Workers' Opposition

Workers' Opposition

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Some Bolsheviks were critical of how Vladimir Lenin had reduced the debate on policy issues in the Communist Party after the October Revolution. In 1921 Alexandra Kollantai (Commissar for welfare) and Alexander Shlyapnikov (Commissar for Labour) formed a faction that became known as the Workers' Opposition.

In 1921 Alexandra Kollantai published a pamphlet The Workers' Opposition, where she called for members of the party to be allowed to discuss policy issues and for more political freedom for trade unionists. She also advocated that before the government attempts to "rid Soviet institutions of the bureaucracy that lurks within them, the Party must first rid itself of its own bureaucracy."

The group also published a statement on 27th February, 1921: "A complete change is necessary in the policies of the government. First of all, the workers and peasants need freedom. They don't want to live by the decrees of the Bolsheviks; they want to control their own destinies. Comrades, preserve revolutionary order! Determinedly and in an organized manner demand: liberation of all arrested Socialists and non-partisan working-men; abolition of martial law; freedom of speech, press and assembly for all who labour."

At the Tenth Party Congress in 1922, Vladimir Lenin proposed a resolution that would ban all factions within the party. He argued that factions within the party were "harmful" and encouraged rebellions such as the Kronstadt Rising. The Party Congress agreed with Lenin and the Workers' Opposition was dissolved.

The workers ask - who are we? Are we really the prop of the class dictatorship, or are we just an obedient flock that serves as a support for those who, having severed all ties with the masses, carry out their own policy and build up industry without any regard to our opinions and creative abilities under the reliable cover of the party label.

The Workers Opposition, led by Shliapnikov, Alexandra Kollontai, and Medvedev, believed that the revolution was doomed if the Party failed to introduce radical changes in the organization of work, restore freedom and authority to the trade unions, and make an immediate turn towards establishing a true Soviet democracy. I had long discussions on this question with Shliapnikov. A former metalworker, he kept about him, even when in power, the mentality, the prejudices, and even the old clothes he had possessed as a worker. He distrusted the officials ("that multitude of scavengers") and was sceptical about the Comintern, seeing too many parasites in it who were only hungry for money.

The Workers Opposition: Defending Socialism Inside Stalinist Russia

The history of the Workers’ Opposition has been largely forgotten, both in the West and in the former Soviet Union. This is unfortunate, since it is the history of a faction within the Russian Communist Party itself which, during the very time that the Russian Revolution was falling into the centralization of political and economic power that would shortly lead to Stalin’s dictatorship, stood up to defend socialism, democracy, workers’ control, the rights of union workers, and economic justice. Sadly, their struggle was in vain—the bureaucratic Party concentrated all power in its hands, and Stalin soon assumed sole power and crushed the people of the Soviet Union under one of the most brutal regimes of the 20th century. Many of the members of the Workers’ Opposition died in Stalin’s jails.

The ideas that were advocated by the Workers’ Opposition had deep roots in the history of the Russian Revolution. In January 1905, a large peaceful demonstration was led by an Orthodox Priest, George Gapon, to the Czar’s Winter Palace, with a petition asking for freedom and democracy. They were fired on by Czarist troops, and “Bloody Sunday” became the rallying cry for revolution. Over the next few months, demonstrations and protests took place across Russia, and some three million workers walked out on strike.

In May, in the city of Ivanovno-Voznesensk, some 70,000 striking textile workers elected a strike committee, known as a Soviet (from the Russian word for “council”). Soon, workers, peasants and soldiers in nearly every sizable city in Russia elected their own local Soviets, and these began taking on political tasks and functioning more and more as quasi-governmental powers, in many cases organizing their own armed militias and passing and enforcing their own laws and regulations. In the larger industrial cities, like Moscow and St Petersburg, the Soviets became strong enough to directly challenge the authority of the Czarist government (in St Petersburg, the Soviet declared on its own authority an end to the Czar’s censorship, and banned the city’s printers from publishing anything that had been submitted to the Czar’s censors), and plans were being made for each municipal and regional Soviet to send delegates to a national Soviet to form a provisional national government. By September 1905, the Soviets had become powerful enough to call out a nationwide general strike that completely paralyzed the entire country. Within a month, the Czar was forced to give in, and signed the October Manifesto granting a constitution and an elected legislature known as the Duma.

With that concession, the revolt died down, and the Czarist police moved quickly to crush the remaining Soviets. All the leaders of the St Petersburg Soviet were arrested (including a young radical named Leon Trotsky). In Moscow, the Soviet called on its workers to go out on strike again and throw up barricades in protest, but the rebellion was easily beaten by Czarist troops. By December 1905, the Soviets were gone and the revolt had ended.

In March 1917, though, the same basic process was repeated. Wearied by the poverty and hunger brought about by the First World War, workers spontaneously went out on strike all over Russia. As the bread riots and strikes became more political in character, local Soviets were again elected. The most important of these was the Petrograd Soviet (the city of St Petersburg had been renamed to Petrograd after the war had started), which was elected in the middle of March. Other Soviets appeared in hundreds of other cities, and the All-Russian Central Executive Committee was formed in Petrograd to coordinate all of the local Soviets. The political slogan adopted by the revolution was “All power to the Soviets!” When the Czar abdicated and a Provisional Government formed by the Duma took power, the Soviets remained intact, in many areas exercising more authority than the new Provisional Government did.

At the time the Czarist government fell, the Soviets were dominated by representatives of the peasant-based Social Revolutionary Party and the Menshevik faction of the leftist Russian Social Democratic Party. Over the next several months, however, the Bolshevik faction of the Social Democrats, led by Lenin, gained control of the major Soviets. When Kerensky’s Provisional Government floundered over economic troubles and its decision to continue the unpopular participation of Russia in the First World War, the Bolsheviks organized a successful bloodless coup in November 1917, transferring power from the Provisional Government to the Bolshevik-dominated Soviets. For the next four years, Russia was wracked by civil war, as the Bolsheviks were opposed by a loose collection of former Czarists, conservative peasants, foreign troops (including Americans), and non-Bolshevik socialists and anarchists.

By 1921, the Russian Civil War was over, and the Bolsheviks stood as the only remaining power in Russia. In the 1918 Constitution, political power was, theoretically, centered in the local democratically-elected Soviets. The local Soviets elected representatives to the national Council of People’s Commissars, which in turn elected a Chairman as head of state. The Council also elected the heads of the various Commissariats, or governmental departments, which had responsibility for various areas of government.

Very quickly, however, the Soviet-based government became subordinated to the ruling Communist Party. All of the real political and economic power lay within the Communist Party’s Political Bureau (Politburo), which was elected by the Party Central Committee. The Soviet government quickly became a rubber stamp for decisions made by the Politburo.

