William Z. Foster

The Renaissance of the American Trade Union Movement

Source: The Communist International, Vol. XIV, No. 6, June 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.

FOR many years the conservatism of the trade union movement in the United States, represented chiefly by the American Federation of Labor, has been world-notorious. The A. F. of L. leaders, open defenders of capitalism, have opposed from the Right even the most opportunist forms of Social-Democracy, considering the Second International “too revolutionary” for their affiliation. They have fought against the formation of a Labor Party, their policy being to keep the workers affiliated to the big capitalist parties. They have clung to the antiquated craft union system in a country of trustified industry and mass production. They are indeed “labor lieutenants of the bourgeoisie.” The general effects of their regime of corruption and class collaboration have been to render the American working class almost powerless: the workers have no mass political party of their own and their trade unions, largely composed of skilled workers, include hardly more than 15 per cent of the organizable workers.

At bottom, the causes for this ultraconservative trade unionism were to be found in a number of economic, political and social factors; including the relatively favorable economic position of the large labor aristocracy; the presence of millions of immigrant workers of many nationalities with different social and cultural traditions; the passage of many workers into the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie and some even into the capitalist class during the period of rapid industrial expansion, etc. All these factors tended to check the growth of class consciousness among the workers, to stimulate petty-bourgeois illusions among them, and to prevent the growth of powerful trade unions, a mass working class party, and a revolutionary perspective.

Now, however, the picture is rapidly changing in the United States. Seven years of crisis and depression, with millions of unemployed living in semistarvation and with the employed workers suffering heavily reduced living standards, with the growth of an incipient fascist reaction, etc., are having profound effects. The working masses are rapidly becoming radicalized. They are beginning to cast off their capitalistic illusions, and to develop a more militant spirit. They are at last taking up Seriously the questions of building a powerful labor movement and developing class political action. In short, the. American trade union movement is at a turning point; it is breaking with its old conservative past and is crossing the threshold of a new era of progress.

The Rise of the C.I.O.

The center of this new trade union renaissance is the Committee for Industrial Organization (C.I.O.). The C.I.O., headed by John L. Lewis, is composed of fifteen unions with some 2,000,000 members. It was formed about a year ago with a program of organizing the armies of unorganized workers in the mass production industries into industrial unions. The actual establishment of the C.I.O. did not take place until after Lewis had fought for two years to induce the A. F. of L. itself to undertake this work. Lewis himself has a very conservative background, but he saw the necessity for industrial unionism. His proposals, however, were rejected by the craft union reactionaries—Green, Well, Frey, Wharton, Hutcheson, etc.—who dominate the Executive Council of the A. F. of L. The Lewis forces then launched the C.I.O. and began this fundamental organization work themselves, meanwhile maintaining their regular affiliation with the A. F. of L.

In the intervening months since then the C.I.O. has been signally successful in its organization work. In the automobile industry, in February of this year, the C.I.O. carried on a strike against the giant General Motors Corporation. involving 150,000 workers. This was followed by another strike of 70,000 against the Chrysler Company. Both were sit-down strikes (occupation of the factories) and both were won, forcing the automobile kings to grant many economic concessions and, for the first time, to recognize trade unionism in their plants. The Auto Workers Union grew almost overnight from a skeleton organization to a union of 300,000 members and it is still rapidly expanding.

This great success of the C.I.O. in the automobile industry was even surpassed by its victory in steel. After a several months’ organizing campaign, and right upon the heels of the General Motors strike, the C.I.O. forced the great moguls of the United States Steel Corporation to meet with Lewis and agree to recognize the C.I.O. steel workers’ union. This union has also leaped from almost nothing to an organization of at least 300,000 members and is still growing swiftly. The powerful General Electric Company was also compelled to sign an agreement with the rapidly developing C.I.O.. radio and electrical workers’ union.

