Labor Advocate Online
Kansas City's Cyber Labor Newsletter


by Paul Le Blanc

[This is based on a presentation given to an educational conference of the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters in December 2001. It has been enriched by the responses from that audience. My thanks, also, to Bill Fletcher, Stephanie Luce, Kim Moody Bryan Palmer, and Michael Wilson for suggestions and encouragement as I worked on initial drafts of this talk.]

I want to start by emphasizing the notion that all of us are part of history. Conceptions of history as being the product of a few great and powerful men – with all kinds of dates and wars and treaties and policies associated with those great men – is a notion of history that is often boring and always false. A more accurate picture of history comes from the understanding that, in fact, it has been created by the lives, the labor, the struggles, the calamities, the triumphs, and the endurance of our families – our great-great-great-great grandparents and their contemporaries and those who came before and those who have come after. This involves the great working-class majority, and it involves the labor movement that some working people created in order to secure a better life for all. 

I grew up in the labor movement – my parents were both strong union people. My early memories include meetings and picket lines and Labor Day parades. Actually, when I was a little boy, I used to believe that my father was a fireman, or a combination of fire fighter and policeman. In fact he was a union organizer. He helped the good guys (the workers) fight the bad guys (the bosses). I imagined, as a five-year old, that such fights would involve guns and fists, and handcuffs to prevent the bosses from hitting the workers. One of the worst things the bosses could do to a worker was to fire him – and my dad would help save the worker by putting the fire out. I figured that there must be some kind of union fire truck involved.

I would like to think that, as time went on, my understanding of the labor movement has matured. But I can’t shake the feeling that my understanding as a five-year old may contain some important insights into the way things really are. What is very clear to me – based on my memories, my own personal life experience, and my studies in labor history -- is that my father and mother and the other union members were an important part of history. Each one of us is part of history – we are shaped by it, we continue it, and we also have the ability to help shape it one way or another.

The people at this conference of the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters are among those who have been seeking, with some success, to shape history in a particular way. My understanding of your work is that – along with the larger labor movement -- you have been seeking to increase democracy, dignity on the job, economic justice, and the triumph of community spirit over the spirit of selfish indifference and private greed. The course of history is determined by powerful currents and counter-currents that can push it in one direction or another – for example, in the direction of one or another version of the Golden Rule. You know the two versions. One version is: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The other version is: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”

The history of those who labor, of the working class, of the labor movement, and of people like ourselves cannot be understood apart from the history of the United States. Our story has often been ignored by those who write the history books, or sometimes there is a little bit of labor history tacked on to what is supposed to be the “main story.” But our story is at the heart of American history, it is an essential element in the very foundation of the history of the United States. Related to that, the future of our country will be determined in large measure by what the labor movement – and people such as you – do or fail to do today and tomorrow. And to turn it around, the success of organizations such as the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters, and of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and of the AFL-CIO, will be dependent upon just how well their leaders, and even more their members, understand the history of which they are part. Without that understanding, we are blind and easily manipulated by bosses, by bad guys, and by those with gold who want to make the rules.

The history of the United States is often taught, from grade school through high school (and often beyond), as the story of Good Guys who triumphed over Bad Guys and made this country great. But we know that it’s really not so simple. There were some very bad things that happened as part of the making of the United States. 

Our country was established through a great Revolution dedicated to the proposition that governments should not by ruled by powerful kings but should be based on “the consent of the governed” and exist to provide “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for the people who live here. And the merchants, plantation owners and lawyers who were our country’s “Founding Fathers” were able to prosper after independence was won from Britain – but many of them prospered at the expense of poor laboring people and slaves. In fact, the anti-democratic, immoral, inhuman institution of slavery became an essential component of U.S. economic development and was written into the U.S. Constitution. The Native-American peoples, the Indians, were systematically driven off their land and destroyed. A dirty war was initiated against Mexico which stole half of that country and absorbed it into our own, turning Mexican-Americans from Colorado to Arizona and from Texas to California into second-class citizens. All such things were justified by a racism that stressed the Manifest Destiny of the United States as a “white man’s republic.” Bigotry was also used against many millions of immigrants – from Ireland and Germany, from China and Japan, from Italy and Poland and many other parts of the world – who were taken into this country for the purpose of exploiting their much-needed labor, even as they were put down by various forms of violent prejudice and pervasive discrimination.