In February 1921, the sailors at the Kronstadt Fortress mutinied in an attempt to overthrow the Communist Party and re-institute direct elected worker control through the Soviet government. The rebellion was crushed by Red Army troops.

The Workers’ Opposition was a faction within the Communist Party that advocated the same return to democratic Soviet government, as well as direct worker control of industries through elected managements set up by the trade unions.

Most of the members of the Workers’ Opposition were trade union officials. The most prominent spokesperson for the Workers’ Opposition was Alexander Shlyapnikov, who was Chairman of the Russian Metalworkers Union. He was joined by fellow Metalworkers Union officials Sergei Medvedev and Mikhail Vladimirov, and by Textile Workers Union official Ivan Kutuzov, Miner’s Union Chairman Alexei Kiselev, Yuri Lutovinov of the All-Russian Council of Trade Unions, Mikhail Chelyshev of the Party Control Commission, Kiril Orlov of the Council of Military Industry, and others.

Although not a trade unionist, one of the most outspoken supporters of the Workers’ Opposition was Alexandra Kollantai. In 1921, Kollantai submitted a paper entitled “The Workers’ Opposition in the Russian Communist Party” for the 10th Congress of the Communist Party, held in 1921, which argued in favor of independent trade unions, party democracy, and returning political power to the elected Soviet councils. Although the Congress elected Shlyapnikov to the Central Committee and adopted some of the positions advocated by the Workers’ Opposition, including a removal of some party members and a pledge to divert more resources to improving workers’ lives, it condemned the Workers’ Opposition itself for “factionalism”, and suppressed all its writings. At the 11th Party Congress in 1922, Shlyapnikov, Kollantai and Medvedev were almost expelled from the Communist Party after circulating another paper criticizing the suppression of dissent in the Party and condemning the domination of the trade unions by Party functionaries.

After this, most of the former Oppositionists were forced to temper their criticism. Kollantai was appointed Ambassador to Norway, and later to Sweden and Mexico. She was never again able to exercise any influence on Party policy. Her virtual exile abroad probably saved her life.

Stalin was elected General Secretary of the Politburo in 1922. After Lenin died in 1924, Stalin used his control of the Politburo to become the sole power in the Communist Party, and ruled Russia as a virtual autocrat. The Soviet Union revealed itself as an institution of bureaucratic state capitalism, in which worker control was crushed, independent labor unions were actively destroyed, and the only acceptable role for workers was to shut up, get back to work, and produce wealth for the benefit of the privileged Party elite.

In 1926, members of the now-banned Workers’ Opposition tried to rally fellow Party members to prevent Stalin’s grab for power, but failed. In a series of purges, Stalin consolidated his power, removed all the “disloyal elements” from the Party, and jailed them. Shlyapnikov and Medvedev were both shot in September 1937. The rest died in gulag prisons. Kollantai, who no longer had any ability to influence events within the Soviet Union, was the only survivor. She died of natural causes in 1952.

Even in death, however, the Workers’ Oppositionists had the final say. When the Leninist state capitalism finally collapsed in 1989, it was striking miners in the Ukraine and the appearance of the trade labor union Solidarity in Poland, champions of the independent unionism and workplace democracy that the Workers Opposition had preached, that provoked the USSR’s downfall.

Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Unions

The first practical step in response to the need for a united labor movement was a meeting of workers’ representatives from a few trades and industries at Pittsburgh on Nov. 15, 1881. The delegates came from the carpenters, the cigar makers, the printers, merchant seamen, and the steel workers, as well as from a few city labor bodies and a sprinkling of delegates from local units of the Knights of Labor.

The new Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions which they created had a constitution inspired by that of the British Trades Union Congress – which then was about a dozen years old. Its principal activity was legislative, its most important committee was concerned with legislation. The chairman of that committee was 31-year-old Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers Union, serving in the earliest phase of a career that was to make him the principal leader and spokesman for labor in America for the next four decades.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was a good deal less than a strongly effective organization. In its third year, it collected just $508 in dues, and its 1884 convention brought together merely 18 delegates. Yet its fingers were clearly on the pulse of America’s working class it passed a resolution decreeing that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1986.” It recommended to its affiliated unions that they “so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.” In the words of a much later cliche, the federation’s call for the 8-hour day was clearly “an idea whose time had come.” It touched off, or accelerated, a strong and vociferous national clamor for the shorter work week.

Despite the popularity of that call for action, Gompers and a number of his associates – among them, particularly, Peter J. McGuire of the Brotherhood of Carpenters – felt the time had come for reorganizing the Federation to make it a more effective center for the trade unions of the country. So, on Dec. 8, 1886, they and a few other delegates met in Columbus, Ohio, to create a renovated organization.

It was at this meeting that the American Federation of Labor evolved from the earlier Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. The action was a giant step forward toward the development of a modern trade union movement in America.

A statement by the founders of the AFL expressed their belief in the need for more effective union organization. “The various trades have been affected by the introduction of machinery, the subdivision of labor, the use of women’s and children’s labor and the lack of an apprentice system – so that the skilled trades were rapidly sinking to the level of pauper labor,” the AFL declared. “To protect the skilled labor of America from being reduced to beggary and to sustain the standard of American workmanship and skill, the trades unions of America have been established.”

The new AFL, with its 300,000 members in 25 unions, came on the national scene in a time of discord and struggle. Earlier in 1886, railroad workers in the Southwest had been involved in a losing strike against the properties of Jay Gould, one of the more flamboyant of the so-called “robber barons” of the post-Civil War period. On May 1, 1886, some 200,000 workers had struck in support of the effort to achieve the eight-hour day.

While the national eight-hour-day strike movement was generally peaceful, and frequently successful, it led to an episode of violence in Chicago that resulted in a setback for the new labor movement. The McCormick Harvester Company in Chicago, learning in advance of the planned strike, locked out all its employees who held union cards. Fights erupted and the police opened fire on the union members, killing four of them. A public rally at Haymarket Square to protest the killings drew a large and peaceful throng. As the meeting drew to a close, a bomb exploded near the lines of police guards, and seven of the uniformed force were killed, with some 50 persons wounded. Thepolice began to fire into the crowd several more people were killed and about 200 were wounded.

Eight anarchists were arrested and charged with a capital crime. Four were executed four others were eventually freed by Gov. John P. Altgeld of Illinois after he concluded that the trial had been unfairly conducted. No one knows for certain who planted the bomb. But as Gompers ruefully commented some time later: “The bomb not only killed the policemen, but it killed our eight-hour movement for a few years after.”

