Trade Unions and the Social Crisis

A Conversation on the Problems and Program
of the American Labor Movement

(September 1938)

Written: 18 June 1938.
First Published: Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 47, 29 October 1938, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive ( 2015. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

September 29, 1938

The undersigned was present at a conversation between one of the European leaders of the Fourth International and a well-known organizer of the trade union movement in the United States (C.I.O.).

The conversation lasted several hours and dealt with the economic situation of the United States, the approaching war, the task of the C.I.O. and so on. I wish to report here that part of the conversation which might be of general interest.

For more convenient exposition I shall designate the organizer of the trade union as “A,” the representative of the Fourth International as “B.”

A – The policy of our union is directed toward avoiding complete unemployment. We have achieved the dividing of work among members of the trade union while maintaining former rates.

B – And what portion of the former wages do your workers get now?

A – About 40 per cent.

B – But this is monstrous. You have obtained the sliding scale of working hours with the maintenance of former rates; but this means only that the entire burden of unemployment is placed on the workers themselves. By letting each worker sacrifice three-fifths of his earnings, you are freeing the bourgeoisie from the necessity of spending their means for the unemployed.

A – There is some truth in this. But what can we do?

B – Not some truth, but the whole truth! American capitalism is sick from a chronic and incurable disease. Can you console your workers with the hope that the present crisis is of a transitory character, that a new epoch of prosperity will open up in the near future?

Capitalism in Decline

A – I personally have no illusions on this score. Many in our midst understand that American capitalism has entered into an era of decline.

B – But this means that tomorrow your workers will get 30 per cent of their former wages, day after tomorrow 25 per cent, and so on. It is true that episodic improvement is possible, even inevitable; but the general line points to decline, degradation, and misery. Marx and Engels foretold that already in the Communist Manifesto. What is the program then of your trade union and of the C.I.O. as a whole?

A – Unfortunately, you do not know the psychology of the American workers. They are not used to thinking about the future. They are interested in one question only – what can be done now, immediately. Among the leaders of the trade union movement there are, it is true, also those who give themselves a clear accounting of the threatening danger. But they cannot change the psychology of the masses. Habits, traditions, views of the American workers bind and limit our possibilities. All this cannot be changed in a single day.

Threat to Unions

B – Are you sure that history will grant you many years for preparation? The crisis of American capitalism has an “American” tempo and scale. A strong body which has not known sickness begins to deteriorate very rapidly from a certain point on. The collapse of capitalism signifies at the same time a direct and immediate threat to democracy without which trade unions cannot exist. Do you think, for instance, that Mr. Hague is a chance phenomenon?

A – Oh no, I do not think so at all. During the last period I have had not a few talks with trade union functionaries on this subject. My opinion is that in each state we already have now – under this or that banner – a full-fledged reactionary organization ready to become on the morrow the mainstay of fascism on a national scale. We will not have to wait 15 or 20 years. Fascism can become victorious in three or four years.

B – In this case ...

A – What is our program? I understand your question. The situation is very difficult, some great measures are necessary. But I do not see the necessary forces, the necessary leaders. Psychology of Leaders

B – This means capitulation without a struggle?

A – The situation is difficult. We must recognize that the majority of trade union functionaries do not see or do not want to see the danger. Our unions, as you know, have grown tremendously within a very short time. It is natural, therefore, that the leaders of the C.I.O. go through a honeymoon period. They are inclined to view the difficulties lightly. The government not only considers them but even plays ball with them. They have not been accustomed to this in the past. It is natural, therefore, that their heads swim a little. This pleasurable dizziness does not predispose them to critical thinking. They enjoy today without thinking of the morrow.

B – Very well said! In this I am in complete agreement with you. But the successes of the C.I.O. are temporary. They are only symptomatic of the fact that the working class of the U.S.A. has come into motion, has broken with routine, and is now seeking new methods to save itself from the menacing abyss. If your unions do not find new methods, they will be crushed into pulp. Even right now today Hague is stronger than Lewis because Hague, despite his limitations, knows clearly what he wants and Lewis does not. The whole thing may end by your leaders waiting up from their “pleasurable dizziness” ... in a concentration camp.

Meetings Poorly Attended

A – Unfortunately, the past history of the United States with its unlimited possibilities, with its individualism has not accustomed our workers to social thinking. It is enough to tell you that trade union meetings are attended at best by 15 per cent of the organized workers. Just consider this fact!

