[ Home ]  [ Canadian Bolsheviks ]  [ Documents Index ]  [ Reminiscences Index ] [ About ]

The Impossibilists by Larry Gambone (continued)

Selected articles from the press of the
Socialist Party of Canada and the One Big Union, 1906-1938

[Return to Part One]

The Development of the OBU
The OBU movement and its differences with business unionism are discussed in Future Activity Of Trade Unions, The Burning Question Of Trades Unionism, Will Industrial Unionism Suffice? and  What Is The OBU? Readers will be surprised by The Closed Shop and Industrial Liberty for its opposition to the closed shop.

Future Activity Of Trade Unions, by W.H.Humphries, Western Clarion, April 11, 1908

The recent decisions adversely effecting Trade Unions should cause all trade unionists to seriously consider the future of trade unionism. In so doing we must take note of the character and strength of the forces arrayed against us as well as our own. We must not underestimate either the gravity of the struggle in which we are engaged nor the importance of the issues at stake. The concentration of capital into fewer and fewer hands is a feature we cannot afford to ignore, while the growth of combines and trusts has a vital effect upon the power of trades unionism. With our hands tied just when the enemy is in the height of his power, the outlook is black indeed.

There are some trades unionists who seem to think that we only have to secure the status-quo-ante and all will be well. It is quite clear that even a return to the status-quo-ante will involve considerable expense and hard fighting. Conceding that the object to be obtained is worth the struggle, we have still to consider whether it is better to fight for a loaf than a crumb. We are compelled to fight by our very existence. Might we not as well fight for complete emancipation, instead of merely working for the right to strike, work for the abolition of those conditions which render strikes necessary—that is the private ownership of the means of life?

The right to strike is one thing, the power to strike is another. While the workers, organized into trade unions, were able to take collective action against employers who were fighting each other, the strike, or the threat to strike, was a very effective means of bringing employers to their senses; but the employers are now better organized than the workers. In future, a strike will often prove to be a means of limiting output in the interests of the employer and to the disadvantage of the worker. The limitation of output in the interest of the workers will have to be done in the factory; and not outside it. The strike will be regarded as an obsolete weapon, which though useful in some cases, is quite incapable of affording anything like real protection to the worker.

Our weapon of the future will be organized political action but before we can use this weapon effectively, we shall have to throw aside our trade consciousness and become class conscious. A trade union exists today for the purpose of protecting and benefiting those employed in a particular trade. In future, the purpose of trade unionism will be the protection and ultimate emancipation of the workers as a whole. Disputes which may arise between different unions will be settled by committees from unions not directly interested. Instead of employers dealing with trades in detail, they will have to deal with a comprehensive committee represented by the several trades employed by him. Trade unionists will recognize that they all belong to one great army, and that a blow struck at any section is a blow struck at the whole. The section or trade attacked will be assisted by the entire weight of organized labor.

Each branch of a union will become a working class centre of political education and activity. Political discussion, so long tabooed, will become regarded as an essential part of branch business. The various branches of unions in parliamentary division will form councils to decide what course of action to take in each locality. Conferences will be held between the various councils in each county, while the national course will be decided by the congress, which will then be the parliament of labor in fact as well as name.


The Burning Question Of Trades Unionism by C.K., Red Flag, June 21 1919

Some years ago, one Daniel DeLeon, Socialist, spoke at some length on the subject of “The Burning Question of Trades Unionism”. Daniel’s remarks were intended to be somewhat of the nature of a fire extinguisher. Nevertheless, the question continues to burn—one might almost say, “heartburn”. Not to put too fine a point to it, the discussion which rages (the word is well chosen) in certain quarters, over, and around this subject is acrimonious to a degree.

The result is, that among members of organized labor the idea is very prevalent that between them and the Socialist, the yawning gap is fixed. There is no doubt that the impression exists that the Socialists regard this form of organization into which labor has instinctually grouped itself as a thing to be vigorously denounced and strenuously combated at every opportunity. That this idea is erroneous and arises out of a misunderstanding, for which the trade unionist is not entirely to blame, I shall endeavor to show.

