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Fourth International, March 1946


Review of the Month

Lessons of the Strike Wave and the Politicalization of the Workers


From Fourth International, March 1946, Vol.7 No.3, pp.66-69.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.



Fifteen years ago Leon Trotsky, analyzing the 1929 economic crisis in the United States, predicted that it would usher in a new epoch “in the life of the American proletariat and the American people as a whole.” In his opinion it would unfailingly lead, among other things, to the radicalization and politicalization of the American workers. In 1931, he wrote:

The grandiose economic crisis, acquiring the character of a social crisis, will inevitably become transformed into the crisis of the political consciousness of the American working class. (Germany, the Key to the International Situation)

These two theoretical predictions, reached through the application of the scientific method of Marxism – dialectical materialism – have been corroborated by events. As a matter of fact, the current strike wave denotes a breaking point in the long maturing political crisis of the American labor movement. This becomes clear if we place in its historical context the present gigantic struggle of the advanced detachments of organized 1abor – 1,700,000 workers in steel, auto, oil, packing, electrical equipment and other industries who have manned the picket lines from one end of the country to the other.

The new epoch, foreseen by Trotsky a decade and a half ago, has thus far passed through three distinct stages, each marked by a profound crisis:

  1. the pre-war economic crisis and depression of 1929-39;
  2. the war crisis from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day; and lastly,
  3. the current crisis of “reconversion.”

In each of these three stages the aggravation of social contradictions has been accompanied by a strike wave (among the wartime strikes, for example, were the struggles of the coal miners., sporadic strikes in other industries) – an infallible sign of the sharpening of the class struggle.

Let us briefly review this new epoch in terms of its strike statistics.

The outbreak of the 1929 crisis acted to temporarily stun the workers and the population as a whole. With more and more millions thrown into the streets, with plant after plant shutting down, the numbers of strikes naturally dwindled: The number of workers involved in strikes dropped to a record low of 183,000 in 1930. It rose to 342,000 in 1931 and remained at the same level until the 1932 trough of the depression was passed.

The turning point came in 1933. In that year the upswing began and continued through the following years. Here are the official U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (to the nearest thousand.)



Number of

























While the figures fluctuate from one year to the next, the general trend of the strike curve is upwards. The principal product of this rising curve of strike struggles was the birth of the CIO. Powerful unions, on an industrial basis, rose for the first time in rubber, auto, steel, maritime, canneries, textiles, etc., etc. No sooner were these new millions organized on the economic field, especially in the basic industries, than the need made itself felt for organized action on the political arena. But these first stirrings in labor’s ranks toward political life were thwarted and diverted by the organization in 1936 of the Labor’s Non-Partisan League under John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman, which was designed to keep the workers harnessed to Roosevelt and the Democratic party machine.

Second Phase Of Labor’s Evolution

The second phase of labor’s evolution took place under wartime conditions. Having sold out the workers politically, the official union leadership found it all the easier to extend their betrayal to the economic field. It was the era of the no-strike pledge, government arbitration run-arounds, wage freeze, job-freeze and skyrocketing prices. The political needs and the associations of the workers were once again smothered – this time through the organization of the PAC, which aimed to repeat on a larger scale the 1936 experience with the Non-Partisan League.

With the entire machinery of the state bearing down upon them, with their own leaders acting as policemen for Wall Street’s war machine, with the Stalinists in the van as strike-breakers, the workers, nevertheless, engaged in a series of defensive struggles. Again we cite official Department of Labor statistics (to the nearest thousand) :



Number of





















While narrowed in scope, the strike wave, during the second stage, shows the same upward trend as in the preceding period. The sharp decline in strikes in 1942 is explained by the initial impact of Wall Street’s entry into the second imperialist war. But it took the workers only a few months to begin reorienting themselves in the new situation. The succeeding years show an uninterrupted increase, culminating in the abrupt leap of 1945, which came primarily in the latter part of the year following V-J Day. The figures for 1945 show it to be the greatest strike year in the last quarter of a century, being exceeded only by 1919, the peak year in the strike wave following the termination of World War I.

The great majority of wartime strikes were of a brief duration (averaging 5.3 days of stoppage for each worker). The strikes were quickly settled, i.e., the workers were herded back by the combined efforts of the corporations, the government and the union officials. With a few exceptions, particularly the three miners’ strikes, they brought little or no material gains for the workers.

