Unionizing the Brain Worker

Unionizing the Brain Worker

David J. Saposs, “Unionizing the Brain Worker: Actors, Writers, and Librarians Line Up!” Labor Age, December 1922, pp. 1-2.

To call any group of workers “brain workers” does not really mean very much. Everyone who works uses hands and brain. The executive and the poet have their hand-tools, pencils, pens and the like. Even such a simple-looking job as ditch digging, on the other hand, is an art of its own. Anyone who has taken a hand at being a “muck stick artist”–digging foundations, for example–can tell you that.

But “brain worker” is a word which has come to be commonly used–and no better one has yet appeared. It covers those two sets of workers who do not strain their muscles in doing their jobs. They are the so-called “white-collar slaves”–clerks and other office employes–and the members of professions–doctors, lawyers, engineers.

It has been an old, old charge that “brain workers” of any type would never organize. They would not consider themselves as brothers of the manual workers. It is the latter who have blazed the way in trade unionism. But the charge against the “brain workers” is today only half true. The actors’ unions have shown that the job canbe done. The Actors’ Equity Association is strongly organized–perhaps, one of the strongest unions in its own field, of those belonging to the Amerian Federation of Labor. It links together star and non-star. It enforces its Equity Shop Contract. It has defeated the open shop campaign with the greatest ease. Since its victory of three years ago, it has given the lie year by year, step by step, in all its efforts, to that old charge.

It is not the only group in the theatre which has done well. On the Jewish stage the players are 100 per cent organized. Among the Polish and Bohemian speaking group the union is also strong. The musicians have an equally good record. Their effective organization goes back farther than that of the actors, to at least two decades ago. They have been able to raise the standards of their profession, by requiring an entrance examination for the candidate for union membership. They have been strong enough in many places to require that the proprietor of a moving picture show or theatre employ so many musicians for ever so many seats in his house as the union may require. In the battle against the “open shoppers,” they have on the whole held their ground well. The membership of the American Federation of Musicians reached 75,000 this year–the highest in its career.

During the War, the clerks, too, heeded the call of unionism. The organized railway and steamship clerks–who belong to the same international union as the manual working freight handlers–increased greatly in number. Their organization is one of the most active and progressive among the rail unions. Their fellow workers, the railway mailers, have a strong little union of their won. Then, there is the important National Federation of Federal Employees, with its membership of 25,000. It extends all through the federal service, with strong locals in the Library of Congress and the Bureau of Standards. In its ranks are men with doctors’ titles, specialists of all sorts, types of professional men who would not be thought of as connected in any way with a trade union or the American Federation of Labor. In their battles for changes in the civil service laws and for better salaries, however, these men have found the labor movement a powerful Big Brother.

Why, even the bank clerks of the Jewish east side are union members! In 1920 they went on strike against the United States Bank. The contest was an uneven one. The bank lost. Sad to relate, this movement has not spread to the hard-worked and low-paid bank clerks of non-Jewish institutions. They are much in the same class as the “retail clerks”–salesmen and salesladies in retail stores and shops. The International Protective Association of Retail Clerks has 16,000 members–but they are mainly to be found in mining communities and other like places where union cooperative stores flourish. Department store strikes have been rare in American labor history. Perhaps the largest was the strike in St. Louis about five years ago, when 4,000 men and girls came out on the street. But that was due to unusual conditions. It followed a quickly won street-car strike. It had the negative support at least of one of the large newspapers–boycotted for a time by the retail merchants.

In the garment trades, however, both the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union have been able to make headway among the salesforces in the retail shops. They have brought these salesmen and saleswomen into their own organizations, which are of course industrial unions, covering the whole of their respective industries. The success that they have had in unionizing these people will beyond doubt in time encourage other strong unions of manual workers to do likewise with clerks and salespeople in their industries.

No band of workers has fought harder or more courageously than the teachers’ unions, particularly in New York City. Their story is given in this issue of the LABOR AGE.

Previous issues have told of the help which technical men–lawyers, engineers and researchers–are giving the Unions. Most of these groups of workers have defied unionization.

yet, when we recall that even the Jewish rabbis in Chicago have formed their own economic organizations and that the “shochets”–with rabbinical functions–are organized in the United Hebrew Trades in that city, the day when technicians of all kinds may be widely organized in the trade unions may not be so far off. The nurses and other attendants of public institutions are also organized. This is the case in Chicago, where several local unions exist. It must be also remembered that the highest trade scientists of the federal service are members of the Federal Employees’ Union, and that the highest trained artists of the actors are unionized.

When the time comes the line of cleavage between those who work for a living and those who do not work will be easily seen. The united “intellectual” and manual workers will readily see that they do not need the stockholder and the banker. The two groups of workers can run industry by conducting it themselves. Unionization of the “brain workers,” therefore, means much to the manual workers–just as the “brain worker” cannot make much progress toward effective organization without the help of his “hand-working” brothers. Unionization of the “brain workers” means final freedom for both, through the establishment of Service in Industry.


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