A Short History of the U.S. Working Class

Sheila Cohen

Posted December 31, 1999

A Short History of the U.S. Working Class: From Colonial Times to the Twenty-first Century by Paul Le Blanc (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, Revolutionary Studies, 1999) $17.95 paperback.

A SHORT HISTORY of the U.S. Working Class is an excellent introduction for the “workers and students” whom Paul Le Blanc commendably defines as its principal audience.  The language is clear and accessible, the text enlivened by illustrations, and perhaps most distinctive and useful are the many pages of reference at the back of the book. These include a bibliographical essay which cites movies as well as books (135-157), a nineteen-page glossary, a timeline of the period from 1775 to 1990, a U.S. labor history chronology, and an unusually comprehensive index.

What socks the less-informed reader in the eye about the American labor movement’s history is its sheer in-your-face aggressiveness-the violence of class struggle, the scale of crime, the racketeering.  While other advancd capitalist countries have seen their fair share of the brutal implications of basic class warfare, the U.S. scenario seems to represent its no-holds-barred expression-along with, ironically, one of the lowest levels of class awareness amongst its combatants, at least during the nadir of the Cold War and long post-World War II prosperity.

Later on-1980-2000-the landscape becomes more familar; increasing “labor crunch” oppression and openly anti-union activity by employers and government is echoed only too faithfully in the rest of the capitalist world, particularly in the “bargain basement” labor market of Britain.  In another relatively recent era, the upsurges of the late 1960s and early `70s, parallels in terms of rank-and-file militancy are evident among the American, British and other European labor movements.

Before we reach this point, however, almost 500 years of American working class history are covered, starting with the first incursion of Spanish imperialism in the early 1500s, the beginning of centuries of colonial, then U.S. expansion and conquest.

A central feature of this “pioneer” invasion was slavery, and this takes us to what is unquestionably the most fundamental division within the American working class.  This division, which in its depth and significance finds few comparable parallels in other labor movements, is the tragedy of racism.

Le Blanc spells out its beginnings in his account of the aftermath of abolition:

While slavery had been abolished in the North by the early 1800s, most white Americans continued to ostracize and oppress African Americans .  .  .  .  It was deeply ingrained in the dominant culture-and struck deep roots in the consciousness of most native-born and immigrant white workers-that blacks were inferior beings.  (33)

Thus almost as soon as class awareness and class struggle developed in any form it was, as is only too well known, a white-identified exclusive awareness.  While it was working people who, in the 1830s, mobilized around slogans like “Liberty or Revolution,” winning such class-based reforms as the extension of the franchise to all free, white males, at the same time these victories logically “had the effect of limiting the voting rights of black workers.” (27)

Racism is without doubt the deepest historical and contemporary wound disabling the American working class, and Le Blanc’s book demonstrates its destructive potential at all stages of the history of that class (including its anti-Asian, anti-Latino and nativist as well as anti-Black manifestations).

At the same time, and all the more impressively given the dominance of the ideology, workers were not uniformly racist; Le Blanc lists countertendencies from the post-Civil War period on. (36)

Again, while sexism took (and continues to take) its toll, chauvinist ideas were challenged at an even earlier stage by some workers.  In 1819, the labor activist Seth Luther argued against New York tailors threatening to go on strike against women joining their ranks: “Unless we have the female sex on our side, we cannot hope to accomplish the end we have in view.”

Nor were the young women trained in the hard industrial schools of the Lowell textile mills slow in declaring their own defiance: “As our fathers resisted unto blood the lordly avarice of the British ministry,” Le Blanc quotes them as proclaiming, “so we, their daughters, will never wear the yoke that has been prepared for us.” (32)

The Corrosive Role of Corruption

Sexism is, unfortunately, only too familiar a feature of labor movements less deeply and overtly racist than the U.S. example.  The other “in your face” aspects of the U.S. labor movement are less familiar, or less pervasive, elsewhere in the world.

These include organized crime and other forms of corruption, along with an exceptional level of violence; individualism and the “American Dream;” lack of a governing (potentially, at least) Social-Democratic party; lack of a widespread “welfare state” and the ensuing (and unreliable) role of corporations in providing benefits; rabid anticommunism and “red-baiting” (worst, clearly, at certain points but an endemic feature); and the still-malign influence of “business unionism.”

Which comes first-or should we ask, which of these factors is most responsible for the debilitating decline of effective unionism in America?  In Le Blanc’s chronology, the high level of corruption and racketeering “distinguishing” the U.S. labor scene is one of the first factors, aside from racism, to strike the inexperienced reader.

