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.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link:

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 77 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner 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? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

July 06, 2017
· 17 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Joseph Schwartz,
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt,, 608-355-6568.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

July 09, 2017
· 2 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

Running for the National Political Committee

July 11, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join this call to hear a presentation and ask questions about the role, duties and time commitment of a member of DSA's National Political Committee. In the meantime, check out the information already on our website about the NPC.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 11 rsvps


Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.