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Fourth International, November-December 1950


The Editors

American Labor Leaders


From Fourth International, Vol.11 No.6, November-December 1950, pp.163-165.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the following pages our readers will find portraits of four prominent union leaders: John L. Lewis, chief of the United Mine Workers and founder of the CIO; Philip Murray, head of the steelworkers and his successor as leader of the CIO; Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers and a likely candidate as next head of the CIO; and Dave Beck, a typical representative of the AFL craft union hierarchy. Although for from complete, this group strikingly illustrates the kind of leadership holding sway over organized labor in the United States today.

The last two decades have witnessed two remarkable developments in this country. One is the explosive growth of monopoly capitalism with its swift rise to world supremacy. The other is the equally explosive expansion of trade unionism. These processes are intimately interlinked and the unfolding relations between them are bound up not only with the future of the United States but also with the destiny of all mankind.

The upsurge of the CIO marked the greatest advance in the history of American labor. It overturned the open-shop regime in basic industry, compelled the corporations to recognize unions in their strongholds and to deal with them.

Thanks to the victories of the past fifteen years and their present membership of sixteen millions, the unions today possess colossal powers for mobilization in any contest with employers. Assured of the allegiance of the ranks, the leaders can summon hundreds of thousands onto the field of action. This power is exhibited in every big test of strength such as the battles of the miners during the Second World War and the postwar strikes in steel, auto and other industries.

Thus the key unions have at their command more than enough forces and resources to make great gains for their members and promote their interests in every sphere of social life. As the record of the miners indicates, wherever this latent power is released and relied upon, even on the most elementary economic level, it can achieve imposing results.

Big Business is well aware of the threat to its power, profits and positions contained in this formidable strength of organized labor. The hostility and hatred of the monopolists toward the labor organization has not abated one bit and they use every available device to whittle down union strength. But, having been unable to keep the unions out of their plants, the corporations have been compelled to utilize new means of curbing the onward movements of the workers. The chief agency invoked for this purpose is the government.

The confrontation of such gigantic forces as monopolist capital and organized labor and the far-reaching economic and political effects of their collisions have impelled the government and its apparatus to intervene to an ever-increasing extent as arbitrator and regulator in their disputes,

In the craft union era the union leaders collaborated directly with the employers while the federal government interfered only in extreme cases where the conflict of the classes erupted in violent form and then it acted as an open strikebreaking arm of the industrialists.

Collaboration in New Situation

In the new relationships established by industrial unionism through the upheaval of the Thirties, the administration has time and again entered as a “friend of labor” and in the office of “impartial umpire” to shield the corporations from the full force of labor’s onslaughts and pressures. The success of this new and more complex mechanism for effecting class collaboration depended upon acquiescence and cooperation from the union leaders. Where this could not be secured, as Roosevelt discovered in his dealings with the striking miners during the war, the mechanism stalled and failed.

But the bulk of the labor bureaucrats have proved only too ready to participate in this game of class collaboration. They have no taste for combat against the monopolies. Accustomed to hold back and suppress the militancy of the ranks, they succumb quickly and easily to the inevitable pressures from the capitalist magnates and the government at their service.

This habit of subservience flows from their corruption by American imperialism. The labor bureaucrats are lesser stockholders in the global enterprises of Big Business, feasting on the revenues derived from the exploitation of the workers at home and abroad by the bankers and the industrialists. Their personal privileges are princely. They enjoy huge salaries and expense accounts, hobnob with the rich and the powerful, dispose of thousands of well-paying jobs. Like Dave Beck, they live and think like big business men, feeling far more kinship with them than with the members who sustain them in office.

With personal stakes of this magnitude it is not surprising that even the most “liberal” of the top labor leaders today take it for granted that the interests of US imperialism and the movement they direct are identical. That is why most of them have become such compliant promoters of Washington’s foreign policy and militarization measures not only in their own organizations but on an international scale. The Economic Cooperation Agency commissions of the State Department are heavily staffed with these labor representatives.

Thus through their support of the policies of the capitalist-controlled government and participation in their execution, the labor officialdom is drawn into line with the monopolists and converted into defenders of their system of rule. By supporting the administration, or one or another of the two major parties, the bureaucrats seek to extend their privileges and power by soliciting favors and winning assistance from the administration, either in their controversies with the industrialists or in most instances in clashes with their own rank and file. Having no confidence in a program of independent action, they look for a higher power to win their battles.

