James P. Cannon

Labor Action

San Francisco—November 28, 1936

The Maritime Strike

[Below is an article written by SWP leader James P. Cannon for the West Coast socialist newspaper Labor Action.—Editor]

THE maritime strike of the Pacific Coast, now four weeks old, is still stalemated and is clearly becoming a test of strength and endurance. A good deal is said about strike “strategy” -- and that has its uses within certain clearly defined limits -- but when you get down to cases this strike, like every other strike, is simply a bullheaded struggle between two forces whose interests are in constant and irreconcilable conflict. The partnership of capital and labor is a lie. The immediate issue in every case is decided by the relative strength of the opposing forces at the moment. The only strike strategy worth a tinker’s dam is the strategy that begins with this conception.

The problem of the strikers consists in estimating what their strength is, and then mobilizing it in full force and pressing against the enemy until something cracks and a settlement is achieved in consonance with the relation of forces between the unions and the organizations of the bosses. That’s all there is to strike strategy. You cannot maneuver over the head of the class struggle.

We pass over entirely the question of who is “right” in the maritime strike, for we believe with Ben Hanford that the working class is always right. From our point of view the workers have a perfect right to the full control of industry and all the fruits thereof. The employers on the other hand-not merely the shipowners; all bosses are alike-would like a situation where the workers are deprived of all organization and all say about their work and are paid only enough to keep body and soul together and raise a new generation of slaves to take their places when they drop in their tracks.

Any settlement in between these two extremes is only a temporary truce and the nature of such a settlement is decided by power; “justice” has nothing to do with it. The workers will not have justice until they take over the world. The demands of the workers in a strike are to be judged solely by their timeliness and the way they fit realistically into the actual relation of forces at the time.

The demands of the maritime workers in the present strike are perfectly reasonable from this standpoint. In standing pat for the union hiring hall they are only asserting their determination to safe guard the organizations which they have already won in struggle and maintained in struggle. The fight for the hiring hall is in essence the old familiar fight for union recognition; when the unions supply workers from the union hall they have union recognition in its best form. The demand of the bosses for the re-establishment of the practice of hiring and firing whom they please, is a proposal to substitute individual bargaining and the black-list system for collective bargaining and a reasonable protection to the worker against discrimination.

This issue is perfectly clear to every unionist. The maritime workers are strong enough -- as they have demonstrated in the past and in the present strike-to assert this demand and to refuse to “arbitrate” it, that is, to let some supposedly “neutral” body decide the question whether they should have unions or not. The other demands of the unions, such as the demand for the eight-hour day for cooks and stewards, are surely modest and realistic enough in this age when even a section of the most far-sighted capitalists are advocating the universal six-hour day.

The resources of the workers in the present struggle are far superior to those with which they entered the historic strike of 1934. They have strong organizations forged in the battle of two years ago and continually tested in the running fight with the shipowners ever since. In the meantime they have bound the various craft organizations together into a federation pledged to the common action of all crafts on the old principle of the Knights of Labor that an injury to one is the concern of all. The Maritime Federation of the Pacific is a new and most formidable weapon in the hands of the strikers, even if it falls far short of the effectiveness and power of one industrial union in the industry, the most modern instrument of struggle. The increased self confidence that has come with the experiences of the past two years, and the habit of cooperation in the Federation, all spell the same thing -- greater strength and greater solidarity in the labor camp and better chances for success.

The strikers have other resources also. The organized labor movement in the West is on the upgrade. This is due in no small degree to the influence of the maritime example. The upsurge of militancy on the waterfront, and the tangible proofs that. this policy pays big dividends in the form of strengthened organization and better conditions, have inspired unorganized workers to organize and fight and older unions to grow and to gain. Throughout the labor movement there is a feeling of deep gratitude to the maritime workers and a warm sympathy for them in their present fight. This is a real asset which might easily be the deciding factor to tip the scale in favor of the strikers in the final show down.

In addition, the Maritime Federation has in the Voice of the Federation an admirable organ of publicity and propaganda -- one of the very best trade union papers in the entire labor movement in fact-which can, and in our opinion should, be converted into a daily for the duration of the strike. The art of strike publicity consists primarily in getting the facts and the union side of the story daily to the strikers and to the working class public.

The experience of the Minneapolis truck drivers with their strike daily in 1934 shows that strikers who are on to their business don’t have to worry much about what the daily capitalist press prints -- they can’t control or influence that anyway. If they publish their own daily paper the workers will read it and believe it and hold a solid wall of sympathy and support around the strike. For publicity that counts, that is, keeps the strikers themselves and their sympathizers informed from day to day, the daily strike paper is the thing. A publicity program in a modern strike that does not include a daily paper is like a knife without a blade.

The maritime workers are fighting against a powerful enemy and their victory is by no means assured. The strikers can quite easily defeat themselves if they make a miscalculation as to the strength and resources of the enemy, and particularly it they rely on the support of factors which are in reality lined up on the other side. Here we refer directly to the government and the reactionary labor leaders of the type of Ryan, Hunter and Green. The first duty of militant leadership is to tell the strikers the truth in this respect so that they will not entertain dangerous illusions and be taken by surprise at a critical moment.

The bosses are powerful, in the first place, because they own the ships and the docks, and the workers have not yet challenged their fraudulent claim to such ownership. And because they own the ships the bosses own the government. And the same holds true in regard to such labor leaders as those mentioned above. The slightest misunderstanding on these two points can easily prove fatal.

The strikers have to battle the shipowners, plus the government, plus the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class. That’s the score. Ryan and Hunter have already shown their hands on the East Coast. Green and Co. backed them up by denouncing the East Coast strike as “outlaw”. And it ought to be painfully apparent to all that the administration at Washington, which was sold to the workers as a “friend of labor” in one of the biggest skin games ever put over, hasn’t made a move to help the strikers get their extremely modest demands. “Expectations” in this regard have been cruelly disappointed. And the worst is yet to come.

But in spite of all these powerful forces arrayed against them, the embattled maritime workers have better than a fighting chance to win. As a matter of fact, once the actual line-up is clearly understood and this understanding is consciously incorporated into the strike policy of the unions, the victory is two-thirds won. For that will mean that the strikers see the real issue clearly, rely solely on themselves and the support of their fellow workers in other trades and dig in for a bitter-end struggle.

A victory in the maritime strike under the banner of the Federation will affect profoundly the lives of all the workers involved, for the better. It will prove in life the superiority of common action through federation over the old craft isolation and stimulate the movement for thoroughgoing industrial unionism, the next step. And it will encourage the whole labor movement of the West to press forward.

These are big stakes. They are worth fighting for. Every worker in the West has a vital interest in the success of the fight.