It is a sign of labor’s coming of age that the newspapers have turned sedulously to examining the nature and extent of trade-union democracy. A weak labor movement does not deserve or get that much attention, either from its enemies or its friends. As long as the American Federation of Labor stayed within its narrow preserves of craft unionism and refrained from hitting at the great nerve centers of the capitalist structure—the mass-production industries — it could be as undemocratic as it chose. As soon, however, as the Committee for Industrial Organization split off to do the actual job of organizing the unorganized, and succeeded amazingly in getting the job done, its internal mechanisms of power became a matter of enormous moment to everyone.
Which is as it should be. Democracy is not a class-room concept, worth pursuing because of the beauty of its contours or for some absolute validity it possesses. Democracy is only a pragmatic assurance that power will, on the whole, be used for and not against the community interests. That is why democracy never becomes vital until the question of power has entered. No one concerns himself about how an empty hulk is captained and manned. And the question of power has now entered the labor movement with a vengeance. I have talked with business men, toughened to their own corporate despotisms, who could think only of the danger of despotism in trade-union leaders. I have heard state and national politicians speak of the new power of labor with a disquieting incertitude as to what it might do to their political futures. I have even heard the liberals, perhaps I should say especially the liberals, discuss the new forces of labor as educated Romans must once have discussed the barbarian hordes beyond the Danube and the Rhine. To listen to them, one would feel certain that the Goths were veritably here.
The comparison may actually be not without a certain force. Our historians tell us that some of the strongest elements in the democratic practice of the western nations go back, not to the imperial institutions of Rome, but to the tribal practices of the barbarian Germanic peoples. It needed the synthesis of Greek thought, Roman political organization, and Teutonic folk custom to produce what we call western democracy. In this mixture the vitalizing force came probably from the last of the three, where the democratic impulse was strongest because it arose from day-to-day communal experience and the necessities of communal organization. In the same way, it is possible that the eventual American democracy will be again the result of a fusion. To the idea of majority will that we got from the French revolutionary thinkers, and the idea of minority rights that we got from the English parliamentary struggles, we may be able to add the actual functioning democracy of the everyday work-life of the trade-unions.
For our American democracy may, so to speak, stand in need of some sort of rebarbarization. The original democratic impulse, as it emerged from our revolutionary struggle against Great Britain, has been overlaid by a powerful plutocracy and all but stifled in the climate of business success. But it is not beyond hope of revival. For political life is only a glove: the hand underneath, that gives social reality to it, is the daily work-life of each person and the habits of thought that it engenders. There is a chance that we shall be able to put more and more social substance into our formal political democracy. But that chance lies only in our being able to democratize the basic units of our economic life, which determine the conditions of our living and the patterns of our thinking. Those units are the corporation and the tradeunion. Democratize the corporation and the trade-union, and you have laid the basis for genuinely democratizing the state. Of these two, it is less likely that the corporation will insure democracy in the trade-union than that the trade-union will bring democracy to the corporation. Only, to do that, it must first clean its own house and make itself democratic as it grows in power.
Unfortunately, the unions have not consistently seen this. They, and those in sympathy with unionization, have lately tended to think mainly in terms of power, of a labor organization strong enough to protect the interests of its membership. This single-mindedness is intelligible, since any organization in process of growth must think first of winning and consolidating its power. But that is not enough. On the other hand, those employers who have not set their faces stonily against every form of unionism have been thinking exclusively in terms of union responsibility to the state and under the law. This single-mindedness is also intelligible, since a labor war creates a panic mood in the minds of employers. But this too is not enough. We must all face the problem of creating a framework within which labor can be powerful enough to secure its rights and achieve its valid social purposes; responsible enough to gain the respect of open-minded employers and the alliance of the middle class; democratic enough to insure its future against the racketeer, the bureaucrat, and the dictator. If we fail in solving that problem, we confront a bitter social conflict which may result in no social gain but only in chaos.
