One of the reasons we created The Forge was to capture the best practices and ideas in the contemporary organizing world.  This classic piece from 2003, reprinted here from Labor History, shows us how important that project is.

Much of organizing’s past is lost to historical memory.  We don’t have answers to some very basic questions about the who, what, where, and how of organizing.  The authors - one an organizer and the other an academic - show how challenging, and how important, it is to dig deep for the facts.

The results may cause us to doubt the truth of some of our most cherished stories, but a rigorous analysis of the past is worth exploding a few myths.

Loyalty to petrified opinion,” said Mark Twain, “never broke a chain or freed a human soul.”

-The Editors


Studying union organizing is not merely an exercise in nostalgia. It is easy, looking at photos of the great labor struggles of the past—Ludlow, Lawrence, Flint, Paterson—to focus on how exotic and foreign the scenes seem and miss the fact that basic components of union organizing have changed precious little in the past hundred years. A union organizer from the 1930s dropped into the center of an organizing campaign today would feel familiar with more than just the day-old coffee and the pervading stench of cigarettes.

The basic building block of organizing is the one-on-one encounter between an organizer and a worker. This intimate engagement, in which an organizer helps a worker analyze her work life and then encourages and motivates her to take specific steps to unite with fellow co-workers, has not changed. These encounters, stacked up one after the other, constitute the skeleton of an organizing drive. Our hypothetical time-traveling organizer would find that the essential equation of an organizing campaign [(worker anger + worker hope and vision) – fear of the boss + victory or defeat] remains the same.

Though the fundamental elements of union organizing have not changed, organizing still has a history. The equation’s variables are constant, but its context has shifted. There have been enormous changes in the terrain of union organizing over the last 200 years. The globalization of the economy, the increasing atomization of American society, the introduction of “labor-saving” machinery, and the shift from an industrial to a service-based economy among other changes have made the world a more complicated place for union organizers. Given the obstacles to organizing and the inability of contemporary unions to increase or even maintain their membership, understanding the history of organizing seems more important than ever.

Yet labor history offers surprisingly few studies of union organizing tactics, methods, and theories, and labor historians often slip into passive voice when discussing the origins of workers’ organizations—unions were formed, workers came together, but just how that happened remains somewhat of a mystery.1 How did unions hire and train organizers? How did unions pay for campaigns? Perhaps most importantly, how did organizers “organize?” Did they stand on a workbench, a` la Norma Rae, and exhort fellow workers to rise up? Did they quietly visit workers in small groups or individually? What did the word “organizing” connote in 1890? 1920? 1950? Presumably the organizer of the past did more than pass out a leaflet and then sit back and prepare fiery oratory for the inevitable torchlight parade and mass meeting.

Unfortunately, a welter of confounding factors makes this history difficult to re- search. Secretive and clannish unions rarely wrote down or saved detailed strategies and plans, and vicious employers obliged union organizers to operate in secrecy and with stealth. Campaign decisions, like battlefield plans, were often made under conditions not conducive to documentation.

Yet this research is vital because for the past 25 years or so, the American labor movement has struggled with relearning how to organize in an increasingly difficult climate. Private-sector unionization has fallen below 10% of the workforce. Multiple factors, from deindustrialization and the trend toward part-time and contingent labor, to the U.S. population shift from the traditionally unionized Northeast toward the nonunion South, help account for the crisis facing American unions. Meanwhile, the Wagner Act regime of National Labor Relations Board certification elections has ossified far past its usefulness.

Rebuilding union membership preoccupies union leaders, as the enormous expense of large campaigns and structural barriers to winning make missteps too costly to bear. Union organizers, leaders, and activists are debating tactics and strategies, and often invoking the past—frequently the great upsurges of the 1930s—to justify their ap- proaches.

Whether unions should hire organizers outside the rank-and-file is among the most enduring questions. Critics like Steve Early fear a technocratic vanguard of “paid help” will sap worker militancy and stifle organic leaders from emerging out of the rank-and- file.2 These critics commonly rely on comparisons to past organizing practices. Recruiting students and leftists is considered an innovation of the 1990s, or the 1960s, and compared to a more distant past, in which “grassroots” organizers led their fellow workers to victory. Kim Moody well captures this view: “No period of massive trade union growth or labor upheaval in U.S. history has resulted from professional organiz- ers passing out recognition cards…In most industries, organization came first from within the workforce, and such staffers as there were had usually risen from the ranks and acted more as tactical advisers than organizers in the contemporary sense.”3 These debates derive their vigor and intensity from the urgency felt by leftists and union activists both to organize new workers and to revitalize American unions in this dark time of conservative triumph.

