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The A. F. of L. at San Francisco

Arne Swabeck


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

A SUDDEN perceptible trembling passing through the earth and communicated to the immense walls and ceilings of the San Francisco Civic Auditorium excited the delegates at one of the initial American Federation of Labor convention sessions. An earthquake—a purely natural phenomenon—but if transmutations from nature to the field of convention debates were possible, they would be recorded, at later sessions, in the reverberations, heard even amidst this motley gathering, from the gigantic labor struggles that had taken place during the preceding months. “Coming events cast their shadows before,” says the proverb; and truly, in these tremors are indicated the approach of new eruptions.

They are also the first external signs pointing to the crossroads that the A. F. of L. is about to reach, and in view of which the actions of this convention assume unusual significance. The attentive observer, and much more so the active participant in the labor movement, can easily anticipate the future course, filled with far more intense struggles growing out of the rapid changes in class relationships in the present epoch. No matter how vociferously the official A. F. of L. leaders seek to deny the existence of the class struggle and no matter how stubbornly they reject the conclusions flowing from it, its realities and problems are pressed to the fore in every question of organization, of policy and of tactics. For them also the alternatives arise: to accept progressive changes in order to make further advance, or to resist, on the penalty of splits and debacle, giving rise to the new rival unions.

At the convention the realities of the class struggle found their reflection most outstandingly in such issues as the question of industrial-unionism and the enlargement of the Executive Council. On the surface, the changes accomplished, and accomplished only after much hesitation and with numerous obstacles remaining, may appear very small. Nevertheless the effect and inevitable further development of the actions taken will be of considerable importance for the future course of the A. F. of L. An industrial basis of union organization is accepted for certain mass production industries—automobile, aluminum and cement. The Executive Council is enlarged by the addition of seven new members. They do not differ in political outlook or in other respects from the reflected incumbents who usually remain on the council until they die off. They were added in an effort to present something new and more effective. Far more fundamental, however, is the fact that these changes were brought about by the pressure of changing objective conditions. A considerably strengthened monopoly capitalism is seeking its way out of the crisis at the expense of the workers and has accepted the revamped New Deal policies as their vehicle, agreeing to “collective bargaining” but throwing down the gauntlet to the trade unions. In every important issue the menace of company unions is looming more seriously while the powerful monopoly concerns tighten their grip on the means of exploitation and on the government in preparation for new world conquests to be accomplished by military means. But on the other side is a powerful rank and file membership, strengthened by hundreds of thousands of new recruits, tempered in several severe battles, face to face with the menace of a permanent army of unemployed, chafing under the economic pressure of a rising cost of living and intensified exploitation, and struggling to get an organized foothold in the basic industries as a means of making further advances. The lines are drawn for bigger battles and the rank and file presses onward. It is not yet conscious of its direction but its being set into motion imposes new demands upon the union leadership. The rank and file has also thrown down its gauntlet. By virtue of these conditions the real issue in the American Federation of Labor is the question of the conservative leadership versus the militant rank and file.

The A. F. of L., like any other living organism, is a product of its environment. It is composed of human material, the essence and the actions of which are not summed up in the abstraction of each separate individual, no matter how low or how exalted his position. On the contrary, it is summed up in the ensemble of its social relation, i.e., of class relations. The antagonisms of class relations flowing from the contradictions of capitalist society shape the course in each historical period of this living organism as a whole, including the human material of which it is made up. But this course is not shaped by a mechanical process that disregards the actions of the participants in it. While the mode of production is the basic factor determining all change in the A. F. of L., as in society as a whole, in its interaction with other social forces and institutions, the efforts of the human material play their important part. Out of the objective conditions of each historical stage arise the new needs and the new possibilities by which the human participants are led to work out a course of action designed to fulfill these needs. Within the A. F. of L. this will be expressed in corresponding changes of outlook, methods, structure, etc. Out of the changes in environment, the state of mind and actions of the membership change and influence its future course. The militants produced by these circumstances, not chosen by themselves, and who still have to work with the material handed down by the past will be able to make history as the active participants in the shaping of the future course.

