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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Phillips Russell, November 18, 1974. Interview B-0011-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Two schools of thought for labor activism—political versus economic

Russell describes two schools of thought that dominated the labor movement during the 1930s and early 1940s: political action versus economic action. According to Russell, leaders of the Southern Summer School for Workers and the Black Mountain College of the Textile Workers of America tended to embrace the view that political action was the best means for improving the conditions of workers. Russell, on the other hand, tended to favor economic action, such as labor strikes, as a more effective means of change.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Phillips Russell, November 18, 1974. Interview B-0011-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MARY FREDERICKSON:
What was the feeling among the people at the school . . . how was there view different of what was going on than yours?
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
There were two schools of thought then in the labor movement. One was that what the AFL does today is going into political action, voting and getting out the vote and all like that. Whereas my own view and that of my better friends was that economic action was just as needed as political. We had a fear that labor would grow stronger on its own field, that is, of economics, rather than just going to the polls every couple of years and dropping a piece of paper in the ballot box.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Well, as far as political activity was concerned, it was a very confusing time in the late thirties. What did those associates of Mrs. McLaren like Huberman, what did Huberman want to do?
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
Well, he was a political activist, as was Mildred Price. In fact, I would say that all the assistants and associates of Mrs. McLaren were political actionists. I didn't oppose that or argue against it, but I didn't think that it was strong enough.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
You didn't think they were strong enough?
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
I didn't think that political action was strong enough. I didn't think that it would get the results in a way that strong economic action would.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
When you say strong economic action, do you mean programs like the New Deal programs that had been instituted?
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
No, that's political. The New Deal was all political. Economic action implies something different from voting, you see. Voting doesn't necessarily come into it at all. That is, voting for the usual array of candidates that were all picked at a distance and unknown to you personally. What was called direct action at the time was . . . well, it might imply a strike or it might imply taking some . . . well, for instance, during that Lawrence strike at Lawrence, Massachusetts, which was one of the few that Haywood controlled or bossed at the time. He got the children sent away, you see, out of town where they could be better taken care of, better fed and so on because a strike always means that somebody's income suffers. So, that would be a manouver that wouldn't be political, you see.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
I understand. So, it would be directly related to the local area that you are talking about rather than a broad national program?
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
Well, it could be localized or you could make a countywide movement of it or a statewide, as far as that is concerned.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
But it would tend to be more directly related to the people involved?
PHILLIPS RUSSELL:
Well yes, that would be the chief point of it, to give the people some feeling of relationship and control towards what was going on.