James P. Cannon


The AFL, the Strike Wave,
and Trade Union Perspectives

(14 October 1933)

Written: October 1933.
Source: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 47, 14 October 1933, p. 4.
Original bound volumes of The Militant and microfilm provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Andrew Pollack.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (February 2016).

The Fifty-third Annual Convention of the American Federation of Labor convened at a turning point in the life of the labor movement, when the resurgent forces of new life, thrust forward by the powerful impulsion of the class struggle, are beginning to push their way through the dry crust and restraining forms of conservative trade unionism.

The new masses who are sweeping into the trade union movement, heralding their arrival by tumultuous struggles, are without any direct representation at the convention. The strike wave, the great, new, vital, and determining factor in the labor movement, lacks an authentic spokesman there. But this dread specter is present all the time and dominates the proceedings. The strike wave is the unofficial delegate which disturbs the dead calm of self-satisfied conservatism so familiar at all AFL gatherings in recent years. All the important speeches and deliberations were made as if in reply to the thunderous arguments of this new force which is speaking in terms of class battles, of strikes and picket lines.

The forces of resurgent life, represented by the strike wave, which have not yet found formal expression in official representation, did not record their real strength in the convention proceedings. They only recorded their presence in the situation and served notice of a future participation. That alone was sufficient – so ominous is the new power – to make it the axis around which all the proceedings and discussion revolved. The stormy and irrepressible forces of the new labor militancy, clamoring their demands in the nationwide strike movement, evoked the terrified concern of the labor lieutenants of capital gathered in solemn convention, and of the political spokesmen of capital, including the president of the U.S. and his general, Johnson, who addressed them.

The Real Program of Roosevelt

The real design behind the benevolence of the Roosevelt administration toward union organization was brought out more sharply and clearly at the convention. They want a trade union movement that will be an instrument to restrain the workers, to prevent strikes and to suppress and outlaw the strikes that do occur. Only a few months have gone by since the NRA was hailed as the liberator of the workers, and already the iron fist is coming out of the velvet glove. Roosevelt’s threat to put the recalcitrant horses in a corral; General Johnson’s blunter declaration, “You cannot tolerate the strike,” and his appeal to public opinion “to destroy every subversive influence”; the glorification of Gompers and the reminder of his role in dragooning the American workers into the war – in these expressions of the authentic spokesmen of the capitalist exploiters the Roosevelt program was given a plainer and more easily read translation than before.

The appearance of Green in a Washington church pulpit, with his pitiful appeal in biblical language to the “masters” to be good to their “servants,” unspeakably contemptible and servile as it was, only served to demonstrate how neatly the AFL leaders have fitted themselves into the NRA scheme to harness the insurgent movement of the American workers through the official trade union movement. There is no doubt where they stand, nor where the convention which they dominate stands.

The New Factor in the Labor Movement

But the outward manifestations at Washington are by no means an accurate reflection of the situation within the AFL, and still less of the present-day labor movement in its broader aspects. Against the policy and intentions of the capitalist politicians and their labor allies, as revealed at the Washington convention, the new outstanding developments must be considered – the influx of hundreds of thousands of new workers into the unions, the formation within a few months’ time of 500 new federal unions, the insistent demand for the industrial union form of organization to meet the needs of the newly organized masses. These factors, counterbalanced to the formal official decisions and pronouncements, require consideration in a rounded view of the actual situation.

They are an essential part of the “proceedings” of the fifty-third convention of the AFL. And in addition to that, the thunder of the strike wave outside the door also belongs in the record. An appreciation of the present situation in the trade union movement, and of the AFL convention as a distorted reflection of it, is possible only if these factors are taken into account and given due weight and importance. In that case the one-sided picture of the Washington gathering, as just another expression of hidebound conservatism, fades away and we see the actual movement as it is in reality, fermenting with new life and on the verge of great convulsions which will upset all the schemes and plans.

Nothing was firmly settled or decided for the labor movement at the Washington convention. The new elements at work in the trade unions registered themselves and served notice, so to speak, of a further participation later on. The contending forces in the trade union movement, which will clash with increasing fury from this time forward, met in a preliminary skirmish at Washington. From there the conflict will be transferred back to the field of class struggle – to the strikes, the picket lines, the battles with the state forces and armed thugs, and the forthcoming internal struggles within the trade union organizations.

All of this is projected on the basis of a strike wave of such dimensions as has not been seen in recent times and which, in our judgment, is only a curtain raiser of what is to follow. The bosses and their political and trade union agents apparently have the same opinion. They have enunciated their program at the AFL convention. The labor movement itself, that is, the real movement of the masses, has not yet worked out an estimation of the perspective and a program of its own. This is the big task and need of the present time. Its solution devolves naturally on the class-conscious elements.

