James P. Cannon

The Furriers’ Problem

(24 March 1934)

Written: March 1934.
Source: The Militant, Vol. VII No. 12, 24 March 1934, 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).

In many respects the situation in the fur trade, reported by a correspondent in last week’s Militant, presents a unique trade union problem. The right of the workers to join an organization of their own choosing, the cardinal principle at stake in many of the labor battles now taking place or impending, is clearly at issue. The fur department of the Needle Trades Industrial Union (TUUL) has the great majority of the workers on its side – but no recognition from the bosses and no agreement with the bosses’ associations. The International Fur Workers Union (AF of L) has an agreement with the bosses – but only a few hundred members and no real support of the workers.

On the face of it, the attempt to impose the International on the furriers is an attempt to force them to accept an organization chosen for them by the bosses. How can there be two opinions as to the stand the workers should take on such a question? If the bosses are to be allowed to decide which union the workers should belong to, why not let them specify a company union and be done with it? That, in our opinion, is the fundamental issue, although it is somewhat obscured by numerous complicating aspects of the situation.

* * * *

An analogous case is not to be found anywhere in the American trade union movement. The fur workers, a small section of the needle trades as a whole, constitute the only section where the Stalinist industrial union has the majority of the organized workers. In the other trades the organized masses are in the AF of L unions; outside the furriers, the Needle Trades Industrial Union, like all the other Stalinist unions, leads an isolated, sectarian, and futile existence devoid of any future.

Beside that, the leadership and internal regime of the furriers’ section do not speak for its future either. The paralyzing bureaucratism – characteristic of all Stalinist organizations – to say nothing of the systematic errors – also characteristic of Stalinism – weigh in the scale against the union and mark it for the same doom that has befallen all the other Stalinist unions. The Stalinist party, which controls the furriers’ section of the industrial union, has shown an infinite capacity for disrupting and destroying mass organizations, but no capacity whatever, in any field, to build and maintain them. In supporting the industrial union in the fur trade as long as the majority of the organized workers prefer it to the AF of L body, the revolutionary militants in the trade should not close their eyes to all these facts.

* * * *

The role of the Lovestoneites in this situation is particularly revealing, both as to the ultimate logic of their trade union policy and as to the essentially opportunist political character of this group. The Lovestoneites are betting on the victory of the reactionary combination of the bosses, the NRA, and the AF of L, and have taken steps to “get in on the ground floor” of the boss-supported International. They have accepted leading posts in the International. Thus they give a “radical” face-to this organization, which has no support except that which it gets from the employers.

The Lovestoneite policy of supporting the AF of L at all costs, which led them to an objective support of Lewis against the heroic struggle of the Progressive Miners, has brought them to the shabby role of agents of the fakers in the case of the furriers. AF of L fetishism as a trade union policy is false to the core. In the present case, as in many others, it serves as a cover for political and personal opportunism. The revolutionary militants among the furriers, without deluding themselves in the least about the perspectives of the Stalinist union, must respect the attitude of the majority of the workers who support it and fight in the ranks beside them. The Lovestoneite policy must be rejected with contempt.

* * * *

Inside the Stalinist union, however, the militants should fight for a realistic policy that would open up the perspectives for success in the struggles, which are not too bright with the present policy and leadership. A head-on fight against the AF of L in a comparatively small and isolated sector of the needle trades, reduces the struggle of the furriers to an endurance contest in which the odds are on the other side. A broader and more flexible strategy is necessary.

The heart of such a strategy is the fight for unity not only of the furriers but of all the needle-trades workers. Nobody in his right senses can imagine that such unity is to be realized under the banner of the TUUL. As things stand now, after the reconstitution of the ILGWU and the affiliation of the Amalgamated to the AF of L, it should be clear which way the stream is flowing. The furriers ought to aim deliberately to connect themselves with the mainstream and influence its further development.

* * * *

In order to do so it is necessary for them to overcome prejudice against affiliation to the AF of L – prejudices against the course of a mass movement are quite futile anyway. It is likewise necessary to make a sharp break with any sense of obligation or loyalty to the TUUL – this paper pretense of a labor movement is not worth anybody’ s loyalty. Once this correction in the orientation of the left-wing furriers’ union is made, its position in the struggle will be strengthened and the way will be opened for a number of effective moves to get out of the present blind alley. First, it can demand a charter from the International with only one condition: that the local retain its autonomy and the right to choose its own officials. If that is refused, a proposal can be made to unite the two local organizations into a single body affiliated to the International and, consequently, to the AF of L, with officials to be elected in a supervised election of the united organization. Third, the left-wing union can declare its intention to campaign for the amalgamation of all the needle-trades unions into one industrial organization affiliated to the AF of L.

* * * *

If such proposals are made known to all the furriers and combined with a widespread agitation for unity throughout the needle trades, they will awaken a hearty response from the workers, strengthen the sagging morale of the left wing, and put an enormous pressure on the officials of the International, including their Lovestoneite come-ons. Either these officials will be compelled to accede to the demand of the masses for unity, or they will be convicted to the hilt of responsibility for the split, robbed of every plausible argument, and completely isolated from the masses, who want unity more than anything else. In any case the position of the left-wing union will be strengthened, and if it has to fight alone for another period its members will be fortified with a new conviction. The chances of victory will be multiplied many times.

* * * *

The Stalinist bureaucrats in charge of the left-wing furriers’ union, of course, will oppose such a strategy and will try to suppress any free discussion of it in the union. But these ideas will make their way just the same. They are stronger than the apparatus of the bureaucrats because they correspond to the burning needs of the workers. And, in addition, they indicate the only way to save the furriers’ organization from the debacle which overtook all the other sections of the industrial union.

Last updated on 8 February 2016