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A.J. Muste

Strikes on the 1935 Horizon

(March 1935)


From New International, Vol. 2 No. 2, March 1935, pp. 87–90.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


AT THE MOMENT of writing no large scale strike is under way. There is a possibility that such a struggle may break out in the rubber industry in Akron. Just now, there are skirmishes only, desultory firing, as in the drivers’ strike in Fargo, N.D., the hosiery strike in Georgia, etc. Are these rear-guard actions following the strike wave of 1934 or do they presage fresh major battles?

The answer to this question must begin with an analysis of last year’s strikes. These demonstrated certain things about the employing class and its attitude, about the Roosevelt administration, about the mood of the workers, and about the condition of the unions and the role of the trade union leadership.

The employers, particularly in the basic industries, demonstrated that they are as adamant as ever against unionization of their employees and collective bargaining. The most determined resistance was offered against all attempts to organize. The building of company unions to confuse the workers was persistently pushed. Bitter and brutal methods were employed in the effort to smash strikes when they occurred. Moreover, the aggressiveness of the employer attitude toward the government and its gestures in “support” of labor’s right to organize, was intensified as the months progressed. Sabotaging of the various labor boards by resort to technicalities and endless delays, open flaunting of the authority of the boards in many instances, appeals to the courts on the issue of the constitutionality of the NRA, occurred. At the close of the year the employers’ associations openly demanded abrogation of all New Deal measures except those which strengthened monopolistic tendencies, such as suspension of the anti-trust laws. Proposals to outlaw sympathetic and general strikes are now being waged. It is a far cry from the spring of 1933 when the Chamber of Commerce of the US was begging Roosevelt to take control of industry for a couple of years on almost any terms.

When one reads the reports of vastly increased corporation profits as a result of the boosting of prices on the one hand, and the pegging of wages at a low point on the other hand, the basis for the employers’ attitude is revealed. Since, furthermore, it is only by the process of restriction of production, fixing of prices and severer exploitation of labor that profits can be made in this period of capitalist decline, their attitude toward unionism and collective bargaining will not and cannot change. Under the circumstances unions relying on cooperation with the employers can by no stretch of the imagination gain anything for workers in the basic industries. Any conceivable temporary gains and even the defense of existing standards can be won only by fighting organizations through the most intense struggle. Stable unions living for long periods in peaceful contractual relations with employers will not be a dominant feature of the landscape.

The Roosevelt administration, on its part, completely capitulated to the big industrialists in the strikes of 1934. Any pretense of “cracking down” on them and forcing them to bargain collectively was thrown to the winds. The notion is as dead today as is the great Poo-Bah Hugh Johnson himself. Administration representatives continued to issue conflicting interpretations of section 7A of NRA, which admirably served the purpose of keeping the workers hoping that Roosevelt would do something, enabling William Green and his henchmen to contend that the workers must stick to them in order to please Roosevelt and get the benefits of NRA, while the employers were at liberty to smash strikes, build company unions, etc. The gullibility of human nature is illustrated once more by the fact that for some time the fiction was maintained that it was Roosevelt’s underlings, and not the Great White Father himself, who were betraying the workers, though it was Roosevelt who personally wrote into the automobile code last March the “proportional representation” clause giving company unions the same status as independent unions. Even the most liberal of the various labor relations boards made no attempt to force employers to deal with unions or despairingly admitted that they had no power. Arbitrators and conciliators, even the best of them, considered it their main duty to prevent strikes or settle them expeditiously, not to help unions to win them so that section 7A would cease to be a dead letter.

Police and militia were regularly called out against the strikers. During the textile strike the militia was out in seven states at one time – not to whip the employers into line, but to keep strikers in line. No word of rebuke issued from the White House. To the contrary, when “Red hysteria” needed to be whipped up in order to smash the Pacific Coast strike, not only reactionary Hugh Johnson but supposedly liberal Frances Perkins of the Roosevelt staff helped to do the job.

As the new year gets under way, Roosevelt renews the automobile code, openly slapping William Green, who describes himself as the President of the “great American Federation of Labor”, in the face of refusing to remedy any of the conditions which have enabled the automobile barons to maintain the company unions. From Green, from John L. Lewis, and other trade union bureaucrats who hailed the NRA as the Charter of American labor and tricked the masses into a vast scheme of collaboration with the government in order to save capitalism, now issue howls of disappointment and rage. Of that more will be said later. Here it is important to set down the observation that so far as the issue of unionism is concerned the workers as a whole have been cured of faith in Roosevelt. I have just passed through the mine fields of southern Illinois where men were threatened with mob violence in the fall of 1933 if they showed any reluctance in joining in Blue Eagle parades. You are more likely to be laughed at today for defending the New Deal than regarded as a “Red” for attacking it! The workers may not yet fully realize that they will have to fight the government as well as the employers in order to organize unions and win strikes, but they do know that no support is coming from Washington.

