By Chris Townsend
November 25, 2022
A little more than 100 years have passed since the founding conference of the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL). The TUEL gathering in August of 1922, in Chicago, was the culmination of several years of patient organizing by William Z. Foster and other experienced left trade union leaders. All were united by a determination to set in motion some kind of permanent organization that would support and expand the work of revitalizing the conservative and largely moribund trade unions. The loss of the Great Steel Strike in 1919 was a painful lesson for the militants, reminding them that the entrenched bureaucracies in the existing unions would do whatever it took to stall and sabotage all attempts to organize the masses of unskilled workers.
And literally as the TUEL founding conference was starting, the labor leaderships of the 26 railroad craft unions all scrambled to delay and undermine what became the coast-to-coast Shop Strike of 1922. An even larger strike than the Steel Strike, with 400,000 rail workers out at its peak, the railroad shop strike convulsed the industry until early 1923 when the conflict was internally sabotaged and beaten down to its eventual end. Despite the furious efforts of the militants in the rail unions the combined forces of the rail bosses and the union “leaders” effectively undermined any hope of success. Hamstrung at every turn by the corrupt, timid, and dictatorial union leaders the railroad workers were picked-off one railroad at a time and the massive strike energy at the start was steadily sapped. Politicians from both parties joined the rail companies in their back-to-work movement, promising all manner of mediation of the strike issues – but only after work resumed. The promised assistance from the politicians never materialized, very much akin to the shameful undermining of the current railroad negotiations by the Biden regime.
The back-to-back losses of the mass strikes in steel and rail ironically propelled the work and message of the TUEL forward. In both cases the old conservative union leaders were exposed as a large part of the reason for the loss of the strikes. The archaic, divided, and corrupted craft union leaders and structures of the majority of the unions were unable by their very nature to challenge the large corporate combines in any effective way. Something had to be done to confront the business union grip on the unions or else any forward progress for the working class was impossible. With the unions hopelessly crippled and unable to play even a plain-and-simple role in opposition to the employers the notion that any of them would reach higher and towards any significant goals was unthinkable. With the labor movement stuck in such a tragic state the growth of any significant left political movement was also limited or even blocked.
The U.S. publication of Lenin’s “Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” in January of 1921. gave further momentum to Foster and the leaders of the TUEL. For decades the U.S. labor movement had been debilitated by the dual union germ, leaving little permanent organization in its wake. Lenin’s prestige as the leader of the new Soviet state was significant, and his appraisal of why revolutionaries should work within the existing unions was clear; “To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the masses under the influence of reactionary leaders, agents of the bourgeoisie, labor aristocrats, or bourgeoisified workers….” While not asserting an absolute principle against new union formation, Foster observed in 1922 that the dual union project had proven its failure over and over again; “It is a bottomless pit into which the workers have vainly thrown their energy and idealism… Dual unionism dried up the very spring of progress in the trade unions and it condemned them to sterility and stagnation… A disastrous effect of the systematic demoralization and draining away of the militants is that it placed the trade unions under the control of the organized reactionaries…”
As the U.S. labor left survived and slowly emerged from near-complete repression and destruction in the 1918-1920 period, the new TUEL grew slowly but steadily as the remaining labor militants renewed the struggle against the employers and business union “leaders” both. Foster returned from an extended visit to the Soviet Union in 1921 and began what became his 40 year membership in the Communist Party, with most of that time being in the national leadership until his death in 1961. His association with the Communist Party cemented the leadership of the Party within the left wing of the U.S. labor movement for 4 decades. The TUEL grew and developed until the end of the 1920’s, gaining influence in a dozen unions, until ferocious opposition and mass expulsions launched by the entrenched labor leaderships led to the short-lived Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) period. The massive campaigns of expulsion – from the “rule or ruin” playbook – mounted by the right-wing labor regimes against anyone suspected of being associated with the Communist Party eventually compelled what became the several year TUUL experimentation with dual unions again.
The embattled TUUL crystalized much of the network in the labor movement that later became the basis for the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO) by the middle 1930’s. The direct lineage to the CIO breakthrough traced from the work of the TUEL, then the TUUL, is unmistakable. In less than 20 years the labor left had been nearly wiped out; was patiently rebuilt; and by the end of the 30’s it had led the wholesale revitalization of the labor movement and organized millions of mass production workers – who had been written-off for decades by the ossified unions. While the TUEL and TUUL both made significant errors, and experienced notable failures in their furious against-all-odds work, the historical record clearly shows that their work was transformative. The TUEL and TUUL work validates the off-repeated observation of William Z. Foster that, “No organizing effort is ever wasted.”
I would not suggest the history and work of the TUEL and the later TUUL as automatic blueprints for today’s emerging generation of labor leftists now toughing out in both the old unions and in the unorganized workplaces. But I would offer that for any serious labor activist out in the workplaces a familiarity with Foster’s work in this regard is required. It is uncanny the extent to which many of the problems faced by the members and militants today mirror those of Foster’s era. Today’s largely stalled or even moribund labor movement, slipping steadily into impotence and irrelevance, with union after union in the grip of unchallenged leaders lacking any significant vision or mission excepting their plans to maintain lifetime control, all would parallel the disastrous situation faced by Foster more than 100 years ago. The work of the TUEL stands today as a version of how the militants can confront the failed policies of many of the current union “leaders” and push forward to revitalize the labor movement. Time spent investigating the work of Foster and the TUEL is time well spent.
For a glimpse into the long work of William Z. Foster in the labor movement, including the TUEL, see:
American Trade Unionism, by William Z. Foster.
Several volumes of Philip Foner’s landmark U.S. labor history cover the TUEL and TUUL periods;
-Chris Townsend was most recently the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing Director. Previously he was an International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), and he has held local positions in both the SEIU and UFCW.