B – But is it not possible that the cause for the abstention of 85 per cent lies in the fact that the speakers ... have nothing to tell the masses?

A – Well ... to a certain extent this is true. The economic situation is such that we are forced to keep the workers back, to put a brake on the movement, to retreat. Of course, it is not to the workers’ liking.

B – That is just it. The fault lies not with the masses but with the leaders. In the classic epoch of capitalism, too, the trade unions found themselves in a difficult situation during a crisis, were forced to retreat, lost part of their membership, spent their basic capital. But at least there then existed the certainty that in the next rise they would retrieve all their losses. Now there is not the slightest hope for this. The unions will become weaker and weaker. Your organization, the C.I.O., might collapse just as rapidly as it came into being.

Masses and Leaders

A – What is to be done?

B – First of all clearly tell the masses what is. It is impermissible to play hide and seek. Of course, you know the American workers better than I do. Nevertheless I permit myself to say with certainty that you look at them old glasses. The masses are immeasurably better, more audacious, more decisive than the leaders. The very fact of the rapid birth and growth of the C.I.O. shows that the American worker has changed radically under the influence of the terrific economic jolts of the post-war period, especially of the last decade. When you showed even a little initiative in the creation of more militant unions, the workers responded immediately and gave you an exceptional, never before heard of support. You have no right to complain about the masses. And the so-called “sit-down strikes”? It was not the leaders who invented them but the workers themselves. Is not this an unmistakable sign of the readiness of the American workers to pass over to more decisive methods of struggle? Mr. Hague is a direct product of the sit-down strikes. Unfortunately, in the upper layers of the trade unions no one dares to draw just as daring conclusions from the sharpening of the social struggle as the capitalist reaction has drawn. This is the gist of the matter. The leaders of capital think and act immeasurably more firmly, more logically, and daringly than the leaders of the proletariat – these sceptics, rut-followers, bureaucrats who dim the fighting spirit of the masses. And out of this grows the danger of the victory of fascism, moreover in the very near future. The workers do not come to your meetings because they feel instinctively the insufficiency, the inconsistency, the lifelessness, the direct falsity of your program. The leaders of the trade unions get off general phrases while each worker feels catastrophe over his head. You must find a language corresponding to the real situation of rotting capitalism and not to bureaucratic illusions.

A – I have already told you – I do not see leaders. There are individual groups, sects, but I do not see anyone capable of uniting the working masses, even if I should agree with you that the masses are ready for struggle.

B – It is not a question of leaders but of program. A correct program not only will raise up and weld the masses together, but it will train leaders.

The Program

A – What do you consider a correct program?

B – You know that I am a Marxist, more precisely, a Bolshevik. My program has a very simple and short name – the socialist revolution. But I do not demand of the leaders of the trade union movement that they adopt immediately the program of the 4th International. What I do demand of them is that they draw conclusions from their own work, from their own situation; that for themselves and the masses they answer at least these two questions:

  1. How can the C.I.O. be saved from bankruptcy and ruin?
  2. And how can the U.S.A. be saved from fascism?

Sliding Scale of Hours

A – What would you do today in the United States if you were an organizer of a trade union?

B – First of all the trade unions must pose squarely the problem of unemployment and wages. The sliding scale of hours as formulated by you is correct: all must have work. But the sliding scale of hours must be supplemented by a sliding scale of wages. The working class cannot permit a constant lowering of its standard of living, as this would be tantamount to the collapse of human culture. The highest earnings on the eve of the crisis of 1929 should be taken as the point of departure. The powerful productive forces created by the workers did not disappear, did not perish; they exist. Those who own and dispose of the productive forces are responsible for unemployment. The workers know how to work and want to work. The work must be divided among all the workers. The earnings of each worker should not be lower than the maximum reached in the past. This is the natural, the necessary, the inexorable demand of the trade unions. Otherwise they will be crushed aside by historic development as so much trash.

Capitulation or Struggle

A – Is this program realizable? It spells ruin for the capitalists. Precisely such a program could hasten the development of fascism,

B – Of course, this program presupposes struggle and not prostration. The trade unions are faced with two possibilities – either to navigate, maneuver, retreat, close the eyes and capitulate on the installment plan in order not to “aggravate” the bosses and not to “provoke” reaction. The German and Austrian social democrats and trade union functionaries tried to save themselves from fascism in this manner. The result is known to all – they broke their necks. The other road is to understand the merciless character of the present social crisis and to lead the masses into an attack,

Danger of Fascism

A – But still you have not answered the question of fascism, that is of the immediate danger which the trade unions would bring upon themselves by more radical demands.