But the history of our country is much, much more than that. There were some very good things that happened. There were some people who took certain Judeo-Christian values so seriously that they insisted on the humanity and dignity and rights of all people regardless of race, creed, or color. There were some who completely and consistently embraced the radical democratic principles of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that 
they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among 
these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these 
rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from 
the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes 
destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish 
it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such 
principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most 
likely to effect their safety and happiness. 

That’s a key passage of the Declaration of Independence. Among the good things that happened in U.S. history was that some people fought to implement the proposition that everyone – regardless of race, creed, color, gender, or income level – is included in the notion that “all are created equal” and deserving of equal rights. Proud chapters in our country’s history have been written by those engaged in struggles against slavery, for women’s rights, against racial and ethnic discrimination, and for the dignity of labor. 

Sometimes there were lonely dissenters speaking out against slavery and in opposition to dirty wars against Mexicans and Indians. Examples include a New England intellectual named Henry David Thoreau (who went to jail for refusing to pay taxes to a government carrying out immoral policies) or an Illinois Congressman named Abraham Lincoln (who opposed U.S. aggression against Mexico). Such individuals are important, but no less important have been powerful political and social movements that have brought about major changes.

One example has been the feminist movement that fought for and eventually won women’s right to vote and initiated a long march for many other forms of equal rights for women. 

Another example has been the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King and others, overcoming a whole system of racist laws that had confined African-Americans to second-class citizenship in the South. 

And there has been the labor movement – existing in one form or another for over two hundred years – that we will want to examine in some detail here.

An Approach to U.S. Labor History

But first it may be helpful to emphasize and spend some time on three points.

One key point is that our history – all history -- not only has good things and bad things in it, but it is a story in which people and movements and realities are often a mixed bag, are often contradictory, rather than simply being “good” or “bad.” 

An example of such real-life contradictions is the author of that wonderful document of 1776, the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson was amazingly contradictory. He was very much in favor of democracy and wrote one of the greatest democratic documents in human history. He was willing to commit his life, his fortune and his sacred honor to that cause. And yet he was a plantation owner who exploited many slaves in order to maintain his very comfortable life-style. Yet again, he was against slavery, which he recognized completely contradicted his democratic principles, and he was determined to free his slaves just as soon as he cleared away his many financial debts – something that never happened. He sometimes justified his contradictory position on slavery by entertaining racist ideas about black inferiority, and he also asserted that African-Americans – rather than being integrated into American society on the basis of equal rights -- should be sent back to Africa. And yet he secretly loved and had children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings, and he made sure that this lover and these children were freed and taken care of after his death. In the years after the American Revolution he represented one of the most substantial forces for the expansion of democracy, yet his own contradictions were similar to the contradictions that would eventually tear the country apart in the bloody Civil War. Only by holding on to his wonderful contributions while moving beyond his terrible limitations could the United States hope to endure. 

What is true of Thomas Jefferson is also true of the working class. We will need to look at and think about similar contradictions in the history of the American labor movement. It is not the case that the working class and the labor movement consist only of Good Guys who triumphed over Bad Guys and made this country great. It is possible to tell such a “happy-face” version of labor history but it wouldn’t be honest and it wouldn’t be helpful. The history of the working class and the history of the labor movement are also mixed. We need to look at the contributions but also at the limitations in order to gauge how far we’ve come and how far we have to go in order to be true to our radically democratic potential. In a short while we’ll get to that – looking at the mixed legacies of such people as Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, and A. Philip Randolph. Of course there’s much more to the history of the labor movement than that – as you can see in my Short History of the U.S. Working Class. Given limitations of time, we’ll have to make the most of looking at those three people. But first let’s touch on the other two preliminary points.

