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Does the A. F. of L. Face a Split?

Arne Swabeck


From New International, February 1936, from Tamiment Library microfilm archives
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IS THE American Federation of Labor facing a split? Prior to the Atlantic City convention, the posing of this question would have seemed ludicrous. After this memorable meeting there could be no doubt that the Federation of Gompers was shaken to its very foundation. Now, since the regular quarterly Executive Council’s sessions, held at Miami, Florida, this question has moved into the realm of practical possibility. In this brief history is reflected a growing conflict, publicly identified by two powerful sections of leading trade union officials, but expressed in terms of the living dynamics of the movement, it has ramifications that not only embrace every local union in the country but affect most vitally the working class as a whole. In this brief history we find also expressed a series of events that have moved forward with a truly American speed.

Industrial unionism vs. craft unionism is the immediate issue in dispute. But the conflict in its real nature, as will be amply borne out by future events, reaches much deeper. However, this question of organization form is the focus of attention in the higher councils and it is becoming the axis of active struggle throughout the ranks of the organization.

At the Miami Executive Council meeting, the elders who make up its overwhelming majority, lashed out savagely against the Committee for Industrial Organization, headed by John L. Lewis. They manifested their fear of the dynamic forces that the industrial union issue may set into motion and at the outset they considered this committee a rival movement in embryo form. Its dissolution was demanded. Voices were raised in favor of suspension of the unions whose representatives make up this committee. ”. . . There is a growing conviction,” declared the Council’s statement in terms even too moderate to suit the most conscious reactionaries, “that the activities of this Committee constitute a challenge to the supremacy of the American Federation of Labor and will ultimately become dual in purpose and character to the American Federation of Labor.” Seventeen hundred delegates to the United Mine Workers Convention retaliated by voting authorization to the union officers to withdraw from the Federation whenever they deem such action necessary.

This is the official record to date, briefly stated—the surface manifestations of meetings and conventions. Standing alone these may serve only as a barometer registering the currents within the movement. From its zero point of stagnation, maintained over a period of years, the mercury is rising to indicate the coming storm. There would be no sense in speculating on the exact terms of a split in the A. F. of L. We need perhaps not be concerned about this question in the sense of an immediate probability. But it is important to remember that there are already many indications pointing in this direction.

The A. F. of L. is not a centralized organization. It is a purely voluntary federation of completely autonomous international unions. Although loose in its structure it could easily be held together, as long as these unions had common aims. In the elemental forms of the movement these aims have been generally accepted to be the organization of all tradesmen on a strictly craft union basis in order to protect the interests of each separate and distinct craft, and to secure by registration such measures favorable to labor as can be obtained through parliamentary elections, by “rewarding labor’s friends and punishing labor’s enemies”. The class struggle was given no recognition. However, the reality of the pursuit of these aims turned out to be different from the pious intentions. To politically conscious workers it has already become a well-established fact that this political policy resulted in a partnership between the bureaucratic craft union leaders and the capitalist politicians in control of governmental administrations. The purely and distinctly craft union organization, on the other hand, was unable to penetrate the great industrial plants and the stubborn insistence on paper jurisdictional claims rendered these unions utterly ineffective as weapons of struggle in any serious onslaught made by the big monopoly concerns. With the recent advances of modern industry, with the deep going changes in the national economic structure, particularly as the result of the crisis, and the subsequent changes in class relations, the purely craft form of organization has become one of the weakest links in the chain in the trade union movement. It is, therefore, at this point that the pressure for a change is now the greatest. Of course, this pressure grows wholly out of the needs of the masses and it receives its dynamic impetus from the visibly changed moods of the masses.

The present trade union officialdom, even in its higher strata, is not homogeneous. Where any doubt about this fact may have existed before it should be dispelled by taking a look at the movement today. Some of these officials are now responding more readily to this pressure of the masses than others. They are compelled to set out for new aims. To the extent that they gauge more accurately the present leftward developments among the rank and file workers and draw the necessary conclusion by advocating a progressive position, this is all to their credit. With the introduction of new aims, as is now the case in the fight for industrial unionism, the very feeble powers of cohesion of the American Federation of Labor are immediately apparent. The bonds of unity are slender indeed when no clearly defined class ideology prevails. And as could be expected the present profound conflict over forms of organization—the conflict of industrial unionism vs. craft unionism—tends to create an unbridgeable gulf between the two opposing forces. These two forces are bound to develop more fundamentally in opposite directions, as the two conflicting classes really begin to exert pressure by the kind of intervention that inevitably enters into a situation of struggle between progressive and reactionary currents.

