Max Shachtman

The Tragedy in Philadelphia

(August 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 34, 21 August 1944, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Philadelphia transit “strike” was a tragedy in more than one sense.

It created a highly critical situation which the labor movement was in a position to handle magnificently. It did not do so. It lost an opportunity to demonstrate its caliber and stature in a crisis which had more than local importance, for the “strike” was of nation-wide and even international significance.

All the workers in the Philadelphia transit system went out on “strike” against the perfectly proper and long overdue upgrading of eight Negro workers.

We do not believe for one minute that all these workers, or even a majority of them, are poisoned by the spirit of Jim Crow, which is the hallmark of American capitalism. They would not, of their own free will, take such an action as they did which could only benefit the union-busting program of the company. They were maneuvered into it, however, by an aggressive and vicious minority, of shady origin and shadier connections. This minority was able to trick the others into “striking” by demagogy, by intimidation, by organized action which was not countered by organized resistance.

Company Aided “Strikers”

Whether or not company officials, notorious for their hatred of labor unions, were directly behind the move or connived in it, has not been proved, although it would not surprise us one bit if proof were forthcoming. What needs no further proof, though, is the fact that the company gave its tacit approval to the walkout. The meetings to plan it were held on company property and without the slightest company objection. The company encouraged the walkout by the suggestion of its chief official, Mitten, that the upgrading of Negroes be suspended as a measure to end the “strike.” Like every capitalist employer, the transit company knows that if the workers can be kept divided along lines of color, race or religion, they are easy prey.

But precisely because of the company’s sinister interests in the shameful walkout, the organized labor movement had a great opportunity, and an even greater duty, to step into the situation and solve it in its own way.

It is true that Michael Quill, head of the CIO Transport Workers Union, proceeded to Philadelphia and appealed to the men to call off their “strike.” But obviously his appeal was ineffectual. Among other things, he could not – being a Stalinist who is head-over-heels in favor of the war – give a very convincing answer to the arguments of the reactionary “strike” leaders that they were only insisting on the same kind of segregation and discrimination against Negroes which is the official practice of the U.S. Army.

Quill, however, is only one man. In addition, there is a big and powerful labor movement in Philadelphia, why was it not mobilized in this crisis? Where were its leaders and spokesmen, Murray, Hillman, Thomas and the others? Here was an unparalleled opportunity to show some of the statesmanship they talk so much about. They showed absolutely nothing.

There Was Another Way to End This Strike

What Labor Should Have Done

Thousands, and tens of thousands, of workers in Philadelphia, both Negro and white, could have been assembled to consider this tragic situation. Such an assembly could easily have made clear to the transit workers, to the entire population of the city, and indeed to the whole country, where labor really stood in this crisis. It could have spoken and acted so clearly that everybody would understand that these people who are the carriers of Jim Crow poison speak and act only for themselves, or only for the reactionaries whose tools they are, and not for the labor movement. A mobilization of the Philadelphia labor movement, in meeting, parade or demonstration, would have given enormous encouragement to the majority of the transit workers who were duped or intimidated into walking out. It would have showed them, and made them feel, that they had friends, powerful friends. It would have served to isolate the Jim Crow minority into the tiny, dirty corner where they belong.

What is more, such a mobilization – which would have been the easiest thing in the world “to organize – would have had incalculably favorable effects upon the Negro people, not only the eight transit workers directly involved, but upon every Negro in the United States. It would have been worth more than a million words and a thousand pledges in proving what we have always said and what we are still profoundly convinced of – that the only hope of the Negro people is the labor movement. That has been shown time and again. In Philadelphia, there was a splendid opportunity to show it once more and in a decisive way.

And still more, if the labor movement had handled the situation in this way – and we have no doubt about its effectiveness – it would have had a tremendously favorable effect upon the American people as a whole. It would be a demonstration to them that the organized working class is able to deal effectively, and in a progressive way, with serious, difficult and critical problems. It would have enhanced the prestige of the labor movement tenfold throughout the country. It would have given positive emphasis to labor’s demands in general, and especially to labor’s right to have the dominant voice in the nation’s political affairs.

Labor Must Prevent a Repetition of This Affair

Labor missed this opportunity, and that is a downright tragedy.

This is not all. Labor did not intervene. But the government and its army did, and they helped bring the walkout to an end.

What is bad about that? it may be asked. Didn’t the army get the shameful “strike” ended, and assure the upgrading of the Negroes?

If the army were to put an end to the Jim Crow system in its own ranks, we might begin to consider seriously the argument that it smashed Jim Crow on the Philadelphia transit system!

From the standpoint of the interests of labor, both Negro and white, the intervention of the army was another tragedy. It is true that the failure of the labor movement to act in the situation made the action of the army virtually inevitable. With what consequence? With the consequence that from now on the intervention of the government’s armed forces in a genuine and legitimate workers’ strike will be justified by reference to the “good work” they did in the Philadelphia situation, and to the praise they got from the labor leaders. And anyone who is even slightly acquainted, with the history of the labor movement and its struggles, knows that the armed forces – be they policemen, national guardsmen or the army – have never been called into a strike to protect the interests of the workers, but just the other way around.

After all, workers form organizations of their own, excluding capitalists, because they realize that nobody will protest labor’s interests except labor itself. If this were not true, they might just as well join the Chamber of Commerce, or the Democratic Party, and leave it at that. If this is true – and it most certainly is – then anyone who by word or deed contributes to the illusion that a force outside the working class will protect its interests, is helping to undermine the very organizations that the working class formed to protect itself. That is just what the official labor leaders, from Quill to Murray and back again, helped to do, whether they realize it or not. And from that standpoint as well, the Philadelphia situation was a tragedy for the labor movement.

In the days to come, there may be – in fact there surely will be – other Philadelphias. The fact that the walkout took place in a Northern metropolis, and not in the South, shows how nation-wide in scope is the virus of Jim Crow and the problem it creates. The forces of reaction, which live and prosper upon divisions in the working class, will do their utmost to spread this virus. They will try to continue pumping into the workers the poison which American capitalism feeds them from childhood on. The tougher things get, and the harder the reactionaries find it to deal with social problems, the more furiously will they work at the Jim Crow pump.

That is what the labor movement must watch out for. That is why if must take to heart the lessons of the Philadelphia Jim Crow “strike.” What is involved is the very existence of the labor movement in the days to come. It would be a fatal mistake not to understand this.

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