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William Z. Foster

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William Edward Foster (February 25, 1881 - September 1, 1961), who renamed himself as William Z. Foster, was the long-time General Secretary of the Communist Party USA and trade union leader. In many ways a syndicalist at heart, he passed through the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, as well as leading the drive to organize the packinghouse industry during World War I and leading the steel strike of 1919 before joining the Communist Party in 1921. While he continued to focus on the Party's work within organized labor, he largely subordinated his own political views to the policies declared by the Comintern throughout his years in and out of leadership of the Party.

Contents

Early years

Foster was born in Taunton, Massachusetts. His family moved to Philadelphia, where he left school at the age of ten to apprentice himself to a die sinker. Foster left that position three years later to work in a white lead factory. Over the next ten years he worked in fertilizer plants in Reading, Pennsylvania and Jacksonville, Florida, as a railroad construction worker and sawmill employee in Florida, as a streetcar motorman in New York City, as a lumber camp and longshore worker in Portland, Oregon and as a sailor. Foster even homesteaded for a year in Oregon in 1905, although he also worked a series of odd jobs as a miner, sheepherder, sawmill worker and railroad employee during that year before abandoning the farm.

Entry into politics and trade union work

Foster joined the Socialist Party of America in 1901 and was a member until he was expelled in 1909 for activity in a left wing faction of the party in Washington state. Foster then joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1909, when he took part in one of the IWW's "free speech fights" in Tacoma, Washington. He changed his middle initial from "E" to "Z" while in Tacoma in order to avoid confusion with another individual named William E. Foster who lived and worked there.

Foster became a prominent figure within the union, serving as its representative at an international labor conference in Budapest in 1911 and a contributor to its papers. Foster's politics, however, were moving him away from the IWW. He became a committed syndicalist after touring Europe in 1910 and 1911, and criticized the IWW for not working within established unions or within the workshop in any event. He urged American leftists to enter the AFL unions, rather than establish rival unions, as the IWW had tried to do. He also denounced electoral politics as a dead end that smothered the revolutionary ardor of these groups by channeling their energies into pursuit of office, with all the compromises that entails. Foster lost the battle, however, and soon thereafter left the IWW and formed his own organization, the Syndicalist League of North America.

The SLNA's policies — direct action at the shop floor level leading to workers' governance of society, but without the dead weight of bureaucratic structures — bore a strong resemblance to the anarchist thinking of the day. That is not coincidental, since Foster was not only lecturing at anarchist groups and settlements, but became a close working associate with Jay Fox, an anarchist with roots in the Chicago labor movement, and married Ester Abramowitz, who had belonged to an anarchist collective in Washington state. Among the other members of the SLNA were Tom Mooney, who became a labor martyr while in prison for allegedly throwing a bomb at a Preparedness Day parade in 1916, Earl Browder, an accountant and union activist in Kansas City and Foster's rival for the Presidency of the Communist Party twenty years later, and James P. Cannon, a member of the IWW and one of Foster's allies in the internal warfare within the CPUSA until he was expelled for Trotskyism. The SLNA, however, was never an effective force and folded in 1914.

Foster took his own advice and became a union business agent for a local of the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen in Chicago. He continued his syndicalist campaign, this time through the International Trade Union Education League, while obtaining a position as a general organizer for the AFL in 1915. His syndicalism led him to drop any criticism of the more conservative union leaders; in his eyes, organizing workers was a step toward dismantling capitalism. The ITUEL did not so much seek to take power in those organizations in which its members were active, as to steer them in a more progressive direction.

Foster also tempered his politics at this time: he not only did not publicly oppose the United States' entry into the war, as Eugene V. Debs and figures associated with the IWW had done, but helped sell war bonds in 1918. Foster also remained quiet when the government arrested hundreds of IWW activists, convicting them en masse in 1918.

