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The A. F. of L. Begins to Face Issues

Arne Swabeck


From New International, December 1935, from Tamiment Library microfilm archives
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DURING THE periods of important historical turns the organizations which have as their function the defense of specific class interests usually experience sharp internal convulsions. The impact from the changes in their external relations raise new issues and set new forces into motion within them. This is what we witness today in its embryo form in the American Federation of Labor.

Its present revival coincided with the revival of industrial production following the depth of the crisis; but the political manifestations, that arise out of these parallel revivals, develop in opposite directions. The big industrial corporations, which reap the harvest from the rising price level, from the increased profits and from the renewed dividend payments, resort to ever more reactionary measures to batter down all working class advance, in order to maintain, as nearly as possible, the low cost of production level established during the crisis. Even the New Deal labor relations provisions, which they formerly accepted reluctantly as a bridge from the crisis to the industrial revival, have now become obstacles to be removed. Their criticisms and attacks are motivated entirely on reactionary grounds. This direction is now unmistakable. Among the organized workers, on the other hand, the continued pressure of a low standard of living and mass unemployment, together with the impulsion from their newly acquired experiences in several important strike struggles, the center of gravity begins to shift in a leftward direction. The relationship of these developments is mutual. Its living dynamics is expressed both in the sharpened antagonisms between capital and labor and in increased conflict between progressive and reactionary tendencies inside the trade union movement. A vivid picture of this process was furnished by the heated and sometimes acrimonious debates at the recently concluded A. F. of L. convention. Important issues entered into these debates around which the leadership, left as a heritage from Samuel Gompers, found itself hopelessly divided.

The truth is that the federation of Gompers, the elaborately built-up craft-union structure, is now, for the first time in its history, shaking to its very foundation. Its policies and its methods have met a challenge from the needs of new conditions and new potentialities of growth. There is no possibility for the A. F. of L. to sidestep this challenge; and the problems that were left unsettled at this convention, or settled without relation to the requirements of the new conditions, will return for a solution later. These problems came in the main from two separate but at the same time closely related directions. One concerned the questions of organizational structure—industrial unionism or craft unionism—which in essence pose the alternatives of growth or stagnation. The other concerned the question of political orientation, which is far broader in its scope and which in its real sense involves the role of the A. F. of L. bureaucracy as an integral part of the class domination of the bourgeoisie. Fundamentally these are problems of the class struggle and as such they are not new, but they appear now in a much more imposing form than heretofore.

The Gompers’ federation prospered on its craft union basis in a parasitical fashion. Limited to the labor aristocracy of the skilled trades, it pursued a deliberate policy of keeping the large masses of unskilled workers without an organization. The exceptionally rapid industrial expansion in the United States put its own peculiar stamp of development on the A. F. of L. It rejected as a policy the methods of parliamentary reformism practised by the European labor movements. During its early days, beginning with the eighties, it possessed an extraordinary virility in direct action methods. As a result the leadership gradually developed its own philosophy of no participation in politics and proclaimed a policy of political neutrality for the unions. Ostensibly it maintained a neutral attitude to all political parties. In reality the leadership sought thereby to separate the movement from its general political class problems only to become itself so much more closely bound up with the political parties of the bourgeoisie. Naturally this leadership repudiated any recognition of the class struggle and almost invariably supported the policies, both foreign and domestic, of whichever of these parties had control of the administration at Washington. It hardly ever rose even to the occasion of a loyal opposition. Therefore the formula of political neutrality, which at one time served to justify the courage and the militancy of direct action methods of the movement as a whole in its early days, was later used as a cover for the cowardice and reactionary development of its leadership.

This tie-up with the government and the support of its policies became more complete with the Roosevelt administration. The trade union officials considered themselves as special agents of the New Deal and were in turn drawn in for service on the numerous governmental labor relations boards. Outwardly this mutual relationship was presented as a guarantee of the right of collective bargaining and the right of union organization. But this “right” carried with it also specific duties for the A. F. of L. leaders. The mutual relationship was conditioned upon their ability to control the unions, to strangle independent working class activity and to prevent the development of working class consciousness. Already it has served to smother and defeat two important strike waves. This is the real essence of the mutual relationship between the government and the A. F. of L. bureaucracy.