These are some fears and hopes about trade-union democracy. Without a democratic structure, the labor movement may relapse to the feckless swivel-chair bureaucracy of the 1920’s. Or it may become an irresponsible giant, using its strength for purposes determined not by its rank and file but by some inside clique. With a genuine democracy, on the other hand, it may not only gain its demands in wages and working conditions, but it may become the spearhead of a drive for recasting our institutions until they assume, under the economic conditions of today, the shape that the democratic elements in our past have intended them to have. Not all who call loudly for democracy in the labor movement envisage this end, and many of them would be frightened by it. But I am not writing this analysis to please those who talk about labor violence and call for labor responsibility merely because that is the best stick they can find to beat the labor dog with. Liberals and conservatives alike who invoke democracy in the labor movement must face the consequences of democracy. They must face the fact that just as it is the growing power of labor that has produced all the concern over labor democracy, so an increasing democracy and responsibility in the labor movement cannot fail to swell its strength further and make it one of the great shaping forces in our national destiny. For democracy means nothing less than the health of the labor movement.
The thing to remember about the new labor movement is that it is really new, and not just a continuation of the old. Something has happened in American labor in the past two years that is comparable to what happened fifty years ago, when the Knights of Labor felt their power slipping, struggled for a time against the inevitable, and finally gave place to the American Federation of Labor. I think it can scarcely be doubted that the C.I.O., like the A.F. of L. in the late ‘eighties, carries with it the whole brunt and burden of historical development. We have come again to what Henry Adams would have called a “change of phase” in labor history.
Why do I speak of it as a change of phase? When the Knights yielded to the A.F. of L., a vague movement of social insurgency gave way to a definite and conscious trade-union movement. That was a change of phase. The Knights were in many ways superior to the new Federation: they were broader in their social views, less jealously an organization of the skilled alone. But they did not form as good a fighting unit. They spread amorphously over the field of labor, including in their ranks middle-class groups, farmers, and intellectuals—drawing the line only at the exploiting classes. Samuel Gompers, the little Jewish cigar maker who served as the Napoleon of the new forces, was shrewd enough to see what Terence Powderly, the leader of the Knights, could not see—that labor stood a better chance of gaining its aims if it restricted them and made them concrete. Like Napoleon, Gompers reduced a social program to a military campaign.
The strength of Gompers and the Federation was that they knew what they wanted. Instead of gazing starry-eyed toward a vague social ideal, they wanted better wages, shorter hours, better working conditions. They held themselves realistically within the economic limits of their task and achieved an almost Marxian emphasis on the material basis of the worker’s life. When asked at a Congressional investigation what it was that labor wanted, Gompers said, in effect, “Labor wants more and more and still more.” A little Marxism may in the end prove a dangerous thing, and the smattering that Gompers got from some of the German immigrants was only a smattering: but Gompers did succeed in analyzing what it was that had produced the weakness of the Knights of Labor. He saw that it was on the one hand their broad and too inclusive middle-class radicalism, and on the other their milk-and-water welfare, Friendly Society sort of unionism. Both defects could be remedied by a militant trade-unionism that directed itself to the job of the worker and pressed always for the immediate concessions that the union’s strength warranted.
The new labor movement of today has similarly analyzed the weakness of the A.F. of L.: it is the weakness of a trade-union organization which has failed to use its full powers in organizing the unorganized and unskilled, and which refuses to adopt an industrial-unionism base for fear of challenging the vested interests in the craft unions. As of Gompers, it may be said of John L. Lewis and his associates on the C.I.O. that they knew what they wanted, with a decisiveness that brought success in its wake. They wanted renewed militancy in labor, based on industrial unionism, and capable of confronting the new strength of the banker-controlled giant corporation. Of course, the fact that action based on this analysis led to enhanced power, not only for labor but for the C.I.O. leaders as well, was to them a by no means negligible fact. Nor must we forget that if they had been allowed to remain within the A.F. of L., their purpose of using an industrial-union base might not have been pushed with so relentless a disregard of craft-union vested interests. But the important thing about men in public life is not how snow-pure their motives are, but how they act, given the position in which history has placed them. And the C.I.O. leaders have been placed in the position Gompers occupied fifty years ago—where their own power interests are identical with the vigorous forward movement of labor.
The change in the American labor movement cannot be reduced to a single term. There is a new base for organization—the industrial-union base. There is a new leadership. There is a new temper and militancy, both in leadership and in the rank-and-file membership. There is a new readiness for political action and a consciousness of its importance. Together these sum up to what I have called a change of phase in American labor. If any single element were to be selected out of this sum to express the meaning of the change as a whole, I should say it was the new perspective in both leaders and men. There was a saw current some years ago in labor circles, that American workers could be grouped as follows: soup-conscious, job-conscious, class-conscious, and unconscious. The perspective today is none of these things, but labor consciousness, Coal workers organize steel workers; garment and auto workers organize textile workers.
