Organizing the Unorganized
The articles in this section consider why labor unions have never been able to organize more than about one-fourth of the wage-earning population. Some of the answers of course lie in the capitalists’ power to control the labor market, pay differentials, and job structures; not to mention their influence over the government, the courts, the police, the media, and so forth. But as the previous group of articles suggests, even unorganized workers have engaged in militant acts of resistance. If that is so, does organized labor bear some responsibility for failing or refusing to organize the unorganized?
In his influential essay “Working-Class Self-Activity,” George Rawick argues that important organizational and social gains are generated by workers themselves, not by the institutions that claim to represent them. Workers’ own activity created the modern labor movement through factory sit-downs, and mass strikes in the 1930s, but labor union leaders, preoccupied with their own organizational concerns, failed to follow the workers’ lead. Indeed, they imposed their own agenda on the labor movement and tried to channel rank-and-file militancy into established bureaucratic channels less threatening to capital and the state.
As a case in point, Roslyn Feldberg examines the problem of organizing clerical workers. Male trade unionists argued that women office workers were “unorganizable,” but clericals’ own activity indicated significant discontent and readiness to take collective action. Feldberg describes the real obstacles that existed to organizing the offices, but she refuses to blame the workers themselves for remaining unorganized when unions failed to offer support.
Traditionally socialist historians saw radical movements as providing an alternative to the “misleadership” of conventional trade unionists. Radical America historians also appreciated the historic role of the Left, but still found the radical movement wanting. Indeed, the journal was formed to explore the history of American radicalism and to learn from past mistakes. In this tradition, Roy Rosenzweig studies the radical unemployed organizations launched by Communists and Socialists in the early years of the Great Depression. The unemployed councils and leagues were most effective when they built upon the spontaneous, self-help activity of jobless workers. Indeed, militant, locally rooted struggles could even overcome racial differences. However, when the Communist Party burdened its organizing efforts with a heavy dose of sectarian rhetoric, it alienated many potential recruits. Rosenzweig is more optimistic about the potential for leftist leadership of workers’ struggles than George Rawick. But both historians take a similar view of effective organizing: it has to flow from the spontaneous local activity generated by workers themselves. If outside organizers impose their strategy and political views, rank-and-file workers become alienated.
Staughton Lynd adopts a similar position in explaining how a rank-and-file movement of steelworkers rose up against the company unions and the do-nothing AFL craft unions during the early 1930s. But just as the movement broke with the AFL and looked for support from the organized Left, the Communist Party abandoned its efforts to build independent unions and began to work within the old unions. Lynd faults the Left for not taking its cue from the workers themselves. By following an international party line, the Communists cut themselves off from a real rank-and-file movement and played into the hands of established union leaders. Thus, the Left itself limited “The Possibility of Radicalism in the Early 1930’s,” at least in the case of the steel industry. At the time he wrote this article Staughton Lynd worked as a labor lawyer active in the effort to democratize the Steel Workers’ Union. As a radical historian he showed that the Union’s conservatism resulted from conscious decisions by the leadership and not from the docility or passivity of the membership. In general, rank-and-file workers acted more militantly than top union leaders or the officials of the Communist Party. Lynd’s efforts to blend political activity and radical history offered an inspiring example of activist intellectual work.
Manning Marable, another activist intellectual, also considers the problem of organizing the unorganized in his essay on A. Philip Randolph, the most important black trade union leader in U. S. history. Like Baron, Marable sees the oppression of black workers as a national question as well as a matter of race and class. By ignoring the driving force of nationalism among black workers Randolph missed important opportunities to actually mobilize the black masses. Instead, the head of the Pullman Porters Union relied upon the old socialist idea that race problems could be solved through unified class struggle. He also held to the view that minority workers could not advance unless their organizations affiliated directly with the American Federation of Labor.
Finally, the Alliance Against Sexual Coercion argues that violence against women workers requires an affirmative approach based on the experience of the women’s movement. The situation described by Mary Bularzik in Section I has changed little. Women workers, who remain largely unorganized, cannot count on unions to fight for equal, non-sexist treatment. The Alliance strategy draws on the model of rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters to make direct contact with workers suffering from sexual harassment. This approach is not anti-union. Indeed, it is based on collective organization rather than individual action through courts or agencies. The Alliance’s study of sexual harassment indicates that women workers, organized or not, are still unrepresented and unprotected by the labor movement. Therefore, feminists with a workplace orientation have taken to other strategies just like the civil rights movement and the occupational health and safety movement. These movements show that workers are concerned about more than wages and benefits.
If the AFL-CIO is to organize the unorganized it should look to the history of workers’ struggles. It shows that unorganized workers have been mobilized by the struggle for dignity and equality on the job. Indeed, if the unions are to represent more than a quarter of the wage-earning population, they must address the social issues raised in these articles as well as the traditional economic issues. They must also recognize that autonomous workers’ movements, whether they attempt to organize the unemployed, demand racial equality, or fight against sexism, can contribute enormous energy and purpose to organized labor.