William F. Warde

The Mobilization of American Labor: 1929-1940

(March 1941)

Source: From Fourth International, Vol.2 No.4, May 1941, pp.107-110.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2008 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2008; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Of all the cataclysmic changes in American life from 1929 to 1939, none was more momentous than the growth in the stature of the working class. During this decade the most decisive and dynamic sections of the industrial proletariat became organized and began to exercise an ever-increasing influence upon national and world affairs.

The End of the Golden Age

This epoch was preceded by the Golden Age of American plutocracy, when the super-profits extorted by our monopolists from their exploitation of the planet had produced an appearance of limitless prosperity and progress, momentarily exorcising the spectres emanating from the aftermath of the first World War. At the peak of that boom American labor had attained the greatest material heights of any proletariat in history. The craft aristocracy had received a small but satisfactory share of imperialist super-profit; their leaders, like other Babbitts, regarded the Big Business regime in the “good old USA.” as the best of all possible worlds.

To be sure, the bulk of the proletariat in the basic industries had remained unorganized and over-exploited. But this did not trouble the self-satisfied AFL officialdom so long as their own social problem was solved and they could afford Havana cigars, Cadillacs, two-dollar dinners and three-month vacations. They could turn their backs upon the mass production workers, just as the labor bureaucrats in England ignored the very existence of the colonial slaves whose exploitation and oppression formed the basis of their own power and income.

All good things, however, come to an end, and this Golden Age vanished with the world crisis of 1929, never to return.

For the next four years the AFL slid down from its eminence, dragging the bureaucracy along with it, haunch, paunch, and jowl. Years of famine followed the years of plenty; the American aristocrats of world labor became pauperized, unemployed, impotent. The petty-bourgeois leaders of the AFL proved as helpless as the bourgeois leaders of the USA to halt the degradation of their institutions. The precipitous economic decline, the blows of the bourgeoisie, and the incapacity of the AFL leaders had the most catastrophic consequences for the working class. By the end of 1932 the American trade union movement was completely prostrated.

This same paralysis had seized the entire nation from top to bottom. The bourgeoisie, under Hoover, floundered helplessly, powerless to check the decline of their system. The petty-bourgeoisie scattered in all directions, seeking a program and a leadership to save them from the consequences of the crisis. The collapse of capitalism, predicted by the Marxists, had become a reality in the most powerful capitalist country the world had ever known. This collapse became complete when the banks closed on March 4, 1933 and the economic life of the country came to a standstill.

Had the labor movement of the US been sufficiently well-organized, had its vanguard been sufficiently class-conscious and under the influence of a revolutionary Bolshevist party, the struggle for proletarian power against the plutocracy might then and there have taken place.

But history ordained otherwise. These subjective factors did not exist; the revolutionary situation passed; and the crisis of American capitalism was resolved in another manner. Roosevelt came forward on behalf of the bourgeoisie to assume the leadership of the petty-bourgeois and proletarian masses. His New Deal program for the salvation of the USA by way of reform temporarily overcame the social and political crisis of American capitalism. The attending international industrial upturn served to reverse the downward trend of capitalist economy. In the ensuing four years, national and world conditions enabled Roosevelt’s administration to effect a partial stabilization of the economic and political situation. Thus, through the agency of the Democratic Party, the preceding revolutionary crisis was exploited solely for the political benefit of the American bourgeoisie.

The New Stage for Labor

The four years of crisis, from 1929 to 1933, had its positive as well as its negative side. In addition to demoralizing and disorganizing the old labor movement, it destroyed many of the obstacles that had retarded the advancement of the working class, thereby creating the pre-conditions for the labor movement to spurt forward and elevate itself to a higher economic and political plane. The catastrophe had swept the ground from under the AFL bureaucracy, weakened their positions within the unions and irretrievably impaired their prestige among the working masses.