The new AFL, breaking with the cloudy organizational structure that had hampered the Knights of Labor and other previous attempts at federation, placed emphasis on the autonomy of each affiliated union in its jurisdiction, and encouraged the development of practical collective bargaining to gain improvements for the membership. But it takes two to make collective bargaining work – employers and. workers – and as American industry moved into a period of immense growth and power in the latter part of the 19th century, the lords of industry were little inclined to negotiate with the unions of their employees. The Sherman Antitrust Act, designed to break up the power of monopoly corporations, was used very strongly against small unions, contrary to its intent. And so, the companies grew in strength while their lawyers fought successful rearguard actions to make the law inoperative.

Thus the decade of the 1890s and the early years of the 20th century witnessed many intense struggles between essentially weak unions seeking to liberate their members from back-breaking toil under often unsafe and unhealthy working conditions for very low wages, and powerful corporations with heavy financial resources, the active or passive support of the government and its police forces, and the backing of much of the press and the general public. It was a perfect climate for union-busting and violence.

In 1891 steel boss Henry C. Frick broke a Pennsylvania strike of coke oven workers seeking the eight-hour day. But that was just a warmup event for Frick, who as head of the Carnegie Steel Company in 1892 ordered a pay cut ranging from 18 to 26 percent. The Amalgamated Association of Iron & Steel Workers – one of the stronger unions of the period – called a strike at the Carnegie plant at Homestead, Pa., to seek a rescinding of the cut in wages. Pitched battles followed between the strikers and a boatload of 300 armed Pinkerton detectives. The strikers won the battle and the Pinkertons retreated, with a death toll of seven workers, three strikebreakers and scores of wounded. The state militia then took over the town. Indictments poured out, but no one was convicted and Frick had succeeded in breaking the strike.

The next big confrontation, in 1894, was at the Pullman plant near Chicago. The American Railroad Union – not affiliated with the AFL and led by Eugene V. Debs, a leading American socialist – struck the company’s manufacturing plant, and called for a boycott of the handling of Pullman’s sleeping and parlor cars on the nation’s railroads. Within a week, 125,000 railroad workers were engaged in a sympathy protest strike. The government swore in 3,400 special deputies later, at the request of the railroad association, President Cleveland moved in federal troops to break the strike – despite a plea by Gov. Altgeld of Illinois that their presence was unnecessary. Finally a sweeping federal court injunction forced an end to the sympathy strike, and many railroad workers were blacklisted. The Pullman strikers were essentially starved into submissive defeat.

The strike illustrated the increasing tendency of the government to offer moral support and military force to break strikes. The injunction, issued usually and almost automatically by compliant judges on the request of government officials or corporations, became a prime legal weapon against union organizing and action.

Workers Opposition on the Controversy

1. The role and the aims of the trade unions in the present transitional period were clearly defined in the resolutions of the All-Russian Congresses of Trade Unions. The First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, in January, 1918, thus defined the aims of the trade unions: “The center of gravity in the work of the trade unions at the present moment must be shifted to the field of economic organization. Trade unions, being class organizations of the proletariat organized on industrial lines, must take upon themselves the principal task of organizing production and restoring the shattered productive forces of the country.”

The Second [All-Russian] Congress, in February, 1919, declared that “in the process of practical collaboration with the Soviet government, directed toward the strengthening and the organization of the national economy, the trade unions have made the transition from control over production to the organization of industry by taking an active part in the management of individual enterprises, as well as of the entire economic life of the country.” The resolution concludes as follows: “Directly participating in every sphere of Soviet activity by contributing to the formation of state institutions, the trade unions must, by enlisting both their own organizations as well as the broad masses of the workers, train and prepare them for the management not only of production, but also of the entire state machinery.”

The Third Congress, which look place in April, 1920, approved the basic decisions of the two preceding congresses and gave a few specific instructions as to the manner in which the trade unions should participate in the organization of the national economy.

The clearest definition of the role of the trade unions and of their practical work is given in the Program of the Russian Communist Party, adopted by the Eighth Party Congress in March, 1919. In the chapter of the Program entitled “In the Economic Sphere,” we find the following in paragraph 5: “The organization apparatus of the socialized industry must be based primarily on a trade-union foundation….[Omission in the text.] Since, according to the laws of the Soviet Republic and existing practice, they are already participating in all local and central organs of industrial administration, the trade unions must achieve a de facto concentration of the entire administration of the whole national economy considered as a single economic unit.”

2. The transition from military tasks to economic construction uncovered a crisis of the trade-union movement, arising from the fact that the daily work of the unions was far removed from the tasks formulated in the trade-union congresses and in the Party program. During the past two years the Party and the state organizations were engaged in narrowing the sphere of operations of the trade unions and they have reduced the influence of the workers’ unions in the Soviet state to zero. The role of trade unions in the organization and the administration of industry has been debased to that of an information and recommendation bureau [Charges are made that the trade unions have no paper or printing facilities.]

3. The downgrading of the role and importance of the trade unions has been taking place at a time when the experience of the past three years of the proletarian revolution has shown that the unions had fully and consistently followed the Communist line, and have been leading the great masses of non-party workers in the same direction. [This downgrading of the trade unions has been taking place at a time] when it became clear to everyone that the realization of the program of the Russian Communist Party in our country, where the overwhelming majority of the population are small producers, required a strong, authoritative mass organization, accessible to the widest proletarian circles. The downgrading of the role of the trade unions in Soviet Russia is an expression of bourgeois and class hostility directed against the proletariat and should be ended immediately.

The Present Tasks of the Trade Unions

4. The experience of the last three and a half years of Soviet construction has demonstrated that the successful accomplishment of a task was made possible only in the degree that there was mass participation of the workers in it. We should lake account of this experience and direct our activity in a way that would attract the laboring masses to lake part in the direct management of the country’s economy.

5. Victory over disruption and the restoration of the productive forces of our country is possible, and can be attained only on condition that the existing system and methods of organization and administration of the national economy of the Republic are radically changed. The methods of administration which lean on cumbersome bureaucratic machinery preclude any creative initiative and in independence of the union-organized producers. It is this bureaucratic system, operating over the heads of organized producers and employing appointed officials and dubious specialists, that has created a split in the administration of the economy, and is now leading to perpetual conflicts between the shop committees and plant administration, between trade unions and economic organizations. This system must be repudiated unequivocally.

