William Z. Foster

The Convention of the American Federation of Labor

Source: The Communist International, Vol. XIV, No. 1, January 1937
Publisher: Workers Library Publishers, New York, N.Y.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

WHEN the Fifty-sixth Convention of the A. F. of L. assembled in Tampa, Florida, on November 16,1 it faced a splendid opportunity to further the interests of labor on every front. The workers were flushed with the victory that had been scored over the Hearst-Landon reaction in the elections, industry was rapidly on the pickup and big campaigns to organize the unorganized workers were on foot in the steel and automobile industries. All factors were present for a wave of successful struggle by the workers.

But the reactionary leaders who dominate the A. F. of L. Executive Council Green, Woll, Frey, etc wanted none of this. Instead of carrying out the obviously necessary task of mobilizing the forces of the working class to press forward in the present favorable situation, they spent their main efforts to drive out of the A. F. of L. its big progressive wing. The principal thing done by the convention was to confirm the recent suspension of ten unions, with over 1,000,000 members, which go to make up the Committee for Industrial Organization, headed by John L. Lewis of the miners. Thus, the convention suspended approximately one-third of the total membership of the A. F. of L.

It will be recalled that for the past three years a group of unions, mostly those of industrial or semi-industrial form and of a progressive tendency, have been demanding that the A. F. of L. begin an energetic organization of the millions of unorganized workers in the mass production industries. They also insisted that, in order to do this, the A. F. of L. should establish the industrial form of union in these industries. The A. F. of L. Executive Council, dominated by craft unionists, refused to do this, however, and a dozen of its affiliated unions (miners, textile, needle, printers, etc.), formed themselves into the Committee for Industrial Organization several months ago. Under the leadership of John L. Lewis, the C.I.O. unions began to do organization work themselves in steel, automobile, rubber, and other industries, on the basis of the existing unions transforming themselves into industrial organizations. They have since been joined by two important independent unions in the radio and shipbuilding industries.

For this action in forming the C.I.O. and beginning organization work, the C.I.O. was condemned by the A. F. of L. Executive Council as a dual union movement, as insurrectional, as opening the door to Communists, and was then suspended from the Federation by the Executive Council. This mass suspension was in flagrant violation of the A. F. of L. constitution and grossly against the manifest will of the great majority of members in the trade union movement as a whole.

The Tampa convention confirmed this illegal suspension by a vote of approximately 21,000 to 2,000. The Executive Council could only secure this majority voting for a split, because, in the first place, the ten suspended C.I.O. unions, with over 1,000,000 members, were not allowed to vote in the convention, and second, because the top bureaucrats who make up the great bulk of the A. F. of L. convention representatives completely ignored the wishes of the workers in their own trade unions who, in overwhelming majority, are against the splitting policy of the A. F. of L. Executive Council.

That the bulk of the organized workers are against the split was shown in the few months prior to the Tampa convention; many local unions, state federations, and national unions, comprising more than half of the whole labor movement, voted against the C.I.O. suspension. But Green and Co. paid no attention to their expressed will. In deadly fear that the organization of the unorganized masses would upset their old craft union system and put an end to their own reactionary control, these bureaucrats proceeded, nevertheless, to suspend the ten C.I.O. unions, and to warn two others of impending suspension. Then, hypocritically enough, they urged the C.I.O. unions to return to the fold of organized labor (that is, by surrendering and by giving up their organization campaigns and industrial union principles), and they named a committee to negotiate with the C.I.O. leaders. Naturally, every reactionary force in the United States applauded Green and Co. in their disruptive work.

