From Fourth International, Vol.11 No.6, November-December 1950, pp.171-176.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
In an age when history chooses to place a mediocrity like Harry Truman at the head of the mightiest capitalist power in the world, who can quarrel with her for elevating an equally dull mediocrity to the leadership of the mightiest section of the working class in America? Philip Murray in his own character hardly challenges the interest of the biographer, much less the reader. But his life, for all its conservatism and colorlessness, is bound up in the modern American labor movement, especially in its past decade. Unctuous, priest-ridden, capitalist-minded to the core, his personality has oozed over the CIO these ten years.
Philip Murray came to America, sixteen years old, in 1902, to “make good.” He worked hard at educating himself at home, and probably had some intention of going into engineering (he mentions the study of calculus in an autobiographical article). Like many an otherwise conservative Scot, Welshman or Briton, he was shocked at the illegal and disreputable position the American union movement held at that time. If wages were lower in Scotland, at least the unions had achieved “fair” standards, and all the workers were in the unions.
Doubtless the nice young man whose respectable father had been a local union president was disturbed to find that he believed in something that only radicals were advocating in those days. Things accepted as matter of course in the old country, the results of half-forgotten struggles, were extreme demands in the Land of Opportunity. For example, the coal companies used to cheat the miner by dishonest weighing of his coal. Eighteen-year-old Phil suggested to the pit boss that they place a union man next to the company weigher as a “checkweighman” – at that time a well-established practice in British mines. The response was swift and arbitrary – discharge for being an “agitator” and a “troublemaker.” When the foreman called him these names, Murray got into the only fist fight he claims he ever had in this country.
While it is surprising that he struck back – knowing his character as we do now – his reaction also indicates his moral righteousness and instinctive conservatism. He would resent being called an agitator but he would be quite unruffled at the term of “Roosevelt stooge” and even call himself a collaborationist!
There is no doubt that he had talents valuable to the struggling miners around him. He possessed an easy tongue and a facility for compromise. Unheroic as these gifts may appear, they still made it possible for him to be spokesman for the uneducated, and in many cases illiterate, miners. President of his local at nineteen, he was put on the Mine Workers’ executive board in 1912 at the age of twenty-six.
In 1926, after 14 years on the executive board, Murray was elected Vice President of the United Mine Workers. This was not 14 years of struggle to gain the position, but 14 years of faithful timeserving. Murray, often praised today as a kind-hearted man in contrast to Lewis, was chief errand boy and valued hatchet-man for Lewis all this time.
His admirers, looking backward, trying to find some saving virtues, say that Lewis’s dramatic personality may have overshadowed Murray, but Murray was the smooth negotiator of the team. Actually, smooth negotiators are a dime a dozen in the labor movement. The trouble is that the bosses steamroller over them pretty smoothly too. To be smooth and successful means you have to have great strength to back you up. Not only the strength of the united ranks, which is the first essential, but strength of individual character. In Murray’s case he always had Lewis to back him up. He just played soft cop to Lewis’s hard cop.
But if he had a soft personality, he was not troubled by feelings of tenderness to the opposition. At this time, and through the Twenties, the battles of the progressives against the Lewis autocracy were raging. Lewis ruled them out of order whenever they spoke at conventions and had their supporters thrown bodily out of the convention hall. When his opposition would actually win majorities and pass resolutions, Lewis would brazenly announce, “The same thing will happen to this resolution as to all similar resolutions.” (Meaning it would go into the waste basket.)
Never a peep from Brother Murray about all this. He never joined any opposition. He never dared fight the Lewis bureaucracy when it might mean losing his own place in that bureaucracy. He did not oppose Lewis until Lewis was leading a progressive fight and he, Murray, was safely ensconced in a powerful presidential chair of his own. Thus young Phil Murray became a bureaucrat, heart and soul – a diplomatic, soft-spoken bureaucrat, but a bureaucrat all the same.
Lewis was not so conservative a worshiper of security as Murray. When the Memorial Dav massacre of Republic Steel workers occurred, Lewis openly chastised Roosevelt for his “plague on both your houses” attitude and his backhanded support of the steel barons. Murray stayed in the background – still an enthusiastic Roosevelt man. And this was a massacre of steel workers, in Phil Murray’s union, in a strike Phil Murray had called!
Throughout the ensuing thunderous years until 1940, Murray kept tied tightly to Lewis’s coattails and walked studiously in Lewis’s shadow. According to acquaintances of that period, he belittled himself privately, and was extremely self-effacing at public meetings. This may have been fakery. But it is probable, as some claim, that he felt a real inferiority, after so many years under the dynamic Lewis.