During the boom days before 1929 it was a dogma in official, liberal and even certain radical circles, that nothing could break the monopoly of the AFL bureaucracy over the existing labor movement. Since these AFL leaders would not and could not organize the workers in the mass production industries, they would not and could not be organized. The degeneration of the IWW, the failure of the Stalinist unions of the TUUL to acquire a mass character, and finally, the paralysis of the industrial workers during the depression, appeared for a time to confirm this appraisal.

The Marxists alone were not deceived by appearances. In opposition to the fashionable view that the AFL monopoly of labor leadership was eternal and unchangeable, the Marxists’ explained the social and economic conditions of competitive capitalism that had given rise to this monopoly. They pointed out that these conditions were disappearing through the integration of industry and the concentration of capital under monopolistic control. These profound alterations in the social organization of production necessarily entailed correspondingly new forms of proletarian economic and political organization. Sooner or later, they concluded – against those who systematically underestimated the objective economic necessity and inherent strength of this tendency – the industrial workers would, as they must, smash through all barriers and create for themselves the new forms of proletarian organization demanded by the changed structure of American industry.

These same factors indicated the falsity of the Stalinist dual union policy of 1928-1934 – a policy based on the assumption that only under the leadership of the Communist Party would the unorganized be organized. The “radical” Stalinist policy, in reality, underestimated the progressive forces in the working class.

Events confirmed the confidence of the Marxists in the ability of the industrial proletariat to understand its needs and to fulfill them. The paralysis turned out to be but a passing phase in the life of American labor, a transition to an epoch of greater energy than it had ever before displayed. The crisis had changed not only the conditions but also the psychology of the proletarian masses. A widespread demand arose among the workers in the key industries for their organization into industrial unions. Hitherto this demand had existed amongst the workers in an inchoate form, and had been clearly expressed and unwaveringly promoted only by the most advanced political labor parties. Once the workers felt the need, it required only a series of external stimuli to push them forward. The economic impetus was provided by the industrial upturn which began in 1933; the political stimulation by Section 7-A of the NRA.

After four years of retreat, the proletarian masses shook off their passivity and initiated an offensive against their capitalist masters. The revival of the mass labor movement brought with it an irresistible urge for industrial organization.

While the bourgeois press rejoiced at the economic recovery of American capitalism and saw in this the most significant characteristic of the next two years, far more important was the recovery of American labor. Inspired with fresh confidence by the reanimation of industry and goaded by their economic.needs, the workers surged forward in one industry after another to achieve their demands. Seeking an agency for realizing their aims, the newly awakened workers turned toward the existing trade union organization. They streamed into the AFL by the hundreds of thousands; a mighty expansion not simply of the old craft, but of the new industrial unions, occurred within the precincts of the old mass organization. The two antagonistic tendencies of craft versus industrial unionism competed for mastery in the AFL, completely altering its inner life.

These two years witnessed the formation of new unions and the extension of the old in many important branches of industry – mining, rubber, maritime, teamsters, clothing workers, textiles, auto, etc. This provided a radically new and substantial foundation for the further development of the labor movement. These gains were achieved by means of intense struggles, such as the Minneapolis teamsters strikes, the first auto workers battles, the textile struggles, the San Francisco General Strike. Labor was on the march and, although here and there this or that detachment might be pushed back by the bosses, the army as a whole moved forward to occupy new entrenchments in their struggle against capitalist exploitation.

1935-1937: Establishment of the CIO

On the right wing of the AFL stood the old-line bureaucrats, rooted in the past, fearful of their privileges, hostile toward the virile new proletarian forces around them, and determined to keep them subordinate even, if necessary, to dismember them. At the opposite pole were the industrial workers, determined to organize themselves, to maintain their organizations, land increase their strength. A life-and-death struggle took place between these two tendencies – the past and the future, the old and the new.

The mass of newly organized workers kept pounding against the narrow banks of the AFL like a mighty torrent, finally overflowing its boundaries and digging a new channel for themselves when the old could no longer contain them.

