascism, of its economy, of its government technique, its political psychology! The fact is incontestable: in 1907 Jack London already foresaw and described the fascist regime as the inevitable result of the defeat of the proletarian revolution. Whatever may be the single 'errors' of the novel - and they exist - we cannot help inclining before the powerful intuition of the revolutionary artist."
John Steinbeck, author of novels depicting the lives and struggles of ordinary working Americans during the Great Depression - The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, of Mice and Men. The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, when America had still not emerged from the Great Depression and millions were living in dire poverty. John Steinbeck's poignant description of the conditions of the hungry and downtrodden, and their struggle to maintain human dignity, won him the Pulitzer in 1940. In this novel Steinbeck vividly describes the ruthlessness of the big corporations that sent in the bulldozers to demolish the smallholdings and cabins that represented so much hope and so many years of labor. Men, women and children were evicted overnight and transformed from small farmers into propertyless vagrants.
The most remarkable thing about this novel is that it does not seem to be a description of the masses written from without. The author has succeeded in getting under the skin of the "Oakies", and expressing, in their own words and language the innermost thoughts, feelings and aspirations of the people. Here, for example, is how they see the police:
"'What'd the deputy say?' Huston asked.
"'Well, the deputy got mad. An' he says: "You goddamn reds is all the time stirrin' up trouble," he says. "You better come along with me." So he takes this little guy in, an' they give him sixty days in jail for vagrancy.'
"'How'd they do that if he had a job?' asked Timothy Wallace.
The tubby man laughed. 'You know better'n that,' he said. 'You know a vagrant is anybody a cop don't like. An' that's why they hate this here camp. No cops can get in. This here's United States, not California'."
Tom Joad expressed the voice of the underdog: "They're a-workin' away at our spirits. They're a tryin' to make us cringe an' crawl like a whipped bitch. They tryin' to break us. Why, Jesus Christ, Ma, they comes a time when the on'y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin' a sock at a cop. They're workin' on our decency."
There were many other great American socialist novels. Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle is a vivid exposure of conditions in the stockyards and slaughterhouses of America, ending with an uncompromisingly socialist message, its root-and-branch condemnation of capitalism that still reads well today, and its depiction of the appalling conditions of the workers in the slaughterhouses:
"There was no heat upon the killing beds; the men might exactly as well have worked out of doors all winter. For that matter, there was very little heat anywhere in the building, except in the cooking rooms and such places - and it was the men who worked in these who ran the most risk of all because whenever they had to pass to another room they had to go through ice-cold corridors, and sometimes with nothing on above the waist except a sleeveless undershirt. On the killing beds you were apt to be covered with blood, and it would freeze solid; if you leaned against a pillar, you would freeze to that, and if you put your hand upon the blade of your knife, you would run a chance of leaving your skin on it. The men would tie up their feet in newspapers and old sacks, and these would be soaked in blood and frozen, and the soaked again, and so on, until by night-time a man would be walking on great lumps the size of the feet of an elephant. Now and then, when the bosses were not looking, you would see them plunging their feet and ankles into the steaming hot carcass of the steer, or darting across the room to the hot-water jets. The cruelest thing of all was that nearly all of them - all of those who used knives - were unable to wear gloves, and their arms would be white with frost and the hands would grow numb, and then, of course, there would be accidents. Also the air would be full of steam, from the hot water and the hot blood, so that you could not see five feet before you; and then, with men rushing about at the speed they kept up on the killing beds and with butcher's knives, like razors, in their hands - well, it was to be counted as a wonder that there were not more men slaughtered than cattle."
Last, but by no means least, we have John dos Passos' USA. This American literary masterpiece comprises three novels The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money. The second of these novels expresses with extraordinary vividness the nature and atmosphere of the period that followed the Russian Revolution. It is an extraordinary work, written in a highly original form, combining newspaper headlines and telegraphic episodes with real-life and fictional stories that really gives a flavor of the times. Let us take a couple of examples. The notorious Versailles Treaty that set the seal on Germany's defeat in 1919 was put together by the USA, Britain and France. As an example of cynical power politics and imperialist robbery it is perhaps without parallel. With the sureness of touch of a master artist, dos Passos conveys the essence of the wheeling and dealing of the great power and the sheer hypocrisy of the leaders of the "civilized Christian world":
Three old men shuffling the pack,
dealing out the cards:
Rhineland, Danzig, the Polish Corridor, the Ruhr, self-determination of small nations, the Saar, League of Nations, mandates, the Mespot, Freedom of the Seas, Transjordania, Shantung, Fiume, and the Island of Yap:
machinegun fire and arson
starvation, lice, cholera, typhus;
oil was trumps. […]"
"On June 28 the Treaty of Versailles was ready and Wilson had to go back home to explain to the politicians, who'd been ganging up on him meanwhile in the Senate and House, and to sober public opinion and to his father's God how he'd let himself be trimmed and how far he'd made the world safe for democracy and the New Freedom."
