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The American Labor Movement in 1974:
Problems and Perspectives for the Left

Ken Lawrence, 1974


The following article was written, originally, as a speech, which I had intended to deliver at the National Lawyers Guild labor conference in Atlanta on March 22, 1974. But that didn't happen, because members of the agenda committee felt that it was "too much of a political line, and not enough practical information." (They were later criticized for this decision.)

Some of my friends, feeling that the information contained in the paper was important for the conference participants, labored the better part of the night to stencil and run off copies of the article for everyone. Under those circumstances, it was inevitable that small errors crept into the text, which also appeared in the April 1974 issue of the Guild's Labor Newsletter. I have taken this opportunity to correct them.

1. This also is my excuse for some, but not all, of the article's shortcomings. Obviously the notes for a twenty-minute speech differ considerably from what I would have written, had I intended originally to publish the article. For one thing, I would not have had to keep each discussion so short; for another, I would have achieved emphasis differently. But now that the article has developed something of a life and following of its own, I have not tampered with it except to correct typos and factual errors, none of which were very significant.

2. Mao Tse-tung says, "No investigation, no right to speak." All of the hostile criticism I have received not only fails to investigate the aspects of the labor movement that I discuss here; they imply that it is incorrect to undertake such an investigation. This type of criticism isn't worth answering — certainly not until it is published, at least.

3. Other criticism has been offered in a more serious vein. The biggest shortcoming that people seem to feel is that I failed to break down the financial statistics, union by union. People want to know if the United Mine Workers, for example, is as heavily involved in capitalist finance as, say, the United Steel Workers. Specifically, they want to know if there is a measurable correlation between the financial condition of a particular union and its militancy. So do I.

Finding answers to questions like these requires a great deal more investigation, which can only be undertaken in the Washington, DC, area. But anyone who can do it should be encouraged to do so; it is a very important task.

4. Another criticism that has merit is that I failed to commit myself — to make my prediction of what all this means. But I have challenged others to do so. Generally speaking, I would say that the period we are in now is similar in many ways to the situation that prevailed in the late twenties. At that time the official labor movement (the AFL) was bankrupt (to use William Z. Foster's term), though some important struggles were carried on by workers in AFL unions. In most cases, however, the really exemplary struggles were conducted by independent revolutionary unions: commonly the TUUL unions, but also the IWW and Musteite unions.

But that didn't mean that those organizations were "the answer," around which a perspective could evolve. The usual situation in which the red unions functioned was extremely repressive and/or isolated, which necessarily limited their effectiveness. But at the same time their very existence provided vital experience for the movement that really did represent the next stage of advance — the CIO.

Similarly, it would be a mistake to generate an overall organizational perspective from the peaks of the class struggle that we have seen in the past few years. These experiences all contain important lessons, which we must learn to the best of our abilities. But it would be a mistake to try to make the next stage of struggle correspond organizationally to any of the particular recent examples of working class insurgency.

Though the existing unions will inevitably be the battlegrounds for many of the struggles to come, it is safe to say that the next stage of struggle will lead either to their complete transformation, or else, more likely, to their replacement. They will not be "captured" by the rank and file.

5. Finally, in my discussion of the special features of the South, which was inexcusably brief, I failed to indicate one of the most important facts of all: the labor that capitalists are seeking is Black, and they are locating in the South to get it, but they are willing to set up shop only in white-majority counties.

The meaning of this should be fully examined, as soon as possible — particularly from the historic standpoint and especially the lessons of Slavery, the Freedom War, and Reconstruction.

December 1, 1974


This paper is an attempt to analyze some aspects of modern capitalism, and particularly of the modern labor movement, which are new — which have never been faced before. I have stressed these aspects at the expense of others which have undergone less change, in order to unearth the areas in which I believe the left must unload some of its old baggage if it is to be relevant to the coming American revolution.

Some will pay no attention, and will answer by reciting their favorite lines from Left Wing Communism. Those I answer as follows: The bourgeoisie has learned a great deal since 1920. Were Lenin alive today, he would have learned a great deal too. I see no good reason why today's communists and progressives cannot engage in a serious discussion of revolutionary perspectives based on today's realities.


The last AFL-CIO convention was held October 18-23, 1973 in Bal Harbour, Florida. Despite the call for Nixon's resignation or impeachment, the AFL-CIO's reactionary reality wasn't even slightly concealed. As one indication, the convention upheld George Meany's suspension of the Colorado Labor Council for having endorsed George McGovern for president in opposition to George Meany's pro-Nixon "neutrality."

