The End of the Cloakmakers Strike

(August 1929)

From The Militant, Vol. II No. 12, 1 August 1929, p. 2.
Transcribed marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The New York cloakmakers’ strike was primarily an expression of the fact that they are beginning, to recover from the disorganization, indifference and defeat and aspiring to reconstitute their organization and reestablish the union conditions which were wrested from them. Due to the combined strength of the bosses and the Right wing leaders and the state and city authorities who intervened actively, and thanks to the great errors of the Left wing leadership, this new movement of the workers has diverted for the time being into class collaboration channels and failed of its object.

The strike called by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union was brought to a shameful conclusion by the. Right wing union leaders. With the exception of the “closed shop,” not a single one of the important demands announced at the beginning of the strike has been achieved in the final settlement between the union and the bosses’ association. The socialist pillars of the union, Schlesinger-Lubinsky, Ninfo and Co., have not shown improvement over their treacherous record of the past, and the situation is pretty bad when even the yellow New York Forward is constrained to admit (July 17, 1929): “It would be wrong to maintain that the cloakmakers got everything they were entitled to in the present strike and settlement.”

Here are the results of the first skirmish in the new period of rise of the Right wing leadership in the ladies garment industry:

Facts About the Settlement

There is no definite and unmistakable abolition of the malevolent piece-work system, and no guarantees are established for wiping it out of the industry, promises on paper serve as guarantees only for the bosses.

There is no positive assurance of the institution of the 40-hour week (5-day week) in the industry.

The infamous “reorganization” right is still granted to the bosses in the new agreement. What is even worse than this is the right granted to the bosses by the union to discharge any worker – except for reasons of “union activity” – subject to appeal to the “impartial” commission. The Right is trumpeting this point as a victory for the workers, when in reality it is aimed directly at the workers, and at the militant, class conscious workers in particular. “Union activity” under the regime of the Schlesingers, as the workers have learned to know, is limited to activity against the opponents of the bureaucracy.

The discharge right is aimed at those workers in the shop who fight for the rights and interests of the cloakmakers, who dare to tell the boss where to get off at, and above all, at those workers who dare to express any criticism of the leading clique of the union and its misdeeds. The discharge right signifies joint control by the bosses and the union bureaucrats over the job of the workers who can henceforth open his mouth only at the risk of having to look for work elsewhere. It is the old game played by Lewis and the operators against the militant miner, by Hillman and Co. against the Left wing tailor, and by Schlesinger, Sigman and Co. when they were at the helm in the past. Many have been the workers who were left breadless or driven out of the industry after such a “victory” as this.

To cap the betrayal of the workers by Schlesinger is the unconcealed spirit of class collaboration that characterized the course of the strike and that is now fastened on to the backs of the cloakmakers through the settlement. The entry of the Lieutenant-Governor Lehmann and Mayor Walker, two of the best wheel-horses of Tammany Hall, into the strike as “arbiters” of the dispute was gleefully hailed by these “socialist” leaders who have long ago dumped the class struggle from their train as excess baggage, The workers were asked to offer up thanks to these Tammany Hall standpatters as the saviors and patrons of the oppressed. Furthermore, the settlement calls for the establishment of a permanent “impartial arbitration” commission to which all disputes will be referred. The “impartial” chairman who will sacrifice himself to this work at the miserable salary of $25,000 a year is Mr. Raymond Ingersoll, another Tammany hack.

Organizing the Bosses

Worst of all, the union obligates itself to force all independent bosses to join the bosses’ associations. That is, the union of the workers is supposed to become the agent, the organizer for the unions of the bosses. The workers are to become the instruments for forging a solid, united front of the bosses so that they may the better be able to break the unity of the workers. Schlesinger in the role of a procurer for the manufacturers’ Industrial Council – that is a living portrait of the “socialist” trade union leader in his prime.

There is not the faintest excuse for this treachery to the workers. At least 20,000 workers – the decisive majority – responded to the call of the Right wing union. A few thousand others went down in reply to the call of the Left wing Industrial Union. The Right wing was in the position to hold out for the demands of the workers, to gain a far better settlement than they did – if they had been inter[words missing] industry will convince the veriest child that this is not the case.