Leadership is an enormous factor in the historic process and cannot be considered a merely accidental element. Leadership emerges and enters into a whole chain of objective forces and the link it constitutes in this chain is strong or weak according to its position at each stage of development. The almost uninterrupted and unchallenged sway of the reactionary leadership under the rein of the late Samuel Gompers, rested on a foundation of limiting the union within the narrow and exclusive craft groove; it was kept entirely subservient to capitalism. The leadership solidified its position on that foundation and succeeded in frustrating or annihilating all opposition. In turn this led to its degeneration and corruption. In this sense, the leadership, developed over a long period of time, reflected the political backwardness of the American working class, its permeation by bourgeois ideology and its lack of consciousness. The concessions that capitalism could afford to give the workers in the form of higher standards, particularly to the privileged sections of the craft unions, facilitated the development and solidification of this leadership. Nor was it ever effectively challenged by a revolutionary party. Today, however, in the conditions of deep-going changes in national economy, the A. F. of L. leadership, which is still the same in theory and practise as that presided over by Gompers, is appearing as the weak link in the chain. This is the explanation of its present paradoxical position. Reactionary defenders of capitalism, these leaders, nevertheless, find themselves compelled to give way to the enormous pressure from below and to give formal heed, at least to an extent, to the demands of the rank and file workers.

When they entered the labor boards established by the government during the initial period of the New Deal policies, they hoped for the approach of a new and stable equilibrium. But no sooner had the working masses come into motion to realize the aspirations for union organization, and no sooner had the government showed its true character by mobilizing the armed state forces against strikes and trade unions in action, than these conflicts found their reflection within the unions. The masses in action began pressing for more militant policies and for more effective methods of organization. Expressive of this conflict was the action of delegates from eighty automobile workers local unions meeting last summer to discuss merger into one big union. By resolution they ordered all A. F. of L. organizers to leave the floor and take seats on the platform, or to walk out of the conference. These delegates said in no uncertain terms: “We want to run our own show.” One could mention also, among many other examples, the action of the delegates to the textile workers’ union convention overruling their officials and declaring for a nationwide strike; the long struggle of the more progressive section of the steel workers’ union for an aggressive policy of organization and for a nationwide strike; as well as the demands of the conference of federal unions for industrial unionism.

This conflict was at the bottom of all the issues before the A. F. of L. convention. The suspicion and distrust between leadership and the rank and file is certainly mutual. And the healthy respect and the tormenting fear exhibited by the former in all the actions they took with an eye to a rebellious constituency, is unquestionably genuine. Hence many of the most reactionary elements among the leadership supported progressive measures and demagogically invoked, without blush or shame, the threats of the rebellion that would ensue should the convention fail. John L. Lewis became the spokesman for the idea of a more militant organization policy. He became the particular sponsor of the industrial union project and the proposal to enlarge the Executive Council. But then, let us not forget that he has had particularly sad experiences (sad for him) with rank and file revolts and he knows what they mean. John L. Lewis was seconded on the industrial union project by Chas. P. Howard of the typographical union, and by Dan Tobin of the teamsters union and Wm. F. Hutcheson of the carpenters union on the council measure. It was Dan Tobin who at last year’s convention nearly came to blows with Lewis on this same issue and who at this convention referred to the hundreds of thousands of new A. F. of L. recruits as “rubbish”. But he has also had some sad experiences. The rank and file members of his own union, under new leadership, have been taking matters into their own hands. Witness Minneapolis. Truly, history sometimes creates “circumstances and relationships that enable grotesque mediocrities to strut about in hero’s garb”. These labor agents of capitalism for the moment covered their odious record with the progressive mantle.

They knew that they had to yield something. The rank and file is moving forward in leaps; the leaders, conscious of their role to obstruct this process but fearful of tearing themselves away from the masses, are compelled to take one or two steps forward. At the same time they prepare to aim a blow from another direction. Coupled with the progressive measures adopted comes the campaign to drive communism and the communists out of the trade unions. It must be admitted that their task is greatly facilitated by the suicidal policy of the Stalinists. So much so that to the average trade unionist communism appears today in its revised Stalinist edition of fostering rival unions artificially nourished, of fostering division and splits in the workers’ ranks that paralyze their striking ability. The result is that while the trade union bureaucrats are in mortal fear of the ideas of communism they are in an easier position to use the name as a label of disrepute with which to brand the rebellious rank and file workers in an effort to crush their opposition. We do not mean by this the artificial rank and file creations of the Stalinists, that is, the network of paper committees arbitrarily chosen by them, representing nobody and upon whom they confer the title “rank and file leadership”. But the Stalinists have made efforts to meet the anti-communist campaign in their own fashion; not by warning the genuine rank and file unionists that it is aimed against them but by modestly informing all and sundry that the official communist party is the . . . best fighter for the working class interests. At one of its meetings held recently to consider ways and means of facing the attack, one of the members present asked if the workers know that the C. P. is the best fighter for their interests, if they accept that as a fact. The little bureaucrat who was in charge of the meeting answered: “No, they do not, but that is why we must tell them.” The Daily Worker has been busily engaged in telling them, day in and day out. By the actions of the Stalinists, it would not be known. . . .

