James P. Cannon

New Stage in Needle Trade Fight

A Campaign for Unity is Now the Order of the Day

(April 1932)

Written: April 1932.
First Published: The Militant, Volume V No. 17 (Whole No. 113), 23 April 1932, pp. 1 & 4.
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California. Additional bound volumes from Earl Gilman’s collection, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Andrew Pollack.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (May 2013).
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The convention of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union stands in the center of a series of developments and events which signalize a new stage in the needle trades struggle. This occasion can be the starting point for the revival of a genuine labor struggle against the bosses and a new advance of the militant section of the movement. The conditions now are present for the transformation of the existing state of affairs in favor of the workers and their revolutionary vanguard.

In order to make this possible the left wing is obliged to make an objective examination of the whole situation as it exists in reality, and to elaborate a new line of tactics which proceed from it. The leading idea in this departure is a new and correct formulation of the slogan of unity. Bound up with it, and indispensible to its effective application, is a reconsideration of the present attitude with regard to the problem of work within the reactionary union.

The appearance at the ILGWU convention of seven delegates – five from Local 9, one from Local 1, and one from Local 38 – even though their election was accomplished under shady circumstances – denotes a recognition in fact of the necessity for a systematic struggle within the right-wing union. It is also a proof of the fruitful possibilities of this struggle. This was clearly indicated long ago, from a practical as well as from a theoretical standpoint, despite all the fulminating agitation to the contrary by the people who deduce tactics out of their own heads and not from the facts of life.

What the Election of the Left Wing Delegates Signifies

The election of the left-wing delegates is an expression of the fact that workers who are sympathetic to the aims of the left wing are compelled by the force of circumstances to belong to the right-wing union. The organized left wing, under the direct influence of the Communist Party, had to seek an approach to these workers and provide a focal point for their protest. This is the meaning of the left-wing campaign for the election of delegates to the convention. The party was dragged at the tail of a movement which came into existence in spite of the asinine “theories” which prohibited it. The problem now is to recognize the vital progressive character of the unauthorized movement and provide it with a bold and realistic leadership.

The program on which the left-wing delegates campaigned for election (“for a program of class struggle,” “against clique control in the International,” etc.) refutes in life the worthless contention, imposed upon the left wing by the Stalinist muddlers, about the International being a “company union” and therefore not a proper field for systematic work and not subject to reformation in its practices by an organized struggle of the militants within it. The circumstances which compelled the workers to reenter the right-wing union imperiously command the revolutionary militants to adjust themselves to the situation and organize a struggle there, in coordination with that of the industrial union. The old policy which has artificially divided and thereby demoralized this struggle must be replaced by a policy which unites and revitalizes it.

These developments, among others, are signs of a relationship of forces between the right and left unions in the field which cannot be ignored in the elaboration of the left-wing tactics of the day. On the contrary, they must be taken as the basis from which the tactics ensue. Aided by the bosses and the police on the one side, and the consistently false policies of the party leadership on the other, the Schlesinger union, which was badly shattered in the split, has been able to reconstitute itself to a very large extent. At the same time, and by dint of the same factors, the organization of the industrial union has been reduced and relegated to a small sector of the trade, and has been unable to lead the struggles of the needle trades workers on a sufficiently broad scale to beat back the encroachment of the bosses.

What the Past Developments Teach

The justified aspiration and the heroic struggle of the workers to replace the reactionary unions with a militant industrial union did not meet with success. The best militants were isolated into a small organization which, lacking a mass membership, lacked the power to enforce its demands. On the other hand, the masses of workers, driven by the pressure of circumstance into the faker-controlled union, and lacking the directing nucleus of conscious militants, could not organize an effective struggle within the union.

As a result of all this the fighting capacities of the workers in the trade have been weakened and they have had to suffer a steady deterioration of their conditions. The strikes of the industrial union yielded no concrete results, and each failure had the effect of still further undermining the confidence of the workers in the prospect of any progress along that line. The traitors at the head of the International, freed from the pressure of a genuine fighting opposition, were able to transform the official strikes into decorative affairs which left the conditions of the workers no better than before, and in some cases worse. The morale of the masses in the needle trades has suffered heavily under these repeated blows. Pessimistic moods, induced by the apparent hopelessness of victory while the union organizations are split apart, spread a paralyzing influence over the “market” and undermined the struggles in advance.

The slogan necessary to revive the fighting spirit and fighting capacities of the needle trades workers, and to restore the decisive influence of the left wing, which is a condition for victorious advances, is the slogan of trade union unity.

