From Fourth International, Vol.10 No.6, June 1949, pp.165-166.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
On the morrow of the Truman election victory when the trade union bureaucracy appeared to be at the very pinnacle of its strength, the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party declared in a resolution adopted at its meeting of December 26, 1948:
“The present boom ... rests on shaky foundations and must give way either to a devastating economic crisis or a stepped-up drive toward an all-out war economy. In either case, the living standards of the masses will be under attack. Once the economic basis for social reforms is undermined it will weaken the ground for mass support of the class collaborationist policy of the labor bureaucracy ... Radical changes in the relationship of forces within the unions await the next turn in the economic conjuncture.”
The prognosis is being rapidly confirmed. Declining production and lengthening unemployment rolls are throwing the shadows of depression across the land. The whole structure of class collaboration is being weakened by the threatening crisis. Truman’s promises of sweeping reforms already sound like an echo from the distant past. The stiffening policy of the corporations, particularly against working conditions, is generating a new surge of militancy and combativity in the ranks of labor. This altering situation is jolting and threatening the bureaucratic stranglehold of the labor lieutenants of the monopolies for the first time since the movement against the “no-strike” pledge in the auto union in the closing months of the war. Revolt among the seamen against witch-hunt proposals of the leadership of the National Maritime Union and the strike against the speed-up in the Ford Empire, forced upon the Reuther bureaucracy by the irresistible pressure of the workers – both events shpw how quickly the turn in the economic conjuncture” can result in “radical changes in the relationship of forces within the unions.”
The strike against the Ford Motor Co. is a body blow to the whole strategy of the top leadership of the UAW. For a number of years, its class-collaborationists methods could be summed up in the trading of working conditions for a few paltry economic concessions. They tacitly encouraged the corporations in the inhuman pace assembly lines have been pushed. Reuther himself wrote an agreement with General Motors which in effect was a green light for the speed-up. Growing clamor of the ranks for action against this universal evil elicited a cynical statement from the four top leaders of the UAW, only last January, that charges of speed-up were untrue and circulated for ulterior purposes by “Communists, Trotskyites and free-booting opportunists.”
Yet five months later, Reuther has been forced to authorize an anti-speed-up strike. Why? Ford’s charge that the strike was caused by “internal union politics” contains a certain grain of truth. The Reuther machine, so carefully and seemingly so solidly constructed, broke up almost overnight in the huge Ford local under the hammering of the rank and file. The local leadership, swept into opposition, ceased to be a barrier to the flood-tides of insurgency. After a few unsuccessful efforts, Reuther saw that he could not continue to resist this movement without jeopardizing his bureaucratic control over the entire union. The alternative – there was no other – was to head, the strike in the hope of beheading it. Regardless of the outcome, the struggle at River Rouge shows the shape of things to come.
The bureaucracy is no longer the unchallenged master of the house of labor.
Nowhere has this been more clearly demonstrated than in the NMU. Lifted into power by mass opposition to the bureaucratic regime and treacherous policies of the Stalinists, the Curran leadership misread the union election returns as a mandate to consolidate arbitrary machine control and to stamp out all criticism and opposition. The climax came with the introduction of a series of amendments by the National Council, a compendium of all the “thought control” measures in effect and much that is still in the drafting stage, ranging from the Truman loyalty order and the Taft-Hartley anti-Communist affidavits to the Maryland Ober Law and the Mundt-Nixon Bill. The revolt of the rank and file, which has voted overwhelmingly against the amendments in the major Northern ports, has been swift and decisive.
As in the UAW, but on a far more extensive scale, the pressure of the ranks provoked a deep fissure in the top leadership. Curran had counted upon the revulsion to Stalinism growing into a reactionary red-baiting opposition to a’l working class politics. Instead he has been left with a small diehard group of Southern officials, known as “Dixiecrats” within the union, while all other tendencies from simple militant unionists to dissident Stalinists and Trotskyists have joined in a broad progressive opposition to defeat the amendments. It is significant that the Stalinists play no leading role in either the NMU or the Ford struggle.
Growing discontent among the ranks of the seamen underlies the struggle over the amendments. The wartime boom ended first in the shipping industry. Between increasing shipment of Marshall Plan cargo in foreign bottoms and the transfer of American vessels to foreign and “Panamanian” registry, the US merchant marine has been steadily dwindling in size. Thousands of seamen are plagued with long periods of unemployment. Meanwhile the ship-owners have stepped up their offensive against the union. The contract is ducked, evaded and violated in hundreds of ways. The NLRB has handed down an ironclad decision declaring the hiring hall, the keystone of maritime unionism, illegal.
Faced with these worsening conditions, the Curran leadership has been the very essence of inaction, ineptitude, compromise and retreat. Its course has been directed against union democracy and not against the ship-owners and their government. The present revolt within the union is an indirect warning to the helmsmen that they face shipwreck unless they change this course.
Last updated on: 7 March 2009