The thinking is no longer in craft terms; nor is it yet, if indeed it will ever be, thinking in clear-cut class terms. It sees the labor movement for the first time as something of a totality, and is willing to use what means are necessary to make it an organized totality. That is what gives it strength; that is what elicits the Dionysian energy that courses through the labor movement today. Beyond the mustering of that energy and the achievement of that totality, this thinking does not go.
This raises, of course, the persistent question of how long this impetus will last. The A.F. of L, also started out bravely. But in labor, as elsewhere throughout the social organization, the original impetus gives out, leaders become bureaucrats, vested interests grow up, and the impulse toward expansion is replaced by a fatal tendency toward constriction. Above all else, labor forgets to view its role in terms of the whole fabric of economic development.
The wisdom of the A.F. of L. originally lay in seeing that if labor wanted to share in the fruits of business prosperity, it must be prepared to bargain for them on the economic plane. Hence the concentration on trade-unionism, pure and simple. Hence also the restriction of organization efforts to the skilled aristocracy of labor. For given the skills on which the industrial structure depended, and given the still undeveloped integration of industry, a strike among skilled workers was an adequate bargaining weapon. A labor movement, moreover, had to have continuity through the successive phases of the business cycle, in hard times as well as good: that meant it had to accumulate dues from the workers best able to pay them—the steadily employed skilled workers. But what started as a measure of sound policy became perpetuated through fear of the vested interests in labor. The very principle of restriction to the skilled groups was to prove fatal to the A.F. of L. The type of labor organization that was suitable to cope with the capitalism of the turn of the century became unsuitable to cope with the capitalism of the 1980’s. For the latter represented giant corporations, many of them enjoying a monopoly position or easily capable of uniting on a common line of action, pyramided so that their control lay in the hands of a small banking group.
It is significant that the central object of Gompers’s attention was the need for meeting business enterprise on a strictly economic plane. It is equally significant that the central fact that Lewis has grasped is the present integration of industry and the pyramiding of financial power in our society. From the social insight of each man has flowed the corresponding change of phase in labor history.
I have dwelt on the historical perspective because without it a good deal of the current controversy over labor democracy will seem so much sound and fury, unmotivated and undirected. If you understand the historical forces that have shaped the labor movement, you will not be seduced into the cloud-cuckooland of wishful thinking on either side. You will not believe that you can exorcise the strength of labor by calling Mr. Lewis names, or by lashing the unions to the mast of governmental restrictions. You will not believe, on the other hand, that no one need worry about where labor is going, that the energies of labor will necessarily find their own sound direction. The broad movements of history give the framework for action. What happens within that framework is a matter of human personality and leadership, of techniques and strategies and policies.
The principal problem within labor organization, as everywhere in the state, is the problem of leadership and the lack of it, of power and its abuse. The failures of labor leadership and the abuses of labor power fall under four heads: grafting and racketeering, chair-warming inactivity, dictatorship, violence and legal irresponsibility. The first two are generally charged against the earlier phase of labor history; the second two against the present phase.
Racketeering and grafting are diseases not of the labor movement but of commercialism itself, of the ethos of our entire economic world. Those diseases have extended themselves to labor, as they have extended themselves to every other part of the social organism. Considering how easy a prey labor is to the racketeer, the surprising thing is not that so much of labor, but that so little of it, has been affected. Taking racketeering in its strict sense—the shakedown of employers in the name of “protection,” the cut-in on workers’ salaries in the name of “job insurance,” the appropriation of union funds as a private treasure-trove, the annexation of whole unions by mobsters as a supplementary source of income—such charges can be brought against only a fraction of the labor movement: among the building trades, the motion picture operators, the musicians, some of the painters’ locals, the restaurant workers, and the retail clerks. The clarity and forthrightness with which the American Labor Party in New York supported the racket-buster Thomas E. Dewey for the District Attorneyship is an index of how marginal racketeering is to labor. And it is notable that where the new labor spirit has produced rank-and-file revolts against corrupt leaders, racketeering has been most courageously and effectively fought.
