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Fourth International, February 1946


Review of the Month

The Upsurge of American Labor


From Fourth International, February 1946, Vol.7 No.2, pp.35-37.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


The general leftward swing of the masses throughout the world, exemplified in the insurgent movements on the European continent, the Labor Party victory in Britain and the outbreak of national and civil wars in the Far East, is revealing itself today in the very home of the most powerful imperialism of world history, the United States. This country is now the scene of a historic labor upsurge.

The present strike wave, still gathering momentum, has already gone beyond the strike waves of the NRA period and the birth of the CIO, from the point of view of its extensiveness, cohesiveness and concentrated character. For a proper comparison to the present labor revolt, one would have to go back to 1919 and the strike wave that enveloped this country in the post-war period after the First World War. But even this comparison is wholly inadequate. The comparative statistics of man-days lost and number of workers involved are in and of themselves completely deceptive. They do not begin to tell the real story. They do not begin to reveal the profound changes which have been wrought in America in the last 25 years.

The labor upsurge of 1919 was very extensive and aroused millions to struggle and to great militancy. But the labor movement of those days, despite the influx during the war of tens of thousands of industrial workers, was dominated by the old craft unions and its reactionary, narrow minded top hierarchy. The mass industries remained by and large unorganized. Despite the rank and file militancy, the reactionary craft-ridden leadership of the AFL dominated the mass movement. The strike wave therefore took on the character of a chaotic, disorganized, poorly-led or scarcely-led-at-all movement. The initiative, at all major stages, remained with the industrialists who finally succeeded in crushing the strike movement and in imposing the rule of the open shop in the country’s major industries.

The present strike wave is unfolding on an entirely different basis. It rests on the solid achievements and victories of labor of the last twelve years; the early struggles of the NRA period which forged a new union leadership in the mass production industries; the crushing of the resistance of the industrialists in the CIO strikes of 1936-37 and the establishment of solid, well-knit, powerful national unions.

The advances of the American working class can be judged by the fact that the old problems that continually plagued the earlier labor movement, and led again and again to its defeat, have today been, in large part, solved in struggle. The necessity of building large, industry-wide unions; the need for labor solidarity without regard to religious, national or racial differences: the need for labor solidarity in supporting each other’s struggles; the need for mass action and militant tactics in beating back the threats of violence from the ranks of the employers and their governmental agents; the need for organization in big strikes, publicity, dramatization of the issues, food kitchens, relief, mass picketing, etc.—these issues constituted the banner of radicals and progressive unionists for years in the fight against the ossified AFL bureaucracy. It was in the struggle for this program that countless militants were expelled from their unions by the AFL bureaucrats, blacklisted and driven out of their jobs. But the struggle was not in vain. A good portion of this program is today commonly accepted in the big CIO unions and is being employed in the current battle.


The labor movement of America is 14 million strong. This is numerically the largest trade union movement ever built in a capitalist country. It represents over one-fourth of the whole working class, as large a trade union movement as any working class has ever built in relation to the labor population. The huge unions in auto, steel, electric, coal, etc., represent the strongest unions of the whole world; strongest in numbers, in organization, in recent fighting experience, in aggressiveness and self-confidence.

The American working class has just passed through four years of war, of “national unity,” four years in which its unions have been bound in the strait-jacket of the war machine. The American working class has been cruelly betrayed by its whole Lop trade union officialdom in this war. Its leaders imposed :he no-strikepledge on its unions and rendered labor weak before the organized might of Big Capital. Labor found itself deprived of one right after another. It was forced to retreat one step after another. Its wages were frozen, while prices rose and the corporations began piling up fantastic sums of wealth. The corporations, grown brazen by the unions’ self-disarmament, reintroduced the speed-up, fired key union militants and attempted to destroy the shop steward system. The workers fought back with sporadic strikes. But under the pressure of the war machine and the top union bureaucracy, these outbursts were inevitably quelled. “National unity,” so-called, persisted—broken up now and then by short-lived crises in coal and elsewhere—buttressed by the twin factors of war patriotism and the movement of workers to higher paid jobs and enlargement of income through long hours of work.

The abdication of the labor leaders during four years of war, and their underwriting of a program of enriching and strengthening the capitalist rulers guaranteed and made inevitable the present war of the banking and industrial oligarchy against labor. No sooner did Wall Street bring its imperialist rivals to their knees than it turned with redoubled fury upon the main enemy – the working class at home. Instead of the “gratitude” which the labor leaders naively imagined they would receive in return for labor’s “sacrifices” in the war, they received a hail of wage cuts and of anti-labor bills.

Wall Street is embarking on its quest for world empire as an aftermath of the most destructive war in world history and in a period of the death agony of capitalism as a world system. It cannot undertake the storming of the citadels of the Far East, of Europe and elsewhere, while leaving this powerful enemy, the American working class intact, in its rear. The Wall Street masters are determined to subdue this too-powerful, too self-confident, too audacious working class and drive down its standard of living, in preparation for its eventual all-out campaign of union busting. Thus we seethe final result of the “equality of sacrifice” program imposed on the working class during the war. It made the capitalists fat and strong and placed them in the most advantageous position to launch their war against the workingman.


