From the Archive | Methods of mass organising

The leader of the 1919 steel industry strike in the United States guides unions on how to carry out successful worker campaigns.

William Z Foster was the national chairman of the Communist Party and leader of the 1919 steel strike in the United States. 

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry by William Z Foster, first published by Workers Library Publishers, Inc in October 1936. The workers who led the Amazon Workers’ Union to victory in an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, last week used this pamphlet as a guide to build their union.

Mass meetings, demonstrations, etc

The actual gathering together of workers in mass meetings and demonstrations is fundamental to the carrying on of a successful organisation campaign. It gives the workers a confidence bred of their own numbers, and it enables the organisers to reach them personally with their educational appeal and organisation methods. But such meetings, to achieve the best success, must be of the broadest mass character. This means that they have to be thoroughly prepared, and all the batteries of publicity, organisers, etc, should be coordinated and stimulated for their organisation. The entire agitation among the workers should aim directly to culminate in the holding of such mass meetings. One good mass meeting is better than two dozen indifferent ones.

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(a) The general mass meetings should be called not only under the auspices of the local organising committees but also on a mill or department scale by the local steel unions and in special cases also by the Central Labour Unions and other sympathetic organisations.

(b) Meetings should be held especially in popular neighbourhood halls, where the workers’ fraternal lodges meet, where the workers dance, where their weddings take place, and where they are generally accustomed to going.

(c) Every effort should be made to bring the maximum number of women and children to the steel mass meetings.

(d) The question of mass meetings in company towns and in localities where the right of assembly is curtailed presents special problems. The danger of discharge of the workers makes it necessary that if mass meetings are held in such localities they must first have a broad basis of organisation among the workers, and a wide preliminary publicity.

(e) At mass meetings it is important to get prominent out-of-town speakers to address the workers.

(f) Mill gate meetings should be held regularly at noon-time and at change-shifts where local conditions permit.

(g) Very effective are small delegations of steel workers from one town or district to another and large mass delegations of workers from organised mills to unorganised mills.

(h) Parades in steel towns are very effective in stimulating the workers, provided the parades are well organised and have real mass support. Auto demonstrations are easily organised and are effective agitational means.

(i) Music is important in a mass organising campaign. Sound trucks should be freely employed in the mill gate and meetings. An extensive use should be made of bands in mass meetings and street demonstrations. Platform singing should also be employed and mass singing wherever possible.

(j) Social affairs such as smokers, boxing matches, card parties, dances, picnics, various sports, etc, should be organised to establish contacts with the workers, especially in localities where more open mass work is difficult.

Mass organisation

Individual recruitment

Individual recruiting is the base of all immediate organisational work in the steel industry. It is fundamentally important in every steel centre and may be the only form for the time being in company union towns and elsewhere where terroristic conditions prevail. An elementary aim in the campaign should be to activate the greatest numbers of workers to do this individual button-hole work. The campaign can succeed only if thousands of workers can be organised to help directly in the enrolment of members. This work cannot be done by organisers alone. Their main task is to organise the most active workers among the masses in great numbers to do the recruiting. The tendency common in organisation campaigns to leave the signing of new members solely to the organisers and to recruitment in open meetings should be avoided.

22 September 1919: Workers at Illinois Steel Mills in Chicago photographed during the strike. (Photograph by Bettmann/ Getty Images)

(a) The chain system of organisation is one of the best means of individual recruitment. By this method workers undertake personally to organise their friends or to furnish their names so that they can be approached by other organisers. There should be a close check-up kept on all this work.

(b) The list system can also be effective in difficult situations. By this method trusted workers, volunteer organisers, women, etc, get lists upon which to collect the signatures and fees of workers in various organisations, etc.

(c) Individual recruitment in all its forms should be organised, as far as possible, according to department and mill.

(d) Thorough organisational arrangements should be made for signing up new members at social affairs, radio listening groups, small home meetings, in fraternal lodges, etc.

(e) Key men in shops, fraternal organisations, etc, should be given close attention and all efforts made to sign them up, but this work should not be done at the expense of broad organisation work among the masses.

(f) In closed company towns and elsewhere where terroristic conditions prevail, secret methods of organisation work are often imperative to prevent demoralising discharge cases. Irresponsible exposure of the workers to discharge must be strictly avoided. In such cases, union organisers can often work temporarily as insurance agents, peddlers, etc.

Open recruiting

(a) Open recruitment should be carried on at all mass meetings, except where special conditions prevail that may expose the workers to discharge. Well-organised crews of clerks should be on hand to sign up the new members, issuing receipts on the spot. Often large numbers of potential members are lost through neglecting these elementary preparations for their enrolment.

(b) Local unions should hold mass meetings of the workers in their respective mills and sign up new members. There should also be special meetings held for the various numerically important crafts where necessary. Often workers will join at such meetings when they will not sign up at large, open mass meetings. It is very important from an organisational standpoint that the local unions and their branches be set up as soon as practical and a regular dues system established. This impresses the workers with the seriousness and stability of the movement. Merely signing up a worker does not organise him. He must be brought into a local union, given a union card, got to paying dues, attending union meetings, etc.

Circa 1919: A crowd of workers outside the US Steel Corporation in Gary, Indiana. (Photograph by Chicago History Museum/ Getty Images)

Recruitment in struggle

(a) The presentation of local demands to the company must be utilised to facilitate organisation work. If the demands are granted, the workers feel they have won the victory and can easily be brought into the unions by active organisation work; if on the other hand the demands are rejected, the resultant anger among the workers can also be utilised readily for organisation building.

(b) Departmental and local strikes in this early stage in the organisation campaign may be very dangerous. They should be avoided, especially in mills of the biggest steel corporations and now when the union is still weak. Where strikes occur, no time should be lost in formally enlisting all the workers into the union and every effort should be put forth to win the struggle.

(c) Discharge cases for union activity should be taken care of immediately. Delay is very injurious to the workers’ morale. While a vigorous fight for the reinstatement of the discharged workers goes on, these workers should be given relief in some form. Care should be exercised in the development of the organisation work in the shops not to provoke discharges.

(d) Defence cases should also receive immediate attention, as it is demoralising to the mass of workers to see their militant elements go to jail and nothing done for them. Especially vigorous campaigns must be made against all attempts at deportation of foreign-born workers. All this emphasises the need to build the ILD in the steel centres.

(e) In case of a stubborn suppression of the right of assembly in steel toms, the union forces, in addition to using every legal channel for the restoration of their rights, should not hesitate at opening a free speech fight on the streets to force the city authorities to grant the workers halls. Such activity greatly awakens the workers and prepares them for organisation and it should be supported by a very active recruitment drive. Sometimes it is necessary to buy either buildings or lots in order to secure meeting places.

(f) The boycott can often be effectively used against hostile business people and professionals in steel towns and thereby to stimulate the organisation campaign. In districts where the AA is strong (and there are well-established unions of miners, railroad men, etc), the boycott can also be successfully applied against anti-union newspapers, Chambers of Commerce and city administrations.

(g) In the election campaign all candidates should be called upon to state their position regarding the steel campaign in their public meetings.

(h) The organisation forces should take up concretely the question of placing demands upon the city and state authorities in connection with civic rights, etc.

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