The period from 1935 to 1937 saw the birth, growth and” expansion of the industrial union movement to the status of a major factor in American life. In two years the CIO attained a significance comparable to that which the AFL had attained only after many decades. This is an index to the speed with which the workers can act, once they get moving in the proper direction.

The industrial union movement won its independence through the most violent struggles, against enemies within the labor movement and outside of it. This young giant challenged the most powerful corporations, the most solidly entrenched industrial barons. The power, the militancy and the creative spirit exhibited by the American proletariat during these titanic struggles should never be forgotten; they are the pledge of its future. Consider how many attempts to organize industrial unions had proved abortive, not only before 1929, but as late as 1934. Consider the entrenched positions of the craft-union bureaucrats, the antiquated structure of the AFL, the weight of its traditions. Consider the power of the industrial overlords.

None of these obstacles or enemies deterred the mass of workers. They were driven by social necessity to find a farm of organization suited to their economic lives and struggles and, after many experiments and defeats, they finally found it in the CIO. So strong was the mass pressure for industrial unionism that it pulled along a significant section of the AFL bureaucracy itself. Lewis, Hillman, Dubinsky and others helped organize and lead the industrial union movement within the AFL. When that movement threatened to be strangled and dismembered by more conservative bureaucrats, the struggle between the progressive and reactionary factions came to a head. The shell of the old unionism was cracked and the CIO stepped forth upon its independent career.

The CIO then organized for the first time the workers in the auto, steel, rubber, aluminum, electrical and other basic industries. The militancy and indomitable spirit of the industrial proletariat was exhibited at its best in the auto industry. Although the auto workers suffered betrayals from a dozen different sources, extending from their own leaders to President Roosevelt, they nevertheless succeeded in establishing and maintaining their union against all assaults.

The CIO set a new high mark in aggressive class action with the sit-down strikes, which effected the unionization of the auto industry and which were the real pressure for the signing of the contract with Big Steel without a fight. The real significance of the sit-down strikes of 1936-1937 must be clearly understood. The sit-down strike is a revolutionary weapon for the economic organization and struggle of the proletariat. By taking physical possession of the factories, the workers thereby deny the absolute legal and social right of the capitalist to control and operate his material means of production. The workers assault and abridge the privileges of private property ownership. For the duration of the sit-down strikes, the workers impose their control over capitalist property and set their class will against that of their bosses.

No capitalist class or government can tolerate the continuance of such revolutionary acts of defiance toward capitalist property rights. Chrysler was correct when, in full-page advertisements published during the sit-down strikes in his plant, he stated that the auto workers’ action was revolutionary and confiscatory. But it was so mainly by implication. The workers themselves were not conscious of the revolutionary significance of their behavior. They had only the most limited economic aims in mind when they seized the factories and remained in them.

But this does not lessen the objective significance of their action. The sit-down strikes demonstrated that the vanguard of the American proletariat is fully capable of revolutionary action against the capitalist system, even though they were not then, and are not yet, completely aware of the underlying implications of their class conduct.

The sit-down strike is the seed of which workers’ control of production on a national scale can be the flower. The workers need only to say, after taking over the plant – “Here we are, here we remain, nothing will drive us out,” and then to extend this anti-capitalist attitude to the bourgeois state, for the proletarian revolution to become a fact.

During this period, the CIO definitely established itself not only as an important factor in American industry but also in American politics. Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936 was due in no small measure to his support by the CIO.

1937-1939: Trade Unionism Consolidates Its New Basis

The sharp drop in industrial production toward the end of 1937 slowed down the expansion of the trade union movement. The main problem for the labor movement during the next two years was the maintenance of the newly-won positions and the defense of the gains against capitalist assault. When the recession set in, the employers endeavored to cut wages and make the workers bear the full burden of the slackening in production, as they had done after 1929. But the capitalists had to deal with an entirely different working class in 1938 and 1939.