What has been the reaction of the workers? In the first place, they took advantage of the opportunity offered to them by the new stimulus to union organization. But the concessions from the government could not appear as very real inasmuch as they had to fight bitterly for their rights in every instance. On the contrary, the ruthless opposition which they encountered in all of these struggles, from the employers and from the organs of the capitalist state, the police and the military forces, became much more real. Where the collective bargaining right was to be established by “agreement“, without the resort to strike action, the workers were similarly disillusioned. Most outstandingly that was the case of last year’s so-called agreement covering the automobile industry. At the time a great movement surged through the automobile plants, looking hopefully toward the A. F. of L. leadership for guidance, and ready to fight for a union; but it was cut short and betrayed by the “agreement” which rendered no gains and forestalled for the time being any further independent action. In this the trade union movement suffered its first serious setback under the new form of labor relationship. It had far-reaching consequences in discrediting trade unionism and checking its promising growth in the basic industries. Subsequently the Automobile Labor Board elections piled up an overwhelming majority vote for the company unions. President Roosevelt and Wm. Green were the principal actors in the working out of this “agreement”. In this both remained true to the actual conditions of the mutual relationship between the government and the A. F. of L. bureaucracy.

But in these experiences its weak sides are also exposed and to an extent brought certain conclusions to the minds of the more advanced workers. The first thing that becomes clear to them is the fact that the outward appearances of the alliance with the government are deceptive. It does not serve to protect the rights of union organization but turns out to do the opposite. The special measures of labor relations, the complicated system of labor boards, function essentially to circumvent the demands of the workers. What then can the alliance with the government mean except to strengthen the prestige and the powers of the bureaucracy ? Jointly with the government the bureaucracy becomes the defender of the interests of the employers, which are in direct conflict with the interests of the workers. Consequently it is necessary to fight this bureaucracy in order to gain any real concessions from the class enemy. This fight begins to crystallize distinctly progressive tendencies arising in response to the needs of the movement.

Wm. Green learned this at first hand from an excursion he made to several international union gatherings shortly before the A. F. of L. convention. The rank and file showed him its temper in the severe rebukes he received. Delegates to the Federation of Teachers’ convention, in Cleveland, refused to carry out his edict for the expulsion of its New York local, which he charged to be under the control of the “reds”. Delegates to the newly chartered automobile workers’ union convention, held in Detroit, declined to enter into a voluntary agreement in support of his choice for leadership, and the newly chartered rubber workers’ union convention, in Akron, rejected out of hand his candidates for the major offices. What could he do? He was probably taken somewhat unawares. For the first time in recent years the issue of trade union democracy was put to a real test with the rank and file standing its ground and the bureaucracy compelled to beat a hasty retreat. It was difficult to head off such a sudden manifestation of revolt, which was clearly born out of general dissatisfaction with the policies, the methods and the accomplishments of the organization.

It is true that the A. F. of L. has experienced considerable growth in prestige and in membership during its recent revival. The Executive Council reports another half million increase over the previous year, bringing its total membership up to 3,045,347. This is the highest membership reported since 1922, though it is still more than a million below the 4,078,740 of 1920. Still, these figures are paltry indeed, showing a very miserable accomplishment, when we consider the rich opportunities for organization that have been available since the turn in the business cycle. The changes in economic conditions and the consequent changes in class relations set a mighty stream of workers into motion for union organization, gravitating almost exclusively toward the A. F. of L. But they were repelled by the utter inability of its leadership to grasp the opportunity, by its insistence on the antiquated craft-union forms, by its bureaucratic, racketeering emasculation of the unions and by its outright betrayals. To the workers in the basic and mass-production industries, who were ready for organization, the craft union form was manifestly ineffective in face of the ruthless onslaughts from the gigantic corporations. Only a union embracing all the workers in the plants, operating on an industrial basis, could meet such a formidable challenge. An aggressive policy of organization and militant methods of resistance, they felt instinctively, would be an essential prerequisite, and this demanded freedom from the bureaucratic encumbrances. The attempt to keep them moribund and to impose upon them a hand-picked leadership from above could only tend to increase the already growing dissatisfaction of the rank and file and put them on their guard.

But the dissatisfaction has extended also to the sphere in which Green and company expected the real fruits from their relations with the government. The New Deal legislation they hailed as great victories for labor, destined to inaugurate a new era of cooperation between capital and labor. As it turned out, however, even the Executive Council had to admit in its convention report that it did not work out so well: “Labor had no voice in the determination of code provisions, in code administration, or in adjustments in code provisions as they were found necessary,” it said. “United action of labor and management was the exception, not the rule.” This is the complaint of the partners who feel that they have been jilted. What they mean to say is: How can we carry out our obligation of preserving industrial peace and preventing independent class activity when we are not given full recognition in the partnership and the “unreasonable” employers refuse to collaborate with us and reject all our ideas? Green and company knows that if their class-collaboration policy is to prevail they must be able to show enough concessions to forestall too great dissatisfaction. They know now that some of the most important New Deal measures did not remain popular with the masses for very long.

