Resuscitating the Working Class

Can a 1930s movement show the way ahead for labour today?

When it comes to inspiring Canadian trade unionists, the 1930s stand apart. Few narratives match the era’s dramatic sit-down strikes, the on-to-Ottawa trek and the triumph of modern unionism. Moreover, the 1930s are not just an inspirational marker. It was then that capitalism last faced a degree of economic uncertainty comparable to the present and it was also at the beginning of that decade that labour last experienced an identity crisis akin to what unions now face. (A third parallel is the extent of class inequality; measured by various indices, the end of the 1920s was the last time inequality was as grotesque as today.)

Might we hope for a current replay of the 1930s regeneration of the labour movement? If ways could be found then to surmount fear and unionize in the face of 25 percent unemployment and in the absence of the slightest legal protections, and if workers could build solidarity when they were so divided by ethnicity and language and confronted a level of corporate and state aggressiveness even greater than today—surely the working class can once again discover internal reservoirs of comparable commitment and creativity.

As persuasive as that rhetorical question is, there was much more to that earlier response of the Canadian working class than desperation and a renewed will to fight. The challenge was not just to try harder but differently, and this pushed workers to a radical transformation in the existing form of working class organization. Craft unionism, which was almost exclusively concerned with skilled workers, had exhausted its role and the mass of workers (the “riffraff” as one craft official referred to the semi-skilled and unskilled) moved to a form of organization that united workers across skills, gender and—especially significant in the United States—race. But no less important, this did not just happen; the union rebirth cannot be understood apart from its intimate link to the role of the radical left, communists in particular.

This poses two daunting questions for the present impasse in labour. Has the once magical industrial unionism that replaced craft unionism eight decades ago (and was also subsequently emulated in the public sector) now likewise run its course? And given the virtual absence of an organized radical left today, where might the catalyst for developing new forms of working class organization come from? It is this fateful context that makes Stephen L. Endicott’s new book, Raising the Workers’ Flag: The Workers’ Unity League of Canada, 1930–1936, so timely.

Although Endicott takes a wide international and economic sweep, his focus is on the Workers’ Unity League, the alternative labour centre created by the Canadian Communist Party at the directive of the Comintern (the organization established by Moscow in 1919 to coordinate international communist activity). Endicott—detailing key struggles and mining archival material from the Communist Party of Canada, the Department of Labour, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the files recently made available from the Comintern—sets out to demonstrate that from today’s perspective, “many of the traditions fostered by the Workers’ Unity League will be seen to have their relevance.”

To make his case, Endicott must first convince the reader that the WUL was not a mere appendage of a foreign power. Although the Communist Party of Canada, directed by the Comintern, ultimately determined the political line of the WUL, Endicott argues persuasively that their dictates could only have been implemented and sustained if they also had resonance in Canada. Communist activists with a vision beyond capitalism and years of experience in struggles behind them—who had built an independent social base among fellow workers and were working with trusted non-communist allies, whose past success had depended on an ability to think for themselves, and who were rooted in ethnic communities with a degree of independence (60 percent of the Communist Party was composed of Finns, 25 percent Ukrainians and 10 percent were Jewish)—were not about to act as a mere transmission belt for decisions made elsewhere.

But even if the WUL had some autonomy, the criticism remains that in isolating itself from the existing unions and the workers in them, the WUL was essentially acting like a sect. The point, however, is that to suggest that any move to establish a new institution is inherently wrong is as rigid and ahistorical as the Comintern’s call for a universal response independent of local circumstances. Endicott poses the dilemma well. “When, if ever, is it in the wider class interests of workers to split away from a long-established labour movement to form a splinter group? … Was it sometimes justified to divide first around some principle, the better to make future gains?” His answer is “rarely, but sometimes and in certain circumstances, yes.” Even for those not convinced of the need to form the WUL, there is a compelling case that this was at least a credible direction.

