The Split in Labor


IN my first article on labor in the United States, in the Atlantic Monthly of August 1934, I said: ‘The vertical labor union, whether a company or a Communist union, is the only union system which conforms with the current organization of mechanized industry.’

The logic of labor organizing vertically remains, no matter what view one may take of the personal quarrel between William Green, President of the American Federation of Labor, and John Lewis, Chairman of the Committee on Industrial Organization. Their differences are press-agented as a fundamental struggle between vertical and horizontal unionism. It is nothing of the kind. It is a struggle for the physical control of the A. F. of L. It is a struggle over the political policy of the A. F. of L. It is a struggle between John Lewis personally and certain presidents of certain international unions personally. Only incidentally is the principle of vertical versus horizontal unionism at stake.

In fact, the evolvement of vertical unionism appears everywhere: in the ‘company union,’ in the employee representation plans, and even in the A. F. of L., which boasts more than one thousand vertical unions. Yet among the unions which compose the C. I. O., some are vertical and some are horizontal unions. For instance, one of Mr. Lewis’s strongest supporters is Sidney Hillman, who represents definite craft unions held together by a principle termed ‘amalgamation,’ which means that distinct craft organizations combine in an approach to verticalism without altogether losing their craft characteristics.

That the lines and principle are not clear needs to be understood if this major battle of organized labor in the United States is to be understood. And a further fact must be emphasized, if the background of the struggle is to be cleared of mystifying impedimenta — namely, that all factions of organized and unorganized labor are disappointed by the results of the pro-labor policy of the Roosevelt Administration. It does not matter that the Supreme Court threw out the NIRA and the Guffey Bill. It does not matter that it was Senator Rush Holt who filibustered the new Guffey Bill to death.

What does matter is that nothing tangibly beneficial to the worker came of a specific and unmistakable emphasis by the Administration upon the organization of all labor into unions affiliated with and dominated by the American Federation of Labor. All that remains of the Administration’s programme is the Wagner Bill, which is being fought in the courts, and the National Labor Relations Board, which will disappear if the Wagner Bill is declared unconstitutional, as many believe it will be.

Louis Stark, of the New York Times, in an article in Nation’s Business as early as April 1935, pointed to this disappointment: —

In recent months organized labor has suffered reversal after reversal. Its surprise at this almost equals its disappointment because, in the beginning, organized labor looked upon President Roosevelt as distinctly ‘friendly’ toward labor. It had expected considerable gains under his administration. These expectations have not been fulfilled. . . .

It is always difficult for a President to pursue a pro-labor or an anti-labor policy. He and the Department of Labor and such other labor agencies as he brings into existence are inevitably called upon to act as umpires, and even if, by predilection or political philosophy, they are biased, that bias must not appear, lest vast political disturbances occur in the land. Mr. Roosevelt has been forced by circumstances to carry water on both shoulders — that is, he has sought to support union labor and at the same time to act as umpire between capital and labor. The effect has been disappointing to his friends and distressing to his enemies.

An example of the sort of involvement that comes to individuals as a result of this policy may be instanced in the case of William Green. When the Frazier-Lemke Bill was before the House of Representatives, it was felt by the Administration that there might be some chance of its passage. So William Green was influenced to write a letter attacking the bill, and that letter was read from the floor by the Speaker

— an unusual procedure calculated to drive Congressmen into the corral. At the very moment — it was May 1936

— that Mr. Green was called upon to do this job for the President, he was in the midst of his fight with John Lewis and needed every ounce of support. He undoubtedly weighed in the balance any possible quid pro quo from the White House. Mr. Green had to take the full attack. He was denounced by Left Wing Republicans and Democrats. He was ridiculed by Congressman Marcantonio, who speaks for such a constituency as appears in the needle industries which John Lewis was then pulling out of the A. F. of L. Mr. Dunn of Pennsylvania practically gave Mr. Green the lie in the following language: —

I am one of twenty-one members of the Committee on Labor of the House of Representatives. I do not know of any member of the Committee on Labor who received any information from Mr. Green or any other person affiliated with organized labor who said they were opposed to the FrazierLemke bill. It seems to me if the American Federation of Labor was under the impression that this constructive and humanitarian piece of legislation would be injurious to the laboring people of our country, Mr. Green and other people affiliated with organized labor would have communicated with the gentleman from Massachusetts [Mr. Connery], chairman of the House Labor Committee, and other members of the committee.