Moreover, with this change in popularity, certain changes in political trends began to appear here and there. Wherever the workers turned to the specially established governmental agencies, they found them loaded down with representatives of the employers, representatives of the same people who fought the workers viciously in every strike. Here they faced the class enemy, and many of them undoubtedly learned that, when considered fully, all of the legislative labor relations measures were worked out, decided upon and enforced by the class enemy. And, not yet seeing the full implications of the capitalist state or the necessity for its overthrow, the idea of labor having its own representatives do the business, appeared as a much better alternative. Consequently, labor party sentiments began to crystallize anew in many places in disregard of the official A. F. of L. political orientation. The Oregon State Federation of Labor came out in condemnation of the profit system and voted to establish a new political party. No doubt there was as yet little clarity on what kind of a party was needed, but there was at least a good indication that the outworn policy of rewarding friends and punishing enemies amongst the agents of privilege no longer found the same acquiescence as hitherto in trade union ranks. Similar indications were recorded elsewhere. The Connecticut State Federation of Labor decided to conduct a referendum vote of all local unions in the state on the question of creating a labor party. The New Jersey federation likewise; and even down in Tennessee, serious consideration has been given to labor party propositions.

Such was the general background leading up to the recent A. F. of L. convention. Outstanding manifestations of serious changes in the moods of the masses were clearly established.

The A. F. of L. bureaucracy knows now that a real test of its ability to control the unions is approaching. It is in a dilemma. Fearing the consequences that would ensue should it forfeit its “right” to its alliance with the government, it resorts to more openly reactionary and more high-handed methods. In line with this the Executive Council announced its intention to bring forward, as the most important issue before the convention, a proposal to amend the constitution by inserting a provision barring communists, or advocates of the “violent overthrow of our institutions“, from all representative bodies in the organization. The language of this provision should not deceive anybody. It is clearly an attack aimed at the whole of the militant and genuinely progressive tendencies in the unions. At the convention, however, the bureaucracy encountered new difficulties. New and authentic issues of the class struggle made their way to the convention floor, upsetting the most cunning calculations and bidding fair to become the means of breaking the death clutch of reaction. Even the Executive Council was no longer united. All of these questions demanded the expression of an attitude and thus the conflict of tendencies found its sharp reflection amongst the very topmost layers in the organization apparatus. All of the legislative “victories“, hailed with so much ardor and acclaim just a few days before, faded into the background as the authentic issues concerning organizational structure and political orientation held the center of attention. The main division occurred around the question of industrial unionism. Lined up on the progressive side of the argument were the representatives of the coal miners, the textile workers, the metal miners, the oil field workers and the needle trades, solidly backed by practically all of the representatives of the newly organized federal unions, which operate mainly in the mass production industries. Arrayed against them were the overwhelming majority of the distinctly craft-union representatives, who are today the most backward and most reactionary section of the movement. While the latter did not possess the convincing arguments, they still controlled the majority vote, with the opposition, however, rallying imposing forces to its standard. But the struggle for industrial unionism has just begun. The A. F. of L. can hardly escape its full weight. Before it there is posed the alternative of adjusting itself to the ever more pressing needs of changing economic conditions or of being condemned to stagnation. Even the most reactionary elements in its leadership do understand the essential prerequisite of mass numbers, as a means of wielding power and influence. Therefore, the struggle for industrial unionism is bound to grow in momentum as the movement faces its new tasks.

To conclude, on the other hand, from the line-up in this struggle that amongst the main spokesmen on the progressive side of the argument at Atlantic City are to be found the genuine progressives of today, might easily prove worse than illusory. John L. Lewis, Charles P. Howard, Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky appeared as the main defenders of the proposition, clashing with William Green, Matthew Woll, John P. Frey and Dan Tobin. The hidebound reactionary outlook of the latter need not be questioned. But it is incontestable that the former have proven, equally with those whom they are now opposing, an integral part of the bourgeois class domination. From the most outstanding to the lesser lights, without any particular exceptions, they have shared, in theory and practise, in the class-collaboration policies of the Rooseveltian era and before. In their own unions they have established a record of cunning deception of the workers, functioned as a brake upon their independent class activity and denounced and assailed the militants, the genuine progressives, resorting with regularity to the most bureaucratic methods. This is well known.