Foster did not, on the other hand, become wholly apolitical. The Chicago Federation of Labor, headed by John Fitzpatrick, was a nest for a number of labor causes: the campaign to free Tom Mooney, plans to launch a labor party, and, most importantly, programs to organize the thousands of unskilled workers in the City's packinghouses, steel mills and other mass production industries.

Organizing packinghouse workers

Unions had tried to organize the packinghouses for decades before World War I: the Knights of Labor had led organizing drives among these workers in the 1870s and 1880s, while the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen had made gains among the many diverse ethnic groups working in the industry in the first decade of the century. In both cases the industry, now concentrated in the hands of a few large and powerful corporations, drove the unions out.

The war, however, changed things. The demand for meat increased tremendously during the war, while the draft and the difficulty of importing more workers from Europe led to labor shortages that reduced the number of persons willing to scab in the event of a strike. In addition, the federal government had an interest in maintaining production unimpeded and avoiding the disruption that a strike of 50,000 packinghouse workers would entail. This was an especially propitious time to organize these workers on an industrial basis; as Foster said, "The gods were indeed fighting on the side of labor".

Before the CFL could organize these workers, however, it had to work out the competing claims of all of the various unions that claimed the right to represent segments of the industry. Rather than create a wholly new organization, which would have immediately found itself fighting other unions in the CFL over jurisdiction, Foster hit on the idea of creating a Stockyards Labor Council that, like the railroad federations that had recently come into being, would fuse all of the interested unions into a single body with the ability to organize the industry as a whole. Foster obtained the endorsement of his union, the Railway Carmen, for this plan then took the proposal to Local 87 of the Meat Cutters, who supported it enthusiastically and obtained the approval of the CFL on July 15, 1917. The SLC was formed a week later, with representatives from all of the crafts — machinists, electricians, carpenters, coopers, office workers, steamfitters, engineers, railway carmen, and firemen. While this body was only a coalition created for the purpose of organizing workers, and would not have had the authority to bargain for them as a single group, it was an important step toward industrial unionism. Foster was the secretary for the SLC.

Another factor posed a serious obstacle to organizing packinghouse workers: many of the unions in the SLC excluded African-Americans from membership, either overtly or in practice. Thousands of recent African-American migrants from the South had gone to work in the packinghouses and many looked upon their employers as more interested in their welfare than the unions that had either excluded them or shown no interest in organizing them. The SLC, for its part, offered membership in federal unions affiliated directly with the AFL, only to have this offer thrown back at it as "Jim Crow unionism". The same pattern of division prevailed among immigrant workers, who organized along national or linguistic lines.

While privately convinced that launching a strike under these conditions would be a mistake, and aware that the AFL leadership felt even more strongly on this subject, Foster nonetheless continued to organize as if a strike was in the offing. The rank and file workers voted overwhelmingly in November, 1917 and more moderate leaders, such as Fitzgerald and the leader of Local 87, used this strike threat to great advantage in negotiating with the federal government and the employers.

The Wilson administration wanted to bring about a peaceful resolution of this dispute and put great pressure on the employers to agree to arbitration of the issues in dispute — wages, hours of work, and union recognition — without a strike, even threatening to seize the plants as a wartime measure if necessary. While the unions had their own reservations about arbitration, they also agreed to it rather than find themselves forced to strike. The arbitrator's initial award, ordering the eight hour day, overtime pay and significant wage increases, was a major victory for the workers. The Amalgamated Meat Cutters' membership doubled in the months that followed.

Those gains were short-lived, however. The arbitration award had not required the employers to recognize the unions, leading some workers to believe that the government, not the SLC, was responsible for these improvements in their wages and hours. In addition, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters attempted to claim all of the members as its own, breaking off relations with the SLC. Race riots in Chicago in 1919 dissolved what little trust black packinghouse workers had in white-led unions. Once the arbitration award expired in 1919 employers fired union activists; by 1922, after a failed strike, the SLC was defunct.

