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The A. F. of L. at the Crossroads

Arne Swabeck


From New International, September—October 1934, from Tamiment Library microfilm archives
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE American Federation of Labor, despite its narrow craft union outlook, craft union prejudices and class collaboration policy, coupled with corruption, graft and treachery, is nevertheless a living organism which is subject to change. It can be understood correctly only when viewed in motion, taking into account its own internal dynamics and its reciprocal relation with the existing social forces and institutions as well as the changes within them. Since capitalism is formally acknowledged even in America, we are able to start out from the thesis that none of the living factors in this kind of society is immune from the effects of the class struggle.

Those who regard the labor movement, or the A. F. of L. specifically, as something static, or regard it as an entity separate and apart from these factors, merely pursue a metaphysical method of thought. They come to grief and find the refutation of their conclusions demonstrated by the process of life itself. This has happened more than once.

In the earliest programs of the American Communist party, the A. F. of L. was condemned as hopelessly reactionary and the militants were advised to have nothing to do with it. The position was taken that the I.W.W., which had once gloriously held aloft the banner of rebellion, had to be supported as the basic movement.

Undoubtedly that position can be ascribed to the infantile condition of the Communist party and could not then be corrected by the few voices that presented a more realistic view. Today the I.W.W. is practically non-existent, while the A. F. of L. unions are expanding, and have become the framework for the most turbulent struggles conducted in recent times. In this one comparison alone we have demonstrated before us in unassailable fashion the interplay of dialectic relations. It will be instructive to go on to other examples of how not to view the labor movement and the history of the communist party furnishes them in abundance. The unfortunate Wm. Z. Foster, who had himself contributed much toward a correction of the false union attitude which prevailed in the early period of the party, advanced in 1929 a perspective of decline and disappearance of the A. F. of L. In his opinion it would be superseded by a new company unionism into which “the labor bureaucracy would be organically absorbed largely or wholly”. He made the ridiculous assertion that “the main reliance of the employers for propagating reformist illusions among the workers is not so much the A. F. of L. and the S. P., as their own engineer-economist company union apparatus”. (The Communist, January-February 1929.) Foster came to this position by mechanical deductions from the effects of trustification and mechanization of industry in undermining the skilled worker base, which, he asserted, would wipe out catastrophically the craft unions. To this he added the effects of the policy of surrender pursued by the trade union officials.

Of course, his estimate overlooked entirely the dialectic interrelations between the trade union movement and the changing economic conditions. It was devoid of any appraisal of the internal dynamics of the movement which only had to await the effects of the economic changes to produce its repercussion on a large scale. Today the contention of Foster has been refuted by the process of life itself. An equally sorry mess has been made out of the repeated pompous declarations of the lesser, but no less unfortunate Fosters, who later emerged to classify the A. F. of L. as a company union, moribund and openly Fascist, to be replaced by the T.U.U.L. unions. But alas, these unions were only an empty space, unable to elicit any appreciable interest from the working class. Now they are being quietly liquidated, that is, a process equal to liquidating a few secretaries with all their high-toned declarations.

Let us try to picture the developments as they have actually occurred and not as envisaged by these prophets: Today the A. F. of L. is in a process of rapid expansion on a broad front, touching almost all the vital and mass production industries. Many of its affiliated unions are teeming with life and in many instances fighting tenaciously for the right and existence of trade unionism. Their own internal dynamics are increasingly manifest in each new experience. A new vitality never dreamed of before is displayed. At this moment one of the formerly most decrepit A. F. of L. unions, the United Textile Workers, is conducting the most extensive strike yet witnessed in this country, and it abounds in militancy. How it will end is still to be seen at the time of this writing.

Let us not be misunderstood, however. It is not a question here of the glory of the A. F. of L., nor of its tradition, its form, its methods, its policies or its leadership. Not at all! Neither do we forget the stimulus to organization given by the N.R.A.; that is elementary knowledge. Long before the N.R.A., technological advances in industry had undermined and narrowed the skilled worker base; the crisis added a levelling force and its economic pressure increased upon the working class as a whole. With certain manifestations of a change in the business cycle, the American workers, weighed down by the low living standard of the crisis, but not defeated, moved in a mighty surge toward organization. New unions of a mass character grew up, most of the old unions expanded and on a whole the movement took on new life. To the workers in these unions this meant a signal for struggle to establish their right of organization and to gain a higher standard of living. The struggle proceeded through the A. F. of L. and in this sense it became the working class instrument. With its quantitative change, i.e., the vast numerical increase in membership, both through the new unions organized and the growth of many of the old unions, a qualitative difference is presented—quantity is transformed into quality. Today’s American Federation of Labor is not the same as yesterday’s. Much of the past is maintained, nevertheless it is not the same. Hundreds of thousands of new proletarian recruits from the vital industries, who have brought with them and infused into the movement a new spirit of struggle and who are accessible to new ideas and to a militant leadership—that is what is new in the A. F. of L. We cannot speak of its reactionary craft unionism in the old sense of the term. Yesterday’s formula defining this movement do not apply today.