The second key point is that at the heart of U.S. history has been a complicated and dynamic contradiction between politics and economics, between democracy and capitalism. For more than two hundred years, the American republic – brought into being through the glorification of the democratic principles of 1776 -- has moved in the direction of advancing democratic rights: freedom of thought and expression, equality before the law, “liberty and justice for all,” and extending to all the right to vote for (or vote against) our governmental decision-makers. At the same time, our capitalist economy has consistently placed greater and greater economic power into fewer and fewer hands. The economy on which all of us are dependent, the economy that cannot exist without the great majority of producers and consumers, is privately owned and controlled by a wealthy minority who use their power over us to maximize their profits.

In reflecting on the relationship of the worker to the businessman – of labor to capital – Abraham Lincoln once offered these thoughts: 

“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. In fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could not have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor can exist without capital, but capital could never have existed without labor. Hence, labor is the superior – greatly superior to capital.” 

Despite Lincoln’s thoughtful comments, in the course of our history the power of capital has increasingly become superior to the power of labor. This accelerated with the rise of the Industrial Revolution – which began to transform the United States in the 1820s and has continued to transform our society with amazing technologies and rising productivity, over and over again, down to the present day. There have been significant benefits for many of us, as well as serious losses sometimes. It may be worth reflecting 
over the balance of benefits and losses. But over all, this continuous technological revolution has given greater and greater power to a wealthy minority that owns the economy. It is our labor and life-activity that create the wealth of society, but we are not the ones who control that wealth. The great majority of us now have to sell our ability to work for a paycheck, and we find ourselves facing what more or less constitutes an 
economic dictatorship. The domination of our economic life by the powerful business elite, which enriches itself at our expense, contradicts and undermines our political democracy.

This contradiction between trends toward political democracy and economic dictatorship have always been part of our history, but it’s gotten worse in our lifetime. According to a front-page story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 17, 1995, 1 percent of the nation’s families own 40 percent of the wealth, the next 19 percent of the families own 40 percent of the wealth, and the great majority of us taken together -- 80 percent of the families in the United States – own no more than 20 percent of the wealth. A story on the front page of the August 31, 2001 issue of the New York Times tells us that throughout the 1990s “the poor got a little poorer, the rich got a lot richer, and the large group in the middle emerged slightly worse off than when the decade began.” In the words of one economist, “you have this squeeze in the middle – people like cops, firemen, people making under $80,000.” Not only are most of us getting squeezed like that, but the small minority of economically powerful people have been able to use big money for the purpose of tilting the news media and the political process their way.

The third key point is related to the insight expressed by the organizers of the American Federation of Labor in the 1880s, highlighted in the preamble of the AFL constitution: 

“A struggle is going on in all the nations of the civilized world, between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between the capitalist and the laborer, which grows in intensity from year to year, and will work disastrous results to the toiling millions, if they are not combined for mutual protection and benefit.” 

This makes obvious good sense, now no less than back then – but organizing the workers of this country and the world was easier said than done, back then even more than now. 

Of course, the capitalist owners and managers did not want the workers to organize to improve their working conditions and their wages. Whenever they could, they would use divisions among workers to break unions – pitting white against black, pitting various immigrant groups against each other and against native-born workers, pitting skilled workers against unskilled workers, pitting female labor against male labor, pitting child labor against adult labor, pitting non-union workers against union workers, pitting private armies of thugs (or sometimes even policemen and soldiers) against striking workers. As railroad tycoon Jay Gould boasted: “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” It is commonly noted among labor historians that the history of the labor movement in the United States is one of the most violent in the world.