Its traditional support for imperialism was underscored by the favorable response given to Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger, the only Administration official to address the convention. Delegates enthusiastically adopted a pro-Israel resolution calling on the U.S. government to provide an airlift of military supplies and equipment. Even Cesar Chavez joined in the anti-Arab jingoism. The president of the International Longshoremen's Association, Thomas Gleason, unwittingly told the truth when he spoke of the "AFL-CIA."

Charles Hayes of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters pointed out that fewer than 2% of the 868 delegates were Black, despite the AFL-CIO's approximately 10- 12% Black membership. (In spite of the traditional policies of exclusion and discrimination by most unions, employed Black workers are more unionized than white: Black men 29.0%, white men 27.6%; Black women 13.8%, white women 9.8%.)

While the convention passed a resolution supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, fewer than twenty of the delegates to the convention were women (approximately 2%), though nearly one quarter of all AFL-CIO members are women. The membership of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers is 75% female, yet all of its delegates were men (as are all of its top officials).

But racist, sexist, and imperialist policies and practices, and the lack of representative or democratic structures, are not the only failings of the AFL-CIO. The 1973 convention refused to deal with the fact that the labor movement is being smashed.

Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, offered a very mild resolution calling for a commission to consider restructuring the AFL-CIO in order to facilitate organizing the unorganized. The resolutions committee recommended against adoption of Wurf's resolution, calling it "unnecessary and unwise," and the proposal was rejected.

A resolution that did pass called for an "experimental program of expedited arbitration in appropriate industrial centers" patterned after the no-strike agreement between the basic steel companies and the United Steel Workers' I. W. Abel — another step in the direction of giving up the right to strike.


The labor movement has been in a constant state of decline since the mid-fifties. In 1954, more than one third of the U.S. working class was unionized (34.7% of employees in non-agricultural establishments). In 1972 the figure was 26.7%. If the present trend continues, unions will represent less than one fourth of the working class by the end of the decade.

The decline has been greatest among workers in the manufacturing industries, the "most proletarian" sector of the working class, where the unions have experienced an actual decrease in membership as well as a proportional decline. One large union, the United Steel Workers, registered a gain in 1972, but only because it absorbed the International Union of District 50, Allied and Technical Workers, which had been expelled from the United Mine Workers a few years before.

The only important growth of unions in recent years has taken place among service and government employees. Though there have been and continue to be outstanding struggles waged by recently organized workers — farm workers, Farah workers, and Oneita workers are some AFL-CIO examples — none of the organizing drives have kept pace with the increase in the total workforce.


In 1922, describing a similar situation which he called The Bankruptcy of the American Labor Movement, William Z. Foster wrote that Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor,

is the undisputed world's prize labor reactionary. . . . In many respects he is more reactionary than the very capitalists themselves.

The same words could be truthfully applied to the AFL-CIO's George Meany today. Foster attributed the situation to

the fatal policy of dual unionism which has been practiced religiously for a generation by American radicals and progressives generally. Because of this policy, thousands of the very best worker militants have been led to desert the mass labor organizations and to waste their efforts in vain efforts to construct ideally conceived unions to replace old ones. In consequence the mass labor movement has been, for years, drained of its life-giving elements. . . . Dual unionism has poisoned the very springs of progress in the American labor movement and is primarily responsible for its present sorry plight.

Many leftists have attempted to draw parallels between the situation described by Foster in the 1920's and the problems they face today. Let us examine the similarities.

Of approximately 19.4 million trade union members, only 16.4 million are members of AFL-CIO affiliates. The rest, for the sake of discussion, can be considered "dual." Where are they?

The two largest unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, are outside the AFL-CIO. The International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, the United Mine Workers, the Distributive Workers of America, and the United Electrical union (UE) are other important unions outside the AFL-CIO. There are also new unions like the Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association and the Mississippi Poultry Workers Union, which have chosen to remain independent.

Why are these unions outside the AFL-CIO? The Teamsters were expelled for "corruption."

The UAW left ostensibly because of Meany's refusal to organize the unorganized, and because of the clash between Meany's conservatism and Reuther's liberalism. More realistically, Reuther split because Meany wouldn't retire as AFL-CIO president to make way for him.

The UMW has been independent ever since the CIO endorsed Roosevelt while John L. Lewis was campaigning for Willkie. The CIO expelled the ILWU and UE for being "Communist-dominated," and DWA was too militant for its parent, the AFL-CIO's Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

AFL-CIO unions refused to organize pulpwood cutters and haulers and many workers in chicken plants. But after they were organized, established union representatives graciously volunteered to sign them up and collect their dues, while giving them little or no control over even their own locals. Under those circumstances, the workers' lack of interest isn't hard to understand.

