Max Shachtman

Five Labor Conventions:

Politics Among the Auto Workers

(October 1944)

from The New International, Vol. X No. 10, October 1944, pp. 310–312.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

One of the outstanding traditions of the American labor movement is summed up in the twin phrase, “No politics in the unions, no unions in politics.” Of all the union conventions held this year, the annual convention of the United Auto Workers, CIO, at Grand Rapids was the best example of how this tradition has changed. It showed how far organized labor has gone, actually, if not formally, in discarding a view which, if it ever was valid, is nowadays most certainly obsolete and reactionary. From start to finish the convention was prompted by political thoughts, dominated by political considerations. That its political thinking was still in a primitive stage, that its political considerations did not correspond to its best interests, is another matter. It serves to define more exactly the character and scope of the change, but does not alter the fact that the change has taken place.

A good way to judge the fact is to examine the way the convention was divided. All three forces that could in any way be regarded as decisive or important had a predominantly political character. All of them had a political standpoint – how clear and systematic it was in their minds is secondary for the moment – from which they examined the problems before the union, and political considerations dictated the answers they proposed for these problems. The “pure-and-simple” trade unionism concepts with which Samuel Gompers inspired the old American Federation of Labor did not even have a ghost to represent them at Grand Rapids.

Three Forces at the Convention

To begin with, there was the Communist Party machine. It was far and away the best organized, the most conscious and deliberate and, from the standpoint of the mechanics of operation, the ablest of all three. Politically educated, it knew exactly what it wanted and how to realize an immediate goal as a step toward the main goal. It knew when to strike out and against whom, when to advance and when and how to retreat. It did not come to the convention as a haphazard assembly of individuals, but as a disciplined group prepared in advance not only by organizational measures but by a carefully thought-out program and plan of action calculated for all contingencies. All its actions, all its tactics, were intelligently subordinated to its main goal – the conversion of the labor movement into a political tool of the Russian Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.

The largest force was made up of the “native” union bureaucracy. It had none of the “positive” qualities of the Stalinist group. It is still in the kindergarten of the school of faction politics which the Stalinists long ago graduated and to which they have added a good deal of post-graduate instruction of their own. It is divided against itself, not least of all by personal envy and bureaucratic rivalry. It ranges from its left wing – if that much abused term may be stretched several points – represented by Reuther, to its right wing, represented by Addes and Frankensteen, and includes such amorphous and indefinite quantities as R.J. Thomas and R.T. Leonard. What holds it together – to the extent that it does hold together – is a common opposition not to a bloc with the Stalinists (all of them have at one time or another made such blocs, some of them are still in a bloc, and some will continue to make a bloc), but to the rule of the union by the Stalinists. Not even Addes and Frankensteen would work directly and consciously for turning the union over to Molotov’s subdivision of the Kremlin. To further their bureaucratic aspirations against such rivals as Reuther, they are not averse to collaborating with the Stalinists. When it comes to preventing a victory of the progressive rank and file, they positively glue themselves to the Stalinists. Which brings us to the second thing that holds the officialdom together: common opposition to the more forthright and progressive demands of a rising rank and file movement. Both these factors, in turn, are determined by the basic common characteristic of the “native” officialdom: it is the representative in the labor movement of Rooseveltism, i.e., of bourgeois reformism. This political characteristic dictates – in different degree with each of the “wings” and sectors and individual members of the officialdom – its attitude toward the Stalinists, on the one side, and the genuine progressives and left-wingers, on the other. This political characteristic also dictated its attitude toward all the important trade union questions at Grand Rapids.

The Rank and File Caucus

The third organized force was represented by the Rank and File Caucus, challenging the other two. Previous conventions of the UAW have also had rank and file militants, progressives, left-wingers. The Grand Rapids convention was a real milestone in their development and consequently in the development of the union itself. There the militants were organized, openly and consciously, for the first time. There the organized militants presented a program of their own for the first time, and fought for it in the convention. They no longer trailed along, exasperated but hopeless, behind the Reuther group, but decided policy for themselves and acted as an independent group.