Role of White House

Because of the vast forces set into motion by every large-scale conflict between labor and capital and because of the attitude of the bureaucracy, the White House has more and more become a prime factor in contract disputes through fact-finding boards, mediators and behind-the-scenes negotiations. The federal government has become the chief intermediary in effecting the alliance between the monopolies and the union officialdom; the officialdom, the main intermediary in fettering the labor movement to the chariot of imperialism. These are the gears in the mechanism by which the capitalists maintain their supremacy over the labor movement and prevent it from exercising its rightful role in American life and politics.

The labor bureaucrats are not simply passive supporters of the major policies of imperialism; they actively apply them in the unions. In their acquiescence in the purges of militants, the red-hunts, and restrictions on internal democracy, they function as a special type of police for the capitalist regime inside the labor organizations and are the greatest internal obstacle to the progress of the American labor movement.

The union leaders believe that they can maintain indefinitely their present coalition with imperialist Washington and their policies of collaboration with the corporations. They expect to travel hand-in-hand with Washington and Wall Street on the supposition that they can serve two masters equally well at the same time: labor and its worst enemies.

But these rosy expectations of enduring harmony are bound to run up against hard realities. US imperialism and its bureaucratic appendages prosper together. But whatever unsettles the one, upsets the other. The instability of US capitalism on the one hand and the irrepressible vitality of the unions on the other periodically disrupt the relations between the industrialists and the workers, throw-out of gear the complex machinery of class collaboration and frustrate the schemes of the corporations, government and union officials for maintaining passivity.

Despite all efforts to yoke them together, capital and labor keep heading in different directions and their interests clash at every vital point. Every important contract negotiation drives this lesson home. The anti-labor legislation and reduced living standards caused by inflation and higher taxes accentuate the antagonism between the workers and the capitalist rulers.

A similar divergence of interests manifests itself in foreign affairs. While the working people ardently desire peace, Wall Street plunges into colonial wars and speeds preparations for global atomic war. While the workers are democratic-minded, Washington and the Pentagon embrace Franco, Chiang Kai-shek and half-a-dozen other dictators and butchers of labor.

Today, amidst encircling reaction, widespread repression and the artificial arms-boom prosperity, the union bureaucracy appears extremely powerful and the prospects of triumphant resistance to its regime quite dim. But during the Twenties the AFL moguls seemed no less strongly entrenched. The ensuing social crisis which shook American capitalism from top to bottom likewise weakened the old-line bureaucrats and created conditions for the emergence and victory of the new industrial unionism.

New Tasks Require New Leaders

After 15 years, the development of their union movement has confronted the industrial workers with new tasks. The most urgent is to bring forward a new leadership from the ranks to replace the capitalist-minded bureaucracies on top of the CIO and AFL. This new type of leadership will resemble in many respects the heroic militants and radicals who besieged the open shops, defeated the industrialists, and built the foundations of the present power of American labor during the Thirties. But it must be as different from the present bureaucracy as the CIO was from the old AFL. The new leadership must proceed on different premises and be guided by different ideas and aims.

  1. It will recognize that the basic interests of monopoly capitalism and labor cannot be harmonized and that it is necessary to act at all times with the workers against the corporations, and not play along with the corporations to the detriment of the workers.
  2. On the industrial arena it will foster reliance on the massed power of union organization and militant methods of struggle to win demands, instead of appealing to the “fairness” of the employers or supposedly impartial arbitrators.
  3. It will cut loose from all ties with capitalist parties or their politics and sponsor a mass party of the working people as the indispensable political arm of organized labor.
  4. It will teach distrust of all capitalist agencies and remain independent of the capitalist government.
  5. It will safeguard and cherish internal union democracy.
  6. Above all, it will understand that the goal of the labor movement goes beyond the betterment of labor’s positions within a system of exploitation which cannot help but worsen them. Trade unionism, if it is to survive and remain independent, must become a school wherein the advanced workers are prepared to take charge of the government and economy of the whole country.

To fight effectively against the evils of monopoly capitalism or even to fight at all to safeguard their interests against the capitalist class, the ranks of labor will find themselves thrown into increasing opposition to the policies and domination of the officialdom. Any new forward movement of the industrial workers, arousing and radicalizing them, will necessarily be accompanied by a growing struggle against the conservative bureaucracy. The progress of this struggle is the key to a new and higher stage in the labor movement of America.

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