As the momentous 1940 CIO convention drew near, Murray’s fate was being forged between the hammer and anvil of contending factions. Why should Murray be president? The answer was simple. Because Lewis wanted him to be, and because Lewis’s main opponent, Hillman, was too weak organizationally to take it himself, and was glad to settle for anybody but Lewis.
But beneath this simple answer, behind the contending factions, there was more at issue. The Roosevelt-Lewis break had been brewing for several years. Lewis, dependent though he was in many ways upon Roosevelt’s aid and government collaboration, was still able and shrewd enough to seek more independence for the CIO than Roosevelt was willing to give. And he was tough enough to fight for it. Roosevelt’s “plague on both your houses” malediction after the Memorial Day massacre was a calculated diplomatic retreat from the pro-CIO position he was accused of having, and a not-too-subtle declaration of war on Lewis. Roosevelt’s basic strategy was to tie labor to all kinds of government boards, elections, mediations, etc. Moreover, he required a no-strike policy and a paralyzed labor movement for the coming war. Lewis did not fit so well into these plans.
While both Roosevelt and Lewis were upholders of the capitalist system, they symbolized opposing poles of the system, and being strong men, they gathered more strength from the forces around them. Each conspired to replace the other with a weaker and more amenable man. Lewis plugged for Willkie, Roosevelt for Murray. Roosevelt won.
Lewis recognized that Roosevelt’s 1940 election was something of a repudiation of himself and something of a defeat for his leadership of the CIO. But he was not so sure his own resignation was final, in spite of his own farewell speeches. Did he not give the palm to faithful Phil? Are not machine-men more loyal to the machine than to anything else in life? Lewis, with all his shrewdness, interpreted the whole thing organizationally. To him, Murray’s later actions were merely those of a traitor.
Meanwhile, Sidney Hillman had been elevated from president of a great union to thief labor stooge in the Defense Advisory Commission, hobnobbing with the Washington big-shots. He was the pliant tool of Roosevelt. But even in his own person he was leader and spearhead of the right-wing forces (still a minority at the 1940 convention) in the CIO. He was one of those most anxious to get the CIO back into the AFL “house of labor.”
It is hardly likely that Philip Murray connived much with Hillman, his chief supporter at the convention. Hillman was too much an opponent of Lewis, and Murray was too cautious to dare collaborate with him at thjs time. But Roosevelt was a horse of another color. Every top pie-card in the country had been encouraged to sit around the feet of Roosevelt. And Murray had made the journey to Hyde Park even in 1932 when Lewis supported Hoover. Murray, too, was still playing soft cop to Lewis’s hard cop after the Roosevelt-Lewis break. Lewis still needed his most trusted man to be “in good” at the White House. So Murray still talked with Roosevelt – and vice versa. If anyone beside Lewis put the CIO presidential bug in Murray’s ear, it was none other than Roosevelt himself.
But whatever conflicting loyalties were in Phil Murray’s troubled breast the November 1940 CIO convention found him in an apparently reluctant mood. His performance there is worth a detailed review.
Always cautious, always placating to the powers above him, he first of all denied rumors of a possible split between himself and Lewis. Then he let the convention in on what a great man he was. Pointing tragically to the general region of his heart, he said:
“The hot spot has been here for a few days. I owe it to you and to the nation and to my colleagues, to give you what is beating within my bosom. I lay myself naked that you may have the truth. I disdain hypocrisy. I try, like the rest of you, to be an American. I hope I can be.
“Personally I don’t want, and I want you to know it here in this convention today, the presidency of the CIO. I have no aspirations. I am content to plug along at the mill gate, and meet the people I have known throughout life. I want this convention to know before I take my seat that I am not a candidate for the presidency of the CIO.”
Many reporters, in spite of their cynicism, took this remarkable statement for its face value at the time. People “in the know” say that Murray genuinely did not want the post, that the above speech was “humble,” “sincere,” etc. But a man who was fourteen years a vice president should be given credit for knowing how to put on a front. In one short paragraph he lays claim to having a heart, shows it to the world, and breathes the pious hope that he may be permitted to be an American. In just one more paragraph, he twice declines the presidency and identifies himself with the audience who are nearly all organizers who pass out leaflets “at the mill gate,” and may be expected to vote for their own kind. This is a pretty good piece of stagecraft for a sincere and unassuming fellow.
However, it is true that Murray was torn two ways and needed coaxing – not because of his famous “modesty,” of course, but for far more fundamental reasons of strategy which jibed with the strategy of Hillman and Roosevelt. The New York Times said:
“He did not give the reason for his decision, but it was understood by some of his associates that he felt impelled to withdraw when he saw no possibility of the convention taking some action on the Communism issue.”