But realistically, none of these unions could be described as making "efforts to construct ideally conceived unions designed to replace the old ones." The Teamsters are infamous for their attempt to destroy the United Farm Workers union, as well as their leadership's increasingly fascistic line politically.

It is the "liberal and democratic" UAW that recently mobilized a thousand goons to smash a militant strike of its own members after criticizing the Chrysler Corporation for being too lenient on UAW members in an earlier wildcat. And the racist privileges in the skilled trades rival those of the most backward building trades union.

The ILWU's militant and democratic traditions are found today only in history books. Until last fall, the same could be said for the UMW, the only difference being that you would have had to look further back in history.

That leaves us the UE, DWA, GPA, and MPWU. Wildly exaggerating, you might convince a careless listener that all together they have 350,000 members, hardly a serious contender to replace the AFL-CIO. Nor has anyone I know suggested that they try. The only shred of truth in the suggestion that any of these unions are "dual," in the way Foster meant, regards UE, which refused to be destroyed when the Communist Party wanted UE members to surrender to the red-baiting attacks during the fifties.


In fact, the last genuine dual union movement was the CIO, which not only sought to replace the AFL, but for all practical purposes succeeded. That was a generation ago. It is certainly unfortunate that so many leftists, particularly members of the Communist Party, opposed the formation of the CIO and dragged their feet about affiliating with it. No doubt this "tailism," the failure to anticipate that the CIO would become the industrial union movement in the United States, had a great deal to do with the inability of the left to survive the post-war purge within the CIO. Thus, "labor unity" was only consummated in 1955, after the isolation and destruction of the left had been completed.

And the last revolutionary dual union in the U.S. was the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), which existed from 1929 to 1935. It played an important part in laying the groundwork for the rise of the mass industrial unions of the CIO. The TUUL was headed by none other than Wiiliam Z. Foster, who in other periods was the leading opponent of dual unionism in the United States.


Actually, I think the hue and cry about dual unionism is misplaced today. As I have shown, there are indeed some parallels with the situation described by Foster in 1922. But the differences far outweigh the historic similarities.

Back then there was a direct correlation between trade union strength and working class militancy. Not only was the trade union movement in a state of decline at that time, "bankrupt" to use Foster's word, but class struggle itself was at a low ebb. There were fewer strikes in 1922 than in any year of the previous quarter century.

The exact opposite is true today. While the unions have undergone an uninterrupted decline, the last five years have averaged more strikes per year than any previous period of history. The number of strikes in 1970 and 1973 were exceeded only once since 1880 — in 1919, the year of nearrevolutionary struggle when 20% of all U.S. workers participated in strikes. Today, while unions decay, the class struggle reaches an all-time high.


How can we account for this contradiction? Some writers have shown that "labor relations" today have transformed unions from organizations of struggle into organizations whose primary duty, once a contract has been signed, is to discipline workers to enforce contractual obligations. Uninterrupted work is what unions give in exchange for a particular package of wages and fringe benefits.

When a worker complains about conditions in the plant, his committeeman can be counted on to say, "Sorry, Buddy, you've got a gripe but not a grievance." (Meaning, "We didn't write that into the contract, so forget it and get back to work.")

Victories, such as the dues checkoff (which served to remove company pressure from weaker workers) or full time for union representatives (to protect stewards from company pressure and discrimination), have been transformed. Today they serve to shield unions and union officials from pressure from rank-and-file members.

So workers, who can't withhold dues from unresponsive unions, or who have "gripes" instead of "grievances" but who feel just as offended, are increasingly resorting to strikes rather than grievance procedures.

Often strikes are precipitated by racial discrimination. Or the issues will be "specific local grievances," such as production rates and standards, scheduling, more or less overtime, health and safety, etc.


All of the above factors are important, and help to explain the contradiction. But there is another factor which has received practically no attention, one which signals the onset of a new stage in the history of American trade unionism. It developed gradually and quietly, but has finally matured.

In the past, no matter how strong the conservative pressures became, the simple equations of dollars-and-cents business unionism forced unions, albeit reluctantly, to act like unions. In other words, no members equals no dues. No dues, no power. And so on. That explains why the CIO, even as it entered a period of decline, made a feeble attempt to organize the South, and why certain unions still do.

In 1970, the assets of the American labor movement totaled more than $2V6 billion. Only a small handful of the world's largest corporations are that wealthy. (And control of that wealth is distributed about as equitably among trade unionists as the control of General Motors' wealth is distributed among stockholders.) Furthermore, liabilities total only 10% of assets.

