Harry Frankel

Important Internal Developments in the USWA

What the Steel Convention Revealed

(January 1952)

From Fourth International, Vol.13 No.1, January-February 1952, pp.17-22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

The Special Convention of the United Steelworkers of America, held January 3rd and 4th at Atlantic City, was the first opportunity for the rank and file of that union to make an important decision affecting the national strategy of the union. For the first time in the union’s history, the ranks were called in and told: Here are the alternatives. We strike now, or we postpone our strike and go to the Wage Stabilization Board with our case.

Originally, the convention call was issued in conjunction with a strike call for January 1. However, even after the strike was postponed at Truman’s request the need for the convention remained. Philip Murray was compelled to call the Special Convention in order to give the ranks a chance to exert maximum pressure on the steel companies during the period of negotiations. If Murray were to accept the terms of the steel magnates and the war mobilization officials, the resulting contract would be absolutely disgraceful, even by present generally accepted standards in the union movement. It is impossible for Murray, head of the CIO, to sign such a contract. Faced with a blank wall, both in Pittsburgh and in Washington, he found the pressure of the ranks indispensable. Therefore, the Special Convention, with all stops pulled insofar us militant speeches are concerned. Therefore the appeal to the ranks that characterized the Special Convention.

Departure from Traditional Procedure

As it turned out, the decision of the convention was a purely formal one. That is, the decision made by Murray to postpone a strike was simply approved by the convention without dispute. Nevertheless, this first departure from traditional procedure, despite the fact that it came as a “gift” from the union bureaucracy, is a step along the road to a democratic steel union. This particular decision was not opposed by the ranks because there was hardly any sentiment for an immediate strike. However, decision-making is a heady liquor: it is habit forming. There is every indication that the steel workers will profit by this experience, and seek to arrogate to themselves more and more in the future, the power to make decisions. This habit will become especially marked when the ranks come into conflict with the policies of the top bureaucracy.

The internal development of the steel union, which we want to examine in this article, has been peculiar and unlike that of most of the other industrial unions of the CIO. These peculiarities arise both from the special circumstances of the industry and of the way in which the union was organized.

Key Position of Steel

Steel is the backbone of American industry. This is true in a twofold sense: both physically and socially. Steel is the structural material upon which all of industry is draped. The steel industry is also the basic concentration of American capital. Thus the loss of any significant portion of annual steel output, particularly under present conditions of war-drive and steel shortage, throws the whole of industry into a crisis. Indeed, it is not too much to say that a prolonged steel strike in the present period could produce a great nationwide social crisis. Even the wartime coal crises, when the pits were strikebound by the militant miners, could not produce so severe a convulsion as would be caused by a similar steel shutdown. As a matter of fact, the seriousness of the mine strikes lay primarily in the fact that after several weeks, they began to cut into steel production by halting the flow of coking coal to the nation’s blast furnaces.

The only industry that rivals the key position held by steel is the railroad industry. Here, however, another important characteristic of the steel union enters. The steel union is an industrial union; the railroad workers are scattered in segmented craft units. Moreover, the steel workers enjoy the added power of industry-wide bargaining. Roughly three-quarters of the steelworkers are covered by contracts that expire at the same time. These industry-wide negotiations, taken together with the central position of steel in the economy, carry latent within them the possibility of an explosive social crisis each time the union and corporations meet around the polished table to open contract talks.

It is this potentiality of social crisis, inherent in all conflicts in the steel industry, which hangs over the heads of the negotiating parties. It is this potentiality of crisis which supplies the element of extreme tension to steel negotiations.

Leaders Fear Power of Ranks

The fact that a steel shutdown would place a strangler’s noose around the neck of all American industry would appear at first glance to be a great asset in the hands of the union negotiators. Actually, however, because of the defend-capitalism-first line of the heads of the United Steelworkers of America, that very asset is turned into a liability by the leaders of the union. They fear the power that is in their hands. They enter each negotiation session in deathly terror lest the arrogant steel barons challenge them to shut the industry down in support of the union’s demands. Philip Murray would undoubtedly enter into negotiations with the industry with a much lighter heart were he dealing with the paper box or toy manufacturers of the US, and had at his back only a scattering of workers in secondary industry. The 1,100,000 steel workers behind him frighten Murray more than anything else connected with the conflicts in steel which he is called upon to guide.

That is why the steel union leaders have set exceptional curbs upon the ranks of the steel workers in the form of tight bureaucratic control over the union membership The steel workers have shown time and again that, while they are no more anxious than any other workers to lose badly-needed pay through strikes, they have no Murray-like inhibitions about the use of the strike weapon when they sec no other way to win important demands. They are not troubled by any fears of a social crisis. They correctly leave such worries to the industrial and financial magnates who have usurped the power of ruling this country.

