James P. Cannon

Amalgamation-The Burning Question

Written: 20 September 1923, Voice of Labor
First Published: 1923
Source: James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism. Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 © Spartacist Publishing Company, 1992. ISBN 0-9633828-1-0; Published by Spartacist Publishing Company, Box 1377 G.P.O. New York, NY 10116. Introductory material and notes by the Prometheus Research Library.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Prometheus Research Library
Copyright: Permission for on-line publication provided by Spartacist Publishing Company for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2005.

The following article by Cannon in favor of industrial unionism appeared in the Chicago weekly, Voice of Labor, one of whose editors was William Z. Foster.

One of the biggest questions on the agenda of all labor conventions these days is amalgamation. The demand for it is steadily growing, despite all official opposition. It is a powerful movement from below, born of the actual need of the hour, and nothing can stop it.

The amalgamation proposition is very simple, and has been stated in classic form by the Chicago Federation of Labor in the resolution adopted on March 19, 1922. After pointing out that under the present conditions of craft divisions, “the unions are unable to make united resistance against their employers, constantly suffer defeat after defeat, with heavy losses in membership and serious lowering of the workers’ standards of living and working conditions,” the resolution says:

The only solution for the situation is the development of a united front by the workers through the amalgamation of the various trade unions so that there will remain only one union for each industry.

A Bad Year for Labor

Despite the optimistic talk of officials, the open shop movement of the bosses is still smashing forward, wrecking one union after another and depriving ever-larger numbers of workers of hard-won conditions. The year between the Cincinnati convention of the American Federation of Labor and the one about to be held at Portland has been a disastrous one for the workers. This is the bitter truth, and even Gompers will not be able to juggle figures enough to hide it.

Since the Cincinnati convention we have had the opportunity to see the full effect of the open shop war on the railroad shop crafts, once the stronghold of American unionism. On many roads the seven shop craft unions have been completely wiped out, and in their place has come the “Company Union.” Even on those roads where settlements were secured, the old-time power of the unions is gone. The “settlements” were really surrenders on the part of the strikers in practically every case. This crushing defeat, the manifest inability of the shop crafts alone to cope with the consolidated power of the railroad companies, has robbed all the railroad unions of militancy and aggressiveness. They take what they can get, because they have not the power to take what they want.

The defeat of the railroad shopmen had a widespread effect outside the railroads; it dealt a heavy moral blow to the entire labor movement. So depressed and paralyzed have the trade unions become under the crushing effect of the open shop campaign that they were not able to show a noticeable recuperation during the industrial revival. In previous periods of “prosperity” the trade unions have greatly increased their membership and pressed home their advantage; big and successful organization campaigns have been the rule in every trade. But in the period just closing the trade unions have not been able to hold their own, to say nothing of making headway. What will happen when the coming depression gets under way and millions of unemployed workers flood the labor market?

Bosses Wage Real War

The employers are waging a real war against the unions. By new mergers and consolidations they are eliminating all competition amongst themselves and presenting a solid front against labor. They have the government, the police, the army and the courts all on their side absolutely. The great daily papers are just so many organs of lying propaganda for them. They are assembling every conceivable weapon for the attack against unionism. The trade unions, with their present antiquated craft form of organization, cannot defend themselves against this attack. It is a matter of life and death for them to be amalgamated into industrial unions without delay.

Gompers and the whole officialdom of the American Federation of Labor are united against amalgamation. They fight it by all unfair means of falsehood and misrepresentation. They cover its advocates with slander and abuse. They resort to every form of trickery and deception and intimidation in order to “kill” amalgamation. But all to no avail. Amalgamation rises up ever stronger. Where they suppress it temporarily in one place it springs up in another. While they were concentrating all their forces to defeat it at the convention of the Illinois Federation, it was being passed at Utah and West Virginia. They defeated it at the American Federation of Labor convention a year ago, but when they meet this year at Portland it will confront them again. They cannot kill amalgamation, but amalgamation will kill them if they continue to fight against it.

A Rank and File Movement

The leadership of the trade union movement today is the enemy of all progress, and every proposal to strengthen and regenerate the trade unions and make them a mighty power for the interests of the workers has to be advanced in the face of their opposition. Every forward movement is a movement from below, from the rank and file. This is particularly true of the amalgamation movement.

Despite the opposition of the Gompers officialdom, the rank and file has pressed the issue so hard that several International unions, 15 state federations, scores of city central bodies and thousands of local unions have already declared for it. Some idea of the tremendous sweep of the movement may be gained from the report of O.H. Wangerin, secretary of the International Committee for Amalgamation in the Railroad Industry, that 3,377 local lodges, including all the 16 standard railroad unions, have endorsed the program of amalgamation for the railroad industry.

It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of rank and file trade unionists already favor amalgamation. The officials are the big obstacle. They will only move in response to tremendous pressure from below. Rank and file workers everywhere must make their voices heard on this burning issue. Put your local union on record for it. Raise the question in every central body and convention, and develop a mighty wave of sentiment that will sweep all obstacles aside and bring about the complete amalgamation of the trade unions before they are annihilated by the bosses. Amalgamation or annihilation is the issue. Fight for amalgamation.