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American Trade Union Problems—I

Arne Swabeck


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

TRADE UNION policy presents problems of far-reaching consequence. At this moment they assume in the United States an unusual significance. The trade union movement has reached the most crucial point in its entire history. Its destiny hangs in the balance. What course will it pursue and what are its perspectives in view of the deep-going changes that are taking place in economic and political life?

Broadly speaking the main problem is the organization of the American working class into unions that will serve as effective weapons of battle against capitalist exploitation. The great majority of the workers are still unorganized. And this is particularly the case of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the basic industries and the mass production industries, who are the most exploited and consequently suffer the most from lack of organization. In turn it is precisely these workers who will now respond the most rapidly and prove their splendid fighting calibre as some of them have done during recent months. It is inconceivable that the large masses of the unorganized workers can be organized without an aggressive policy and a militant leadership fully conscious of the enormous obstacles and fully prepared to meet them. Today there is no such leadership at the head of the existing unions. Still this problem cannot be considered separate and apart from the existing unions. It is perfectly true that the rock-ribbed reactionaries now in control of all leading union positions fear the large scale influx of these healthy proletarian elements much more than they fear the aggressive onslaughts of the employers. They fear it today more than ever and in reality sabotage organization because they know by sad experience that this means a fundamental change in the composition and character of the unions. They know that it tends to throw the unions out of the former more comfortable paths and into taking chances in struggle. The problem that arises is therefore twofold in character. One is the effective organization of the large mass of unorganized workers. The other is the breaking up of the reactionary stranglehold on the existing unions in order to transform them into weapons of battle against capitalism.

At this point, however, another important question arises. Is it conceivable that the American Federation of Labor can actually be the channel through which the unorganized will be organized in the face of the violent hostility of monopoly capitalism, or must other means be created—independent unions, or another federation of independent unions?

At the present juncture the A. F. of L. is the dominant force in the trade union field. Throughout its history the many attempts made to organize independently of it, or in opposition to it, have been ill-fated, or produced pure and simple sectarian movements that were still-born. No doubt, this is not necessarily a precise criterion. Union organization during the period of peaceful growth and expansion of capitalism and during the period of its decline as a world system represent two vastly different problems. For revolutionists and trade union militants, however, no fetishism of organization is permissible. It is clear that they will not abandon the mass unions in favor of new sectarian schemes of more perfectly conceived unions that would carry no social weight and still leave the masses—all the more securely by their own withdrawal—under the domination of the reactionary A. F. of L. bureaucrats. By such methods the militants would never lead any serious struggles, which, after all, is an indispensable prerequisite if they are to raise themselves to the role of leadership in the trade union movement. The most vital problem today centers around the question of where the masses are. The next vital question is that the militants never give up the initiative in the struggle for trade union unity. A divided trade union movement only facilitates the progress of reaction and Fascism. The militants will therefore leave the responsibility for any splits that might easily ensue in the process of struggle between the forward looking forces and the reactionary hang-overs where this responsibility rightfully belongs: on the shoulders of the labor agents of capitalism. Of course, it is perfectly true that we cannot rest content with the mere affirmation: the masses of the organized workers are now in the A. F. of L., hence it is the union of the working class and will remain so in the future. Nothing could be more erroneous. On the contrary, we are concerned with the question of an historic process in which the revolutionary and militant forces play a conscious role. They must intervene and seek to influence its course and help to mark out its direction.

What will an examination of the basic factors reveal? First of all it would be incorrect to concede to the A. F. of L. the claim to a monopoly in the field of labor organization. Only too often have the Federation officials retreated in the face of employers’ offensives and insisted on the antiquated craft union forms that make the serious penetration of the basic industries impossible. Outright treachery, corruption, graft and racketeering during the whole course of their history resulted time and again in forcing large sections of workers out of the ranks of the union movement, discrediting unionism and in every instance playing directly into the hands of the capitalist enemy. Since the inception of the N.R.A. the Federation unions have experienced a stormy revival and growth. In so far as their place in society is concerned their position is today very much different from what existed before. Large masses came to these unions because they were the dominant unions, because there was no other force in the field really capable of building organization, but also in some respects due to the fact that these unions were considered respectable by the bourgeoisie and enjoyed the benefits of the stimulus given by the N.R.A. labor section. Although the reasons for this stimulus, almost exclusively benefitting the A. F. of L. unions, was intended to permit their expansion only in order to prevent more militant organization and action, it was entirely correct to maintain the position that they must be the main point of concentration by the militants. The Stalinists, whose policy tried to fly in the face of this process of revival and growth, found themselves condemned to a futile existence, completely isolated from the actual life of the movement and unable to influence its course. The A. F. of L. bureaucracy could continue its policies unchallenged, or at least without any serious opposition.