What of the workers’ attitude as revealed in the year which witnessed the aluminum strike, Toledo, a near-general strike in steel, Milwaukee, Kohler, Minneapolis, San Francisco, the textile general strike? They evinced, and all the signs indicate that they still possess, a determination to organize. They are willing to fight for unionism, even under the most inadequate leadership. The general strike in textiles was finally called by the leaders of the United Textile Workers only after the most terrific pressure from the ranks. It was “settled” by the former on terms which, to put it charitably, gave the workers much less than they might have obtained. Tens of thousands of them went jobless for months because no defense against discrimination was provided in the settlement. Yet if these same UTW leaders call a general strike tomorrow, the indications are that more workers will respond than last fall. Thus have the lessons of the depression sunk in. Thus has the desire for unionism been sharpened.

Of fundamental importance is the evidence furnished in the struggles of 1934 that the craft idea is disappearing and the sense of class solidarity growing by leaps and bounds. In Toledo only five hundred union members were on strike in the Auto-Lite plant, but ten thousand Toledo workers were on hand on the afternoon and evening when the plant was stormed. A similar story can be told of every one of the big strikes of the year. Moreover, in practically every case, the unemployed trained by the unemployed organizations, especially the National Unemployed League and its units, fought side by side with their striking fellow workers on the picket lines, in fact in a number of instances took the initiative.

It was conclusively demonstrated that where, as in Minneapolis and Toledo, a realistic revolutionary political leadership was available, the workers were willing to follow it; and this leadership in large degree supplanted the conservative trade union bureaucrats, or at least forced them to take progressive steps, as the struggle pained breadth and intensity.

Despite all this, numerous strikes did not come off at all, including the very crucial ones in steel and automobiles. Save in exceptional cases, the strikes failed to achieve what under the objective conditions might have been gained. The responsibility for this must be placed in the first instance at the door of the AF of L leadership. As has already been noted, they depended upon the favor of Roosevelt, not upon struggle with the employers, to produce results for labor. They have been betrayed by their “friend”; the employers have once again demonstrated that they will not be “patriotic” and sensible, and sign union contracts. The union bureaucrats are now beating their breasts, wagging their heads, cursing such old friends as Donald Richberg, ex-attorney of the railroad unions, who learned collaboration with capitalists from no one but themselves.

Does all this mean anything for 1936? It would be a grievous error to imagine that Green et al. are now going to adopt a genuinely militant policy. They have long since forgotten how to fight, they are saturated with a conservative, capitalistic outlook. Even with regard to respectable social issues such as old age pensions they have displayed no leadership but have followed in the wake of social workers and politicians. They will make further compromises in the pinch rather than run the risk of alienating Roosevelt and giving him a pretext for calling them unpatriotic, obstructionists of the national recovery, etc. The battle for militant unions in the big industries which can only be born out of strikes must therefore necessarily be a battle against the present collaborationist leadership of the unions.

Nevertheless the experiences and revelations of the past year have weakened the position and diminished the prestige of the union bureaucrats. It will be easier for opposition forces to organize, harder for the bureaucrats to discredit those who from the beginning predicted what reliance upon the NRA would bring. Everywhere today one observes an increasing aggressiveness on the part of the progressives and militants, a defensive attitude on the part of the officialdom whose anti-Red campaign, e.g., has come to naught, and a growing disposition on the part of the masses to follow the progressives.

Furthermore, the AF of L leadership will be forced to make an effort to regain its prestige. It will have to go through the motions of trying to organize in some of the basic industries. It will have to talk in “militant” language again. Witness William Green’s speaking tour through the big industrial centers. Thus the cloak of AF of L respectability may be thrown over certain organizing campaigns and even strikes (cf. the steel strike of 1919) and the support of the labor movement as a whole gained, and this may prove of real, even decisive, help – .provided that the progressive trade union forces, with revolutionary political leadership and inspiration, maintain control of developments and use the opportunity to the utmost. An adventurist and unrealistic policy on the part of the latter will only play into the hands of the bureaucrats and offer them an alibi for inaction and sabotage. On the other hand, a Lovestoneite-SP line of timidity, of avowed or tacit alliance with the bureaucrats, can only result in the failure of organizing campaigns and the betrayal of strikes. There is, e.g., on the one hand grave doubt whether a large-scale organizing campaign and a strike in steel can be achieved today without AF of L “support” of a sort. It is certain, on the other hand, that no organizing campaign will show substantial results and no effective strike will be permitted to occur at all, unless the work is done and the actual as distinct from the nominal leadership given by the progressives and militants. To split up the masses is a crime; to split the masses from the collaborationist bureaucrats is another matter.