There were pitched battles throughout the country in the great labor uprising of 1877, with the army being brought into many cities to crush the efforts of striking workers and their families. There were police attacks on protesting workers in Chicago during the massive 1886 May Day demonstrations for the eight-hour work day, exploding a few days later into counter-violence against the police in Haymarket Square – used as a pretext for railroading some of the city’s best labor leaders to the gallows. In 1892, the working-class community of Homestead, Pennsylvania mobilized, even using an old Civil War cannon, to defeat a hired army of Pinkerton detectives and scabs bent on breaking the union of skilled steel workers and taking their jobs. They won that battle, but then the state militia intervened and helped break the union. The great nationwide Pullman Strike of 1894 – led by Eugene Victor Debs – was crushed when the President of the United States (Democrat Grover Cleveland) used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act not against the railroad monopolies but against the American Railway Union, with federal troops and deputized thugs breaking picket lines, and with union leaders like Debs being arrested and imprisoned.

The problem with this is that the experience of brutal exploitation and union-busting assaults on the working class made growing sections of the working class angry and radical. Some concluded that socialist and anarchist ideas made sense. Some of the most seasoned workers in the labor movement were drawn to the super-radical Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW. Formed in 1905, the IWW insisted that all workers – regardless of race or ethnic background, regardless of gender or age, regardless of occupation or skill level – should join together in one big union, motivated by the philosophy that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” 

More than this, these labor radicals assumed that the big business employers would be dedicated to dividing and cheating the workers and using violence against them – and IWW organizers became adept at militant and intelligent mass mobilizations to push back such attacks. Even more serious was the IWW goal of replacing the capitalist economic system with what some of them called “the commonwealth of toil,” an economic system that would be owned by all of society and democratically controlled by the working class majority. The spirit and ideals of the IWW were captured in the great labor anthem “Solidarity Forever,” which has inspired idealistic activists in the labor 
movement ever since. Its last verse says:

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old,
For the union makes us strong.

Fear of what this radical labor union represented caused many mainstream politicians and some of the smarter employers to develop a more generous attitude toward reforms that would improve the living conditions and working conditions of the working class, and even the toleration of more moderate trade unions. In order to save the existing capitalist system, it would become necessary to make growing numbers of people feel that the system – while imperfect -- works well enough for enough of the people, enough of the time. And this opened up a lot more space for what has become the mainstream of the American labor movement.* 

Contributions and Limitations

This brings us to the three people I propose to look at who represented important aspects of the American labor movement’s mainstream – Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, and A. Philip Randolph. 

Okay, let’s look at Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, and A. Philip Randolph. We can’t go into the whole story of each of these men, but we can touch on some of their contributions and some of their limitations. And from that, I would hope, we can be in a better position to figure out the challenges of today and tomorrow. 

Young Sam Gompers started off as a labor radical in the Cigar Makers Union. He was joined by another socialist buddy of his, Peter J. McGuire who organized and led the Brotherhood of Carpenters (and who is largely responsible for both the creation of Labor Day in 1882 and May Day in 1886), and also joined by a number of other pioneering union leaders, for the purpose of forming the American Federation of Labor. 

Gompers was not content to daydream about some ideal socialist future but wanted to implement his ideals in the here-and-now. He believed that the AFL – as a federation of 
mostly craft unions made up of skilled workers – could begin creating a truly better world for workers in capitalist America. To do this, they would have to be business-like in organizing themselves: set up well-organized membership structures, with dues and strike funds; their goal would be persuading or compelling employers to recognize the union and negotiate periodic contracts to guarantee job security, decent wages and working conditions, and perhaps a shorter workday. 

Only a minority of the workers believed in socialism and other radical notions, Gompers knew, but a large number of workers with various political viewpoints could agree to join together in a union for better wages, hours and working conditions. He thought it was fine to be concerned about more sweeping social reforms and radical ideals – just so these didn’t get in the way of the more restricted, practical-minded “pure and simple unionism” of which he became the champion as the longtime president of the AFL. 

