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Dec 13, 22

Unions and the State: Relevant Lessons from 1940s Anarchists on the Current Railroad Workers Strike

A historical look at the post-World War II wave of wildcat strikes and the lessons that it leaves for the current terrain.

by C. McCombs

With the success of unionization in America in recent years––especially with Starbucks––a lot of folks have assumed an uncritically positive view of unions. They are not entirely wrong for this. Unions jobs are objectively better than non-union jobs for workers. However, recently after Railroad Workers used their immense leverage to demand more humane treatment, union leadership at SMART Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmens worked with the US Senate to negotiate an insultingly poor contract. The contract was so poor, in fact, that it did not provide any sick days for the workers. Union leadership thought the contract would appease the historically mistreated rail workers. According to Andrea Hsu at NPR, “a marathon negotiation session led by U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh yielded a deal that the union leaders thought their rank-and-file would accept.”[1]

A common response is to assume that the union leadership is simply out of touch. While they are out of touch, this kind of betrayal by union leadership is not new and presents a structural flaw in traditional union models and their close relationship with the American State. This brief history of unions in the 1940s will show, unions like the AFL-CIO are, not only out of touch, but actively represent an institutional roadblock to workers liberation. As I will explain, when workers hold immense power, like during World War II, union leadership will always side with the federal government over workers.

First things first, we need to go over why there is relatively little discussions of the World War II era labor unrest or challenges the notion of consensus around production for the war effort in America. The Cold War binary of communism and liberalism has distracted American Liberal-era historians to the social reality of “wildcat” unrest during the War. This is because communist union leadership, liberal business owners, and politicians agreed around producing at all costs for the war effort. Therefore, historians almost exclusively looked into the competing visions of communism and liberalism and missed all the leftists that fell outside this ridged binary. Anarchists in the 1940s and the World War II era wildcat strike wave in America are great examples of this historical oversight. For British history things are a bit different. Historians of British anarchism like Carissa Honeywell have long recognized the “myth of wartime consensus.”[2] Her history follows the “War Commentary” anarchists as they faced immense government repression in the aftermath of World War II. Honeywell highlighted the revolutionary potential of these anarchists to explain why the British State cracked down on them so ruthlessly. In America, the history is less developed. Pulitzer Prize willing historian of the Liberal-era America, David Kennedy, argues that the American people came together in consensus after seeing the state working on their behalf.[3] By focusing on American anarchists in the 1940s, we see that this “consensus” is a myth.

If we were to focus on labor leadership alone, then it would appear that unions willingly supported the no-strike clause agreement with the federal government and came together to produce at all costs. At the start of the war leaders of the major labor confederations, the AFL and CIO, pledged their support for the war effort and American government. The AFL released the statement, “To cease production is to strike at the very heart of the nation.”[4] The CIO similarly announced it would “redouble its energies to promote and plan for ever-increasing production.” Over the radio, Philip Murray of the CIO urged labor to “Work! Work! Work! Produce! Produce! Produce!”[5] The historian Jeremy Brecher argues that even the most left-leaning communist union leaders turned against the workers to help the Soviet Union and American war effort.[6] A 1944 article in Business Week even went as far as to claim:

Since Russia’s involvement in the War, the leadership in these unions has moved from the extreme left-wing to the extreme right-wing position in the American labor movement. Today they have perhaps the best no-strike record of any section of organized labor; they are the most vigorous proponents of labor-management cooperation. [7]

We now know that this “best no-strike record” was the result of completely ignoring wildcat strikes, which were happening with increased frequency. The leadership may have been fulfilling their patriotic duty but the rank-and-file workers all over the United States went on strikes despite the union. The number of wildcat strikes began to rise in the summer of 1942.  By 1944, the last full year of the War, more strikes took place than in any previous year in American history, and averaged 5.6 days each. In 1944 Business Week in Detroit reported a dozen strikes a week, and at the Ford plant, specifically two or three a week was typical.[8] Although the communist and liberal union leaders, government officials, and business owners seemed to come together in consensus during the War, the strike wave of 1944 and 1945 is proof that “consensus” was a myth in the United States as well as Britain. 1940s anarchists like Dwight Macdonald supported the striking workers against both the new wartime state and organized labor. He argued that, “The danger of the CIO ‘statist’ ideology is that, in trying to use the state for labor’s ends, it makes it easier for the state to use labor for its ends.”[9] The wildcat strike wave of 1945 contributed to Dwight Macdonald and the 1940s anarchist mistrust of organized labor.

