Sam Dolgoff, “The American Labor Movement: A New Beginning”

This post reprints excerpts from a section of Sam Dolgoff’s The American Labor Movement: A New Beginning. The final few sentences of Dolgoff’s pamphlet describe how we are trying to proceed with Recomposition: “We must not be impatient. We must be prepared to work within the context of a long-range perspective which may take years of dedicated effort before visible progress will show that our struggles have not been in vain. It is imperative that we launch a wide-ranging constructive discussion on better ways of promoting the regeneration of revolutionary unionism. None of us have all the answers. But together we can explore new possibilities and more effective methods than have thus far been advanced. It is hoped that the ideas here outlined will serve as the basis for such a discussion.”
The excerpts below focus on revolutionary labor unions and on spontaneous actions by workers, topics dear to our hearts here at Recomposition. The section on revolutionary unions is particularly relevant to the IWW today and the section on spontaneous revolts is relevant to recent mobilizations in Madison, Wisconsin and elsewhere. There is much else worth reading in Dolgoff’s pamphlet. Interested readers can find the rest online here.

Discussion On Regeneration Of The American Labor Movement
by Sam Dolgoff

(…) Revolutionary Possibilities

Revolutionary unions cannot possibly provide the conservative worker interested only in “What’s in it for me?” with the benefits that a “legitimate” union is able to provide: strike benefits; annuities; health and life insurance; an adequate staff to administer the welfare programs; a capable legal staff to draw up contracts and defend the union in the courts; plenty of money to pay for all these and many other services; a “responsible” union, recognized and enjoying the respect of the employers with whom employers are willing to sign contracts; etc.

We must face up to the unpleasant fact that the conservative wage slave, afraid to defend his or her rights against the boss and his stooges, is not going to join a tiny, poverty stricken “subversive” union whom he or she probably never heard of. We have neither the resources, the personnel, nor the desire to imitate the class-collaborationist unions. We cannot do so without betraying our principles and losing our identity. Aside from practical considerations, making it impossible to compete with powerfully entrenched unions; attempts to induce conservative workers to leave their unions and join ours, by hypocritically diluting principles, is a suicidal policy which, to a great extent, led to the collapse of the European labor movement.

Those most likely to join radical unions are the unconscious rebels who are raising hell on the job. They are not afraid to lose their jobs. They challenge the authority of their foremen and supervisors. They refuse to work overtime. To enforce their demands they start wild cat strikes in violation of union rules, contracts, and government regulations In the course of their struggles the rebellious workers improvised syndicalist tactics and grass-roots forms of organization similar to those worked out by the revolutionary labor movement during its development. The demands of the wildcatters practically duplicate those made by the workers since the inception of industrial capitalism. They include:

* the right of the workers on the job to call and settle strikes and grievances
* all demands and ways of putting them into effect must also be decided by the rank-and-file.
* slowdowns, ‘sit ins” harassing employers, supervisors and foremen and other forms of passive resistance.
* the battle for workers’ control must be fought on the shop floor.
* refusal to honor agreements made for them, when such agreements clash with the interests of the workers on the job.

Today’s rebels are acting in accordance with the militant syndicalist traditions of the American labor movement. Because the syndicalist opposition is itself a wild cat movement in revolt against the system, it related best to their own experience. Today’s wildcatters could be most receptive to revolutionary ideas. If the libertarian left, now almost extinct, is to become a real force challenging business unionism, it will have to go all out to reach them.

This is not to imply that we should, even if we can, foist our own ideas upon the workers. As Stanley Aronowitz puts it, ” . . . the spontaneous revolt will have to develop its own collective forms of struggle and demands.” But he believes that ‘ . the labor movements of the future . . will take a revolutionary syndicalist direction. . . ” (see Workers ‘ Control, p . 105 )

Another capable observer, Stanley Weir, notes that the rebellious workers’ groups ” . . . scattered in thousands of industrial establishments across the country who have developed informal underground unions” constitute a sort of guerrilla movement. He suggests that the coordination of such work-groups and plant committees united in city, regional and national councils “might be an alternative to bureaucracies elected every few years, far removed from the tribulations and the life of the workers in the
factories….” (Workers’ Control, p 46-47,105)

Deficiencies of Wild Cat Movement

Without discounting such possibilities, it seems that these speculations about the future of the wild cat movement are too optimistic. They do not sufficiently consider a number of formidable obstacles.

Spontaneity–synonym for the spirit of revolt–is, of course, an indispensable prerequisite for social change. But spontaneity alone, is not enough. Emotions are fickle. Popular enthusiasm comes and goes, flares up suddenly and subsides as quickly as it rises, leaving little behind.

A most disturbing, even tragic, confirmation of this truth, is the way the miners (the most militant wildcatters in American labor history) after, in effect, ousting their “reform” leader Arnold Miller, allowed his successor, Sam Church, to re-institute a dictatorship almost as absolute as that exercised by Boyle Church was allowed to appoint his own vice-president, double union dues, increase the organizing staff
from thirty to one hundred and twenty appointees, loyal to Church. For this, Church was lauded by such organs of big business as the Wall Street Journal and the mine owners.

There must be knowledge and organization. Spontaneity is not sufficient. Spontaneity is effective only when translated into a solid organization, which animated by the spirit of revolt, is guided by clear and consistent ideas. Bakunin and the revolutionary syndicalists in the First International, stressed the point that if spontaneity alone:

“were sufficient to liberate peoples they would have freed themselves long ago since spontaneity did not prevent them from accepting all the religious, political and economic absurdities of which they are the eternal victims They are ineffectual because they lack two things–organization and knowledge — not even poverty and
degradation are sufficient to generate the Social Revolution. They may call forth sporadic local rebellions, but not great, widespread mass uprisings it is indispensable that the people be inspired by a universal ideal, that they have a general idea of their rights, and a deep passionate belief in the validity of these rights” (Bakunin On Anarchy, p 14)

The militants are not social revolutionists, determined to overthrow capitalism and build the new society. Their attitude to capitalism and social problems in general, differs in no essential respect from the ultra-conservative or liberal bourgeois views of their leaders–men like George Meany or Walter Reuther (both deceased). They seek only gradual reforms within the unions and within the system. Thus, the rank-and-file miners of Kanaway County, West Virginia, virulently patriotic, demanded elimination of subversive” literature and teaching of “subversive” doctrines in the elementary and high schools.

It is axiomatic that neither the rebellious mood of militants, nor the structure of an organization, however well conceived, make it REVOLUTIONARY. A labor movement is REVOLUTIONARY only to the extent that the workers feel the need to organize themselves into revolutionary unions dedicated to the abolition of capitalism and the state, to take possession of the means of production and establish a society self managed by the workers. Lacking these revolutionary perspectives, rebellious movements gradually lose their dynamism and integrate themselves into the system. The chief function of a revolutionary minority is to “fan the flames of discontent” (IWW slogan).

Revolutionary ideas cannot be artificially planted. Workers become receptive when these concepts are confirmed and reflected through their own experience.