James P. Cannon

Early Years of the American Communist Movement

Letters to a Historian

The Passaic Strike

Source: Fourth International, Vol.17 No.2, Spring 1956, pp.50-51.
Original bound volumes of Fourth International and microfilm provided by the NYU Tamiment Labor Libraries.
Transcription & Mark-up: Andrew Pollack/Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

June 9, 1955

Dear Sir:

I remember the December 1925 Plenum of the CP of the US I was allied with the Ruthenberg faction at this particular Plenum and took a very active part in the debate on the trade-union question. It probably marked the tentative beginning of resistance to AFL fetishism, although the details of the specific issues in dispute at the Plenum have not remained in my memory.

According to my recollection, the Passaic issue came up at the Plenum, but it did not originate there. It was rather thrust upon the party by the cyclonic activities of Weisbord, who had gone into the field and actually begun to organize the unorganized textile workers. Looking back on it now, we deserve censure, not for giving conditional support to the organizing work of Weisbord, but for failing to go all-out in such support and to make the issue of AFL fetishism clear-cut.

The “United Front Committee” under which the organizing campaign in Passaic proceeded, instead of under the auspices of a new union, which the situation really called for, was a concession to the party’s prevailing policy of AFL-ism. To be sure, the recruitment of individual members to the “United Front Committee” twisted the conception of the united front, as an alliance of organizations, out of shape. But the real problem at Passaic was to organize the unorganized, unskilled and low-paid workers neglected by the AFL.

The Fosterite opposition to the recruitment of individual members to this “United Front Committee” showed up the bankruptcy of the ultra-AFL policy in a clear light for the first time. It could have had no other effect than to paralyze the organization of the textile workers in Passaic for fear of committing the sin of “dual unionism” – for which the Fosterites had a real phobia.

The Passaic strike started in the spring of 1926 while we were still in Moscow attending the Sixth Plenum of the Comintern. I don’t know or remember any of the immediate circumstances attending it. It is my definite impression, however, that the strike was not precipitated by the party leadership. Rather it was dumped in its lap as a result of Weisbord’s successes in organizing the textile workers there.

Gitlow’s pretensions about masterminding the Passaic situation, as related in his compendium of distortions and fabrications entitled I Confess, should be taken with a grain of salt. All his stories which are not outright inventions are slanted to enlarge his own role in party affairs and to denigrate others – in this case, Weisbord.

The organization of the workers in Passaic and the effective leadership of the strike itself, were pre-eminently Weisbord’s work. I had a chance to see that on the ground after we returned from Moscow. I, myself, had nothing to do with the Passaic strike, but I spent a little time there and had a good chance to see Weisbord in action. As a strike leader he was first class, no mistake about it. It is true that he worked under the close supervision and direction of a party committee in New York appointed by the national party leadership in Chicago. But it’s a long way from committee meetings in a closed room, off the scene, to the actual leadership of a strike on the ground. The full credit for that belongs to Weisbord.

There was an apparent contradiction between the decision of the Sixth Plenum of the CI to confirm Foster’s faction – with its pro-AFL policy – in its hegemony over party trade-union work and the concurrent conduct of the Passaic strike under the auspices of a “United Front Committee” outside the AFL. That was not due to factional manipulation. It happened that way because life intruded into the internal affairs of the party.

It happened because Weisbord – a brash young egocentric fresh out of college, and in general an unattractive specimen at close range, but a powerful mass orator and a human dynamo if there ever was one – stirred up a lot of workers and organized them into the “United Front Committee.” The sense of strength that came from their organization emboldened them to call a strike without waiting for the sanction of the AFL union. The strike soon exploded into violent clashes with the police which were splashed all over the front pages of the metropolitan press. The Passaic strike was the Number One labor news story for a long time.

This action at Passaic did indeed violate both the letter and the spirit of Fosterite trade-union policy, which the party had followed for years and which had been implicitly supported once again in Moscow. But that didn’t change the fact that the party had a big strike on its hands. And the party certainly made the most of its opportunity.