The question as it is at this time generally debated may be stated thus: Has trades unionism bettered the condition of the working class? Will it ever be able to do so? The trades unionist will point to the fact that those trades which have been better organized have generally enjoyed better pay and working conditions than those unorganized, and argue that it is the unions which have procured them this advantage.

The unionist may contend that the standard of living of all labor, organized and unorganized has been raised appreciably during, say, the last 50 years, and it is due to the efforts of the unions. The socialist will, however, point to the fact that the tendency of the development of the processes of production is to demand a more and more efficient worker, that a shorter working day and a better standard of living is necessary to the production and maintenance of such efficiency, and will argue from this that the relative advantage now enjoyed by labor (such as they might be) might have been conceded had no union existed.

The socialist will point out that the competition of unorganized labor, which constitutes a large portion of the whole, will always act to maintain hours and wages at that point which the market warrants and the methods of production make necessary. The unionist counters with the argument that organization is not yet complete: that when all members of all branches of labor have been organized then, competition being eliminated, labor will have things all its own way. This is a beautiful dream, such organization would create no new demand for labor, in short, there would still be more laborers than jobs and whatever competition previously existed outside the unions, would simply be brought inside—but it still would be competition.

The union, as DeLeon pointed out, is the arm which labor instinctively throws up to protect itself against the blows of capitalism. It is labor’s response to the stimulus of the environment. The form and mechanism may be modified, but in essence the institution will remain the same—an organization of workers founded, not on class consciousness, but on that recognition of identity of interest that their status inspires. In short, the workers will organize to make the best of their position as workers—not as class conscious wage slaves to overthrow the system.

So far the outlook is as black and hopeless as the most earnest exponent of the “Philosophy of Misery” could desire. But there is another angle from which the subject may be approached. What says our exponent of the “Dialectic” method? We must consider things as they are but also in light of what they once were and—“what is most important in this connection—what they are likely to develop into.”

The weapon of the labor union is the strike. In its earliest and simplest form the strike was purely industrial action of local significance. We have long since passed the stage where the strike was directed simultaneously against several different employing interests and have now arrived at the “Sympathetic” stage. At this stage the strike begins, more or less unconsciously so far as the strikers are concerned, to take a certain degree of political significance.

As this stage develops, the State finds it increasingly difficult to maintain a semblance of neutrality. Consequently, each succeeding strike of this nature provides a liberal education for the workers and awakens them to the need for political action—as the Socialist understands it. The logical development of this idea may be seen in the recent action of the “Triple Alliance” in Great Britain. Here the strike has developed into conscious though not necessarily class conscious political action.

Coincident with this evolves the “One Big Union” idea, the development of which will be to make every strike more and more political in nature. There is no doubt that a strike called by an even partially organized One Big Union would be of such scope and magnitude as to make the mere threat of it a tremendous political lever.

Thus it may be seen that, while labor may refuse to be argued into political action by the Socialist, it will inevitably be forced into such action by the inevitable development of that form of organization which it has adopted. That conscious political action is now developing out of trade unionism is proven by the reference to the “Triple Alliance” mentioned above. How rapidly this will become class consciousness will depend upon a number of factors, one of which is socialist education.

If the conclusions reached above are approximately correct—and I believe that events will prove them to be so- then may the Socialist compose himself to contemplate trade unionism with a more tolerant eye than has been his habit hereto. There is a benevolent old gentleman wearing long white whiskers, clad in a nightshirt and carrying a scythe. He is known as “Father Time”. The fact is not generally appreciated but he is a Socialist of the most pronounced revolutionary type. He is very busy among the trade unions these days. He is working for us.


