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American Trade Union Problems—II

Arne Swabeck


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

ONE OF THE most outstanding characteristics of the trade union problem in the present period of advancing contradictions inherent in the process of capitalist decline is its ever more marked political aspects. Failure to give full recognition to these peculiar aspects will render any attempt at a solution worse than futile. I am referring in this respect not only to the generally abstract question of the extent to which the trade unions can be made instruments of the workers’ struggle for power, but much more directly to the every-day questions of organization, of obtaining union recognition and of the struggle for economic demands. Essentially these are today political problems reaching beyond the limits of mere trade union experience. An approach to a solution must therefore have as its starting point the generalization of all working class experience. In other words, it is necessary to place considerable emphasis on the fact that only the weapons from the arsenal of Marxism will prove equal to the requirements of correct trade union policy. It is in this sense that we visualize the role of the workers’ revolutionary party.

Naturally we start from the proposition that the revolutionary party must raise itself to the role of leader of the working class in all its struggles without exception and consequently in the trade union field. It must seek to influence the course of the economic organizations of the workers and win their confidence. Its program of action must be realistically conceived, proceed from the concrete issues of the movement as they arise, and it must be based at all times upon considerations of advantage in the class struggle. But to attain success in this practical work it is necessary also that the methods of the party correspond to the nature and problems of the unions.

Let us observe for a moment the trade union movement in this practical aspect. We will notice immediately the outstanding political character taken on by all of the struggles it engages in. Most of the important issues that arise become distinctly class issues. The trade union movement itself today cuts across the old barriers of craft and skill. It is in the process of becoming transformed from a craft movement to a class movement. Every step in organization, every demand made and every strike comes into direct connection with the role and the function of the political state. The forms of this connection may vary but the substance remains the same. Most of these issues present themselves within the general framework of the N.R.A. and its auxiliary provisions. Representatives of the government enter into practically all negotiations be they for the more fundamental objective of union recognition or questions of wages and working conditions. Generally speaking, the entry takes place through the governmental machinery of conciliation and arbitration—a relationship that exists today on a voluntary basis but tomorrow may become compulsory. The Roosevelt automobile agreement of last year, the acceptance by the steel workers’ union, also last year, of the National Steel Labor Relations Board instead of a strike, and the settlement of the national textile strike on the basis of the Winant report are good examples in this respect. And by way of parenthetic remark it should be noted that each one of them had serious retrogressive consequences to the trade union movement. In numerous instances the issues of labor conflicts enter the capitalist courts or become sharpened by anti-union injunctions not to mention the various forms of anti-labor legislation. The strikes of today practically in every instance meet the intervention of police or military forces, often taking on the character of civil war on a small scale.

Similarly within the trade union movement these class issues are ever more sharply reflected in the division between the rank and file working class forces and the capitalist agents that make up the leadership. There is the example of the steel workers’ union. The organization of this basic industry is a key question to the whole of the labor movement. Without steel being organized it is inconceivable that the trade unions can penetrate seriously or become rooted in the other basic industries, and without that there will be no serious trade union movement today. But a campaign of organization of the steel workers is a first class political question in the sense that it meets not only the ruthless resistance of the steel trust but also runs into conflict with the political state. The capitalist agents in the union leadership have had no intention of risking such a struggle and they have thereby come into violent conflict with the rank and file membership, the first stage of which has already led to wholesale expulsions of numerous union locals in the most important steel mills. This, of course, is only one of the examples of what is to come in similar situations that will inevitably arise. Elsewhere in the trade union field there are already large-scale insurgent movements in the making. Throughout there is a general sharpening distinction between the reactionaries in control of the union leaderships and the militant section of the membership. The political issues of the class struggle begin to find their expression within the unions in the class division between the rank and file workers and the capitalist agents in the official leadership. It can be assumed with fairly reasonable certainty that as the insurgent movements reach larger proportions, become more definite and distinct and enter into strikes that may be outlawed by the official leadership or find themselves outside the official fold by expulsion, the forces of coercion of the political state will be on the side of the capitalist agents against the insurgents.