Besides these notable victories, the C.I.O. has won strikes and is conducting big organizing campaigns in a number of other industries, such as glass, shipbuilding, rubber, oil, textile, etc. The successes in auto and steel have created a veritable fever of organization and struggle among the workers in various industries. Most of the many strikes taking place are of the sit-down type and are extremely militant in character. The workers, fresh from their victory over the Landon-Hearst reaction in the November elections, are in a fighting mood and ready for vigorous action. The C.I.O. struggles are also favored by the improved economic situation and by the tolerant attitude of the Roosevelt government toward the trade union organization of the workers in the mass production industries.

In the many C.I.O. organization campaigns and strikes, the Communists are playing an important role, cooperating freely with the C.I.O. Especially is this true of the auto and steel industries. In the vital General Motors strike the Communists were an important factor and this was also true in the bitterly fought strike of 40,000 marine transport workers (A. F. of L.), the winning of which stimulated the workers’ fighting spirit generally.

The Split in the American Federation of Labor

The reactionary leaders of the A. F. of L., fearing for the safety of their fat jobs and their corrupt regime, are bitterly fighting against the advance of the militant C.I.O. No sooner was the C.I.O. formed, early in 1936, as an organizing committee than the A. F. of L. Executive Council condemned it as a rival, dual organization. Then, a few months later, the Executive Council, in flagrant violation of the A. F. of L. constitution and in the face of a great mass protest of trade unionists generally, arbitrarily suspended the C.I.O. unions from A. F. of L. affiliation. The Tampa Convention of the A. F. of L. in October, 1936, made up principally of craft union bureaucrats and in which the C.I.O. unions were denied the right to vote, confirmed the suspension of the Lewis unions.

The Communist Party had played a very active part in mobilizing the trade unionists against the suspension of the C.I.O. unions by the A. F. of L. Executive Council and it now also took up the cudgels against the splitting action of the packed Tampa Convention. The Party put out the slogan “Keep the split from spreading.” It called upon the workers to refuse to suspend the C.I.O. locals from the city and state central labor councils, and thus to keep the movement intact at the bottom in spite of the split among the officialdom. The Party also outlined a policy for reuniting the warring groups under the banner of the A. F. of L.

Realizing the mass resistance to their splitting policy, the Executive Council reactionaries did not dare at that time to order the local councils to suspend the C.I.O. unions. Thus was presented the peculiar situation of a split at the top of the labor movement and unity in its basic organs. This unity at the bottom was highly favorable to the C.I.O. as it was thus enabled to go ahead with its organizing campaigns in auto and steel unmolested by local A. F. of L. sabotage. In fact, the friendly cooperation of many A. F. of L. city labor councils was of great, if not decisive, importance in the crucial General Motors strike.

Deeply alarmed at the significant General Motors strike, the A. F. of L. Executive Council renewed its splitting offensive. President Green of the A. F. of L. denounced the strike as an outlaw affair, he condemned the sit-down tactics as illegal and imported from Moscow, and he repudiated the victorious strike settlement as a defeat and a betrayal of trade union principles. Later Green issued an instruction to the city central labor councils to unseat delegates of C.I.O. local unions and he has already revoked the charter of one council, of the very many such councils that have refused to obey his splitting orders.

Meanwhile, the C.I.O. has not taken these blows lying down. The miners’ union (C.I.O.), of which Lewis is President and Green was a member, expelled Green as a strikebreaker and a traitor. The C.I.O. locals and sympathizers are resisting Green’s suspension order in the local labor councils and the C.I.O. has announced that it will issue charters for new councils where its locals are expelled. Meanwhile the C.I.O. has redoubled its organizing efforts in steel, auto, oil, textile and many other industries.

Thus the situation now is that Green wants the split and is doing all possible to deepen it, while Lewis, with his supporters growing rapidly both inside and outside the A. F. of L., is resisting the disruptive efforts of Green.

The C.I.O. and the A. F. of L. now practically constitute two distinct national trade union centers. The split, although steadily deepening, is, however, not fully completed. The C.I.O. unions are not yet officially expelled from the A, F. of L. (their status is one of suspension), and besides this, the trade union movement still remains united at the bottom, in the city and state labor councils, to which the C.I.O. unions, in the main, are still affiliated. And there the situation stands at the present time of writing, the end of March, 1937.