The unions organized recently independently of the A. F. of L. or in opposition to it, did not show greater vitality or growth during this period. The “red” unions of the T.U.U.L. remained as could be expected, mere caricature organizations. In September 1932, the Progressive Miners of America came into existence, the major part of the Illinois district splitting off from the parent body. It emerged at a moment when the U.M.W. had been reduced to a mere shell of its former self, when the Lewis machine in control of the organization had become thoroughly discredited, and several rebellious movements were in the making. Under these conditions the P.M.A. undoubtedly had the opportunity to become the central pole of attraction, unite the rebellious sections and build an effective national organization. But it quickly fell into the hands of a new set of bureaucrats. The Left wing was weak and the organization remained confined to a certain part of the Illinois territory; gradually, it lost some of its earlier and justified gains. Other comparisons between A. F. of L. and independent unions during recent times would prove equally illuminating.

The reactionary bureaucracy, headed by Wm. Green, in order to prove more effectively that it merits the confidence and support of the government and its N.R.A. machinery is now launching an onslaught against the reactionary and the militant unionists. In this respect the independent unions have not pursued an essentially different policy. The leadership of the P.M.A. went out of its way to appear just as respectable to the bourgeoisie and attacked the militants in the union. While the A. F. of L. has taken no real steps to make good its convention decision for an industrial union in the automobile industry, the Mechanics Educational Society, also despite its own convention decision of last year, is even more distinctly a craft union in form and more craft conscious in its approach to organization. It would be false to present the issue at this time in the sense of the one union against the other. The question of policy and leadership is much more to the point. In essence, it is a question of the influence exerted upon the economic organizations of the workers by the revolutionary and militant wing.

Actual leadership and formulation of policy is today still in the hands of Green and Company. Thanks to them the objectives of union recognition are being diverted from the field of struggle through the organized power of the workers, over to simple reliance on the governmental machinery of labor relations and arbitration. Yet it is precisely by this method that the bureaucrats have lost practically every major decision and every gain made in organization. Outstanding is the automobile agreement of last spring which circumvented the strike for union recognition and placed all power of decision in the hands of the Automobile Labor Board. Dating from the time of this treacherous agreement the federal unions in this industry have been reduced gradually to a mere skeleton. Their recent withdrawal from collaboration with the board has not stopped the process of disintegration and demoralization. In the steel industry the reactionary gang of Green and Co. similarly succeeded in diverting the strike movement of last summer for union recognition, for the sake of the National Steel Labor Relations Board. It has made some decisions. Others were made before. All of them, including the famous Weirton case, now keep glib-tongued lawyers busy in the courts with the consequent penalty of set-backs and demoralization to the Union. In similar fashion runs the record through the Budd, Harriman, National Lock, Houde and many other cases. There are at this moment a total of over 200 such cases in the U. S. courts, and there they might as well rest so far as union progress is concerned. Undoubtedly this record will also serve as a means of disabusing the workers of any faith that they might still have in these labor boards. The hundreds of thousands of new recruits, who sought the unions as instruments of struggle for the redress of their grievances, cannot remain satisfied with such results. They are impatient and press forward, set into motion by economic necessity.