A clearer understanding of how unions actually organized in the past, however, could bring fresh insights to these debates. To avoid using historical myths to support our contentions, we need to know more about union organizing practices in the past. Who ran organizing campaigns? How did campaign staffing practices differ across industries and regions? What role did workers play in campaigns, and how did they relate with organizers? What exactly did organizers do? A better understanding of our past might well affect the success or even survival of unions in the future.

Our own interest in these questions led us to scavenge for information about past organizing campaigns. We have found some intriguing clues and starting points. In this paper, we examine some of the sources we found for insights and information about organizing campaigns of the past. First, we note some exemplary studies that show how a focus on organizing can produce fresh perspective. These monographs from labor history and the history of the civil rights movement treat organizing as a factor affecting historical developments, and speak to contemporary debates. Then we discuss a diverse set of documents. A fascinating account of the United Mine Workers’ campaign to organize southern Colorado coalfields suggests the scrupulous preparation and fore- thought of a 1914 organizing campaign. Three union organizers’ memoirs show radically different approaches to organizing in different historical contexts. An early Communist union-organizing manual outlines an approach to organizing that eventually became standard practice. Finally, advice columns from the director of a 1920s labor college speak to many of the same institutional challenges that confront labor unions today. This is by no means a complete survey but rather the opposite. We hope to provoke discussion that can inform current debates as well as suggest new inquiries about the past. We hope to enlist historians in our search for the tracks of our predecessors. Organizers eat this stuff up.


Looking at how worker organizations were formed can reveal new insights into their later fortunes. In David Palmer’s Organizing the Shipyards, organizing tactics deter- mined union success: the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers won recognition at northeastern ports because organizers focused on rank-and-file recruit- ment to build cohesive worker organizations. In contrast, the IUMSW lost campaigns when union leadership shifted away from mass mobilization to dependency on the National Labor Relations Board and the courts to combat employers. For Palmer, organizing becomes an independent variable capable of swinging the outcome of worker struggles.4

Joshua Freeman’s study of New York City transit workers carefully charts the strategies and methods of transit-worker organizers in the 1930s.5 Freeman reveals that skilled organizers sent by the Communist Party (CP) used a cell model to build nodes of activists in the car barns. CP organizers visited workers at home to talk about the union away from the boss, and to recruit leaders in weak areas like the line workers.

The CP’s idea of building a secret network of militants appealed to the heavily Irish workforce, many of whom had experience in Irish revolutionary cadres and brought their own skills in recruiting members and executing actions. Freeman shows that organizing mattered: New York transit workers did not rise up inevitably, playing their role in the overdetermined pageant of the 1930s. Rather, like E.P. Thompson’s English working classes, they were present at their own making.

Civil rights activists, like transit workers, built a mass movement through countless one-on-one encounters. In his study of civil rights organizing in Greenwood, Missis- sippi, Charles M. Payne gives us a fine model for investigating the significance of organizing tactics for social movements. Payne takes up the question of organizers and identity on the ground during Freedom Summer. The first Student Nonviolent Coordi- nating Committee workers and local Mississippi organizers together crafted a campaign that aimed to teach disenfranchised African Americans to build their own resistance movement.6 Under the close tutelage of Ella Baker and Septima Clark, SNCC workers learned that organizing was “slow and respectful work,” founded on relationships of trust and familiarity. The transformative potential of SNCC’s model of personal empowerment and collective action emerged as Greenwood activists demanded recog- nition at the 1964 Democratic Convention with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party—a confrontation hardly imaginable for most of its members just a few years before. Payne emphasizes that early student SNCC workers succeeded because of their tactics—their respectful, patient work—despite their class, racial and regional differ- ences from rural Mississippians. In contrast, later SNCC recruits more attracted to spectacle and status neglected organizing in favor of posturing. This shift in tactics accounted for the quickly widening gap between SNCC workers and Mississippi activists, and ultimately undermined the movement cohesion activists had worked so hard to build.

