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Social Work and the Labor Movement (1937)


by Mary van Kleeck, Director, Division of Industrial Studies, Russell Sage Foundation New York City.

A presentation at the National Conference of Social Work May 23-29, 1937.

The social program of the new labor movement has not yet been formulated. It is very evident, however, that the program of social work, especially in its governmental aspects, is receiving immense reinforcement from the present vitality in the trade-union movement. Legislators, government administrators, and even Supreme Court justices are giving new attention to legislation dealing with social problems. Their interest may be traced directly, I believe, to the one vitally new element in the situation of the last seven years, that is, the growing solidarity which industrial unionism generates, and all its implications for the growth in political strength which has made possible the new economic strength.

It may be surprising to talk just now about the solidarity and unity of the workers, since it is commonly assumed that the American labor movement is divided. It is true that the movement has been divided as between the craft unions and the great masses of unorganized workers. Every day, however, brings evidence of the present vital unity. A recent incident may be mentioned-the convention of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers. After several days of conference, in which representatives of the American Federation of Labor and of the Committee on Industrial Organization were heard, the final vote was unanimous for affiliation with the forces of industrial unionism. Significant also of growing solidarity was the increase of that union to 240,000 members as compared with 40,000 in 1930.

This movement toward unity of the masses of the workers in economic organization, accompanied by political unity, will have profound implications for the whole program recognized as the concern of social work. The situation may be summarized by saying that at this moment labor is giving its full energies to the task of extending economic organization. But implicit in such a movement, based as it is upon the support and adherence of the masses of the workers, is something new for social work to recognize. The new element is that no social program of government, whether legislative or administrative, will have vitality in the future unless it has the support of the labor movement, which now for the first time is coming into the position in America of the leading group to speak for the social needs of the whole people.

During this same period social work has shifted its base from unofficial programs, privately supported, with the community chest as the symbol of the source of influence and control, to a government program which is now recognized as the major branch of social work. Along with that shift, social workers must recognize that their “bosses” are no longer the same. It is no longer the community chest or its counterpart which will determine the program of social work. That program in its major branch will have to be molded by the same forces which are influencing government in many of its aspects. These forces and their interrelationship are the resultant of developments in labor’s economic organization.

It is desirable to sketch at this moment the main points in the development of this industrial unionism and what it signifies. Out of this analysis may come some basis for forecast as to the kind of social program which may be expected to develop out of this situation. Beyond that, certain implications for the future of social work may be foreseen.

The starting-point for mass organization of labor during this period is traceable to the first four years of the New Deal, which were characterized by gains and losses for the labor movement. In the National Industrial Recovery Act, for the first time, clear recognition was given to labor’s right to organize and to bargain collectively. The masses of the workers responded immediately. In a rank-and-file movement they began organization. Many illustrations might be given from different industries in widely different parts of the country, showing how the rank-and file workers got together and then called in organizers in their own industry or in the labor movement to give them a trade union charter. This was the history of organization among the rubber-tire workers, as a notable example. Organization came out of a clear sky, without guidance. New and untrained leaders appealed to the labor movement to give them a charter.

The general trade-union leadership was not prepared for this mass movement. On the whole, the American Federation of Labor and the leaders of the national unions moved into Washington in precisely the same spirit which actuated them during the period of the World War, They decided upon a policy of cooperation with government, even to the extent of supporting the appeals of political leaders to the loyalty of labor, which was to refrain from striking during the difficult period of recovery and to rest its case with what could be accomplished by negotiations between leaders and government administrators in Washington.