Birth of the Union

It must be recalled that peculiar circumstances attended the birth of this union. Steel mills, grouped in small towns dominated by the coal and steel oligarchy, were part of an almost feudal barony up to 1936-41. After the defeat of the great Homestead strike in 1892, organization was limited to top layers of the most skilled men, and was never strong even among them. When, in 1919, the Herculean effort of the steel workers to organize themselves was defeated, primarily through the weaknesses of the craft union divisions imposed upon the workers by AFL bureaucrats, steel unionism fell to a low point. Further, the large scale importation of Negroes from the South into the steel centers and their employment as scabs introduced a division in the ranks of the workers that was to hinder new organization efforts.

In late May and early June of 1937, the CIO drive in the steel mills came to a climax in the Little Steel strikes. All the principal basic steel mills of the nation, with the exception of the plants of the US Steel Corporation, “Big Steel,” were closed down tight. But, outside of Jones and Laughlin, these strikes were also defeated by a combination of union inexperience, faulty leadership, and chicanery plus force employed by the “New Deal” governmental apparatus.

However, by this time, the chief union contract of the industry had already been signed, in the form of a “sweetheart” agreement between the US Steel Corp. and the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. This contract was signed in March 1937, and in the years following, similar agreements were signed in the other important steel plants. The only big strikes that occurred were in Bethlehem Steel, during the early part of 1941. In sum, it can be said that while most of the steel strikes over a 50 year period were defeated, the industry as a whole succumbed to the general power of the CIO drive of the late Thirties rather than to the direct offensive of the steel workers.

What Made Murray Dominant?

In these circumstances, the steel union and its gains took on the appearance of a gift from the top leadership to the ranks. This was heightened by the fact that the powerful United Mine Workers, by pouring in money and experienced personnel fresh from the great unionizing drive in the mine-fields, gave an imposing appearance of strength to the top directors of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.

Philip Murray and the other UMW men in the steel setup were not in the least averse to taking credit for this “gift” and used every opportunity to claim the credit, not only for the union, but also for the great gains which the steel workers received from unionization. And the gains were exceptionally great in steel. The steel workers had been among the most bitterly oppressed in the nation. Fantastically brutal conditions of labor and miserably low wages had ruled in the steel mills. Moreover, the steel workers had lived all their days under the iron heel of a vicious dictatorship. The company towns of western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and the Chicago district were owned lock, stock and barrel by the steel and coal lords, and in Pennsylvania, the mounted Coal and Iron Police supplemented the terror of local authorities with the added terror of private capitalist armies. When this dictatorship was at last smashed, the result was a minor social and political revolution. Much of the thanks for these gains went to the top leaders and became a source of great prestige which is enjoyed by Philip Murray to this very day. This prestige is large in proportion to the vast improvements in conditions in the steel areas, and should not be underestimated.

Stifled Development of Militants

Because of this combination of factors, the bureaucracy of the United Mine Workers was able to move into steel, and to saddle the new union with a tightly bureaucratic apparatus from the very beginning. Although the steel union was organized in June, 1936, it existed in the form of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee until May, 1942. Thus the union didn’t even have a constitution for the first six years. Top officers, directors of the districts into which the union is divided, and the staff representatives of the union were all appointed from the top, and formed themselves into a self-perpetuating machine. This machine has a tight clique character; far more so than in most other CIO unions, where the ranks have been able to intervene, stir things up, and break up top cliques. The steel union bureaucrats stick close together. The District Directors today remain virtually the same as those appointed during the SWOC days, with minor changes made from the top. The union staff of International representatives, many of whom have secured their jobs through friendship or “pull” rather than by struggle on behalf of the ranks, get protection from the top in holding on to those jobs. An official is rarely fired from the staff in the steel union. If he is too scandalously incompetent, if the stink get too bad, he may be transferred to another district.

The general result of this top bureaucratic domination has been a serious stifling of local and rank and file education, training and initiative. Local leaders have been slow in developing, and, with some exceptions, are not of the highest caliber. The staff is probably less generally competent in the important steel union than in most other CIO unions, despite the poor general quality throughout the whole trade union movement. Full time local officials, paid by the local unions are rare, although many large locals with good dues incomes exist in the steel union. Indications have been that the International office frowns upon the practice of putting local union officials on full time. Local union newspapers are also a rarity, and the International paper, Steel Labor, does not even meet the mediocre standards set by most papers of the US trade union movement.

