Foster and the TUEL forerunners

The Trade Union Educational League is rightly associated with the name and personality of William Z. "Bill" Foster, its originator and perpetual "Secretary-Treasurer." Foster was born in Taunton, MA on Feb. 25, 1881, the son of an Irish nationalist emigré. Foster worked at a wide variety of occupations, including in a foundary, stock yard, steel mill, as a steamfitter, lotter, seaman, and railway worker. He spent his formative 20s on the west coast, active in the Socialist Party of Portland, Oregon from 1904 to 1907 and in Seattle from 1907 to 1909. At the time of the 1909 Socialist Party of Washington convention, foster bolted with Left Wing leader Herman Titus and participated in a parallel organization. He was subsequently expelled from the SPA in 1909 and joined the Industrial Workers of the World that same year. Over the next few years, having closely observed the trade union in Europe, Foster became increasingly critical of the IWW's dual unionist approach, believing that the formation of parallel industrial unions only drained the old craft unions of their best activists, leaving the apparatus even more firmly in the hands of their conservative leaders. Instead, Foster favored the transformation of old-line craft unions into broad industrial unions by concentrated action of militants within those unions themselves.

In Feb. 1912, Foster left the IWW and joined the AFL union of his craft, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen. Foster sought to organize radical unionists by the formation of "Syndicalist Leagues," the members of which were to join the established AFL unions and to work for their transformation. By July 1912, autonomous Syndicalist Leagues were in existence in Kansas City, St. Louis, Omaha, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tacoma, and Seattle, as well as in Nelson and Vancouver, British Columbia. Many of these published their own local labor papers, editors of which included such later TUEL stalwarts as Jay Fox (Chicago), Jack Johnstone (Nelson, BC), and Earl Browder (Kansas City). Another prominent member of the Syndicalist League was San Francisco Molders' Union activist Tom Mooney. A national apparatus joining these autonomous groups was established in Sept. 1912, called the Syndicalist League of North America (SLNA), the first of three "leagues" sprouting from the brain of Bill Foster. The total membership of the SLNA topped out at somewhat less than 2,000 -- although the exact number will never be known since the group did not collect dues or issue membership cards, instead subsisting upon local fundraising and voluntary donations.

Lack of organizational funds made it impossible for the SLNA to hold any sort of national conclave during the nearly 3 years of its existence. The organization's tenuous financial situation ultimately proved its undoing, as lack of funds lead to the termination of the local papers of the league in rapid succession. By January 1915, only 2 papers associated with the SLNA remained -- the Omaha Unionist and the San Diego International. The end of the SNLA was essentially marked in the final issue of the Kansas City Toiler of that same month, although a national conference was at the same time called which ultimately gave birth to the group's successor.

[fn. Philip S. Foner: History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 9: The TUEL to the End of the Gompers Era. (New York: International Publishers, 1991), pp. 76-92.]


0. Conference --- St. Louis, MO --- Jan. 17, 1915

The informal St. Louis conference of syndicalists marked the first time that adherents of the tendency gathered from different parts of the country. About a dozen delegates were in attendance from Chicago, St. Louis, Omaha, and Kansas City -- among the participants were Earl Browder and Bill Foster. The conclave discussed the previous activities of the Syndicalist League of North America and attempted to draw lessons from that experience. The delegates determined to estalbish a new organization, called the International Trade Union Educational League; Bill Foster was elected Secretary and a National Board chosen, including representatives from each of the participating cities. A pamphlet co-written by Foster in 1913 under the auspices of the SNLA, entitled Syndicalism, was endorsed on a temporary basis in lieu of a formal program. The remaining SLNA papers -- the Omaha Unionist and the San Diego International -- were continued as organs of the ITUEL, and a new journal, the Chicago Labor News, edited by Max Dezettel, was soon established as the official organ of the group. Foster was commissioned to write a new pamphlet outlining the policy of the ITUEL, eventually published in the fall of 1915 as Trade Unionism: The Road to Freedom. This proved to be the only formal statement of policy ever released by the organization.