Meanwhile, the code authorities of the National Recovery Administration were set up, with no representation of the workers in the great majority of the industries. The industries already organized, because of the strength of their unions, were able to protect in some degree the interests of the workers; and it was in these industries, such as mining and clothing, that the greatest gains were made in raising wages. Workers previously unorganized, however, had to face the intense disappointment of being asked not to strike after their efforts to form a union had culminated in a decision to strike as the only effective means, in their opinion, of winning the legally guaranteed right of collective bargaining. The next disappointment was the discovery that government itself was unable to compel the employers to make agreements with unions. Instead, company unionism spread, espionage and blacklisting of labor followed it, and the labor movement was divided between this basic mass movement and the upper leadership. In such industries as steel, automobiles, and rubber tires, which are characteristically the industries of mass production, the rank and file of the workers tried one form of organization after another and found them all ineffective in the face of the lack of guidance on the part of the American Federation of Labor and the actual checks upon mass organization which the craft unions forced upon the old leadership. Craft unionism was breaking down before the new problems brought by the economic crisis. It was breaking down for the very good reason that the basic conditions of craftsmanship were disappearing in industry.

This is not a struggle between individuals, despite the appearance of a personal conflict between leaders. This is a basic movement, and it must be remembered that what happens today in Flint, Detroit, or Pittsburgh must be traced to its origin in 1933 in the movement of the masses within trade-union organization. What has happened is not so much a change in the spirit of the masses as it is a change in position of leaders who have moved out of the craft unions’ closed circle and followed the rank and file toward all-inclusive mass organization. Without this change of position on the part of leaders there could have been no such unity as is now evident, nor could any such victories have been won. Therefore, it is not to be assumed that a division now exists between the upper leadership and the rank and file. On the other hand, no movement could show more clearly that the basis is in mass action and mass initiative. Never has there been a clearer illustration of leadership winning its position by responding to the basic demands and needs of the rank and file. The fact that trade unionism is spreading so fast that one union after another withdraws from the American Federation of Labor and joins the Committee for Industrial Organization simply means that here, as usual, the mass movement is being guided by realism toward a center of unity which will very soon re-form itself into the new American labor movement.

In the midst of this economic drive we see the background of growing political action. Experience with New Deal administration showed the trade unions that, basically, they had little influence with government. As elections drew near last November, the trade unions began to examine again their political position. The issue was cleared by the fact that the forces of reaction, which had frustrated the effort of the labor movement to win the right of collective bargaining during the last four years, were definitely aligned against the President and the forces within his party which had supported gains for labor. Of course, these reactionary forces manifested themselves also within the Democratic party, but not in its leadership. Thus came the paradox that the very administration under which labor had suffered grievous disappointments became, by virtue of the attacks of its enemies and the organization of the forces of reaction on the other side, the symbol of labor’s cause in the elections.

Labor’s political action did not yet take the form of a national labor party. Labor’s Nonpartisan League developed the program of support for the progressive policies of the Democratic party and for the re-election of President Roosevelt. New York State was an exception, where the League organized as the American Labor party and, with President Roosevelt as its candidate, polled 285,000 votes for him under the emblem of the new party.

The Farmer-Labor party in Minnesota reflected the new spirit. In 1934 the party had adopted a program which, according to newspaper interpretation, was “far to the left.” It called for the immediate abolition of capitalism, the reconstruction of society, and the taking-over of industries. In 1936, under the force of the implications of the new position of labor, the Farmer-Labor party based its program squarely upon immediate needs, thus giving a broad basis of unity which was in itself a reinforcement of economic organization of the trade unions.

The idea implicit in all of this was that the first step was to strengthen the trade-union movement, in order to make it able to determine its own social program, rather than beginning with the social program and neglecting the strengthening of the organization of labor. With such a platform and with the influence of the activities of labor’s Nonpartisan League in all states, the Farmer-Labor party of Minnesota developed a cohesion which carried the state for its candidates by majorities far outstripping any previous votes in the old party organizations.

It seems evident that the conclusion to be drawn from this experience is that the American labor movement was not, is not, and is not likely to be in the immediate future politically radical. Moreover, certain radical movements have been changing the direction of their efforts, emphasizing the importance of the unity of progressive forces facing the realities of a situation which calls for the growth of a moving, living force of organization rather than votes for a formula.