The domination by a strong top bureaucracy and the general conditions of backwardness in the union have tended to stifle the political development of the ranks. Left-wing political tendencies, experience has shown, are indispensable for the education of the ranks, for the stimulation of a lively internal life, and for the general forward movement of unions. The Communist Party at one time had a very strong position in the steel union. However, because of the fact that this position was not securely based among the ranks but was dependent on appointed offices, and because of the role played by these Communist Party forces in the betrayal of the Little Steel strikes into the hands of the New Deal government, it was quite easy for Murray to root out the CP many years ago, and since that time neither the CP nor any other radical tendency has had any widespread influence in the union.

Effect of War and Postwar Strikes

The foregoing general picture of the steel union would be most accurate as a portrayal of the union of six or eight years ago. The present picture, while not very greatly altered, shows some signs of change. The increasing experience of the ranks and of local leaders in class battles with the steel industry underlies this change.

The second world war had an effect upon the steel union similar to that which it had upon most other unions. The progress of the union in terms of improved conditions and better pay was temporarily slowed, but the union grew tremendously in size (600,000 members in 1942, 1,100,000 today) and in stored-up, potential power. In 1946, this power exploded in one great steel strike, and in 1949 in a second. These strikes were fully supported by the ranks. The mills were shut down tight, every company attempt at strikebreaking was smashed, and the strikes ended in victories: in both cases a significant portion of union demands were won.

These strikes were not comparable to such upsurges as the auto strikes that compelled union recognition between 1936 and 1941, or to similar great organizing struggles. They did not require a maximum of rank and file initiative or organization. They began with a signal from the top, they were completely solid, and all that was required of most local bodies of men was to stay out, with the prospects of victory good all the time. Never at any time was the existence of the union itself directly endangered.

However, despite the semi-automatic character of the two great strikes, they necessarily worked certain changes throughout the ranks. The workers gained more confidence in the union, and pride in its great power. Small-scale organizational experience in strike problems, such as picket organization, food supply, issuance of printed material and the calling of strike mass-meetings accumulated throughout the ranks. Officials and local leaders were tested in struggle, and the habit of judgment of their capacities was formed.

Experience in “Guerilla Warfare”

Even more important than these two industry-wide strikes, so far as the education of the ranks is concerned, is the continual guerilla warfare at the plant and district level. Plant policies relating to seniority, local premium-payment plans, hiring and firing, job duties, crew sizes and speedup, and all the innumerable other matters that go to make up working conditions have never settled down into any set grooves in the steel industry. Neither the union nor the company has as yet emerged predominant in this respect. Thus a large section of the local unions of the United Steelworkers of America has been involved in a series of bitter struggles with the companies over these conditions. The fights have become particularly intense during the past two years, due to an increasing company offensive spearheaded by the US Steel Corporation. Indeed, although it is hard to get statistics on such a matter, it seems that there have been far more local strikes, stoppages, slowdowns and even lockouts in the steel industry over the period of the past year or two than in any other industry.

Moreover, the top officials of the union have not put clamps on the membership in the recent period. Every indication is that, unlike the bureaucrats of the United Auto Workers and many other unions, they are not carrying on a terror campaign against their own ranks, punishing or permitting companies to punish “wildcat” strike leaders, etc. From all appearances, top officials are not getting in the way of local struggles, and, to a certain degree, are even protecting and defending militants in the mills. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that the bureaucracy finds itself in need of a counter-balance to the increasing arrogance of the corporations, an arrogance which often appears to be on the verge of challenging the very existence of the union. Here the present contrast between a Reuther and a Murray becomes clear. Reuther has no need of developing and encouraging the militancy and initiative of the ranks. Quite the contrary, because of the history and traditions of the auto workers’ union, there is so much of it that it threatens to engulf him; he must try to stifle and restrict it. Reuther need never fear an insufficient reaction on the part of the ranks of the union in case of any attempt to destroy it. Murray, on the other hand, is at times troubled by. the backwardness of the steel union, of which he himself is one of the chief causes.

Thus he has been, for the last few years, attempting to encourage the development of a militancy, which he wants to be able to turn on and off like a water tap, to back him up in negotiations. This contradictory process makes the hide-bound conservative leader of a backward union appear more militant than the Social-Democratic leader of the most dynamic union in the country.