It is often difficult to trace cause and effect in an essentially political movement, but it was obvious at the time and is clearer now that Mr. Green’s service to the President in connection with the Frazier-Lemke Bill was an expensive diversion in the course of the A. F. of L.-C. I. O. war. And Mr. Green comes out of it a disappointed man, for whatever he thought that the President would do to reward his loyalty has not been forthcoming.


Within the Federation of Labor, the more competently and completely organized industries are those which are represented by craft — that is, horizontal — unionism. These are the older trades — carpentry, machinists, teamsters, bricklayers, plumbers, and so forth. The only deviations from this group are some typographical workers and the principal needle trades. The printing trade unions have mostly remained in the A. F. of L., although some individual leaders have followed Mr. Lewis. The needle trades represent the Socialist and Communist element, centred in New York, and although they are organized as craft unions, they support Mr. Lewis. The railroad brotherhoods are, of course, independent, and the miners support Mr. Lewis.

The great mass-production trades — steel, automobiles, electrical workers, all the new industries which have arisen out of the more recent mechanization of American production — are unorganized. A certain progress in the organization of the rubber industry has been made this year, but no union is recognized by the principal rubber companies in Akron. Steel and automobiles are not at all organized.

The major difficulty that has faced the A. F. of L. in organizing the massproduction industries, apart from the attitude of the workers themselves, has been the question of jurisdiction, for the organization of labor within these industries does not parallel the craft unions in the A. F. of L. Whereas a carpenter is always a carpenter of one sort or another, an automobile worker may be called upon to do all sorts of jobs which cross union jurisdictional lines.

Non-organization has made it possible for the A. F. of L. to dodge this issue, while many mass-production workers employed in open shops actually hold craft-union cards. When they lose their mass-production job, they may go back to an organized craft job.

The importance of the question of jurisdiction rests upon the fact that workers withdrawn from one union to another shift their dues and fees as well as their persons. Thus, if metal workers are all put into a vertical automobile workers’ union, the metal workers’ union loses members, dues, and fees. It is even within possibility that it may go out of existence. The reorganization of unions to meet the changes arising from mass production cannot then be treated merely as a matter of principle. It is a question of the very existence of certain well-entrenched unions.

The dimensions of this money prize may be measured by the fact that although union men pay only 35 cents per month into the A. F. of L. treasury, the loss from the Lewis defection already amounts to $10,000 a month, or $120,000 a year.


It can serve no purpose in this article to analyze the motives and ambitions of John Lewis. Without such an analysis, however, it is not altogether possible to understand why he chose this year to crack open the A. F. of L. Suffice it to point out that he has become the leading labor leader in the country. It is recognized that of all labor leaders he is closest to the President and the Secretary of Labor. It is recognized that in the eyes of the public his position is equal if not superior to that of William Green. Some say that he is ambitious to become President, but who can know what are the hidden dreams of any man?

At any rate, it can be said that he seized upon the failure of the A. F. of L. to organize the mass-production industries as the starting point of his fight with Green and the presidents of the old-line craft unions. In a letter to Mr. Green in June, Lewis wrote: —

You do not deny that the American Federation of Labor has frittered away two years of valuable time without effectuating the organization of a single worker in the steel industry. You do not deny that your executive council is even now scheming to eject our union from the house of labor. You do not deny that the crime for which such ejection will be punishment is the crime of lending aid to the unorganized workers and seeking an expansion of the numerical strength of the American Federation of Labor. Your lament is that I will not join you in a policy of anxious inertia.