At the present time, however, John L. Lewis and his lieutenants have gauged more accurately the actual mood of the masses and they have responded in a measure to the needs of changing conditions. They visualize the potentialities of the real progressive tendency once it gains firm roots; but they also understand its present weaknesses and confusion. Hence they endeavor to move into a commanding position from the beginning. They have not yet shown any serious inclination to break with the established bureaucratic concept of integral relations with the class domination of the bourgeoisie. In basic class ideology this section of the leading A. F. of L. officialdom differs but little from the dominant clique of Green, Woll and company. Even the labor party proposal before the convention found support from only a certain part of the industrial union defenders. But the fact that their appearance as an opposition influenced a certain moderation of the bureaucratically staged “red-baiting” campaign is noteworthy. The further fact that they chose to single out Matthew Woll as a special target, personifying reaction bred-in-the-bone, and to enter an opposition candidate contesting the election of W. D. Mahon, a Green supporter, to fill a vacancy on the Executive Council, is an unmistakable sign of their determination to carry on with the fight.

Insofar as this determination remains, the genuine progressives and the revolutionary workers in the trade unions will make it a common struggle. Revolutionists at all times take the issues as their line of departure and upon that basis define their attitude to the movement and to its various elements at each particular stage of development. The workers, who in ever greater numbers rally to the support of the trade union movement today, do not necessarily thereby support the reactionary policies of its officials. The support the latter receive goes to them as opponents of the bosses. It is important to bear this in mind. But it is equally important to make the distinction between the movement and its official bureaucracy clear to the workers. Revolutionists at all times defend the genuine trade unions; this itself, however, presupposes intransigeant struggle against its reactionary bureaucracy. Toward those who now appear as the leaders of a progressive fight the revolutionists must also draw a clear line. In the first instance this means that common struggle around the progressive issues is both necessary and possible. But the special distinction must be made toward those who today move one step forward, under pressure from a progressive direction, only to retreat tomorrow, when facing the more serious issues, to their erstwhile position. Their present position cannot be judged fully, nor is a complete endorsement of such elements, under the honorable name of progressives, warranted, on the basis of one episodic experience. The real criterion is where they stand on the general issues of the class struggle.

In this connection it is important to remember that in the further intensification of the struggle between these leading forces in the A. F. of L., which is to be expected, it will be increasingly more difficult for the John L. Lewis section to draw back. As the contradictions of American capitalism mature, the issues that have already arisen will rather tend to coalesce with the general leftward trend, deepen the conflict and drive even these elements into a more irreconcilable opposition. Pursuing the tactic of common struggle, where such is possible, and constantly clarifying the issues in line with the political class objectives of the workers, rich opportunities will be available for the revolutionists to become the courageous builders of a serious progressive movement in the A. F. of L.

Today we see before us the living dynamics of the trade union movement clearly revealed. The bureaucracy finds it ever more difficult to attempt to reconcile the contradictions between the theory and practise of class-collaboration and the reality of the class struggle. Upon such attempts at reconciliation depended the equilibrium of mutual relations between the bureaucracy and the government. When this essential condition disappears—and certainly, recent events tend to upset this relationship—the government will very soon reveal itself much more clearly in its real authentic expression. Nothing else can be expected. After all, the chief function of a bourgeois government is to preserve and strengthen the class relations of capitalism.

It may seem entirely premature to speak of the possibility of a break in this relationship, in the sense of leading officials of the largest trade unions in the country entering into hostile opposition to the government. Still, it is not excluded that further developments will soon lead many of those who have today taken one progressive step into certain new party alignments, into a loyal opposition in a third party or labor party formation. Indeed, the A. F. of L. faces still greater and still more vexing problems than it has experienced so far. History has laid down a rubicon for it to cross.

Socialists, the Old Guard especially, and Stalinists, each in their own way, have now renewed their plea for a new party formation, addressed particularly to these new “progressives”. The Stalinists go the Old Guard Socialists one better in their pleas by eliminating all class connotation and calling for an all-embracing peoples’ movement. But the placating of the “progressives” is equally revolting from both sides. The poison virus of social-patriotism from either direction is equally pernicious. For the revolutionists this should mean, above all, that in the coming period their first duty is to combat this poison virus and exert all their energies toward steering the developing working class political consciousness in a revolutionary direction.

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