James P. Cannon

Trade-Union Questions

Written: July 1928
First Published: July 1928, Daily Worker magazine supplement
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 was published in the Workers Party’s theoretical journal, The Communist. It supports criticisms of the Workers Party’s trade-union work made by the head of the Red International of Labor Unions, A. Lozovsky, at the ECCI’s Ninth Plenum in February 1928 and at the RILU’s Fourth Congress, held in March-April 1928. Lozovsky attacked the American trade-union policy as the Comintern began its turn toward the ultraleftism of the “Third Period.” Both the Foster faction and the Lovestone majority of the Political Committee at first resisted this turn. In particular, they opposed Lozovsky’s view that the American party had been “dancing a quadrille the whole time around the AFL and its various unions.” Lozovsky’s view did coincide, for the moment, with the longstanding position of the Cannon faction.

Cannon wanted his article printed in the Daily Worker, but the Political Committee voted on June 9 that it could only be published there if Foster wrote a reply. Not surprisingly, Foster did not choose to publicly attack Lozovsky. Cannon had to be content with publication in The Communist.

At the plenary meeting of the Central Executive Committee held in the last week of May 1928, the trade union question was the center of the discussion. This was inevitable.

Big changes are taking place in the labor movement. We have gone through big struggles in the trade union field which call for an evaluation of the experiences gained and the drawing of inferences as a guide to future work. The recent World Congress of the Red International of Labor Unions adopted a resolution on America, and our trade union policies and work have recently come in for sharp criticism from comrade Lozovsky in his speeches at the recent congress of the Red International of Labor Unions and in special articles in the press.

Comrade Lozovsky’s speeches and articles were so sharp in tone and so drastic in condemnation as to set the party buzzing and even to provide our opponents with a basis for discussion and moralization. Some comrades reacted quickly to these criticisms and attempted to dispute their validity. The plenum of the CEC hummed with a discussion of the questions raised by these criticisms, and the discussion there was only a beginning. A thorough consideration of all aspects of the trade union question in America is the order of the day.


The first point is the question of perspective. Where are we going, what are the factors in the situation, and what is the general trend? Clarification on this point is necessary first. Confusion, or the reconciling of conflicting perspectives in one thesis or resolution, is a source of errors and of conflict between programs and practices. Such a state of affairs is intolerable.

The trade union resolution adopted at the May plenum of the CEC quotes from and reaffirms the estimate of the February plenum on the growing industrial depression and its radicalizing effects upon the workers. This outlook is entirely correct.

The resolution predicts a growing unrest of the workers and sees a prospect of big struggles, particularly in fields where the workers are unorganized, such as the automobile, rubber, textile and meatpacking industries. Great masses of workers are employed in these industries, they are fiercely exploited, the existing trade unions offer them no protection, and their mood for struggle is growing.

These factors determine our orientation. The only possible line for the Communist Party in the present situation is to calculate upon a growing unrest of the workers and an increasing will to struggle and to put the main emphasis and center of gravity in its trade union work on the organization of the unorganized and the preparation for strikes.

The Decline of the Old Unions

In recent years, the AFL unions, retreating before the assaults of the employers, have been declining in numbers and narrowing their base even more to skilled workers. The smashing of such unions as the steel workers, packinghouse workers and railroad shop crafts has robbed the AFL of a large mass of unskilled and semi-skilled workers who were a source of strength and a reservoir of militancy. This has wrought a profound change in its basic composition. The disintegration of the United Mine Workers union tremendously accelerates this process and raises very sharply the whole question of the future course and development of the American labor movement.

One of the hallmarks of the AFL unions under the leadership of the dominant bureaucrats has been an absolute incapacity for struggle against the open shop offensive. The policy of resistance has been replaced by the theory and practice of retreat and surrender; the “labor” leaders appeal for the right of the old organizations to exist in company-unionized form, by consent of the employers, as agencies of efficient production.

This course corresponds with the policy of the ruling bureaucracy. These bosses of the unions not only present no fighting program for the safeguarding of the unions, but openly and systematically sabotage every impulse in this direction coming from the rank and file. Their crusade against the Communists and the left wing is a part of their policy of erecting barriers against the unskilled and unorganized workers and of stamping out the remnants of militancy in the existing unions in order, as they hope, to render them acceptable to the employers.

A degeneration of class spirit in the old unions is the inevitable outcome of such a course. An inability to defend the existing unions and labor standards and an incapacity to organize the unorganized workers-the key to the future of organized labor in America-follow from it.