Freedom Summer organizers selected some workers from outside Mississippi in a deliberate effort to attract attention from a public more likely to care about the beating of a Vassar sophomore than a Greenwood storekeeper, but Baker and other SNCC strategists also sought out activist students because they brought fresh energy and idealism to a struggle that exhausted its soldiers. Payne’s account suggests that outsider/ insider distinctions mattered less for the strength and militancy of the Greenwood movement than the organizers’ behavior, whether they came from Mississippi or Massachusetts.

All three of these studies foreground the plans, strategies, and tactics of organizers. They reveal that workers and Mississippians did not rise up spontaneously or win battles by virtue of the justness of their cause. The shipbuilders, transit workers, and civil rights activists all organized, in processes that shared the basic elements common to all organizing campaigns, despite their very different historical situations.


How would labor history change if we could recover the plans and methods of past organizing campaigns? In some cases, it would bring the union back in as a key historical agent. While the union sometimes seems like an epiphenomenon in labor history, materializing as an outgrowth of already existing worker struggles, studying organizing tactics can reveal that the union instigated and coordinated labor agitation. Take the United Mine Workers’ (UMW) campaigns to organize the Colorado coalfields. A biography of UMW organizer John L. Lawson yields rich detail of organizing strategy. According to biographer Barron B. Beshoar, once Lawson and the UMW decided to take on the southern fields in 1913, they unrolled a cunning plan. Company spies had infiltrated the mines of Trinidad and Florence; any union sup- porter risked immediate discharge. Great stealth was required. The UMW’s first move seems counterintuitive: organizers sent a mass mailing to coal miners that declared: “Greeting: This is the day of your emancipation. This is the day when liberty and progress come to abide in your midst. We call upon you this day to enroll as a member of the greatest and most powerful labor organization in the world, the United Mine Workers of America.”7 Having thus notified the coal operators of an impending organizing campaign, the union also sent an open letter to the newspapers insisting that the UMW hoped to settle a contract without a strike.

The union trained 21 pairs of organizers in their Denver offices. These pairs consisted of an “active organizer” and a “passive organizer.” The passive organizer kept his union identity secret, and took a job as a coal miner. He bitterly denounced the union, cozied up to the boss, and tried to get hired as a company spy reporting on the activities of fellow workers. Meanwhile, the active organizer openly worked to recruit members. He kept secret the identity of any miner who signed up, forwarding his union card to the UMW’s Denver office. If a miner refused to join the union, the active organizer passed his name on to the passive organizer. The passive organizer promptly informed management that the reluctant miner had joined the union, and the man was immediately fired. The active organizer, aware of the new job opening, sent one of his own contingent of UMW supporters to apply. Thus the UMW was able to flush union opponents out of the mines and seed union supporters; Beshoar estimates that 3,000 antiunion miners lost their jobs to 3,000 UMW men within a month.8

That this campaign ultimately resulted in the Ludlow Massacre should not diminish its brilliance. The UMW took the biggest obstacle to organizing the mines—company spies and worker fear—and turned it into an advantage by exploiting the system to simply eliminate anti-union workers from the picture. If workers guessed or learned of this strategy, surely it gave them a bit of a chill (much as it probably troubles readers today); the union was both clever and ruthless. Whether the union’s purge helped contribute to the solidarity and fortitude of southern Colorado strikers is a worthy question, and a good example of why organizing tactics are worth studying.


Personal memoirs of organizers offer intriguing detail about their daily lives. Labor History has published several, all as documents with a brief introduction by the historian sharing them. One memoir was written by a New England mechanic in 1844, another by a United Rubber Workers (URW) organizer in 1941, and a third by a Textile Workers Union organizer who worked in South Carolina from 1939 to 1949. All three memoirs yield clues about what organizers actually did in their work at very different times.