6. The present tendency to ignore the resolutions of the Eighth Party Congress on the role and objectives of trade unions in the Soviet state is direct testimony of the lack of confidence in the potentialities of the working class. The class-conscious and advanced elements of the working class and organized Communists should exert every effort to overcome this distrust and to resist the bureaucratic stagnation within the Party…

7. The critical economic position of the country requires heroic measures to prevent the approaching catastrophe. The basic measures capable of raising productivity relate to the adoption of an economic policy that confers upon the industrial trade unions a decisive voice in the state economic organizations. Management of the national economy is at the same time the management of the laboring masses. By introducing a system of national economic organization and administration based on the trade unions, a unity of leadership will emerge which will remove the opposition between the laboring masses and the specialists and create wide opportunities for the organizational and the administrative activities of men of science, theory, and practical experience.

8. Trade unions are workers’ organizations, built on the principles of workers’ democracy and accountability of every organ from the lowest to the highest. During the period of their existence the unions have gained a good deal of experience, and they include people with talents in the field of economic administration. Entire branches of our war-production, machine building, metallurgical industries and other industries are being administrated by workers. Hundreds of highly complicated industrial enterprises are managed by collegiums or by individual worker-administrators. But these administrators have no responsibility and are not accountable to the trade unions which placed them in these positions, and they are required to report only to the economic agencies. The unification of industrial leadership with the trade unions in charge will remove this unhealthy state of affairs.

9. The transition from the existing system of bureaucratic administration of the economy, alienated from the initiative of the toiling masses, should be made in an orderly way and should begin with the strengthening of the nuclei of the trade unions, such as factory-shop committees, with the view of giving them the training needed for economic management… [A list of eight steps is given by which this objective can be attained.]

10. The entire work and attention of the trade unions should be transferred to factories, plants and institutions and concentrated on the development of the mentality of the worker. Therein lies the role of the trade unions as schools of communism. In developing the intelligence of the liberated producer, the trade unions should organize their work in such a way as to transform the laborer from a mere appendage of a moribund economic machine into an intelligent builder of communism. Every screw of the machinist, every thread of the weaver, every nail of the blacksmith, and every brick of the bricklayer should serve as a connecting link and foundation of the new production relationships. Communist education must be built on this foundation.

The Administration of the National Economy

11. In its final and fully developed form, the organizational structure of the economy, as well as the relationship of the various economic organs, should lead to the concentration of the entire economic administration in the hands of the industrial trade unions.

12. This administrative concentration of the unified economy of the Republic can be achieved by establishing an organizational framework under which all organs of national economic management, both central and local, are elected by the representatives of the organized producers. In this way a unity of will is created, which is essential to The organization of the national economy, and which ensures a wide participation of The laboring masses in The administration of our economy.

13. Organizing the administration of the entire national economy should be within the jurisdiction of an all-Russian congress of producers, united in industrial trade unions, which will elect a central organ to lake charge of the management of the entire national economy of the Republic.

a. All-Russian congresses of industrial trade unions representing individual branches of the economy are to elect organs for the management of sectors and branches of the economy.

b. Oblast. guberniia, uyezd, regional, etc., organs of administration are to be created by the corresponding local congresses of industrial trade unions. In this way a fusion of centralized production and local initiative and independence will be achieved. Oblast, guberniia, uyezd, regional, etc., departments of economic administration are to be established, in every case, by the trade unions concerned.

14. Enterprises with related output are to be combined into groups to ensure the best utilization of technical means and materials. Similar enterprises located in the same city are to be combined under a common management created by the trade union. Administrations for consolidated enterprises located in non-contiguous territories are to be created by congress of workers’ committees of the given enterprises, at the initiative of the trade unions.

Organization of Workers’ Committees

15. In order to bring about a more rapid organization of labor and production on socialist principles, all workers and employees in every enterprise and institution of the Republic, being members of trade unions, should participate in an active and orderly manner in the administration of the national economy.

16. All workers and employees, irrespective of their position or trade, who work for individual economic establishments, such as factories, plants, mines, in all transport and communication establishments, and in every variety of agriculture are the direct administrators of the property which is in their charge. They are responsible for the safeguarding and the rational utilization of this property before all the toilers of the Republic.

17. As participants in the organization of management for the various enterprises, the workers and employees in factories, plants, shops, institutions, in transport and communication services, as well as agricultural and other enterprises, elect a Workers’ Committee which is the directing organ of a given enterprise.

18. The Workers’ Committee is the primary organizational cell of the union of a given trade and is to be constituted under the supervision and control of the corresponding union.

19. The duties of a Workers’ Committee consist in the management of a given plant or enterprise and include:

a. Directing the production activities of all workers and employees of the economic unit in question

b. Taking care of the needs of the producers.

20. [This section states that the work program of an enterprise and its internal procedures are within the competence of the workers engaged in the enterprise.]

Organization of the Workers’ Standard of Living

21. An indispensable condition for the improvement of the national economy is the need of introducing a system of wages in kind. This will raise the productivity of labor and improve the living conditions of the workers. The measures listed below should be made part of the wage agreements and included in the payments in kind.

a. To abolish payment for the rations (pack) and for other articles of mass consumption rationed to the workers by the food organs

b. To abolish payment for meals distributed to workers and their families

c. To abolish payment for the use of bathhouses, street cars, theaters, etc.

d. To abolish payment for housing, heat and light

c. In localities where the housing problem is critical, it is necessary to reduce the quarters occupied by Soviet and military institutions in order to make available more housing space for workers

f. To organize the repair of workers’ apartments at the expense of the industrial enterprises, on condition that the fulfillment of the basic production targets of the enterprise is guaranteed

g. To give a high priority to the construction of workers’ settlements and communal living quarters, which should be included in the program of the Committee on Urban Construction during the nearest construction period

h. To place special trains and street cars in operation at the beginning and end of the work day

i. To give preferential treatment to workers in the distribution of consumer goods

j. To simplify and speed up the distribution of bonuses in kind, both basic and supplemental

k. To attach to factories or to establish shoe-repair shops and clothing-repair shops to serve the needs of workers of a given factory. These shops are to receive every assistance from the factory in securing necessary instruments and materials

1. If an enterprise has communal garden plots, these should be supplied with necessary implements and tools, to be paid for by the enterprise

2. The expenditures connected with the above-enumerated measures should be included in the plant’s budget….

Source: James Bunyan, ed., The Origins of Forced Labor in the Soviet State, 1917-1921 (Stanford: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), pp. 221-245, with minor modifications.