Aside from the violence that has often been a central feature of class struggle, such corruption in the U.S. labor movement utilized distinctly non-class-related forms of violence and extortion, which reached their height during the Prohibition era of the 1920s and `30s.

At this time, much union activity would have made a fit theme for a gangster movie-with even Al Capone in on the act. (In fact Le Blanc cites the 1983 film “Once Upon A Time in America,” alongside “On The Waterfront,” as illustrating these developments).

Fortunately, as Le Blanc shows, “progressive” trade unionists were able to combat the worst of such corruption, leading to its temporary extinction by the industrial union upsurge of the 1930s-although the more recent pre-reform history of the Teamsters Union is eloquent testimony to the persistence of such trends.

Roots of Business Unionism

Le Blanc is right, however, to root the fundamental sources of union corruption and racketeering in an ultimately far more damaging development-the growth and dominance of “business unionism.”

One of the first references to this most fatal of conditions for the American labor movement occurs in the context of the AFL’s turn as early as the 1890s, from at least verbal radicalism to “a relatively conservative form of trade unionism.”

Although sometimes still tipping his hat to abstract socialist ideals, Gompers [AFL leader] also referred to trade unions in nonradical terms as “the business organization of the wage earners to attend to the business of the wage earners.” (50)

The term, or at least the thinking behind it, recurs in Le Blanc’s account of how, in the 1920s, “even some of the most moderate elements in the labor movement did not feel able to accept the powerful pro-business conservatism that dominated the mainstream of both the Democratic and Republican parties at this time.”

At the same time, however, a contemporary commentator describing a “typical” union official of the period comments, “his dominating thought was always centered on the contract.  He had seen too many agitators take command.” (71)

This “anti-agitator” perspective came eventually to dominate the whole movement with the advent of business unionisms true reign in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  By this time the rabid anti-communism of the Cold War period had brought about an “enforced conformity in labor’s ranks [which] resulted in a dramatic decline in the radical fervor and rough-and-tumble internal democracy that had been so vital to U.S. union growth in the 1930s.” (103)

The fate of any such rank-and-file dynamic was symbolized by the ascension of George Meany to leadership of the by now combined AFL-CIO:

Meany was a cigar-chomping craft unionist who represented a dyed-in-the-wool “business unionism.” He boasted: “I never went on strike in my life; I never ran a strike in my life; I never ordered anyone to run a strike in my life.” (104)

The at-least-temporary victory of the anti-struggle, pro-capital perspective was consolidated in what was called a social compact among business, government and unions premissed on labor’s acceptance of “the right of private business to own the economy, in exchange for high employment rates, paychecks, and fringe benefits.” (105)

Of course, the bargain could not last. Le Blanc documents the familiar story of economic decline and crisis in his final chapters on the late 1960s to date. From a bureaucratised fortress of “Big Labor,” union influence shrank to a point at which the leadership, at least, was begging by the late `70s to make wage concessions in order to “save jobs.”

In the meantime business had no compunction about changing its side of the deal into “a broad and far-reaching offensive of its own, designed to push back working-class gains in order to tilt power relations dramatically back in their own favor.” (119)


The rest of the story of the neo-liberal “labor crunch,” dating in its greatest severity from Reagan onwards, will be well-known to most current labor observers; the resurgence of struggle from the late `80s, which Le Blanc documents under the heading of “Labor Fights Back,” may be less so, thanks to its general suppression by the media.

Le Blanc’s account is to be appreciated for its reference to the current upturn in worker resistance, as well as its attention to the class nature and political significance of earlier upsurges such as the strike waves of the 1930s and the immediate post-World War II period.

The author’s trenchant refutation of the common “dinosaur” metaphor in its application to the labor movement (123) is equally welcome.  There are some omissions or inadequacies in this area, however, such as the minimal account of the Black revolutionary organization of the late 1960s and early `70s, DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement), and of the potentially revolutionary guerilla-like activities of United Mine Workers members a few years later.

Also lacking, it seems to this reader, is an analysis of the economic roots of the transition from postwar “social compact” to the full-blooded class offensive of neo-liberalism, though this transition and its effects are of course referred to, particularly at the beginning of the chapter on “Rude Awakenings.” Along with this absence goes an implicit preference for under-consumptionist rather than alternative Marxist explanations of economic crisis.

All in all, while the huge 500-year historical sweep of this volume renders it inevitably sketchy at points, the book’s value as an overview and source of reference for students of the labor movement cannot be disputed.

Sheila Cohen, a labor educator in Detroit, was active for many years in the British labor left.