In the pre-war phase of the process under review, there were approximately 10,000,000 in the unions; after V-J Day, more than 14,000,000. The militancy and self-assurance of the rank and file were tempered and reinforced. The militants who played the leading role in the organization drives of the Thirties matured and gained in experience and knowledge. In the same period new leading elements came to the fore. All these important gains made themselves immediately felt with the opening of the present postwar phase.

Increasing Intensity of Strike Struggles

No official statistics are as yet available for the first two months of 1946. However, the essential features of the new stage into which we have entered are already clearly discernible. In scope and intensity, the strike struggles tend to surpass those in the past. By the latter part of 1945, the average duration of stoppages for each worker leaped to 16.3 as against the 5.3 days of stoppage in wartime. (In the organization drives of the ’Thirties the average was 20.6 days of stoppage for each worker.) In January and February this average doubled and even quadrupled.

The labor movement has demonstrated that it possesses more than ample resources and strength for these battles and the sharper ones ahead. From all indications, the magnificent and inspiring power of the workers on the economic field has come as somewhat of a shock to the bourgeoisie.

In most cases these strikes have been models of unity and solidarity among the workers. The former divisions between foreign-born and native workers have dissipated into thin air. The solidarity of Negro and white workers has been further cemented. The white-collar workers have been drawn much closer to the industrial vanguard. Layers of the middle class are gravitating to the side of the labor movement.

As a consequence, not only single plants but entire basic industries have been shut down with an effectiveness almost without parallel in trade union history. And they have remained shut down. In the face of this exemplary militancy, loyalty and discipline among the workers, all the tried and tested devices of strikebreaking have proved of no avail.

Perhaps the greatest single disappointment to the corporations has been their failure to pit the veterans against the strikers. After the First World War, they had considerable success with returning soldiers. This time, however, the veterans did indeed march to the picket lines but it was primarily in order to join them and not to help the employers smash them.

Many thousands of workers, especially in steel, have gained their first experience in successful strike action. Thousands of others had the opportunity to repeat, retest and extend methods of strike organization first applied in the ‘Thirties. New leading cadres have come to the fore. The initiative and resourcefulness of the rank and file, especially in auto, augur well for the future.

But side by side with this tremendous working class strength on the economic plane there are glaring and serious weaknesses in the field which is, in the last analysis, decisive, namely: politics. The political crisis which has gripped the labor movement since 1929 not only remains unresolved but has grown in acuteness.

The decisive power in society is political power. By reason of their unchallenged monopoly of all the political levers and machinery, the corporations were able to arm themselves with the most effective weapons against the workers. They did so before and during the current strike struggles and they will continue doing it in preparation for the next phase.

Congress Supports Union-Busting

For example, well in advance of the strikes, the corporations raided the treasury in order to finance their union-busting program: their congress voted them billions in tax rebates for this purpose. The protest of CIO President Philip Murray and others and their demands that these rebates be revoked are more than justified. But these belated protests and demands alter nothing in the situation, for there is not a single representative in Congress to take action in labor’s behalf.

Furthermore, it is a foregone conclusion that extortionate price increases will be authorized all along the line, enabling the corporations again to pocket vaster profits while they cynically pin the blame for the higher prices on 1abor. Having promulgated new price ceilings, the White House and Congress will at the same time take action to set a new ceiling on wages. The workers will thus find themselves caught in the same vicious circle. The wage increases will be quickly nullified by soaring prices. Against this the only effective remedy is a rising scale of wages. Every union contract ought to contain a clause which automatically assures a wage increase to compensate for any and all hiking in prices of consumers goods. But wage freezing “outlaws” such clauses.


It is impossible to mistake the role of Congress and of President Truman. To put it mildly, they give the corporations everything the latter ask for; they cooperate in the anti-labor offensive of Big Business.

When the GM auto workers struck, President Truman’s first action was to order them to resume work, while in the same breath he requested Congress to enact legislation hamstringing the unions. His “fact-finding” boards have pared the workers’ just demands by one-third and more. At this writing, Truman is preparing to authorize higher prices along with a peacetime wage freeze. Meanwhile he has engaged in government strikebreaking through plant seizures (the strikes of CIO Oil workers, Packinghouse workers and New York Tugboat workers).

