Staughton Lynd (Editor) We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s, University of Illinois Press, 1996. 343 pp. Paper, $17.95 from University of Illinois Press, P.O. Box 4856, Hampden Post Office, Baltimore, MD 21211, Phone: 1-800-545-4703 (or 410-516-6927 in Maryland or Canada).
A labor theatre troupe I was part of once developed a mystery play. We took it on tour to union halls, churches, and city centers, more than 60 performances throughout the Pacific Northwest. The play was a mystery, but with a twist. Before the actors even appeared on stage, the programs we handed out had already let the audience know the play's outcome: a defeated turn-of-the-century strike that set back organizing in the Oregon City Woolen Mills for 30 years. (No simplistic final scenes of triumphant, flag-waving workers for us.)
The majority of our play was set about five years earlier than the defeat, during a victorious strike. The mystery? To figure out what about the earlier triumph, the way it united or divided people, the issues it raised and the ones it didn't, the kind of organization that came out of it, the lessons that management learned and the union didn't, bore the seeds of the later disaster.
With abundant drama of its own, We Are All Leaders reminds me of that play. It opens up the neglected or intentionally hidden history of the origins of today's unions. Not only does it find in those origins some of the roots of the disasters to follow, it uncovers and, in a series of careful studies, explores historical alternatives that did exist and could have led to a very different labor movement now.
Built on the mass organizing of the middle and late 30s, the unions we have now are in deep trouble. Rather than a reliable part of a broader movement for social justice, they've become a fragmented labor brokerage, delivering a disciplined workforce to corporations and government, primarily looking out for their own dues-paying base. Few workers attend union meetings anymore. Less than a majority even vote for the candidates labor officials recommend. Those candidates, in any case, are almost always status quo politicians. Not surprisingly, the percentage of workers in unions has declined drastically from its height 30 and 40 years ago.
Yet work-related organizing still is crucial and will remain so. Work is the place where most of us unavoidably come up against power, inequity, and exploitation. That common experience and the frequent if often ineffectual resistance it engenders has the potential to unite us across all the divisions of gender, race and ethnicity.
In the present bleak situation, one of the greatest obstacles we face to persuading others and ourselves that broad social change really is possible is developing a plausible alternative vision. Knowing that alternatives existed, and not only in theory, expands our imagination. It shows that history could have turned out differently and that it still can.
The unions explored by We Are All Leaders were built by their rank and file members and community activists. One of their distinguishing characteristics, in fact, was that they were community as well as workplace-based. As such, they drew in the families of members and created their own social space: classes, newspapers, athletic leagues, and cultural events as alternatives to the hierarchical and acquisitive culture that surrounded them. Women and men participated with growing equality, in stark contrast to the unions that replaced them.
Instead of relying on contracts and legalistic grievance procedures, these unions kept their members involved and relied on their own militant direct action. . .to enforce and expand their rights.
They were democratic, locally-controlled, and politically independent. When management cut back the work, they shared the reduced hours rather than dividing into the full-time and the laid off. They provided mutual aid among different crafts and different workplaces, and built alliances with or even included organizations of the unemployed.
Their officers continued to work in their regular jobs. As a result, they focused on local working conditions, something of crucial import to workers but that more centralized hierarchies with paid staff tend to neglect. Instead of relying on contracts and legalistic grievance procedures, these unions kept their members involved and relied on their own militant direct action, both in workplace and community, to enforce and expand their rights. They had broad agendas and developed a culture of solidarity and struggle.
There were tremendous differences among them, of course, as geographic and economic conditions differed and strategy varied. Every worker in town belonged to the Independent Union of All Workers in Austin, Minnesota, for instance. In heavily industrial Barberton, Ohio, people joined unions specific to their workplaces, but all the unions coordinated closely. One way to read this book is as a series of experiments by ordinary people to create institutions they could control and that would better their lives, experiments that ended up being cut short. With our renewed awareness of the importance of local action and democratic process, there's a lot we can learn from these experiments.
One way to read this book is as a series of experiments by ordinary people to create institutions they could control and that would better their lives, experiments that ended up being cut short.
So what became of them? The war intervened, with many of the core activists drafted. Sometimes they were singled out to be drafted. Coal miners in Pennsylvania who worked for corporations were deemed necessary for the war effort and left at home. Those who banded together, taking over and working mines the corporations tried to close, were shipped overseas. But how much did these alternative unions decline due to management tactics, government action, or predatory national unions? And how much because of the high membership energy necessary to sustain them or because of bad strategic choices they themselves made?
The book is written from an activist perspective. The individual essays are generally scholarly and also accessible. Each is rich with implications for our own present efforts. What's lacking is an overview that consolidates the lessons: Not only why community-based unions declined, but how they confronted problems that still trouble us, for instance the challenge of coordinating locally-based groups on a regional, national or international level.
There are other dilemmas we face for which the book is helpful, such as how to relate to the dominant AFL-CIO unions. Are there particular kinds of rank and file struggles within those unions we should support? Should we be trying to build independent unions now? We Are All Leaders doesn't so much address these questions directly as put them in a fuller historical context. Its authors have done a remarkable job of rescuing some of our history. As a result, our possibilities are greater than we might have realized.