This slogan can move the workers more than any other, precisely because it corresponds to their most burning needs and expresses their deepest impulses. But in spite of that, or rather just because of that, there can be no trifling, no phrasemongering bluster, no demagogic pretense with this great slogan. Whoever really wants to get the attention of the needle trades masses and to influence them seriously must remember one thing: they have been fooled enough; they are on guard for tricks in the name of unity; they have to be convinced that the slogan is both sincere and realistic.

“Unity from Below” or Genuine Unity

The party bureaucrats overlooked this point, and this is one of the main reasons that their bombastic agitation around the question of unity and their gross perversions of the Lenin teaching on the subject yielded such miserable results and gave the game to the bosses and their labor agents every time. The demand for unity under the leadership of the Communists predetermined in advance – as the demoralized functionaries of Stalinism have been presenting the question – cannot unite anybody except those who are already convinced of the necessity of this leadership. The “unity from below” ballyhoo is part of the same futility. But the problem of the day is to unite the great masses of the needle trades workers, including those who are indifferent and even hostile to communism, for a common trade union struggle for concrete demands. This is what the workers want, and this is what they need. The slogan of unity must be formulated in such a way that it conforms to this situation and appears to the workers as both realistic and realizable.

At the time when the industrial union still contested the field seriously with the International – when the struggle for supremacy remained undecided – the slogan of unity formulated by the Left Opposition was applicable to the situation: “The amalgamation of the unions into a single organization by means of a joint convention.” The present conditions and relationship of forces between the unions dictate a reformulation of the slogan of unity which, without yielding anything in principle, will correspond more closely to the realities of the situation.

From this standpoint the latest meeting of the National Committee of the Communist League, in agreement with the needle trades group, decided to recommend to the party and the left wing that the slogan of unity with respect to the International be formulated as follows: “Readmission of the left wing into the International as a body, without discrimination and with full membership rights.” Together with this, a general campaign should be carried on for the amalgamation of all the unions in the various trades into a single organization embracing the entire industry.

This slogan, which flows out of the actual state of affairs, will also impress the workers as both reasonable and realizable; it will reawaken their confidence and their aspiration for an effective union. At the same time it will open the way for the left wing to the masses of workers now separated from it in the Schlesinger union.

The industrial union, which holds its plenum on May 1, the day before the opening of the convention of the International, should put forward the slogan in this way and elect a delegation to present the question before the International convention. Simultaneously, the left-wing delegates to the International convention, acting in concert with the industrial union at every step, should begin a fight in the convention in favor of the slogan. Such an action on their part, following the action of the industrial union’s plenum, will immediately change the character of the convention, and change it most radically.

The Slogan as a Challenge to the Progressives

The more-or-less sham battle between the Schlesinger machine and the “Progressive Bloc,” with the left wing gesticulating on the sidelines – for which the stage is now set – will give place to a realignment of forces and a real fight. Let the “Progressive Bloc” dare to oppose this slogan! Their rank-and-file supporters, who want unity and a militant policy and mean it earnestly, will at once begin to shift over to the left wing. If the “Progressives” accept the slogan it will be the means of developing a struggle on a broad front that will soon go beyond the bounds of the pseudoprogressive program. In a few decisive steps the left wing can regain its position as the dynamic force in the whole needle trades situation, beginning with the International.

It goes without saying that this formulation of the slogan of unity has nothing in common with the liquidationist program of the Lovestoneites. The left wing suffered a defeat in its major undertaking to replace the reactionary union with another one. That must be frankly acknowledged. But it still retains its basic nucleus of the most reliable and tested militants. It still remains an organized force.

This force must be kept intact and demand reincorporation into the International as a fighting unit. This should be the line of its fight, not a capitulation and the individual reentry of its members into the International on the terms of Schlesinger. The masses will support this proposition, including those inside the International at present and thousands who are standing aside from both unions, discouraged and waiting for some new turn in the situation.

But, Foster and Browder will answer, Schlesinger and his black-and-yellow gang will not agree to this proposal. The slogan of unity, as the communists present it, is not designed to meet the approval of the labor fakers but to facilitate the struggle of the workers against them. The new campaign for unity, along the lines we have suggested, will start the reorganization of the workers around the banner of the left wing. The left wing will rise again as the authentic spokesman of the masses. On this basis the genuine unification of the needle trades workers’ struggle will take place, with or without the wishes of the Socialist betrayers.

Last updated on: 24.5.2013