The Fall River Mechanics’ Association called for a general convention of New England workmen in the fall of 1844 to fight for the ten-hour day. They sent S.C. Hewitt out that summer to organize across New England for the convention. A mechanic from Dighton, Massachusetts, a Fourierist, and a sometime preacher, Hewitt was apparently chosen for his strong oratory. Hewitt made what seems like an onerous month-long tour of New England, visiting 17 cities and towns in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. He kept a journal of his travels, which was printed in The Mechanic, the Fall River association’s newspaper. In each town, Hewitt lectured to assembled workmen and tried to help them set up mechanics’ associations that would agitate locally for the 10-hour day and send representatives to the fall convention. Sometimes his lectures on “the ELEVATION OF THE LABORING CLASSES” met warm endorsement, as in Providence where a committee formed to set up a 10-hour day organization. By contrast, the shoemakers of Milford were quite cool, and “voted not to act—the first instance of the kind I have met with since I commenced lecturing.”9 Hewitt believed that “selfish interest” drove the shoemakers, who enjoyed craftworkers’ control over their hours of work. Hewitt’s appeals to human sympathy were fruitless. Hewitt’s journal also reflects a preoccupation with mundane details, which were none-the-less crucial to his organizing work. Finding a place to hold meetings con- sumed much of Hewitt’s time, and lack of a hall meant that Hewitt could not meet with workers at all. In New London and Norwich, Hewitt found the public halls were already booked, and he had no meetings. Finding the same problem in Stonington, Hewitt held his meeting in the street at night, and proudly reported that they “took the necessary steps” to create their own association.10 In most cases Hewitt traveled to a town, looked for a hall once he got there, got shopkeepers to post notices announcing the time, and held the meeting that evening. This seems like a remarkably rapid turnaround time. Hewitt’s ability to set up and hold a meeting in a single day relied on the culture of New England towns, with their habit of meetings (suggested by their already-booked halls) and efficient information networks anchored by merchants. Hewitt did not meet with individual workers or go to people’s houses; he communi- cated with workers entirely through mass meetings. Although he faced opposition from people who accused him of “endeavoring to set the two classes at swords point with each other,” no authority forbade him from speaking or interfered with his meetings. Hewitt’s organizing strategy reveals both how information traveled among workers and how labor agitation, with its strong tinge of republicanism, seems of a piece with the busy New England meeting circuit during the Second Great Awakening. His success is revealed not only in the hundreds of workers who attended each of his meetings, but also in the 200 delegates to the New England Workingmen’s Association convention, which took up the fight for the 10-hour day.

Hewitt’s sociable tour of New England towns contrasts sharply with the menacing reception URW organizer John House faced in Gadsden, Alabama in 1941. House arrived in Gadsden in January 1941 to launch the URW’s third campaign to organize Goodyear Tire and Rubber’s large Gadsden facility, after losing reelection to the presidency of the URW’s Goodyear local in Akron. Having suffered a beating from an anti-union mob during the union’s previous Gadsden campaign, House knew that he would face threats and violence, as would pro-union workers. Thus House did not even try to hold meetings with workers when he first arrived, but rather focused on slowly building relationships with workers, “trying to condition prospective members, trying to build up their morale to the point where we can get them to attend small group meetings.”11 Private meetings with workers could not dissipate their “mortal fear” of both violence and company retaliation on the job. So House and his colleagues decided that they would go to the plant and distribute handbills “to prove to those people that they had nothing to fear.”12

Within a few days of their first handbilling, though, House unintentionally proved they did have something to fear. A group of men showed up at his office, asked if that was the place to sign up for the union, and without waiting for an answer cracked him in the head. The attackers, armed with electrical cable and crowbars, sent House to the hospital for 86 stitches and kept him in convalescence for a month. When House got back to work, he found workers even more reluctant to sign up for the union. More attacks on workers did not help. Courageously, House resumed handbilling and house visits, but increasingly he directed his organizing efforts at the NLRB, trying to attract its attention and intervention. By June 1941 the URW gave up and left Gadsden, based on House’s assessment that “unless we can bring some sort of pressure to bear on this damned company and take the pressure off the workers here it appears that we may have a much longer struggle to organize them, if ever, than when we at first contemplated.”13 He proved correct; NLRB enforcement and World War II industrial mobilization convinced Goodyear to abandon its union busting, and the workers won a union election in 1943.

House’s daily life as an organizer sounds like a job in a street gang: secret meetings, sudden beatings, and public demonstrations of bravado and physical bravery. This is the image of the heroic union organizer sometimes represented in mass culture, like John Sayles’s movie Matewan. While the Fall River Mechanics Association picked Hewitt because he was a good public speaker, union organizers in places like Gadsden needed a different set of skills. Notably, House was a former union president—a veteran of battles in Akron, and experienced in fighting with thugs and managers. He is also an early example of a recruitment pattern that became more common with time: hiring as organizers defeated candidates for union office.