Viewed in this light, it is clear that the present conflict in the A. F. of L. is certain to increase in intensity rather than to diminish. Today it has reached only an elementary stage; yet it is unprecedented in sharpness. It should not be difficult to understand, however, that the officials who are now in control of the A. F. of L. and who have chosen to function as labor lieutenants of capitalism in deeds, if not in words, will lean ever more toward the employers and toward the capitalist state for support in their efforts to stem a progressive tide. Green, Woll and Co. have made this amply clear in recent experiences. It is also well to remember that for them to maintain the craft union form of organization is not the major objective. In theory and practice they are conscious supporters of the capitalist system; therefore, they adhere strictly to the policy of class collaboration. The craft union form of organization harmonizes with their conception of unionism. While it leaves the great mass of unskilled workers out of account and as a matter of fact makes a serious and effective organizational penetration of the mass production industries practically impossible, this corresponds very well to their policy of avoiding struggle with the employers. What could then be more natural than for them to seek, and also to find, support against the progressive movement from the employers?

The industrial union bloc, on the other hand, by raising the issue of industrial unionism, has already succeeded in setting considerable forces into motion. The encouragement given has found a magnificent response throughout the trade union movement. Indeed, the leaders of this bloc, Lewis, Howard and their official co workers, proclaim their loyalty to the capitalist system and its institutions as vociferously as do their present opponents. It appears that they make special efforts to prove themselves to be the better supporters of the Roosevelt regime. Nevertheless, the encouragement given by the very existence of this industrial union bloc to the idea of organizing the basic industries, is bound to lead to large scale struggles for organization more bitter than hitherto because these big monopoly concerns have shown no intention to yield or to compromise on this issue without a struggle. To face this struggle only a militant policy of organization will do. It is natural, therefore, that the leaders of the industrial union bloc will find it necessary to lean ever more toward these workers who are in motion, not only for support of the ideas they have advanced, but also for support in the conflict with their craft-union-conscious opponents.

It is in this sense that the two conflicting classes really begin active intervention and begin to exert serious pressure in the internal A. F. of L. conflict. The pressure comes from opposite sides and the two forces which find themselves in conflict in the A. F. of L. therefore develop in opposite directions. From the mere question of industrial unionism vs. craft unionism, important as this is, new questions and new issues from the fire of the class struggle enter in to deepen and broaden the conflict. The class struggle finds its reflection in the internal union struggles. From the purely narrow craft union movement the possibilities are opened up for a transition toward a class movement of the American workers.

From what is said above, even though I am compelled to speak directly about the leading officials who stand out as public initiators, it should be clearly understood that the real forces in the present conflict in the A. F. of L. are the basic cadres of the movement. A struggle over monumental issues, as are now involved when considering it in its full implications, could, of course, not be confined to a few top leaders. Even should these leaders succeed in finding a compromise acceptable to them, the issues would remain. In this case a realization of the objectives set forth would receive a set-back, to be sure; it would be delayed. But the conflict in the top leadership reflects the conditions, the actual needs of the movement and the resistance to the fulfillment of these needs. The conflict is an outgrowth of these conditions and not the other way around. The pressure of the needs of the masses brought into being the movement for industrial unionism, and it brought into being the industrial union bloc. Let the official leaders who are publicly identified with the bloc fail, retreat or capitulate; but they will not be able to call off the movement.

As a hypothesis this is, of course, entirely correct; but it is not very likely that these leaders will be able to find a compromise in the coming period to settle the conflict within the official circles. Indeed, this is most unlikely when considering the forces that have already been set into motion, together with the fact that these two groups of officials must of necessity turn in opposite directions for their support. An actual split in the A. F. of L. would, of course, mean two rival movements struggling for supremacy. While this may not be an immediate probability it is only natural to expect a sharpening of the present conflict all along the line.

Historically the A. F. of L., as the representative of the American trade union movement, is at its crossroads. It must decide which way to turn. It still has before it the choice of adopting the necessary changes of organizational structure, of policies and of methods or forfeiting its claims to be the representative body of trade unionism. At the present moment the struggle for industrial unionism is of paramount importance. It must be carried through to the end regardless of the hostility of the reactionary and craft conscious officials. The struggle for this objective is now taking on the forms of a living movement. This movement holds out great hopes for the future. John L. Lewis and his associates have in this instance become the public initiators of the movement. However, it can become genuinely progressive only if the revolutionists take this movement as they find it to hand and apply their ideas toward guiding its practical development. Out of this will arise new possibilities of great magnitude.

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