Early Resistance to Bureaucracy

Results of this process of education-by-struggle have been seen within the union. Already in 1942, a series of flare-ups occurred at the founding convention. Despite tight machine control, there were many among the 1700 delegates to that convention who fought the machine on such issues as the surrender of overtime pay for Saturdays and Sundays (the union gave up this demand during the war at the “request” of President Roosevelt, and has not won it yet; it is one of the 22 demands in the present negotiations), on the appointment of International representatives, and on the portion of the dues money going to the Pittsburgh headquarters office. At this convention, the delegates got a little taste of Murray methods in dealing with an opposition. The dues question brought half the convention to its feet clamoring for the floor. Murray refused to allow any debate, stepping to the mike and saying: “Now I’m going to do a little blitzkrieg on my own.” He spoke for a solid half-hour, hammering the opposition, but despite the harangue and the machine-control, 300 of the 1700 delegates stood up in opposition to the Murray proposal.

The floor protest against a constitutional provision for continuing the appointment of organizers was almost as big. Murray, in speaking for the provision, said:

“The union is only six years old. We cannot run the gamut of democratic procedure to the point of license. You are only taking the first step in the direction of a democratic setup. Good as your intentions are, you should not assume the hazard of placing the union in jeopardy. And that’s what you would do if you threw this convention into confusion, and tried to elect officers, etc.”

Murray appealed to the delegates, in other words, to be patient. However, after ten years, the union now being sixteen years old staff organizers are still appointed, and the period of time between election of top international officials has been doubled. The promised “democracy” has failed to materialize, and will never materialize so long as the ranks wait for Murray to give it to them.

Incipient Revolt of 1946

In May 1944, at the second Constitutional Convention, another protest flashed in the meeting hall. A stormy 1½ hour outburst against the no-strike pledge took place. For the first time, an attempt by Murray to close debate was overridden, and the delegates asserted their right to continue talking. About a quarter of the convention voted against the continuance of the no-strike pledge.

As could be expected, the biggest show of rank and file independence came at the May 1946 convention immediately following the victorious steel strike of earlier that year. The ranks, flushed with triumph, came to the convention feeling their oats and ready to take on Murray if he stepped on their toes. Protests were made against the policy of the International in arrogating to itself the sole right to pass on contracts. Other delegates demanded that the International pay part of the cost of arbitration procedure. The biggest clash came on the issue of convention representation. The Murray proposal to reduce representation from one delegate for each 100 members to one delegate for each 500 members met with bitter and open rebellion. For the first time, the delegates to a steel convention succeeded in defeating an International-sponsored proposal. At that time, many saw in this the “coming-of-age” of the steel union, and felt that a powerful left-wing opposition to Murray was on the order of the day.

This feeling was heightened by the fact that, at the International elections the following year, held as usual by referendum, a number of District Directors faced opposition candidates sponsored by rank and file groupings. In one case, District 26 (Youngstown and environs), the incumbent director was actually defeated by such a grouping.

Effect of New War Preparations

However, this process of rank-and-file revolt was halted by the onset of the preparations for World War III. The top leadership of the CIO was just beginning its reactionary offensive against the Communist Party in the unions, and along with the CP against radicals and militants who showed any sign of independence from the machine. The growing self-assertion of the ranks of the steel union fell victim temporarily to this drive. Thus at the May 1948 convention the lowest point in the union’s history was reached, insofar as bureaucratic domination is concerned. The bureaucrats indulged themselves in an orgy of red-baiting that would have done credit to a Senator Joseph McCarthy. A constitutional provision banning Communist Party members from any union office was passed.

However, the CP was not the sole target at this convention. This was shown by the fact that the proposal which had been defeated at the previous convention, reducing convention delegations to one for each 500 members, was jammed through at this convention. In addition, dues were raised from $1.50 a month to $2.00, the term of office of International and District officers was increased from 2 years to 4, and the officers’ salaries were raised.

It was at this low point in the union’s history that Philip Murray made his famous discovery; to wit: “Collective bargaining has become less and less a contest and more and more a collaboration.” One national steel strike and the threat of another since that time may have disabused him of that notion. If Murray’s dream could have come true, if his fantasy of a “collaboration” in the place of a “contest” had any reality, he might well have been able to continue the trend of 1948 and grind his own union members under the iron heel of absolutism within the union.

Murray’s Dilemma

Unfortunately for Philip Murray and all bureaucrats, unions are not built that way. Organized for struggle against a vicious and implacable enemy, they have the quality of restoring within themselves the conditions for struggle regardless of the intentions of leaders. Often, they compel leaders to choose a course of action the very opposite of that which they would like. That is what has been happening in the steel union since 1948.

The Special Convention of the union, held at the start of this year, was a graphic instance of this process. Murray was there compelled, against his whole trend and inclination, to call upon the ranks for help, to denounce the steel barons in violent terms, and to give encouragement to precisely that portion of the ranks which is most likely in the future to come into conflict with him and his machine. Moreover, in sharp contrast with the last two regular conventions of the union, the machine men who parrot Murray were pushed into the background. Discussion from the floor was not limited, but encouraged. As a matter of fact, the day-and-a-half of this Special Convention probably saw more discussion than two or three of the five-day regular, conventions combined.