The Rank and File Caucus was not a homogeneous group; much less was it a “monolithic” group, which is as it should be. Not all the elements in it were agreed on all the points in its program or agreed in the same way; not all of them saw the full implications of what they were fighting for. But the leaders, inspirers and organizers of the group were politically-conscious people. Among them were left-wing socialists and supporters of Labor Action. (We modestly note here, however, that both the Daily Worker and the New York Times gave us Trotskyists more credit for the splendid fight of the rank and file militants in the convention than we actually merit.) They understood that their fight, representing the urgent needs of the union, meant a break with Rooseveltism, a break with capitalist politics, with bourgeois reformism. The demand of the Rank and File Caucus program for rescinding the no-strike pledge was a demand for breaking the political agreement with the government by which labor was disarmed and straight-jacketed in face of the growing capitalist offensive. It was a demand that implied an end to the paralyzing dependence of labor upon the Roosevelt government and a resumption of the struggle in which labor would rely on its organized strength, that is, on its class strength. The same holds true of the demand in the program for withdrawing the labor representatives from the government’s War Labor Board. This, too, was essentially a political demand, a political act. It is no accident that the program of the Rank and File group concluded with the proposal to organize an independent Labor Party.

Given the tremendous size of the convention delegation (some 2,300 of them), the time available for the convention business, and the manner in which the time was organized by the officialdom, it was not possible to bring to the floor and fight out clearly all of the important questions before the UAW. A god deal of the convention time was spent, and wasted, in the now customary flag-waving speeches on the war. Even more time was spent in speeches and parts of speeches to promote the candidacy of Roosevelt. Indeed, these two themes, especially the latter, were dominant throughout the important convention discussions. The political nature of the convention, and of the decisive problems facing the union, was constantly emphasized (and distorted) by every Stalinist who took the floor and by every spokesman for the officialdom’s position: How will this or that affect the war? How will this or that action affect the war? How will it affect the election chances of Roosevelt? How will it affect the future of the Great New Deal on which our union was founded (lie), on which it was built (lie), to which we owe our advances (lie), on which we depend for our future (lie)?

The Delegates and Political Action

As a result of these things, plus the fact that the interest of the delegates was centered almost to the exclusion of all else upon the no-strike pledge, the convention did not have the opportunity to discuss seriously the question of independent political action. Roosevelt won in a walk. But even in their endorsement of Roosevelt and of the PAC, the delegates – we have pointed this out repeatedly about the labor movement in general – expressed their growing awareness of the decisively important fact that their economic interests, their class interests, are inseparably bound up with politics, political action. In the past, the kind of government we had was important, in the mind of the worker, to himself as an individual citizen. Hence “no politics in the union, no unions in politics.” Now, the kind of government we have is important, in the mind of the worker, to himself as a member of a class organization, his union. Hence, the unions are in politics.

The horrified and outraged admonitions of the bourgeois press against labor, through the PAC, “introducing class politics” into the elections (our elections and our political life have never before followed class lines, you see), left no visible mark on the UAW delegates. Harold Ickes, astute demagogue; appealed directly to the “class prejudices” of the delegates in his speech to the convention. He regaled them with the list of munificent contributions made to the Republican Party by America’s plutocracy and monopolists (lack of time undoubtedly prevented him from giving the corresponding Democratic Party list). He poured vitriol on those capitalist forces who would prevent labor from participating in the elections as an organized and distinct force (provided, of course, it supported his chief, Roosevelt). And the delegates cheered him passionately.

The fight over the no-strike pledge, which took up most of the time of the convention, was not so easy a victory for Rooseveltism or Stalinism. If the showing made by the militants was better at Grand Rapids than at any other of the important union conventions, it was due not only to the more advanced position generally taken by the automobile and aircraft workers but to the fact that the militants, while not perfectly organized, were better organized and prepared than they were anywhere else.

The clearest example of how the contending forces in the union acted according to their political lights is afforded by the fight on this question, which became the focal point of all the others.

