From Fourth International, Vol. II No. 4, May 1941, pp. 103–5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
We can celebrate May Day this year with renewed faith in the inexhaustible militancy of the American working class. With what physical courage and steadfastness of purpose have the workers stormed the Bastilles of Ford and Bethlehem Steel! How firmly they stood up against the Knox-Knudsen order to return to work at Allis-Chalmers! The coal miners have given their toll of bi-yearly martyred dead without flinching. But we have learned over more than sixty years of union miners to expect that of them; whereas not veterans but men and women completely new to unionism have in these last weeks fearlessly faced company thugs and government riot sticks and gas at International Harvester, Lackawanna, Bethlehem, Johnstown, Dearborn. Yes, we certainly can celebrate this May Day: once again it has been demonstrated that there is no militancy on earth superior to that of the American working class.
We are quite aware of the present limitations of that militancy. It is still directed at achieving immediate objectives and not revolutionary objectives. It is a militancy which must not be confused with class consciousness. In their minds most of the workers involved in these class battles fight without conceiving of themselves as a class confronting the ruling class and its state. They think of themselves as fighting this particular boss, or the bosses in this particular industry; and they do not as a rule yet add up the numerous instances of government strikebreaking into a comprehensive generalization of the class nature of the capitalist state.
But there is small comfort in this for the ruling class. Activity generally precedes consciousness. “In the beginning was the deed.” The medieval peasant burned the lord’s manor long before he had a glimmer of the conception of class against class. It was in the course of its activity on behalf of its immediate needs – land, bread, peace – that the Russian people finally took the revolutionary road to fill those needs. To the many-millioned masses in any country the proletarian revolution can never be a body of theory learned in advance; they find their way to it, with the help of a small vanguard, because it is the only way to solve their problems. And so it will be in America.
We can predict with certainty, even limiting ourselves to the proofs of the last few weeks of strike battles, that as their political consciousness develops out of their needs and struggles, the American workers will go far indeed. European observers, both bourgeois and proletarian, have long noted with amazement the fighting spirit of the American working class and the atmosphere of violence which envelopes all our economic struggles. Except in periods of the full tide of revolution, such militancy and physical clashes have been extremely rare in Europe. Since the European bourgeoisie has been no less provocative of violence than the American ruling class, it is fair to assume that the American proletariat’s militancy is, at least in large part, the explanation for the strike battles here which have so startled European observers. When this fighting spirit is harnessed to revolutionary objectives, nothing will stop it!
The present objectives of the workers are on the economic and not on the political level. They seek to take advantage of the boom in industry, created by the war, to make new gains. To get better wages and working conditions, particularly seniority and grievance machinery. To strengthen their unions against the day when, with the end of the war boom, the employers will seek to cut down wages and worsen conditions of labor. To organize the unorganized, both in their own industry and also in hitherto unorganized industries, so that the trade union movement will be that much strengthened. The rising cost of living constantly spurs them on to further wage demands upon the employers. This, in sum, is what the workers conceive themselves to be fighting for at this point.
Does some reader sigh at the limitedness of these objectives? Understand, then, that the workers are fighting for security: for an assured job without fear of dismissal, for a decent living for their families. Yes, in fighting for these, the workers are fighting for a better world. Victory will not give them a better world, because the objectives they are fighting for are insufficient? Of course. But then the workers, bringing with them what they have learned in their previous battles, will go on to fight for other demands which at that point seem to represent security. But they will fight, of that we can be certain. And they will learn in each fight. And in the end it will become plain to them that security will be theirs only through the conquest of power. And they will conquer it, with the same courage and steadfastness of purpose with which they shut down Ford and Bethlehem Steel.