The steel strike of 1919

Foster turned his attention, while the packinghouse campaign was still underway, to another project: organizing steel workers. The problems here were even more complex: in addition to the history of defeated strikes and the deep ethnic divisions within the workforce, the steel mills were also divided by differences in skills, with the higher paid native-born skilled workers often looking down on their immigrant coworkers, who were often unskilled or semiskilled. Foster proposed a similar strategy, but on a much larger scale: a national campaign, led by a union council of all the craft unions and the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Tin and Steel Workers, that would organize all of basic steel simultaneously. Fitzgerald agreed to put his name on the project and sent Foster as the CFL's delegate to the AFL's 1918 convention to present the plan.

The AFL's reception was tepid: it endorsed a special conference to create a committee to organize steel workers, but each international union contributed only one hundred dollars apiece — leaving the committee with somewhat less than the $250,000 Foster estimated it needed. Many unions did, on the other hand contribute organizers, whom Foster used as his base.

Without the funds to launch a truly national campaign, Foster decided to start close to home, sending organizers into Gary, Indiana and South Chicago, where they received a tumultuous outpouring of support, in August, 1918. The Chicago area was not, however, the heart of the steel industry; the Monongahela Valley was.

By the time that Foster sent organizers into that area several months later, however, the influenza epidemic had led the authorities to bar all public meetings; the announcement of the armistice soon led to widespread layoffs in the mills. The union no longer could rely on a tight labor market or a federal government interested in labor peace. The union faced other problems: the rivalries spurred by the constituent unions' self-interest and the omnipresent power of the industry, which had turned the Valley into a large version of a company town.

Even so, the National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel Workers managed to sign up more than 100,000 steel workers by early 1919. The strike vote, taken in August, 1919, was almost unanimous in favor of a strike. When the steel companies refused to meet with union officials, 250,000 steelworkers went out on strike on September 22.

The National Committee's organizing efforts had produced mixed results: while it enrolled around 350,000 steelworkers during the course of the strike, its greatest strength was among immigrant workers. Higher skilled native born workers gave the strike only lukewarm support, while black steelworkers gave it almost none at all in the Pittsburgh area and less than enthusiastic support elsewhere.

The authorities attacked with their customary violence: within ten days fourteen people had been killed, all of them strikers or strike sympathizers. Vigilantes expelled Foster from Johnstown, Pennsylvania at gunpoint. Foster himself became the focus of a Congressional inquiry that was originally initiated to study the causes of the strike. In the meantime authorities barred strikers from meeting

Foster spent most of his time raising money and organizing material assistance for strikers and their families. In the meantime General Leonard Wood imposed martial law in Gary while authorities in Pennsylvania broke up strike meetings wherever they could be found. By November, as funds were running low, the strike was losing steam. Foster and the other members of the committee voted to end it in January, 1920. Foster resigned from the committee in order to allow it to continue its work "with a clean slate".

Joining the Communist Party

After his resignation from the National Committee following the defeat of the steel workers strike, Foster was at loose ends. He resigned his position as a Brotherhood of Railway Carmen organizer, but was blacklisted from other jobs on the railroad. He still maintained his friendship with John Fitzpatrick, wrote a book analyzing the steel strike and founded the Trade Union Education League, which received financial support from the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the left-led union that had contributed $100,000 for relief for steel strikers.

Foster had contacts with a number of members of the newly formed Communist Party, but had not joined it after its split from the Socialist Party of America in 1919. The party had, in fact, denounced him personally during the strike as an opportunist and class collaborator, calling him "E.Z. Foster" for the accommodations he was willing to make with the AFL leadership. The CP at this time was still convinced that the revolution was impending; its suggested slogan during the steel strike was "Make the strike general and seize state power!"

Foster was brought closer within the party's orbit, however, after Earl Browder invited him to attend a conference of the Profintern, the Red International of Labor Unions, in Moscow in 1921. There he was appointed the RILU's agent in the United States; the TUEL was later made an affiliate of the Profintern in 1923. Foster joined the CPUSA on his return to the United States.