Foster conducted a 7,000 mile tour throughout the West on behalf of the new organization, but failed to set up more than a few short-lived branches of the ITUEL. The new incarnation of the old Syndicalist League of North America was unable to equal in either size or membership, and soon devolved into a small corps of activists in Chicago, including among them future TUEL cadres Jack Johnstone and Joe Manley. A strong presence was established by this ITUEL group in the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), headed by John Fitzpatrick and Ed Nockels, a progressive local labor umbrella group frequently at odds with the conservative national AFL leadership of Samuel Gompers.

CFL President Fitzpatrick gave Foster the job of organizing the Chicago defense campaign on behalf of Iron Molder Tom Mooney, framed in a bombing of the San Francisco of 1915. This activity culminated with a mass meeting held in March 1917 in the Chicago Coliseum which drew some 17,000 workers -- the largest crowd at such an event in the CFL's history. The Labor News , ostensibly an organ of the ITUEL, had by this time been transformed by editor Dezettel into a conservative labor paper, breaking not only with ITUEL, but also with the CFL as well, existing as an organ of the Building Trades and other conservative local unions. By the spring of 1917, the Chicago organization, the sole viable local unit of the ITUEL, decided to drop further use of the name, and the organization came to its unheralded demise.

[fn. Philip S. Foner: History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 9, pp. 76-92.]


Formation of the Trade Union Educational League

Bill Foster and his associates began to pour their effort into practical union organization work. In 1917, Foster was made Secretary of a committee formed to organize Chicago packers. In 1918 Foster was placed on the job of organizing the steelworkers, being named the Secretary of the National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel Workers, esablished under the auspices of the AFL. A massive steel strike was lead in 1919 over the right to organize, lead by Foster, who was red-baited mercilessly in the mainstream press for his syndicalist past. The failure of the steel strike was a great turning point in Foster's life, discrediting him in the eyes of some top AFL officials and many members of the public. For others, Foster was established as one of the country's foremost labor leaders, a courageous, highly principled, and heroic figure who had stood tall to the violence and intimidation levied by the steel trust, only to be undercut by a weak and shortsighted union officialdom.

Following the failure of the 1919 Steel Strike, Foster worked briefly as business agent for the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen before taking several months to author a book, The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons, published in mid-1920 by B.W. Huebsch. Thereafter, he went to work for the Chicago Federation of Labor as the business manager of its weekly official organ, The New Majority. The Chicago Federation of Labor in this period was the initiator and leading force in the movement to establish a Labor Party of the United States, and Foster was fully supportive of this effort, his syndicalist inclinations notwithstanding.

The Trade Union Educational League was launched in the aftermath of the November 1920 election, Foster having prepared the ground during the preceeding weeks. The first headquarters for the organization was a room in the building owned by the Chicago Federation of Labor; the initial membership of the organization consisted of about two dozen of Foster's closest associates in the Second City. Having launched the new organization, which was dedicated to the construction of industrial unions through the amalgamation of competing craft unions, Foster embarked on a national speaking tour. Radical historian Philip Foner notes that "the TUEL barely got off the ground after its birth... Both the Communist and Communist Labor Parties, founded in 1919, were committed to dual unionism and opposed, and even ridiculed, Foster's aim of attempting to build an effective and militant movemnet within the AFL and the railroad brotherhoods." [Foner 9:108]

Foster sought to build support for his fledgling organization and to launch an official organ for it, to be called The Labor Herald, throughout early 1921. Despite assistance rendered by Sam Carr of the Chicago local of the International Typographers Union, as well as Samuel Hammersmark and Jack Johnstone of the TUEL Executive Council, Foster was unable to obtain sufficient funding for the proper launch of his project from Chicago unions.

Internationally, however, matters for Foster and his militant union organization proved to be far more favorable. Preparations were made for the convocation of a multi-national trade union organization in Moscow, with the intention being to join revolutionary socialist and syndicalist unionists in a centralized International of labor unions, in opposite to the reform-oriented Amsterdam trade union international closely associated with the mainstream trade union movement of Europe. A founding convention of this organization (the Red International of Trade Unions, also known as "RILU" or the "Profintern") was planned to open on July 3, 1921 in Moscow. Moreover, the cachet of Foster and his associates had been enhanced in late 1920 and early 1921 with the publication of Lenin's polemic against ultra-radicalism in the communist movement, "Left-Wing Communism" -- An Infantile Disorder. In this short book Lenin sharply criticized the anti-parliamentary and dual unionist perspectives, views in close accord with those held by Foster and his Chicago TUEL associates.