The Relation of Trade Union Forces

As between the C.I.O. and the A. F. of L., the C.I.O. is numerically considerably the strongest, although its forces are not yet fully consolidated. The A. F. of L. claims a total membership of 3,586,567. But from this figure must be deducted over 1,000,000 C.I.O. members who have been suspended and who have since hugely increased their numbers. Besides, there are several unions in the A. F. of L. (printers, lumber workers, fur workers, etc.) totalling at least 200,000 members, which would promptly quit the A. F. of L. and join the C.I.O. if called upon to do it. Besides this, the C.I.O. has a tremendous body of active sympathizers in the A. F. of L., several hundred thousand at least. Not counting its large general following in the A. F. of L., the C.I.O. has now at least 2,000,000 actual members and it is growing with extreme rapidity, because of its successful organizing campaigns in auto, steel, textile, etc. Actually, therefore, the C.I.O. is numerically larger than the A. F. of L., and this factor daily grows more favorable to the C.I.O.

The C.I.O. is also far more strategically situated in industry than is the A. F. of L. The main strength of its fifteen affiliated unions lies in the basic and mass production industries—coal mining 500,000; auto 300,000; steel 300,000; textile 90,000; oil 80,000, and some 300,000 in the rubber, electric, aluminum, metal mining, shipbuilding and other industries. Besides this, the C.I.O. has a solid bloc of 400,000 members in the clothing industry. On the other hand, the A. F. Of L. finds its chief strength in the lighter, non-trustified industries, and especially among skilled workers and government employees. Its main force is the building trades, 700,000 members. The other important industrial positions of the A. F. of L. are some 400,000 shop, trade and office workers in the railroad industry (the running trades are in independent unions) and a strong organization in marine transport, although the great bulk of these workers are open supporters of the C.I.O. and will eventually probably join it.

The advanced position of the C.I.O. over the A. F. of L. also expresses itself in a variety of other ways. It is based on the principle of industrial unionism, while the A. F. of L. still clings to craft unionism; it is developing a new and progressive leadership, as against the hard-boiled reactionaries of the A. F. of L.; it is awakening the political consciousness of the workers and arousing their militancy; whereas the reactionary A. F. of L. leaders have always been a brake on the class development of the workers.

Thus the C.I.O. is superior to the A. F. of L. numerically, in strategical position and in general political tendency. It is the most decisive of the two national trade union centers and it represents the broad path along which American labor needs to progress. When the A. F. of L. reactionaries rejected Lewis’ program and suspended the C.I.O. unions they signed their own political death warrants as the major leaders of American trade unionism.

The Fight for Trade Union Unity

The split in the American labor movement raises sharply the question of establishing trade union unity. The big employers are quite alert to use the Right-wing A. F. of L. against the progressive C.I.O. In the auto and steel industries they worked openly with the bosses against the C.I.O., even offering to furnish leadership to the company unions to beat the new industrial unions. Hence, the workers need imperatively to put an end to such a menace by moving toward the achievement of trade union unity.

In the eventually unified trade union movement the C.I.O. forces and policies will doubtless play the central role. In fact, the fight for unity resolves itself into a matter of extending all possible support to the new C.I.O. center, while at the same time developing a movement looking toward the uniting of all the unions in one general federation.

Of first importance is to give the maximum possible support to the C.I.O.’s campaigns to organize the millions of unorganized workers. Success in this vital work is the dynamic factor in the whole situation; the key to the future development of the American trade union movement.

Also, every effort should be put forth to keep the Green reactionaries from further splitting the trade unions. Especially important in this respect is it to encourage the widespread refusal of the A. F. of L. city and state labor federations to carry out Green’s order to exclude the C.I.O. delegates. This refusal, where successful, has the effect of keeping the labor movement intact at the bottom and of throwing the rebellious local federations definitely into the orbit of the C.I.O.