The WUL activists did not see themselves as splitting, but as building a more effective “united front from below.”1 The labour movement had been in retreat through the 1920s. The craft unions had no response to the disparity between rapidly rising productivity and profits on the one hand and, on the other, the deteriorating working conditions and lagging wages. The craft unions were not only hostile to organizing the unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the dynamic new sectors, but were also increasingly collaborative in their relations with business and the state. Communists inside these unions had seen some gains but were frustrated by the bureaucratic hold of the union leaderships, which often expelled communists and generally blocked internal democratization. Flirtation with the All-Canadian Congress of Labour (an alternative, nationalist labour centre) went nowhere as it too moved closer to employers and began expelling communists. And the Trade Union Educational League, set up by the Communist Party to support radical work within existing unions, had only minor successes. A much greater intervention seemed essential.

As it turned out, the blanket condemnation of splitting seemed to have been put to bed with the emergence of the industrially based Congress of Industrial Organizations as an institution “outside the orbit” of the craft-based American Federation of Labour. Like the WUL earlier, the CIO was at the time accused by other unions and the AFL of divisiveness, yet generally and enthusiastically welcomed by the left.

The other controversy was over the WUL’s self-identification as a “revolutionary” union central, dubbed “ultra-leftism” for allegedly ignoring Lenin’s crucial insight that unions were at their core basically defensive and reformist organizations. It is certainly true that the WUL articulated an alternative beyond capitalism. And it believed that building a working class base through the WUL, in conjunction with the contradictions of capitalism, would make unions into schools of socialism, recruit new communist cadre and eventually make revolution possible. This connection to a revolutionary international communist movement was fundamental to keeping communists going in the face of intense pressures and great personal hardships. But that animating spirit should not be confused with its actual practice. On a daily basis, the WUL focused on its “lesser tasks,” acting like good and practical trade unionists rather than insurrectionists.

What “practical” meant in the context of the 1930s was a class-struggle trade unionism that placed industrial unionism on the agenda, prioritized mobilizing the unemployed and broke with the reluctance on the part of existing unions to strike (with less than 10 percent of unionized workers, the WUL led one half to three quarters of all strikes in 1933–34).2 The WUL developed its social and cultural links to language groups (especially in terms of strike support), set up neighbourhood councils to fight for municipal welfare and against evictions, and—as with the on-to-Ottawa trek—was explicitly political in the sense of mobilizing against the state, not just employers. Through all this, a commitment to democratic practices was indispensable. It was not only fundamental to legitimating the WUL as distinct from the craft unions. Given the extreme risks of striking at the time, support could only be mobilized if workers saw the union and its strategies as truly theirs.

In evaluating the WUL, a degree of humility and generosity is in order. Social agents make history in the face of uncertainty and through trial and error. There were, as Endicott notes, many instances of sectarian rhetoric and actions, examples of “unintelligible demands that … had nothing in common with the daily struggle as workers see it,” strikes that were unwisely rushed into and institutional decisions that were especially wrong-headed. A striking example of the latter was the folding of the Women’s Labour Leagues into the WUL. This had little rationale since this organization was making good progress and the concern to organize women as workers could readily have been addressed within the WUL. The liquidation of Women’s Labour Leagues is perhaps best understood as reflecting the fact that, as Joan Sangster has suggested, “the organization of women remained secondary to important Party tasks.”

All this warrants criticism. But it should be tempered by the reality that any attempt to transform working class politics inevitably includes very serious points of division. Even with the best of practices, the WUL’s emphasis on class struggle unionism could not have avoided conflicts with social democrats and reformist trade union officials.3 Similarly, particular strikes can be questioned, but even the best strategizing cannot avoid the reality that it is often impossible to know what is achievable until limits have actually been tested. What was ultimately so admirable about the workers in the WUL was—in contrast to the conservative craft unions of the time and the overly cautious unions of today—the willingness of ordinary workers to test limits and so act in extraordinary ways. The legacy of these workers and the WUL was that, for all their excesses and errors, they not only anticipated the principles of the CIO, but they also helped materialize them.