Basically the present trends toward insurgent movements represent an unconscious groping on the part of the working masses that have flowed into the conservative unions for a means of transforming them into weapons of battle against capitalist exploitation. In almost every recent strike there have been some elements of this insurgency taking on varying forms and reaching varying degrees of development. It is a well known fact that in the San Francisco general strike and in the national textile strike only the persistent demands from the rank and file and its enormous pressure compelled action by the union leaders. In the most recent New York strike against an injunction issued to restrain the teamsters’ union and the longshoremen’s union from interfering with non-union trucking on the waterfront, the rank and file truck drivers went entirely over the heads of their official leaders and struck to the last man. The situation in the steel workers’ union is a part of this chain of development but representing a more advanced stage, not yet toward the definite crystallization of a progressive movement, but in the sense of preventive measures already taken by the reactionary officials to crush it in its infancy. Unquestionably, this particular instance shows so far the most completed negative aspect in the struggle of the conflicting currents, whereas the Minneapolis and Toledo strikes still hold the record of positive gains. In the former a conscious Left wing leadership took hold of a local A. F. of L. union, built it into a powerful force, and prepared it for the impending struggle to compel recognition from the employers. Since the strike this leadership has consolidated its gains and successfully built up a progressive movement that is now in the process of expanding over several cities in the northwestern states. In Toledo the excellent cooperation of the local Unemployed Leagues on the picket lines set an example of magnificent struggle and laid the basis for a conscious progressive movement in the city. On a whole there are enormous potentialities hidden below the surface in the more or less definite trends toward the crystallization of a distinctly progressive movement out of these marked elements of insurgency. But the consciousness and firm political direction necessary to give them organized form, class content and a truly nationally coordinated and disciplined character is still lacking. To invest the present rather formless and spontaneous movement with these qualities is the particular task of the revolutionary party.

* * * *

When taking up in earnest the problems that arise in the creation of a national progressive movement in the trade unions, lessons of the past will have inestimable value. It is not a new task that we are facing; there have been such movements before, representing on the whole a rather checkered career; but the conditions under which we face it have altered in several fundamental respects. Nevertheless much can be learned from the positive as well as from the negative sides of these past movements. Most outstanding in this respect is the history of the Trade Union Educational League, which later became the Trade Union Unity League. In the change of name from the T.U.E.L. to T.U.U.L., with the latter slated to pass into the limbo of forgotten language, is embodied the completion of an historical cycle traversed by a movement from its magnificent inception, through a tragic debacle, and back to its original form but sapped of all its revolutionary and progressive qualities and appearing in this form on a much lower plane.

The T.U.E.L. arose out of the great labor struggles of the early post-war period and at a time when the rank and file trade union membership chafed under the many bitter disappointments from the class collaboration policies of the fossilized leadership of Gompers. When it appeared on the scene it immediately electrified the scattered groupings of militants, fired them with the zeal of crusaders and became a veritable nightmare to the dynasty of Samuel Gompers. Together with the crown prince, Matthew Woll, old Sammy went out of his way to denounce and castigate the T.U.E.L. and all its supporters. But the warm response it received from the broad layers of the trade union movement was so overwhelming that it developed rapidly on a national scale into a powerful instrument for the advancement of progressive policies and measures. Its purpose was set forth from the beginning in unmistakable terms: namely, to put an end to all the preceding disastrous secession from the trade unions of the revolutionary and progressive forces, and to turn their attention to the task of penetrating the broad labor movement with their ideas and slogans for action. Editorially the T.U.E.L. official organ, Labor Herald, in arguing against the whole course of the I.W.W., said in its April 1922 issue: “Only those will be surprised who still think that it is a ’revolutionary’ act to draw a handful of militant workers outside of the masses, unite them on a dogma, and call it a revolutionary union. It is the logical conclusion of the counterrevolutionary tactics of the past. For the future the hope of the revolutionary workers lies in the mass organizations, the old trade unions, the organized labor movement of America.“