Again it is necessary to say: Let us not be misunderstood. The whole of the reactionary and corrupt A. F. of L. officialdom still remains in the saddle with single exceptions here and there. Viewing it as a collective group of capitalist agents in labor’s ranks, it is still intact and its policy of surrender and class betrayal has not changed, in essence. Proof of this, if any is needed, is sufficiently ample in the sell-out agreement in the automobile industry and the action of the San Francisco union leadership which headed the general strike in order to behead it; these examples will surely not be the last of the kind. Modifications of the surrender policy are accomplished only to the extent that there is pressure from the membership, as witnessed in the present national textile strike with its militant mass action. The strike was resisted by the U.T.W. officials until the convention spoke in unequivocal language on behalf of the rank and file workers. The servile support given by the A. F. of L. bureaucracy to the N.R.A. schemes for the strengthening of monopoly capitalism, its recently announced intention of starting an anti-communist campaign and many other examples that could be adduced, only verify the view that this officialdom remains essentially on the same reactionary basis as before. Only, it has been compelled to open up the formerly hide bound and narrow craft organizations, to engage in some actions, and some of the officials have been compelled to speak a different language—when talking to the workers, not to their masters. But this opening up of the organizations has meant a great influx of the unskilled and semi-skilled proletarian strata, those who were lowest in the economic scale. A change in composition followed and with that also a change in position in relation to capitalism.

Employers throughout the country are now making desperate efforts to entrench their company unions and have engaged, ever since the beginning of the second strike wave, in the most slashing and murderous offensive to resist the union developments, fighting every strike, every union advance with all the means at the disposal of the capitalist state. Organization has slowed down since the time of its early spurt and the vast majority of the American workers still remains unorganized. This presents a dilemma to the A. F. of L. officialdom—an open onslaught on union progress and union rights by the whole of the capitalist class on the one hand, and, on the other, a powerful movement from below pressing to meet the challenge, pressing to expand further and to fight it out. The American Federation of Labor is reaching the crossroads.

As a workers’ organization the A. F. of L. faces a class enemy which in the final analysis gives no quarter. It may give concessions from time to time and it will, Foster’s predictions notwithstanding, rely on the A. F. of L. to propagate reformist illusions among the workers in order to head off more militant action and organization. Therein lies the crucial point. Unless the whole framework of these existing unions can be adjusted to meet the new conditions, unless a new outlook, new methods, new policies, new forms of organization can be reached, and a new leadership break the hold of the present upper crust, the inevitable revolts will produce new unions outside of and in opposition to the A. F. of L. Either way, this will not be the end of the labor movement, but rather its real beginning.

When tracing the history of the American trade unions one notable fact is the grand tradition established in working class struggles, often decidedly revolutionary in character, during the early period of capitalist expansion and the bitter exploitation of labor. Once monopoly capitalism became the dominant force in American national economy, it set out to limit and to control the trade unions. The rapidly growing accumulation of capital and super-profits wrung from the constantly expanding market enabled it to give certain concessions to the upper sections of the skilled workers and to confine the trade unions almost exclusively to these sections. The union leaders came under the sway of capitalism and they recognized as their guiding policy only that which was dictated to them by expediency and opportunism. These narrow, conservative craft unions became an instrument to keep the rest of the working class in subjection. They attained a higher wage level for the privileged workers’ sections at the price of keeping the growing numbers of unskilled workers without organization and on a lower standard of living.

Under these conditions the A. F. of L. developed and crystallized a bureaucracy which was firmly wedded to capitalism in principle and practise. Its degeneration was inevitable. From the top down, the officialdom in the palmiest days of the craft union development, was in many cases made up of bold, unscrupulous crooks and gunmen, maintaining intimate connections with the political bosses of the capitalist parties, protecting themselves by inside connections with police departments and extending their tentacles deep into the underworld. Open treachery to the working class followed as a matter of course. Organized graft and extortion became commonplace affairs. Selling insurance to employers against strikes or calling off strikes for heavy cash, whereby workers were the pawns who knew nothing of any issue or settlement; combinations for cash with certain manufacturers for the exclusion of materials of other manufacturers; mulcting of employers using non-union materials; exorbitant union taxation or payments for working permits—these were only some of the cruder forms of how the most odious labor fakers used the unions for their own ends to live like lords. A much more refined method was the venture into capitalist business enterprises through the establishments of chains of “labor” banks, holding companies, investment corporations and insurance concerns, which, in the case of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers before the financial crash, amounted to the imposing total of $100,000,000. Built up on the basis of the workers’ slim savings, this wealth was squandered by the corrupt officials, leaving the union members to pay heavy assessments for years to liquidate the accounts. Naturally, only a union ruled by election steals and terrorism could secure such a type of officialdom its spoils. In the unions with so-called socialist leadership, the same practise obtained, although perhaps in a less crude but more cunning form. All in all this period marks the blackest page in American labor history.