The Tampa convention, besides deepening the criminal split started by the Executive Council’s suspension of the C.I.O, unions, also took a number of other reactionary steps. Shamelessly, the bureaucratic leaders refused to permit representatives of the Spanish government to speak to the convention. They denounced the present big rank-and-file strike of marine workers on the Atlantic Coast as illegal. They also restricted the rights of the city central labor councils and federal unions (local unions that have no national unions), as these organizations, much more responsive to rank-and-file control and progressive movements than are the centralized national unions, have long been a thorn in the side of the Executive Council. The Executive Council even raised the anti-Semitic issue in its fight against the C.I.O. The convention further refused to support the Farmer-Labor Party, or to take a definite stand to restrict the power of the Supreme Court. It also rejected affiliation to the Amsterdam International, refused to condemn the fascist newspaper publisher, Hearst; rejected proposals demanding the release of the Scottsboro boys, etc., etc.

As against these reactionary measures, the convention passed a few resolutions of a progressive character, for the 30-hour week, the organization of the unorganized, the organization of youth in industry, the amendment of the Social Security Act, against the Tampa terrorism exercised against Comrade Browder in the election campaign, for the release of Tom Mooney, and J. B. McNamara, etc. But these resolutions were principally platonic in character, and, with no force behind them, are of little real significance. Altogether, the Tampa convention was one of the most reactionary in the whole life of the American labor movement. It in no sense corresponded to the will or mood of the workers who are now more progressive-minded and more militant than ever before in their history. It was a convention expressing the fears of the reactionary trade union bureaucracy which is on the defensive in the face of a rapidly rising wave of radicalism and struggle among the broad masses of the working class for their unity.

The Attitude of the C.I.O.

The ten unions, members of the Committee for Industrial Organization, that had previously been suspended by the Executive Council, were not represented at the Tampa convention. Two unions, the cap makers and the printers, which, although actively cooperating with the C.I.O., were not suspended because they were technically not affiliated to the C.I.O., sent their delegates to the Tampa convention and they led the fight there for the C.I.O. They were supported in the convention vote by ten small national unions, mostly of an industrial and semi-industrial union character, ten state federations, ten city central bodies, and thirty federal local unions.

Since the end of the convention, the C.I.O. has not stated definitely what it proposes to do with regard to re-establishing trade union unity. Two of its unions (cap makers and ladies’ garment workers) are outspoken for peace with the Executive Council, and are evidently prepared to make pretty heavy concessions to this end. Whether or not any negotiations will develop between the A. F. of L. negotiating committee and the C.I.O. leaders, regarding rescinding the suspension of the C.I.O. unions, remains to be seen. There has been much general talk about the formation of a new trade union federation with the C.I.O. as the basis. But the C.I.O. itself, and John L. Lewis, its leader, are non-committal on this question.

With regard to the problem of reestablishing trade union unity, the C.I.O. is evidently marking time. But meanwhile, it is pressing forward energetically with its campaigns in the steel, automobile, rubber and other mass production industries. Good progress is being made in this work, especially in steel. It is claimed that now (December 15) over 100,000 of the 500,000 steel workers have been registered in the C.I.O. industrial union, the Amalgamated Iron, Tin and Steel Workers, which is one of the oldest trade unions in the American labor movement. The C.I.O. has set the middle of February as the date when the majority of the steel workers must be organized, so that it may present the workers’ demands to the steel corporations; and its big corps of 175 or more paid organizers are being pushed to accomplish this task.

The situation is generally favorable for the C. I.O., in spite of the ruthless splitting tactics of the A. F. of L. Executive Council. The C.I.O. represents the present militant mass trends of the workers. The fourteen C.I.O. unions, with the 500,000 miners as their backbone, are themselves in a strong position. The huge masses of unorganized workers are in an active mood, ready to organize and highly sympathetic to the C.I.O.’s program. Also the C.I.O. has the support of huge numbers of members of the craft unions whose misleaders are controlling the Executive Council of the A. F. of L. Although the official figures show about 2,250,000 workers following the Executive Council and 1,250,000 following the C.I.O., in reality, counting the sympathetic members in the craft unions, a large majority of the trade unionists of the United States are supporters of Lewis’ program. In addition, the C.I.O. leaders are closer to Roosevelt than are the leaders of the A. F. of L. Executive Council, and undoubtedly have the greater influence with him. The success of the C.I.O.’s major organization campaigns, which may well be realized, would put the C.I.O. definitely in a dominant position in the American labor movement and would enable it to shape the course to achieve trade union unity and to formulate labor policy generally.