The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, was founded in 1905 in Chicago, and by 1908 had become influential among migrant laborers in the Pacific Northwest. Members were dubbed "Wobblies" and soon earned a reputation for loud singing, radicalism, and militancy. IWW members and organizers played an active role in Northwest metal mining (in Idaho), logging, and agriculture. In 1909 the IWW Spokane free-speech fight was an early and legendary example of direct action in support of constitutional rights. The massive statewide lumber strike in the summer of 1917 brought the industry to a halt at the beginning of World War I. The union's bloody clashes with authorities in Everett (1916) and Centralia (1919) became the stuff of legend. IWW membership and influence declined sharply after the anti-radical purges of the World War I era, but the union never quite died off. Young IWW members made a dramatic reappearance in Seattle during protests around the World Trade Organization conference in late 1999.

A Democratic, Industrial Union

The IWW was an "industrial" union, one that embraced and organized both skilled and unskilled workers within particular industries. Formed in 1905 partly in opposition to the craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), it was a democratic union with a mix of radical anti-capitalist politics. The founding membership included socialists and labor unionists of various kinds, dominated by the militant, radical metal miners of the Western Federation of Miners.

The founding convention took place in Chicago on June 27, 1905. Bill Haywood, leader of the Western Federation of Miners, called the 203 delegates to order with these words:

Shortly after the IWW was formed, Bill Haywood and two other leaders of the Western Federation of Miners were arrested on the charge that they had murdered former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg. Idaho Senator William Borah was the prosecuting attorney and Clarence Darrow led the defense. The three union leaders were acquitted, and Haywood returned to an active role with the IWW.

Tenets and Tactics

From 1908 to 1917, the IWW in Washington state was particularly influential among migrant laborers who rode the boxcars to follow the harvest or to get a job in a lumber camp. The Seattle IWW Branch printed the following manifesto in answer to the question "What is the IWW?"

"It is a fighting labor union which believes that the interests of labor can be fully served only when working people are united as a class. It wants to see all on the same job united, all in the same industry in one union, all who work for wages in one big union.

"The IWW differs sharply from the position of other unions that the problems of the working class can be solved by begging crumbs from employers or praying to politicians for favors. While it fights for better conditions today, the IWW insists that working people are entitled to everything they produce, instead of a meager share.

"There will be insecurity and hunger among those who toil for as long as there is an employing class which benefits from low wages and evil working conditions. The IWW holds that there can be no solution to industrial warfare, no end to injustice and want, until the profit system itself is abolished.

"In striving to unite labor as a class in one big union the IWW also seeks to build the structure of a new and better social order within the shell of the old system which fails to provide for the needs of all."

The IWW was considered radical because it supported worker ownership of factories, a 40-hour work week, and sanitary conditions in logging camps.

Spokane Free-Speech Fight

In the fall of 1909, the IWW launched the Spokane free-speech fight. This was a civil disobedience action mounted in public defiance of a Spokane City Council ordinance banning speaking on the streets, an ordinance directed against IWW organizing. On November 2, one by one, IWW members mounted a soapbox (an overturned crate) and began speaking, upon which Spokane police yanked them off the box and took them to jail.

On the first day, 103 Wobblies were arrested, beaten, and incarcerated. Within a month, arrests mounted to 500, including the fiery young Wobbly orator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964). The Spokane free-speech fight ended in victory, with the City revoking the ordinance. It inaugurated free-speech fights in other cities, and is considered one of the most significant battles to protect freedom of speech in American history

The IWW organized migrant harvesters around Yakima with some success, as well as sawmill workers and loggers in Grays Harbor County. Its most notable strike was the 1917 "Strike in the Woods." It is also remembered for two tragedies, the Everett Massacre and an incident in Centralia.

Everett Massacre

On November 5, 1916, two boatloads of workers and IWW members traveled from Seattle to Everett to hold a free speech demonstration in support of striking shingle mill workers in Everett, and in support of First Amendment rights, which had been severely curtailed in Everett by the county sheriff under the influence of the timber barons.

Shingle mill workers were on strike because mill owners had refused to restore wage cuts that unions had conceded when the price of cedar fell. The price had since recovered, and workers wanted their wages to recover as well.

Members of the IWW saw this as an opportunity to organize and provide support to striking workers. They went to Everett to speak in support of the strikers, and against the mill owners and the economic system they represented. Many heads were banged, teeth loosened, and a serious beating had taken place at the Beverly Park Interurban Railway station on October 30, 1916.

The Wobblies planned a return visit for Sunday, November 5. Their vessel, the steamer Verona, was met at an Everett loading dock by County Sheriff Donald MacRae and his businessmen's posse. The sheriff called out, "Who are your leaders?" The entire boatload of Wobblies yelled back, "We all are!" Then someone (never identified) started shooting and five workers on the boat soon lay dead or dying. Probably another dozen were shot in the water after the boat pulled hastily away. Two businessman-deputies on the dock also died from shots in the back.

The Strike in the Woods

In March 1917, IWW loggers in Spokane formed their own industrial union, the Lumber Workers Industrial Union, IWW. (Wobbly loggers and sawmill workers had previously belonged to the IWW Agricultural Workers Organization). Early in the summer, loggers began striking spontaneously. The IWW planned to call a strike for July, but noting that loggers were already quitting work, moved the date up to June 20.

Jack Miller, an IWW member, survivor of the Everett Massacre, and participant in the 1917 strike, later described the situation:

"Our motto was, 'We have nothing to lose but our chains.' Look at it this way: when conditions and wages are below subsistence, you lose if you continue to work. When you only have part-time work offered, it isn't much of a hardship to be on strike.

"Lumberjacks have got to be the most independent of workers. A lumberjack is a big man with a Paul Bunyan complex. But between the time of the shooting at Everett on November 5, 1916, and mid-summer of 1917, we organized those lumberjacks in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Northern California, and parts of Montana.

"Some 50,000 lumberjacks went on strike at the call of the IWW, and there was not one single act of violence. No one ever crossed the picket lines and no logger remained in a camp where an IWW could reach him to tell him the strike was on. After that walkout, the timberbeast was on the way out."

The lumber strike during the summer of 1917 brought the industry to a halt. The issues were filthy conditions and poor food in the lumber camps, and especially, the eight-hour day.

In August, in the context of World War I and the urgent need for lumber, Washington Governor Ernest Lister and the U.S. Secretary of War attempted to persuade the logging firms to improve conditions and institute the eight-hour day, while also pursuing and jailing IWW leaders. By late August, with the leadership incarcerated, the IWW encouraged loggers to take the strike to the workplace. Wobbly loggers returned to work, but worked as inefficiently as possible, quit often, and in general continued to obstruct the industry. Eventually, the government forced the eight-hour day on the lumber barons. (U.S. soldiers were also sent to the woods to harvest spruce needed to build airplanes.)