On a whole the anti-communist drive did not get off to a good start at the A. F. of L. convention. The shadow of the powerful rank and file, against whom it was directed, haunted the bureaucrats and stayed their hand. This had a great deal to do also with the fact that the strike truce offered by President Roosevelt just in time for the convention, did not receive the warm reception which might otherwise have been expected. But there need be no illusions that any reversal has taken place in A. F. of L. policy on relations of government, capital and labor. Its forgotten preamble still reads, “a struggle is going on in all the nations of the civilized world between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between the capitalist and the laborer, and will work disastrous results to the toiling millions if they are not combined for mutual protection”. But its official policy over a long period of time has been based essentially on cooperation of capital and tabor, formerly under the slogans of an increasing share in prosperity, the improving of the methods of production and the elimination of waste in industry by accepting the trade union as “custodians of skill and craft”. Since the aggravation of technological unemployment, and more so, since the beginning of the crisis, the emphasis has of necessity shifted in the direction of demands for reduction of working hours, the six-hour day and five-day week, together with the demand for increasing the purchasing power of the masses. This also, according to the philosophy of the A. F. of L. leadership, is to be attained by collaboration with capitalism and with its government. In 1919-20 it was committed to the Plumb plan of nationalization, but such ideas have since been dropped altogether. Today it attempts to reach essentially the same goal by a somewhat different route. One of its main platform planks is the demand for greater governmental supervision of industry and of social relations, designed to strengthen further its ties with the government. It is a notorious fact that the international orientation of the A. F. of L. has always followed, if not officially then at least in reality, the direction given by the Department of State. When American imperialism began pressing its policy of broader expansion in Latin America, the A. F. of L. created the Pan-American Federation of Labor as its own vehicle to do its part, and so long as the administration opposed all ideas of recognition of the Soviet Union it could count on the whole trade union bureaucracy as its advance agents. From this interlocking partnership the Stalinists drew “evidence” to support their specious theory of social-Fascism, yes, and even to paint the A. F. of L. in their own imagination as the very incarnation of Fascism. However, at this particular time, when the participation of labor leaders in the machinery of government is being extended through the various code authorities and labor relations boards, the A. F. of L. is obliged to make a formal condemnation of Fascism. Naturally so. Let it not be forgotten that a Fascist movement developing and aiming for power anywhere, will involve a life-and-death struggle with the labor movement. Only on the ruins of the demolished trade unions could a Fascist dictatorship be realized in actuality. Approaching the question in its reverse sense will also mean that the A. F. of L. with all its conservatism must be made a link in the united front struggle against Fascism.

At the San Francisco convention the A. F. of L. advanced its own economic program, embodying demands for the extension and strengthening of the N.R.A., enforcement of industrial code provisions, strengthening of the compliance boards, assurance of the right of collective bargaining and the right of labor to become an “active participant in the supposed partnership of government, industry and labor”. The leadership makes it perfectly clear that this also implies the strengthening of the A. F. of L. as a bulwark against communism. At first glance this program may appear as tending to harmonize with the aim of the general body of American trade unionists for union control of the conditions of work. In reality the aims are not at all synonymous. The mere objective of union recognition has led to fierce struggles throughout the country. They are only the beginning of their expansion on a much larger scale, out of which the workers will rapidly learn to set their aim for workers’ control of production. Meanwhile this aim of today, of union control of conditions of work, is translated by the leadership into the attainment of a peacefully existing partnership of exploiters and exploited on the basis of guaranteed “reasonable profits”. It envisages a stable equilibrium with the conditions of exploitation securely maintained and the government functioning as the stabilizing factor. However, in every one of the great strike struggles that has taken place are already indicated in concrete form the acutely intensified contradictions of capitalism tearing away at the very foundation of this equilibrium. The government shifts its emphasis ever more to its real and authoritative expression as a machinery of armed forces for the defense of the private ownership of the means of production and for the maintenance of the bourgeois right of exploitation. Changes of relationship of forces within the A. F. of L.—essentially between the Right and the Left—will follow.

The ground is being prepared for a genuine nationwide progressive movement firmly linked with the militant body of rank and file trade unionists. Its possibilities for success are excellent indeed and await only the guiding hand of those who are able to build—the politically conscious elements. Objective conditions at the present stage have made it a most imperative need, and the conscious elements cannot shirk their task. They are obliged to take the lead in working out a course of action to meet this imperative need. The Workers Party of the United States which is now in the process of formation through the merger of the Communist League of America and the American Workers Party will consider this one of its foremost duties.

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