Don McKee, organizing in South Carolina around the same time, found tedium a greater challenge than physical danger. A graduate of the University of North Carolina and a Popular Front leftist, McKee worked for the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) from 1939 to 1949, when he returned to school to earn a Ph.D. In his memoir, McKee proudly recalled that the union won all but two of the elections he organized. He attributed his success to methodical vote counting. In his campaigns, McKee developed a database of cards for each person at a workplace, making sure that organizers visited any worker whose sentiments were unknown. McKee’s careful surveys ensured that he knew the temperature of a workplace at any given time, and surely underwrote his success—McKee called in the labor board to hold an election only when he knew that the union would win. While effective, this painstaking attention to detail proved boring. McKee remembered, “Placing names and worker reactions on a file card was hardly a thrilling way to spend the day.” Demonstrations and negotia- tions could break up this monotony, but between record keeping and other bureau- cratic union work, McKee found the job often “quite repetitious and even monotonous.” In 1949, McKee happily departed for Columbia University where he put his organizing skills to use fighting for academic freedom.14

This image of organizing work as mechanical and rote is far different from the wily schemes of the UMW or the stoic bravery of House. McKee organized in the south in the early 1940s, just like House—what made his experience so different? McKee may have sanitized his memories of organizing work, remembering the tedium that led him to quit it more than other aspects. In rural South Carolina, Luckily, union organizers today are not plagued by this comfortable sameness. Ferocious employer opposition swiftly elevates most organizing campaigns into complex strategic battles of attrition. The vast majority of the 600,000 workers brought into the AFL-CIO last year were not brought in through NLRB elections. The monotonous vote-counting work McKee found so draining is being replaced by direct action campaigns, more reminiscent of the IWW than the CIO, where workers avoid the swamp-like bureaucracy of the NLRB and demand union recognition from their employer through card-check recognition that sidesteps NLRB certification.

It would be easy to assume that McKee got bored with organizing because he was an intellectual; a professor had been trapped in an organizer’s body all along. McKee liked going to picket lines and plant gates, but the minutiae of organizing work bored him once he had mastered it. Once the New Deal regime of NLRB certification took hold, union organizing largely became a matter of winning certification elections. For McKee, this became a fairly rote exercise, requiring discipline but not creativity.


A 1930s union organizing manual published by the CP may provide clues about how McKee learned to use minutiae to win campaigns. In a survey of modern organizing, the CP should loom large. It is well known that Communist organizers provided the backbone for the early CIO staff. Contemporaries and historians note that Communists brought unusual vigor, sometimes fanatical, to work that was alternately tedious and perilous. Clearly, Communists also brought strong technical skills to organizing cam- paigns. Whereas the organizers assigned to the CIO by John L. Lewis were widely derided as well meaning but generally incompetent, the Communists brought system- atic rigor to their work. Many Communist organizers learned their craft from William Z. Foster, the brilliant organizer of the 1919 steel strike. His remarkable pamphlet, Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, was published by the CP’s Workers Library in 1936. As the book’s preface notes, “there is a great poverty in the labor movement of such literature.”15 We will discuss only the parts that touch on worker recruitment, but the entire manual warrants close study.

Invoking the lessons of the failed 1919 steel strike, Foster began Organizing Methods with a set of basic principles to guide the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Foster called for a disciplined “fighting movement” that involved rank-and-file workers as organizers, planners, and union leaders.16 Individual recruitment, which Foster termed “the base of all immediate organizational work,” required organizers to identify “the most active workers among the masses” and train them to sign up other workers. To ensure that the campaign reached deep into the workforce, the outreach process had to be systematized. Foster advised a “chain system,” in which workers signed up their friends and reported back to organizers on their progress. Alternatively, organizers could try the “list system,” which apparently required workers to obtain lists of other workers’ names “upon which to collect the signatures and fees of workers.” Recom- mended for “difficult situations,” the list system presumably helped organizers identify and track workers in workplaces poisoned by fear or atomized otherwise. In either case, activist workers signed up their coworkers. Foster contrasts this use of rank-and-file workers to “the tendency common in organization campaigns to leave the signing of new members solely to the organizers and to recruitment in open meetings.” This strategy made virtue of necessity—in mass production industries, it was simply imposs- ible for an organizer to sign up all the workers herself, but it also made workers into organizers, and potentially into leaders of each other, enacting the “principles of trade union democracy” on which Foster premised the guide. To us, Foster’s manual is remarkable because union organizers could adopt its approach today, with few alter- ations—indeed, they already do.