Centralia Tragedy

In 1919, Washington was still a rough-edged pioneer state blessed with seemingly endless resources. Thousands of Americans had come home from the trenches of Europe, eager to enjoy the fruits of victory.

Some labor unions were beginning to resist the excesses of the market economy. The conflict was particularly acute in mill towns such as Centralia where it was hard to ignore the enormous gap between wealthy timber barons and the workers in the woods.

On November 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the Armistice that ended the War to End All War, members of the local American Legion, including young war veterans, marched up Centralia's Tower Avenue. Near the intersection of Second Street and Tower Avenue, the American Legion contingent stopped in front of the Roderick Hotel, which served as a local union hall for the IWW.

The union had been warned that the Legionnaires would attack their hall. It had happened before, the previous year. Its local lawyer, Elmer Smith, advised that they were entitled to defend their property. So they were armed.

As in Everett, no one knows who fired the first shot, but within minutes, four young Legionnaires lay dead or dying on the street. The town went crazy. Citizens become vigilantes and descended on Wobblies and other union members, arresting them in their halls or homes and throwing them in jail.

Wesley Everest, a 31-year-old logger, IWW member and World War I veteran, who had fired some of the fatal shots, was pursued through the streets, cornered, beaten and thrown in jail with the rest. Later that night, the city lights went out. An angry mob dragged Everest out of jail, drove him to a bridge across the Chehalis River and hanged him. Witnesses said he had been castrated, but the coroner's report the next day stated "no scars that could be located on the body outside where the rope cut neck. Hole that looked like bullet hole . rope was still around the neck of the man" (McClelland p. 85).

Ten weeks later, 11 union members were put on trial for the murder of Warren Grimm, one of the Legion members. After a stormy trial (moved to Montesano in Grays Harbor County), tainted by the presence of troops, seven were convicted and sentenced to 25 years. Many complained the trial and sentences were unfair. Several jurors later signed affidavits attesting to the intimidation and influence of the uniformed militia.

The convictions only deepened passions in a state already known for its populism. The tragedy was revisited by appeals courts, by John Dos Passos in his novel 1919, and by a panel from the Federal Council of Churches. It has been the topic of countless books, pamphlets, and magazine articles.

Of the seven men convicted, one died in prison, five were paroled in 1930 and the last, Ray Becker, saw his sentence commuted in 1939 after 19 years in prison.

Seattle General Strike and After

By 1919 many IWW leaders were in jail, and many Wobbly union halls had been raided, wrecked, and closed. The 1919 Seattle General Strike was not dominated by IWW members, yet it would be unfair to dismiss IWW influence in the city's labor community. Many unionists were dual union members. As one of the songs in the late 1980s rock opera Seattle 1919 goes, many workers had one card for their job and one for what they believed.

Most local and national press denounced the strike, while conservatives called for stern measures to suppress what looked to them like a revolutionary plot. Mayor Ole Hanson (1874-1940), elected the year before with labor support, armed his police force and threatened martial law and federal troops. After the General Strike fizzled out in February 1919, police raided the IWW hall and Socialist Party headquarters, and closed the labor daily newspaper Union Record.

The IWW survived, but continuing government harassment and the return of prosperity in the Roaring Twenties undercut its influence. It was involved in organizing laborers at late-1920s Seattle City Light projects in the North Cascades, in Boulder Dam near Las Vegas, Nevada, and in the Yakima orchards of the 1930s. It is no secret that many older Wobblies were involved in both the organizing in the woods of the Northwest and in the nation's auto industry in the 1930s.

As of the late 1990s, IWW chapters were operating in Seattle, Olympia, and Portland, Oregon. Seattle Wobblies tried to organize workers at a small food store in West Seattle, but the drive ended when the store management changed in 1998. In November 1999, IWW members and supporters were prominent among the thousands who protested the World Trade Organization's Seattle session.

The IWW's Little Red Songbook, first published in Spokane in 1909, has been updated constantly, proving that Wobbly ideas and hopes are still alive. It has been a cultural icon of the labor movement, helping to keep alive the notion that "When you stop singing, the revolution has ended and so has the progress of the union."

Industrial Workers of the World songbook

Industrial Workers of the World picnic, Seattle, July 1919

Courtesy UW Special Collections

Cartoon lampooning Wobblies jailed after November 11, 1919 riot

Courtesy John McClelland, Jr

Detail, satirist cartoon directed toward incarcerated Wobblies, 1919

Courtesy John McClelland Jr.

Everett City Dock, 1917

Courtesy Everett Public Library (Carlson0652)

Vandalized Seattle headquarters of the IWW, between 7th and 8th avenues on Olive Way, 1913

On The Historically Racist Motivations Behind Minimum Wage

Senators are expected to vote tomorrow on a bill that would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, a well-intentioned though economically irrational policy change that few Democrats realize has a troubling racial history.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently reported that artificially inflating wages to this extent would cut about half a million jobs in the short run (though CBO concedes the figure would be higher in the long-run beyond their mid-2016 projections). Economists note those workers most likely to be cut are lowest-skilled, young, minority workers, who, as Reihan Salam of Reuters writes, need these roles to learn “grit, self-regulation, motivation, and the ability to work constructively with others” as a means “to climb the economic ladder.”

The business-friendly National Center for Policy Analysis points out “the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, requiring 'prevailing' wages on federally assisted construction projects, was supported by the idea that it would keep contractors from using 'cheap colored labor' to underbid contractors using white labor.”

“In 1925, a minimum-wage law was passed in the Canadian province of British Columbia, with the intent and effect of pricing Japanese immigrants out of jobs in the lumbering industry.

A Harvard professor of that era referred approvingly to Australia’s minimum wage law as a means to “protect the white Australian’s standard of living from the invidious competition of the colored races, particularly of the Chinese” who were willing to work for less.

In South Africa during the era of apartheid, white labor unions urged that a minimum-wage law be applied to all races, to keep black workers from taking jobs away from white unionized workers by working for less than the union pay scale.”

In today’s South Africa, The New York Times reported on poor workers, many of them black, angry at government leaders enforcing labor laws the price them out of a job.

NYC Rally To Raise The Minimum Wage (Photo credit: The All-Nite Images)

While our African-American President Barack Obama tries to make a minimum wage hike a moral imperative, Sowell reports no sympathy from the Congressional Black Caucus after his entreaties that currying reciprocal political favors on other matters is not “worth sacrificing whole generations of young blacks to huge rates of unemployment.” Rather than inflating wages that punish employers, a better policy solution (which Obama even included in his own budget this year) is the earned income tax credit, which puts more money in workers' pockets and saves their jobs.

