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Nearly lost: “History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 11, The Great Depression, 1929-1932”, by Philip Foner

By Chris Townsend

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When legendary and prolific labor history researcher and author Phil Foner died in 1994, he left behind more than 100 meticulously researched and detailed histories of the U.S. labor movement. But Foner was not merely an historian in the usual university mold; he was a partisan, a lifetime communist, and he saw his work as not just chronicles of past events but serious guides to action for those still on the labor battlefront. His books in many ways became the untold stories of our class struggle.

Probably his most accomplished and massive work is the 11-volume History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Such an enormous work would be enough for any individual to research in a lifetime, but this series is only a small portion of his life’s work. Reaching from our colonial period all the way up through the early years of the Great Depression, Foner tracks the emergence of the early U.S. labor movement, its growth and evolution, and he details its many battles with employers and state forces alike.

At his death almost 30 years ago the series ended with Volume 10. Accidentally I learned about a lost draft manuscript that apparently existed for a Volume 11 several years ago. With persistence, the support of a small collective of fellow communists, and the cooperation of International Publishers, we were able to finally bring Volume 11 into print.

Setting apart Foner’s scholarship from most other labor historians is the fact that he includes the internal union political context of the era under study. Including the contributions made by the left, particularly communists and militants, is a constant theme that runs throughout the enormous history. Leadership roles played by communists were in many ways the key force both initiating and sustaining the dramatic labor struggles of the past 100 years. The author also takes great care to include details of the destructive roles frequently played by the business union leaderships, and where needed he exposes the negative roles too often played by social democratic forces. Few other labor histories will delve into these internal matters. Foner instead lays bare the actions of these forces, required for anyone to grasp the real context of the history. Most labor historians are allergic to dealing with these matters, but not Foner.

Newly published Volume 11 covers the early years of the Great Depression, from 1929 through 1932. Here Foner explains the political and organizational roots of what became the great class struggle upsurge that ultimately gave birth to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He reports on the desperate Depression-driven fights in multiple industries as workers were confronted with both employers bent on union liquidation, along with business union “leaders” determined to do whatever it took to water down or kill the growing spirit among the workers to aggressively fight back. Battle after battle is detailed as the working class resisted as best they could the mass joblessness, starvation, destitution and homelessness experienced by many millions.

Large sections of Volume 11 are dedicated to reports on the wind-down of the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) and the birth of the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), the federation of Communist Party-sponsored industrial unions in more than a dozen industries.

Foner offers intricate reports on the launch of new unions in steel and metal manufacturing, the needle trades, coal mining, food processing, tobacco, agriculture, auto, fur and other industries. With AFL unions then barely functioning, and with tens of thousands of communists and militants expelled from their unions by reactionaries in a “rule or ruin” maneuver, the Communist Party set in motion the TUUL experiment. Under Depression conditions the establishment of the TUUL was an against-all-odds proposition, but in just a few years most of the unions returned to the more established unions and bolstered the forces who soon comprised the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). Some academic critics have written off the TUUL legacy as some sort of Communist Party blunder, although given the circumstances nothing could be farther from the facts.

My favorite class-struggle skirmish documented in Volume 11 – one of many – is Foner’s report on the rank-and-file communist-led delegation of workers who appeared at the 1932 Cincinnati convention of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to demand that the AFL support unemployment insurance for the many millions then out of jobs and literally starving.

The early years of the Depression found the conservative AFL leadership furiously opposed to unemployment relief, ridiculing it as “the dole” or “a Moscow plot.” Led by communist Louis Weinstock from the Painters Union, the ordinary union members were denied entrance to the seating in the main hall of the non-union hotel but were instead directed to the balcony seating. High above in the balcony the workers presented no threat and had no chance of being heard by the union big shots conducting their business-as-usual affair. But, seeing his chance – and being accustomed to working at great heights as a painter – Weinstock leapt from the balcony onto one of the gigantic chandeliers swinging above the seated labor chiefs. There, safely out of the reach of the police, he delivered his entire speech demanding AFL support for the urgently needed unemployment relief legislation. Unbelievably, and virtually unknown to labor leftists today, it required several more years before the AFL offered its support to such a basic reform as unemployment compensation. Many other such surprises are found here.

Much can be learned by studying the labor movement in the early years of the Great Depression. Argument could be made that the bulk of the business union leadership today is equally conservative, frightened, corrupted, directionless and as unimaginative as were their counterparts at the onset of that calamity. It quickly becomes obvious to the reader that the failed formulas of the business unions will not deliver any better results today than in the Depression decade. Today, as we are witness to the Amazon, Starbucks, and other new organizing upsurges, the imminent UPS contract showdown, and Biden’s destruction of the rail union strike, we see growing numbers of trade unionists demanding something better than the old losing approaches. In this moment Foner’s labor history series takes on added urgency.

Order Volume 11 and you will soon find yourself soon buying the others. William Z. Foster observed early in his career that, “The left wing must do the work.” He refers to the elements both within and around the labor movement who bear responsibility for altering the disastrous course set by the business union misleaders. Transforming the current unions from what they are into radically different and aggressive vehicles for working class progress is our mission. This series is a guide for action to that end.

History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 11, The Great Depression 1929 – 1932, by Philip Foner. Chris Townsend was the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing Director. Previously he was an International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE).

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