The Socialist Party's Legacy In The U.S. Labor Movement


By Lawrence Wittner

The U.S. labor movement has been fueled by the passion and fire of socialists, anarchists, communists, and leftists of many types. Socialists have been active since the very beginnings of the nationally organized movement.

Probably the best-known among them is Eugene V. Debs. A moving orator and staunch union activist, Debs began his career as a leader of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and after as the founder and guiding light of the American Railway Union. During the great Pullman Strike of 1894, a powerful corporate-U.S. government alliance smashed the strike, imprisoned Debs and other union leaders, and destroyed this early industrial union. But Debs emerged from the ordeal as a popular symbol of unflinching class struggle, as well as the Socialist Party’s candidate for president in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Another prominent early SP member was Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, who, with Debs, co-founded the SP’s predecessor, the Social Democratic Party. Although for the most part she preferred to be independent of party labels, she was called “the most dangerous woman in America” for her success in organizing mine workers and their families to fight the mine owners. She also helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, a very radical union.

In the following decades, former SP members rose to top positions in their unions and, sometimes, in the broader labor movement. These include Walter Reuther (president, United Auto Workers and president, CIO; vice-president, AFL-CIO); his brother Victor (international director, UAW); and Sidney Hillman (president, Amalgamated Clothing Workers and vice-president, CIO). Later, prominent members of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, a predecessor to DSA, included Jerry Wurf (president, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) and William Winpisinger (president, International Association of Machinists). As leaders of major industrial unions, they often had a significant role in Democratic Party politics, meeting with U.S. presidents and promoting important social legislation.

Walter Reuther supported the civil rights movement with union organizers and funding. He became a key backer of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and a sharp critic of the Vietnam War. Winpisinger, a DSA honorary chair, called for economic conversion from military to civilian production and served as a co-chair of SANE.

Although the U.S. labor movement was traditionally dominated by men, socialist women broke through to the middle levels of power, particularly in the garment unions. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Fannia Cohn became a leading organizer, strike leader, and the first woman vice-president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Rose Schneiderman worked briefly for the ILGWU, but was even more prominent in the 1909 Uprising of the 20,000, as an agitator following the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and as national president of the Women’s Trade Union League—a post that led to her close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and to service in the Roosevelt administration’s “Brains Trust.”

Socialists were also prominent among union leaders of color. Starting in the 1920s, A. Philip Randolph organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and, in 1941, used the union’s power to promote the March on Washington Movement that pressured the Roosevelt administration into creating a Fair Employment Practices Commission. In 1963, Randolph chaired the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which compelled the federal government to finally enact civil rights legislation. Bayard Rustin, the great civil rights leader, joined Randolph in founding the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a constituency group within the AFL-CIO that worked to forge an alliance between the racial justice movement and the labor movement. DSA member Raoul Teilhet was president of the California Federation of Teachers and a driving force behind the successful effort to legalize collective bargaining in California public education.

Although socialists and social democrats never produced an explicitly socialist labor movement, their influence continues as many unions look beyond “bread-and-butter” issues to social justice concerns that affect all working people.

Lawrence Wittner is professor of history emeritus at SUNY/Albany and executive secretary of the Albany County Central Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

This article originally appeared in the Labor Day 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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Join DSA activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 8-9pm ET, 7-8pm CT, 6-7pm MT, 5-6pm PT.


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People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's issues. We will discuss election results and their implications for DSA's work (30 minutes). Business will include reports on screenings of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, preparation for April Abortion Access Bowl-A-Thon fundraising, and leadership development (up to 1 hour). 9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.