It was rather extraordinary that labor’s Nonpartisan League showed itself capable of directing a political movement without a political platform or a party organization. For instance, in Pennsylvania it is unquestionable that the new political alignment of labor, acting within the old-line Democratic party, revealed the political strength of the trade unions. Along with it went a new demonstration that labor, in the general direction of its demands for civil liberties and for social legislation, however vague its program on these points, was recognized by the great masses of the people as expressing their views. The result was that the popular vote actually represented the unity of labor with what may be described as a people’s movement.

It is not true that the labor movement has had no social program. Evidences of it can be traced in the proceedings of trade union conventions. The report of the meetings of the American Federation of Labor in 1932 asserts the necessity for adequate relief, for unemployment insurance, and for social economic planning in the United States. Incidentally, an interesting fact appears in those pages, that in the preceding year the expenditures of national unions for benefits for unemployment, illness, and the like amounted to approximately $32,000,000, following similar expenditures during the preceding three years of depression. The trade unions had been bearing, through their treasuries, many of the risks which social workers recognize today as proper subjects for governmental action. Similarly, the reports of conventions of the United Mine Workers, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and the statements of labor’s Nonpartisan League, give evidence of the concern of labor in these matters.

Consider, for example, the extreme illustration of the sit-down strike. Consider whether any law is applicable. The law of trespass is mentioned, but trespass is based upon an early concept of theft or damage to property by an individual, and it is absolutely unreal to say that such action covers the issue of property rights as between ownership of a machine and the economic right of workers to operate machines. What is really involved is the right of labor to act collectively for the protection of human rights in industry. These human rights are affected by many surrounding conditions. The striker finds his protest for human rights opposed by the employer’s opportunity to turn the machine over to a strikebreaker. It is logical, therefore, to withhold his labor, but to continue to sit at his machine.

Again, the sit-down strike is an illustration of mass action. It was not a device suggested by labor leaders or even approved by them, but the mass reaction of those who found by daily experience that they must devise some means of slowing the increasing speed of machinery while at the same time asserting the claim of labor to use the tools of production. After all, it is in the last hundred and fifty years that the present system has developed which denies to the worker the opportunity to use his tools. Thus it denies him his livelihood. The structure of American government is confronted today by the necessity of developing new social concepts to meet these new situations. These social concepts must be embodied both in administration and in law.

Today’s reaction against the sit-down strike and against labor’s recent victories is taking the form of a program for industrial peace, with legislation as the means of achieving it. An example of such a proposal is a bill now in the Michigan legislature, supported by Governor Murphy. The bill creates a board of industrial relations. It begins with a sweeping indictment of strikes, referring to “labor disputes which have from time to time taken place within this state” and “have operated to the great detriment of the parties thereto, and in some cases have endangered the welfare and the safety of the public. Such disputes threaten and cause serious damage to both public and private property, and menace the peace and order of the state.

Thereafter it is declared that employers must recognize the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively, taking at this point a leaf from the National Industrial Relations Act. This bill goes farther, however, and prohibits certain acts by employees. It declares that “it shall be unfair, unlawful, and a violation of this act for any employee, any organized group of employees, any representatives thereof, or any labor organization or agents or organizations thereof,” to interfere with the individual’s right to work or “to declare, or engage in any concerted activity” which is not preceded by an effort to negotiate, giving written notice to the employer and permitting time for the board of industrial relations to investigate and report to the public. Another provision declares that, whether or not an industrial dispute exists, the board of industrial relations shall have the right to investigate all the books and records of a trade union, thus even going beyond the power of the state in dealing with an incorporated business.

The bill has numerous other provisions. The significant point for us is that it is introduced in the legislature of the state which has been the scene of the recent vigorous challenge by the workers on behalf of human rights. This challenge has unmistakably called for a re-examination of the legal concept of property rights. The very governor who went through all the negotiations connected with these strikes now supports a bill which would postpone the answer to this challenge to government to give new consideration to human rights.

Such a bill, which is likely to be matched in other states, would simply put the forces of government back of the old concepts. It threatens to destroy the movement toward industrial unionism. That movement depends absolutely and entirely upon the right of organized workers collectively to withhold their labor. Since we have no concepts of law and government clearly formulated on these issues, no other means exist for creating a movement which has for its goal the formulation of principles of human relations on at least an equal basis with property relations. The conflict between human relations and property relations is not to be solved by the cry of industrial peace, as though the American people were committed to acceptance of things as they are without protest. On the contrary, the American people are now committed to the great adventure of industrial democracy. The great masses of the workers are taking leadership and showing the direction in which this American movement must develop.

Meanwhile, social workers may count upon the support of the labor movement for legislation. The trade unions’ program is not yet formulated in detail, but certainly it will include amendment of the Social Security Act to cover more workers and to extend over a longer period of unemployment. Demands will undoubtedly be made for amendment of those state laws which now require contributions from workers as well as imposing a tax upon pay rolls. Although the workers dislike relief and want jobs instead of charity, nevertheless, pending the giving of unemployment compensation as the right which social insurance would guarantee, the trade unions ask for adequate relief, public works, and the continuance of the program of the Works Progress Administration.

Most of all, labor is concerned with the maintenance of civil liberties, which constitute the indispensable foundation for labor’s right to speak and to influence the processes of government. Only through the maintenance of this right can the new concepts of human rights be expressed through government. In view of the importance of these new concepts which remain to be formulated, legislation for social insurance would appear to be a minor matter. It is not so, however, because activity to improve this legislation constitutes a process of working together and developing the unity necessary for a people’s movement.

What, then, are the implications for social work of these developments in the economic and political activities of the labor movement? In the first place, as has been pointed out, social work is rapidly shifting its basis. It is no longer a question of whether social workers will ally themselves with the labor unions, although there can be no better method of gaining insight into the labor movement. Regardless of the position one takes on the issue of trade-union organization for social work, social workers find themselves facing a new situation. They must now listen to the expressed demands of the masses as voiced in a new labor movement which sets forth the basic needs of the people. The role of the social worker becomes thereby more inspiring. The task of social work under these circumstances is to aid in perfecting and developing legislation and administration in fulfilment of a program expressed by the unions.

Here, however, a word of warning must be given. This broad labor movement, expressive of the needs of the masses, is impatient with techniques and will not tolerate any assumption of superior wisdom by experts. This impatience will be the greater if social workers are identified through their institutions with reactionary forces. For example, if a school of training for social work is part of a university which is reactionary in its attitude, social workers identified with it will be under suspicion and may not claim the right to determine policies for the labor movement. The expert contribution which social work ought to make will not be accepted if labor is suspicious of the philosophy of social workers.

On the other hand, the program of social work is sterile unless social workers can develop a new philosophy guided by insight into the significance of this new mass movement. This movement gives new comprehension of such basic problems as race relations or the position of women in society. Social work must have this insight if it is to make its contribution out of its characteristic technique or craft knowledge.

The implications of these new developments are profound from the point of view of what is needed in the education of social workers. Indeed, it may be said that the social worker of the future, allied with the processes of government, will probably often come out of the labor movement. At present we have a divided society. Labor is denied the right of education, with a period of schooling cut short by work at the age of fourteen. Industrial experience, on the other hand, is denied to those who are able to prolong their education through college and university and to achieve places in the professions. Thus, our society suffers from a split personality. The disadvantages of this condition need not be analyzed before people so skilled in psychiatry as are the social workers of today.

The new day demands new training of labor leadership-as it demands, also, new training of social workers. Both groups must be equipped for the building of a new society. They must know how to design the structure of government and to set in motion the forces which will adequately fulfill the needs of the masses.

Source: Proceedings Of The National Conference Of Social Work Formerly National Conference Of Charities And Corrections At The Sixty-Fourth Annual Session Held In Indianapolis Indiana, May 23-29, 1937. Social Welfare Archives:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): van Kleeck, M. (1937, May). The social program of the labor movement. Presentation at the National Conference of Social Work, Indianapolis, IN.