Why was the Right wing able to carry through their betrayal with such comparative ease? The explanation is not entirely with the answer that they were in a shameless united front with the machinery of the capitalist state (Tammany Hall, from Albany to the City Hall) and the cloak bosses. That was undoubtedly a powerful factor. But the other factor that contributed mightily to the success of the Right wing fakers was the enormous errors of the Left wing. These errors must be condemned precisely because they played into the hands, of the Right wing and strengthened the latter.

Errors of the Left Wing

In the first place, the Left wing – and we speak specifically of the Communist Party which acted through the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union – displayed eminent confusion; where it did have a policy it was the wrong one. The Left wing showed no initiative in the struggle. Its position was that if the Right wing called a strike then the Left wing would transform it into a real strike. By this act alone they automatically gave the Right wing the first word; they surrendered the head of the movement to the Right and left themselves the role of tail end.

The Left wing did not issue the slogan of unity in the struggle, and it was under this slogan that the Left wing gained its big strength among the needle trades workers, reaching its height in 1926–27. Instead of the slogan and practise of unity, the only demand of the Left was an appeal to the workers to make it a real strike – by walking down from the shops and coming to the Left wing halls. The workers did not understand this “brilliant” maneuver, this “novel” way of uniting the workers to struggle against the bosses in a strike. The result was, despite all the self-deception and exaggeration of the official Party press, that the bulk of the workers went to the Right wing halls and not to the Left.

What the Left wing should have done was to “organize concerted actions of all workers’ organizations” and “take into consideration that in countries in which there are several trade union headquarters, every action of the workers, particularly in the event of the general strike, is threatened with great danger, if the trade unions will not fight jointly;” that “the revolutionary trade union officials should taken upon themselves the initiative to create the united front,” as is correctly stated by the second Congress of the R.I.L.U.

The Left wing, as soon as there was a prospect of a strike by the Right wing, should have made proposals for joint action to guarantee the solidarity of the workers’ front against the bosses, guarding at the same time its own independence and its right of criticism and agitation. Proposals for unity could have been made even to the Right wing leaders, yes, even to the Schlesingers and Dubinskys provided that the Left wing would simultaneously carry on a persistent agitation for such unity below, in the ranks of the workers themselves. The Left wing had a splendid opportunity to agitate for and form joint strike or action committees in the shops, composed of workers belonging to both unions and those standing outside of either. There were numerous other weapons at the command of the Left for the organization of the unity of the workers, but they chose none of them.

Instead of placing the stigma of division where it belongs, on the Right wing leaders, instead of showing the workers clearly where the responsibility lies for the split in the workers’ ranks, the course followed by the Left wing enabled the Right wing to escape from under and to burden the Left with the responsibility for divided action. The test of the correctness of the policy lies with the results: the Right is today stronger and the Left weaker than either of them has been for the last 3 or 4 years.

Prepare for the Future

This ominous fact, the result of the irresponsible ultra-“Left” course of our American Stalinists, is common knowledge among the workers in “the market.” Unless it is taken into serious consideration by the Party and Left wing union leaders, and their tactics changed accordingly, the Left wing will be in a still worse position. The starting point for such a change is a recognition of the unpleasant truth that so far as the cloakmakers are concerned, the Right wing now has the upper hand. The Left wing must proceed to win back those workers who now follow the Right either because of conviction or job compulsion. Despite every effort of the Right to isolate the Left wing, the latter must find ways of establishing the closest contact with the workers in the shops. It must be recognized that in many cases Left wing workers will have to submit to the necessity of joining the Right wing union in order to be able to work side by side with the less advanced workers and mobilize them in the shop and in the Right wing union for a renewed struggle for unity and against the class collaborationist Right wing and their policy of betrayal.

The cloak strike movement was only a hesitant beginning, a sign and a promise of deeper struggles to come for the actual realization of the aims which the workers failed to accomplish under the Right wing. The growth of the militancy of the workers and the strengthening of their spirit can be safely relied upon. The question of tactics and leadership will have a decisive bearing on the results of these coming struggles. The present failure is not a permanent one. With the help of correct tactics and resolute leadership on the part of the Left wing the advance of the Rights can be pushed back and the present situation turned into a mere episode. Only by becoming an undetachable segment of the needle trades masses will the Left wing make progress and finally defeat the Right. The militant tradition of the workers and the unsavory record of the Right are a guarantee of the victory, The word lies with the Left wing workers.

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Last updated on 14.8.2012