The strike wave is the first reply that the American workers have made to the frightful conditions and standards imposed upon them during the crisis and which the NRA mechanism is seeking to stabilize and make permanent. The present scope and insurgent militancy of the strike wave are especially portentous as to what is to follow if the workers fail to get satisfaction of their demands.

Trade Unionism – After the Collapse of the NRA

And this, in our opinion, is precisely what is going to happen. The attempt of the Roosevelt administration to “plan” industry on a basis of capitalist private ownership is inevitably doomed to a resounding collapse, and that very probably in the near future. With that, and with the failure also to satisfy the expectations of the workers which were aroused by the ballyhoo campaign of the NRA, will come a tremendous disillusionment of the workers and a rapidly increasing tendency on their part to resort to more aggressive struggles; to rely on their own strength and organization. Trade unionism, which was held out to them in the first stages of the NRA as a device to restrain their independent movement, will become for the workers the medium for its expression on a colossal scale. The workers will turn to trade unionism in real earnest, and they will be bent on making the unions serve as instruments of struggle against the exploiters.

Then, as has already been clearly intimated in the threatening speeches of Roosevelt and Johnson at the Washington convention, the benevolent mask of the Roosevelt administration will be taken off. The unions they encouraged, and even coddled, as long as they thought they could serve as “harness” will meet open opposition from the government. All the forces at its command, from systematic antiunion and antistrike propaganda to police and military force, will be brought to bear. The unions, insofar as they really fight – and that is the function which the conditions of the times impose upon them – will have to fight for their existence against the government itself.

The capitalist attack against the trade unions as organs of struggle will be carried inside the unions. Green, Lewis, and Company will be called upon to purge the organizations of their militant elements and restore the unions to conservative and respectable docility. The prompt response of these treacherous agents of capital to this demand is assured in advance; their attitude at Washington, in harmony with all their previous conduct, signifies this first of all.

New Struggles Within the Unions

The trade unions, swelling into larger proportions by the influx of new members on one side, will witness wholesale expulsions and splits, engendered by the reactionary bureaucracy on the other. Insurgent workers who insist on striking – the “horses” that “refuse to work in harness”will meet the condemnation of the labor bureaucracy. Their strikes will be outlawed and denounced as communistic plots. A campaign of redbaiting will be inaugurated against revolutionaries and communists. Where these do not exist they will be invented. Every worker who wants to fight for his rights and wants to make the union fight for them will be branded as a “red.” The next developments of the trade union movement will unfold in a seething tide of labor rebellion – of “outlaw” strikes, clashes with the authorities, fierce internal struggles in the unions, expulsions, and splits.

The fact that already today hundreds of thousands of workers are streaming into the trade unions is in itself a fact of incalculable significance. The workers are on the move. That is what is new; that is what is important in the situation. The trade union is the first and most elementary form of working-class organization, for which no substitute has ever been invented. The workers take their first steps on the path of class development through that door. Hundreds of thousands are taking this step already today, a large percentage of them for the first time. Millions of others will follow them tomorrow. No matter how conservative the unions may be, no matter how reactionary their present leadership, and regardless of what the real purposes of the Roosevelt administration were in giving a certain encouragement and impetus to this trade union revival – in spite of all of this, the movement itself represents an elemental force, a power which properly influenced at the right time by the class-conscious vanguard, can break through all the absolute forms and frustrate all the reactionary schemes.

The Task of the Militants

This movement of the masses into the trade unions can be seriously influenced only from within. From this it follows: Get into the unions. Stay there. Work within.

Before any serious development of a revolutionary organization can be expected in America this penetration of the trade unions must begin in earnest. The militants who undertake this task now, after all the discredit brought to the name of communism by the Stalinists, will labor under a double handicap. The complete and unchallenged supremacy of the reactionaries in the trade union leadership; the weight of the government and of all capitalist propaganda and repressive forces on their side; the popular hostility to communism and the relationship of forces in general – these circumstances alone will constitute huge obstacles at the beginning. Besides that, the new left-wing movement will have to pay for the sins and failures of the old.

The labor fakers will start new expulsion campaigns against the radicals the moment their influence is felt again in the mass movement. It is folly to think that the task of penetrating the mass trade unions, under the given conditions, and of reconstituting a vigorous left wing within them can be accomplished with brass bands playing and banners flying. Quiet and persistent work, and loyal cooperation with all progressive-minded workers who want to build fighting unions – this simple prescription stands first in order. The rest will follow.

We give no pledge to refrain from revolutionary activity in the unions or to turn our backs on “outlaw” strikes. We leave such trade union tactics to opportunists and traitors. It is our aim, on the contrary, to be with the masses, especially at the moment of their sharpest collisions with the capitalists, whatever form these collisions may take. In order that this association with the revolting masses can have a fruitful revolutionary influence, it has to begin now by an entrenchment of the militant and class-conscious elements in the AFL unions and the formation of a left wing within them.

Last updated on 8 February 2016