“Is anything too good for the working class?” Books for a revived American worker’s movement, part 2: Out of the Jungle

“Is anything too good for the working class?” Books for a revived American worker’s movement, part 2: Out of the Jungle. Thaddeus Russell, 2001.


How much is too much for workers to earn? What standard of life should they expect?

Since the 1960’s new left, there has been a dominant mood among parts of the US Left that, perhaps, some workers have it too good and are part of the problem.

In the 60’s, this usually took the form of talking about workers being “bought off” by imperialism. Now, it’s more fashionable to criticize people for destroying the earth with their SUVs and their McMansions. These workers have so much that they will never struggle against the system.  This attitude echoes the Right, who attack “greedy” government employees, “entitled” autoworkers, or anyone who is getting by on a working-class job.

Instead of blaming workers for having too much, revolutionary unionists should agitate for more. In Hal Draper’s words, we should be a “loyal opposition” in the labor movement:

That means: loyal to the interests of trade-unionism in the same degree that it fights the boss and the bureaucrat, whose power is not in the interests of trade-unionism. It is necessary to proclaim this today – to put it on the banner, so to speak – because the sect radicals have been so successful in discrediting themselves before conscientious trade-unionists, and confusing “radical trade-unionism” with a sect’s commando raids to rip off a plant situation by a display of “militancy” even if the workers’ interests are harmed, or the union work is wrecked, as long as a couple of members are recruited to the sect.

If we’re going to help revive a militant workers’ movement in the US, we have to take a few things seriously: first, it’s almost impossible to exist in this country as a worker without being mired in debt; and second, people will mobilize themselves in huge numbers if they see a possibility for improving their lives. Working class people want nice things, and that’s OK. Any radicals who promise a worse life for the majority of people deserves the scorn they’ll get.

Drop the “union” word to an average worker, and they won’t think of Debs or Gompers or Richard Trumka; they probably won’t think of Norma Rae or Cesar Chavez either. They’ll think of Jimmy Hoffa, and when they think Hoffa, they’ll think “corrupt” and “tough guy.” There’s a reason people know about Hoffa: at one point, he led the largest union in the country, a union which led large and militant strikes. In the 50s and 60s, Hoffa and his union were the US Government’s biggest target in the labor movement, and yet left-wing labor historians almost completely overlook them.

Thaddeus Russell partially makes up for this with “Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the remaking of the American Working Class.” The coverage of Hoffa’s career is really just a prop to re-examine the American working class.

Russell uses the book as an extended argument for an idea that we could call “Jungle Unionism”. Basically, Jungle Unionism is extreme free-market libertarianism, applied to unions. According to Russell, the best situation for workers is when unions and union leaders are in a perfect free market (without laws or any government) and have to compete heavily against each other for the loyalty of workers. In this theory, the actual ideas and positions that a union or union leader represents are irrelevant, at least as far as the workers are concerned.

The AFL-CIO have been united since 1955, but during the 1930s, the AFL and CIO were competing to organize millions of workers. The Auto Workers (CIO) and the Teamsters (AFL) each led city-wide general strikes in 1934. Before the National Labor Relations Act (1935) had stabilized and sterilized the labor movement, there was an opening for labor leaders who could organize strikes that won. Workers would join unions in droves if they saw that those unions could deliver better lives. The leaders of those unions would go from being outcast workers to powerful citizens, with large dues bases.

As with any emerging market, there is a stiff competition. Russell focuses on Detroit, where the UAW and Teamsters both grew very quickly. As cars became more important, so did the workers who produced them, and those who transported them. Russell shows how Hoffa constantly had to fight tooth and nail against employers to prove to workers that the Teamsters could get them a fatter paycheck and more stability than anyone else. With the AFL and the CIO both competing to attract workers by the thousands, neither side could afford to pull any punches during labor struggles. Everything was fair game, from mass strikes and pickets, to blowing up trucks that belonged to stubborn employers. Oftentimes, unions would fight the boss hardest when they were trying to keep another union out. Since workers were still free to leave or switch unions, the only guarantee came from showing that your union could fight the boss better than the other.