The former syndicalists Foster and Earl Browder were chosen to participate in the first American delegation to the Profintern, joining Ella Reeve Bloor and IWW bail-jumper George Andreychine, among others. The development of a national TUEL organization was put on hold and Foster traveled to Europe as a correspondent for the Federated Press news service in the spring of 1921, continuing on to Soviet Russia to attend the founding convention of RILU.

[fn. Philip S. Foner: History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 9, pp. 104-111; Report of Matthew Smith, Negative Division, Military Intelligence Department, to L.J. Baley, March 18, 1921, NARA M-1085, reel 925, file 202600-92-1.]

Foster returned to the United States in the fall of 1921, where he compiled his Russian journalism into a book called The Russian Revolution before touring the country to lecture on behalf of the Friends of Soviet Russia, working as a fundraiser for the FSR. Foster secretly joined the Communist Party of America at this juncture. According to Foster's own account, upon his return to the United States "I had a meeting with the Central Executive Committee of the Communist Party, who agreed to support the work of the Trade Union Educational League." Foster stated that "the League is not an organic section of the Party but is simply endorsed by it."

(fn. Foster, "On Trial in Michigan,"in The Labor Herald, May 1923, pg. 26.)

It was early in 1922 that the Trade Union Educational League was finally launched in a serious way. The American Communist movement offered Foster a means to obtain sustaining funds without resorting to the per capita tax of sympathetic unions or membership fees which would have exposed the organization to a charge of "dual unionism" from the conservative bureaucracy of the AFL craft unions and the railway brotherhoods, to which it stood in opposition. On Feb. 10, 1922, Foster addressed a first circular letter to his mailing list of over 1,000 "live-wire trade unionists" announcing the formation of the new national organization. Each of the recipients of the letter was provided with a statement of league aims and promised another letter in a week's time. This was sent to the 1,000 "live-wires" on Feb. 17, 1922, along with a formal "Call to Action" composed by Foster, which called for a broad, multi-tendency TUEL organization, specifically noting

To be effective the league groups will have to include all the natural rebel elements among the trade unions, even though they are not all cut according to one political pattern. Such groups as fail to take this into consideration -- that is, where they restrict their membership along party lines -- will automatically condemn themselves to sectarianism and comparative impotency.

In his "Call to Action," Foster also advised his recipients that the first amalgamation campaign would be conducted in the railroad industry, to begin upon the delivery of "a given signal" sometime in March. The establishment of "400 or 500 local branches" of TUEL in the interim was anticipated by Foster. A model agenda for the first meetings of these local groups and the simple constitution of the organization was also provided to the 1,000 union activists in the same number of locales included on his mailing list.

Meetings of TUEL were to be held twice monthly, during the first and third weeks of each month. Not surprisingly, Chicago was among the first wave of TUEL local groups established, holding its first meeting being held on the evening of Feb. 27, 1922. A report of this meeting was published in the official organ of TUEL, The Labor Herald, which debuted with an issue bearing a cover date of March 1922. This first Chicago gathering was attended by approximately 400 trade unionists. Permanent officers were elected, including Jack Johnstone ad Secretary. A set of four primary goals were set for the Chicago organization, including the expansion of the circulation of The Labor Herald, the organization of a militant group of railroad workers, the formation of similar groups in other industries, and a commitment to adhere closely to the program of the National Office, also based in Chicago and headed by William Z. Foster. The first meeting of Chicago railroad workers organized by TUEL was held March 16, 1922, and similar gatherings of radicals in the needle trades, metal industry, building trades, and printing trades were conducted shortly thereafter.

(fn. Johnstone, "The League in Chicago,"in The Labor Herald, April 1922, pg. 29.)


Although the TUEL seems to have initially been conceived as a true multi-party mass organization, it soon emerged as the de facto industrial department of the Communist Party of America. William Z, Foster spoke at the August 1922 Bridgman, Michigan convention of the underground CPA -- a meeting that was penetrated by an agent of the Department of Justice. At this convention Foster revealed that his early target of "400 to 500 local branches" of TUEL remained far from fulfillment, with only 48 TUEL nuclei in existence and its publication printed in a run of about 11,000.