The No-Strike Pledge Resolutions

The Stalinist resolution could serve as the text for a whole volume. Coolly ignoring their whole record during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact as if it had existed only in a fevered imagination the Stalinists, along with other signers who probably did not understand what they had really signed, proposed to reaffirm the pledge on the grounds of unswerving support of the War for Democracy, the Commander-in-Chief, National Unity, the Interests of Labor and the Cause of Our Allies, one of which, they have noticed, is Russia. The resolution ended with a highly significant provision. Unexpectedly, it called for a review of the no-strike pledge after the defeat of Germany but before the defeat of Japan.

No doubt some of those who subscribed to this formula understood it to mean that a door was being left open for dropping the pledge in those industries that will go over to peacetime production when Germany is defeated. Our own view is that the formula, employed here by the Stalinists for the first time, is deliberately ambiguous. If it leaves open a door for dropping the pledge after Germany’s defeat, then only in order to leave the Stalinists free to adopt a policy in line with the course that the Moscow regime will pursue toward the conflict between Japan and England-America. Should Stalin find it expedient (on the basis of a satisfactory share of the booty of the Orient) to join in the fight against Japan, that will make it Browder’s and Ganley’s war, too, and the pledge will be maintained. But if Stalin keeps out because Roosevelt and Churchill do not offer Russia the share of the loot she wants, Browder & Co. may find it necessary to help change Roosevelt’s mind by suddenly discovering that ... labor has sacrificed enough of its rights, including the right to strike. In a words, the Stalinists at Grand Rapids acted on all “trade union questions” in accordance with their politics, that is, the politics of their Russian masters.

Most of the officialdom supported the all-out pro-pledge resolution of the Stalinists. Not one of them had enough political understanding to grasp the real significance of the CP resolution. They supported it as Rooseveltians. The Reuthers and a few others presented a typical resolution of their own, differing from the Stalinists’ only in that it provided for the right to strike where a “reconverted” plant was involved. Attacked, and rightly, from both sides, it went down to the most miserable defeat of all.

What is interesting, however, is that when both pro-pledge resolutions were defeated, and the resolution to repeal the pledge, in spite of a remarkable show of strength (some thirty-seven per cent of the vote), met the same fate, the Stalinists and Thomas and Addes and Leonard and the Reuthers were able to unite in a panic on a simple motion to reaffirm the pledge.

The Reuthers separated again from the Stalinists on the question of a membership referendum. But even here, these most radical of Rooseveltians were true to their political line. They took care that the referendum take place only after the presidential election. Why? So that its outcome should not alienate from Mr. Roosevelt the votes of the conservatives and labor-haters. Even on this “technical” point, politics decided.

That “politics,” that is, political interests, political considerations, should be decisive in the labor movement, is not only unavoidable, but entirely good and proper. One of the leading militants in the Reuther group – and there are many there – complained to me confidentially that he was sick at all the political speechifying at the convention, sick of the talk that the union has no other way out but to vote for Roosevelt; that the union (he continued) was built by organized economic action and could only be restored to its fighting strength in the same way. The complaint was understandable and even warranted, but misdirected. It was warranted in so far as the Rooseveltian agents in the union presented support of Roosevelt as a substitute for the organized economic action of the workers. It was misdirected in so far as. it did not allow for the necessity of directing this economic action and power along clear-cut independent working class political lines, with neither of them supplanting the other but rather fusing with the other. That is the right road. It is the only road.

The most hopeful sign in the UAW – and given its position in the country, this is as much as saying “the labor movement” – was the fact that the militants who organized the Rank and File Caucus understood this. At the very least, they understood enough of it to make a first-rate beginning. They challenged Rooseveltism, bourgeois reformism, subservience of the labor movement to capitalist politics, not only on the “economic” field but also on the political field. They understood that their job will last longer than a half-dozen convention sessions, and they acted on this understanding when they decided to build up the group on a nation-wide basis following the convention. This is precisely what militants have failed to do in the past, thanks to which the Stalinists and the other bureaucrats are still having a picnic in the union.

What the militants still lack in experience – and it is not inconsiderable – or lack in stature, they will acquire in struggle. A lot of that lies ahead. The political understanding of the militants who have organized the new rank and file movement is one of the most encouraging assurances that they will gain ground. Their progress will mean progress for the union itself and for the labor movement as a whole.

Shachtman button
Max Shachtman
Marx button
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 17 February 2016