James P. Cannon

The Future of the A.F. of L.

From a Speech Delivered by Comrade James P. Cannon
Before a Forum of Minneapolis Workers

(26 November 1935)

Written: 26 November 1935.
Published: New Militant, Vol. 1 No. 50, 14 December 1935, p. 2.
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MINNEAPOLIS, Nov. 26. – Comrade James P. Cannon spoke here before a group of more than a hundred workers on the subject of The Future of the A.F. of L. Many in the audience had never before attended a Workers Party meeting. The gross receipts were more than twenty-five dollars.

Comrade Cannon began his talk by analysing the historical essence of the A.F. of L. He showed how it had fulfilled the expectations of Mark Hanna, one of the founders of the Civic Federation, who called the A.F. of L. the “bulwark of American capitalism.” He went on to point how the events of the last two years had brought about significant changes which threatened the position of the A.F. of L. At San Francisco, two years ago, the A.F. of L. had been forced to give formal recognition to the principle of unionism. At Atlantic City there had been 11,000 votes for industrial unionism. And a mere speech by John Lewis, himself formerly a member of the Civic Federation, had sufficed to force the withdrawal of Matthew Woll from that organization.

“Into the Unions”

“The impulse of the masses,- with the coming of the NRA had heed ‘into the unions.’ The million workers could have been organized At that time. These workers longed for a union – the most elementary organization of the workers. Without a union, the workers fell, they have nothing. But the craft A.F. of L. unions came in between. the workers and the employers and betrayed the interests of the workers: This happened all over the country. In Minneapolis, Tobin, President of the Drivers International, tried the same stunt. But he didn’t succeed. (Applause)

“In Minneapolis, real organization. survived as testimony of the real possibilities in the organization of the workers. What was the answer of the A.F. of L. leadership? In the very days of the June strike when the bosses were trying to welch out of their agreement with 574, the Teamsters President fired a blast which was printed in the newspapers as a weapon against the union. And no sooner had the union buried its dead, no sooner had the smoke of battle cleared and it had gathered together its wounded, than Tobin comes along, and tries to break up the union because it wouldn’t allow itself to be cheated and brow-beaten. Tobin connived with Green to show the workers that they might perhaps beat the bosses – but, by God! they couldn’t beat the A.F. of L. and its almighty ‘principles.’ Tobin would show the union that he was better than the Citizens Alliance in busting up unions. Well, he tried. And the score is nothing to nothing for both Tobin and the Citizens Alliance. (Applause)

Workers Want Industrial Unionism

“Thus, in spite of the accumulated discontent of the workers, the A.F. of L. as such made only the most miserable showing. But the workers, for this reason, didn’t say ‘to hell with unions!’ Instead there was a tremendous pressure to change the form and methods of organization. Every worker reflects this discontent with the old methods and forms. Every discontented worker rallies around any union capable of fighting the incompetency of the old craft unions. Suppose you took 574 to Detroit or Pittsburgh – what unions you would have in rubber, in steel, in, autos! You can’t fool the workers with craft unionism any more ... They don’t want it. They want industrial unionism. When the craft unionists come in any try to tell them how to run their unions they revolt. The automobile workers, in their convention, called on the eve of the Atlantic City convention, rejected the proposals of Green. In Akron, the rubber workers elected their own President and rejected the protégé of Green. And then come the teachers – the teachers who have never been known to be radicals – the teachers in Ohio rejected the ultimatum from Green that they reorganize the New York local. The teachers told Green to go to hell. Three times before the Atlantic City convention Green got official rebuffs and defeats – unheard of before! And in Minneapolis, Tobin had also failed.

“All these accumulated forces pressed in on the Atlantic City convention – forces which guarantee that there will be no patching up between the contending forces in the A.F. of L. First, then, there is the revolt from below. Secondly, there is the fear on the part of certain of the shrewder leaders. This fear is not unjustified. It is the fear that if the A.F. of L. doesn’t quit monkeying around, there will grow up an independent union movement outside of the A.F. of L., leaving the old leaders high and dry without their highly remunerative ‘pie cards.’ They have seen the handwriting on the wall – these more far-sighted leaders –; they have looked across the Atlantic and seen what happened in Europe. Take John Lewis. Lewis is no radical, yet he says that if there are-no industrial unions there will be none at all. Hillman, too, in the A.F. of L. conventions made the same point. Thus we find forces pressing for more modern types of organization both within and without the official A.F. of L.

Our Tendency

“While on the surface it may appear that the contest is only between two types of leaders – between the horse-and-buggy unionists – there is also a tendency which is even more progressive than the official sponsors of industrial unionism. This tendency aims at more than merely winning a strike. It aims at the foundation of a workers’ republic. (Applause) This tendency is ours ; and it will come more and more to the front.

“The difference between Lewis and Green is one of intelligence and not of radicalism. The old Bourbons never learn anything new. They call the unskilled workers riff-raff ; they try to keep the unions small and • divided into crafts.. These old fossils have lived their time. There are going to be many types of labor leaders before we have a workers’ republic in Ihe United States, but you can: be sure that the Green-Hutcheson type will be among the first to be pushed aside.