The radical implications of Gompers’s seemingly moderate outlook were highlighted by James Maurer, head of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor, in this recollection of one of Gompers’s speeches:

If a workingman gets a dollar and a half for ten hours’ work, he lives up to 
that standard of a dollar and a half, and he knows that a dollar seventy-five 
would improve his standard of living and he naturally strives to get that 
dollar and seventy-five. After that he wants two dollars and more time for 
leisure, and he struggles to get it. Not satisfied with two dollars he wants 
more; not only two and a quarter, but a nine-hour workday. And so he will 
keep on getting more and more until he gets it all or the full value of all 
he produces. 

In his efforts to be considered “respectable,” however, Gompers and many others in the AFL proved willing to mingle and dine with businessmen and politicians while tending to drift away from many of their own members. While giving lip-service to the idea of the labor movement representing the entire working class, they also increasingly equated being “realistic” with being dismissive of unskilled workers, immigrant workers, and women workers either as being unorganizable or, in some cases, worth organizing only in separate and second-class unions. Asian-American and African-American workers were more often than not excluded altogether, though in some cases Blacks were allowed to form separate “Jim Crow” locals. 

As labor radicals and socialists increasingly challenged this conservative narrowness in the early 1900s, Gompers became increasingly intolerant of them. He was especially hostile toward the IWW -- and the feeling was mutual. “To succeed in politics,” someone once said, “it is often necessary to rise above your principles.” And Gompers, while free from corruption himself, sometimes chose to work with gangster elements in the AFL to prevent his radical critics from gaining more influence. By the time Gompers died, the AFL could be described in this way by tough-minded reporter Louis Adamic:

The attitude of the A.F. of L. toward society at large was, in most cases, 
not unlike that of the capitalists. The trade-union leaders were bent upon 
getting for themselves and their members everything that could be had under 
the circumstances, whenever possible, by almost any means…that involved no 
great risks to themselves or the future of their organization. It did not 
concern them whether those benefits were attained at the expense of the 
capitalist class, the unorganized [workers], organized labor outside the A.F. 
of L., or the country as a whole. Politically, they “played the game” as it 
was played by the capitalists, that is, to gain immediate economic advantages 
and benefits. 

Often, some of the more corrupt AFL unions sought to increase their membership (and their dues base) not by organizing the unorganized, but by raiding other unions and seeking to steal away their members. Mike Quill of New York City’s Transit Workers Union later spoke angrily about the AFL’s “three R’s – raiding, racketeering, and racism.” Such things may not have been true of every person and union in the AFL, but by the late 1920s this description – a universe away from Gompers’s early idealism – was uncomfortably close to the reality. 

When the U.S. and global economy took a disastrous downturn with the Great 
Depression of the 1930s, an increasing number of radicalizing young workers began organizing militant struggles and industrial unions more in the spirit of the old IWW, and the AFL proved completely incapable of overcoming its ingrained conservatism and narrowness. John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America had never been a labor-radical or a socialist – he had been a Republican and an advocate of the Gompers “pure and simple unionism” line. But he was convinced, along with several other top union leaders in the AFL, that the time had come to organize unskilled and semi-skilled mass production workers in the steel, auto, electrical, rubber, textile and other industries, as well as transit workers, longshoremen and maritime workers, white collar workers, and others. In order to do that, it would be necessary to overcome many of the racial, ethnic and gender barriers of the AFL, to work with idealistic left-wing political radicals shunned by the traditional AFL leaders, and to organize on a more inclusive industrial union basis. This could only be done, in the 1930s, by breaking with the AFL and starting a new, somewhat more radical and socially conscious labor federation – the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The CIO was not built by John L. Lewis. It was built by thousands of men and women who organized their co-workers into new industrial unions, went on strike and maintained picket lines, conducted sit-down actions that took over factories, winning over and mobilizing communities, facing and defying company goons, battling anti-union vigilantes and sometimes pro-company police forces and National Guard units. 