The mass-production industries — steel, automobiles, and rubber — offered a fertile field. For reasons apart from labor, the Roosevelt Administration had been particularly antagonistic to the steel industry. A campaign had launched itself (I am particularly guarded in the use of this phrase) to stimulate popular antagonism to this industry. In fact, it had been generally disseminated that in the steel industry wages are unusually low and working conditions unusually unsatisfactory.

In the rubber industry there is also a fertile field. This industry presents the unusual spectacle of unadulterated competition among producers. The competition is so marked that the rubber companies are actually antagonistic to each other and do not cooperate on any question of policy or practice. As much as such primitive competition may be favored by some politicians and social philosophers, this condition is damaging to the rubber industry, particularly in its labor relations. Neither capital nor labor, nor the city in which the industry is located, gains an iota by this lack of coöperation; and this is an important footnote on another but germane subject — namely, that if labor is to be organized, then capital must ipso facto be organized.

If Mr. Lewis could organize a general strike in steel and rubber, the automobile factories would have to close down, because they would be without the means of producing automobiles. This was the strategy by which the massproduction industries were to be unionized, and this strategy the American Federation of Labor rejected, to Mr. Lewis’s disappointment.

Mr. Lewis’s argument for such strikes was based largely upon wages. According to him, the mass-production workers— principally the steel workers — were underpaid. In an article I wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, I analyzed the wage situation as it affects these problems: —


Year Average Weekly Wages
Automobiles $27.04
Tires and tubes 26.73
Steel 23.66


Year Average Weekly Wages
Anthracite coal mining $26.80
Bituminous coal mining 20.29
Weighted average for coal-mine industries 21.44
Metal mining 23.30
Mining and quarrying of non metals 17.02
Men's clothing 18.43
IV omen's clothing 18.53
Book and job printing 27.80
News and periodical printing 33.37
Textiles 16.14-
Petroleum refining 28.15
Petroleum producing 28.89
Hat manufacturing 23.06
Millinery manufacturing 20.99
Glass, stone, and clay products 20.97

It will be seen from this analysis that wages in comparable industries are unrelated to whether the workers are organized or not, and that except for the petroleum industries, which are only about 10 or 15 per cent organized, the mass-production industries pay higher wages than, for instance, those industries which are dominated by the United Mine Workers. The following table of comparable industries makes this point clear: —

Petroleum industries. $28.52
Automobiles 27.04
Tires and tubes 26.73
Steel 23.66
Metal mining 23.30
Coal mining 21.44

Had Mr. Lewis succeeded in organizing steel by August of this year, he would have so completely dominated the labor world as to make action against him by the A. F. of L. impossible. Elsewhere I shall discuss his failure. Suffice it here to indicate that he did fail, and that because he failed by August his personal and political enemies in the Federation sought for public means to discredit him.

On August 4 a trial was held, at which Mr. Lewis and his colleagues in the C. I. O. faced these accusations: —

1. That the C. I. O. is a dual organization functioning as a rival to the A. F. of L.

2. That the C. I. O. was organized to foster and maintain a dual organization and was guilty of fomenting insurrection in the American Federation of Labor.

3. That in forming the C. I. O. the affiliated unions were guilty of a breach of contract with the American Federation of Labor.

4. That violation of the decision of the Atlantic City convention of the Federation and of the Federation’s Constitution constituted rebellion against the policy adopted by majority vote at the convention.

The charges are very interesting. First arises the question of dualism — whether a group within the Federation may organize to represent a point of view divergent from that maintained by its executive council. Any organization is justified in objecting to a ‘ boring from within.’ On the other hand, the principle of vertical versus horizontal unionism is fundamental, and how far can members be disciplined for acting upon a difference of opinion? Also it is to be noted that the C. I. O. leaders are not trivial personalities, and that their basic responsibility is to their own members and not to the A. F. of L.

The question of the contractual relationship has to do with the structure of the A. F. of L. The unions which compose it are independent bodies and are not to be controlled by the A. F. of L., but act through it in certain specific matters. This arrangement may have been necessary when Samuel Gompers founded the A. F. of L. in order to make his organization attractive to the already strong craft unions. Subsequently this form of organization has been utilized to shirk responsibility for the conduct of individual unions. Now it is being used to keep insurgent unions in line. But when the A. F. of L. insists upon the inviolability of contracts, it lays itself open to the charge of inconsistency, because one of the major difficulties in dealing with unions has been that they do not rigidly adhere to their contractual obligations. This is particularly notable in the socalled sympathetic strike, when a union that is under contract not to strike goes out in support of another union.

