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The One Big Union

The One Big Union, therefore, seeks to organize the wage worker, not according to craft, but according to industry; according to class and class needs. We, therefore, call upon all workers to organize irrespective of nationality, sex, or craft into a workers’ organization, so that we may be enabled to more successfully carry on the everyday fight over wages, hours of work, etc., and prepare ourselves for the day when production for profit shall be replaced by production for use.” – OBU Constitution

The World Socialist Movement does not claim that its commitment to elections and voting is applicable everywhere and at all times. We would say that it is foolish not to let circumstance determine tactics, foolish to advocate one method and exclude another without regard to the situation and conditions that prevails.

The WSM counsels workers to organise politically, to conquer and use the political power that the capitalist class has learned to be so effective in imposing their rule, but that is no reason why workers should abandon strike action, or should not resort to “direct action” whenever a state of affairs justify such strategy. Industrial and political action should be complementary to each other. The mistake is in attaching too much or too little importance to the one or the other. It is beneficial to workers if both these means of action are to be made the best use of. Collaboration between the two forms of organisation, the party and the unions, is essential to enable the working class to advance.

Without the party, the unions would be limited to partial and isolated struggles for reforms. Political action is something more than parliamentary action and the World Socialist Movement intent is not to become a voting machine. The function of the socialist parties is not simply to elect members to Parliament or Congress to act as politicians and “statesmen,” but as rebels, and not to co-operate with capitalist parties in carrying out measures of reform in the mistaken belief that, perhaps, socialism might at last be realised; but in truth will put off that realisation for as long as possible.

The WSM wishes to see a class-conscious One Big Union on the industrial field and one class-conscious socialist party on the political field, each the counterpart of the other, and both working together in harmonious co-operation to overthrow the capitalist system and emancipate the workers from wage slavery.

On June the 26th, 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike that began on May 15, ended. The strike demonstrated that the workers were well capable of organizing and performing the jobs usually done by the representatives of the ruling class in the smooth running of a city. In essence, how the workers conducted themselves was the real lesson of the strike.

The working class must stand united, however ill-prepared their forces and however badly chosen the field of battle. The concept of the One Big Union was that all workers should be organised in one union – one big union, the OBU. Most notable was the attempt of the Industrial Workers of the World (“the Wobblies”) to organise in the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries. The debate was over whether unions should be based on craft groups, organized by their skill, the dominant model at the time, carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, each into their respective unions. Capitalists could often divide craft and trade unionists along these lines in demarcation disputes. As capitalist enterprises and state bureaucracies became more centralised and larger, some workers felt that their institutions needed to become similarly large based on entire industries (industrial unions). The One Big Union movement supported the “entire industries” model over the “craft groups” model. The OBU organisation in Canada differed structurally from the IWW in that the IWW organised on industrial lines, the OBU in Canada focused more on organising workers geographically.

The labour movement is always being declared dead and buried yet it never fails to resurrect itself and revive. The One Big Union movement in Canada grew out of the discontent of the Western unions with the Trades and Labor Congress of the Dominion and the concept of the One Big Union was that all workers should be organised in one union – one big union, the OBU. The debate was over whether unions should be based on craft groups, organized by their skill, the dominant model at the time, carpenters, plumbers, brick-layers, each into their respective unions. Capitalists could often divide craft and trade unionists along these lines in demarcation disputes.

As capitalist enterprises and state bureaucracies became more centralised and larger, some workers felt that their institutions needed to become similarly large based on entire industries (industrial unions). The One Big Union movement supported the “entire industries” model over the “craft groups” model. The OBU organisation in Canada differed structurally from the IWW in that the IWW organised on industrial lines, the OBU in Canada focused more on organising workers geographically. The OBU at its peak in 1919 had 101 locals and 41,500 members—almost the entire union membership of western Canada including large parts of the mine, transportation and logging labour force.

In late 1918 Western Canadian unionists placed a number of radical resolutions before the delegates at that year’s Trades and Labor Congress Convention. In particular, they wanted the Congress to abandon craft unionism for industrial unionism, but their criticism extended to such difficult questions as conscription, censorship and the war effort. Every one of the westerners’ proposals was defeated. Before returning home, the western delegates agreed to hold a special western Canadian labour conference in 1919 to discuss ways that they could have more impact on the TLC. By the time the delegates from western Canadian unions arrived in Calgary for this meeting in the spring of 1919 they were no longer interested in fixing the TLC. Instead, they believed the time had come to create a new industrial union that would use the general strike as a central weapon. The new union was to be called the One Big Union — as its name suggested it would attempt to organize all workers into a single labour body. The founding members of the OBU were determined to create an industrial union that would not discriminate between skilled and unskilled, foreign-born or Canadian workers. A union that was opposed to capitalism itself.