Whether it is Germany in 1919 or Iraq in 2002, the diplomatic representatives of great powers never admit that their activities are dictated by crude economic interests (oil was - and is - trumps), but their motivations are always pure and noble ("making the world safe for democracy"). And just as the monstrous Treaty of Versailles, which was supposed to make the world safe for peace, made the world a lot more unsafe and guaranteed the Second World War, so the present wars waged by the USA in Afghanistan and Iraq to "make the world a safer place" only render it far more unstable, unsafe and dangerous than before. George W. Bush also believes fervently in the God of his fathers, to whom he prays while ordering the bombing of Iraqi cities and inflicting machine-gun fire, arson, starvation and disease on millions of people. Meanwhile, behind all the rhetoric, oil is still trumps.
The description of the class struggle in the USA in the stormy years after the First World War is outstanding in its raw and uncompromising realism. These were the years when the bosses and the government, fearing the effect of the Russian revolution on the American working class resorted to the methods of lynch law and mob rule to crush the labor movement. The true story of the brutal lynching of War veteran and Wobbly Wesley Everett is one of the most moving episodes of the book.
"Armistice Day was raw and cold; the mist rolled in from Puget Sound and dripped from the dark boughs of the spruces and the shiny storefronts of the town. Warren O. Grimm commanded the Centralia section of the parade. The ex-soldiers were in their uniforms. When the parade passed by the union hall without halting, the loggers inside breathed easier, but on the way back the parade halted in front of the hall. Somebody whistled through his fingers. Somebody yelled, 'Let's go … at 'em boys'. They ran towards the wobbly hall. Three men crashed through the door. A rifle spoke. Rifles cracked on the hills back of the town, roared in the back of the hall.
"Grimm and an ex-soldier were hit.
"The parade broke in disorder, but the men with rifles formed again and rushed the hall. They found a few unarmed men hiding in an old icebox, a boy in the stairs with his arms over his head. Wesley
"Everest shot the magazine of his rifle out, dropped it and ran for the woods. As he ran he broke through the crowd in the back of the hall, held them off with a blue automatic, scaled a fence, doubled down an alley and through the back street. The mob followed. They dropped the coils of rope they with them to lynch Britt Smith the IWW secretary. It was Wesley Everest's drawing them off that Kept them from lynching Britt Smith right there.
"Stopping once or twice to hold the mob off with some scattered 'shots, Wesley Everest ran for the river, started to wade across, up to his waist in water he stopped and turned.
"Wesley Everest turned to face the mob with a funny quiet smile on his face. He'd lost his hat and his hair dripped with water and sweat. They started to rush him.
"'Stand back,' he shouted, 'if there's bulls* [* police] in the crowd I'll submit to arrest.'
"The mob was at him. He shot from the hip four times, then his gun jammed. He tugged at the trigger, and taking cool aim shot the foremost of them dead. It was Dale Hubbard, another ex-soldier, nephew of one of the big lumbermen of Centralia.
"Then he threw his empty gun away and fought with his hands. The mob had him. A man bashed his teeth in with the butt of a shotgun. Somebody brought a rope and they started to hang him. A woman elbowed through the crowd and pulled the rope off his neck.
"'You haven't the guts to hang a man in the daytime' was what Wesley Everest said.
"They took him to the jail and threw him on the floor. Meanwhile they were putting the other loggers through the third degree.
"That night the city lights were turned off. A mob smashed in the outer door of the jail. 'Don't shoot, boys, here's your man,' said the guard. Wesley Everest met them on his feet, 'Tell the boys I did my best,' he whispered to the men in the other cells.
"They took him off in a limousine to the Chehalis River Bridge. As Wesley Everest lay stunned in the bottom of the car, a Centralia businessman cut his penis and testicles off with a razor. Wesley Everest gave a great scream of pain. Somebody has remembered that after a while he whispered, 'For God's sake, men, shoot me … don't let me suffer like this. Then they hanged him from the bridge in the glare headlights."
