Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

May 1, 2024

Communists Robert Thompson and Benjamin Davis surrounded by pickets as they leave the Federal Courthouse during their 1941 trial. Credit: Wikimedia.

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing “Socialism an integral part of U.S. history” by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint him as “anti-American,” Puryear offers an important history at a time of renewed labor militancy. In his response Puryear outlines the central role communists and socialists have played in the history of the U.S. labor movement.


As the U.S. mid-term elections approach, right-wing Tea Party demagogues have stepped up their attacks on the Obama administration for being “socialist.” Their rhetoric builds on the decades of cold war anti-communist propaganda by capitalist politicians and the corporate media claiming that socialism is “anti-American” and “alien.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Obama’s proposals for more government regulation and various “stimulus” measures are aimed not at bringing about socialism, but staving off a worsening of the capitalist economic crisis and supposedly preventing another one. That is, like Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, though on the basis of a much-weakened U.S. competitive position, Obama is doing everything in his power to save capitalism from its own destructive contradictions.

Moreover, looking at the real history it becomes clear that not only have U.S. workers often embraced radicalism, but that this radical contingent has consistently produced the most militant and dedicated fighters for the exploited and oppressed.

Not “outside agitators” or “alien influences” but appalling working conditions and inadequate pay have historically driven workers to take up the demands and ideas that offer the most significant changes in their favor. The more these solutions have improved the lives of the workers, the more “radical” these solutions have been labeled. Thus, even if the victories of the international working class showed what was possible and provided inspiration, internal conditions fueled the growth of radicalism in the U.S. working class.

Eight-hour day

Following the Civil War, U.S. industry grew explosively. Long working hours were a notable feature of this new industrialism. While workers demanded 10-, nine- and eight-hour working days, resistance from business owners and loopholes in the law meant no real relief.

In 1883, the average workweek was six, 10-hour days, with 12- to 15-hour days not uncommon in some industries. Workers routinely worked on holidays, and 24-hour workdays were often demanded of workers transferring from day to night shifts.

Working people formed a variety of organizations, all of which made the eight-hour day central to their demands. In addition to specific eight-hour leagues, the Knights of Labor, the major labor federation of the time, made the eight-hour day a central demand. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, a much smaller national formation, arose primarily to organize a drive for the eight-hour day.

This federation, under the influence of militant workers, including socialists, resolved to set May 1, 1886, for a general strike to bring about national legislation on the eight-hour day. The call for this strike swept the country, with local unions of all types enthusiastically taking up the call to strike and demonstrate.

All over the country, radicals took a leading role in this movement. In Chicago, the center of the U.S. labor movement, Knights of Labor head George Schiller, a socialist, joined with the anarchist International Workingmen’s Political Association to organize a strike and demonstration. The IWPA, far from a fringe group, had between 5,000 and 6,000 members in the Chicago area alone.

Their efforts bore fruit on May 1, 1886, when between 400,000 and 500,000 workers demonstrated and struck across the country, including 90,000 in Chicago, shutting down the entire city.

Tragedy, however, loomed, when shortly after May 1 the city’s eight most effective labor leaders were charged with the murder of a police officer. The eight, who would become known as the Haymarket martyrs, were all anarchists as well as militant labor leaders. In the face of such a large movement, the corporate bosses and their pet politicians in Chicago sought to eliminate the most militant workers’ leaders.

In a trial now universally declared a frame-up, the Haymarket martyrs were convicted and subsequently hung. This was the prelude to a period of brutal strikebreaking around the country that crushed the eight-hour-day movement—though not before gains were made. Nearly 200,000 workers shortened their workday, and national statistics showed that workers who struck over hours in 1886 were able to reduce their average workweek from 62 to less than 59 hours.

Thus, a handful of militant and radical socialist and anarchist workers brought about a movement that captured the devoted support of huge numbers of workers across the country, striking one of the first major blows against workplace exploitation in America.

Depression era organizing

As the economy slid into depression in 1929, communist and socialist workers would once again be in the eye of the storm, organizing unemployed councils and industrial unions during the Depression era.

Unemployment rose quickly after the fall of the stock market. In March 1930, 5 million workers were unemployed, 10 times the number in 1929. By 1933, this number would reach 15 million. The Communist Party jumped to the task, and organized councils of unemployed workers. The councils not only demonstrated for relief measures but also blocked evictions and utility shut-offs.

Their actions quickly became sites of struggle. In one month in 1930, the Chicago Unemployed Council received 3,000 applications for membership. The unemployed movement held demonstrations across the country in March of 1930, with estimates of up to 1 million workers taking part. Police violently dispersed almost all of them, but these actions helped create a favorable political climate for national relief for the unemployed.

Communists played a key role in the era’s major political drama: the organizing of tens of millions into industrial unions. In order to increase the power of labor to raise wages and improve living standards, John L. Lewis, president of the United Mineworkers, created a plan to organize new unions in all the major industries that would encompass all the workers in a given workplace.

This effort required large numbers of organizers to flood the target industries, which caused Lewis to look to the Communists. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, the Communists led thousands of workers in many of these industries in organizing drives and strike actions. This meant that Communists had a base of experienced workers as well as a limited but crucial in-plant presence, making them key to union organizing campaigns.

A representative example of this is the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1937, where Communists were involved on all levels. The chief UAW organizer in Flint was a Communist, as was the editor of the union’s newspaper. In the first occupied plant, Fisher Auto-body, the workers chose Bud Simons, a Communist, to lead the strike committee. Female Communists organized the Women’s Auxiliary of the UAW, which ran pickets and helped keep the workers in the plants supplied, as well as forming emergency brigades to fight police trying to evict strikers.

The fall of the open shop in the Flint auto industry quickly brought unionization across the country to every automaker except Ford, which eventually had to recognize the UAW. It also gave a tremendous boost to the massive campaign to organize steelworkers, in which Communists were involved as well. Communists and socialists played similarly critical roles in almost every industry.

End of an era

The McCarthy era witch hunt in the late 1940s and the 1950s, together with an extended period of capitalist prosperity, dealt a serious blow to the militancy of the labor movement. No matter how dedicated or how skilled, anyone labeled a communist was forced out of the labor movement, or forced to recant their political views. Communist-led unions were purged of their leaders, and in some cases separate unions were set up to raid “radical” unions of the vast majority of their members.

This led to the decapitation of a broad radical tendency in the labor movement, which severely blunted the progressive role of labor. For example, the CIO, once known for its advocacy of Black-white unity amongst workers, launched a Southern organizing drive in the 1950s that failed to take on Jim Crow racism in either the workplace or society at large. This doomed the drive to failure.

In the past 30 years, in parallel with a decline of U.S. industry, we have witnessed a withering labor movement with a less aggressive posture. While strong independent action to protect workers’ rights is as needed as ever, the willingness to take that action has been lacking in most of our current labor leaders. Their preferred strategy is to curry favor with pro-capitalist Democratic Party politicians and help finance and get out the vote for their election campaigns.

To revive labor, and a movement for the rights of working people, re-connecting with our radical history is essential. Communists believe that those who create the wealth should own the wealth and decide how it is to be used. This is why we fight for every single improvement in the lives of working people—not to mislead with an “alien” ideology but to ensure that working families aren’t trampled on. The struggle of communists is the struggle of all workers, advancing the rights of working and poor people at any cost.