It would seem necessary also to contemplate the eventual holding of a well-prepared national union convention, called by the C.I.O., the A. F. of L. and the independent railroad unions to unify the whole labor movement. And in the meantime, so far as possible without deepening the split, the C.I.O. should consolidate its forces, both outside and inside the A. F. of L.

Of course, the Green reactionaries will bitterly fight this great unity movement as long as they can. But unless the writer is greatly mistaken, they face in the C.I.O. a mass movement that they cannot beat down. The handwriting is on the wall for them and their reactionary regime; the American labor movement is going to experience a New Deal of its own.

The Perspective

The basic significance of the broad organizing campaigns of the C.I.O. is that the American workers are finally beginning to organize as a class, both economically and politically. Heretofore the A. F. of L., with its narrow craft unionism and its anti-working class political policies, has definitely hindered such class organization. The class unionism of the C.I.O. is rapidly changing the make-up and outlook of the trade unions.

The advance of the C.I.O. is already resulting in vast changes in the labor movement. It is producing a new and progressive labor leadership, the LewisHillman group; it is developing the new trade union form, industrial unionism; it is applying new tactics, the sit-down strikes; it is extending trade unionism into new fields, the basic trustified industries; it is winning real victories. Instead of the defeats and weak compromises of A. F. of L. craft unionism, it is rousing the militancy of the working class generally and dealing heavy blows at the A. F. of L. theories and practices of class collaboration.

The, C.I.O. is also advancing the working class in politics. It displays many progressive political tendencies; it has a sharp and growing anti-fascist, anti-war trend; it was a powerful factor in defeating the Landon reaction in the November elections; it presses Roosevelt from the Left and as it organizes the Left wing in the Democratic Party it is driving in the direction of a Farmer-Labor Party; it strongly supports the trade union organization of Negroes; its leaders, unlike those of the A. F. of L., are carrying on no slander campaign against the U.S.S.R. and the Communist Party. In short, around the C.I.O. are grouping the major mass forces that should, with effective leadership, eventually crystallize into a great American People’s Front.

The C.I.O. has already forced a sharp change in the traditional anti-trade union policy of finance capital. Hitherto, the big trust magnates enforced their infamous open-shop policy in the mass production industries. But the C.I.O., by its big organizing campaigns and aggressive strikes, has broken this down, shattered the company union system and compelled the reluctant big capitalists to recognize the C.I.O. unions in the strategic auto, steel and electrical manufacturing industries. This is a big achievement and it places John L. Lewis in a strong position of leadership of American labor.

It would be idle, however, to think that finance capital will tamely submit to the advance of the militant C.I.O. unions. Already their publicity agents are singing the praises of “strikeless England,” and are advocating that various methods of state incorporations, semi-compulsory arbitration, strike right limitation, etc., be enacted so as to hamstring the American unions somewhat as was done to the British unions after their betrayed national general strike. They will doubtless try to make a bargain with the C.I.O. upon some such class collaboration basis.

The big employers are also maneuvering for a more favorable time to smash violently the new unions if they cannot otherwise destroy their effectiveness. In fighting the C.I.O., the employers now face the triple handicap of a militant working class, a rising economic situation and the policy of the Roosevelt government. But they expect all this will soon change. For one thing they expect a fresh economic crisis within a year or two, and they hope either to defeat Roosevelt or to “take him into camp” by an agreement with him. In any event, we may be sure they are biding their time for a good opportunity to castrate or destroy the C.I.O. unions.

Great struggles are now taking place in the United States and still greater struggles are in immediate prospect. The masses are being rapidly radicalized. So swift is the realignment of class forces that in the past year it has caused deep splits in the Republican Party, Democratic Party, Socialist Party, Townsend movement, Coughlin movement, as well as in the A. F. of L. itself.

All this presents a splendid opportunity. The Communist Party gives all possible support to the present great organizing campaigns; it exercises the maximum initiative of leadership in these mass struggles; it is the indefatigable champion of trade union unity; it strives to develop the C.I.O. movement in the direction of creating a great People’s Front. And in the doing of all this it must be alert to extend its own leadership among the workers and in the developing struggle to build itself into a mass Communist Party.