While the “left wing” was disturbed at his insistence on an anti-Communist resolution, and Lewis refused to endorse the first extreme right-wing resolution presented by the Amalgamated, they all, including the Stalinists themselves, obligingly went along with the “compromise” resolution condemning Communism itself. This was a victory for Hillman and even more for Roosevelt, the man behind Hillman.
What secret understandings Murray might have had with Roosevelt in this connection may never he revealed. And it is unimportant to history whether they existed or not. The gradual changes in CIO policies did take place, and it was more or less inevitable, given the other conditions, that they would take place.
Murray needed a straight backbone at this time, if he ever did. Because he was beginning the long trek away from his past. By no means a strong man, who calculated great risks and then dramatically crossed his Rubicon, nevertheless he was intelligent enough and experienced enough to understand that he was going to have to lead a fight. And he must have known far better than Lewis that it would also involve a fight with Lewis himself (and worst of all, the miners’ union was still paying his salary!). Hence his tears, his trepidations at this time.
“I think I am a man” (he had said this before). “I think I have convictions, I think I have a soul, a heart and a mind. And I want to let you in on something there; with the exception, of course, of my soul, they all belong to me, every one of them.”
He was painfully conscious that everyone thought his soul belonged to Lewis. He was trying mightily to declare some independence from his old leader and from the old machine. He was extremely uncomfortable about it, and weepy. But the interesting thing is, so indulgent is history to its nonentities, that he was finally successful in doing just that!
The evening of the day of his election, he made a speech on a nationwide hook-up that was a minor masterpiece in employing the tones and gestures of the Thirties while introducing the war position of the Forties. One of the basic aims of the Roosevelt-Hillman strategy was the unity of the AFL and CIO under terms that might greatly water down the militancy and the industry-wide effectiveness of the CIO in the interest of conducting the coming war. Roosevelt had demonstratively addressed the AFL convention on the unity question and ignored the CIO (perhaps fearing that Lewis might publicly rebuke him as in fact Lewis did rebuke Hillman).
So in this speech, Murray, still in the Lewis 5-year tradition of progressively fighting the AFL, still representing the spirit of the newly awakened rank-and-file millions of the industrial unions, openly warned his patron Roosevelt “not to force a shot-gun unity between the AFL and CIO.” In the next breath, however, he said, “The kind of unity the nation is interested in, is unity between capital and labor.” Here was a gnat swallowing a camel! Business Week could well gloat: “The former Lanarkshire breaker boy comes to the leadership of the CIO determined to keep the industrial peace.”
If anything is hard to understand about such shallow characters as Murray it is this: how on earth can they be capable of such cynicism? Is it possible they really know what they are doing? Isn’t it possible that Murray, being more ignorant than Hillman, was less of a rascal? The difference is only lingual.
Hillmart, Dubinsky, and their crowd knew what they were doing theoretically and philosophically also. They were the old European type Social Democrats – the kind that read Karl Marx in their youth, but became slick at dressing up class collaboration for the consumption of immigrant sweat-shop workers.
Murray, for all his Scottish birth, was by virtue of his lengthy office in the Mine Workers and his leadership of the steel workers, a native son with a home-grown line of class collaboration that met with equal approval from Wall Street, Roosevelt, and the Pope.
For Murray no philosophy, not even a renegade philosophy, is necessary. Religion, and Catholicism at that, suffices. Phil enjoys the double advantage of a priestly hierarchy to split his philosophical hairs for him – while he is more sensibly occupied – and at the same time to provide him with a broad and powerful political support.
In fact it is rather doubtful whether the cautious Murray would have ever accepted the leadership without solid assurance of backing from the Church. Priestly “advisers” were with him constantly during the 1940 convention. Many radical observers are inclined to think that the Church runs him and CIO policy completely. This is an exaggeration. Murray takes his final orders from imperialism itself, not from its clerical handmaiden.
Father Rice, main figure of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, is a frequent and welcome visitor in the Pittsburgh offices of the Steelworkers. But it must be remembered, the ACTU leaders are principled opponents not only of Communism but of anv form of class struggle, and their allegiance is to the Church. Murray is an opportunist and a (workers’) bureaucrat. The imperialist State and the Church may be the two stars he steers by, but he must also allow for the currents in the working class. Through heavy-handed, he is often more careful than Reuther, for example, in moving in on opponents in the locals. Where Stalinists, especially as individuals, gain power in a local, the ACTUers sometimes don’t get the expected cooperation when they appeal to Murray for new elections.