Far more serious is the problem of the labor skate—the walking delegate who has worn his feet flat and the swivel-chair executive who has worn his pants shiny. There is nothing quite like the labor bureaucrat. He is a combination of Rotarian, Southern Congressman, and Grand Army veteran, with almost equal portions of petty money-minded-ness, spread-eagle oratory, and reminiscences of past battle scars. These bureaucrats have for decades controlled the old-line unions, like a praetorian guard in control of the state —except that they are wooden and not real soldiers. What makes the problem of bureaucratic leadership worse in the labor movement than it is in government or in business is the loneliness and isolation of the union leader. Once chosen, he has no retreat. For the gulf between an ordinary worker and a union leader is so broad that the span across it is traversed in only one direction. If union leaders are to have the dignity that their bargaining status requires and if they are to be immune to the wooing of industry, they must get salaries considerably above the union wages and live on a new level of comfort. And they do not want to return to their old jobs. Their loneliness, their love of power, their desire for a sinecure, make the problem of rotation in office extremely difficult. This means the building up of political machines, the creation of a hierarchy of henchmen, the slow death of union militancy from the top down. Above all else, it means the tragic waste of the potential resources of leadership in the rank and file.
The C.I.O. has changed this situation in several respects. Partly because it is still new, partly because its success depends on ever wider organizing gains, partly because its entire base is close to the realities of the labor struggle, it has cleared out its dead wood with great effectiveness. Its top leaders are, to be sure, men of experience who have held their jobs as labor officials for years—men like Lewis, Hillman, Murray, Dubinsky, Brophy, Howard. But they have retained their vitality throughout, as indeed the entire C.I.O. venture witnesses. More important, no organizing campaign in the mass-production industries could have been carried through so swiftly except by the devoted efforts of the progressives and radicals—and some of the best leadership reflects this leftward emphasis. Finally, and most important, below the top leaders there is what we may call a rank-and-file leadership—in the locals, joint boards, shop councils, state centrals, and organizing staffs—a group of young, confident, and realistic men who reveal what resources of leadership had been lying around unquarried within the ranks all this time. These factors are an assurance that at least for the calculable future the problem of the new labor movement will not be one of inertia in leadership.
There are fewer assurances against its being one of overactivity in the struggle for power. The new danger is generally considered to be that of a labor dictatorship. There is a new spectre to haunt our minds—the massive figure of John L. Lewis, with its head whose prognathous outlines suggest the barbaric and ruthless Machtmensch. Since fear is a response to the unknown rather than the known, one may find, underlying the fear, an uncertainty as to the potential strength of the vast labor masses undergoing organization. What power Lewis may in the future be able to amass and hold is anyone’s guess. I incline not to be too fearful of the prospect, for several reasons.
One is that Lewis is being watched with a cold and skeptical scrutiny as no leader has ever been watched, with the exception of Mr. Roosevelt. For the spread of Fascism, with its Fuhrerprinzip, has put us all on our guard against the dictator growing up within a democracy. Lewis, moreover, is only primus inter pares. As events have already shown, the other C.I.O. leaders are not just lieutenants, but co-leaders with minds and purposes of their own. Finally, it is clear that Lewis understands the forces that have raised him to his present position—the desire of the workers for effective organization—and he knows that his own power hinges upon his being able to deliver the goods. Powderly tried to hold the rank and file of his Knights of Labor too tightly bound, and in breaking loose they swept him aside. The I.W.W. leaders were much too far ahead of the American workers, who never caught up with them. The A.F. of L. leaders have lately gone dead on their following. Lewis and the other C.I.O. leaders are too realistic to make the same mistake. Lewis’s whole career shows that, with all his stubbornness, he still has the quality of flexibility, of “give.” He talks resolutely and defiantly, and the workers like him for it, as a contrast to the sense of inferiority that previous leaders have had when confronted by the grandees of business and government. But this big talk is largely for the purpose of maintaining morale. In this respect, Lewis reminds me of no one so much as the Russian general Kutuzov, as he is depicted by Tolstoy in “War and Peace.” For Kutuzov knew that the leader was there only to give assent and form to the upsurging energies of his followers, and that without that energy he was helpless.
But all this is my own set of guesses. Political communities should minimize their guesses, however, and leave as little as possible to chance. The best insurance against the abuse of power by Lewis or anyone else is a strong and responsible democratic labor movement, which understands its objectives, knows its relation to the law, and has developed inner techniques for checking whatever personal imperialisms may develop. Since strong leadership is always necessary and, even with safeguards, always dangerous, the wise course to adopt toward any leader is to see to it that the path which leads to the attainment of his own power is a path that leads through the achievement of the objectives of the whole organization.
