J.P. Cannon

The Left Wing’s Place
Is in A.F. of L. Unions

(September 1933)

Published: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 41, 2 September 1933, p. 1.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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The most convincing answer to the question of Left wing trade union tactics raised anew by the Roosevelt policy has been indicated by the instinctive action of the workers themselves. In tens and hundreds of thousands in various trades and industries throughout the country, the workers are streaming into the conservative labor organizations. A.F. of L. unions which in many cases were reduced to skeletons during the recent years, are experiencing a stormy revival.

If we wish to keep a live contact with the masses, hasten their inevitable disillusionment with the grandiose swindle of the N.R.A. and steer them into great class battles we must march with this instinctive movement and influence it from within. The Communists must urge the workers to join in this main stream which is flowing now in the channel of the A.F. of L. and unions of a similar type. And, what is no less important, the Communists must go with them in full force and without hesitation. To stand aside from this living movement with its present direction and arbitrarily prescribe a different path would only mean to rob the mass movement of its dynamic revolutionary nucleus, to paralyze resistance to the unholy combination of the bosses, the government and the labor fakers and condemns the Left wing to an isolated sectarian futility just at the time when conditions begin to mature for its wide expansion in the labor movement. Yet, from all accounts, this is the ruinous course which the Stalinists, who year by year do everything they can to disorient, disorganize and discredit the Left wing, have imposed on the trade union conference at Cleveland. For these organizers of defeat every catastrophe only serves to justify the policy that brought it about and to seek new fields for its destructive influence. Faced with the overwhelming developments in the needle trades where, thanks to the blunders and crimes of the Stalinists, the resurgent movement of the workers has led to the reintegration of the reactionary forces and the virtual destruction of the Left wing organizations, the collective Stachels could think of nothing better to do at Cleveland than to prescribe a universal application of the bankrupt policy.

In the Daily Worker for August 28th, the gruesome wisdom derived from the new developments is announced as follows:

“Answering Muste on urging workers to join the A.F. of L. Stachel said we are against this, except in certain cases like the Railroad Brotherhoods, as the A.F. of L. is organizing the workers for betrayal and not for struggle.”

This is what they have learned from the great trade union developments which are taking place before everybody’s eyes. This is the incredible deduction from the Left wing catastrophe in the needle trades. Are the masses themselves going to the A.F. of L. unions of their own motion? This question, which is decisive for the elaboration of an intelligent and realistic approach, does not exist for these harlequins. Didn’t the resolutions of several plenums of the Comintern and the Profltern and the Party and the T.U.U.L. instruct the masses to join the “red unions” and stay away from the A.F. of L.? And if the workers, under the impact of events and of pressure of various kinds, have taken a different path, how can that possibly necessitate an amendment to the various Plenums? It is quite clear that nobody but a counter-revolutionist could make such a suggestion.

“The A.F. of L. is organizing the workers for betrayal.” Insofar as the leadership is concerned, there is not a class-conscious worker who can have any doubt on this point. The discovery is not original with Stachel. But the assertion of the fact does not prevent the betrayal. Neither does it prevent the workers from entering the A.F. of L. unions. In this circumstance it is quite obvious that the organization of the struggle against the betrayal can begin only inside these unions. To stand aside from the surging movement into the old unions on the ground that the bureaucrats have treacherous designs means only in effect to facilitate the treachery and free the hands of the traitors. This is the essence of the Stalinist trade union policy imposed on the Left wing for a number of years and now again proclaimed at Cleveland.

We cannot have anything to do with such a policy. The class-conscious workers have to adjust themselves to reality and connect themselves closely with the living movement of the masses. Cut-and-dried schemes are of no use in trade union questions. Different industries present different problems. There is no universal formula to fit every situation. But the main direction of working class movement at the present time is into the conservative unions. This is the decisive fact which determines the necessity for the slogan of entering these unions and organizing the struggle within them.

By this we do not at all commit ourselves to the fetishistic belief in the possibility of transforming the A.F. of L. into a fighting instrument of the workers. We do not expect Green & Co. to organize the masses of unskilled workers in the basic industries for effective struggle. The resurgent struggles of the masses, following the inevitable collapse of the Roosevelt program and the disillusionments of the masses who are now captivated by it, will very probably break out of the formal bounds of the A.F. of L. and seek expression in a new trade union movement. But in order to influence such an eventuality the revolutionaries must connect themselves with the live process of the movement at every stage of its development. The center of gravity at the present moment is unquestionably in the conservative mass organizations. That is where we must be.

Last updated on 21 October 2015