As for Congress, it would take us too far afield to list even the most recent anti-labor proposals and actions of that august body. Suffice it to mention that the House of Representatives has just outdone itself in jamming through the Case Bill, a vicious piece of legislation hardly distinguishable from similar enactments in the Nazi labor code. If this bill fails to pass the Senate, it will not be because labor has “friends” there, but simply because such action is deemed to be inexpedient at this time.

More and more workers are beginning to wake up to the fact that by a relatively simple expedient of passing a law or a set of laws, the capitalists can either block further gains by the unions or wipe out gains won on the picket lines. In this connection the role played by the courts is instructive. Friedrich Engels long ago pointed out that courts are an integral part of the capitalist state. Strikebreaking through injunctions has been a favorite practice of the corporations. During the war it was laid on the shelf. They are now refurbishing this potent weapon, presumably “outlawed” by the Norris-LaGuardia anti-injunction bill. Utilizing one legal loophole or another, the courts throughout the country are once again plastering injunctions upon the strikers.

Why is labor so helpless politically? What has prevented the workers from forging their own political weapons which alone can challenge and break the political monopoly of Big Business? The answer to these questions is to be found not so much in the backwardness of the rank and file as in the character of the incumbent trade union leadership and its policies.

These official leaders refuse to break with capitalist politics and parties. They have deliberately blocked the instinctive urge of the workers to strike out independently on the political arena. As we have already stated, the CIO union leaders achieved this before the war by means of Labor’s Non-Partisan League and during the war through the PAC. Today they bank on short memory. They hope that workers have forgotten the PAC supported Truman as Roosevelt’s successor, and that many a PAC endorsed candidate studs the halls of Congress which are resounding with anti-labor baiting, ranting and legislating.

To be sure, when Truman incautiously unmasked himself, Philip Murray issued a public denunciation, and threatened to mobilize “all labor’s political strength,” while William Green, likewise mumbled something about moving to the “left” if goaded beyond endurance. But as subsequent developments have amply demonstrated this was sheer bluster.

Aiding and abetting this political disorientating of labor are the Stalinists whose politics are invariably adapted to suit the needs of the Kremlin’s policy. Conforming with Moscow’s latest shift, these superpatriots of yesterday have donned a mask of militancy. But whereas they went the whole hog as Wall Street’s recruiting sergeants and strike-breakers in wartime, their present, suddenly-acquired militancy is a fake through and through. To cite only one instance: for eight weeks the Stalinist UE leaders stalled before calling out the 30,000 workers in GM’s electrical department. While the auto workers are holding out for a 19½ cent increase, these same Stalinist leaders stab them in the back by settling with GM for 18½ cents. They play the game of the employers in many other ways as well, in particular by engaging in a rabid red-baiting campaign against the Trotskyist in the auto centers of Detroit and Flint.

In New York, even after proclaiming their tactical “left” turn, they threw their support to Tammany’s O’Dwyer in the recent mayoralty campaign. This “labor’s candidate” has been issuing orders to the police to protect scabs and to club and ride down pickets.

These venal, unprincipled servants of the Stalinist bureaucracy have in the recent period come out in tentative support of a “Third Party” movement. At the same time they froth at the mouth at the very mention of the Labor Party, vilifying the proponents of this slogan as “agents of fascism.” The pre-condition for labor’s progress in the political field is a complete break with capitalist and Stalinist politics.

The first signs of political awakening have already appeared. By raising the issue of prices and the demand that the corporations open their books, the GM workers are in effect touching very closely the most burning question of all: who shall be the master in the country, the big corporations or the people? This question can be decisively answered only through political struggle.

The growing awakening of the workers to the political problems and tasks is manifested in such resolutions as the one recently passed by the Greater Flint CIO Council favoring the formation of the Labor Party. In the Detroit mayoralty election last year, the workers roiled up a huge vote for Frankensteen, CIO-endorsed candidate.

We Trotskyists are proud of the fact that as far back as 1938 our movement adopted the Transitional Program which advanced slogans in relation to prices and wages and the opening of corporation books, slogans which are becoming increasingly popular among ever-broader circles of workers. At that time we likewise advanced the slogan of building an independent labor party. We are confident that the long-maturing crisis of labor’s political consciousness will be resolved in the third stage of America’s new epoch by the creation of this indispensable and effective instrument for action in the field of politics.

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