Trade union officials find themselves today in a new and a different atmosphere. With consternation and concern they witness the unions and the A. F. of L. as a whole being swept rudely out of their old comfortable path of living more or less peacefully on concessions given to the privileged working class sections. This is the immediate effect of the deep-going changes in class relations produced by the changes of the economic structure of the country during and since the crisis. Ideological regroupings of class forces follow and proceed apace. Monopoly capitalism, enormously strengthened, is preparing to restore the dislocated process of reproduction at the expense of the workers and to maintain their drastically reduced standard of wages and standard of living. The vast unemployed army remains. Restlessness among the millions of victims of capitalist expansion was foreseen. If the trade unions could no longer be limited and be made to serve as an instrument for keeping the masses in subjection on their old and narrow basis, at least they had to be kept in bounds within safe channels to secure the continued “cooperation of the three factors in industry—capital, management and labor”.

The old class collaboration policy required a broader basis to secure this cooperation under the new conditions. Likewise, new and more cunning forms for this policy had to be devised. What could be more attractive than “benevolent” government supervision of monopoly capitalism? Here the N.R.A. labor section and labor relations machinery entered into the picture, attempting to elevate the system of class collaboration to the status of a permanent social institution. It apparently guaranteed the right of collective bargaining and began to weld a closer connection and a closer relationship between the government and industry and the trade union leaders, through the code authorities and the labor boards. But it also afforded a first great stimulus to union organization. Apparently the government supported union organization; in reality, however, it restored and strengthened the discredited and corrupt A. F. of L. and international trade union leaders. A new equilibrium was envisaged.

This equilibrium was relied upon to prevent struggle, but the union leaders counted without the changed class relations. In the class struggle everything is real and flows from its own inner logic. Workers in large numbers, in hundreds of thousands, set into motion by an elemental urge, insisted on making the collective bargaining concession real and on making the trade unions organs of struggle for their own class ends. They began to upset the equilibrium.

Taken by surprise by the first sudden rush to the unions, the directors of monopoly capitalism are now far better prepared, unyielding and fighting every inch of the way against the idea of making the trade unions effective means of serving the masses. In this lies the real significance of the present violent resistance. Union organization has become a matter of a life and death struggle, bringing the government forward in its real authoritative expression: steel-helmeted troops wielding all the implements of modern warfare against workers striking for the establishment of their unions. The weight of the government shifts ever more to the real N.R.A.—the strengthening of monopoly capitalism. The forces of the political state appear in their truest expression when clashing with the trade unions in action. The working masses are being taught new lessons in the role of the political state, on the field of battle where these lessons will sink in deeply. Gradually or sharply, the center of gravity will shift in a Leftward direction as the conflict brings to the fore the contradiction between the practise of class collaboration and the reality of class struggle—a contradiction which the trade union officialdom is unable to reconcile.

The conflict finds its reflection within the trade unions where the Leftward direction can develop only in irreconcilable hostility to the corrupt and treacherous officials. The latter are afraid to tear themselves loose from the masses who demand struggle and want leadership. And while they attempt to suppress the militants through their anti-communist campaigns, the pressure upon them from the fighting masses increases and weakens the effects of their collaboration with capitalism in the face of which militant developments and activity of the militants becomes more of a reality. The conclusion is inescapable. The American Federation of Labor is reaching its crossroads.

That the voice of the rank and file is now heard more loudly, more impressively and more irresistibly in the unions is commonly acknowledged; that new leadership is emerging in the lower units, forged in the fire of struggle, is evidenced in more than one instance. Some shifts in leadership, up to the very top layers, will undoubtedly occur. Changes in outlook, in policy and in form of organization are far from precluded and most decidedly not impossible. It is, however, just as likely that the revolts growing out of the conflicts with the reactionary bureaucracy will result in splits and new independent unions embracing the masses of the rank and file workers disillusioned with the agents of class collaboration. In either case, the decisive question is that of the working masses and where the working masses are. That is how the question is approached by serious revolutionists. They set out to penetrate the masses with their ideas and to win the masses for their objectives. They have no fetishism of organization.

What will be the course of the A. F. of L. in the further struggle of American capitalism for a respite and for further expansion, is not yet a settled question. But at all times it must be remembered that it is a living organism, foreshadowing today the potentialities of a working class now awakening and on the march, displaying an unlimited militancy. To fuse this militancy with a leadership that is conscious of the historic mission of its class, courageous, able to forge the instruments with which to build the organizations and able to influence the movement from within—that is the great task today. For the future this much can be said: the unique situation in the United States, which the A. F. of L. reflects, offers exceptional revolutionary possibilities. The real militants have no time to lose.

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