The objection that Mr. Lewis violates the majority rule is also interesting, because the Federation has never recognized this rule in the organization of an industry. In fact, it has assumed the responsibility of leadership in an industry when only a few workers in that industry had union cards. The most recent example of this is rubber and steel.

From the character of the charges it is obvious that the issue is not the vertical versus the horizontal union, but who shall control the A. F. of L. — John Lewis and his C. I. O. associates, or William Green and his craft-union associates?


Across this curious picture runs the presidential campaign. It has, with one remote exception, always been the policy of the A. F. of L. not to endorse candidates for the Presidency. Some individual leaders have endorsed Republicans, some Democrats, and some Socialists, and individual unions have even passed resolutions of a political nature. But the American Federation of Labor, as such, has remained strictly aloof from endorsements.

Exactly what such an endorsement might be worth in votes no one can tell. In the United States, citizens have been in the habit of voting as individuals. Politicians have appealed to the farmer vote, the labor vote, the Jewish vote, the German vote, but on the whole there is little evidence that any individual or group of individuals has ever been able to deliver such votes in sizes to count. On the other hand, the support which Woodrow Wilson got from Samuel Gompers seems to have been of some consequence.

In recent years both Republican and Democratic parties have designated important labor leaders as chairmen of campaign committees organized to capture the labor vote. Both parties have designated such gentlemen this year.

But the labor support for Mr. Roosevelt has been different from anything that has thus far appeared in American politics. First of all, Mr. Lewis sought to influence the American Federation of Labor to endorse President Roosevelt. This proposal was rejected. As early as May 11, the Labor’s Nonpartisan League opened headquarters in Washington under the presidency of George L. Berry of the Printing Pressmen’s Union. Associated with him are John Lewis and Sidney Hillman and all the C. I. O. chiefs. This league is actively engaged in a campaign to reëlect Mr. Roosevelt. Many of those who have for years been leaders of the Socialist Party are in the movement. It is interesting to note that the Jewish Daily Forward, which has been one of the leading Socialist labor newspapers in the country, is supporting Mr. Roosevelt.

Although William Green has personally gone on record as supporting the candidacy of Mr. Roosevelt, he has opposed any action of the A. F. of L. In this he was joined by Frank Morrison, the senior labor leader of the Federation.

In New York State, the Labor League became a political party which will seek a place on the ballot. It has nominated Mr. Roosevelt as its candidate. This action was taken to make it possible for Socialists to vote for Mr. Roosevelt without voting the Democratic ticket, which would be repugnant to them. In a formal statement issued upon its organization, Labor’s Nonpartisan League of New York State said: —

The present political conflict is not between two parties, nor between two sections of the country. The conflict is between two camps, which are opposed to each other and are fighting for a major stake that concerns us all, everywhere. On the one side are the nation’s tories, the reactionaries of all stripes and kinds, the manipulators of other people’s money and the exploiters of other people’s labor, determined to hold on to their unjustly obtained privileges and advantages and seeking to extend them further. On the other side are the people of the United States, the overwhelming majority of the population of our great and rich country, demanding the right to work and live under standards of economic decency and security.

In this battle of the people against the ‘economic royalists,’ President Roosevelt’s sympathies, as expressed in his activities in the past years and in his utterances, have been on the side of the people. On the basis of his record and his public commitments the President is pledged to sponsor the legislation we demand.

From the standpoint of the Socialists, Mr. Roosevelt is running on their ticket as the leader of a class-conscious group in a class struggle. The American Federation of Labor has never endorsed the conception of the class struggle, and, although it is not surprising to find Mr. Hillman in this group, Mr. Lewis’s presence in their company breaks a long tradition of antagonism to Socialism on the part of the principal labor leaders of the country.