The recent growth of the labor forces has been attended, as was inevitable, by violence on both sides. The lions who roar daily in our newspaper columns and editorial pages have assumed an attitude of outraged indignation which does scant justice to their knowledge of history. For violence has always been a part of labor struggles in America. Anyone who doubts it has only to read the record in Louis Adamic’s “Dynamite” or Samuel Yellen’s more recent “American Labor Struggles.” More than that; violence is deeply rooted not only in our labor struggles but in the whole American tradition. It has been part of the American experience from the time we liquidated the Indians and took the continent away from them, up to the present time when the record of our contemporary violence is written in the pages of every daily newspaper. But I do not mean to imply that violence is in any mystical sense part of the American national character. It proceeds rather from the historical fact that a mixture of vigorous peoples has sought to exploit the resources of a continent in the ruthless spirit of a competitive capitalism. Labor violence, in its clash with the violence of the impersonal corporation, has been part of that picture; and the blood spilled at Haymarket, at Homestead, at Ludlow, at Herrin, has flowed from the main arteries of American experience.
The anxieties today are not only over direct violence but also over such “secondary violence” as contract-breaking, wildcat strikes, and sympathetic strikes. Two bodies of opinion have arisen among business men in viewing this whole question of labor militancy. One is determined to fight it to the death, believing that any concession to a powerful labor movement will only make it more powerful. Its vision is conditioned by the payrolls of today and the ballot-boxes of tomorrow: it believes labor gains to be an economic loss for business, and labor organization to be a prelude to a labor government, and it sees in labor militancy a determination to achieve both at all costs. This view is typically represented by the Little Steel executives, who fought and to an extent broke the Little Steel strike. The second view sees labor violence as a direct outgrowth of the repression of labor in the past through espionage, company unions, the stretchout, and vigilantism. This view is represented typically by the Big Steel executives, who signed with the C.I.O. and have recently renewed their agreement. There is a touch of the Promethean even about a businessman, and both these, groups see themselves driving a salient into the future by means of which the battle over industrial relations will be decided.
It can scarcely be anything but clear to observers that the labor violence of the past few years flows from the suppressions of the past. I do not believe that violence in itself justifies retaliatory violence. I do believe that violence begets violence, and that the violence of labor is puny and trivial compared with the mammoth violence that has been practiced on labor by employers, police, and courts. One has only to compare the labor order in Big Steel with the unrest in Little Steel and the sporadic outbreaks in the automobile industry. In Big Steel there was a systematic organizing campaign and a voluntary settlement; in Little Steel there was an unsuccessful strike; in automobiles, there was a successful but bitterly fought strike, at the end of a hasty organizing campaign. The moral is dual. If employers sow the wind, they must be prepared to reap the whirlwind. And where the C.I.O. has had a chance to do the painstaking work of organization, it has combined responsibility with strength.
What this means is that labor responsibility and labor discipline are better achieved from within than from without. The present movement to impose labor discipline from without is based on a tragically false premise. The premise is that you can produce either responsibility or democracy by fiat. Trade-unions can be successfully regulated only when they have already achieved their basic objectives. Compare, for example, the situation of railroad labor and maritime labor. The Railroad Labor Board employs a system of conciliation whose machinery for delay and arbitration has effectively prevented strikes and settled disputes. Railroad labor accepts it and is tolerably happy under it. But when Mr. Kennedy proposed the same plan for maritime labor, he was bitterly fought by the C.I.O. maritime unions. And they had reason. For the Railroad Labor Board came into being only after a long history of railroad labor struggles which had resulted in complete organization. Being on a plane of equality in bargaining position, the unions can now afford to work within the framework of governmental arbitration. But the maritime unions, despite their amazing growth in the past few years, are not yet fully organized; and there are serious internal dissensions between old-line and C.I.O. unions. The machinery for delay and arbitration could easily be used to prevent organizing efforts and break strikes; it could also be used to stifle the rank-and-file revolt which is displacing the old-line leaders.
