For this week’s Peace of History:
With economic insecurity currently on many people’s minds, let us look at the unique activities and principles of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA). Founded in 1929 as primarily a research, educational, and central coordinating organization for the progressive labor movement, the group also provided relief, ran public awareness campaigns, and generally sought to build an expansive “labor culture” among working-class Americans. Under A.J. Muste’s leadership, the CPLA tactics were grounded in experience and more flexible than those of many other more ideological leftist groups at the time.
Muste was heavily influenced by his colleague David Saposs, who believed that “an effective labor movement is only possible when it is based upon a labor culture; that is, a mode of feeling, thinking and acting in terms of the problems and aspirations of labor.” Saposs, like many labor progressives of the time, viewed the American Federation of Labor (AFL) as “business unionism, which deliberately discouraged all working class organizational activity except unions, and which led the workers to immerse themselves in the capitalistic culture” (118). As a healthier and more fulfilling alternative to the dominant capitalist culture, some early CPLA projects focused on organizing recreational activities like picnics, dances, and singing clubs. They taught union songs and labor history, and generally attempted to educate working class people by framing the labor struggle as the next step in the expansion of American liberty. The ultimate goal was to develop a radical bloc within the conservative AFL to force the broader group to accept progressive measures.
From the start, the CPLA focused its attention on many of the “neglected” groups of the working class. Taking the opposite tact of the Communist Party, which was at once too reliant on long-winded theory and also too opportunistic with regards to strikes, the CPLA always started with the specific concerns of the workers to build sustainable, community-led movements. One of the first groups the CPLA started with was African-American laborers. Indeed, among the pamphlets published by the CPLA in its first year was “Negro Labor.” With both Black nationalism and Black capitalism becoming popular ideologies for many African-Americans in the early 20th century, the CPLA offered a third alternative to Black workers: working class solidarity with special attention to the unique challenges and implications of anti-Black racism. The theory was that barriers like racial prejudice and ideological differences would dissipate through the organic education of collective action and shared struggle. Although this proved to be an imperfect strategy, it was often the reason why the CPLA was successful when similar leftist and labor groups had failed.
The CPLA also regarded the concerns of woman-laborers to require special attention, similarly to those of African-American workers. Despite this wisdom, however, the CPLA was only somewhat more progressive with regards to views of women than many other leftist organizations of the time: the CPLA’s typical “labor feminism” sought to cultivate female leadership and female worker organization, but also presumed natural differences in ability between men and women, and continued to envision the prototypical “Worker” as a masculine force. Moreover, the CPLA recruited young people of all genders from the League for Industrial Democracy (youth wing of the Socialist Party especially active on college campuses), and from the YWCA’s industrial department (with which Muste was well-acquainted from past collaborative projects). Against the established leftist theory of the time, Muste also recruited intellectuals and “professional” wage-earners of “new capitalism” into the network, envisioning this new class of wage-earners as brothers to labor.
Perhaps the CPLA found some of its most dramatic successes in organizing jobless people -- first in Seattle, then spreading across the country (Ohio and Pennsylvania would ultimately organize the most, with approximately 100,000 and 50,000 people, respectively). With these numbers, the CPLA coordinated massive public awareness campaigns, educating the public of the invisible plight of unemployment as well as measures like government assistance that could mitigate them.
And yet, perhaps it could also be said that FDR’s federal response to the Great Depression helped end that era of progressive labor organizing. To Muste, the foundations of a movement, an organization, or a policy must be aligned with a diverse, anti-capitalist labor culture in order to win and maintain workers’ rights. He was unshakeable in his belief in the primacy of the common people’s will, even when FDR implemented some of the progressive policies while maintaining the dominant capitalist power structures.
It is a problem that continues, as contemporary leftists still contend with reactionaries and moderate liberals -- but perhaps the solution is to simply continue the work of building the culture of labor as a more attractive alternative to the individualistic, capitalist society in which we live. Culture, after all, is cumulative -- and history is not over.