Foster was arrested in Chicago the day after the premature conclusion of the Bridgman Convention on Aug. 22, 1922, and was charged with having violated the harsh Michigan "Criminal Syndicalism" laws, which provided for a penalty of up to 10 years in state prison for advocating or attending a meeting of a group which "advocates crime, sabotage, violence or other unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reforms." As the most famous of the Bridgman defendants, Foster was brought to trial first, with the trial beginning March 8, 1923. On April 4, 1923, after 31 hours of deliberations and 36 ballots, the jury deadlocked on the issue of Foster's 6-6, and a mistrial was declared. Foster published a rather lengthy account of the trial in the May 1923 issue of The Labor Herald.

The vast majority of TUEL's active membership were also members or supporters of the Communist Party, as Foster noted to the Comintern in 1925. The TUEL was referred to as "The X" in the minutes of the underground CPA organization and was to a very great extend funded by the Communist movement. There were no dues collected for membership as a means of making it difficult for the AF of L bureaucracy or its member unions to purge TUEL adherente from their organizations -- there were no membership cards of any sort -- and the only visible means of financial support of the organization were revenue generated from a series of 10 and 25 cent pamphlets.


1. "First General Conference" -- Chicago, IL -- Aug. 26-27, 1922

The First General Conference (National Convention) of the Trade Union Educational League was held over the weekend of Aug. 26-27, 1922, in Chicago.

At the close of the second session on the first day, the hall was invaded by a raiding party of about 50 policemen, uniformed and plainclothes, headed by Chicago "Red Squad" head Sgt. McDonough. Everyone in attendance was ordered to remain seated while a search was conducted for suspected participants at the Bridgman, Michigan "Communist convention." Fifteen arrests were made, including the entire Canadian delegation, as well as Earl Browder, associate editor of The Labor Herald. Following the arrests, the gathering continued to meet, chaired by William Z. Foster.

(fn. Kruse, "Foster, Secretary of Trade Union League Says, 'We Must Expect to Meet With Some Casualties," The Worker, v. 5, whole no. 239, pp.1, 3.)


2. "Second General Conference" -- Chicago, IL -- Sept. 1-2, 1923

The 2nd General Conference of TUEL was held at the Labor Lyceum in Chicago, opening early in the morning of Sept. 1, 1923 and closing at 8:30 pm the next day. The gathering was attended by 103 delegates from cities all around North America. Meetings of the gathering were open to the public and the proceedings published in The Labor Herald for October 1923.


1924 Annual Meeting --- Chicago, IL --- c. January 31, 1924

The annual meeting of TUEL heard a detailed report on the organization's activities for 1923 delivered by Earl Browder.Delegates from the TUEL's sections in the Building Trades, Metal Trades, and Needle Trades each gave reports. New officers were elected for the year, including: Earl Browder, Chairman; Walt Carmon, Secretary and Literature Agent; A. Overgaard, Organizer; Phil Aronberg, Executive Board for Needle Trades; D.E. Early, Executive Board for Food Trades; with one other board member to bne chosen by the Metal, Printing, and Building sections.


3. "Third National Conference" -- New York, NY -- Dec. 3-4, 1927

The 3rd National Conference of TUEL adopted a new Program for the organization.


Foundation of TUEL-based Industrial Unions


National Miners Union (NMU) --- city? --- Sept. 9-10, 1928


National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) ---- city? --- Sept. XX-XX, 1928


Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union (NTWIU) --- city? --- Jan. 1, 1929




Trade Union Unity League (TUUL)


4. "Fourth National Conference" -- Cleveland, OH -- Aug. 31-Sept. 1, 1929

The 4th National Conference changed the name of the Trade Union Educational League to the Trade Union Unity League.


The TUUL unions in the needle trades, maritime, mining, auto workers, fur workers, etc. were freed up by the party to merge with the AFL on whatever terms they could muster in 1934.


X. Last National Conference" -- New York, NY -- March XX, 1935

The emptied shell of TUUL was disbanded at a convention held in New York City in the middle of March 1935.


[fn. Fraser M. Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991), passim.]