by K. Wilson
This article is part II of a three-part critique of solidarity unionism. It follows Solidarity Unionism I: Two Questions for Solidarity Unionism.
The half century from 1900 to 1950 was the formative period of industrial unionism. It was also a time of disappointed radical hopes. At the turn of the century, revolutionary enthusiasm ran high across the industrialized world. With mass production exploding, urban working classes growing restless, socialist parties on the rise, and imperialist powers careering toward war, it was easy to believe that the mounting tensions would be too much for the capitalist system to bear, and that social revolution was immanent.
The following fifty years would be filled with intense class struggle, but the end result was not revolution but something much more confusing: class compromise. By mid-century the workers’ movement had won many of its socialistic demands. But these gains would not be administered directly by the working class, but instead through a tight alliance of bureaucratic labor institutions, corporations, and the state. The 1950 Treaty of Detroit epitomized the moment: the UAW secured rising wages and generous benefits for its members, but in return it conceded the company’s “right to manage”.
How had this happened? What ‘went wrong’? This question is not only important to historians. How we interpret the events of this half century has direct ramifications for how well we are able to understand our own situation, and how we try to organize today.
One way of interpreting this period in US labor history has recently been tied to the concept of “solidarity unionism”. This view may be summarized as follows. 1 In the early 1930s, before the CIO, an “alternative unionism” of rank and file workers briefly thrived. It was egalitarian, democratic, and effective at signing up members. But it failed. Why? Essentially, we are told, because of error and betrayal within the labor movement. Well-meaning but misguided organizers and intellectuals convinced workers to put faith in high-level negotiations and government mediation; the Communist Party waffled, pursuing dual-unionist and other ill-conceived strategies; and most fatefully, union leaders like Philip Murray and John L. Lewis deliberately stifled independent worker activity, sacrificing worker democracy in the name of “industrial peace”. The end result was that, by mid-century, the promising self-organization of the rank and file had been displaced and destroyed by the business unions.
But now that these business unions are on their way out, so this story continues, organizers have a chance to try again. As we do so, we must above all take care not to repeat the old mistakes. How do we do this? By mining the past, sifting through case histories and separating the strategies and organizational forms used by the early solidarity unionists from the ones associated with the rise of business unionism. In this way, we build up a sort of solidarity unionism tool kit for use in struggles today.
While this approach sounds very reasonable, so far it hasn’t led to much in the way of positive theories of movement-building. Rather, in practice it has tended to result in a narrow sort of pragmatism, guided by a feeling that it is both unnecessary and dangerous to work toward goals like winning contracts, supporting full-time organizers, and building unions with permanent activities beyond whatever struggles are going on at any given time. No doubt this means that we run little risk of recreating the ‘top-down’ bureaucratic unions of the past ourselves. But if these are the limits of our vision, it also means that we won’t be able to accomplish much at all – and we risk leaving the job of real organizing to people who have no such scruples, who don’t care so much about worker initiative and democracy. It is therefore important to ask ourselves whether this way of looking at history is correct.
The most conspicuous weakness of the “alternative unionism” narrative is that it tends to exaggerate the spontaneous and leaderless character of the struggles it holds up as examples, as well as downplaying the extent to which participants strove for and saw as necessary the kinds of formal agreements and institutions that would later become means of bypassing worker democracy. But this is not just a matter of careless scholarship. As long as we have no way of understanding the triumph of business unionism except as the result of bad organizing practices, it is hard to avoid drawing a sharper line than actually existed between the supposedly good and bad decisions of organizers. The real trouble is a failure to place the events of this period within the development of the capitalist system as a whole. We need to step back and ask, why did efforts to build working class institutions in the early 20th century lead to integration into capitalism, rather than a movement to overthrow capitalism? The answer is more complicated than the “solidarity unionism” framework allows.
First of all, the labor unrest of this period did not signify quite what revolutionaries hoped. Workers’ solidarity and ability to self-organize grew out of their participation in the ethnic, religious, and familial relationships and institutions that held life together in the new urban working class neighborhoods. These also provided crucial material and social support for labor struggles. But this was a knife that cut both ways. As much as capitalism exploited and threatened these traditional forms of community, it also held out a promise of freedom from all the oppressive and impoverishing aspects of traditional life. As a result, workers’ struggles in this period had a contradictory character. They were pulled in three different directions, torn between the conservative desire to halt the disintegration of traditional, non-capitalist relations; the progressive desire to share in the prosperity and liberation promised by capitalism; and the radical desire to move beyond capitalism to a new world.
Meanwhile, the early 20th century crises of inter-imperialist war and depression did not signify the final decline of capitalism that revolutionaries had anticipated. The barriers to capital accumulation that lay behind these crises were far from absolute, and the system merely needed to be restructured in order to surmount them. Half the world still lay open, offering vast untapped markets and pools of labor ripe for exploitation. Even within the most developed regions there was much work left for capital to do, invading and breaking up all traditional institutions, replacing them with specifically capitalist relations, commodifying every sphere of life. This expansion, extensive and intensive, gave the state-industry alliance two powerful weapons for dealing with labor unrest: repression and concession. Most crucially, it turned out that capital could accommodate labor’s more moderate demands.
In one way or another, the ability of capitalism to generate prosperity and opportunity for a significant minority of workers was bound to meet up with the ambiguous character of worker unrest and result in class compromise. While in a sense it is true that workers were betrayed by CIO leaders and so on, this was more or less inevitable – capitalism simply had ample strength to win the war of legitimacy. Could more have been accomplished, if organizers were more principled, vigilant and far-sighted? Of course. Much more? Perhaps. Radically more? Probably not. 2 In retrospect we can see this half-century as the period in which the new working class was tumultuously integrated into capitalism, and capitalism was forced to partly socialize itself.
This interpretation of the rise of industrial unionism opens up new possibilities, because it invites us to ask how the capitalist system has developed in the past hundred years and how our situation today is therefore different. When we do this, we discover first that we will have to do things that organizers in the past did not have to do. In particular, we have to figure out how to fill the void left by the near-total disintegration of traditional culture and community in the developed world. 3 But once we do this, we will find that we are able to do things that were impossible in the past: we will be able to build a genuinely radical and democratic worker movement that is not corrupted and co-opted by capitalism. 4 But this movement will not just look like the “alternative unionism” of the past, writ large. We have to build institutions specifically suited to our own time. This task will be the subject of the next and final essay in this series.
- This summary is based on Staughton Lynd’s writings. See especially his introduction to the volume “We Are All Leaders” (1996), where he (following the other contributors to the volume) uses the terms “alternative unionism” and “community-based unionism” more or less interchangeably with “solidarity unionism”. Although Lynd’s narrative focuses on the early 1930s, he draws a parallel with earlier IWW organizing strategies. ↩
- If proof is needed of this, or if we want to imagine how much more might have been accomplished, we can look at the various versions of class compromise that were achieved by labor movements in the European countries. ↩
- This idea is developed in the essay Organizing in the Community, or the Organizing of Community? ↩
- Globalization has eroded the ability of capital to accommodate significant worker demands, so that capitalism is less and less able to provide prosperity even for a privileged minority. No longer pulled in three directions, the global working class more and more will have no choice but to look beyond capitalism. This idea is developed in the essay Global Capitalism in Crisis: What Next?. ↩