Editors’ Note: In an exciting development International Publishers will soon publish Volume XI of Philip Foner’s History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Labor historian Roger Keeran who has drafted a foreword to the book, below, explains the origins of the eleventh volume, and the larger significance of Foner’s work. The earlier ten volumes of Foner’s vast history are also available from International Publishers < www.intpubnyc.com>>.
By Roger Keeran
When Philip S. Foner died in 1994, he left behind a nearly complete manuscript of Volume XI of his monumental History of the Labor Movement in the United States. It was subtitled: The Great Depression, 1929-1932. The manuscript ended up at International Publishers (IP), the publisher of the previous ten volumes as well as many other Foner books. In 2020, Chris Townsend, Director of New Organizing for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and retired International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), learned of the manuscript and urged its publication.
I was happy to contribute to this effort. In 1994, at the time of Foner’s death, the historian Paul Mishler, the librarian Elaine Harger, and I had honored him by compiling and publishing a bibliography of Foner’s works. The bibliography contained some 105 books and pamphlets written, co-written, edited, and co-edited by Foner, as well as articles, essays and reviews by Foner. In the Introduction, I described Foner as “a scholar of immense energy, intelligence and dedication, who has done more than any other to record the lives, actions, and thoughts of American working people.” Bringing Volume XI to print meant adding another piece to Foner’s impressive list of publications. It was also a way to make another tribute to a historian whom I never met but whose work had influenced my teaching and writing, and who (I was happy to note) had used some of my own research in the present volume.
The manuscript did have a problem, a missing page in Chapter II. While unfortunate, this lacuna did not detract from the value of the whole. With the addition of a few transitional words, this omission, did not even interrupt the narrative. Also, several footnotes lacked complete citations. In two instances, I was able to locate the sources and complete the footnotes. Where this was not possible, I so indicated. Otherwise, the only difficulties amounted to the typical ones encountered in copyediting—typographical errors, spelling mistakes, grammatical slips, and so forth. Foner wrote prolifically, but he also wrote well — with felicity, force, clarity, and detail. His meaning was never in doubt. Copyediting his work proved easy.
As all Foner’s books and articles, this volume represented a labor of love. For most of his life, Foner worked without the resources and amenities typically available to researchers in tenured academic positions. For the most part, he did not benefit from sabbaticals, research leaves, research assistants, free duplication services, secretaries,
grants, and other aids taken for granted by university professors. The reason for this was politics. In 1941 and 1942, City College in New York City dismissed (or demanded the resignations of) Foner and forty to fifty other employees, because the Rapp-Coudert Committee of the New York State Legislature had named them as Communists. After his dismissal, Foner worked outside of academia. He did not return to university teaching until 1967 when Lincoln University, the historically Black college in Pennsylvania, offered him an academic appointment, which he held until retirement in 1979. Despite the privations, Foner researched tirelessly in libraries and union headquarters and wrote ceaselessly in hotel rooms, railroad cars, or wherever he was. Foner’s output outpaced all other labor historians by far, and he enjoyed a popular readership among workers, young people, African-Americans, and the Left that would be the envy of any historian.
The importance of this volume goes well beyond providing a capstone to the preceding ten. The work highlights a period of labor history, 1929-1932, often neglected or misunderstood. Naturally, historians have paid greater attention to the subsequent period than this one. The years after 1932 exploded with labor action. This was the time of intense organizing among industrial workers, dramatic strikes and political struggles, and such epochal breakthroughs as the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the triumph of the General Motors sit-down strike, the unionization of all major mass production industries, and the legal and social welfare gains symbolized by the Social Security Act and the Wagner Act. Though these accomplishments naturally overshadowed those of earlier years, the proximate roots of these achievements resided precisely in the events Foner described in this volume. In these four years, the Great Depression shook the entire society to its foundations. Beginning in the fall of 1929, wage cuts, unemployment, evictions and hunger grew every year through 1932. The depression profoundly disrupted workers’ lives and generated new ways of thinking and acting. In short, it gave birth to a new working class radicalism.
This new radicalism achieved its most profound reflection in a new labor federation, the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), whose heyday provides the main subject of this Foner study. Many people are unaware that, after the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and before the CIO, another federation besides the American Federation of Labor (AFL) existed. Yet, between 1929 and 1934, the TUUL acted as the main rival to the hidebound AFL. The reason for the widespread ignorance has to do with the negligence of mainstream labor historians. It would be easy to assume that this negligence was because the TUUL did not last many years, did not win great strikes, and did not supplant the AFL. Yet, mainstream historians have heaped attention on the Industrial Workers of the World, even though the IWW like the TUUL, had a short lifespan, lost more battles than it won, and also failed to supplant the AFL. Why has the IWW served as the subject for numerous books, while the TUUL,
until Foner, served as the subject of none? Most likely, the reason is because the TUUL was created and led by Communists, whereas the IWW was not. For mainstream historians, the Communist Party and labor constituted a third rail, a subject to be avoided or treated with unmistakable condescension.