Under these circumstances unions independent of the AF of L cannot be ruled out of the picture ion cavalier fashion. The workers will in certain instances turn to them for all of Lovestone’s warnings! They may serve as a base for militants and revolutionists to contact workers. Their very existence is a challenge to AF of L unions and a spur to action. The most scrupulous integrity and most intelligent judgment must, however, be exercized in the situations where there is more than one union in the field. It is so easy, as in the case of the Progressive Miners and the United Mine Workers in Illinois today for the employers to play one against the other while the workers are saddled with two sets of bureaucrats instead of one! The revolutionists must stand for and vigorously push the issue of amalgamation into one democratically controlled industrial union in all such cases, and of course advance the slogan of identical demands and joint action in case of strikes. They must take every means to bring the rank and file of the organizations into contact with each other. The onus for division and splitting must rest in every instance upon the bureaucrats.

To the present writer it seems extremely doubtful whether in the long run the AF of L will be transformed into an instrument of struggle for the masses of the workers in this era of capitalist decline. No intelligent observer will be so bold as to claim that he knows for a certainty that it will. Even today there is no guarantee that the strikes which will certainly be necessary in basic industries if any semblance of organized power is to be developed by the workers, can be achieved within the framework of the AF of L. The choice between an open break with the AF of L or an ignominious and fatal abandonment of struggle may be presented to the workers. That must not be lost sight of for a single moment. Nor must the workers be left in any doubt as to what course the revolutionists will advise in such a case.

The analysis of the past year and the present position is not completed, however, with the estimate of the role of the AF of L leadership. Where were the progressives and militants in the strikes of 1934? Where were the political parties whose responsibility it was to give political direction to these struggles?

The extent to which the Left-progressive forces failed to play an adequate and decisive role in this year of insurgency in the working class may be gauged by the fact that when under pressure of the situation the AF of L convention last fall had to add “new blood” to the Executive Council, four out of the five chosen were Lewis of the Miners, Hutchinson of the Carpenters, Berry of the Pressmen, and Tobin of the Teamsters, four of the most notorious labor czars in the entire movement! The failure of the Left-progressive forces to make a better showing was due to the sheer inexperience of the more militant younger elements in the new unions; to personal rivalries among them; to their lack of political and economic background which offset their native militancy. It was due, above all, to the fact that they were unorganized. As a consequence they were more easily defeated by the old politicians of the movement, and the lessons of one struggle could not be adequately utilized in the next.

The lack of organization among the militants was in turn due to the failure of the SP to provide any independent leadership whatever in the union field and on the other hand to the disruptionist policy of the CP in the last period which had demoralized the Lefts and isolated them from the masses, and made it easy for the bureaucracy to kill the influence of any opposition by tagging the “communist” label on it. Thus the key to the developments of 1935 is in the hands of the new revolutionary party and of the organized Left-progressives in the unions.

Economic conditions are such that the workers, both in private employ and on public projects, will be driven to struggle. There is no doubt that the will to organize is still strong among them, even though in such an industry as automobiles e.g., after the experiences of last year, they hesitate to give their full confidence to any union in the field. Trust in the employers, the NRA and the union officialdom has been shaken. There is an unquestioned tendency practically everywhere to look with hope to the militants. These militants and Lefts must speedily learn to work together; they must organize both locally, in each industry, and nationally for the trade union movement as a whole. This is essential for defense against the reactionaries who one day will smash isolated centers of militancy. It is likewise essential because no headway can be made with such stupendous problems as steel or automobiles, e.g., by weak and scattered forces who operate in a haphazard fashion.