This example will illustrate the suspicion with which the unions regard the whole group of proposals for making them more responsible under the law—the proposals for incorporation, for publicity of accounts, for the outlawing of sympathetic strikes, jurisdictional strikes, sit-down strikes, for revisions in the Wagner Act, and for compulsory arbitration. Individual items in this program may be relatively harmless: the program as a whole, however, when applied to a trade-union movement that has not yet reached maturity, must result either in stifling trade-union growth or in further outbreaks of resistance and violence. Those who point to England as an indication of the success of such a program have both their facts and their premises wrong. For England, despite its reactionary Trades Disputes Act of 1927 which bans sympathetic strikes and which was put through after the collapse of the general strike of 1926, does not compel either incorporation of trade-unions or arbitration of disputes. And even the Trades Disputes Act was not passed until British labor had already gone through its C.I.O. phase and reached a measure of mature strength and political expression.
Labor order cannot be legislated into existence at this stage of our industrial history, if ever. To pursue such a policy leads by the easy stages of descent that Virgil once described, down to the hell of the corporate state. Labor order is the organic outgrowth of two conditions: a healthy state of industrial relations, for which equality of bargaining position and an advanced degree of organization are necessary conditions; and internal democracy, within both the corporation and the trade-union. The only regulatory function over labor that government can safely perform today is to provide a framework within which labor and industry can achieve these conditions of organic health. The government can seek to guarantee the maintenance of civil liberties in labor struggles, as it is doing through the splendid work of the LaFollette investigating committee; it can provide machinery for collective bargaining and for easing the settlement of jurisdictional disputes, as it is doing through the Wagner Act and the work of the National Labor Relations Board; and it can set minimum standards of wages and working conditions in industry, which are still being fought for in the form of the wage-hour bill and the Child Labor Amendment. Beyond that government action is fraught with grave danger.
The energies that have produced a militant labor movement have been turned not only outward, against employer domination, but inward, against boss-manned and racket-riddled machines as well. This energy has generally taken the form of rank-and-file tactics organized by minorities— tactics employed, incidentally, in the American Revolution as well. Such rank-and-file movements have become democratic as they have gotten under way, even when the original steps were taken by only a few. It is for this reason that the Communists have a place in the C.I.O. beyond their numbers or importance: they have the energy and zeal and discipline for these tactics of inaugurating democratic revolts against a bureaucracy, as they have also for starting new unions. Once in office, they have in several of the unions retained an influential place by the extent of their responsiveness to the needs and desires of the union members.
There has been a tendency in the press to show alarm over this fact. I see no real reason for it. What should be alarming, on the contrary, is the red-baiting movement that has appeared in several C.I.O. unions. The present influence of Communists in some of the unions, along with the influence of every other shade of opinion, is an indication that the new labor movement has not become congealed. It is still fluid. And something of the same conclusion may be drawn from the inner dissension in high C.I.O. circles. The Dubinsky-Lewis row, for example, is an index of the wide variety of personal temperament and trade-union philosophy that the C.I.O. leadership has had scope for. There is reason to believe that the basic cause for the collapse of peace negotiations between the A.F. of L. and the C.I.O. was the fear the A.F. of L. had of being overwhelmed if the C.I.O. unions were readmitted unconditionally, and the fear the C.I.O. had of being dismembered otherwise. The public row among the leaders over this question is pretty good evidence that the C.I.O. is still more an assemblage of allies than an organic army. American labor has been notoriously afraid of ideas, of social philosophies, and of social programs; and the C.I.O. exhibits this trait. It shows every sign of being a young, un-jelled labor movement which, for all its exciting seven-league strides toward growth, is still in its early stages and still overflowing with energy. From the standpoint of the maintenance of a responsive leadership and the perfection of a democratic structure, this is enormously important.
Nevertheless, the diversion of energy to labor dissension endangers the efforts toward democratic control. An army surrounded by enemies must turn its energies to righting, and its own needs become secondary. That is why workers’ education has made so little headway, even among the newer unions. Education is the indispensable base for trade-union democracy: it is a prime condition for trade-union health. The A.F. of L. unions have never cared much about it, and still do not. This is largely due to the anti-ideological bent that “pure and simple” unionism gave to American labor at the start. Just as education is said to spoil a good field hand, so it has been suspected of having the power to spoil a good craft unionist. And as for the C.I.O. unions, while there have been leaders like John Brophy who have seen the importance of educational efforts, the movement as a whole has been too preoccupied with other matters. First there was the gigantic task of recruiting and organization. Then, when the recession came, there was the equally difficult task of consolidating and retaining the membership gains in the face of lay-offs and wage-cuts. And always there has been the labor-split to distract energy from constructive work.
