Rising U.S. labor militancy
during and after WWI
Printed below is an excerpt from Revolutionary Continuity: Birth of the Communist Movement, 1918-1922 by Farrell Dobbs, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for March. It is the second volume in a series by the author on the history of the development of Marxist leadership in the United States. With the onset of World War I, leaders of the largest Social Democratic parties organized in the Second International backed their own governments in the imperialist slaughter. The book traces the emergence of a communist movement in the United States and its political interconnection with the efforts by V.I. Lenin and the Russian Communist Party to replace the politically bankrupt old International with a new international leadership of the working class. The excerpt is from the chapter “New Capitalist Repressions,” which describes growing labor militancy that arose in response to government demands for greater sacrifices by the workers during the war, and the major labor battles that erupted after the war ended. Copyright © 1983 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY FARRELL DOBBS
In 1917 and 1918 mounting discontent among workers, combined with the capitalist government’s efforts to maintain a “responsible” and stable wartime labor force, led to the recruitment of three-quarters of a million new members to the American Federation of Labor [AFL]. This increased its total forces by nearly 40 percent to more than 2,700,000.
After the United States entered the European hostilities in April 1917, the capitalists raked in ever-larger profits, while workers’ wages lagged farther and farther behind rapidly climbing prices. The “patriotic” sacrifices in support of the war effort that the government demanded from “everyone” were imposed in a one-sided way. As the workers’ buying power shrank, and their economic hardships became more severe, the urge to organize for a fight to improve their situation grew stronger.
Along with the rise in recruitment stemming from this upturn in labor militancy, the AFL’s growth was given a boost by government policies. Shortly after war was declared on Germany, President Wilson set up a War Labor Board responsible for assuring uninterrupted industrial production. The board’s chief tasks were to prevent strikes for the duration of hostilities, and, except for the few changes it approved, to keep wages frozen. These measures, it was claimed, did nothing to impair workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively in a “responsible” manner. As the labor upsurge gathered momentum, however, the government became more explicit about how the workers should be steered in a “responsible” direction. Employers were pressured to tolerate organization of their employees by the AFL as a temporary wartime policy.
Wilson justified this course to the boss class by pointing to the collaborative record of top AFL officials. When the U.S. government entered the war, they had quickly imposed a no-strike policy upon the union ranks and accepted establishment of the War Labor Board to control collective bargaining. [Samuel] Gompers, especially, had taken the lead in keeping a tight rein on all union activities to prevent outbreaks of workers’ actions to defend themselves. These polices aimed at containing the class struggle were doggedly maintained, no matter how pressing the workers’ need for effective action.
Despite this treacherous conduct by the heads of their own organization, AFL members were able to secure limited concessions from the employers. Through mass pressure they forced the War Labor Board to grant some wage increases and reductions in the workweek. In general, though, these concessions were confined to skilled hands. The only significant exception occurred in the meatpacking industry where a unique situation existed. For the great mass of workers in basic industry, things continued month after month to go from bad to worse.
By the time the war ended in November 1918, the workers’ grievances ran so deep that they began to revolt on a massive scale. A spirit of rebellion spread, not only among unorganized workers in basic industry, but also into the ranks of white-collar employees. All were ready to fight for pay hikes to catch up with rising living costs, an eight-hour day to replace the common ten- to twelve-hour day, and improved job conditions, which had deteriorated under the employers’ wartime offensive.
The employers’ rejection of these demands triggered a nationwide strike wave on a scale never before witnessed in the United States. In some instances, where top AFL officials tried to prevent such action, “outlaw” walkouts took place. Union-busting lockouts by the bosses were usually turned into strikes. Brutal assaults on picket lines by hired thugs and cops were stoutly resisted.
As the struggle tempo accelerated, three major battles erupted in February 1919, each of them involving large numbers of workers. Textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and copper miners in Butte, Montana, walked out, and a general strike was called in Seattle, Washington, to protest a government attack on a local union of shipyard workers.
The impact of the Russian revolution on workers in this country was among the factors giving rise to the militancy displayed from Lawrence to Seattle. The proletarian victory sweeping across the former Russian Empire enabled U.S. workers to perceive more clearly their inherent power as a class, and they wanted to use that power in their expanding fight to wrest concessions from the bosses.