How far this Socialist support has gone is evidenced by the fact that Louis Waldman, until recently leader of the Socialist Party of New York State, has joined this new party. In fact, conservative labor leaders have been rather shocked by the fact that even the Communist Party has endorsed the C. I. O., and John P. Frey, leader of the metal trades, openly attacked Mr. Lewis for this support. He said: —

While there is no evidence . . . that the C. I. O. has any working agreement with the Communist Party in the United States, there is a mass of authentic evidence indicating that the Communist Party has ceased all of its activities for the time being and is doing all within its power to assist the C. I. O. This policy of the Communist Party constitutes an additional menace to the trade-union movement which has been built up under the guidance of the American Federation of Labor.

The question arises as to just how many votes Mr. Lewis can swing. Will the adherence of Socialist and Communist strength make any difference, and, if the election is close, will Mr. Lewis’s support of Mr. Roosevelt tip the scales and thereby make Mr. Lewis the American Warwick? In the labor world, Mr. Lewis’s enemies say that in such an event he will be a logical candidate for the Presidency in 1940, and that the Democratic Party may be absorbed by a Farmer-Labor Party.

This factor looms large in the C. I. O. fight. The conservative craft-union leaders do not want to be absorbed in a labor party. They do not wish to become part of a union of labor-SocialistCommunist groups in a ‘united front’ movement. They fear such a movement as much as the conservative business men fear it; they speak of it as un-American, just as Fred Clarke of the Crusaders might call it un-American. It is, as a matter of fact, leading to bitterness between those unions which have regarded themselves as ‘native’ and those in which ‘foreigners’ are most influential. The latter generally support the C. I. O. in both its political and its labor manifestations.


The crucial test of Lewis’s strength was the abortive steel strike. I use the word ‘abortive’ because the first phase of it died a-borning, although the trouble is not yet over.

The steel industry has never been effectively organized by any labor union. The 1919 strike under William Z. Foster ended in failure, first because it was associated with I. W. W. and Communist elements, and secondly because the men would not join. Since 1918, several steel companies have had employee representation plans, and this system is now fairly universal in the industry. The Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, headed by Michael F. Tighe, has never dominated the industry. To this group Mr. Lewis publicly offered $500,000 if they would join the C. I. O. and authorize his group to direct the unionization of the steel industry. The offer was accepted on May 13.

From that day until now, the steel industry has been faced with the prospect of a general strike conducted by John Lewis. The steel industry, however, has a long ‘open shop’ tradition both among the men and among the employers, and steel workers resented the appearance of miners, milliners, and tailors among them as organizers. At the very head of Mr. Lewis’s organization was placed, not a steel worker, but a miner. This was undoubtedly a psychological error.

The A. F. of L., from the very beginning, opposed C. I. O. activities in the steel industry. Mr. Green has time and again issued statements attacking this move. In a statement on June 5 he said: —

For obvious reasons, it will now be impossible to unite and concentrate the full and complete economic, financial and organizing force of the American Federation of Labor in an immediate steel-organizing campaign drive.

It has been quite evident for a long time that those in charge of the administration of the affairs of the Committee for Industrial Organization were determined to experiment in the application of their one form of organization which they had so definitely espoused.

The employers in the steel industry have been anticipating Mr. Lewis’s attack, in some form or other, since NRA days. They weathered that storm, but have been expecting recurrences of it. Therefore, long before Mr. Lewis’s programme developed sufficient strength to be important, the steel employers issued a statement, through the American Iron and Steel Institute, setting forth their point of view. Before their statement was issued, it was evident to them and to most impartial observers that the C. I. O. was making almost no headway among the steel workers. The Institute statement, therefore, was psychologically well-timed. It is too long to give here in full, but these excerpts will suffice: —

The objective of the campaign is the ‘closed shop,’ which prohibits the employment of anyone not a union member. The steel industry will oppose any attempt to compel its employes to join a union or to pay tribute for the right to work.

No employe in the steel industry has to join any organization to get or hold a job. Employment in the industry does not depend upon membership or non-membership in any organization. . . .