Murray’s steel union staff was purged of Stalinists long ago, mainly before November 1940. Most of the organizers are strongly anti-Communist, and this naturally influences the local politics to some extent even if there were no caucusing by the International. (And it would be naive to believe there were none.) With this kind of machine already smoothly operating, the right-wing influence is applied with a minimum of purge or convulsion.
On the higher level of CIO leadership, as distinct from the Steelworkers as such, in the realm of ideas, policies, and glaring publicity, as well as practical politics, Murray has conducted a ten-year fight of maneuver and counter-maneuver against the Stalinists. He did so, for all his weakness, with a s.kill befitting a better cause, and a flexibility in tune with the times and the needs of the US State Department.
Thus he frequently rose above the narrower prejudices of the Church in the service of imperialism and his own bureaucracy but, like Banquo, always kept his “bosom franchised and allegiance clear.” In 1946 he was awarded the Monsignor Ryan medal as the leading Catholic layman of the year. Considering that he had just run a nationwide steel strike, this shows a lot of confidence in his good intentions. He even won a “Christian Culture Award” in 1943, tendered to him by the personal representative of Cardinal Spellman (an outstanding Christian who recently ordered Christian graves to be dug by scab labor).
The effect of Catholic politics on the politics of Murray ir sometimes quite direct. Lewis states categorically to his biographer that the CIO Executive Board did not take a position supporting the workers’ fight against Franco in 1937 because Murray, under the influence of the pro-Franco priest-cabal, prevailed on them not to act.
Lewis revealed this long after” his break with Murray. If true, it is quite a commentary on “shy,” “kind-hearted,” “self-effacing” Phil Murray, who was supposed to have “an almost evangelical attitude toward the ordinary worker.”
Of course, from a class point of view, one might say it was just as bad to exchange kisses with Roosevelt during the imperialist war and give “labor’s” blessing to the slaughter. But to be such a Christian as to support the Christian butcher Franco, the Christian Fascist landlords, the Christian Catholic Church in their direct and open war against the workers and peasants, against organized labor as such – it takes a peculiar kind of “labor leader” to do this. If he did as Lewis said Murray was certainly right when he said his soul did not belong to him. It belonged to the priests.
But, while Murray had the backing of the priests and the confidence of the Church, and himself “had his religion,” he fought the Communist Party in these ten years as a machine man fights another machine, making deals, polite purges, compromises, etc. For some time previous to 1940, he had already been weeding Stalinist and pro-Stalinist organizers out of the Steelworkers, but always on the ground of inefficiency, failure – or some other pretext at which his associates would knowingly wink and congratulate him. But after becoming president of the CIO, a far more heterogeneous organization than the Steelworkers and composed of many machines and many leaders, he was compelled to zigzag. Even during the Stalin-Hitler pact he would “appease” the Stalinists somewhat while his patron Roosevelt was attacking them viciously and probably needling Murray to do the same. He continued to appoint the UE party-liner Emspak to important three-man committees (always being careful to flank him with two of his own close supporters).
But Lewis had often appointed similar committees with two CP members or sympathizers to one Mine Workers’ man. For example, the important mediation committee at the 1940 convention to decide on the merits of the right-left dispute in the NY State CIO Council was composed of: Philip Murray, Reid Robinson and George Addes, the latter two active collaborators of the CP at the time. Murray immediately bent the stick the other way.
Considering that the militancy of the masses was rising. in 1941 with new layers of workers fighting for recognition – with the Stalinists continuing to widen their base – the role of the individual, the role of Murray, was not inconsequential in this respect.
But Murray did not become a lion overnight. The capable, talented, silver-tongued platform man knew most cf the tricks, but like an old actress with wig, false eyelashes, and false breasts, he didn’t have much of the real thing. He had skill, technique and cunning. But he could not crush his opposition like Lewis did in the Twenties. He was still fearful. And he had cause to be.
The pressure of the Stalinists during the Stalin-Hitler pact was noisy and ever-present. The great Ford strike in May, the Lackawanna and Bethlehem strikes in his own union, the whole new rise of the workers in 1941 took place in opposition to the war machine. This somewhat slowed down his activities in the Defense Mediation Board, of which he was now a member and, particularly at the time of the North American Aircraft strike, gave him the shakes, and probably helped bring on his heart attack later in the year.
(Roosevelt called the, troops out during this strike. While Murray cried a little about this, he complained that the workers did not “give the Defense Mediation Board a chance.”)
But Murray’s big break came in the middle of this same difficult year. It was a break that comes once in a lifetime. On one hand it paralyzed the Stalinists, who were becoming more and more of an opposition to the man they had “gone along with” in the convention election; and on the other, it strengthened his hand against Lewis, the isolationist, to whom these same Stalinists had secretly been turning for leadership during this whole period. Still more than this, it laid the groundwork for a much more “peaceful,” more “statesmanlike,” more Murray-type of operation against these same Stalinists in the future.