Foner makes clear this negligence and condescension distort the history and have no justification. In the years 1929-32, with rare exceptions, the TUUL and its affiliated industrial unions singlehandedly recruited industrial workers. Moreover, the TUUL unions alone exposed racial and sexual discrimination by employers and actively recruited women, African-Americans, Latin-Americans, Asian-Americans and other minorities. Foner devotes the bulk of this book to describing the TUUL’s impact in a variety of industries and locations: in mining, food processing, tobacco, auto, steel and metal industries, and maritime, agriculture, and the fur and needle trades. In these struggles, the AFL unions were usually missing in action. The AFL opposed the creation of industrial unions, and on the few occasions when the AFL made feeble efforts to recruit industrial workers, it did so only because of its obsession with thwarting the Reds. Nor did Federation leaders nor the leaders of its affiliates oppose racial or sexual discrimination either by employers or by its own affiliates. Whatever agitation and advocacy for industrial unions and equality occurred in this period happened in TUUL meetings, leaflets, and shop papers, and the other literature put out by the Communist Party.
Foner also shows that the TUUL’s importance rested on its leadership or at least involvement in every notable strike in this period. These strikes included the violent and celebrated mine strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, textile strikes in the northeast, strikes by Mexican field hands in the Imperial Valley of California, a strike by women nutpickers in St. Louis, Missouri, a strike by Latin American cigar makers in Tampa, Florida, and a strike by Briggs auto body workers in Detroit. In contrast to the activism of the TUUL unions, the AFL leaders opposed strikes, even against wage cuts, and believed labor could only advance its interests by cooperating with management not by struggle. The TUUL’s class struggle approach won adherents at the time and would have more influence in the future on the CIO unions than the message of class collaboration.
Finally, the Communists, including those in the TUUL, led the fight for unemployment relief. As widespread unemployment reduced the opportunity of workplace organizing, the TUUL activists and other Communists directed some of their efforts to the organization of unemployed workers, the conduct of so-called hunger marches, and the fight against evictions, for local relief, and for
national unemployment insurance. Though Socialists and other radicals played a part of these struggles, the AFL did not. The AFL leaders, William Green and Matthew Woll, not only opposed demonstrations but also opposed any kind of unemployment insurance as a dole that would weaken the character of workers. A great merit of Foner’s book is the attention it gives to these singular contributions of the TUUL.
Foner said that he took seriously “the process of developing a Marxist history of the American labor movement.” This meant rescuing the vitality and variety labor history from mistaken and tendentious simplifications. A common interpretation of American labor explained the conservatism of AFL leaders by reference to the strength of American capitalism and the conservatism of the country as a whole. While not denying the conservatism and racism of conventional labor leaders, Foner saw the labor movement as more variegated than the conservative, white men at the top. Foner often spotlighted grassroots leaders—Communists and non-Communist activists, men and women, black and white—who looked and sounded quite different than Green and Woll and other AFL leaders.
Moreover, Foner showed the persistence, ubiquity, and diversity of class struggle that occurred in spite of the efforts of AFL leaders to avoid it or stifle it and in spite of the efforts of employers and local authorities to repress it. As the depression wore on and spontaneous rebellions broke out in many places, the AFL’s talk of craft unions, Communist threats, labor-management cooperation, and opposition to unemployment relief sounded more and more hollow, more and more out of step with what has happening and being ex- pressed in the workplaces and on the streets. It is impossible to explain the CIO upsurge of the mid-1930s without seeing how much the political education and the depression of the early 1930s had done to erode the legitimacy of the dominant ideology and established leaders. Foner put flesh on the bones of the dialectic by illustrating how new conditions gave rise to new ideas and new actors that challenged and then overthrew the existing ones, how the flickering ideas of one period became the wildfire of the next.
Another common interpretation that Foner challenged was the idea that working class gains of the 1930s—union rights, collective bargaining and a social welfare system—resulted from the advocacy of liberals in the corporate world who saw such reforms as a means of stabilizing the capitalist system in the face of economic collapse and political radicalism. Though this interpretation has a quasi-radical appeal to those suspicious of the manipulative power of elites, it really masks a deeply cynical view of the masses and popular struggle. Foner thought this interpretation of labor history had definite limitations, since corporate liberals often said one thing but acted differently when unions and legislation threatened their profits. Moreover, in the period 1929-1932, Foner clearly shows it was rank and file action and agitation that brought demands for reform to the fore and forced elites to respond. Liberal ideas emerged among the elite only after denial equivocation and repression failed to end popular struggle.
An example of such a change occurred with the AFL’s attitude toward unemployment insurance. Opposition to the AFL’s position on unemployment insurance began when the Communist Louis Weinstock of the Painters’ Union initiated a drive to get local unions to endorse the Workers’ Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill. This movement eventually reached some 20,000 AFL locals. Though repeatedly denounced by Green and Woll, this grassroots campaign nevertheless brought results. In July 1932, the AFL Executive Council reversed the Federation’s traditional opposition to compulsory unemployment insurance. Weinstock’s one-time voice in the wilderness became the new common sense.
In 1947, at the time of completing Volume I of the History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Foner reflected on the role of a Marxist historian of labor. Foner summed up the role this way: to present an “historical view which will enlighten our present struggles, will stimulate the foresight of labor’s thinkers and leaders, and give to the great mass of our workers the clarity, courage and determination to forge ahead for the attainment of their immediate ends, and for the accomplishment of the historical mission of the working class: the abolition of the exploitation of man by man.” In Volume XI Foner remained true to this goal. The book radiates enlightenment for current struggles and encouragement for those fighting for a socialist future.
-Dr. Roger Keeran is Emeritus Professor, Empire State College, State University of New York (SUNY)