Organized Labor - Working-class subcultures and labor internationalism



In 1917, when AFL President Samuel Gompers staged a meeting to secure approval of a labor declaration of loyalty to the government during wartime, he purposely excluded representatives from local labor councils, correctly suggesting to advisers that many were centers of pacifism. City labor councils often became hotbeds of antiwar and anti-imperialist sentiment during World War I because they were more organically connected to local working-class subcultures than to the AFL leadership. Chicago boasted one of the most oppositional labor subcultures of the World War I era. It was one of those rare places, suggests James Barrett, "where it was easier to be a union member than to be nonunion" in the early twentieth century. Disillusionment with President Woodrow Wilson's war policies in the city's teeming immigrant working-class neighborhoods inspired a labor party that raised critical questions about the AFL's unwavering support for Wilsonian foreign policy. Similar labor parties erupted in some forty-five other cities in the immediate postwar period and eventually culminated in the Farmer-Labor Party of 1920, a party with a strongly anti-Wilsonian agenda. Local, regional, or ethnic working-class subcultures could thus sometimes inspire alternative visions of labor internationalism that impeded AFL attempts to win working-class support for its international policies.

Other forms of oppositional working-class subcultures sometimes developed within particular industries or vocations. For example, maritime workers, by virtue of their travel, often came in contact with other cultures and ideas that instinctively bred a sense of internationalism. Yet the conditions of a seaman's life, suggests Bruce Nelson, were also characterized by "raw exploitation" and "a legendary rootlessness and transiency that led to a persistent isolation from the main integrative institutions of American society." Such a subculture lent itself to militant and sometimes violent displays of international labor solidarity. Seamen and other maritime workers were particularly aggressive in opposing fascism during the 1930s. One typical incident occurred when crew members from American and Danish merchant ships joined together to pull a swastika from a German ship trying to enter Olympia Harbor in Washington State in July 1933. Such seamen were aware well in advance of most Americans that Nazism posed a danger to the rights of democratic trade unions. In another instance, in 1935, seven thousand longshoremen, machinists, and scalers in San Francisco struck to protest a German ship entering San Francisco Harbor with swastika flying. Maritime workers also mobilized to protest Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia and refused to load cargo bound for Italian soldiers participating in the campaign. The militancy of the maritime workers proved difficult for either the AFL or CIO to contain.

Oppositional labor subcultures also proved critical in stimulating an independent labor internationalism during the Vietnam War. Despite the AFL-CIO's unwavering support for the nation's war effort, a host of local labor groups such as the Cleveland Federation of Labor—with strong community support—opposed U.S. government policy in Vietnam. Such examples suggest the need for historians to examine the dynamic interaction between labor leadership and oppositional subcultures within the labor movement when exploring questions of labor internationalism.



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