In this connection the “new line” of the CP must be dealt with. Disaster having overtaken it as a result of its former policies, the criminal incorrectness of which we had pointed out for years, the party is now executing the biggest zig-zag yet. In its latest program the “revolutionary” unions are liquidated, the united-front-from-below is in the discard, there are no more social Fascists it would appear, it is not wise to “raise the question of an independent federation of labor”, AF of L unions are no longer company unions. To the naive it might appear that the leopard has changed his spots, and that a thoroughly correct and realistic trade union policy has been worked out. The work in the AF of L unions will now be carried on with all the circumspection that CP leaders and followers, long-trained in a false line, can muster. Mighty efforts will be made to ingratiate themselves with progressive unionists who yesterday were fakers and capitalist agents, preventing the workers from rushing into the “revolutionary” unions. There is no doubt that with its apparatus, press, etc., the CP can momentarily make some headway with this policy. It has already gained a slight foothold in one or two fields where previously it was barred. Yet, for all its painful, stilted efforts to act tactfully, to put on an “American approach”, it is already demonstrating in the steel situation that it cannot get rid of its mechanical way of handling things, that it can only play in an adventurist fashion for capture of a movement, for a big story to write about in the Daily Worker, but cannot responsibly, patiently and honestly build a mass movement.

The plausibility of the CP’s present line must not prevent any revolutionist or intelligent trade unionist from understanding its real nature and pressing the attack until this party which has everywhere in recent years led the workers to defeat has been completely isolated and eliminated as an evil influence in the labor movement. Its recent turn does not result from a reasoned view of the situation and it is not based on principle. It is based upon the exigencies of Soviet Russia’s policy, under Stalinist leadership, of conciliation with the capitalist world and lack of confidence in the revolutionary movement in capitalist countries. If it were based on principle, the new line would have been taken long ago and the havoc that has been wrought in the unions by the scattering of the Left-progressive forces and in other ways prevented. If the new turn were a principled one, it would be marked by some Bolshevik self-criticism of this havoc wrought in the past. But we look in vain for any such analysis of past mistakes and crimes in CP literature.

We are assured that a new united front policy is now to be carried out but our comrades in Toledo found recently that there is the same old trickery and chicanery as before. The honest militants everywhere will find that to be the case. The CP makes a great show of wanting to establish an honest united front with the SP and the AF of L unions, but at the same time makes vehement attacks upon the Workers party and upon its members, adherents and sympathizers in the unions, in the Unemployed Leagues, in Toledo, Minneapolis, the Illinois mine fields and other centers where these workers have constituted the backbone of the progressive fighting forces for years! What kind of a united front is it which can take in social democrats, conservatives and reactionaries but must exclude and even attack Allard, Battuello, Selander, Pollock, the Dunne brothers, Bill Truax, Arnold Johnson, Ramuglia, Bill Brown? And exclude and attack the Workers Party – the one party which the CP cannot logically accuse of not being revolutionary and hence now describes as “ultra-revolutionary”? By this course the CP undoubtedly displays partisan tactical sense, recognizing the one force that can effectively challenge its pretensions, has indeed put it completely on the defensive everywhere. But it likewise gives conclusive evidence that it does not possess the competence and integrity to give leadership to the labor movement.

Some obstruction to progress the CP may yet he able to offer, yet even this can be reduced to a minimum and certainly will be if the Workers party rallies all its forces and gives the workers that leadership which they crave. For the workers are not in large numbers going to “fall”, for the latest CP argument:

“We have, after wreaking untold havoc in every corner of the labor movement, had to throw overboard in indecent haste every major policy of recent years; ergo, we have proved that we are the only party that can do anything for the workers!”

Within the CP itself the sudden new turn is causing profound disturbance. Many honest members and sympathizers now listen willingly to the propaganda of the Workers party and study its literature. With an increasing number of former CP sympathizers we shall now be able to work. Not a few members will join our ranks. Hot flirtations with social democrats and conservatives may temporarily gain the CP some sympathizers among the latter. It will be at the cost of alienating true revolutionists in its own ranks who have no means of telling when some new exigency of Stalinist policy may bring orders – for still another zig-zag!

Thus the Workers Party must assume its responsibility in the strike struggles of 1936, in the building of the new Left wing in the unions. The fact that the American Workers Party existed and that the Communist League of America turned to mass work profoundly affected the character of the mass movement and the strike struggles last year. Without Toledo and Minneapolis things would have been very different. The merger of these two organizations brings the revolutionary forces to 1936 with strength, clarity and purpose much more than doubled. There is no time to be lost in rallying all the sound revolutionary elements into the new party, in bringing all militant forces in and out of the party together for united action, lest the upsurge of the masses in 1935 again fail to achieve results commensurate with their militancy. If on the other hand we do measure up to our responsibility the political level of the struggle will be greatly raised this year and American capitalism challenged as never before by the organized might of the masses.


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