US labour struggle forging class unity

Glimpses of Britain and USA history

The role played by the American working class has been pivotal in U.S. history. Labor has been one of the most decisive forces generating social progress for all the American people.

The American working class has had to wage its struggles under a set of conditions different from that of any other working class. In the first place capitalism, due to a combination of historical reasons, reached its highest form of development in the United States. Unfettered by feudal restraints and fixed class relations, it was possible for some people to rise out of the lower classes and become extremely rich. While this was not true for the class as a whole, there were enough exceptions to create illusions about the system as being the best possible of worlds.

It was in this context that most immigrants came to the United States. Therefore it was much easier here than in Europe to foster illusions in capi­talism. Throughout U.S. labor history the ruling class has endeavored, with some degree of success, to divide the ranks of the workers. Foreign-born workers were pitted against the native born, white against Black and peoples of color, and creed against creed. As already pointed out, here in the United States chauvinism and racism reached its highest and most de­structive form of development. Thus, the working class has had to struggle in circumstances of ideological problems that have been major obstacles in forging unity of the class and class consciousness.

In addition to these obstacles, the workers have had to struggle against the most greedy and ruthless class of capitalists the world has ever known, a class without any morals or scruples whatsoever. It is a class that makes no concessions until forced by struggle and/or circumstances to do so. Of all the capitalist classes in the world, it is the most die-hard. Throughout capital and labor history in this country, the moneyed classes have used the most terroristic methods to prevent the mildest forms of reforms within the system. Violence has been the name of the game, against the indentured servants,1 Native Americans, the small farmers, Blacks, Mexicans and Asians, women and finally against the men and women of the working class. Many are the struggles waged by the workers for a few more pennies an hour, for a shorter work day, against unsafe and hazardous working conditions only to be met with the “iron heel” of U.S. capital. Even after the Declaration of Independence, the adoption of the Constitution, and all the proclamations of democracy (the hidden forms of class dictatorship within government), the shops, factories, mills, mines and workshops represented the more open forms of class rule. Within them, the workers were almost like chattel slaves.2 They “had no rights” that a boss “was bound to respect”. They not only had no legal rights, but whenever they went into struggle to achieve them, in many cases the entire apparatus of government, including the military on a state and federal level, were used against them.

Those have been some of the main causes for a lower level of class con­sciousness in the United States in contrast to most European workers. Yet in the face of such difficulties, the American workers have waged some of the most militant struggles in world labor history. The labor movement in its history, taken in its entirety, has stood in the forefront of the extension of democracy. Especially has this been true since the Reconstruction period.

Early in the century, around the 1830’s, struggles for reforms began to develop. This was the period of the birth and growth of the movements to end slavery. Slave rebellions began to surface and the Abolitionist move­ment was born. It was also a period when labor began to flex its muscles. Although it had not yet become an organized force along trade union lines, the workers through various forms of organization entered the arena of struggle.

The main issue around which struggles began to focus was a change from a fourteen-hour day to a ten-hour day. This struggle began about 1825 and went on for many years.

By 1840 the workers became so powerful in some crafts that some employers were forced to concede to the demand for a ten-hour day on the grounds that this might contribute to the efficiency of the workers and pro­vide greater profits within the shorter work period.

The battle for democratic reforms has come in waves throughout U.S. history and the people’s movements have had their ups and downs. The upsurge in 1830 and 1840 receded before the Civil War. It was revitalized during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods but after the Reconstruc­tion period there was a lull in struggle. As the nation came toward the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, a democratic upsurge took place that embraced almost all sectors of the American peo­ple. The period was characterized especially by greater struggles of an offensive nature by farmers, the working class, and disillusioned intellectuals.

Among these were the struggles waged by the working class in this pe­riod for the eight-hour day. During the period of 1886-1900 this struggle occupied the center of all strike struggles. It was after the militant struggles and the frame-ups during the Haymarket struggles at the International Harvester plants in Chicago in 1886, that the employers through their con­trol of the courts began to use the injunction. After 1886, when the leaders of the Haymarket strike were framed-up and hanged, the movement for the eight-hour day took on a new impetus and became worldwide. May 1 became a symbol - a working-class holiday dedicated to struggle which is today observed worldwide.

The American Federation of Labor, at its convention in 1888, laid plans to make May 1,1890 the day for a general strike to achieve the eight-hour day. This decision was met by a widespread response all over the country and in foreign lands. In this regard the American working class gave leadership to the working class of the world.

America’s entrance into World War I unleashed a new wave of labor suppression. As the war developed, a hysteria was created against many prominent labor leaders who opposed the war. The opposition to the war was branded as treasonable and some of the most terroristic actions were carried out against workers who stood for peace. In addition to terror, the workers were forced to forego many of the barest necessities during the war years. They were forced to do so while the nation’s millionaires grew richer and richer. The war ended in 1918. In 1919 a wave of strike struggles swept the nation. The strike wave took place at a time when the whole world was seething and in turmoil.

It was a period of wars and revolutions. It was the period of the Great Russian Revolution which ushered in revolutionary upsurges all over the world. The full meaning and the impact of the Russian Revolution was not lost upon the Wall Street bankers and monopolies. They sensed the begin­ning of the end of their system and they went to work to defeat the strikes with everything within their power. Their main strategy on the propaganda front was to separate the middle class from the working class by appeals to their sense of patriotism.

After the great upsurge in strikes in 1919, most of which were defeated, the trade union movement suffered a sharp decline. Red-baiting was a major factor.

The early post-World War I years were also characterized by a depres­sion and inflation. This situation also made it more difficult for labor to take the offensive. But the main problem from 1921 to the outbreak of the crisis of 1929 was ideological. The United States, during this period, enjoyed a high degree of prosperity. Although relatively, the workers received little more than previously, illusions were created and a tremen­dous propaganda campaign was conducted on how every American worker was going to become a capitalist. The workers were advised to buy stocks in the corporations.

This whole period represents one of the lowest points in the history of organized labor. Corruption of labor leaders was at an all time high.

Such was the situation when the nation entered the economic crisis of 1929.

In October 1929 a crash on the stock market took place, which was the inevitable outcome of the contradictory forces at work, even at the height of the prosperity wave. Moreover, it was a shocking experience for almost the entire nation.

Of all the forces in the country, the Communist Party of the United States was the most prepared to meet the outbreak of the crisis. The first nationwide protest around the problems related to unemployment was held on March 6,1930. It was called by the Trade Union Unity League and the Communist Party.

In addition to unemployed workers going on the offensive against the terrible conditions, almost all segments of the population took the path of organization and militant struggle, especially the masses of poor farmers. Between 1929 and 1933, it is estimated that over a million farmers lost their property through foreclosure, and evictions became widespread in the countryside. The struggle against evictions, and strikes to withhold farm produce from a market which was being bought at prices where farmers would bear the brunt of declining prices, were the main areas of battle.

The unity that was forged among the unemployed played a key role in what followed with the birth of the C.I.O.

One of the main lessons to be drawn from U.S. history is that the com­mon people, those who have no material stake in persecuting other people at home or abroad, are the major forces to promote world peace, to take drastic measures in the economy to protect the nation from money-hungry pirates, to meet the fascist danger in a decisive manner, and to bring moral standards to the country.

From: Human Rights U.S. Style by С.M. Lightfoot