The labor movement executed one retreat after another in the last four years. The monied oligarchy encroached more and more on the rights of the labor movement. That is the picture of the war years; but it is not the whole picture. Despite all of labor’s retreats, the unions continued to register an uninterrupted growth during the war years, concomitant with the growth and expansion of American industry and the enlargement of its working class. Despite all the blows dealt it the labor movement held on. It retained its organizational strength and structure, it preserved its morale, it did not lose its self-confidence or its fighting qualities. This emergence of labor from the war with all of its strength is testimony to the solid structure that labor built in the period of heroic growth in the great sit-down strikes of ten years ago.

The fundamental factor in the preservation of the unions during the adverse years of the war is the understanding achieved by the American working class. The great economic crisis of 1929-33 revolutionized the thinking of the American worker and thereby changed the face of America. With the first rise of the economic cycle, the workers began pouring into the unions. America had never seen anything like it before. The crisis taught the American workers that they were a class and they needed union organization to protect themselves from the arbitrariness of the huge, impersonal, merciless aggregates of capital, the giant corporations. The American worker has never forgotten this lesson. In the upheavals that followed, in the pitched battles between labor and capital that swept the country for four years, the American worker learned how to organize great strikes and see them through to victory. He learned how to solidify big unions. He destroyed the open shop in America and established strong independent unions in all of its industries.

The present strike wave already shows that the thinking of the workers has progressed phenomenally. In other words, the war has taught lessons and left a mark on the minds of the working class no less impressive than the effects of the1929 crisis and its aftermath. The present strikes are technically better organized than those of 1936-37,the mass movement is more cohesive and it embraces a far greater portion of the working class. But more decisive than these criteria is the emergence of greater social thinking on the part of labor In January 1943 we wrote:

The mass production workers learned “unionism” from the galling experience of the economic crisis of 1929-33. They will learn “politics” from the far richer and far more profound experiences gained in the feverish war days we are now passing through.


How could it be otherwise? This working class, which still remembers very vividly the horrors of the 1929 crisis, has just lived through four years of unexampled economic activity. It has seen unemployment wiped out and factories producing night and day the goods of war. “Why can’t we have full employment in peace,” ask the workers, “and produce goods for life, instead of death?” The logic of the whole situation is posing this question more and more urgently. It is becoming a potent factor in politicalizing and radicalizing the American workers.

Furthermore they have seen with their own eyes the fusion of the state and Big Business. For four years, the most petty grievance in the shop eventually found its way to the seat of government in Washington D.C. and had to be passed upon by the governmental authority. The workers found that they were not dealing merely with individual managements of individual capitalist concerns. They couldn’t solve the smallest problem without confronting the government.

At first this shift of scenery had the workers buffaloed. They had learned how to pit their strength successfully against the DuPonts, the Fords, the Girdlers. But how can you fight the government?

But as the surroundings grew more familiar and the mechanics of governmental deception more clearly understood, the most advanced workers began directing their fight in a purposeful manner to get out of the strait-jacket in which, in their naiveté in 1941, they had permitted themselves to be bound. They organized the fight to revoke the no-strike pledge and to destroy the key governmental agency of tyranny: the War Labor Board. This constituted the first big step forward in their political education.

The present struggles are playing a big role in supplementing and developing the political education of American labor. The hope for a return to “normalcy,” an idyllic era of peace, good will and plenty, cherished by both the labor leaders and the workers, is already blown away by the howling winds of class war. The intervention of the government into all matters, big and small, will not disappear. The labor movement in the struggle to maintain its standard of living finds that it cannot simply fight it out with the individual corporations. It is confronted not only with its old enemy, the courts, but with Congress and the U.S. President. The CIO has already, by a process of evolution, and by sheer necessity, become a quarter-political party. The drive for a genuine political offensive on the part of labor and independent political action will grow “irresistibly in the days ahead.


The present upsurge of American labor, while part of a worldwide leftward swing, is conditioned in this country by the peculiarities of the American situation and the level of development of the American working class. The American workers possess extremely powerful economic organizations, they understand how to fight on the economic front and have great experience in organizing strikes. Politically, however, they are more backward. They still do not have their own political party and have far less knowledge and experience in political struggles. These factors adequately explain why the present labor upsurge, which has as its immediate aim the preservation of labor’s standard of living, takes the form, chiefly, of an outburst of economic strikes.

But this political backwardness of American labor is by no means a static, cut and dried, one-sided affair, as petty-bourgeois snobs often imagine. The American workers, as we have seen, are now learning politics very rapidly. But because the political movement lagged far behind that of Europe, the Ameritian workers find themselves today relatively free from the stultifying effects of Social Democracy and Stalinism. These two perfidious misleaders of labor have never exercised sufficient influence in America to sap labor’s strength as they have done in Europe. The American workers have not known any big defeats. They have not experienced the cruel disillusionments and betrayals of the European labor movement. That is why they reveal in their struggles a greater aggressiveness, assurance, initiative, self-confidence and optimism, than do some of the older working classes.

The present strike wave ushers in a long period of intense class struggle. The present wage settlements, on whatever level they are finally reached, will not reestablish any long term equilibrium. They will simply represent a breathing spell and preparation for the next stage of the struggle; the next stage which will be fought out on a higher plane and with greater ferocity on both sides.

There are two Americas: the America of the stock exchange and the banking houses; and the America of the toilers, the poor people who work for a living.

The world today stands amazed, as well as aghast, at the military power which Wall Street has unleashed. The peoples of the world are due to be amazed—an amazement filled with admiration and solidarity—at the power of the American working class.

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