The Crisis in the Labor Movement

The American labor movement today is in a profound crisis. Our estimation of trade union problems and the formulation of tactics must proceed from this premise.

The crisis in the labor movement consists in the fact that the trade unions are being broken up by the growing offensive of the bosses and the black treachery and anti-proletarian policy of the official trade union leadership. The unions are decreasing in membership, narrowing down more and more to a caste of skilled workers and growing more incapable of defending the existing standards and of organizing the unorganized and unskilled.

The crisis in the trade unions must be taken together with the position of the American working class as a whole, the increasing pressure put upon the masses of unorganized workers in the basic industries and their reaction to it. Failure to proceed from this general standpoint will lead to false and one-sided conclusions.

The growing unrest of the workers in many industries and their increasing readiness for struggle brook no delay. The future of the American labor movement is bound up with this question. The prospect of big struggles is on the agenda of the proximate future and for these struggles organization forms must be provided.

The existing unions, manned and officered by agents of the bosses, will not provide these forms and will not organize the unorganized masses for struggle. On the contrary, the present trade union officialdom will strive in every way to prevent the organization of these workers and will develop even more open and notorious methods of treachery against them in the coming battles.

The old faker-ridden unions failed to organize the workers in the preceding years of prosperity. With their narrowing base and increasing tendency to become guilds of labor aristocrats, and with the reactionary leaders tightening their death grip upon them, they will serve even less as the medium of organizing the masses of unskilled and unorganized in the period that lies ahead.

Organization of the Unorganized

No two opinions on this question can be allowed. We must face this issue squarely and give a clear and definite answer. Otherwise the formulation of correct tactics for the left wing- one of the most decisive factors in the future development of the American labor movement-will be impossible.

It is the historic task of the Communist Party and the left wing to organize the unorganized masses of workers, forming new unions without hesitation in all cases where the old unions do not exist or cannot function as real organs of struggle. This does not stand in contradiction to the continuation and intensification of our work within the old unions, even the most reactionary, but is bound up with it in one task. We are not confronted with the question of “either one or the other,” but of combining the two together in a united policy. The real tactical question facing the left wing is the question of emphasis, of center of gravity, in trade union work in the period at hand. That emphasis belongs undoubtedly to the work of organizing the masses of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the heavier industries who are now unorganized, who are destined to play the decisive role in the class struggle and whom the trade union bureaucracy cannot and will not organize.

Comrade Lozovsky’s Criticism

Has the party been following the right line in these vital questions up till now? Were the critical remarks of comrade Lozovsky justified by actual facts?

Conflicting answers have been given to these questions, but I am of the opinion that if we face the matter objectively and with an eye to the elaboration of the correct tactics for the future, a conflict on these points can arise only between those who have conflicting views on the main problems of our trade union work. In any case, the questions must be answered because our future work cannot be separated entirely from the past.

No one can accuse comrade Lozovsky of over-politeness or of understatement of the faults of the party’s trade union work. He accused the party straight out of appealing to “the leaders of the reformist trade unions to organize the unorganized, save the unions, lead strikes, etc.,” and he says we have been hampered by a false interpretation of united front tactics and a “fetish of dual unionism” which prevented us from starting to form new unions of unorganized workers.

There is no doubt that some of comrade Lozovsky’s criticisms were couched in exaggerated terms, and some of them do not correspond literally to the facts as we know them. But there is likewise no doubt that his strictures contain a good kernel of truth and that they, together with the resolution of the Red International congress, have helped the party decisively in overcoming inertia and straightening its line on this important question.

Resolutions and Practice

It is true, if we want to be formalistic, we can point to resolutions adopted at various times during the past year to show that we understood the right line on the organization of the unorganized and provided for everything. But the trouble with us has been a lethargy in taking the decisive steps to put our resolutions into practice when opportunities presented themselves-and this is precisely the main point of comrade Lozovsky’s criticism.

It is easy to cite objective difficulties as a reason for our slackness in attempting to organize new unions in new fields or in fields where the old unions are disintegrating. The difficulties are many and easy to enumerate-but this, in my opinion, only begs the question. The point at issue is not simply how much we succeeded with the work of organizing the unorganized into new unions, but how much we really tried where we had the chance and how much we were held back by inhibitions and reservations regarding the full import of our own resolutions.