Despite Democratic bluster on this issue, they’re not the ones with the facts to match. Or as Walter Williams, an African-American, libertarian economics professor at George Mason University, puts it: “The intentions are irrelevant to the effects.”


Radical ideas spread beyond the centres of Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the eastern Mediterranean and port cities along the passage to India. Footnote 8 The British colonies and dependencies in Mesopotamia and the Gulf were transformed as a result of their integration into the spheres of commerce, migration, and intellectual exchange of Empire. In Iraq, communist movements had developed already in the 1920s and particularly the activism in the southern city of Basra had an impact on the Arab Gulf states such as Kuwait. Footnote 9

Given the relative proximity of the Eastern Province to Iraq, Iraq was the dominant influence on political activists in the east and developments in Iraq were strongly reflected on the Arab side of the Gulf. After the Baath Party took power in Iraq and came into conflict with the Iraqi communists, this split the leftists and nationalists in the Gulf along those lines as well. Footnote 10 The Shia of Qatif and al-Ahsa in particular had long-standing religious and business links with Iraq, and travelled regularly to Iraq. These connections also facilitated the flow of political ideas from Iraq to the Eastern Province.

The British protectorate island of Bahrain, especially its capital Manama, also has long experienced anti-colonial activism. Clandestine networks, civil society organizations, and a radical press emerged there in the first half of the twentieth century. Footnote 11 Given that Bahrain was just a short boat ride from the port cities of eastern Arabia, radical ideas and publications often reached the Saudi mainland via Bahrain. Family ties between the Eastern Province and Bahrain were also key.

While the Eastern Province was the main base of leftist Footnote 12 and nationalist movements in Saudi Arabia, they also had supporters in Riyadh, the Hijaz, and other parts of the country, but there is even less information on activism in these regions than on the Eastern Province. Footnote 13

Particularly since the 1940s, members of the local upper class and employees in the nascent oil industry received a modern education either in Bahrain or in the intellectual centres of the Arab world such as Baghdad, Beirut, or Cairo. There they became familiar with the ideas of Arab nationalism and communism.

Since the mid-1930s and especially since the discovery of oil in 1938 the local oil company, which was renamed the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) in 1944, recruited thousands of foreigners and people from the Eastern Province. While Saudi employees were initially mainly unskilled workers, Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Italians, Sudanese, Indians and others came to the Eastern Province to carry out semi-skilled work. These expatriate workers from countries with a longer history of radical activism intermingled with the Saudi workforce and disseminated radical ideas. They were communists, Baathists, pan-Arab nationalists, Syrian nationalists, and Nasserists. Far from spreading the orthodox thoughts of one particular line of left-wing ideology, a general sense of radical politics spread in the labour camps of ARAMCO, the emerging oil towns of Damman and Jubail, and the community centres of the Shia port city of Qatif. The Gulf region as a whole became a transnational field, in which ideas, students, and revolutionaries travelled across national borders and increased political mobilizations in other countries. Footnote 14

Figure 2 Aramco School in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Unknown photographer/Saudi Aramco World/SAWDIA. Used with permission.

Figure 3 Aramco School in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Unknown photographer/Saudi Aramco World/SAWDIA. Used with permission.

Particularly important were teachers in ARAMCO schools, Footnote 15 most of whom were Lebanese or Palestinians. Some of them had been members in left-wing political parties in their countries of origin and discussed radical ideas with their students and started to distribute forbidden political literature. They secretly circulated the magazines of the Lebanese Communist Party, al-Sarkha and al-Nida , amongst students and ARAMCO workers. Footnote 16 A local trader in Qatif, who sensed that he could do business with students from ARAMCO schools that were keen to get their hands on the likes of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, opened a bookshop in Qatif and started to import the classics of the global left. It was seemingly the only bookshop in the Eastern Province that sold forbidden literature, including much of the communist and Arab left canon, but also Russian novels and plays. Hence, the young, aspiring leftists from other cities in the Eastern Province came to Qatif to buy these books. Footnote 17

Cesar Chavez's Complex History on Immigration

May 1, 2013— -- For a significant period of his storied career as a labor organizer, Cesar Chavez opposed illegal immigration.

He encouraged union members to join "wet lines" along the Arizona-Mexico border to prevent undocumented immigrants from crossing into the U.S. He accused immigration agents at the border of letting in undocumented immigrants to undermine the labor efforts of Latino farmworkers.

People who favor less immigration have latched on to this as proof that unions shouldn't support rights for undocumented immigrants. Some restrictionists will probably say more of the same this Wednesday, as workers around the country rally for immigration reform.

But Chavez's history with immigration is more complex.

In some sense, his views on immigration followed the trajectory of other groups concerned with Mexican American rights, like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

UC San Diego Professor David Gutiérrez lays things out in his book Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity.

Until the 1970s, groups like LULAC generally went along with U.S. immigration policy.

But positions began to evolve as Congress considered bills that would make it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers. More importantly, Gutiérrez writes, Chicano activists started pushing more established organizations to support immigrant rights.

One young activist wrote about the issue in a Chicano newspaper in Los Angeles in 1972:

"It is claimed that illegals cause high unemployment of residents that they oppose the formation of unions that they drain residents' incomes by adding to welfare costs that they add to the tax burden by needing special programs."

"These are fake claims," he argued. "Illegals. do not create unemployment of Chicanos, employers desiring to pay the lowest possible wages do."

Over time, the views of the younger activists trickled up to older, more established organizations like LULAC.

In 1971, for example, a former LULAC president testified before Congress about the divide on immigration. He said that Mexican Americans were "torn between two desires, the desire to be good to our brothers who come from across the border and suffer so much when they are here trying to get ahead, and our desire to have those that are here as citizens advance in our society and become better adjusted to American life with the benefits of American life."

From when he co-founded United Farm Workers in 1962 with Dolores Huerta, Chavez took a hard line on illegal immigration. He thought employers would use undocumented workers as strike breakers, and that temporary workers would undermine the wages of Mexican American residents and citizens. He even reported some undocumented workers to immigration authorities, Gutiérrez writes.

But through the early 1970s, it became clear that Chavez's position was out-of-step with other Mexican American rights groups.

In 1974, the government announced a plan to deport a million undocumented immigrants, and the Attorney General said the plan had the support of United Farm Workers. Chicano activists erupted, and Chavez denied supporting the proposal.

He explained his shifting position later that year in a November 22 letter to the editor, published in the San Francisco Examiner.

"[T]he illegal aliens are doubly exploited, first because they are farm workers, and second because they are powerless to defend their own interests," he wrote. "But if there were no illegals being used to break our strikes, we could win those strikes overnight and then be in a position to improve the living and working conditions of all farm workers."