This time the workers had sufficient organizational strength to fight on more equal terms. Instead of routing the trade unions and beating them down to the ground, the bosses were compelled to act extremely cautiously, to moderate their demands, and to effect all kinds of compromises with the organized workers. The mighty power lodged within the working class as a result of previous organization and struggle manifested itself at this point in its ability to withstand the attacks of the employing class.

The AFL and CIO dug into their entrenched positions and refused to yield ground to the employers without struggle. This period tested the stability and resisting powers of the new labor movement. The trade union movement proved that it had consolidated itself upon the twin basis of the AFL and CIO.

The economic recession manifested itself in a corresponding recession in the militancy of the workers and in a general trend toward reaction on the part of the trade union leadership. This expressed itself in the attempts of the Hutchesons and Wolls to tomahawk the CIO; in the return of the ILGWU and the typographers to the AFL, and in the more cautious and conservative policy pursued by the CIO leaders themselves. Nevertheless this reaction did not proceed very far, and it was reversed when the ebbing strength of the CIO became renewed by the war boom.

Achievements of American Labor: 1934-1940

What did American labor accomplish by its struggles from 1934 to 1940?

1. The decisive section of the proletariat in the mass production industries owned and controlled by monopoly capitalism has been unionised. Today over 10 million workers belong to the CIO, AFL and Railroad Brotherhoods, constituting the strongest labor movement in the whole capitalist world.

This is a material social factor of the utmost importance. For the first time the vanguard of the American proletariat has been economically organized as a class. It has been unified along industrial lines on a continental scale. This trade union movement forms the basis and provides the arena for the work of the revolutionary party. It is the chief stronghold of the working class. Its existence and independence must be guarded against every attempt to abridge or undermine it.

American industry has the most highly integrated character of any in the world. Its compact, centralized structure is reflected in the character of proletarian organization and determines the general nature of its activity. Owing to this highly organized character, all impulses, tendencies and ideas are transmitted with tremendous speed throughout the proletarian movement. A tie-up in auto production immediately affects rubber, glass, steel, coal, and many other key industries. The working class is thus bound together and tends to function more and more as a single organism. This fact must immeasurably facilitate the rapid spread of revolutionary ideas and programs once our party has established itself in the nerve centers of the trade union movement.

2. The craft leaders of the Woll and Hutcheson school are losing ground within the AFL itself. The AFL numbers more members today than ever before. But the significant additions in membership have come in unions which have adapted themselves to the CIO, living in relative amity with it. The Teamsters International, now the largest, most powerful and rapidly growing unit of the AFL, best exemplifies this process. While recognizing the decisive significance of the CIO, it would be a tremendous mistake to make a fetish of the CIO and view the AFL as a dead or dying organization. One should rather penetrate beneath the formal appearance of division within the labor movement and base one’s trade union policy upon the strong bonds which unite the workers in both organizations and pull them towards unity – not only in separate strike struggles, but also on an all-inclusive organizational basis. The division between the two branches of the labor movement is perpetuated not by the workers themselves but by their leaders; and above all by the treacherous AFL die-hards.

3. The years of struggle have left an indelible mark upon the consciousness of the American workers. Hundreds of thousands, millions, of workers in the mass production industries have had to fight prolonged and fierce battles to win recognition of their unions and to maintain them. They have been compelled to use the strike weapon time and again. They have fought against company police, spies, stool-pigeons, local police, state troops, the snares of arbitration boards, the President and his crew of strike-stranglers, and the conservatism of their own leaders. Despite all these strike-breaking agencies and class collaborationist institutions, they have come out of these tremendous battles as victors. They have tested and tempered their forces and developed leaders in their ranks who will become the officers of the revolutionary army.

The actual class struggle is the greatest school of education for the working class. There is no substitute for such experience. Only their activities in the class struggle can arouse the masses and train them for the revolution. This is triply true in our own epoch and our own country. Every strike discloses beneath its surface the hydra-head of the proletarian revolution, which the capitalist usually discerns far more quickly than the workers themselves. The general and sit-down strikes were rehearsals for bigger battles ahead. More than anything else they disclose the dynamism latent within the American working class and its revolutionary capabilities.