The Position of the Communist Party

From the beginning the C.P.U.S.A. has supported the C.I.O. movement, with a certain amount of criticism. The C.P. especially urged the C.I.O. to come out more definitely for a Farmer-Labor Party, to take more energetic steps to mobilize its sympathizers in the craft unions, and to press forward more actively with the organization work. The C.P. has been giving the C.I.O. its energetic support in the struggle against the reactionary section of the Executive Council of the A. F. of L., and also in the prosecution of its several campaigns to organize the unorganized in the steel, auto, and other mass production industries.

At the time of the suspension of the C.I.O. unions by the Executive Council of the A. F. of L., a couple of months before the Tampa convention, the Communist Party played the most active role of any organization in mobilizing the members of the trade union movement against the splitting policy of the A. F. of L. leadership. More than half the whole labor movement went on record against the Executive Council’s policy. The Party called upon the workers in the lower ranks of the trade unions to maintain their lines united, in spite of the attempt of the bureaucrats at the top to split the labor movement. It is significant that when the Tampa convention later confirmed the suspension of the C.I.O. unions it did not undertake to unseat the delegates from the various city central labor councils and the State Federations of Labor. The Executive Council was evidently afraid that if it issued such an order the rank and file would refuse to carry it out. Thus, we have the peculiar situation of the labor movement being split wide open at the top and yet united at the bottom in the very important city and state A. F. of L. bodies.

Immediately following the Tampa convention, the C.P. issued a trade union unity statement with the slogan “Prevent the A. F. of L. split from spreading; reunite the trade union movement!” This statement, after placing full responsibility for the split upon the Executive Council of the A. F. of L., called upon the workers to maintain their unity in the bottom ranks of the labor movement.

To prevent the split from spreading the Party proposed three principal measures:

1. That, pending the re-establishment of unity with the A. F. of L., the C.I.O. should retain its present form as a committee to carry on organization work in the mass production industries.

2. That there should be no unseating of C.I.O. delegates in the city central bodies and state federations of labor.

3. That there should be no splitting off of local unions or minority groups of national unions affiliated to the C.I.O. or the A. F. of L., and that wherever the question of national affiliation to either body arises, the principle of majority rule should prevail.

In addition to these emergency measures to prevent the split from spreading, the C.P. statement proposed a whole series of other measures for reuniting the trade union movement, including a wide campaign in the A. F. of L. unions to condemn the action of the A. F. of L. Executive Council and to support the program of the C.I.O.; a demand for a continuation of unity negotiations; a demand that the whole question of industrial unionism be submitted to a general referendum vote of all the unions; intensification of the organization campaigns in the steel, auto, rubber, needle and other industries, whose success the Party considers the key to the whole situation; a systematic mobilization of A. F. of L. local craft unions to support the C.I.O. organizing drive, and to initiate organization work in their own spheres; an agreement between the C.I.O. and the A. F. of L., allowing the C.I.O. to organize the steel workers and the A. F. of L. metal trades to organize the other heavy metal industries; the raising of the question of industrial unionism in the A. F. of L. and railroad unions in those forms constituting the next most practical steps toward industrial solidarity in the given industries; the launching of a campaign for the elimination of gangsters and racketeers from the unions, and the development of a new leadership and policy in the A. F. of L. unions; efforts to establish the political unity of the various sections of the labor movement by linking together and setting up a working cooperation between the A. F. of L. and railroad brotherhood legislative committees: Labor’s Non-Partisan League (C.I.O.), farmers’ organizations, state Farmer-Labor Parties, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, etc., in support of labor’s legislative demands and in the building of local and state Farmer-Labor Parties. The Party put out the slogan: to “defeat the Executive Council splitters—for a united A. F. of L.—for industrial unionism”.

