Eugene V. Debs: The Western Labor Movement And A Call For A Class-Conscious Union Movement

In the article, “The Western Labor Movement”, Eugene V. Debs defends the Western Labor Union’s decision, made at a May 1902 labor convention in Denver, to change its name to the American Labor Union, adopt a Socialist platform, and begin expanding its organizing jurisdiction. These decisions were made despite the opposition of the American Federation of Labor.

Throughout the course of the article, Debs makes references to a “class-conscious union movement”, “working-class political action”, a progressive, liberal Western unionism “re-enforced with a class-conscious political program”, “independent political action by the working class”, and “class-conscious action at the ballot”.

Debs says that this kind of class-consciousness and action is necessary on the part of workers if their unions are to move beyond the “pure and simple” unionism that dominated union-capitalist relationships at that time.

“Pure and simple” unionism favors capitalist owners, rewards union leaders “for keeping the rank and file in political ignorance and industrial slavery”, and begs, “like Lazarus at the gate of Dives, for a bone from the capitalist legislature and Congress it helped elect.”

“Independent political action by the working class” and “class-conscious action at the ballot” would “marshal(s) its members in class-array against the exploiters on election day to vote their own class into power.”

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I believe that there is a rising sense of class-consciousness and class-conscious political action in the United States today.

Elizabeth Warren, United States Senator from Massachusetts, has become a champion for America’s middle class. Auto workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee are voting this week on whether or not to join the United Auto Workers.

The recent election of Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative political organization, to the Seattle, Washington city council and the strong showing of Ty Moore, a Socialist Alternative candidate in the recent race for city council in Minneapolis, are strong indicators of an increasing sense of class-consciousness among voters. Sawant won her election by 3,100 votes and Moore received 42% of the votes cast in his race.

The Walmart and Fast Food worker’s campaigns and strikes for full-time hours, regular, set schedules, and a $15 an hour minimum wage have swept our nation.

Yes, people have grown discontented with increasing economic inequality in our country, corporate influenced and dominated government in our nation, and assaults on our families, livelihoods, homes, and futures.

Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of a true class-conscious union and working class political action movement in America like unto the one that Eugene V. Debs called for one hundred and twelve years ago.

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Eugene V. Debs’ article, “The Western Labor Movement”was published in November 1902 edition of the International Socialist Review. You can read the article here.

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