The TUEL

The TUEL, like the ITUEL and SLNA before it, sought to encourage the development of left activists within the established unions and unite those already there around a platform of industrial unionism, and to support the militant struggle for workers' rights. In its early years Foster's TUEL pursued a course of its own, not attempting to line up its policies with Comintern or Profintern directives or taking direction from the CPUSA. When party leaders complained, the Profintern sided with Foster.

The TUEL took pains to avoid accusations of dual unionism; when the Profintern requested that TUEL start building itself as a mass membership organization Foster demurred, maintaining TUEL as a network of activists with no formal membership. TUEL was strongest in Chicago, where Foster and Jack Johnstone had close relations with Fitzpatrick and many other unionists with a background in labor radicalism. TUEL campaigned for amalgamation of unions into larger, stronger ones—an echo of the IWW's advocacy of "one big union"—and creation of a Labor Party—which was an anathema to those who remained in the IWW.

Its first test was the Railway Shopmen's strike of 1922, which was crushed by the employers with the help of an injunction that prohibited strikers from trying to dissuade strikebreakers from taking their jobs by any means, including word of mouth or newspaper interviews. TUEL leafleted at picket lines and continued to press for amalgamation of the separate craft unions in the industry.

TUEL also intervened in the internal politics of the United Mine Workers of America, where Alexander Howat was leading a revolt of miners from Kansas, Illinois, British Columbia and Nova Scotia against the regime of John L. Lewis. Lewis responded by ejecting all those connected with the insurgency from the union in 1923; Howat formed the Progressive Miners Union in response.

The Farmer-Labor Party

Foster had enjoyed a close relationship with John Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Federation of Labor. Those relations were strained to the breaking point by the Party's decision to pack the convention that Fitzpatrick had called to form a new Farmer-Labor Party.

Fitzpatrick's project presented Foster with a paradox: he did not think that electoral politics had much potential for advancing the rights of workers, much less revolutionary goals, and he had even less regard for progressive reformists such as Robert La Follette. On the other hand, he was attacked from the left within the party for his relations with Fitzpatrick and the CFL, which were denounced as too conservative. Even so, John Pepper, the Comintern's representative in the U.S., and those, such as Charles Ruthenberg, who had criticized Foster for his closeness to Fitzgerald now directed Foster to make the CPUSA an important player in this new party. At the same time the Party's newspaper, then known as The Worker, published a flattering article about Foster in 1923 that identified him as a Communist, something he had to that point advoided admitting.

Fitzpatrick began to distance himself from Foster when his membership in the Communist Party became public knowledge. Foster and the CP, on the other hand, had enough influence within the CFL to be able to dominate the founding convention with representatives of various organizations, some of them existing only on paper. When the CP appeared to have taken over this new party, Fitzpatrick walked out, leaving the CP with a stillborn organization. From that point forward Fitzpatrick campaigned against TUEL and the AFL began expelling communists from its ranks with a vengeance. The Party likewise split the Minnesota-Farmer Labor Party and repudiated any common work with La Follette. After a disastrous showing in the 1924 elections, the Party dismantled the Federated Farmer-Labor Party it had created.

The split with Fitzpatrick led to the isolation within the labor movement. While Foster and the CP had enjoyed a close relation with Sidney Hillman and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, it began organizing an opposition caucus within the ACWA. Hillman declared the TUEL formation to be a dual union and suspended its leaders, including Benjamin Gitlow.

Setbacks and successes

Foster profited in a way from this debacle: he was able to persuade the Comintern to recall Pepper, with whom he had foght over questions of tactics, and the dissolution of the FF-LP was a setback for the Charles Ruthenberg - Jay Lovestone faction, which was largely made up of foreign-born workers and represented the vast majority of the party membership. Forming an alliance with a smaller faction led by James P. Cannon, Foster was able to control the majority of the party's leadership in 1923 and again in 1925.