B – I have not forgotten this for a single moment. The fascist danger is here now, even before the advancing of radical demands. It flows from the decline and decomposition of capitalism. I grant that it could become increased for some time under the influence of the radical program of the trade unions. The workers must be openly warned of it. They must be called to the defense of the trade unions. They must immediately begin the practical creation of special organizations of defense. There is no other road! One can just as little save himself from fascism by means of democratic laws, resolutions and appeals as he can save himself from a cavalry detachment by diplomatic notes. The workers must be taught to defend their lives and their future with weapons in hand against the gangsters and bandits of capital. Fascism thrives in an atmosphere of impunity. We need not doubt for a moment that the fascist heroes will put their tails between their legs when convinced that the workers are ready to advance against one of their “corps,” two, three, or four of their own corps. The only way of saving the workers’ organizations and reducing the number of inevitable victims down to a minimum is through timely creation of a mighty organization of workers’ self-defense. This constitutes the first task of the trade unions if they do not want to perish ignominiously. The working class needs a workers’ militia!

The Labor Party

A – But what is the outlook for the future? What will the trade unions finally come to with these methods of struggle?

B – Naturally, the sliding scale and workers’ defense squads are insufficient. These are only the first steps necessary in defending the workers from hunger, death, and from fascist knives. These are elementary and urgent means of self-defense. But by themselves they do not decide the matter. The basic task consists in making a path to a better economic regime and to a more correct reasonable and honest utilization of the productive forces in the interests of the entire people. This is impossible of achievement through the usual, the “normal,” the routine methods of trade union work. You must agree that under the conditions of capitalist decline isolated trade unions are incapable of stopping the further worsening of the conditions of the workers. More decisive and more profound methods are needed. The bourgeoisie which owns the means of production and state power has brought economy to a complete and hopeless chaos. The bourgeoisie must be declared an insolvent debtor and the economy must be transferred to fresh and honest hands, that is to the hands of the workers themselves. How can this be done? The first step is clear: all trade unions must unite and create their own Labor Party. Not a party of Roosevelt and LaGuardia, not a labor party in name only, but a genuine independent political organization of the working class. Only such a party is capable of rallying to itself the ruined farmers, the small handicraftsmen and storekeepers. But to accomplish this it must carry on an irreconcilable struggle against banks, trusts, monopolists, and against their political agents, that is the Republican and Democratic Parties. The task of the Labor Party must constitute taking power into its hands, the entire power, and bringing the economy into order. This means to organize all national economy according to a single reasonable plan, the aim of which is not enhancing the profits of a handful of exploiters but the material and spiritual interests of a population of 130 millions.

Roosevelt’s “Popularity”

A – Many of our leaders are beginning to understand that the development is in the direction of the Labor Party. But the popularity of Roosevelt is still too great. If he should agree to run for a third time, the question of a Labor Party will be postponed for another four years.

B – That is just the misfortune – that Messrs. Leaders look upward and not downward. The approaching war, the collapse of American capitalism, the growth of unemployment and misery, all these basic processes directly determining the fate of tens and hundreds of millions of people do not depend at all on the candidacy or “popularity” of Roosevelt. I assure you that he is much more popular among well paid functionaries of the C.I.O. than among the unemployed. Moreover, trade unions exist for the workers and not for the functionaries. If the idea of the C.I.O. for a certain period could inflame millions of workers, the idea of an independent, fighting Labor Party which wants to put an end to economic anarchy, to unemployment and misery, is capable of inflaming tens of millions. Of course, the agitators of the Labor Party must show to the masses by deeds and not words that they are not electioneering agents of Roosevelt, LaGuardia and Co., but real fighters for the interests of the exploited masses. When orators begin to speak the language of working-class leaders instead of agents of the White House, 85 per cent will come to the meetings and 15 per cent, consisting of conservative old men, aristocrats of the workers, and careerists will remain behind. The masses are better, more decisive than the leaders. The masses, want to fight. The fight is hampered by the leaders who lag behind the masses. The leaders hide their own indecisiveness, their conservatism, their bourgeois prejudices behind excuses that the masses are unprepared. This is now the real situation.

A – There is quite a lot of truth in what you say. But ... we shall talk about it next time.

— Crux

return return return return return

Last updated on: 12 September 2015