Fear of the Younger Leaders

“The younger leaders know that if you don’t organize the strategically situated basic industries you have no organization at all. How can you speak of the American trade union movement when the basic industries are not unionized? These younger leaders are goaded on, also, by another fear – that unless they organize the basic industries first, more radical leaders will come in ahead them. They don’t want to be left on the outside. But they are not radicals, either. They want to deal with the bosses, but in an organized way. The bosses would have liked to cooperate with Meyer Lewis in Minneapolis. But Lewis had no power – he didn’t control any unions – so they said to him, ‘We’re sorry, but we can’t do any business.’ (Laughter) The same principle applies to the John Lewis-Hillman-Dubinsky crowd. They know they can’t deal with the bosses unless they have powerfully organized industrial unions behind them.

“Now it is one of the nine wonders of the world that John L. Lewis and Co. have been catapulted to the leadership of the movement for industrial unionism. Their record is not so good. Nobody suppressed trade union democracy more ruthlessly than John L. Lewis. Nobody expelled more honest radical workers from the unions. Nobody forced more ‘provisional reorganizations’ of local unions. Nobody was more violent and unscrupulous in his methods. Yet this man has been projected to the front.

“Nevertheless, his interests and ours to a limited extent coincide. Our tendency is not that of John L. Lewis. We believe in militancy and our final aim is the foundation of the workers’ republic. We don’t believe in class-collaboration. We don’t believe that the workers can get anything without militancy. But we do stand for industrial unionism because it is a necessary step – because it is a step forward. It is a curious fact that the interests of the most revolutionary aifd the extremely conservative tendencies coincide to a certain extent. Industrial unionism is objectively progressive. Therefore revolutionists must support it regardless who is at the heard of the movement for its realization. But we must not lose our heads and think that industrial unionism is all. We must forge ahead. We must retain our independent position. We must take advantage of every division between the reactionaries and the conservatives.

“The situation s this. The Lewis clique can’t leave the workers unorganized. In Detroit the first strike of the season was conducted by an independent union consisting of three unions outside the A.F. of L. that came together and amalgamated. This was a warning to the A.F. of L. Minneapolis is also a warning. Here was a deliberate attempt to break up a union and drive it out of the A.F. of L. for 99 years. And this attempt failed. The idea may get into the minds of the workers: ‘To hell with an A.F. of L. charter. Maybe it wasn’t the A.F. of L. charter that got us our wage increase. Maybe it was our own organized strength.’

“That is the meaning behind the resignation of John L. Lewis. Lewis doesn’t agree with Green – who issued a warning to the ‘serious consequences’ of forming organizations within the A.F. of L. and of entering into relations with non-A.F. of L. unions (except the Civic Federation, or any other boss union). Lewis is just going ahead the same as before.

“What does this mean for us? Now is the time for progressive and militant elements to push forward. Now is not the time to be cautious. Now is the time to press our demands and to get consideration for them. Now is the time to press further and further into the A.F. of L.

What Pushed Lewis to the Lead

“Now you may want to know why it is Lewis rather than the radicals who is leading the fight for industrial unionism. The answer is that in the five years of the crisis, the most radical group, the Communists (Stalinists), left the A.F. of L. They went out of the A.F. of L. and pulled many others out with themselves. That’s why when all this upsurge from the ranks is taking place, there have been no militants ready to spring into a place of leadership.

“That is why, too, we must wherever possible, fight for a policy of unity. But not unity at any price. We won’t purchase unity at the cost of breaking up our organizations and of giving, up our fundamental rights. We must, wherever possible, go into the A.F. of L. and fertilize it while there is still time with genuine militancy. We must inspire the unions not only to fight for a loaf of bread but to conquer the world or else the world will be taken away from them as happened in Germany.

“In the days of reaction, the Gompers and Green policy of weeding out radicals worked like a charm. But now the workers are discontented. There is no hope of inciting them against radicals. If you go to a worker and say to him, ‘A radical is the leader of your union,’ he will answer, ‘I’m damned glad to hear that.’ The sentiment of the masses has changed. I predict with absolute, confidence, for example, that Meyer Lewis will be a complete flop. The victory of 574 is due not only to its own strength but to the favorable national situation. But it will be so decisive that it will put steel and courage into the movement everywhere else. The reactionaries’ hands are too full – they have too many irons in the fire. There are too many issues at stake here and elsewhere.

Conquer the World

“We must take advantage of this favorable objective situation. We must push the industrial union struggle forward. But at the same time we must inspire the workers with the revolutionary idea that they must establish themselves as te masters of the whole world.” (Applause)

During the questioning period, comrade Cannon, in reply to a query as to what form the cooperation between the revolutionists and the conservative industrial unionists would take, replied that it was dangerous for radicals to make the mistake for one moment that Lewis was a true progressive. It was great folly to believe that salvation could come from people like John L. Lewis! Although our interests coincide to a certain extent, there would not probably be much direct cooperation between us. Rather each side would play its own end of the game for the realization of its own aim. What was important, was for the radicals to press forward their own ideas and to retain their independence.

“Certainly, the Workers Party would not do as the Communists were doing. The C.P. is trying to build Lewis up into a second Jesus Christ. They publish front page interviews with him in the Daily Worker. We have no such illusions. We are for industrial unions because they gave us a larger field within which to work. The larger the unions, the more honest workers there will be within them. The better for us. Take 574, for example. It took a lunge when nobody was looking and built up a real organization. It took in workers who had never been in any union before. Now suppose you did the same thing from town to town. It is significant, too, that the same leaders who thus organized the drivers, went ahead and organized the unemployed. The typical American labor leader has no interest in half-starved unemployed workers. That is John L. Lewis’ position. The sign of the genuine labor leader is his interest in all the workers! It was no accident that 574 organized the unemployed; and the unemployed reciprocated by rallying to 574’s support.”

Last updated on: 2 February 2018