Dwight Macdonald and the 1940s anarchists’ mistrust of organized labor directly challenges the myth of wartime consensus and provides us with an early warning about the new relationship between organized labor and the state. Starting in 1943 in the Partisan Review and later in his publication politics in 1944, Macdonald challenged organized labor for its leadership’s close relationship with the Soviet Union and the American state at the expense of the worker. In the 1940s, the state began to intervene in labor like never before. Macdonald went as far as to claim in Partisan Review in 1943 that “wages are frozen, profits are enormous, and unions have become instruments of government control.”[10] After leaving the Partisan Review over his anti-interventionist stance in World War II, Macdonald continued to critique labor’s new relationship with the state. In his publication politics in 1944 he argued, “It is the Government, not the employers, which is now labor’s chief antagonist.”[11] His arguments illustrate the threat that the state poses to organized labor. More poignantly, Macdonald observed that “the facade of wartime ‘national unity’ is begin­ning to show cracks,” in December of 1944, amidst the early stages of the strike wave. [12] However, more than just countering the wartime consensus myth, Macdonald articulated a critique of the relationship between labor leadership and their ideological connection to the state by arguing that the CIO is limited by their “statist” agenda. He argues:

Labor in England and America is organized into unions which are (relatively) independent of the state. In totalitarian nations like Russia and Germany, where no independent unions or indeed any other groups exist, the gap between formal and actual control is much less. (Though it still exists, under different forms.) The danger of the CIO “Statist” ideology is that, in trying to use the state for labor’s ends, it makes it easier for the state to use labor for its ends. [13]

Dwight Macdonald saw the relationship between the state and labor in America and Britain as a problematic “totalitarian” global phenomenon. Macdonald was not alone in his skepticism of labor, and soon all of New York’s anarchist publications would unify around a growing ambivalence to organized labor.

The problem is not just 1940s wartime labor, but the actual structure of unions themselves. Anarchists are ideologically opposed to all forms of coercive hierarchy, and the 1940s anarchist Dwight Macdonald understood––as we all should––that traditional union structures are problematic. To illustrate this point, in 1944 Macdonald commented, “the American labor movement dares go no farther than a New Dealism which died in 1937 and British working class lacks the energy to create a significant left opposition within the decadent Labor Party.”[14]

Another anarchist, Charles Storm, similarly commented on the ill fit of anarchism and these traditional labor unions in Labor in the Post-War World in the anarchist parodical Why? in 1944. He argues that the cooperation of the AFL, CIO, the state, and transatlantic anarchism is simply the unification between “masters and slaves.”[15] Storm argues that social democrats, communists, and liberals only see the solution within the confines of the present system of society. For the anarchists, the workers will have to face the same problems in the post-war world that they did in the old world. This problem was––to borrow a phrase from Why?––the destruction of the existing system of society and the building of a new world, because “socialism without freedom is slavery.”[16] The new transatlantic solidarity amongst New Deal social democrats, British Labor Party members and American labor did not include anarchists and, in fact, contributed to anarchist mistrust of organized labor in the 1940s.

The 1940s anarchist mistrust of labor helps us understand the new problematic relationship between organized labor and the state, which is more relevant now than ever. Organizing these unions along a more anarcho-syndicalist models would alleviate the problem of labor leadership, but that is an article for another time. What is relevant today is that a large portion of Americans are not aware of the labor unrest during World War II. An even smaller group is aware that 1940s anarchists tried to warn us about the new structure of the state and unions. The union’s close relationship with the state was the result of structural change that brought labor under the umbrella of the new leviathan. When workers hold the power of destabilization, like in World War II and in our current moment with the railroad workers, the union will always side with the state. The Railroad workers will not receive the dignity they deserve until we heed the warnings from 1940s anarchists.

Ideologically, unions are untenable. As Macdonald warned, “in trying to use the state for labor’s ends, it makes it easier for the state to use labor for its ends.” Only when unions abandon their reformist and statist agendas will workers be able to properly flex their power and fight for what we deserve. Union leadership is not out of touch, they are a coercive institution in touch with the interest of the owning class.

[1] Andrea Hsu, “Largest Labor Union Rejects Contract, Stoking Fears of Strike,” NPR Business, November 21, 2022. Accessed December 1, 2022.

[2] Carissa Honeywell, “Anarchism and the British Warfare State: The Prosecution of the War Commentary Anarchists, 1945,” International Review of Social History 60, no. 2 (Aug 2015): 1.

[3] Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1929-1945; See also Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

[4] Joel Seidman, American Labor from Defense to Reconversion (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 78-79.

[5] Philip Murray, cited in Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO (New York, NY: Pioneer Publishers, 1964), 198.

[6] Jeremy Brecher and John Yates, Strike!, revised ed. (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014), 15.

[7] “Bridges’ Setback,” Business Week, March 18, 1944, 83-84.

[8] Business Week, March 18, 1944, 88-89.

[9] Dwight Macdonald, “Strikes are Hard to Kill,” politics 1, no.11 (December 1944): 324.

[10] Dwight Macdonald, The Memoirs of a Revolutionist: Essays in Political Criticism, 109.

[11] Dwight Macdonald, “Labor in the War and After,” politics 1, no.1 (February 1944): 31.

[12] Macdonald, “Strikes are Hard to Kill,” 324

[13] Macdonald, “Strikes are Hard to Kill,” 324.

[14] Dwight Macdonald, “Dual Power in France,” politics 1, no.10 (November 1944): 290-294.

[15] Charles Storm, “Labor in the Post-War World,” Why? 3, no.1 (April 1944): 2-3.

[16] Storm, “Labor in the Post-War World,” 3.

photo via Wiki Commons / Public Domain

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