A further assurance for the revolutionary future is provided by the fact that the militancy of the workers is still more remarkable in the face of the war preparations and the “national defense” ballyhoo. The mass of workers have not yet freed themselves of basic illusions about the nature of the state. They are patriots. Seeing as yet no other way out of this bloody morass, they accept Roosevelt’s war policy. And yet! And yet! Unmoved by the propaganda of Roosevelt and his lieutenants both in and out of the labor movement, the workers have brushed aside the “national defense” buncombe and pursued their objectives. They have refused to be befuddled out of their gains. The spectacle of the war profiteering of the employers has hardened the masses in their resolve to have their way. Their illusions about Roosevelt and the capitalist state continue to exist in their consciousness side by side with their contempt for the “national defense” attacks against the strikes. But the historian of the future will undoubtedly record the workers’ refusal to capitulate to the patriotic propaganda as the beginning of a new stage in the political consciousness of the American workers. That is the new and growing element in their consciousness; the rest is inherited from the past.
The workers deserve all the more credit for their victories because they won those battles with very little assistance from the official trade union leadership. This fact deserves the utmost attention. The growing gap between the rank and file unionists and the officials is a harbinger of the future, when the gap between masses and leaders will be closed by ousting the present leadership and replacing it with leaders akin in spirit to the workers at their best. With this as our perspective, the behavior of the trade union officialdom should be minutely examined.
The role of the dominant group in the AFL Executive Council in the strike wave can be summed up in a word: strikebreaking. To Ford, to International Harvester, to Allis-Chalmers, the Council lent the AFL label as a fig-leaf for company thugs. The President of the AFL appeared in the press purely as a denouncer of “defense strikes.” Matthew Woll has, if that is possible, outdone Green and, for that matter, outdone even most of the poll-tax Congressmen: “Mr. Woll recalled the fact that Hitler in Mein Kampf said he would nullify America’s war efforts by inciting strikes.” (AFL Weekly News Service, April 8) Apart from their strikebreaking efforts, Green, Woll, Hutcheson and their kind have been making “gains for labor” not by organizing workers but by coming to agreements with employers and the government. The closed shop in constructing the new army camps is an. example. The worker is “organized” purely by the compulsion of his need for the job; the unions of the AFL appear to him as an alien force, backed by government and employers. The reactionary role of the AFL bureaucracy grows more starkly apparent every day. That means, however, that the bureaucracy loses more and more ground under its feet. Yesterday it derived its strength from the most privileged sections of the workers, especially the building trades workers. But those workers, their ranks swelled by the new elements dragooned into the crafts on the army construction jobs, are today storing up deep wells of social hatred against the bureaucracy which now does nothing for them and much against them. Under the pressure of the workers a new division is beginning to form within the bureaucracy itself. Tobin of the Teamsters, Flore of the Hotel & Restaurant Workers, do not speak up against their colleagues on the Executive Council, but the unions they represent do not follow the Council’s policy. The Teamsters are now the biggest and most powerful AFL affiliate; developing as a semi-industrial union, based on the genuinely proletarian over-the-road driver and the warehouseman. The food workers now have a membership of 200,000, growing wherever the basic trade unions grow. In short, the only real growth in the AFL is in those unions friendly to the CIO. Thus the Green-Woll-Hutcheson leadership of the AFL Executive Council is losing ground precisely because of its reactionary policy.
If the contribution of the AFL bureaucracy to the recent strike wave was chiefly strike-breaking, what was the role of the CIO top leadership? Certain facts in the recent strikes stand out and cannot be explained away. The old United Mine Workers bureaucracy – Philip Murray, John L. Lewis, Van Bittner, Widman, John Owens, etc. – and its newer lieutenants in steel and auto gave little help to the workers in conducting their strikes. That is glaringly apparent in the Ford shutdown, where the workers in the plant confronted the top officials with the accomplished fact of a sit-down strike and the officials had to call the workers out of the plant and declare an official strike; likewise the auto barricades which kept the plant closed were the workers’ creation, not the officials’. Less glaring, the same thing happened in Lackawanna and Bethlehem, where the picket lines were left to shift for themselves while the officials thought only of pulling wires in Washington. The whole business is symbolized by the spectacle of Philip Murray’s trip to Detroit. He did not address the Ford strikers, nor even the direct representatives of the strikers. He found time only for dickering with Harry Bennett. That the way to get Bennett to yield was to heighten the fighting spirit of the strikers – that is a way alien to Murray and his kind. More akin to him is the role of a mediator standing between strikers and employers.
