Introduction: William Z. Foster and Syndicalism

The ATC Editors

WHILE FOR MANY years the U.S. labor left was weak and isolated, the rise of a new labor insurgency and of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has opened the space for renewed activism and discussion around socialist participation in the labor movement. In this context, the concept of a “rank-and-file strategy” is gaining wider currency.

The rank-and-file strategy starts from the centrality of unions as a locus of class struggle, and as schools of workers’ democracy. But it also recognizes the obstacle of bureaucratic business unionism that has long afflicted the labor movement. Responding to those contradictions, the strategy aims to build a layer of rank-and-file militant leaders, capable of confronting the power of capital and the union bureaucracy.

The vision is one of reviving the labor movement from the ground up, expanding the ranks of class-conscious workers, and creating a bridge to socialist politics. This perspective has been particularly associated with some socialist currents emerging out of the 1960s radicalization, and feeding into such organizations as Teamsters for a Democratic Union and Labor Notes. This journal and our sponsoring organization Solidarity proudly identify with this tradition.

The essentials of the rank-and-file strategy, however, have a much longer history. One key proponent of this approach was William Z. Foster. Although largely remembered for his leadership role in the Stalinized Community Party between the 1930s and 1950s, Foster was a pioneering organizer in numerous struggles to establish industrial unionism in the 1910s and 1920s.

Here Foster was notable for his insistence on the need for radicals to work within the mainstream of organized labor — the American Federation of Labor craft unions — building rank-and-file movements to challenge business unionism and encourage amalgamation along industrial lines. Focusing on Foster’s mid-1920s work in the CP-led Trade Union Educational League, Kim Moody calls this “the first experiment in rank and file strategy” (https://solidarity-us.org/rankandfilestrategy/).

While the TUEL years are recognized as a valuable source of historical lessons (positive and negative) for present-day labor radicals, Foster’s earlier history deserves more attention in today’s activist revival. The relationship of Marxism and socialist politics to the unions is deeply complicated, and we cannot afford to overlook the lessons that the history of earlier movements teaches.

We hope that Avery Wear’s detailed account of Foster’s syndicalism and organizing efforts in the packinghouses and steel mills can provide further insights into this kind of transitional approach to socialist participation in the unions.

November-December 2019, ATC 203

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