Foster’s “chain” and “list” system seems, looking back over the decades, quite simplistic, and it is. Foster was probably not the first person to tell the organizers under his direction to make a list of all the workers in a shop, but Foster’s pamphlet is the earliest example we have seen of a methodical, replicable approach to talking to all the shop workers, and knitting a network out of those separate meetings. What is note- worthy about Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry is Foster’s effort to standardize and routinize organizing tactics. This “high-modernist” impulse to create a model that could be iterated evokes the ambitious plans of his Soviet contemporaries.17

Where did Foster come up with these concepts? While he mentions the 1919 steel strike, CP organizing strategy surely shaped his ideas. Communist and Socialist organizers were ubiquitous in union campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s. Whether boring from within or goading the labor movement from progressive perches, CP and SP activists sought roles as labor organizers in part because union-building was a necessary step in party organizing. Once the workers’ upsurge began in the early 1930s, leftist party organizers were prepared to step in and start building organizations. Researching Party organizing strategy and tactics, and their relation to labor organizing, could start with a trawl through the fertile and (mind-numbingly) voluminous records of the Communist Party and its enemies—Congressional investigations, Party records, and so on.

Clearly, the CP intended Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry to help labor organizers across industries. Jack Stachel, CPUSA national trade union secretary, prefaced the manual by noting that “the organizational principles and methods here developed can be easily adapted to problems of organizing other mass production and large-scale industries such as auto, rubber, chemical, textile, etc.”18 Whether and how other organizers did so is largely unknown to us,19 but the idea of regularizing and routinizing worker recruitment strategies took hold, as Don McKee’s memoir shows. Whether Foster’s principles worked as planned is another question. How organizers in steel and other industries used the manual’s tips, and how organizing strategies affected the development of workers’ organizations over time, could shed light on historical and present questions. Does organizing practice shape a union’s later prac- tices or do we commit a genetic fallacy by assuming that the means of organizing determines the end result? Current debates over organizing practice owe much of their heat to this question. For example, will workers organized under a card check agree- ment, who may not have faced a bruising slugfest for recognition with their boss, lack the seasoning and militancy that can come from a hard-fought campaign? Studying past examples of union organizing practice and outcomes could arm debaters with knowl- edge. Such research would surely please Foster, who insisted, “The movement must be highly self-critical. That is, there should be a constant re-examination of the organization methods used … only thus can the workers and organizers avoid defeat and pessimism and be given a feeling of confidence and sure success.”20


A deeper understanding of organizing history would have also pleased A.J. Muste, who worried that organizing knowledge “has not been for the most part written down anywhere. It is in the heads of labor officials, business agents, organizers, committee members, active workers of the rank and file.”21 Muste set about changing that. At Brookwood Labor College, the workers’ school in Katonah, New York, labor activists took classes in organizing from its founding in 1921 to its shutdown in 1937. Leftist union leaders and activists (including William Z. Foster) set up Brookwood to build a progressive labor bloc that could drag the hidebound AFL out of its torpor. Progressive and pacifist, Muste served as director of Brookwood and took a special interest in teaching students to organize. He distilled the organizing experience of Brookwood faculty and students in a series of articles published in Labor Age, a leftist monthly, in 1927.22

Muste advised readers of Labor Age on the practical aspects of recruiting, training, and retaining union organizers. Muste urged unions to seek qualified candidates for organizing jobs by requiring some experience and training, noting that “in practically all cases” organizers were elected to their jobs or appointed by an elected official.23 Those organizers kept in their jobs for “sentimental reasons” should be cashiered, while others disliked “because they are not handshakers; because they are hard on grafters,” should be protected. Muste’s advice was firmly planted in the political realities of the labor movement—he commented, “One has sometimes to travel a considerable distance in order to find a union where there is genuine confidence in the leadership,” and recommended that unions set up transparent accounting practices to guard against graft and theft by organizers. At the same time, he inveighed against those who begrudged decent pay to organizers: “Such people shout for higher wages, shorter hours, better conditions for the workers in the shop but have no idea of applying such notions to their own employees.”24 In all, the tenor of his advice is gently down-to- earth. Muste credits his expertise to discussions with Brookwood students—the men and women “from the ranks of electrical workers, machinists, locomotive engineers, printing tradesmen, garment workers and others” who attended Brookwood’s Summer Institute.