The internecine struggles between the two camps was, however, disturbing to the Comintern, which sent a representative to oversee the Party's 1925 convention. A telegram from the Comintern directed the Party, after a vote which Foster had won decisively over his opponent, Benjamin Gitlow, to install Ruthenberg as general secretary of the Party. Foster challenged the telegram, stormed out of the meeting, and attempted to appeal to the Comintern itself, over the objections of his opponents and even his allies in the Cannon faction, who would not accept the possibility that the Comintern could be wrong.

Foster did not succeed in reversing the Comintern's overturning of his election, but did obtain some concessions: his supporters were given control of the Trade Union Committee within the Party and the Comintern recognized trade union work as the most important sphere of activity for the Party. While Foster thought that he had obtained support for effective independence for TUEL, however, he was mistaken.

The Party's trade union work in this era, however, went from one disaster to the next. Rivalries within the CPUSA led to the loss of the 1926 New York dressmakers' strike, as neither the Foster or Ruthenberg faction wanted to appear to sell out by accepting a settlement that the Party's members within the strike leadership had recommended. As a result the Party, which had once held leadership positions within every major New York City local of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union other than the cutters local led by David Dubinsky, was wholly routed.

The Foster and Ruthenberg factions likewise blamed each other for the defeat of the 1925 strike of textile workers in Passaic, New Jersey, in which the Ruthenberg leadership supported an overt Party role in the strike and what amounted to creation of a dual union. When it appeared that the leadership's communist leanings were an obstacle to negotiations, TUEL handed the strike over to the United Textile Workers, which was unable to make any more progress than the CP leadership had.

Foster also played a major role in the revolt against John L. Lewis' leadership in the United Mine Workers of America. John Brophy, a leader of the UMWA in Western Pennsylvania, ran against Lewis under the banner of "Save the Union". Brophy might have won if the ballots had been counted honestly, but they were not. Even so, the dissidents retained substantial prestige within the union and were able to establish themselves as a union administration in exile during the 1927 coal strike, running a separate program of strike relief that allowed the strike to continue when the Lewis Administration proved unable to do so.

These efforts were leading in the direction of formation of a rival union, something that Foster rejected but which appeared to be the only possibility left to the Party. As signals from the Comintern indicated the impending change of policy in the Third Period, when the American party was directed to abandon its work within the AFL in order to form separate revolutionary unions, even former supporters of Foster, such as Earl Browder, began criticizing Foster for his reluctance to form a dual union of miners. As it turned out, Foster's halting efforts to establish a separate power center within the UMWA had this effect in any case, as Howat, Brophy and his allies dropped out of the "Save the Union" movement as the CP's leadership in it became apparent. The Party founded its own National Miners Union in 1928.

Foster's return to power

Ruthenberg died in 1926; Jay Lovestone took over his position as general secretary. The factional fighting between the Foster and Lovestone groups continued, but now became overshadowed by the larger struggle in the Soviet Union between Joseph Stalin and his opponents.

A firm supporter of Joseph Stalin, Foster split with James P. Cannon in 1928 and supported his former ally's expulsion for Trotskyism. Foster was made General Secretary of the party in 1929 with the support of the Comintern, deposing Jay Lovestone, who was sympathetic to Bukharin and whose policies of American exceptionalism were anathema to Stalin's new Third Period line.

That Third Period line also called for creation of new, revolutionary unions outside the AFL. While Foster had always denounced dual unionism, he dutifully complied with the Comintern's directive, renaming the Trade Union Education League as the Trade Union Unity League. Foster and the Party also followed the line by denouncing Socialists as "social fascists" and attacking former allies in the African-American communities as bourgeois collaborators.

