By Chris Townsend
March 12, 2022
The History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 11: The Great Depression, 1929-1932, by Phil Foner. (International Publishers, New York, NY, 2022. 265 pages. ISBN: 9780717808670)
“Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts.” -Mother Jones
Among the oft-heard comments in the union halls and organized workplaces today are, “the members don’t know anything about unions”, or “the young generation doesn’t know what a union is”. My favorite is when a longtime union leader denounces the workforce because “they think the boss gives everything to them.” Even more alarming would be when these same commentators discuss the political views of the union membership. Leaderships across the labor movement privately lament the fact that repeated polling of the rank-and-file reveal that huge slices of the membership regularly and even enthusiastically support anti-labor politicians. One retired international union staffer recently confided to me that their internal polling revealed that an actual majority of their membership supported Trump in the 2020 election. This is a dangerous and alarming situation to say the least.
After more than 40 years in the labor movement it seems quite apparent to me that the individual educational efforts of the trade unions are sadly either non-existent or at best inadequate. Too few of the unions tell their own stories. Fewer still offer their membership even short explanations of where their unions came from, who started them, what sustained them in tough early times, and what accomplishments were won – often after desperate and heroic struggles. Only a handful of unions take the time and effort to write-out their own histories so as to inform their memberships of their current role and relevance. Union “education” seems at best limited to occasional shop steward trainings, sparse topical classes, and maybe some staff training. The once frequent labor press of union newspapers and magazines is also in steep retreat, increasingly relegated to minimalist web sites or at best abbreviated glossy magazines. The deficit is made even more pronounced as union after union has shut down or reduced to insignificance their internal education departments – if they ever existed in the first place. There are, for sure, many labor educators and scholars who promote worker education, all working diligently to keep alive this critical work. But the labor leaderships of today have apparently abandoned the field of battle to the employers when it comes to worker and member education.
This was not always the case, and a revival is overdue and urgently needed. A wide and inspirational labor history literature does exist but is often unknown, forgotten, or otherwise unavailable to workers today. Among the towering figures in the labor education world from the 1940’s to the 1990’s was Professor Phil Foner. When Foner died in 1994, he left behind a lifetime’s work of more than 105 books and pamphlets he had written or co-written, along with articles too numerous to count. Among his works is the outstanding multi-volume series chronicling the “History of the U.S. Labor Movement in the United States” reaching from our Colonial period up until the 1930’s. I first heard of Foner and his 10 volume labor history when, as a young worker and unionist, I was introduced to Volume 1 in the early 1980’s.
Being captivated by the book, it led me to seek out the works of Phil Foner for the ensuing 45 years. So prolific were his efforts that even after these decades I still do not possess all of his works, or even a majority of them. Like many other workers toughing it out in the shops labor education was something largely left to my own initiative. So, for me the Foner legacy has been invaluable to my understanding of the U.S. labor movement and my longtime role in it.
Several years ago, I daydreamed about a project to locate and try to bring back into print a number of classic and much-needed labor books and histories, as well as devise modern ways to popularize the already available labor literature for the new generation of labor radicals now emerging in the workplaces. In short order a small collective of veteran communists, labor academics, and activists came together to ensure that this effort would bear fruit. Collaboration with International Publishers led quickly to the renewed availability of two labor classics; William Z. Foster’s “American Trade Unionism” and Roger Keeran’s “The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions.” I was also able to work with the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) to lend a hand in relaunching and more widely advertising another classic labor history volume, “Labor’s Untold Story.”
It was during the work of restoring these books to print availability it was discovered that a nearly completed Volume 11 of Phil Foner’s labor history existed but was not in print-ready form. With the cooperation of International Publishers several volunteers completed a variety of tasks to ready the volume manuscript for release. As a result, the just-released Volume 11 of the History of the Labor Movement in the United States, The Great Depression 1929 – 1932 is now available more than 28 years after Foner’s passing. And with the series still in need of completion, to bring the history much closer to the current day, an effort is now being explored to investigate the feasibility of identifying an author willing to take on the task of completing the epic Foner series. A similar project is underway to similarly attempt to update Labor’s Untold Story up to the current period.
This small project is in no way a substitute for a union-led revival of a broader class-based worker education effort, but it is an example what can and must be done to begin to address this catastrophic problem. It is clear to me that union members and militants will read these works, the primary problem being a matter of them even being aware of these works, and then somehow obtaining them. Several years ago, I worked with longtime union organizer extraordinaire Richard Bensinger to establish a small experimental union organizing school. I suggested that the school program contain a review of a variety of some of the now obscure – or even forgotten – class-struggle oriented labor literature. The effect was electrifying among the mostly younger worker students, few of whom had ever heard of the bulk of the titles including the Foner works. The time for renewed and expanded labor education is now.
-Chris Townsend is the recently retired Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing Director. Previously he was an International Representative and the Political Action Director of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE).