Staughton Lynd responds to Counterpoint on “Planks”

Staughton Lynd's reply to Arthur J. Miller's response to "Planks".

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 9, 2014

Long live free speech and comradely disagreement! Rosa Luxemburg wrote from prison: “Freedom is always freedom for the one who thinks differently.”

However, sometimes there are misunderstandings that can be cleared away. I think I may not have made clear my two main points and that FW Miller may have misunderstood them in his response to my piece, “Planks For A Platform And A Few Words About Organizing,” titled “Counterpoint On ‘Planks For A Platform,’” which appeared on page 3 of the March IW.

First, I am not saying that industrial unions have been “corrupted.” I am saying that the 1905 Preamble assumes that if the labor movement can reorganize on a basis of industrial rather than craft unionism, the new industrial unions will practice solidarity, and that history has shown this assumption to be mistaken.

I offer the United Mine Workers as an example of an industrial union that was in many ways top-down and anything but radical in 1905, and became even less radical in the 1920s when John L. Lewis became its president. Lewis, as initiator of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), implanted in CIO contracts from the very beginning the key ideas of (1) a management prerogatives clause that gave management a free hand in making the big investment decisions, including closing a plant and moving capital overseas, and (2) promising not to strike during the duration of the contract, thus depriving workers of the opportunity to fight back.

An interesting sidebar to our discussion is that in those same years Lenin, in exile in Siberia, read the Webbs’ books on British trade unionism and concluded that conventional labor unions, left to their own devices, would not seek radical structural change. I suggest that his diagnosis was correct but his remedy, the vanguard party, was a disaster.

My second main point was that Wobs might help their fellow workers to understand what the IWW was up to if there were a list of particular practices and demands that the IWW advocated. Brother Miller agrees with most of them, but comments repeatedly “nothing new there” or “we have known this for a long time.” Of course. That’s the point. I offered a list—and there was nothing sacred about this particular list—of practices and demands that we know about but that fellow workers don’t necessarily understand that we advocate. I think having such a list to pass on to fellow workers might elicit the response, “Well, yeah, I agree with that. What else do you stand for?”

Finally, be fair. I didn’t and don’t ask anyone to define themselves as an “accompanyingist.” I said that the labor movement might accomplish more if, instead of trying to “organize” people we sought to “accompany” them, that is, to walk beside them, sharing ideas on a basis of equality.

Staughton Lynd, just an old retired historian and lawyer

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2013)