Having described this bloody lynching in merciless detail, dos Passos reverts to a cold and crushing irony:
"The coroner at his inquest thought it was a great joke. He reported that Wesley Everest had broken out of jail and run to the Chehalis River Bridge and tied a rope around his neck and jumped off, finding the rope too short he'd climbed and fastened on a longer one, had jumped off again, broke his neck and shot himself full of holes.
"They jammed the mangled wreckage into a packing box and buried it.
"Nobody knows where they buried the body of Wesley Everest, but the six loggers they caught they buried in Walla Walla Penitentiary."
The CIO and the sit-in strikes
"The American Plan; automotive prosperity seeping down
From above; it turned out there were strings to it.
But that five dollars a day
paid to good, clean American workmen
who didn't drink or smoke cigarettes or read or think,
and who didn't commit adultery
and whose wives didn't take in boarders,
made America once more the Yukon of the sweated
workers of the world;
made all the tin lizzies and the automotive age, and
made Henry Ford the automobilieer, the admirer of Edison,
the great American of his time." (John dos Passos, The Big Money.)
The so-called "golden twenties" witnessed a boom that was very similar to the boom of the 1990s through which we have just passed. Production soared to dizzy heights, the stock exchange still higher. On September 1, 1929, noting with satisfaction that the number of strikes in the USA had gone down from 3,789 in 1916 to 629 in 1928, AFL President William Green asserted that "collective bargaining is coming to be accepted more and more as a preventative of labor disputes."
As a matter of fact, the boom of the 1920s, like any other boom under capitalism, was based on the super-exploitation of the working class. Workers in the mass production industries - steel, auto, rubber, textiles, oil, chemicals, etc., - were unorganized, atomized and at the mercy of the employers. They were deprived of all rights and open to the most vicious kind of exploitation.
These were years of violent class struggle in the USA. As Art Preis recalled in his book Labor's Giant Step: "Almost all picket lines were crushed with bloody violence by police, deputies, troops and armed professional strikebreakers." The mass demonstrations of unemployed workers organized by the Communist Party were broken up violently by the police, with many jailed, wounded or killed. On March 7, 1932 a demonstration of unemployed demanding work at the Ford Rouge Plant was dispersed with machine-guns, leaving four dead and many wounded. On the direct orders of President Hoover, General Douglas MacArthur, riding a white horse at the head of his troops, attacked a demonstration of 25,000 unemployed war veterans and their families with tear gas, gunfire and bayonets. Such "incidents" were common throughout the 1930s - including under Roosevelt's "New Deal". In 1937, for example, ten people were killed and 80 wounded in a Memorial Day clash between police and members of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee at a plant of the Republican Steel Co. in South Chicago.
Following the Great Crash of 1929, the bosses launched on a program of savage wage cuts. The AFL responded by announcing no-strike deals. This was supposed to be the result of a "gentleman's agreement" between the unions and the bosses. But in practice the unions conceded everything, the bosses nothing. In June-July 1930, 60 corporations and industries announced wage cuts, and the AFL did nothing about it. The result was a rapid decline in union membership. By 1931 the AFL was losing 7,000 members a week, and from a high of 4,029,000 in 1920 to 2,127,000 in 1933. This is a fitting epitaph on the supposedly "realistic" policies of "unionism pure and simple".
Several AFL unions, however, established the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) to organize the unorganized industries. This organization effort had great success in the rubber, steel, and automobile industries. The internal dispute over organizing these industries continued and, in 1938, the AFL expelled the unions, which formed the CIO. The expelled unions established their own federation changing its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. John L. Lewis, of the United Mine Workers, became the organization's first president.
The formation of the CIO was labor's giant step. Overnight the unorganized were organized. It is not generally realized that the Trotskyists - especially in Minneapolis - helped lead the big Teamsters strikes, which led to the formation of the CIO. People like Farrell Dobbs played a key role, all the more extraordinary given that he had previously voted Republican. As a result of the experience of the class struggle he went straight from Republicanism to revolution. This little detail shows how fast moods can change.
Most people believe that it was the French workers who invented the method of factory occupations during the 1930's. Not so! The American workers in the early 1930s developed a powerful movement known in the USA as the sit-down strikes. It involved employees going to their workplaces and then refusing to work. That is a factory occupation in all but name. The first successful sit-down strike happened in Flint, Michigan in 1937 when the United Auto Workers at a GM factory stopped production. This controversial method proved effective, yet controversial among management and some labor leaders. In the first large sit-down strike the United Rubber Workers (CIO) won recognition from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. But not every strike ended in victory. The five week long "Little Steel" strike was broken when Inland Steel workers returned to work without even having won union recognition.