The coming May convention of the union may see more of the same. Murray, in a sudden and unexplained outburst at the close of the special convention, told the cheering delegates:

“You will have great work to perform there (at the May convention). I know and I am going to help you perform some of that work in that convention because whatever life I have got shall be dedicated to bringing this organization closer to you.

“There are going to be no little dictatorships in this union; there are going to be no connivances; there is going to be no bribery. There is going to be no money used out of the treasury of this organization to buy the friendship of anybody in this union to promote any man to any office in this organization. And you are going to help the officers of this union, when the convention comes around, to see to it that you have the kind of constitution that will permit you, the owners of this organization, to play a part in the operation of its affairs.”

Premises for Growth of a Left Wing

If Murray wanted to give the delegates food for thought, he certainly succeeded. Everyone knows that the money which Murray and his machine in all parts of the country have used out of the union treasury has not been paid out for the purpose of buying anybody’s enmity. Certainly Murray demands absolute personal and policy loyalty for “his” money. Thus this blast and call for a change in policy must be connected with some elements of the present situation in which the steel union finds itself. They may be bound up with the general appeals for rank and file support which Murray has been throwing out. More likely, they stem from clique and personal fights going on at the top of the union. Such fights, long rumored, may have intensified as rival groups jockey for first place in the succession to the ill and aging Murray.

However, Murray’s intentions do not count for everything. If the rank and file breaks through a bit in the course of the discussion at the May convention, it will not be the first time that honest militants in the ranks have taken advantage of quarrels between top bureaucrats in order to make their own voices heard.

No real militant opposition to the steel union bureaucracy can be expected until there are big changes in the political thinking of the militants. So long as they have nothing to offer in place of the Murray program of supporting the war-policy of American imperialism, they are limited. A left wing, and in this the steel union is in precisely the same position as the whole union movement, can only be expected to arise on the basis of a heightened class consciousness and an independent political consciousness among the workers. This heightened consciousness waits on the American social crisis, which in turn, appears to wait on the coming war. Keeping this in mind, we can turn to certain considerations which apply primarily to the steel union.

A special handicap faced by the militants in the steel union is that there is no tradition of internal struggle. Disagreements are taboo. Murray rules the conventions with an iron hand. He gets the power to do this, firstly, because he faces an unorganized membership: secondly, because of great personal prestige; thirdly, because of the sheer physical weight of his paid machine, and fourthly, because of certain personal talents and abilities. Thus Murray does not usually entertain motions to open or close debate. He personally decides when he wants to do those things, and only very rarely, perhaps only in the one instance cited above at the ’44 convention, has he been forced to yield to the ranks. Murray doesn’t even say he is closing discussion. His regular procedure is to stand quietly for a moment while several dozen delegates clamor for the floor, and then intone: “Will the delegates please be seated.” This is a signal to the machine-lackeys that Murray is about to speak, and they raise a flurry of applause, after which Murray proceeds to a one or two hour harangue on the question under discussion, or on any other matters that may cross his mind. This type of procedure, impossible in most CIO unions, is still typical of many local steel union meetings, with the local “boss” taking the role of Murray.

This atmosphere can be broken only by the determined opposition of organized militants, who are prepared to fight for democratic procedure until they get it.

It would be an unwarranted inference from the foregoing account that there is any big opposition to Murray shaping up at present. The process of awakening and education of local leaders and rank-and-file spokesmen is all that is going on right now. Moreover, this awakening is going on, at the moment, more under Murray’s wing than in opposition to him. As we have seen, he is calling upon the union’s militants for help in his attempts to compel the corporations to sign contracts that are not completely disgraceful.

But the potentialities for a left-wing in the steel union, in the coming times of crisis, are truly enormous. The striking picture presented by the steel union, and made graphic at its conventions, is that of an enormous mass of powerfully organized and militant steel workers on the one side, and Murray on the other, with very little in between. The machine has power only when the ranks are dormant, but when the ranks move the machine counts for little. It possesses only money and brute force. It exhibits very little of the talent and maneuverability that are indispensable in diverting a movement of indignation (for example, Walter Reuther and his many fancy talkers and fancy-Dan maneuverers), and in making that movement stop at some halfway house.

Thus the situation in the steel union encourages the conclusion that when dissatisfaction with the present Murray program grows strong and crystallizes, the ranks will show great power and will face only weak barriers. They will produce great rank and file leaders, even better than those of 1936 and 1937, and will push these new leaders directly into power in the steel union.


Last updated on 19.7.2006