But John L. Lewis, with his stern face, his bushy eyebrows, and his militant labor oratory, which resonated with Shakespearean and Biblical tones, became a powerful symbol – and also a powerful leader – of a new kind of unionism that was transforming and revitalizing the American labor movement. Listen to the words he spoke on Labor Day 1937:

This movement of labor will go on until there is a more equitable and just 
distribution of our national wealth. This movement will go on until the 
social order is reconstructed on a basis that will be fair, decent, and 
honest. This movement will go on until the guarantees of the Declaration of 
Independence and of the Constitution are enjoyed by all the people, and not 
by a privileged few.

The radical editor of the CIO News, Len DeCaux, later described the early CIO as “a mass movement with a message, revivalistic in fervor, militant in mood, joined together by class solidarity.” The CIO’s expansive and radical idealism was captured by DeCaux in this description:

As it gained momentum, this movement brought with it new political attitudes 
– toward the corporations, toward police and troops, toward local, state, national government. Now we’re a movement, many workers asked, why can’t we move on to more and more? Today we’ve forced almighty General Motors to terms by sitting down and defying all the powers at its command, why can’t we go on tomorrow, with our numbers, our solidarity, our determination, to transform city and state, the Washington government itself? Why can’t we go on to create a new society with the workers on top, to end age-old injustices, to banish poverty and war.

As it turned out, however, John L. Lewis was not able to lead the CIO to a realization of such goals. One limitation was the fact that he had led the CIO into a partnership with the Democratic Party as represented by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. There were many important gains for working people achieved through the New Deal reforms – in large measure thanks to powerful pressure from the radical labor upsurge. But Roosevelt, when all was said and done, was a politician from a wealthy family whose loyalties were divided between labor and big business. Embarrassed by the Memorial Day Massacre in 1937, in which Chicago police brutally attacked pro-union steelworker families, shooting strikers in the back, Roosevelt snapped: “A plague on both your houses.” Lewis’s response to this was classic:

Labor, like Israel, has many sorrows. Its women weep for their fallen and 
lament for the future of the children of the race. It ill behooves one who 
has supped at labor’s table and who has been sheltered in labor’s house to 
curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality both labor and its adversaries 
when they become locked in deadly embrace.

When Roosevelt ran for a third term, Lewis refused to support him. But he was not able to envision an independent political course for labor, such as the creation of the sort of labor party that had been built in most other industrial countries. He offered no alternative except supporting the Republican candidate, which made no sense in that period of time to the great majority of CIO members. No less serious was Lewis’s immense ego and tendency toward authoritarian, top-down methods of leadership which undermined the militancy of the CIO. In the United Mine Workers, anyone disagreeing with John L. Lewis would not be tolerated, which undercut the possibility of union democracy and of locals being made vibrant by critical-minded activists. All too often this approach was carried over into the CIO. 

Once Lewis was removed, however, much of the remaining CIO leadership continued to maintain a more or less top-down mode of functioning, continued to rely on the politicians of the Democratic Party, and continued move away from the social radicalism that had made the CIO such a dynamic force. And dissent was not tolerated. In 1948 some of the unions – opposing Cold War anti-Communism -- supported the semi-radical Progressive Party instead of the Democratic Party candidacy of Harry Truman. In reaction, CIO leaders kicked out eleven unions with about a million workers. This rupture damaged the CIO, braking its momentum as an engine for social and economic change. 

By 1955, the AFL and CIO had moved close together politically, both tolerating and adapting to each other’s idiosyncrasies, and were able to merge into the AFL-CIO. A little less conservative than the older AFL, and a lot less radical than the early CIO, the merged federation nonetheless represented a strengthened labor movement that accounted for 36 percent of the working class – the high point of union membership in U.S. history.

After that, it began to decline, perhaps in part because it lost much of the social vision and old idealism that had made it such an attractive force for many working people. Its leader was George Meany, a tough-talking, cigar-chomping plumber whose outlook was certainly no broader than that of Sam Gompers in his twilight years. One person who represented a much more expansive social vision in the AFL-CIO was the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph. They put his face on a postage stamp not long ago, but a lot of people don’t know who he was. 

