Rad Geek People's Daily

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Posts tagged Sam Gompers

On chutzpah

I really like this shirt, due to the fact that it’s just about the cutest thing ever, and would love to be able to buy it as a gift for some toddler of my acquaintance. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to pay one red cent for it.

It's a little red and black t-shirt for a toddler, with a cartoon of a black kitten and the words I'm A Little Wobbly

Why not? Well, consider the source: https://unionshop.aflcio.org/I_m_a_Little_Wobbly_T-shirt_P177.cfm

Ah, yes, The AFL-CIO Retail Store for Activists. The product details explains:

Your little one toddling around will show his or her union roots with this “I’m a Little Wobbly” children’s T-shirt in bright red. Wobbly, of course, refers to a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Of course. The Industrial Workers of the World. Which you may remember as the union whose founding convention was marked by an address where Big Bill Haywood argued that the conservative and bureaucratic AF of L, which presumes to be the labor movement of this country, is not a working-class movement, and which to this day routinely condemns the AFL-CIO as business unionists and labor fakirs. You may also remember it as the union which the AFL’s Great Leader and President-for-Life Sam Gompers declared a radical fungus on the labor movement, a union organized of, by, and for the reckless, the unprincipled, the uneducated, the unstable. You may also recall that, from 1917 to 1919, Gompers and his AFL actively collaborated with, and publicly defended, the Wilson War Government’s systematic efforts to stamp out those same Wobblies, through press censorship, through raids on union headquarters, through the seizure of membership lists and internal records, through mass arrests, through espionage and sedition prosecutions, through imprisonment, and through torture of imprisoned organizers. For his patriotic efforts Gompers was rewarded with newfound influence as an apparatchik for Wilson’s National War Labor Board.

I have to hand it to the AFL-CIO: I haven’t seen such chutzpah since maybe 1921 (when the the Bolsheviks gave a handful of Anarchist political prisoners day-passes out of jail so they could help put on a big state funeral for Peter Kropotkin).

For what it’s worth, if you want actual Wobbly merchandise, you can get it through the IWW Online Store.

See also:

Over my shoulder #1 (or: Friday Book-Bragging)

Everyone’s got their own Friday afternoon game to play, and this one’s mine. I’m introducing a new recurring feature for the Rad Geek People’s Daily: Over My Shoulder, quotes (mostly without commentary) from something I’ve been reading this week. Irony to one side, this isn’t really intended as bragging about my reading list; the point is that what I’m reading is a way of getting at things I’ve been thinking about, even if I don’t yet have a confident position to stake out yet; and also that there are a lot of people out there who are smarter than I am, and not everything they write is something I can link to in online commentary or read the whole thing weblog posts. So here’s the rules.

  1. The quote should be something that I have read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It has to be something I’ve actually read, and not something that I’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post my favorite quote.)

  2. It should be a matter of one or a few paragraphs.

  3. There’s no commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  4. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t. Whether I do or not isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

If you like this idea, feel free to repeat it or adapt it as you see fit on your own page or in the comments. (Just please don’t call it a meme: there’s no such thing. Thanks.)

And we’re off. The inaugural selection is a bit I read yesterday on the bus, from the first chapter of Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor (all emphasis is in the original):

Fraina argued that what he called state capitalism, an expansive capitalist state embracing administrative centralization and militarization, had rendered the old socialist expectations irrelevant. Liberalism, as it had taken ideological form (Fraina found fault in the philosophy of pragmatism), now offered the intellectual counterpart to AFL unionism, narrowing the range of radical thought, aiding and assisting the upper classes and upper strata of labor against the threat of the irrational lower classes and of the world’s suffering peoples at large.

Fraina directed the sharpest of his polemics against William English Walling, a renowned socialist intellectual en route to becoming an AFL spokesman. Walling had observed shrewdly that socialists had been blind to the inner strengths of capitalism, the increased power and strength that it will gain through state capitalism and the increased wealth that will come through a beneficent and scientific policy of production. Being regulated, the system would be successively transformed by the mechanics of a complex struggle: a state capitalism under the hegemony of big and petty bourgeoisie would besupplanted by a state socialism under the petty bourgeoisie and the skilled workers. In the process, the allegedly messianic character of socialism would fall away entirely, and the social question would become no more than the struggle by those who have less, against those who have more in matters of income, hours, leisure, places of living, associations, and opportunity. Such a struggle could be properly ordered, guided by reform through existing institutions. The disorder implied by the ideas and very constituency of the IWW was, finally, a danger to the social détente which could make this benign process possible.

Even in AFL circles, confidence in such a benign outcome wavered. As the class conflicts of 1909-1913 took shape, skilled workers once again began to perceive that the emerging system often delivered fewer benefits for them than thinkers like Walling predicted. Solidarity campaigns of mutual support in strikes, like a dramatic one by railroad workers over several years, violated the AFL norm of workers with union contracts crossing picket lines and in effect scabbing on those still striking. The attempt at coordination by railroad brotherhoods, the appearance of metal trades councils, and (by the time of the war) the appeal for solidarity among the skilled and unskilled often bypassed the idea of political or electoral socialism altogether for a more popular American idea: workers’ control of production. Many local AFL members and even leaders unmoved by socialism mulled the idea, while Gompers’s circle rejected it out of hand as impossible and undesirable, an erasure of the line between labor’s prerogative and capital’s rights.

Conservative chiefs of AFL unions ranging from the hatters and pattern-makers to tailors, sheet metal workers, carpenters, and machinists, all lost their offices to socialist-backed candidates during 1911-1912 on grounds of solidarity versus conciliation with employers. A combination of administrative manipulation, political alliances with Democrats inside labor, and forceful support of labor conservatives by the Catholic Church was required to bring anti-socialist functionaries back into union office. The renewed victory of Gompers was sealed by the events of the First World War. As labor surged forward, anti-war ideas were in many parts of the country forbidden in published or spoken form, and those who voiced them faced deportation, arrest, beatings by vigilantes, and even lynching. The IWW, which carefully refrained from any political statements, was nevertheless suppressed in a fashion unknown hitherto in the United States, save perhaps for the attacks on Reconstructionist radicals in the post-Civil War South. This time, the modern version of the Ku Klux Klan had the presidential seal of approval and top labor leaders’ avid cooperation. Gompers demanded political acquiescence to the war, or at least silence, as the price of admission for newcomers to the AFL’s own swelling wartime bureaucracy. Upwardly mobile intellectuals around labor, like Walling, made their contribution by insisting that the U.S. economic empire that had expanded dramatically in wartime was benevolent, and that the leaders of the AFL, in their appeals for loyalty to government and indifference to those suppressed, accurately represented the interests of the working class.

Regulated state capitalism did indeed take shape, even by 1917, though it more resembled Fraina’s nightmares than Walling’s dreams. As newspapers were suppressed, Socialist Party offices destroyed, and local and national anti-war spokespeople, including Eugene Debs, sentenced to long terms in prison, Fraina acutely observed that the newly regulated system included the extension of the functions of the federal government, regulation equally of capital and labor, the Strong Man policy of administrative centralization, and the mobilization of everything by a national administrative control of industry. Having failed to organize an international system to regulate the transfer of profits among ruling groups, capitalism now rended the world, and (as Fraina correctly anticipated the worse horrors to come in the next world war and after) prepared the basis for future global conflicts. In that process, Fraina argued, leaders like Gompers could be depended upon to serve their true masters, while former socialists like Walling would tag along and rationalize the process–as perhaps termporarily dreadful but inevitable, and ultimately beneficial.

— Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor, pp. 69-71.

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