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The extension of solidarity conflicts with the spirit of individualism.

The extension of solidarity conflicts with the spirit of individualism

Alice Kessler-Harris' paper succinctly captures the dilemma faced by the American labor movement and its trade unions throughout their turbulent and erratic history over the last century. She also hints at some of the reasons why trade unionism appears in disarray today and the labor movement seems an institution of diminishing importance in our national life. Labor's current parlous situation notwithstanding, Kessler-Harris does not let us forget that all of us (not just working people) who believe in causes larger than narrow self-interest--or should I say self-enrichment?--would be all the poorer in the absence of effective trade unions, which during the past century have done more than almost any other institution to elevate the material and moral conditions of life for the greatest number of people. Yet, as Kessler-Harris points out, the labor movement has always found itself impaled on the horns of a dilemma: the trade union commitment to collective action or solidarity versus the powerful American national myth of individualism. This dilemma was not the only reason that, prior to the late 1930's, the American labor movement rarely counted more than 10 percent of the total labor force among its ranks; however, the appeal of individualism effectively kept many American workers away from the unions for their craft or industry.

Sometimes I think that more workers believed strongly in the right to work than in forms of collective action promoted by trade unions. And such workers willingly and by the hundreds of thousands served as strikebreakers. Trade unions fought long and hard against the powerful strain of individualism in American life, society, and politics, especially prior to the revolution in labor law during the New Deal years. Those workers who joined unions consciously and irrevocably broke with the tradition of individualism.

Promoting solidarity

What I find most remarkable is how even the allegedly most conservative and respectable of national trade unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries promoted forms of solidarity. One example is the Brotherhood of Railway Engineers, the most conservative of all craft unions and so respectable that it remained outside the more radical American Federation of Labor. This union--that at different times broke strikes by firemen and brakemen, played a part in breaking Eugene V. Debs' famous 1894 Pullman boycott and strike, and drew the line against all nonwhite members --required its own members, by constitutional oath, to support strike action by all their brothers and never to service the rolling stock of struck railroads. This clause in the union's constitution led several Federal judges, including William Howard Taft in 1893, to declare the Brotherhood a heinous, criminal conspiracy.

It is clear that unions and their members were never as prey to the spirit of individualism as their nonunion brothers and sisters. For union members, then, the issue was not collective action versus individualism; rather, it was usually how far to extend the imperative of solidarity. For the Brotherhood of Railway Engineers, solidarity did not extend beyond the craft and its white members. For most AFL unions, the limits were wider though ambiguous. And for Wobblies, of course, solidarity had no limits. For most leaders of AFL unions and later those in the CIO, certain aspects of the leaders' public behavior were like Sherlock Holmes' dog that did not bark. Sometimes what union officials refused to say in public said more about labor's beliefs and aims than torrents of oratory.

In fact, there were two things that labor leaders seldom spoke about publicly, certainly not outside union halls or conventions. Like all good Americans, unionists extolled the rights of individuals and private property, and the unionists knew precisely what they were doing: tactically, the labor movement's drive to build solidarity and limit the powers of management, which flowed from the latter's control of property, were promoted in the guise of defending individuals and property rights:

The Wagner Act of 1935 proved why this was so. Few pieces of legislation in our history ever had more radical or transformative intentions. Its sponsors clearly wanted to promote trade unionism, collective bargaining, and the redistribution of wealth and income; they also sought, in a variety of ways, to limit the arbitrary power possession of private property conferred on business. However, look for a moment at the preamble fashioned by the drafters of the Wagner Act: it referred specifically to the rights of workers as individuals, not as union members; it promised to render capitalism more stable and profitable; and it alluded to policies that would eliminate strikes and industrial conflict. Like the drafters of the Wagner Act, trade unionists could attack corporate power best by indirection. Labor leaders seldom promoted their cause effectively when they extolled collectivism in place of individualism, attacked the rights of property, or denigrated capitalism as a system. In practice, however, trade unions did all three. No union member could act as a complete individualist and remain a loyal member. The more successful or powerful a union was, the more it trespassed on the rights of property owners and began the process of altering capitalism.

None of this is to say that union practice necessarily eliminated profits and the accumulation of capital. Still, the way employers acted in the 1920's and the way they are behaving today suggests that they realize that unions as institutions conflict with the principles of accumulation and self-enrichment at the heart of capitalism.
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Author:Dubofsky, Melvyn
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Aug 1, 1987
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