Writing in the late 1920s, when the labor movement was flat on its back, Muste and his colleagues trained organizers for a future labor movement he could only imagine. In his vision, “A labor movement with idealism, with a passion that would challenge American workers, with a vision of the serfdom into which they are falling and with the role they might play on earth if they were free, that would dare them not to be lackeys, even for six dollars per an eight-hour day—might organize the basic industries.”25 This noble dream was pure fantasy, he knew, and likely Muste saw scarce evidence of idealism or passion when he looked around the AFL. As for organizing the basic industries, “experience of the movement in this and other lands, as well as reflection, makes it clear that many of these unorganized are not going to be brought in by the efforts of the existing unions.”26 Workers would have to organize themselves in most cases, requiring union organizers to be ready to jump in and help.

Recruiting young organizers particularly excited Muste. Mass organizing would require a “good many foot-loose young people who are not yet burdened with heavy personal or family responsibilities, who can afford to travel about, to lose their jobs frequently … who can afford to take risks, go to jail, and so on.”27 Young organizers should supplement, not supplant, experienced tradespeople and industrial operatives— in general, Muste preferred that organizers come from the sorts of workforces they organized, but Muste longed for the energy and creativity he thought youth could bring to the labor movement, both rank-and-file union youth and young activists outside the labor movement. These youthful organizers and activists would, Muste knew, irritate their elders; “We are,” he said, “afraid of losing our jobs. We dislike being disturbed in the routine way of doing things that we have developed. We are afraid of the bungling and haste of young people, remembering the harm we wrought by bungling and haste in our own younger days.”28 The disruption and arrogance of youth was far out- weighed, in his eyes, by the infusion of verve and new blood desperately needed by the American labor movement.

Muste and his colleagues insisted that mass organizing required purposive action: the labor movement must begin “deliberately to study and to use the most efficient methods of promotion, publicity, organization, and administration.”29 Their efforts at Brookwood helped develop exactly such methods. Among its graduates, Brookwood counted leaders like Len DeCaux, Clint Golden, and Katherine Pollak Ellickson of the CIO; Julius Hochman of the ILGWU; and others,30 but Brookwood’s progressive agitation drew the ire of the AFL, which tired of its radicalism and “dual unionism.” The AFL Executive Council voted to withdraw all support of Brookwood in August 1928 and demanded its affiliates do the same. Brookwood survived this attack with funding from the AFT, the ILG, the ACWU, and other progressive unions, but could not withstand the infighting between the AFL and the CIO in the mid 1930s. Brookwood shut down for good in 1937.31

Looking back over the histories we have examined, it is clear that for historians there is a rich vein of historical record waiting to be mined. It is possible to remove the passive voice—unions were formed—and this effort not only brings to the surface forgotten stories of worker struggles but can reshape our ideas about how those struggles were waged.

What makes these stories interesting to historians can be confusing for organizers. It is impossible to read these histories outside the context of their era. Some isolated, specific tactics are promising—the UMW’s “active-passive” organizing system comes to mind—but for the most part trying to copy whole campaign scripts would be fruitless. However, these histories hold value for organizers today. Not because they can steal campaign secrets—there is no holy grail of organizing waiting to be discovered in some dusty trunk. These histories are important because by examining how organizers of the past adapted to and exploited various situations, organizers can better analyze their own historical situation. As William Z. Foster maintained, “Flexibility in the work is a first essential, and to achieve this requires drastic self-criticism.”32 Knowing our own history is crucial to that self-criticism. Smart organizers are by necessity part-time historians.