Will Industrial Unionism Suffice? OBU Bulletin, January 12 1928

Most thinking workers have come to the conclusion that the craft form of organization is obsolete. The obvious nature of this change has rendered its repetition almost superfluous in working class circles, but sad to say, there are still vast numbers of our class who are not well enough informed to differentiate between a real remedy and a quack substitute. Many of them seeing the futility of the CRAFT division cannot see the equally dangerous character of INDUSTRIAL DIVISION.

As an industrial organization the United Mine Workers of America has no equal on this continent. But can the UMW, in spite of its numerical strength, in spite of its indomitable spirit of its members, win against the master class? The answer is no. And for the same reason that craft unions cannot win—because the purely industrial form of organization cuts the workers into distinct sections, gives them sectional concepts and attempts to fight the struggle alone. Such attempts MUST end in failure. The industrial union advocates will no doubt claim that this can be overcome by affiliating the various unions. This, however, is only true on paper. It has been proven conclusively that this loose affiliation is of no use in a crisis. The tragic failure of the Triple Alliance in Great Britain is a glaring example of the futility of this burlesque solidarity.

The failure of the British General Strike is an even more glaring example. While the workers realize instinctively, the necessity of CLASS action, the sectional viewpoint developed from their sectional organizations soon creeps in.

The Triple Alliance in Britain, when put to the test, failed miserably, as must all such efforts fail THAT HAVE NOT THE NECESSARY BASIS FOR CLASS ACTION. Certain mushroom revolutionists claim that this failure was due to the perfidy and timidity of certain leaders. Not being subscribers to the great man theory, we do not agree with this view.

The dividing line in industry has almost disappeared, as industry has become more interlocked. A wonderful illustration is presented in this connection in Nova Scotia, where the giant octopus, Besco, not only owns the coal mines, but also the steel mills and all the by-product plants: lumber mills, railroads, ship yards. Surely the advocates of pure industrial unions will not be foolhardy enough to argue that these workers should be organized into separate unions.

The answer to those who would attempt to defend such a suicidal policy is well given by the results of the last Nova Scotia miners strike. The strike was carried out with much suffering for five long months, during which time hunger drove the miners and their families to raid stores for food and clothing, the militia was used against them: some of the miners went to jail, yet no scabs filled the miners’ places. Besco got all the coal it needed to fill orders from the United States. This coal was mined by members of the same American Union—the UMW—that was in charge of the strike in Nova Scotia. This coal was transported to Canada by Besco steamships, manned by Besco employees, unloaded by Besco dock laborers, taken over rail by Besco railroad workers.

At the time the OBU came into being, this point was clearly understood by those who played a part in its formation. It was stated in conventions that industrial unions such as the UMW were unable to meet the needs of workers. The need was for ONE UNION FOR ALL WORKERS, which would allow the class concept to be in evidence at all times. The ONE BIG UNION is such an organization.

Had those various Besco employees been organized into one common union in exactly the same way as Besco had organized all the above mentioned co-related industries, how obvious it is that even though the so-called union members of the United States did mine so-called union coal, it could have never been gotten out of America because the transport workers (and the other workers mentioned belonging to the same union, not six or seven unions with different agreements) would have refused to scab on their own members.


What Is The OBU? OBU Bulletin, January 5, 1928

Shall Canadian Labour surrender to the organized employers, or shall we prepare for real progress by organizing into ONE BIG UNION? We have no time to waste with satisfied people. They never have accomplished anything in the world’s history. All human progress has been made by the dissatisfied ones, the discontented, the people with a perpetual hunger to know, to improve, to advance.

Labour in Canada has no reason to be satisfied. We have lost much ground in the last five years. Unionism has been cursed with the same crookedness and corruption as it has suffered in the United States. But the workers are beginning to apply the remedy by kicking the AFL out of Canada boot and baggage, and starting in to build a new and clean form of organization that corresponds to the need of the times, and it is controlled by the rank and file. Out of the struggle of the One Big Union was formed in June 1919, after the bitter Winnipeg General Strike, and in spite of bitter opposition from the combined forces of the employers and the AFL officials, it has survived, and steadily spread its influence not only in Canada, but in the USA also, where, in 1922, it won the great Lawrence Textile Strike that saved 100,000 textile workers in New England from a 20% wage cut.