This dynamic held true for competition inside the union as well. Hoffa learned how to organize from Farrell Dobbs, who had led and organized the 1934 strikes in Minneapolis. Dobbs and Hoffa worked together in the “Over the road” campaign, which was a bitter struggle to organize interstate trucking in the Midwest. It was successful and brought tens of thousands of new members into the Teamsters. Dobbs and the other Minneapolis Teamster leaders were also members of a socialist organization that was critical of Stalinism. In 1941, when the USA and USSR were becoming allies in World War 2, and the Communist Party became enthusiastic supporters of a nationwide no-strike pledge, Dobbs’ organization still supported labor militancy. Thus, the Minneapolis local was expelled from the Teamsters at the same time that the US Government arrested all of its leaders for subversion. Hoffa and his goons rolled into town with baseball bats, guns, and other tools of recruitment, but workers were still loyal to the local that had gotten them a better life. Russell shows how the gangster tactics alone weren’t enough. In order to crush the old local, Hoffa had to call militant strikes against employers that won significant gains. This was the only way that the workers would actually accept his leadership. According to Russell, this also shows that the anti-war, pro-class struggle socialist ideology of Dobbs and his comrades was unimportant – for workers, everything came down to the paycheck. Russell implies that even here, the competition brought gains to the workers.

Of course, all of this militancy was expensive for the bosses, it was disruptive for the wartime government, and it was dangerous and embarrassing for the union leaders. All three groups had a big interest in reducing the competition. Labor law after 1935 gave a perfect mix of ingredients to remove competition from the field: exclusive representation, dues check off, and mandatory membership. The changes in 1947 and 1959 restricted competition even more. As Russell shows, every time the competition was reduced between unions and union leaders, the result was fewer gains for workers and more power for the bureaucrats.

The question which comes to mind is: is the dynamic that Russell describes the main dynamic driving labor organizing, or is it one among many?
Russell oddly has not one word to say about another inter-union struggle involving the Teamsters. The “Salad Bowl Strike” was a series of militant labor struggles in California agriculture, which the United Farm Workers initiated when the Teamsters attempted to start organizing on their “turf”. In many ways, this struggle could confirm Jungle Unionism – competing with the Teamsters forced the UFW to become more militant. However, by the end, neither union could claim victory. Furthermore, the Teamsters had the support of the white power structure in California; the UFW was targeted by that same power structure. The largely Latino and Filipino agricultural workers paid attention to this, and didn’t act as the purely economic beings that an extreme Jungle Unionist might imagine. Perhaps there is some room for ideals in labor organizing, after all.

I would encourage IWW members and revolutionary unionists to read this book, but keep a critical eye, and read it alongside The Blue Eagle at Work and Reviving the Strike. There are two lessons we can learn. The first, which Russell suggests, is that revolutionaries would do better for workers by being a permanent, organized, militant opposition within unions rather than trying to take them over. I would add that this kind of opposition needs to promote a vision of a labor movement which is democratic as well as militant and able to completely smash US labor law. The working class desperately needs to overturn US labor law in order to be able to fight with both hands free, and we should be the force in the labor movement organizing for that.

This gets into the next point, the importance of winning. Most of us come from an activist background in which strategy is not considered, and there are no decisive struggles which involve winning or losing. This is also a material thing – our class has been losing for thirty years, and most people who are working now have never even seen a real working class victory. But a movement which had the tactics to fight bosses and win economic gains would be able to quickly inspire to organize themselves under its banners by the thousands, and wage militant fights. In the next review, we’ll look at Joe Burns’ recommendations for a labor movement which could do exactly that.

Let’s make sure that the IWW is the spear point of that revived labor movement!

An edited version of this post appeared in the November 2014 Industrial Worker.


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