In 1936, following another Comintern reversal in 1935, the WUL was disbanded. Endicott asks if this was “a tacit admission of strategic error by the militants, [or] the result of outside pressure,” and suggests instead that it reflected “a willingness to consider a new approach under new circumstances.” Those circumstances ranged from the cresting of the WUL to the rise of fascism with its implications for inner and cross-class unity—something that was not just a concern for the Soviet Union but also for Canada.4 But the international fact that mattered most was not a diktat from Moscow but on-the-ground realities in the United States. The explosion of the CIO south of the border decisively changed the terrain of struggle. The home for radicals was now clearly inside this vigorous new institution of the mass of workers.

Yet if there was good reason to return to the mainstream movement, the question remains of how the refugees from the WUL subsequently functioned. J.B. McLachlin, WUL president at the time, expressed deep anxiety over the turn to “unity at any cost” and “the move to the right,” subsequently leaving the party because of his disenchantment. His concerns were, it seems, justified. Although Endicott ends his story with the official demise of the WUL, and although communists in the CIO unions played a role beyond their numerical weight, the zeal with which the party subsequently pushed anti-fascist unity tended to undermine the importance of industrial mobilizing and led to a weakening of the Communist Party’s critical workplace committees (and neighbourhood committees as well). Well before the pressures of the Cold War, the party was constraining activists from trying to bring a class and socialist sensibility into the mainstream labour movement and betraying what was distinctive about the WUL, with negative effects on the future development of the Canadian labour movement (the American labour movement even more so).5 Alhough the Communist Party was fundamental to making the exemplary achievements of the WUL possible it was, paradoxically, also the source of its limits.

And what of the present? Endicott admirably sets out specific WUL policies and practices that current activists might emulate, yet he does not push the difficult questions, raised earlier, that his own work underscores. Has the current labour movement, like the craft union of the 1930s, come to the end of its possibilities? If it is also unlikely (again like the earlier craft unions) that today’s unions can change through a dynamic solely internal to themselves, does this imply the necessity of some kind of left intervention? But if such a left has itself suffered a defeat as significant as that of labour, where does that leave us?

The most promising road seems to be the formation of locally based intermediary organizations that stand between mass organizations such as unions and social movements and any future political party that purports to represent and lead those movements. Such intermediate structures, with feet planted both inside and outside unions, would set themselves three tasks. The first would be to add a class sensibility to union deliberations so they can become more effective, if still reformist, organizations. The second would be to mobilize the class across workplaces, unions and the community dimensions of workers’ lives. The third would be to make socialists and develop a socialist culture: build the individual understandings and confidence as well as the individual and collective capacities that would begin to challenge capitalism itself and contribute to the eventual formation of a socialist party. These structures would be permanent, not transitional organizations; they would remain even after the introduction of a socialist party in part as a check on that party. The necessity of such a safeguard is counselled by the historical tendencies of working class parties toward bureaucracy or the sacrifice of longer-term goals for immediate electoral success. (More generally, the constellation of mass movements, intermediate organizations and party would represent a mutual system of both support for, and checks on, each other.)

It is tempting to look to history for solutions to current dilemmas. But history has no ready answers for new circumstances. At best it provides only clues. The noteworthy contribution of Raising the Workers’ Flag is that it takes the Workers’ Unity League, with all its ambiguities, seriously—and so opens the door to a room of new and hopefully fruitful clues.



1 As Endicott further notes, for all this, the move to form the Workers’ Unity League was still internally contested by activists based on the realities of their particular sectors, delayed for a year and a half after the Comintern directive, and incompletely implemented.

2 A little over 280,000 Canadian workers were in unions in 1933–34 and the WUL had some 26,000 unionized members. The larger estimates of WUL members included a large number of unemployed workers.

3 In this regard, note that the WUL’s first formal convention occurred the same week as the founding of the CCF.

4 At the 1933 National Congress of the WUL, acting national secretary Charles Sims described the WUL’s work as “simply drops in the bucket—the bottom of the bucket is hardly wet.”

5 In his history of the period, Tim Buck (the leader of the Communist Party of Canada from the end of the 1920s into the 1960s) cannot hide his haste to skip over the WUL years. See his Thirty Years: The Story of the Communist Movement in Canada, 1922–1952 (Progress Books, 1975).