A crucial problem in the Ford and Bethlehem strikes was the winning of the Negro workers. What was needed here was an authoritative stand by the CIO, pledging its full support to the Negro’s fight for jobs in the war industries. That pledge was not forthcoming. Murray stood pat on the position that the CIO did not discriminate against Negro members. He and the other CIO tops would go no further: because to launch a fight for equality of the races in the war industries has political ramifications of the broadest character: the fight against Jim Crow in the army and government civil service, etc. The refusal of the CIO leadership to broaden its support of the Negro could have had dangerous consequences. Fortunately the sheer sweep of the Ford strike drew the Negro workers in as union members. In Lackawanna, the Negro workers at Bethlehem assumed the most militant and decisive role in winning the strike.
No less than the AFL leaders, the CIO leaders are buttressing the government strikebreaking machinery. They sit in the Office of Production Management and the National Mediation Board. Grotesque contradictions accumulate: Murray challenges the Knox-Knudsen order to the Allis-Chalmers strikers to return to work, but says nothing about the ruling of the National Mediation Board requiring all strikers to return to work while their grievances are still unsettled. John L. Lewis bitingly indicts this ruling of the Mediation Board; but it is plain that his chief lieutenants, Murray and Kennedy, joined the Board with his consent. Privately and not so privately, Hillman is considered a traitor to labor in CIO circles; yet publicly the CIO leaders honor him as a great “labor statesman.” One leg in the labor movement, the other in the government, i.e., in the camp of the bourgeoisie – that is the ungainly position of the CIO leadership.
The extent to which they have capitulated to the pressure of the enemy class is apparent in the Ford and Bethlehem settlements. Unlike the 1937 settlements with Chrysler and General Motors, the present settlements did not include written contracts, wage and seniority clauses, etc. Why not? The trade unions are stronger today than in 1937. The Bethlehem and Ford strikes were at least as powerful in effectiveness as those in Chrysler and General Motors. The difference is that the pressure of the government today was so much stronger than in 1937. But the workers were ready and able to resist that pressure. It was the leadership that caved in.
Fortunately for the future of the American working class, the CIO top leadership has an extremely precarious grip on the new industrial unions in steel, auto, rubber, aircraft, aluminum, packinghouse. Lewis and Murray’s lieutenants in these unions perch uneasily in their seats, as was indicated in the recent elections in the UAW locals, where many of them lost their posts or just skinned through. It took many decades of capitalist stability for the United Mine Workers bureaucracy to get its hold; the present epoch of capitalist crisis and war, of vast changes in the psychology of the workers, are not conducive to bureaucratization. More accurately, events drive the CIO leadership to the most undemocratic forms of rule – they did not dare permit the Ford workers to have a strike committee of their own! – but without assurance of success. The instability of the Murray-Lewis control over the new CIO unions is one of the most important factors for an understanding of the recent strike battles and the coming struggles.
Unquestionably the government and the employers were under the impression that the CIO leadership had a more assured control of the unions, and did not expect that the demands of the workers would result in great strikes. In this sense the government and the employers were caught off guard. Now they know better; if the workers learned much from the recent battles, so did the enemy. The “cooling off” and return-to-work rulings of the National Mediation Board are but the first fruits of the reorientation of the capitalists.
It must be said plainly, therefore, that in the next strike wave the workers will not surmount so easily the obstacles placed in their way. They must not go into battle this time dragging their leaders behind them. As the enemy is reorienting, so must the workers.
These, it appears to us, are the present tasks of the workers:
We formulate these tasks of the trade unions for the coming period in no arbitrary spirit. These tasks are only those most obviously indicated by the actual situation. The workers are already groping toward formulating these tasks and carrying them out. If we can speed the process, we shall have done our work. That, indeed, is the task of the revolutionary party: To help the workers march faster and without faltering toward the goal of supreme power and social security along the road of class struggle they are travelling today.
Last updated on 27 February 2016