There could be no mistake about this statement of purpose of the T.U.E.L., and only the greatest tribute could adequately describe its effective campaign for the slogan of amalgamation of the trade unions. It won the Chicago Federation of Labor, at that time the most powerful central labor body in the country, for this slogan, and the federation became a spearhead in the drive for industrial unionism. At the second conference of the T.U.E.L., held in September 1923, it was possible to report that eight international unions, fourteen state federations of labor and numerous central labor bodies had declared for amalgamation. In addition to this achievement of building up sentiment for progressive measures, the T.U.E.L. was no small factor in strengthening several strikes conducted in resistance to the employers’ open shop campaign. But it suffered its first setback in its ill-advised labor party slogan and in the less fortunate results growing out of the formation of the Federated Farmer-Labor Party. From then on the decline set in. As the T.U.E.L. became more revolutionary in phraseology, it became less revolutionary in content in the sense of losing its valuable contacts with the trade union movement. By July 1924, it accepted the proletarian dictatorship in its program. The broad Left wing became converted into a narrow Left wing. It appeared henceforth only one step removed from the policy of so-called revolutionary unions which followed a few years later as a complete negation of everything the T.U.E.L. had previously stood for, and resulted in the demoralization and destruction of the Left wing. The militants who had followed it deserted the mass unions to “unite on a dogma, and call it a revolutionary union”.

Earl Browder, the theoretical exponent of this “brilliant” new strategy, now discovered that it had been all wrong to work with the trade union progressives. In greeting the Conference for Progressive Labor Action, which arose after the T.U.E.L. had deserted the field, he declared: “We understand more fully today than four years ago, the treacherous role of the ’progressives’ as the bearers of social reformism even into the ranks of the Left wing workers themselves. We will no longer waste our energies and time in disastrous attempts to work with these fake progressives. . . . Today the workers must be prepared for the actual organization of revolutionary trade unions separate from and fighting against the class-collaborationist, social reformist A. F. of L., organizationally and politically.” (Labor Unity, March 1929.) From the side of the Stalinist party, where Browder had equally become the celebrated theoretician, this policy was made no less clear, but remained no less false. Its seventh convention thesis, in 1930, conveys the illuminating information that: “It has been a mistake on our part that we did not sooner clearly analyze and characterize the open Fascism of the American Federation of Labor. . . . The party can win the masses for its political leadership only by leading them in their economic struggles; and only on the basis of the Trade Union Unity League will the party be able to assume the leadership of these struggles.“

But alas, the working masses did not respond to this “perfect” union structure. As could be expected, they were not interested in uniting on a dogma, and call it a revolutionary union. The Stalinist quack doctors had completed the conversion of a once glorious Left wing movement into sectarian auxiliaries of the party for momentary aims which prevented them from becoming genuine mass organizations. These unfortunate unions were kept in leading strings, dictated to by the party from above, and consequently by all semblance of trade union democracy and free development was stifled and crushed. They remained isolated and unable to lead any serious struggles. Soon, however, this perfidious policy, devoid of Marxism, found its refutation in the process of life. The A. F. of L. unions experienced their recent stormy growth and development, and history made a mockery of the revolutionary union theory. The zig-zag cycle is now being completed. The Stalinists are attempting to revert to the original form of the Left wing movement; but not at all to its original content. The revolutionary policy is lacking. The substitution in its place of an exclusive A. F. of L. orientation and the proscription of all that Wm. Green and Co. labels as dual unionism, together with the brand new turn for a labor party, will by the very logic of politics become a cover for an abject bowing down before this trade union bureaucracy. From this distinctly Rightward turn greater debacles and greater demoralization will ensue. Thus, what stands out preeminently in the lessons of the T.U.E.L., verified by history, is the degeneration and falsity of party policy.

In this respect the history of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action presents a distinct contrast. Programmatically this progressive movement had much in common with the T.U.E.L. during its best days, although it lacked some of the spirited qualities and clear-cut objectives of the predecessor. Above all, however, its main weakness must be sought in the fact that it lacked the necessary support and direction of a workers’ political party. It arose out of the need for a rallying center for the militant trade unionists after the T.U.E.L. had deserted the basic labor movement. While the C.P.L.A. attempted to confine itself exclusively to the trade union field, there was no doubt of its general purpose. Its program included struggle for a number of elementary demands but laid emphasis on labor’s goal of a social order controlled by the workers. It asserted the principle that labor must be international in its spirit and activities. Although declaring for a labor party, the C.P.L.A. sought to cooperate politically with the two major workers’ parties in existence, the C.P. and the S.P. Leaning at the outset considerably in the direction of the latter it soon began to move Leftward to a critical position of the S.P., but found cooperation with the C.P. and its policy of “Red” unions equally impossible. The C.P.L.A. was therefore driven to the logical conclusion of its position, to endeavor to build a workers’ political party. Out of it grew the American Workers party. But this also marked the end of the brief history of the C.P.L.A., and after that the validity of the all important lesson, that the conscious political direction of a workers’ revolutionary party is the first prerequisite for building a progressive movement in the trade unions, remains doubly reinforced.