The strike wave in the latter part of 1933 was characterized by the one common objective of enforcement of the N.R.A. collective bargaining provisions. It spread easily, gaining momentum from the impulse given by Section 7a and did not encounter very stiff resistance. In the second strike wave of last year the picture had changed considerably. While the objective remained union recognition, economic demands began to enter, introducing certain elements of an offensive character. Most outstanding, however, was the fact that in these strikes the workers placed much less reliance in the magic powers which they had formerly attributed to Section 7a. They found the governmental Labor Board machinery an encumbrance to circumvent their aims and began to look upon it with considerable skepticism as they met the most violent onslaughts of courts, police and military forces in practically every strike. A third strike wave is bound to unloose a veritable torrent of struggle very soon. It is certain that the issues will become much more sharply defined and the clashes consequently more violent in character. Possibilities of conciliation or of any actual redress from the established labor boards will diminish accordingly. Is it not reasonable to assume that in this process the self-complacent bureaucrats, who shrink from the struggle in fear of its consequences, will carry their policy of betrayal to its ultimate conclusion. That will mean to outlaw strikes, and eventually to expel unions which insist on using the strike weapon. Almost every day the A. F. of L. bureaucracy affirms its ardent desire to cooperate, in an industrial truce, a no strike policy. But monopoly capitalism would not be inclined to accept a truce policy that does not carry with it a complete union surrender. It is not at all inclined to adopt a policy of union recognition in its real sense of the consummation of stable union contracts. Moreover, in view of the disorganization of capitalist economy, the constantly rising cost of living and the intensified exploitation of the workers, stable union contracts have lost all meaning. The owners of monopoly capital are perhaps more than ever determined to fight it out. Of course, the workers cannot give up the strike weapon, nor any other effective means of struggle. Hence, from the outlawing of strikes either outright expulsions will ensue or the working masses concerned—as a result of these intolerable conditions—will be forced to form independent unions. In other words the policy of the bureaucrats can easily lead to splits and the formation of new unions.

What will the revolutionary party do in such a situation? Will it accept the appellation and condemnation of dual unionism thrust upon these independent unions by Green and Co. and repeated by the Lovestoneites in the miserable fashion so characteristic of them? Of course not. It will support these unions in their efforts and struggles and not adhere to any such degenerate fetishism of organization.

Under the conditions of decline of capitalism as a world system and the greater limitations imposed on the concessions it can give, the trade unions can penetrate the large shops, mines and mills of the basic industries only through fierce struggle. This is a job for the revolutionary and militant trade unionists. Only their forces can give the inspiration that will furnish a rallying point; only they can work out the policies and tactics that can meet effectively the tremendous obstacles and actually give leadership in class battles. At the time of the awakening of new class strata, such as we are now facing, it is imperative that the revolutionists and militants put themselves at the head of every upward-surging movement of the masses, stimulate the struggle, sharpen it, and at the same time harmonize their tactics with the strategy of the revolutionary movement as a whole. Organization of the unorganized in the basic industries can be achieved only by struggle at every step. How then will the militants proceed in regard to the question of the A. F. of L. or the independent unions, bearing in mind the very great possibilities of the officials of the former outlawing strikes, actually preventing organization and even driving whole unions to take independent action? For that we have no ready made formulae and cannot have any. Policy and tactics in this respect must be in harmony with the objective conditions as well as with the dialectics of the movement itself. Policy and tactics must be in harmony with the existing relation of forces. They must consider the question of advantage in the class struggle.

It is reasonable to assume that wherever possible and practicable the militants will bend all efforts to exert their influence on the A. F. of L. unions existing, even if only in skeleton form, in these industries, with the aim of using them as instruments of organization and struggle. They will then settle the inevitable conflict with the reactionaries as it develops concretely. In other cases it may as likely be necessary to initiate this organization through independent industrial unions, preserving the right to decide upon affiliation as the question arises or to decide upon a combination with other independent unions should the bureaucrats by their policy force deep-going splits in the A. F. of L. It would be foolish to lay down bars against independent union organization. A number of new unions are now arising in this manner, entirely independent of the A. F. of L. What must be insisted upon is that they be real unions; that they be elementary and basic organs of working class defense against capitalist aggression and that the revolutionists and the militants have as their objective the influencing of their course in order to gain further advantages in the class struggle.

For the trade union movement as a whole it is unquestionably true that its very existence as a means of defense of the interests of the working class can be maintained only in violent clashes with the capitalist aggressor. To the same extent that the corrupt officials betray these interests the temper of the rank and file will rise and give a powerful impulse to the demands for action and for militant leadership. The clashes will sometimes tend to take on the character of civil war. This will facilitate the task of infusing the unions with the spirit and policy of the class struggle and the development of a militant leadership in accord therewith. Inevitably these clashes will also facilitate the development of political consciousness of the masses in the trade unions. Political consciousness, however, does not follow as a mechanical process nor does it depend solely on the external circumstances. It requires the active intervention of the revolutionary party. We repeat: the task of the organization of the unorganized and the task of transforming the existing unions into weapons of battle against capitalism are indissolubly bound together.

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