Socialist Worker

Battling US capitalism and union corruption

In the first part of our new series Megan Trudell looks at the history of working class struggles in the US

Issue No. 2112

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

The early decades of the 20th century in the US were dominated by dramatic changes in capitalism – and profound resistance by ordinary people.

The period after the American Civil War was one of rapid industrialisation and technological advance.

Mechanised assembly lines greatly increased productivity. At the same time they forced workers to work on fragmented tasks and at faster rates.

The productive capacity unleashed by the growth of such vast corporations propelled the US to the position of world’s leading manufacturing nation.

But it was a nation where vast wealth existed alongside the worst poverty and deprivation.

Industrialisation was accompanied by massive population growth as immigrants sought work in the “land of plenty”.

Cities expanded as immigrants and rural workers were drawn into the new industries. New York and Chicago doubled in size between 1890 and 1910.

These new workers often lived and worked in appalling conditions. Housing was overcrowded and inadequate. Work was exhausting and often dangerous. Wages were low and benefits nonexistent.

The unions were organised through the American Federation of Labour (AFL) on a “craft” basis – workers with a particular skill had their own union, rather than uniting with other workers that faced the same boss.

The craft unions also discriminated against black workers and women.

AFL leader Samuel Gompers was a reactionary who bitterly opposed radicalism and believed a gradual approach would slowly improve workers’ conditions.

While most workers suffered at the hands of US business, AFL officials were highly paid.

They fraternised with the bosses and used goon squads to intimidate their opponents in the union.

The influx of immigrant workers and job insecurity certainly did pose problems for union organisation.

But the AFL was wrong to consider these workers “unorganisable”. In the decade before the war, colossal strikes took place among immigrant workers.

In the New York textile factories the 1909 strike known as the “uprising of the 30,000” was based on Jewish and Italian women working in the shirt trade.

In the Colorado mines in 1914 a 14-month long strike led by Greek immigrants escalated into guerrilla warfare following a massacre of workers by the National Guard.

Along with struggle came a rise in the popularity of socialist ideas. At its height, the Socialist Party of America had over 120,000 members. But its leadership was dominated by reformists who recoiled at ideas of revolutionary change.

There were, however, powerful impulses for such change. In 1905 revolutionary syndicalists committed to the overthrow of capitalism formed the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) under the slogan of “one big union”.

IWW members were known as “Wobblies” and included activists Mother Jones, Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

They travelled the country organising workers, defying the law and often being met by violence and repression. IWW member Joe Hill was executed by firing squad, while organiser Frank Little was lynched.

The IWW became a major force in 1912 when it led a strike in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, that reached national prominence.

In Lawrence native skilled workers worked alongside Italian, Slavic, Hungarian, French-Canadian, Portuguese and Syrian immigrants in unskilled jobs.

Over 20,000 workers, mainly women, divided by skill and by language, stood together in a strike for “bread and roses”.

They won their demands despite severe repression and AFL treachery.

The IWW was a tremendously important step in the history of the US working class.

Its emphasis on solidarity between workers regardless of craft, skill, race, language or gender was in direct opposition to the policies of the AFL.

It raised the potential of class unity. It welcomed women, black workers and immigrants into its ranks, and mobilised thousands into battles for organisation.

And it fired people’s imagination with the message that it was the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism: “By organising industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”

The protests, strikes and growth of socialist organisation led to reform. But troubles lay in store for the new movement, as we shall see next week.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.