What is the One Big Union? The One Big Union is a labour organization that proposes to unite all wage workers in one union, formed on a class basis instead of a basis of craft or industry. It has a common card for all members, regardless of occupation, and the initiation fee cannot be more than one dollar.

Is The OBU a Mass Organization Like the Old Knights of Labor? It is not. The One Big Union does not throw all the organized workers together in one group, but organizes in units that may be formed in any way the workers in a given locality desire. Units may be formed of shop groups, occupational groups, mill groups, job groups, industrial groups, or craft groups, and solidarity is brought about in every locality by closely linking all the units together through a Central Labor Council.

Will the Officials Control the One Big Union As They Do In Other Organizations? They will not. The OBU is based upon rank and file control, and any official of the OBU, either of a unit, a Central Labor Council, or of the General Executive Board, may be recalled at any time by a majority of his own local unit.

Does the General Executive Board Have the Power to Dictate to the Workers in Any Locality? It does not. The G.E.B. has no power whatever over the workers in any organized locality. The Function of the General Executive is merely to keep localities linked together and to carry on organizational work in unorganized localities. Central Labor Councils and isolated units in localities where there are no Central Labor Councils have full autonomy to conduct their local affairs as they see fit.

Would Any Officials be Empowered to Decide Terms of Settlement in Strikes, Apart From the Rank and File? The OBU is a rank and file organization and officials are not allowed to “settle” anything. They are elected to “serve” the membership, not to “rule” them. In case of strikes, the strikers themselves are always the ones to settle things.


The Closed Shop And Industrial Liberty, OBU Bulletin, Dec. 29, 1929

The “Closed Shop” is a system advocated and in some instances practiced by the A.F. of L. unions under which they prohibit everyone but members of their union from getting employment. It is dubbed the “closed shop” because its doors are barred against all employees the union does not recognize.

The non-union man may be denied membership in the union having the “closed shop”. He may have been expelled or suspended or he may not be desirable as a member because he is too radical or he may be a member of another union not affiliated with the AFL. Each or all of these reasons are used by these closed shop unionists to get other men discharged or prohibited from getting employment.

It should be understood that opposition to the closed shop does not necessarily involve opposition to labour unions. On the one hand, it should be recognized that the closed shop at all times does oppose the freedom of workers organizing into the unions of their choice.

It should be clearly understood that unions are private societies free to exclude or expel members. Some exclude Negroes, some women, some aliens, others apply qualifications of competency and age. Large entrance fees are imposed. Others have conducted profitable businesses in selling licenses to work to outsiders which they call permits.

Not only do the AFL deny the right of men of men to remain unorganized, if they so choose, but they also deny men their rights to join associations of their own choosing.

They attack the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and deny its right to exist. They have driven OBU and IWW men from jobs by threats of strikes and scabbing. The AFL idea is that there are no rights to organize except in their craft unions.

A compulsory closed shop system confiscates liberty and destroys all possibility of democracy. No individual should be forced to sell his birthright (his freedom of choice) for a mess of pottage. Servitude to a labour union is just as tyrannical as servitude to a state. Whatever else we do, let us shun tyranny. Cling to liberty even though there be at times industrial dissenters and nonconformists.

Today more so than ever before the AFL attempts to put over its “closed shop” policy. Today, more than ever before the radical labour movement must fight this encroachment upon worker’s rights. Let’s buckle on the harness and take the labour tyrants on in a battle in order to protect our birthright, Freedom of Choice.

The OBU is not out to compel men and women to join its organization. We stand solidly against discrimination or compulsion in any form and on this principle we shall continue the battle which we think should be determinedly waged, not only in the interests of a few, but for the benefit of the working class as a whole.

[ Back ] [ Top ] [ Next ]


Copyright South Branch Publishing. All Rights Reserved.
www.socialisthistory.ca  ▪