These are difficult days for the labour movement in the United States, and the situation is even worse for the radical labour movement. Trade-union membership in the non-farm labour force has declined from over 30 per cent in the early 1950s to about 17 per cent today. The real standard of living for workers has been falling since the mid 1970s. Concessionary contracts and schemes of labour–management cooperation, unthinkable even a few years ago, have become commonplace. As for the radical tradition: when in 1906 a famous essay by Werner Sombart asked ‘Why is There No Socialism in the United States?’, the us labour movement may have been closer to socialism than at any time thereafter. In 1905 the Industrial Workers of the World (iww) was founded, declaring that the working and employing classes had nothing in common. In 1912 Eugene Debs, running as Socialist Party candidate for President of the United States, received nearly 900,000 votes (6 per cent of the electorate). Very little has been heard since from the labour movement in the United States about the socialist transformation of the relations of production.

Kim Moody’s An Injury to All and David Montgomery’s Fall of the House of Labor together help us to assess how all this came about and to explore what can be done about it.footnote In part i of this article, I will examine Kim Moody’s distinction between ‘business unionism’ and ‘social unionism’, and how it leads him to oversimplify the history of the American Federation of Labor (afl). In part ii, I will suggest that by characterizing the Congress of Industrial Organizations (cio) at the close of World War II as illustrative of ‘social unionism’, Moody appears to propose a social-democratic future for American workers. In part iii, I will argue that a better way forward is exemplified by certain of Moody’s own case-studies and by David Montgomery’s description of the work of radical labour activists in the early years of the twentieth century.

An Injury to All sets out in its opening pages certain conceptual distinctions that characterize the argument of the remainder of the book. Moody believes that the labour movement must choose between two kinds of unionism: ‘social unionism’ and ‘business unionism.’ Social unionism is said to be based on the value of ‘community’, defined as ‘the sense that liberty is nurtured in an informal environment where the voluntary and collective enterprise of people with common interests contributes to the solution of problems.’ Business unionism, on the other hand, is thought to derive from ‘individualism’, understood as a belief in hard work, ingenuity and ‘the capacity of people to rise by their own wills.’

In Moody’s view, the practice of the labour movement is communal, but the movement’s ideology has time and again been skewed toward individualism. The notion that honest toil assures economic success is an ‘utter falsehood.’ For this reason, ‘workers have always turned toward collective forms of action to increase the rewards of labour.’ However, individualism has ‘dominated [the] official ideology’ of trade-union leaders who, from the founding in 1886 of the American Federation of Labor, have imposed this false consciousness from above on the spontaneous collectivism of the rank and file.

The labour history told in An Injury to All, accordingly, is a tale in which the ‘social unionism’ toward which the objective condition of workers naturally tends does eternal battle with the ‘business unionism’ espoused by leaders infected by the individualistic ethos of American capitalism. However, the result is an oversimplified history, which obstructs, rather than opens, the way to a more accurate assessment of labour’s present dilemmas. Because the whole tangled skein of events is reduced to a Hegelian drama in which two values (community and individualism) are thought to have been expressed in two kinds of unionism (‘social’ and ‘business’ unionism), organizations tend to be viewed as exemplars of one or the other of the two underlying paradigms; and our task for the future is understood simply as the resurrection of the good, or ‘social’, kind of labour movement. Thus the ‘individualism’ said to characterize the afl reflected the ‘consciousness of the skilled craft workers who composed the unions of the early afl’. Further: ‘[B]eyond the advancement of the individual members that composed the union, labor, in this view, had no broader responsibilities to the working class as a whole. They called themselves “pure and simple unionists” and, in effect, invented business unionism—a unionism that sees members primarily as consumers and limits itself to negotiating the price of labor. This individualist approach to raising the price of labor expressed itself through attempts to limit the labor market to the skilled members of the various craft unions—resulting in exclusion rather than comprehensive organization in the new industries.’ This is the picture of the afl common to labour histories written thirty to fifty years ago in the flush of early cio victories. The picture is not untrue, but it is only a partial truth.