Review: TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS: SAMUEL GOMPERS, GEORGE MEANY, LANE
KIRKLAND AND THE TRAGEDY OF AMERICAN LABOR
Buhle on the AFL: Which side were they on?
The bureaucratic mentality of U.S. labor leaders, marked by the demand for
total control over the membership and the ruthless destruction of any
opposition, is well known. Not as well known, however, is the extent of the
outright conscious betrayal by that leadership of the interests of workers
both at home and abroad, which is detailed in Paul Buhle's book, TAKING
CARE OF BUSINESS: SAMUEL GOMPERS, GEORGE MEANY, LANE KIRKLAND AND THE
TRAGEDY OF AMERICAN LABOR (Monthly Review Press, l999).
Exposure of then AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland's collusion with the U.S.
government by putting the resources of the AFL-CIO at the disposal of the
CIA certainly contributed to the swelling rank-and-file dissatisfaction
that led to Kirkland's resignation in 1995 and replacement by John Sweeney
as head of the AFL-CIO.
However, Kirkland's collaboration with the U.S. government against the
interests of workers in Europe, Asia and Latin America and the
organizations they had created to fight their oppressors, far from being an
exception, followed the tradition set by the AFL's first president, Samuel
Gompers, and followed by Kirkland's predecessor George Meany.
Gompers, a socialist in his youth, underwent a total transformation into
opposite in his climb to the leadership of the AFL in l886 and afterward.
He set the practices of accommodation to American business interests,
collaboration with the Democratic Party, support of U.S. wars, and narrow
exclusionary craft union jurisdictions. His opposition to independent
political action and industrial organization led to the crushing of all
opposition, especially from the left.
The reward for such accommodations was renewed offensives against labor.
Anti-labor red squads and court injunctions led strikebreaking after World
War I. The Taft-Hartley Labor Act after World War II, which is still on the
books, can destroy the organized labor movement. The government and
corporations obviously understand the class struggle and the need for
capital's dictatorial control over workers much more profoundly than the
so-called labor leaders.
Eminent Cold Warrior Meany deepened the leadership's regression from 1952
on with the sweeping purge of leftists and other opposition from the unions
using the FBI, HUAC, police red squad files and a willing press. He so
passionately supported the war in Vietnam that he ordered New York's
construction workers (hard hats) to attack anti-war demonstrators in the
streets. Meanwhile, corruption flourished, membership plummeted and the
leaders lived sumptuous lives as their salaries skyrocketed and workers'
living standards declined.
Buhle attributes the growth of the UMWA after its near collapse in l929 to
national legislation under Roosevelt. In fact John L. Lewis, in 1931, threw
the union's entire treasury into an organizing drive that inspired
rank-and-file miners to walk the railroads to organize non-union miners,
swelling both the membership and treasury-both of which were used to
organize the CIO.
Buhle concludes that there is hope for a U.S. labor revival under AFL-CIO
leader Sweeney if policies of inclusion and militant action are developed
and implemented that match the inclusionary vision and practices of the
Knights of Labor after the Civil War, the IWW (Wobblies) at the turn of the
century and the CIO in its early organizing days. As Buhle's own narrative
clearly reveals, however, the overriding need for labor is not only
inclusionary militant action, but more importantly a revolutionary
philosophy to give its action direction to not only totally uproot and
transform society, but also to assure no regression after the conquest of