The steel industry will use its resources to the best of its ability to protect its employes and their families from intimidation, coercion and violence and to aid them in maintaining collective bargaining free from interference from any source.

Almost simultaneously, the Institute reported that by actual ballot 254,000 out of 275,000 workers in the thirty principal plants of the industry had voted in favor of employee representation plans.

Certain facts stand out in the steel situation. Many so-called company unions have in recent months been demanding a wage increase, and there is no doubt in my mind that this would have been granted in some form were it not for the fear that John Lewis would have claimed the credit for the advance. In fact, running parallel with the Lewis movement is a stabilization of the employee representation plan and the company union. They arc becoming increasingly fearless in their representation of the worker.

At the same time, the government is bringing action against some of the steel companies for collusive bidding, which is generally interpreted in the industry as support for John Lewis. But the workers are not joining his union, and therein lies the explanation of the action taken on August 5 by the A. F. of L. to suspend the C. I. O. unions from the Federation. It is a curiosity of labor organization that the steel worker has thus far, in the main, resisted the pressure put upon him by so many forces to join the C. I. O. union. The causes for his resistance might well be studied by the sociologist as a distinctive American phenomenon.

Had Mr. Lewis succeeded in organizing steel, Mr. Green would have been without ‘face.’ Mr. Lewis’s failure strengthened the arm of his personal enemies. Nevertheless, it is really premature to use the word ‘failed.’

The steel employers have outwitted and outmanœuvred John Lewis, but they must do much more than that. They have to bring their wages and standards up to the automobile industry before they can be sure that Lewis will make no inroads. They must get rid of obsolete ideas as they get rid of obsolescent machinery. The leading companies have been doing exactly that for some time now, and the entire atmosphere in the steel industry is more cheerful and pleasant than it has been for some years past. Many of the companies are facing employee relations, not as an incident in the production of steel, but as a human responsibility which must be a primary consideration.

Workers sense this, and undoubtedly it has been the principal factor in the inability of the C. I. O. to move fast. The workers will not join, in fear that a strike failure might terminate a favorable situation. They now have vacations with pay, additional compensation for overtime, and there will undoubtedly be a wage increase as soon as business warrants it. The steel industry lost heavily during the depression, but, as soon as business picked up, the progressive leaders of steel companies looked to greater employee participation in earnings. It is already evident that weekly earnings in the steel industry are higher than the general average for mass-production industries. These progressive steel employers feel that Mr. Lewis has arrested a tendency favorable to the workers.


Movements of the nature of the C. I. O. do not disappear because they have failed. John Lewis may cease to be its leader, and the Socialist-Communist-Left Wing Democratic combination may fall apart; but the fight to organize the mass-production industries into vertical unions will continue as long as they remain unorganized.

The effectiveness of the effort will depend on forces altogether outside the labor movement. If business improves and the men get enough work so that the pay envelope at the end of the week is full, unionizing activities, whether horizontal or vertical, will not succeed. If business is inadequate to meet this requirement, there will be trouble in industry and such movements as the C. I. O. will take root.

On the other hand, the C. I. O. leaders have indicated a distaste for non-political trade-union activities. The NRA and the Guffey Bill have given them a taste of what political power can mean to a union leader. They want that power and they want to extend it. The fundamental struggle among these men is as to who shall wield that power if it is restored to organized labor by Congressional action or by an amendment to the Constitution. This question may or may not be settled by the next election.

On the other hand, the conception of all employed human beings in the United States belonging to one union over which one man is to wield dominating power is a dream too grandiose for most mortal men to reject. It will be fought for as long as there is the slightest fighting chance of its realization. And that struggle becomes personal and political. It transcends the needs and interests of the worker and overlays national politics. It parallels similar movements in Europe, where individual politicians organized the labor mass into a machine of personal advancement. And always, when such leaders gain power, they coerce the worker into being a pawn in the battle to retain and extend such personal power.

I do not believe that any man can do that in the United States. But it would be foolhardy to suggest that no man will try to do it.