The unions after 1945
The traditions of the CIO in its early years are something that the new generation of young Americans should take time out to study. They were reflected very poorly in the big Hollywood movie Hoffa, and much better in the earlier and lesser-known film called FIST - the only decent film Sylvester Stallone ever made. The main thing to see is that this is not ancient history. The class struggle did not cease in the 1930s but has continued, with ebbs and flows, ever since. The American workers have always had a good union tradition, and as a matter of fact, the number of strikes actually increased in the years after the Second World War. From 1936 through 1955, there was a staggering total of 78,798 strikes in the United States, involving 42,366,000 strikers. The breakdown was as follows:
Number of Strikes and Strikers (By decades)
|Number of Strikes
|Number of Strikers
|3 952 000
|15 856 000
|26 510 000
In 1949 there were major strikes in the coal and steel industries; 1952, was a year of coal and steel strikes; and 1959, the year of the 116-day steel strike, the largest strike of all time in the United States as measured by total man-days on strike. In order to curb union militancy, the bosses and the government introduced the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.
Big business and its state were, and remain, bitterly hostile to trade unionism. Although unions are no longer illegal, the state does not hesitate to invoke anti-union legislation whenever it suits the bosses to do so. The national emergency machinery provided under the Taft-Hartley Act for the investigation of disputes threatening to "imperil national health or safety" was invoked by the President in 23 situations from the time of its enactment in 1947 through 1963.
This is not ancient history. Taft-Hartley is alive and well and still used for busting unions in the USA. President Ronald Reagan fired most of the nation's air traffic controllers for striking illegally and ordered their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association, decertified. 13,000 air traffic controllers defied the return-to-work order. Subsequently 400,000 unionists participated in the largest labor rally in American history which was held in Washington in protest against the policies of the Reagan administration. More recently still, George W. Bush used Taft-Hartley against the Longshoremen.
In addition, there are other laws that are regularly invoked by the legal establishment to prevent the workers from using their legitimate right to strike. In the war between Labor and Capital, the state is not impartial now any more than it was in the past! The fight for union rights, against unjust anti-union laws is a burning need for the American working class. This fact also shows the utter futility of trying to separate trade unionism from politics.
If anyone believes the class struggle is dead in the USA I advise him or her to look at experience of such strikes as the miners' strike of 1989. In April of that year the United Mine Workers (UMW) called a strike against the Pittston Coal Group for unfair labor practices. These miners had worked 14 months without a contract before the UMW called the strike. Among the practices cited by UMW were the discontinuing of medical benefits for pensioners, widows, and the disabled; refusal to contribute to a benefit trust established in 1950 for miners who retired before 1974; and refusing to bargain in good faith. Miners in Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia struck against Pittston.
The miners and their families engaged in an inspiring civil disobedience campaign against the company. In the time-honored tradition of the American bosses, the strike was met with calculated violence, as state troopers were called out to arrest striking miners. The miners fought back courageously with dynamite. Despite the enormous importance of this strike, the "free press" of the USA made practically no mention of it, preferring to give a great deal of coverage to another miners' strike - in Russia!
The movement of the American working class to fight for its own interests continues - as the recent disputes of the UPS and the Longshoremen shows very clearly. If there have not been more strikes and if the living standards and conditions of the workers have not kept pace with the huger increase in profits, it was due to a failure of the leadership of the unions, not the workers. In recent years the trade unions have hit difficulties as a result of this. As in other countries, the unions in the United States have become heavily bureaucratized and the leaders were out of touch with the problems of ordinary workers.
The rundown of heavy industries in the North and East - the traditional base of unionism - has led to a fall in membership. Yet the leadership proved incapable of responding to the challenge posed by Big Business to the union movement. With the development of new industries in the South and West, millions of workers in the United States are now unorganized. The task of organizing them into unions is perhaps the most pressing need at the present time. In order to solve this problem, the unions must go back to their roots, to the militant traditions of the CIO when they organized the unorganized in the stormy years of the 1930s. When that happens, we shall discover that those formerly inert and "backward" layers will be among the most militant and revolutionary in the whole union movement.
The unions have always been the basic organizations of the class. They are like the front line in the defense of the most basic rights of the working class. Without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism, the socialist transformation of society would be utopia. Therefore the struggle to transform the unions, to democratize them at all levels and make them genuinely responsive to the wishes and aspirations of working people, to turn them into genuine organs of struggle, is a prior condition for the fight for a socialist America, in which the unions will play the role that was envisaged for them by the pioneers of Labor - as the basic organizations for running the economy in an industrial democracy.