The result has been that even for the C.I.O. education has remained a luxury. It is no secret that the two dominant C.I.O. leaders, John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman, have little patience with schemes for extending education: they have a feeling for realistic tactics of organization, struggle, bargaining, but education tends to seem goody-goody to them. There are seven million American workers organized: less than two per cent of those—roughly 100,000—are meeting regularly in study classes and recreational groups. This is a pitiable proportion for a movement that hopes to build an economic democracy in America.
The level at which educational effort must start is, judged in ordinary terms, disheartening. Organizers who have been in the field for an extended period come back with a kind of shell-shock. There is widespread illiteracy, not in the ordinary sense, but in the sense of social illiteracy. This is less true of the immigrant groups than it is of the areas in the South and Middle West, where an organization drive must not only achieve its immediate objectives but also, in the span of a year or two, create a new social consciousness. Most of the people being brought into the textile unions have previously lived in the social context out of which the Ku Klux Klan emerged. The men now enrolled in the automobile unions were, many of them, members or potential members of the Black Legion. There are areas in New England where the shoe unions, for example, are hurling themselves against the political stolidity of the workers as against a wall of granite. And where all this is true, educational efforts are likely to be pretty rudimentary. In a survey of workers’ education, for example, I find listed among the signs of an awakening educational interest the fact that a union carnival in Tennessee featured a spitting contest in which the ammunition was union-label tobacco.
While this indicates the difficulties of educational work, it also underlines the need for them. Given such social material, trade-union organization that concentrates on numbers and militancy without thinking of social objectives and without educating the workers for them, may as easily lead to some sort of Fascist adventure as to economic democracy. Education is not a solvent for trade-union problems, but it builds a wall against reactionary possibilities. It is a dynamic force for democracy within the union. It gives the rank and file the techniques and the confidence for union participation, and in such an atmosphere bureaucratic leaders do not thrive. It gives trade-union tactics and social programs a broad base. It is proof against dictatorial power and also against the catchwords under which ambitious careerists camouflage their thrusts for dominance. I will not say that education in this sense has not made beginnings. There are evidences of such beginnings, especially throughout the C.I.O., that are distinctly encouraging. There are study groups, recreational activity, labor theaters, labor newspapers and magazines, beginnings even in movie and radio work. But when it is remembered that all these efforts must be made within a hostile framework of American society as a whole, when it is remembered that our powerful newspapers, radio chains, and motion picture companies are controlled by groups unsympathetic to labor organization, then the task of labor education becomes all the more pressing.
Beyond education, there are political procedures and safeguards for trade-union democracy. I name some at random: periodic union meetings and conventions (important when you consider that the Carpenters’ Union did not have a convention for eight years), rotation in office, the calling of special meetings by petition, centralized accounting systems, a degree of autonomy for the locals within a union and for the unions within a federation. But these are formal procedures, and some have not been lacking in the past. What is more essential is to go beyond formal safeguards to the everyday experience out of which democracy is built. Americans have shown they can solve the problem of evolving political techniques: the real task is the organization of will and thought for democracy. There must be genuine democracy in the factory or mill or mine itself: the rank and file must be trained on shop committees, grievance committees; they must participate actively in the day-to-day work of the union, and where the base is sound the structure will be sound. The shop steward of today is the creative trade-union leader of tomorrow.
Such democratic forces, coming from within rather than imposed from without, represent the only chance for combining trade-union responsibility with continued vigor. The dynamite for blasting out the swivel-chair bureaucrat and the dictator is rank-and-file revolt: but the only specific for keeping other bureaucrats and dictators from developing is day-to-day democracy and a sustained educational drive. Labor has an arduous road ahead. Its path is not smooth in these days of planetary crash and turmoil. It must face ignorance and hostility from without, dissension and the drive toward conformity from within. The odds are heavily against it in a social system whose values are pecuniary rather than technological or social. We can expect no overnight miracles. Yet leg over leg the dog got to Dover. Out of the democratic union of today may come the socialized democratic state of the future. Unless the process is interrupted by war or some other social disaster, America is likely to find that a union card is a good passport to democracy.