4. Unlike their European brothers, the American workers have not known a debilitating or enduring defeat. They stand today at the height of their power. On the threshhold of war, the workers are pushing forward on all economic fronts, extending their gains. The American workers can find little evidence in their own recent experiences that they cannot get what they want, provided they fight hard enough for it.

5. Although the changes in this sphere are not yet so sharply outlined and perfected as in the economic field, the organised labor movement is also beginning to play a new and different role in the political life of the country. The AFL officialdom continues its old policy of bargaining with capitalist party machines, according to the maxim of “reward your friends and punish your enemies,” which means in reality, reward the capitalists and punish the workers. They yield, on principle, the commanding role in politics to the organizations of the capitalist class and allot a subordinate role to the working class.

The CIO, on the other hand, owes its existence to the direct and independent mass action of the industrial workers. This social factor has already manifested itself in the political form – still embryonic – of a growing demand for independent class action in politics. The CIO leaders bowdlerized this demand in forming the American Labor Party in New York and Labor’s Non-Partisan League in the 1936 election. These moves have been in large measure mere formal concessions to the rank and file clamor for independent labor political action, since the policies of these organizations have consisted for the main part in supporting capitalist party candidates and programs. They nevertheless represent dwarfed and distorted expressions of the underlying urge toward the creation of a national labor party based upon the trade unions. Just as the trend toward industrial unionism broke through the barriers of the old craft unionism, so the irresistible trend toward proletarian politics, will sooner or later burst the confines of its present framework and result in the formation of a mass labor political organization.

The workers helped re-elect Roosevelt both in 1936 and 1940, voting as a unit when they did so. They have succeeded in extorting from the capitalist government and a conservative Congress valuable concessions: wage and hours laws, social security, Wagner Labor Act, WPA, PWA, etc. If organized labor, without independent political organization, has so strongly impressed its influence upon the nation’s politics surely this influence will be a thousand-fold more forcible and formidable once it achieves independent organization.

The Titanic Power of American Labor

Between 1934 and 1940 the titanic power of American labor manifested itself in three different forms and stages: first in an aggressive advance and victorious assault against the ununionized sectors of American industry, then in a stubborn and solid resistance against the counter-attack of the bourgeoisie. With the large-scale preparations for war during 1941, the situation took another turn. This same power again assumed an aggressive form but on a higher level of development.

This titanic power will enable the American proletariat to tear up the existing society by its roots and to construct a new one. It is upon this material power, and not upon any mystical faith in the mission of the proletariat as a “chosen people,” that the revolutionary party of Marxism bases its perspective of proletarian revolution.

The renegades, the radicals for a day, and all the camp followers of the big and little bourgeoisie neither feel, see, nor understand the significance of this mighty historical force. They have no faith in the ability of the proletariat to solve its own problems and therewith the major problems of the American people. They must therefore place their faith in some other class force. Under the conditions of our epoch this can mean, in the last analysis, only the decadent, reactionary bourgeoisie.

But the American workers have already given the lie to these stupid and short-sighted petty-bourgeois falterers. In six years the American workers, by their own unaided efforts, organized themselves as an economic unit from the Atlantic to the Pacific; they created the most vital trade union organization in the world today – the CIO.

Two simultaneous and opposing processes of mobilization, training and conscription have been going on in this country. On one side the capitalist government is conscripting its armies for the imperialist conquest of the globe. On the other side, the American proletariat has been summoning, mobilizing, and training its class forces for another kind of war: the war against capitalist exploitation and social slavery.

If one should ask, who will win that war? the American proletariat has already indicated its answer. We, the workers, will win! To help prepare the conditions for that victory and to hasten its advent is the task of our party.


Last updated on: 17.8.2008