James P. Cannon

Labor Action

San Francisco – February 20, 1937

After the Maritime Strike

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

THE more thoroughly the result of the 99-day maritime strike is considered the more convincingly does the victory of the unions stand out. The gains of the workers have two aspects. The immediate material benefits in the form of increased wages and cash payment for overtime are worth the struggle and suffering which the workers had to pay for them. The shortening of the working day of the Cooks and Stewards – even if it fell short of the eight-hour objective – is a benefit which the workers involved will enjoy every day they are at sea. The general movement of labor for better wages and shorter hours is greatly stimulated by the tangible concessions won by the maritime workers in these respects.

But, in my opinion, the outstanding and most important result of the strike was the unquestionable strengthening of the individual unions, and of the Maritime Federation as a whole. That is the safeguard and the promise of better things to come.

The 1934 strike, with all its heavy cost of struggle and sacrifice, laid the foundation for all the advances of maritime labor in the past two and a half years. But it left the question of the stability of the unions still undetermined. The seafaring crafts had to fight every inch of the way by means of job action – the only recourse left to them – to wrest the recognition and the consideration denied them in formal agreement. The attempt to wreck the Sailors Union in connection with the revocation of its charter showed that the stability and strength of this militant organization was doubted by labor fakers as well as by shipowners. Finally, the arrogance of the shipowners last fall only demonstrated their underestimation of the stability of the Federation as a whole. They had to be convinced by the strike that maritime unionism is no passing phenomenon.

The unions survived this test of a drawn-out struggle and came out of it stronger than before – and consequently with more confidence in themselves.

The results of the strike are the vindication of the strike. Who could argue now – in the face of the results – that the strike should have been postponed and stalled off indefinitely until Washington came to the rescue of the workers? All the Roosevelt administration ever offered to the maritime workers is the Copeland Book. It is clear now, or ought to be, that the strike was a necessity.

The prevailing policy in the strike was, in the main, a policy of militancy. That accounts for the victory. But this policy made its way and prevailed at times in a peculiar indirect way – from the bottom upward rather than from the top down. The maritime rank and file are fighters. They are strongly influenced by militant traditions. That is the real secret, if there is a secret, of the strength of the Federation and its affiliated unions, not some new inventions in the line of strategy. The maritime workers FEEL the class struggle, and instinctively act accordingly. That is why they were right every time they blocked policies inspired by a different conception of capital-labor relations.

Some very erroneous conceptions were entertained in some of the leading circles of the Federation. At times they were even put forward as official decisions, but fortunately they were not carried out and therefore were not so harmful as they might have been.

Among them the following stand out most prominently:

  1. The policy of stalling off the strike so as “not to embarrass President Roosevelt”;
  2. he decision to move “perishable cargo” from the strike-bound ships;
  3. The tendency to make a fetish of the “public”;
  4. The conciliatory attitude toward government interference;
  5. Most dangerous of all-the proposals to “accept the Copeland fink book and protest afterward”.

There was really nothing new in any or all of these erroneous proposals. The argument against them is not new either. It consists simply in an explanation that a conflict between workers and employers is not a mere misunderstanding between two elements who have a common general interest. On the contrary it springs from an irreconcilable conflict of interest; it is an expression of a ruthless class struggle wherein power alone decides the issue.

Viewed in this light, a dispute between workers and employers cannot be settled fairly by the government; the government is an instrument of one of the parties to the dispute-in this case the capitalists. The class conflict cannot be handed over to the “public” to decide; the “public” is itself divided into classes with different interests and different sympathies regulated primarily by these interests. The polemics of Karl Marx against the conservative labor leaders of his day answered all these questions. All the experience of the labor movement since that time, including the recent west coast strike, speaks for the position of Marx and against all conceptions which overlook the class struggle.

In the strike the Maritime Federation of the Pacific went through its first real test. The results show that this formation was an aid to solidarity. The Federation proved its superiority over the system of every craft for itself. The habit of cooperation between the crafts and the practice of solidarity, through the Federation, tested in the strike, will undoubtedly bind the Federation together more cohesively.

But for all its unquestionable superiority to the isolated system, the Federation should be regarded as a transitional form of organization. The organizational goal of militant labor is industrial unionism. The militants should begin to consider this problem more concretely and to devise steps to advance its solution.

Last updated on 31 July 2015