Lessons From the Trade Union Educational League

Many militant workers are familiar with independent union-based caucuses, established largely to restore rank-and-file democratic control of unions, especially at the higher reaches of the trade union hierarchy, which is the center of organized labor’s class collaborative and traitorous relationships with corporate bosses. Following Ron Carey’s 1991 election to lead the Teamsters Union, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) founded in 1976, became the most well known of the caucuses; however, there are other caucuses that have functioned nationally or nearly so for many years. Not so well known, of course, are local union caucuses, with similar, if not identical aims. These caucuses should not be confused with the many cliques, power groups and temporary coalitions that are solely based on a fight over union posts and the privileges that most unions provide their officialdom.

Probably most union activists have not heard of the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), in its own way a kind of a cross-union caucus. And why should they, since TUEL was an organization not of this generation, but of this generation’s grandparents or great grandparents. More precisely, TUEL existed for just seven years, from November 1920 to December 1927. Still, in those seven years (more than half of the so-called 1920’s Golden Age that preceded the Great Depression (1929-1939), TUEL accomplished much more than the combined accomplishments to date of the largest present day caucuses.

TUEL led difficult major strikes and won some that would have challenged the typical efforts of the Samuel Gompers types of that time; it recruited thousands of members in its short life-span; and more importantly, it advocated democratic, rank-and-file unionism, the end of union leaders’ cooperation with the boss class, industrial unionism, workers’ political independence (a labor party), anti-racism, and international workers’ solidarity. Its founding declaration stated that the TUEL “is campaigning against the reactionaries, incompetents, and crooks who occupy strategic positions in many of our organizations. It is striving to replace them with militants, with men and women unionists who look upon the labor movement not as a means for making an easy living, but as an instrument for the achievement of working class emancipation. In other words, the [TUEL] is working in every direction necessary to put life and spirit and power into the trade union movement.”

The achievements of the TUEL members were especially noteworthy when viewed in the context of its social and economic times. The Golden Twenties was a time of an expanding economy, after the post-war slump. Still, nearly 40 percent of the population lived at or below the poverty line. But it was also a time of viciously broken strikes and political persecution, of armed police action and Pinkerton goon violence against strikers. Dramatic hallmarks of the period were the loss by 1924 of over one million union members (nearly 25 percent of the membership) and the execution of Nico Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, greatly mourned labor martyrs.

Poverty-stricken agricultural workers and immigrants poured into the growing industrial centers of mammoth, unorganized industrial sweatshops. While organized labor shriveled into ever-smaller craft unions, the AFL, headed until 1924 by Samuel Gompers, wooed corporate bosses. Sometimes the situation of union workers was barely better than many unorganized workers. The TUEL’s most influential founder, William Z. Foster said: “In the days when the unions still possessed some militancy, the conditions of organized workers always stood forth clearly as being far better than those of unorganized workers. But now in many cases union workers are employed under conditions little better than those of non-union workers. This is a deadly situation.”

Many social commentators have remarked on how much the 1920’s resemble our own times. Certainly, much like the 1920’s the power of today’s unions is declining, even as many workers living standards are threatened and job security is waning. If pickets lines are not overrun by cops or made feeble by court injunctions, it may be due, in part, to the scarcity of strikes, as unions have more often made concessions to employers rather than strike. And despite the end of the craft unions’ monopoly and the successes of industrial unionism, today the U.S. labor officialdom is no less bureaucratic and detached from the ranks, as was the 1920’s AFL officialdom.

But despite the similarities, that was then and this is now. The events that shaped the 1920’s and led to the organization of TUEL are not the events that unionists face today. The ability of TUEL to appeal successfully to the 1920’s labor left and fuse many of them into a fighting organization challenged the reigning trade union powers. And the TUEL could mount major battles with the bosses, despite the expanding economy and declining union strength. That example stands in sharp contrast with the mostly separate, often ad hoc campaigns and struggles of today’s caucuses and the scattered forces of the labor left.

A united front of militant trade unionists would certainly have the critical mass to carry out sustained actions and projects that today’s somewhat scattered labor militants can’t realistically think of doing on their own. For example, a unified class-conscious left wing of the American labor movement would certainly be able to organize full-time workers’ centers in most of the major urban areas. Such centers could provide ongoing solidarity support, legal and technical information, classes and forums, and sustained contact with workers and others newly looking for answers to labor problems and perhaps broader social issues. A united front of the labor left wing could fill the need for a popularly written press and an online voice that together would counter, at least on a small scale, the corporate media barrage. That these things are readily doable is evidenced by the scale of the many ad-hoc activities, including a newly launched newspaper, of the labor left and social progressives in response to the war against Afghanistan and repeated bipartisan threats of still more overseas’ attacks and invasions in Iraq and elsewhere.

A few weeks ago, Jim Smith, the editor of L. A. Labor, an online labor news site, and a former union organizer, made an argument for the need of the labor movement to change course, to replace the business-unionist “corporate model” of union organization with what Smith calls a “collegial model” of unionism. Smith says some of the elements of a collegial unionism might include a “thorough-going democratic process from top to bottom, including direct election of all officers.” Decision-making “at the lowest effective level…where the real power of the union—collective action—can be most impressive.” And reaching out “to people in struggle outside the union to form broad alliances to fight common enemies.” Smith proposes making unions physically easily accessible “by moving out of office buildings and into the streets with store-front service centers.”

Neither Smith’s ideas nor anyone’s ideas for reversing the dead-end drift of the bulk of the U.S. labor officialdom can be realized by a handful of activists, each going his or her own way. But an organized labor left should be able to provide something that the labor oligarchy has not had to cope with: A counterweight, an opposition, and an alternative for the disappointed union ranks. The TUEL began its work with a few dozen activists, but before its end it made some valuable union history. True, the activists included some top-notch organizers. Still, with the lessons that the labor left has learned since the 1920’s and thirties, it just might be possible for it, too, to make some valuable labor history.

> The article above was written by the late Charles Walker.

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