* * * *

Since the reorganization of American national economy, exemplified by the N.R.A., the trade union movement has passed through two strike waves. The second showed characteristics distinctly different from the first. A new strike wave, more explosive in character, is inevitable, and due to bring out yet greater differences. Far more than before, all the pressing questions of policy, methods, tactics and structure will come to a head. In general the transformation of the unions to meet the requirements of the new conditions has followed much more slowly than the changes in national economy. This process of transformation is only about to pass its first stage characterized by stormy growth of the movement, changing its composition from a craft basis toward a mass basis and inaugurating the first changes in its position in relation to the dominant capitalist forces and the capitalist state. In the next stage this process will necessarily be vastly accelerated, bringing in its wake also the inevitable convulsions, resulting very likely in splits by expulsions or by secessions characteristic of the decomposition attendant upon the birth pangs of a new union structure, resting on a new theoretical and tactical foundation in accordance with the new requirements. The expulsions in the steel workers’ union are so far only an indication. We are not at this moment taking into account the question whether this process will remain within the framework of the A. F. of L. or whether it will reach outside in the formation of independent unions. That cannot yet be precisely estimated. Important however, is the fact that the A. F. of L. today embraces the American trade union movement and it is still the center of gravity. While the elements of decomposition may very well in the future lead to the road of independent unionism, it should be remembered that the A. F. of L. bureaucracy has not at all the powerful political apparatus for maintaining itself in perpetual control comparable, for instance, to what has been the case in European countries. Trade union unity is today accomplished primarily within the A. F. of L.; but for us the question of unity or splits is subordinated to political policy and not determined by what Wm. Green deigns to recognize or to label dual unionism. This is the only way for revolutionists to pose this question. A correct solution to the problems that are involved presupposes the existence of the indispensable instrument, directly connected with and an intimate part of the trade unions—a progressive movement, organized nationally, interlocking from industry to industry and from union to union. That is the basis for the fight for a class struggle policy and leadership in the trade-union movement. But it is necessary to reiterate that the revolutionary party must play a conscious role in its development. This the Workers party has accepted as one of its foremost tasks.

Our beginning we shall make from the simple and concrete issues as they exist today. It is possible at this point to mention specifically: industrial unionism; an aggressive policy of organization of the unorganized; dependence upon the organized power of the workers rather than upon the governmental labor boards; promotion of labor solidarity and struggle against the various forms of vigilante movements; trade union democracy and class struggle policies. The fact that the broad masses are in motion makes a broad progressive movement both necessary and feasible. The beginning made from Minneapolis in the organization of the progressive unity conference of the northwestern states may serve as a good example on a small scale and as an initial beginning. In the further organization and development, we shall enter into agreements with progressive elements for the specific objectives set, and with the pledge to carry them out in common action.

In the trade unions the party acts through its fraction. Under the existing conditions it is clear that the fraction is obliged not to unfurl the revolutionary banner prematurely. While it must translate the party’s program into the language of the trade unionists in order to lead them forward more surely, it is compelled to adapt its methods and its tactics to the actual situation at hand. But the party organization as a whole decides what forms of adaptation are permissible and necessary. The more difficult the conditions for the carrying out of the revolutionary work in the trade unions, the more strictly systematic should be the party control of its fraction. Preserving at all times its own political independence, the party as such will act with its banner unfurled, say everything that is required by the revolutionary objectives, in its press and in its meetings, and name things by their right name. The problems of the trade union movement can never be separated or isolated from the general political situation, and they must be placed by the party in indissoluble connection with the political struggle of the working class.

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