Randolph was an African-American with an almost aristocratic manner, a life-long socialist who pioneered in forming a strong all-black union – no mean trick in the racist climate of the 1920s – a union that pushed its way into a reluctant AFL and stayed there, fighting both for black-white unity in labor struggles, and for racial equality within the labor movement. An early pioneer and highly respected leader of the modern civil rights movement, Randolph’s crowning achievement was to conceive of and oversee the organization of the 1963 March on Washington – the historic gathering where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Randolph proclaimed to those assembled there that this huge demonstration represented “the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom.” 

Bayard Rustin, one of Randolph’s closest aides, gives a vivid sense of his qualities: 

“A. Philip Randolph...has maintained a total vision of the goal of freedom for his people and of the means for achieving it. From his earliest beginnings as a follower of Eugene V. Debs and a colleague of Norman Thomas [both of whom were Socialist Party leaders], he has understood that social and political freedom must be rooted in economic freedom, and all his subsequent actions have sprung from this basic premise.... While he has felt that Negro salvation is an internal process of struggle and self-affirmation, he has recognized the political necessity of forming alliances with men of other races and the moral necessity of comprehending the black movement as part of a general effort to expand human freedom. Finally, as a result of his deep faith in democracy, he has realized that social change does not depend upon the decisions of the few, but on direct political action through the mobilization of masses of individuals to gain economic and social justice.”

In 1966 Randolph issued A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, endorsed by over 200 prominent civil rights, trade union, social activist and academic figures. He described the Freedom Budget’s meaning this way:

The “Freedom Budget” spells out a specific and factual course of action, step by step, to start in early 1967 toward the practical liquidation of poverty in the United States by 1975. The programs urged in the “Freedom Budget” attack all of the major causes of poverty -- unemployment and underemployment; substandard pay, inadequate social insurance and welfare payments to those who cannot or should not be employed; bad housing; deficiencies in health services, education, and training; and fiscal and monetary policies which tend to redistribute income regressively rather than progressively. The “Freedom Budget” leaves no room for discrimination in any form, because its programs are addressed to all who need more opportunity and improved incomes and living standards -- not just to some of them.

Randolph explained that such programs “are essential to the Negro and other minority groups striving for dignity and economic security in our society,” but that “the abolition of poverty (almost three-quarters of whose victims are white) can be accomplished only through action which embraces the totality of the victims of poverty, neglect, and injustice.” He added that

“in the process everyone will benefit, for poverty is not an isolated 
circumstance affecting only those entrapped by it. It reflects -- and 
affects -- the performance of our national economy, our rate of economic 
growth, our ability to produce and consume, the condition of our cities, the 
levels of our social services and needs, the very quality of our lives.” In 
Randolph’s opinion, the success of this effort would depend on “a mighty 
coalition among the civil rights and labor movements, liberal and religious 
forces, students and intellectuals -- the coalition expressed in the historic 
1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

Think about it! What a different country this would be if poverty had been eliminated twenty-five years ago, as Randolph had projected, with jobs at a living wage and a decent quality of life guaranteed for all. 

In order to win support from Democratic President Lyndon Johnson for this program, Randolph kept quiet about his own opposition to the Vietnam war. But even then, the Freedom Budget was too radical for most of the Democratic and Republican politicians – and it “didn’t sell” under the Lyndon Johnson presidency, and it certainly didn’t “sell” under his conservative successor, Richard Nixon. Since labor didn’t have a political party of its own, this closed the door on such proposals as the “Freedom Budget.” 

A bitter Randolph commented that the persistence of poverty and racism are rooted in “fundamentally economic problems which are caused by the nature of the system in which we live. This system is a market economy in which investment and production are determined more by the anticipation of profits than by the desire to achieve social justice.” 

But Randolph had been aware of this all along. The fatal flaw in his approach was the dependency on politicians who accept labor’s support but don’t share labor’s commitments, politicians who are dependent on financial support from those who have the gold and want to make the rules. With a guy like Randolph, it’s easier to put his face on a postage stamp than to put his ideas into practice.