The Passaic strike really put the party on the labor map. In my opinion it deserves a chapter in party history all by itself. It revealed the Communists as the dynamic force in the radical labor movement and the organizing center of the unorganized workers disregarded by the AFL unions – displacing the IWW in this field. The Passaic strike was well organized and expertly led, and under all ordinary circumstances should have resulted in a resounding victory. The only trouble was that the bosses were too strong, had too many financial resources and were too determined to prevent the consolidation of a radical union organization. The strikers, isolated in one locality, were simply worn out and starved out and there was nothing to be done about it.

A poor settlement was the best that could be squeezed out of the deadlock. Such experiences were to be repeated many times before the unionization drive in the Thirties gained sufficient scope and power to break the employers’ resistance.

* * *

The Passaic strike was destined to have an influence on party trade-union policy which in the long run was far more important than the strike itself. The genesis of the drastic change in trade-union policy a few years later can probably be traced to it. There was a belated reaction to the party’s attempt to outwit the textile bosses and the AFL fakers by yielding to their principal demand – the elimination of the strike leader, Weisbord.

When it became clear that the strike was sagging, and that the bosses would not make a settlement with the “United Front Committee,” negotiations were opened up with the AFL Textile Union. The AFL was invited to take over the organization and try to negotiate a settlement. These accommodating fakers agreed – on one small condition, which turned out to be the same as that of the bosses, namely, that Weisbord, the communist strike leader, should walk the plank.

I do not know who first proposed the acceptance of this monstrous condition. What stands out in my memory most distinctly is the fact that both factions in the party leadership agreed with it, and that there was no conflict on the issue whatever. The fateful decision to sacrifice the strike leader was made unanimously by the party leadership and eventually carried out by the strike committee.

Such questions cannot be viewed abstractly. Perhaps those who, in their experience, have been faced with the agonizing problem of trying to save something from the wreckage of a defeated strike have a right to pass judgment on this decision. Others are hardly qualified. The main consideration in the Passaic situation was the fact that the strike had passed its peak. Real victory was already out of the question and the general feeling was that a poor settlement would be better than none. Other strikes have been settled under even more humiliating conditions. Workers have been compelled time and time again to “agree” to the victimization and blacklisting of the best militants in their ranks as a condition for getting back to work with a scrap of an agreement.

But what stands out in retrospect in the Passaic settlement – and what is painful even now to recall – was the alacrity with which the party leadership agreed to it, the general feeling that it was a clever “maneuver,” and its falsely grounded motivations.

The decision to sacrifice the strike leader and to disband the “United Front Committee,” implied recognition that the moth-eaten, reactionary, good-for-nothing AFL set-up in the textile industry at that time was the “legitimate” union in that field; and that the “United Front Committee” was only a holding operation and recruiting agency for the AFL union.

All that was wrong from start to finish. The “United Front Committee” should have been regarded as the starting point for an independent union of textile workers. For that it would have been far better to “lose” the strike than to end it with a disgraceful settlement. Independent unionism was the only prescription for the textile industry, and had been ever since the great days of the IWW. “Boring from within” the AFL union in that field, as an exclusive policy, never had a realistic basis.

The Passaic settlement and the motivations for it carried the AFL fetishism of Foster, with which all the others in the party leadership had gone along more or less uneasily, to the point of absurdity. It brought a kickback which was to result, a couple of years later, in a complete reversal of party policy on the trade union question.

When the Comintern got ready for its wild “left turn” toward “red trade unions” in 1928, Losovsky singled out the Passaic capitulation as the horrible example of the party’s policy of “dancing quadrilles around the AFL.” The party then embarked on an adventurous course, going to the other extreme of building independent communist unions all up and down the line.

The disastrous results of this experiment with the Trade Union Unity League, as the organizing center of a separate communist labor movement, were in part a punishment for the sin of the Passaic settlement.

Yours truly,
James P. Cannon

Letters Index |Main Document Index | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on: 8 April 2009