(I have thought about this often, particularly when members of the United Steel Workers tell me how their union is trying to persuade them to end a strike and get back to work, in order to end the "drain" on the treasury — the $10 weekly strike benefit.)

But something else happened in 1970, a new plateau for the labor movement. For the first time ever, a majority of the income received by national and international unions came from profits on investments — stock and bond dividends, interest on loans and bank deposits, rent on real estate holdings, etc. (The total was approximately $713 million, while income from dues or per capita tax, fees, fines, and assessments came to $667 million.) [See table.]

So unions don't have to have members to make money any more, and investing the union's assets in securities actually brings in more profit than investing in organizing, for the first time in history. Actually, members are more expensive to have than it seems, since about half of the money they pay in (approximately $333 million in 1970) gets returned in the form of benefits from the national and international unions, whereas none of the other does.

National Unions - Receipts by Type 1960-1970 [in millions of dollars]

Year Dues or Per Capita Tax Fees, Fines, Assessments and Works Permits Other Receipts Total
1960 268.3 34.4 189.2 491.9
1961 303.5 37.9 200.5 541.9
1962 333.6 41.2 219.7 594.5
1963 350.9 43.5 240.5 634.9
1964 355.4 39.1 214.5 609.0
1965 381.3 47.8 255.2 684.3
1966 409.3 49.5 269.5 728.3
1967 475.7 52.1 353.7 881.5
1968 564.9 50.4 443.8 1059.1
1969 581.4 62.3 563.7 1207.4
1970 606.9 59.9 712.7 1379.5


What does all this add up to?

First of all it means stop blaming backward workers and/or ultra-left dual-unionist conspirators for the sorry state of the unions. They aren't responsible.

Instead, look at the change in capitalism, and pay particular attention to the change in the unions themselves. (It would be strange indeed if the unions had not changed in fifty years, or twenty-five years, or whatever.) As in every dialectical process, a quantitative change, which has taken place gradually, turns suddenly into a qualitative change. Unions, once labor, have become their opposite, capital.

For those who are ready to jump up with examples to prove that I'm wrong, hold your breath a while longer. Certainly the process is uneven and incomplete. That is an essential element of dialectics. Another aspect is the apparent return to the old stage — the negation of the negation.

What I am striving for here is not a theory that can explain every eventuality, but one which will help us to unlock the door to the next stage of development in the class struggle. If we can succeed in this, we won't repeat the error of so many leftists when the CIO appeared — first to oppose it, and later to tail behind it.

While we have not seen the full flowering of the new working class movement, a lot of indications concerning its content and direction have already appeared, particularly since the emergence of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

In the overwhelming majority of workers' struggles in the last few years (as in every other period of proletarian upsurge in the U.S.), Black workers have been in the vanguard of the entire class. In many cases they have fought and won major advances entirely by themselves.

In the sharpest clashes, the unions have sided with capital, for all the reasons discussed earlier. While workers have often struggled to transform their unions into instruments of struggle, and will probably continue to do so, they have not hesitated to bypass the unions whenever it became necessary, and to develop new forms in the process. The most recent example of this was the wildcat of 27,000 West Virginia miners who struck to protest gasoline restrictions despite Arnold Miller's campaign against wildcats.

Battles are more and more being fought over control over production itself, and these are the struggles in which the meaning of socialism most clearly emerges.


The special features of the South are particularly important to us today. The rural masses of the southern United States have been forced into the proletariat more rapidly than any other in history. (For example, the proportion of Mississippi's work force engaged in agriculture has plummeted as follows: 1950, 43%; 1960, 22%; 1970, 7%.)

The majority of the Black population in the U.S. — 51% — lives in the South. Thus the vanguard layer of the working class is most prominent here.

The industrialization has special features not seen before. In 1970, for the first time in history, manufacturing jobs outnumbered farm employment in southern rural areas (i.e., more than 50 miles from metropolitan centers). Industry did not locate in cities, but increasingly moved to the rural areas.

The type of industry locating in these areas of the South is no longer primarily the traditional laborintensive variety. A much larger proportion is the advanced, capital-intensive variety, especially electrical machinery, transportation equipment, and non-electric machinery.


Obviously these new realities will require careful consideration in order to develop strategies suitable to the new period of class struggle.

As one example, it will be important to consider the meaning of the first proletariat in history which did not have to suffer the massive trauma of urbanization. What strengths will this arm the workers with? What will be the weaknesses? These are the kinds of questions we have to find answers for.

About the only sure thing is that the old tried and true formulas won't be adequate. The biggest question of all is whether the left will take up the challenge in time.

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