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1 Making the same argument about Australian labor history, Rae Cooper and Greg Patmore comment, “For labour historians, organising has been a marginal issue in most studies of union behaviour. There has been no comprehensive analysis of the methods unions utilised in relation to organising, of the factors that have shaped and constrained their choice of organising strategies or of the forces that have led to success, or otherwise, in organising campaigns. This is not to say that the membership building strategies of unions have never been addressed in the historical literature. However it is fair to argue that when union organising strategies are discussed this is usually as an aside to examinations of other union strategies or historical events.” Rae Cooper and Greg Patmore, “Trade Union Organising and Labour History,” Labour History 83 (4) (November 2002) < html > (April 27, 2003), par. 14. ISSN 0023-656X print/ISSN 1469-9702 online/03/040421-12  2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/0023656032000170041

2 See, for example, Steve Early, “Thoughts on the Worker–Student Alliance—Then and Now,” Labor History, 44(1) (2003), 5–13. For a reasoned critique of this view, see Eve S. Weinbaum and Gordon Lafer, “Outside Agitators and Other Red Herrings: Getting Past the Top-down/Bottom-Up Debate,” New Labor Forum (Spring/Summer 2002) < >. Echoing Payne, Weinbaum and Lafer think that tactics matter more than identity in determining union success: “What is important, we argue, is not so much who the organizers are-their insider status, who pays their salary, or even their race and gender-but the strategies and goals that define their organizing. Leaders who can cultivate leadership from within the rank and file, who can build workers’ confidence and challenge them to do what they have not done before and don’t feel quite comfortable doing, who can teach through action the skills that people need in order to wield collective power-these leaders are always the most effective and, ultimately, the most democratic organizers.”

3 Kim Moody, “Up Against the Polyester Ceiling: The ‘New’ AFL-CIO Organizes—Itself!”, New Politics 8 (2) (Winter 1998) < > (quoted in Early, “Thoughts on the Worker–Student Alliance”).

4 David Palmer, Organizing the Shipyards: Union Strategy in Three Northeast Ports (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press of Cornell University Press, 1998).

5 Joshua B. Freeman, In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933–1966 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001).

6 Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995).

7 Barron B. Beshoar, Out of the Depths: The Story of John R. Lawson, ALabor Leader (Denver, CO: Golden Bell Press, 1942), 48. Beshoar’s estimates of worker turnover are almost certainly too high—3,000 miners would have constituted one-third of the entire southern Colorado coalfield workforce. Many thanks to Anthony DeStefanis, who discovered this excellent source

8 Beshoar, 49–50.

9 Philip S. Foner, “Journal of an Early Labor Organizer,” Labor History 10 (Spring 1969), 222.

10 Foner, 217–218.

11 Daniel Nelson, “A CIO Organizer in Alabama, 1941,” Labor History 18 (Fall 1977), 572.

12 Nelson, 575.

13 Nelson, 583.

14 Leon Fink, “Pages from an Organizer’s Life: Don McKee Confronts Southern Millworkers—and Himself,” Labor History 41 (November 2000), 453–464.

15 William Z. Foster, Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry (New York: Workers Library Publishers,1936), i.

16 Foster, 3.

17 See James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).

18 Foster, i.

19 A letter from CP member and SWOC organizer John Steuben in August 1936 comments that Youngstown steel industry organizers used Foster’s “three point theory of organization” with great success in Youngstown mills. Max Gordon, “The Communists and the Drive to Organize Steel, 1936,” Labor History 23 (1982), 262.

20 Foster, 4.

21 A.J. Muste, “Who’s Your Organizer?”, Labor Age (October 1927), 10.

22 Charles F. Howlett, “Organizing the Unorganized: Brookwood Labor College, 1921–1937,” Labor Studies Journal (Fall 1981).

23 A.J. Muste, “Getting the Most Out of Your Organizer,” Labor Age (November 1927), 15.

24 Muste, “Getting the Most,” 15–16.

25 A.J. Muste, “The Kind of Unionism That Will Organize the Basic Industries,” Labor Age (May 1927),9.

26 Muste, “The Kind of Unionism,” 8.

27 A.J. Muste, “Appeal to Youth! Arouse and Attract New Blood,” Labor Age (July 1927), 2.

28 Muste, “Appeal to Youth!,” 3.

29 Muste, “The Kind of Unionism,” 7.

30 Howlett, 169.

31 Howlett, 176–178.

32 Foster, 4.


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