A Perspective of Struggle

Despite the splitting tactics of the leaders of the A. F. of L. Executive Council, the working class in the United States is rapidly developing a new wave of mass struggle. The next period will probably be one of the most important in this respect in the whole history of the American labor movement. The employers, in attempts to forestall the developing struggle, are giving many “voluntary” wage increases and Christmas bonuses to the workers, and they are making many overtures for the cooperation of the Roosevelt government which they opposed so bitterly in the recent elections.

The mass struggle is developing on many fronts. As we have remarked, successful organization campaigns by the C.I.O. are being carried on in steel, automobile, rubber, glass, etc. This has given a great stimulation to trade union organization in industry generally, and the work of organization is especially beginning to get under way in such industries as needle, textile, shoe, etc.

Also, a wave of strikes is growing in various industries. For two months the Left A. F. of L. marine workers on the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf Coasts have been waging a fierce struggle against their employers. The national glass industry is now tied up with the strike of the C.I.O. union. The automobile and rubber industries are experiencing a wave of sit-down and stay-in strikes, with the prospect of very big movements in the near future. Strikes are also taking place in other industries.

The C.I.O. leaders plan that the majority of the steel workers shall be organized in the union by the middle of February, a not difficult task in view of the splendid opportunity for organization work at the present time. Then the steel workers will present their demands to the Iron and Steel Institute, the national center of the great steel corporations. This will probably provoke a serious struggle and the C.I.O. leaders are talking about linking up the struggle of the 500,000 steel workers with that of the 500,000 coal miners, whose national agreement will expire on March 31, 1937. It needs no great imagination to foresee the tremendous struggle that will develop should the combined steel workers and coal miners go on strike together—which, at the present writing, seems a distinct possibility. This would awaken the whole country.

The mass struggle is also developing around labor’s legislative demands. In the election campaign Roosevelt made many promises to the workers, of shorter hours, higher wages, better living conditions, etc. Since the elections Roosevelt has turned distinctly to the Right, with wholesale cuts in unemployment relief and by other friendly gestures to the great capitalists. But the workers are of a mind to insist on their legislative demands, and never in the history of America was there so much independent political activity by the masses in the shaping of such demands and taking steps to press them upon city, state and national governments.

In the center of all this economic and political activity can be felt the influence of the C.I.O., with John L. Lewis at its head. The A. F. of L. leadership, where it is not passive, is playing an obstructive role. Every progressive and revolutionary element in the American labor movement is giving more or less active support to the broad struggles either initiated or supported by the C.I.O.

All these struggle developments, which I have barely touched on here, promise to have a profound effect upon the organization and outlook of the working class. The success of the big organization campaigns now under way in steel, auto, rubber, etc., would smash the open-shop efforts of the finance capitalists, and would destroy the effectiveness of their company unionism. It would also radically transform the old A. F. of L. system of craft unionism by definitely establishing the industrial union principle. It would likewise probably lead to a huge organization campaign in many industries. Other effects would probably be to so strengthen the progressive elements in the trade union movement as a whole that they would be able to re-establish trade union unity in spite of the splitting efforts of the A. F. of L top leadership. And through it all can be seen the gradual development of broad movements which are slowly laying the foundation for a national Farmer-Labor Party.

The success of the economic and political struggle that American labor is now evidently going into would greatly strengthen the democratic forces of America and put a strong brake upon the development of reaction and fascism in this country. And it goes without saying that such a development in the United States could not fail to have international repercussions by strengthening the fight of all revolutionary and democratic forces of the world, in defense of democracy and against the menace of fascism and war. Needless to add, the Communist Party of the U.S.A. will throw all its forces into this sharpening struggle, in order that these mass movements may turn out to be the biggest victory ever won by the American working class, the biggest step toward its unity. And so that, in the making of this victory, the Communist Party can take still further strides toward building itself into a mass party.



1. This article was written immediately following the 56th Convention of the A. F. of L.—Ed.