Eclipse and return to power

Foster began to lose power within the Party, due to his imprisonment during the Party's convention in 1930 and his continuing differences with others in the Party over trade union policies. Foster suffered a heart attack in 1932 and was forced to step down as leader of the party in favor of Earl Browder. Sent to the Soviet Union for treatment, Foster's condition only grew worse.

Foster returned in 1935, but was estranged from Browder and those who had risen to power in his absence. While the Party's trade union policies in the Popular Front era was close to what Foster had advocated in the 1920s, the Party's strength was not in the areas in which it had been active during the TUEL era — garment, railroads, and mining — but in the mass production industries with little history of union organization — automobile and electrical manufacturing, meatpacking, longshore on the west coast, maritime on the east coast, hard rock mining and lumber in the west and public transit in New York City. In the meantime the Party began building a small-scale personality cult around Browder and became a wholehearted supporter of the New Deal and, to a lesser extent, the Roosevelt administration. Foster became the "loyal opposition" to Browder within the CPUSA while remaining an unwavering supporter of Stalin.

However, when Browder was removed in 1945 due to the hostility of Moscow to his policies, Foster was reinstated as party leader. Foster had, in fact, been one of the most vocal opponents in 1944 of Browder's decision to rename the CPUSA as the Communist Political Association and to propose the continuation of the no-strike pledge after the end of World War II. The entire leadership of the Party came to Browder's defense then; the Comintern directed Foster to withdraw his criticisms.

Foster's letter to the National Committee subsequently formed the basis for the Duclos letter published as the Cold War began in 1945 that signaled the Soviet Union's change in line. The Party members who had denounced Foster and questioned his grasp of Marxism and his mental faculties a year earlier now condemned Browder as a class traitor. The CPA reestablished itself as the Communist Party USA and expelled Browder. While Foster nominally shared power with Eugene Dennis and John Williamson, he had the most prestige of the three.

Under Foster's leadership the Party took a harder line, both internationally and internally, shedding much of the "Americanist" rhetoric of Browder's dozen years in leadership. Foster published a 'new history' of America, which was highly praised in Moscow, translated in many languages and made a handbook of anti-American propaganda all over the world. Of it Browder wrote, "This extraordinary book interpreted the history of America from its discovery to the present, as an orgy of 'bloody banditry' and imperialism, enriching itself by 'drinking the rich red blood' of other peoples. Foster joined in the Thorez declaration of French Communist Maurice Thorez that said if the Soviet armies found it necessary to occupy all Western Europe the working people would greet them as liberators; the only thing missing was a direct welcome to Soviet armies in America itself."

The Party campaigned vigorously for Henry Wallace's candidacy for President in 1948 — which produced disastrous results for the unions and union leaders associated with the Party within the CIO, which expelled most of them in 1950.

In 1948 he was among the party leaders indicted for subversive activity under the Smith Act, but, because of his precarious health, he was not brought to trial. The Party began to implode as a result of these prosecutions, as many Party leaders chose to go underground after the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the first tier of CPUSA leaders in United States v. Dennis, Template:Ussc. Foster presided over a number of internal purges and became the object of a similar personality cult.

Foster was a firm Stalinist and turned the party into an uncritical supporter of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He rallied the party's hard core when the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin at the 1956 Twentieth Party Congress led to the exodus of 80 percent of the CPUSA's membership. Foster retired in 1957 and assumed the title of Chairman emeritus of the party to make way for the younger Gus Hall in an attempt to staunch the exodus from the party. The change was cosmetic, however, as Hall was as unwavering a defender of the Moscow line as his predecessor. Foster died in Moscow in 1961.

Foster was also the party's candidate for President of the United States in the 1924, 1928 and 1932 U.S. presidential elections.

See also

External links

Further reading

  • Barrett, James R., William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism, University of Illinois Press, 1999. ISBN 0252020464.
  • Johanningsmeier, Edward P., Forging American Communism: The Life of William Z. Foster Princeton University Press, 1994 ISBN 0691033315.
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