Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Socialism Goes to Work

In 1921, a faction of the Fabian Society broke off from the main group, calling themselves the League of Industrial Democracy.  They still held with the Fabian philosophy – in fact, they brought it with them.  LID wanted to make a broad impact on the world, especially the working world.  They saw promise in the growing dissatisfaction of nascent labor unions, which had begun forming in the mid-19th Century.  The labor movement’s anger was the perfect vehicle for their proposed reformation of the world.

The origins of unions' existence can be traced from the 18th century, where the rapid expansion of industrial society drew women, children, rural workers, and immigrants to the work force in numbers and in new roles. This pool of unskilled and semi-skilled labor spontaneously organized in fits and starts throughout its beginnings.  Later, it would be fertile garden for the development of trade unions. Trade unions as such were endorsed by the Catholic Church towards the end of the 19th century. Pope Leo XIII in his “Magna Carta”—Rerum Novarum—spoke against the atrocities workers faced and demanded that workers should be granted certain rights and safety regulations.

Trade unions are the successors to the guilds of medieval Europe, though the relationship between the two is disputed.  Medieval guilds existed to protect and enhance their members’ livelihoods through controlling the instructional capital of artisanship and the progression of members from apprentice to craftsman, journeyman, and eventually to master and grandmaster of their craft.  A trade union might include workers from only one trade or craft, or might combine several or all the workers in one company or industry. These things varied from region to region, based on the specific industrialization path taken in the place in question.

Trade unions and/or collective bargaining were outlawed from no later than the middle of the 14th century when the Ordinance of Labourers was enacted in the Kingdom of England. Union organizing would eventually be outlawed everywhere and remain so until the middle of the 19th century.

Since the publication of the History of Trade Unionism (1894) by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the predominant historical view is that a trade union “is a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment.” A modern definition by the Australian Bureau of Statistics states that a trade union is “an organisation consisting predominantly of employees, the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members.”

Yet historian R.A. Lesson, in United We Stand (1971), said:

“Two conflicting views of the trade-union movement strove for ascendancy in the nineteenth century: one the defensive-restrictive guild-craft tradition passed down through journeymen's clubs and friendly societies, ... the other the aggressive-expansionist drive to unite all 'labouring men and women' for a 'different order of things'.”
Recent historical research by Bob James in Craft, Trade or Mystery (2001) puts forward the view that trade unions are part of a broader movement of benefit societies, which includes medieval guilds, Freemasons,Oddfellows, friendly societies, and other fraternal organizations.

Adam Smith noted the imbalance in the rights of workers in regards to owners (or “masters”). In The Wealth of Nations, Book I, chapter 8, Smith wrote:

“We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combination of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate.  When workers combine, masters ... never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen.”

As Smith noted, unions were illegal for many years in most countries, although he argued that price or wage fixing by employers or employees should remain illegal. There were severe penalties for attempting to organize unions, up to and including execution. Despite this, unions were formed and began to acquire political power, eventually resulting in labor laws that not only legalized organizing efforts, but codified the relationship between employers and those employees organized into unions. Even after the legitimization of trade unions there was opposition.

In 1921, LID assumed its new name and enlarged its scope to addressing society at large. LID’s stated purpose was to “throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism.” In 1922 Norman Thomas, the many-times presidential candidate from the Socialist Party, joined Harry Laidler as co-executive director of the LID.  Its campus presence waned until the Great Depression of the 1930s led to an increase in radical student activism. The collegiate section was reorganized into an autonomous Student League for Industrial Democracy in 1933. This merged with the Communist National Student League in 1935 to create the popular front American Student Union.  LID activity on campus remained somewhat dormant until 1946, when the Student League for Industrial Democracy was reconstituted.

According to Right

“In its early years, the LID addressed serious societal problems such as child labor, poverty, inadequate housing, the working conditions in factories, and the growth of monopolies. It became the home for those leftwing intellectuals known as the ‘Muckrakers.’ During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the LID initiated radio broadcasts and conferences to discuss the programs of the New Deal.  At that time the LID numbered among its members such influential intellectuals and labor leaders as Roger Baldwin, John Dewey, David Dubinsky, Sidney Hillman, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Walter Reuther. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was an active supporter of the civil rights movement.

Throughout its history, the LID has called itself a proponent of the labor movement, seeing it as a progressive force that is misunderstood by students and intellectuals. Its stated goal is to break down these perceived barriers by conducting “education for
increasing democracy in our economic, political, and cultural life.”

LID’s literature portrays the organization as a progressive, socialist labor group. However, in recent
history LID shifted from its progressive roots. In the 1950s the LID's pro-labor activities took on a
different slant when the group became involved with the CIA in efforts to combat communism. Today,
the organization is dominated by anticommunists. It focuses its energies on “democracy building”
programs in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Central America, and gives little energy to its domestic
program. Its board is composed mainly of neoconservatives associated with the Social Democrats,
USA and the international divisions of the AFL-CIO. The latter, the  Free Trade Union Institute
(FUTI) and its subsidiaries, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), the
African American Labor Center and the Asian American Free Labor Institute, receive the vast majority
 of their funding from the U.S. government and are considered by many to be quasigovernmental
organizations that carry out U.S. foreign policy.”

However, LID was not above feting such Labor notables as George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO.  The
fact that their board features neocons associated with Social Democrats USA and international
divisions of the AFL-CIO is not necessarily a health sign.

The LID shifted from its progressive roots, having achieved its modest goals of child labor laws and
other safety reforms; its student affiliate, Student League for Industrial Democracy did not.  The
Student League for Industrial Democracy would give birth to the next generation:  Students for a
Democratic Society.  But SLID still had much work to do before SDS could take over.


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