Where Do We Go From Here?

We need to think about these positive contributions and damaging limitations from the experience of Samuel Gompers of the AFL, John L. Lewis of the CIO, and A. Philip Randolph of the AFL-CIO. We need to think about how they apply to today’s realities. Recent polls indicate that 60 percent of the American people are sympathetic to the labor movement and approve of unions. But only 9 percent of private sector workers are in unions – with the more highly-unionized public sector employees bringing the level of union workers to 13 percent of the labor force.

This dramatic increase in the importance of public-sector workers is worth pausing over for a moment, because it may help point the way forward for the labor movement as a whole. Organization among public sector workers became an accelerating trend in the 1960s – which was a time of rising social consciousness and idealistic struggles for social equality. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed while helping to advance the victory of unionization and dignity for sanitation workers on strike in Memphis, Tennessee. 

King believed that “revitalized sectors of the labor movement” must join together with other social movements to (in his words) “reshape economic relationships and usher in a breakthrough to a new level of social reform.” 

Over the past two decades, a drive toward “privatization” of public services has been part of a strategy advanced by powerful economic interests to push back the work of King, A. Philip Randolph, John L. Lewis, and even Sam Gompers. Those with the gold want to restructure the rules in our country and globally. Privatization is part of their strategy to enrich private businesses at the expense of our communities, pushing down living conditions and working conditions for the bulk of the working class, and breaking unions in the process. All of this goes against the very nature of such professions as fire fighters. In the early years of the American Republic, volunteer fire companies arose in working-class neighborhoods. The “citizen-workers” who idealistically volunteered to be fire fighters for the good of the community were proud to come from the laboring classes and were committed to creating a democratic commonwealth in which the lives, liberties and homes of all people would be protected. 

When fire fighters became public employees, and – in the vanguard of other social service workers – recognized the need to organize themselves in order to safeguard their own rights and well-being, it was second nature for them to harmonize their own needs with the needs of the larger community. In today’s world, the needs of the larger community involve standing up against the corporate forces of privatization and profiteering. For this we need a stronger and revitalized labor movement. And this brings us to the conclusion of these remarks. 

Our history suggests that in order to build a revitalized labor movement, we have to do several things. 

First of all, we have to include every one – an injury to one is an injury to all. We have to make union membership open to all workers, regardless of race, creed, color, or gender. More than that, unionized workers need to support the creation and the efforts of unions to protect workers in all occupations. And unions must concern themselves with the welfare of the entire working class – being supportive to other unions, and also struggling for the interests of unorganized workers and of the entire working-class majority. In today’s world, dominated by powerful multi-national corporations, this means a commitment to global working-class solidarity and human rights. 

An obvious second point is that we have to be well organized and demonstrate a capacity and willingness to fight for the interests of every union member. But combined with this, unions need to be in favor of democracy – in the United States as a whole, but also right inside the unions themselves. A strong democracy means a strong involvement of members in the ongoing life of the union – which means a strong union that has maximum effectiveness in defending and advancing the interests of its members. And related to this is the understanding that we can count – economically and politically – only on our own strength as an organized working class. 

A third point is that we have to develop and demonstrate our commitment to an inspiring social vision that – as it is implemented – can genuinely and materially improve the working conditions and living conditions of the working-class majority, that can secure the possibilities of dignity and free development for all, that ultimately can establish a quality of life worthy of human beings and establish the Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” -- as the norm according to which people will be able to live. 

There are stirrings and shifts in today’s labor movement that move us in this direction, but much of the old limitations also remain. A new wave of history makers, including those attending this conference, will determine what happens next.

Paul LeBlanc is a labor historian and labor activist living and teaching in Pittsburgh.

We highly recommend his book— Short History of the U.S. Working Class

 More U.S. Labor History from Amazon
U.S. Labor History Books at Powells