On March 13, 1919, a conference was called at Calgary, Canada. The 237 delegates who attended immediately voted to sever connections with the old body and the A. F. of L. and to form a new industrial organization. Amidst “ringing cheers,” Western Labor Conference delegates unanimously approved a referendum to sever “the present affiliation with the International Organizations.” They adopted the name One Big Union, along with resolutions demanding the release of political prisoners, the six-hour work day, five-day week, withdrawal of Allied troops from Russia, and a general strike beginning 1 June to enforce these demands. Delegates approved “the principle of ‘Proletariat Dictatorship,’” called for “the abolition of the present system of production for profit,” and sent fraternal greetings to Russia’s Soviet government and the German Spartacists. A central committee was elected, consisting of five Socialist Party of Canada members, denouncing war profiteering and price fixing, an end to the sedition act (which had been used to ban the IWW and the SPC), equal pay for women as well as the right to vote, free public education, health and safety legislation for industry, the nationalization of major industries especially rail-roads and utilities. Many members of the SPC became activists in the OBU but they did not abandon the project of building the party for an anti-capitalist syndicalist dream.

The One Big Union was not expected to free the workers from wage slavery any more than the traditional trade unions were. There was no question of industrial versus political as in the 1908 Industrial Workers of the World schism. The two were complementary phases of the working class movement.

The OBU stressed class organization rather than industrial organization. In pursuance of this class policy it did not condemn political action, but rather declared that the only hope for the workers was “in the economic and political solidarity of the working class, One Big Union and One Workers’ Party.” (The OBU Bulletin, Dec. 20, 1919).

“It is not the name of an organization nor its preamble, but the degree of working class knowledge possessed by its membership that determines whether or not it is a revolutionary body…It is true that the act of voting in favour of an industrial as against the craft form of organization denotes an advance in the understanding of the commodity nature of labour power, but it does not by any means imply a knowledge of the necessity of the social revolution.” wrote Jack Kavanagh, a prominent participant in both organizations. “There can be no question of industrial Vs. political, the two are complementary phases of the working class movement, as he later explained in the Fall of 1919

The right to strike is one thing, the power to strike is another. The weakness of the members of the OBU was not in daring to dream and to act on those dreams, but not realising how many and how powerful the guardians of capitalism were. The OBU faced three very powerful opponents.

Employers blacklisted OBU workers and incited hysteria among public opinion. A mine owner told the Calgary Herald, “One thing is for certain, and that is that we will have no dealings with the One Big Union nor officers of any organization representing that sentiment.”

The craft unions within the TLC and its main affiliate, the United Mine Workers of America, which was anti-socialist and against militant industrial unionism. The OBU stood for everything it opposed.

The Communist Party following Comintern’s instructions began a campaign of disruption, forcing the OBU members back into the TLC unions or and working to destroy the organisation outright. Lenin argued against dual-unionism, against the setting up of revolutionary unions, and exhorted radicals to work in the mainstream of the labour movement in order to win the support of the majority of workers and to oust the various bureaucratic leaderships. In Canada, this meant rejoining the TLC. Regardless, in 1925 the membership was at 17,000 and still grew albeit slowly throughout the 1920’s to reach a maximum of 24,000 members.

The OBU did not have all the answers but what they represented was a tendency that was thwarted by so-called revolutionary proponents of Leninism and the reformist apologists of Laborism. Who knows what might have resulted had this development not been cut short by that informal unholy alliance of employers, union bosses, Federal government and the Communist Party?

When they eventually joined the now Canadian Labor Congress in 1956 the OBU membership stood at 12,000. Today, union activists continue to strive for collective forms of organisation capable of superseding institutional barriers and a cumbersome legal apparatus. Driven by the same dreams that mobilised a generation behind the OBU, contemporary workers can learn something from the possibilities and pitfalls of the OBU.

Decisions about industrial disputes and work-place union agreements are to be made by those directly involved and not by outside-the-union political parties remains the sound advice of the World Socialist Movement.

“Strikes may result in changes and even so-called improvements but this is but superficial. This will continue until the workers in sufficient numbers free themselves from the concepts of this society, from ideas that bind them to the notion that the present is the only possible social system, and recognize that under this system “the more things change the more they remain the same”; that even now in their struggles over wages and conditions, like the character in “Alice in Wonderland” they have to keep running in order to stay in the same place.” – W. A. Pritchard