Why were we asleep in Colorado, allowing the IWW to monopolize the organization of the coal miners and to introduce new elements of confusion and reaction into the miners’ situation? Why did we not begin a year ago at least to form the nucleus of a new union of the unorganized miners in the coal fields of Western Pennsylvania whom the Lewis machine deserted and betrayed-and thus prepare a foundation for the strike attempted there in April of this year? And why was there a delay of a whole year after the beginning of the coal strike before the left wing held its open national conference because of the possible implications of such a direct challenge to the Lewis machine?[1]

The argument that we were behind in these matters only because of the lack of forces does not hold water. That might be an explanation of failure if we had really made the attempt. The true answer must be sought in a certain disparity between our resolutions on the trade union question and our actual practice, in a certain hesitancy in carrying them out in their full implications.

The criticism of comrade Lozovsky and the resolution of the Red International congress have stimulated us to close this gap. The trade union resolution adopted at the plenum of the Central Executive Committee is absolutely right when it says our failure to make greater progress with the actual building of new organizations can be explained, among other obvious reasons, by “a slowness of our party in orienting itself to a situation which has demanded a more decided emphasis on independent unionism.”


Of course the dogmatists of independent unionism, in principle and at all costs, now step forward with the claim that they were always right and we were always wrong. That was to be expected because it is a long time since they have had anything to talk about. But their words are just as hollow now as they have been in the past. The Communist Party, with its correct tactics, has been in the center of practically every fight of the workers of America in recent years while the tactics of these dogmatists of separatism have sidetracked them from the living movements and mass struggles of the workers and converted their organizations into isolated sects.

I think some comrades are inclined to attach undue importance to the arguments of these sectarians. To cite their propaganda as a reason for soft-pedaling an open and straightforward review and discussion of our experiences and problems would lead us astray entirely. The fear of “what our opponents will say” has often been a refuge from self-criticism and an obstacle to the elaboration of correct tactics. It is our task to examine our problems and to practice self-criticism in the true Bolshevik manner, disregarding the apostles of isolation and all other opponents of our policy.

Work in the Old Unions

The trade union resolution adopted by the CEC is a necessary supplement to the resolution of the Red International and is not in contradiction to it.[2] Both resolutions proceed from the same perspective of a sharpening of the class struggle with more frequent clashes between the workers and the capitalists. Both resolutions assign the decisive role to the unorganized workers in the basic industries and orient their policy accordingly.

The resolution of the CEC gives a necessary and more elaborate analysis of the situation within the existing unions and calls for an intensification of our work within them to win the rank and file workers away from the control of the reactionaries.

Increased and intensified work within the old unions must go hand in hand with the organization of the unorganized. There can be no question of abandoning the work in the old unions and neither comrade Lozovsky nor any leading or influential member of the party has proposed that. No doubt such a sentiment could develop in the rank and file of the left wing, with its tradition in this respect, if it were given any encouragement. Such encouragement must not be given and all signs of such tendencies must be combatted, for the three million workers organized in the existing unions are not to be surrendered to the bureaucrats. These workers, with our help, will carry on battles in spite of their traitorous leaders.

The Question of Emphasis

The real question here is one of emphasis. The articles of comrade Lozovsky, the resolution of the Red International and the resolution of the CEC all put the emphasis in the present situation where it belongs: on the organization of the unorganized into new unions. To place the emphasis at the moment on the other side, to raise a scare about abandoning the work in the old unions where none exists, or to deny that the party has been remiss on the question of organizing the unorganized, might easily, in their objective consequences, become a cover for again distorting the main line and putting the center of gravity in the wrong place.

The obstacles in the path of organizing the workers in the basic industries of America are truly enormous, and the present forces at our disposal are small. There is no need to minimize the difficulties; they will multiply and confront us at every turn. The state power of capitalism will obstruct the new union movement with the fiercest persecution, and the workers will soon find that they are not done with the treacheries of the labor fakers when they seek to form new unions.

Between the decision to organize the unorganized masses and the actual formation and consolidation of new unions lies a long and stony road. But history has laid out that task for the Communist Party and the left wing, and we must begin the work in earnest.


1. See note to “Workers Entering New Path of Struggle” on the Colorado IWW strike. Note 4 of the same article deals with the fight over calling a national conference of the opposition in the miners union.

2. In sharp contrast to the February plenum, the May CEC plenum was not even mentioned in the Daily Worker, which published neither the resolution nor any of the speeches made there.