He promised that United Farm Workers would support legalization for the undocumented, "our brothers and sisters."

Chavez wasn't alone in changing his ideology, Gutiérrez writes. In fact, his shift from an immigration restrictionist to an "amnesty" supporter reflected the greater movement in Mexican American rights.

A Los Angeles union official at the time summed up this new mindset, saying that Mexican Americans who continued to support restrictive immigration policies "should realize that they would not be here if their fathers had not been illegal aliens," which Gutiérrez says was true for a large portion of people at that time.

A Condensed History of Labor Since the 1960s

The labor movement faced few extraordinary struggles during the second half of the 20th century. Now, an intra-union conflict is set to be the most dramatic clash in decades.

Since the 1960s, when public sector workers across the country risked jail to win the right to organize, American labor hasn't had many struggles it could boast of -- those David-and-Goliath battles where long downtrodden workers won against all odds. Instead, there have been a relative handful of dramatic victories that demonstrated that fiercely dedicated workers within smart and determined unions could still prevail. There were the immigrant janitors who won recognition from the real estate magnates of America's downtowns, the textile workers who fought for 17 years before bringing J.P. Stevens to heel, the Las Vegas housekeepers who brought middle-class living standards to the bastion of casino capitalism by keeping a strike going for close to seven years.

In a time when American labor didn't have many successes to point to, the three unions that won these battles -- respectively, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) -- could point to organizing victories that were the envy of the movement. HERE had the distinction of being the only union in America to take a major city in a Sunbelt, right-to-work state -- Las Vegas -- and turn it into a union town. Beginning in the mid-80s, the union's leaders ran a campaign that, in time, organized 90 percent of the hotels on the Vegas Strip. HERE grew the local from 18,000 members when they began to more than 50,000 today, and won contracts that brought middle-class living standards to what had previously been a low-wage work force in a labor-hostile city.

As labor battled to renew itself over the past several decades and to move past the ideological barriers of George Meany's AFL-CIO, these unions often led the charge. Throughout the 1980s, it was the Amalgamated that led the opposition to the AFL-CIO's support for Ronald Reagan's Central American interventions. In the late 1990s, it was HERE that persuaded the AFL-CIO to reverse its longstanding opposition to immigrant workers (a battle that the International Ladies Garment Workers Union -- the ILGWU -- had waged to no avail throughout the 1980s).

These were unions that, whatever their flaws, inspired workers to take very real risks in collective action, and inspired young people to devote their lives to organizing. That's why, when HERE and UNITE (the union that resulted from the 1995 merger of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers with the ILGWU) merged in 2004 to form UNITE HERE, there was widespread excitement in labor circles. The new union would be able to combine two groups of very talented union leaders, organizers and researchers, along with UNITE's considerable financial resources, to organize tens of thousands of hotel housekeepers and waiters and cooks.

Along with SEIU's property services division, which organized janitors, UNITE and HERE led the labor movement in their ability to organize immigrants and people of color into vibrant unions. At times, the unions seemed just about the only ones able to organize private sector workers in America, through campaigns that entailed intense rank-and-file mobilization, the construction of broad-based community support groups, and political and economic pressure on employers. In Los Angeles, the main HERE local provided the seed money for the nation's most visionary and effective living wage movement, which in turn spurred the growth of such groups in a hundred other cities. In New York, the Amalgamated Bank, owned by UNITE and its locals, played a key role in launching shareholder lawsuits against miscreant corporations (it was the lead plaintiff against Enron), including a series of suits that compelled pharmaceutical companies to reduce the costs of their AIDS medications in Africa.

These were among, at times, the most innovative unions in America, and by joining together, UNITE and HERE formed a new union that seemed to have everything going for it. What could possibly go wrong?

A Civil Rights History: Latino/Hispanic Americans

By the mid-1800s, land-hungry Americans had expanded westward from the original 13 colonies along the Eastern Seaboard to just beyond the Mississippi River. Emboldened with the fervor of “Manifest Destiny” — an expansionist doctrine declaring it their right and obligation to occupy all the continent — they began exploring and settling the territory that would become Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and California.

They were not the first. The land had already been occupied for millennia by the original settlers who had come to be called Indians. For more than a century, it had been the conquered territory of the Spanish Conquistadores. And for decades, it had been home to their Spanish-speaking descendants who had become Mexicans.

The Americans — or Anglos, as they would become known — pressed ahead with their quest to occupy the land from coast to coast. In 1846, they incited a conflict with Mexico, which evolved into the Mexican-American war. The final result was the U.S. annexation of about half of Mexico’s territory for a payment of $15 million.

In 1898, still in an expansionist mood, the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico and Cuban, adding them, Guam and the Philippines to American territories from the Spanish-American War.

Since then, Spanish-speaking minorities — from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, other parts of Central and South America — have continued to grow in the U.S. through immigration. And they have taken on the struggle to gain civil rights, and political and economic equality, that’s marked so much of U. S. history.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, for example, the American government seemed to be of two minds regarding immigration. In 1942, as millions of young men went off to war, the United States needed cheap labor. The government instituted the bracero program, which admitted thousands of Mexican nationals to the U.S. under contracts to work in agriculture and other seasonal jobs. Some called the program “legalized slavery.”

But in 1953, the U.S. Government launched “Operation Wetback,” a program to send people of Mexican descent to Mexico. More than 3.8 million people were deported through the operation, many of them, American citizens.

Latino and Hispanic resistance to discrimination, violence and the United States’ push-pull immigration policy began to take shape as early as the 1920s. Cannery and factory workers in the Southwest formed unions. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) opened its doors in 1929 with the mission of fighting injustices such as racially segregated West Coast schools and discriminatory hiring practices at railroads.

In the 1960s, Latinos and Hispanics made their fight for equality even more visible, modeling their actions on the successful African-American struggle for civil rights. In 1962, Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association. In 1965, his fledgling organization started a boycott on grape growers that exploited their Latino and Hispanic workers.

Latino and Hispanic activists also pushed educational institutions to include the contributions of Latinos and Hispanics in discussions of U.S. History. Throughout the 1960s, Latino-American and Mexican-American history departments opened at many major universities.

In 1972, the Latino and Hispanic communities raised formalized their political activism with La Raza Unida Party, based in Corpus Christi Texas. Chapters gradually opened in cities across the country. In 1975, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was extended to the Southwest guaranteeing Latino and Hispanic Americans the equal opportunity to register and vote.

Today, Latinos and Hispanics — at 38.8 million counted by the U.S. Census — are the nation’s largest and fastest growing minority.

“Non-violence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak…Non-violence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.” —Cesar Chavez