This break from Murray was the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Stalinists’ trade union reaction to this, slow at first, and predicted in its fullness only by the Trotskyists, was advocacy of industrial peace, full production, and finally open strike-breaking, to enforce their all-out support of Wall Street’s war against German capitalism.
Murray began to feel much more comfortable. The Stalinists were coming conveniently under his thumb. The full tide of mass organization began to recede. It was clear that steel would soon all be organized. Soon he would have a big treasury of his own. His past conflict was becoming resolved. He would even defy Lewis. When the two met at Atlantic City during the 1941 convention, Murray finally cut away from his past, albeit with more tears.
Lewis had approached him, suggesting that the two unite forces to oppose the “interventionism” of Roosevelt. Lewis felt that the two of them together had the prestige to beat the new Hillman-Stalinist alliance, with a militant trade union policy, defying the war jingoism. It was another sample of Lewis’s willingness to take a chance, to take the leap – the corner of his eye on history. But Murray, who had gone along with his chief in 1935, was himself a chief now – with Roosevelt, Stalin and Hillman allon his side.
Murray refused to go along. One short year after Mur-tay, the loyal lieutenant of 20 years’ hand-raising, was made the chief, he turned against the old chief. And he thought fatuously that Lewis (who took loyalty to himself far more seriously than anything in life) should have understood! Breakfasting the next day with William H. Davis, then chairman of the Mediation Board, Murray confided between sobs, “That was all he (Lewis) had to say after twenty years – ‘It was nice to have known you, Phil’.”
The Stalin-Hitler turn in Stalinist trade union policy reinforced Murray and enormously strengthened his pro-war position in the union. The more or less patriotic workers in the CIO and the new workers coming into the defense plants begrudgingly went along with the Murray-Stalinist “policy” of no strikes, no resistance to the profit-mad war producers. They went along because so many got jobs who had no jobs before, and because of the wretched little concessions Murray obtained from the War Labor Board.
Over the years that followed, Murray the compromiser, the unity man, seemed to re-enact his pre-1940 role of mediator between the factions, between Hillman and the Stalinists, whose quarrels were now softer. The general atmosphere was still a “liberal” one in labor circles. The easy-going leader showed a “tolerent” face to the public. Nevertheless, by 1942, his personal machine in the Steelworkers Union became nearly as solidified as Lewis’s machine in the United Mine Workers. The “soft” man was becoming hard. He proved in spite of any inner weaknesses that he could build a strong machine.
But this can scarcely be set down on the credit side of his ledger. Every two-bit local politician is able to build a machine. Even an officer accidentally catapulted to power seems to feel an elemental urge to build little forts of protection around him. While it is an excellent thing for a leader with a program to have a loyal following, a leader without a program finds the personal, paid machine a wonderful substitute. Consequently the latter type often outshine the former in this ability – just as the sightless develop better hearing.
Murray’s reputation and self-proclaimed character as a “patient” man is well earned and well deserved. But this patience should not be regarded as the forbearance of a good old man beset by malicious radicals who took advantage of him. No, his was the patience of the wily hatchet-man waiting for the kill. As time went on and he was infused more and more with the strength of American imperialism, he moved more confidently. Finally, during the recent period of insensate red-baiting and gathering war hysteria, the unctuous old timeserver, with all the appropriate adjurations to God and Country, cast out the Stalinist-led unions in 1949-50 – and became leader of a well-purged, and, he hoped, well-housebroken CIO.
But regardless of Murray’s role as a full-time State Department stooge, and part-time tool of the Catholic Church, it must be emphasized that he is not only the policy head of the CIO bureaucracy, but also the so-far unchallenged leader of the million-strong Steelworkers Union. And he has actually led them in historic struggles. These struggles have twice brought to their knees some of the mightiest of monopolies and tied up the country only slightly less effectively than the long mine strikes. This cannot be interpreted by studying Murray’s personality, but must be understood as a result of one of the profound contradictions of the class struggle itself.
All American trade union leaders of the present age find themselves at some time or other, with varying degrees of embarrassment and effectiveness, contending with the ruling class. Philip Murray, if he has no other interest to posterity, represents the extreme of this contradiction in American labor leaders. On the one hand he says, “Collective bargaining has become less and less a contest and more a collaboration.” On the other he gives the signal in 1946 for one million steel workers to strike and soon idle five million others, while the wheels of his beloved capitalism grind to a stop. This is something of a record for a man who sincerely wants to “keep the industrial peace.”
On January 26, 1946, at the height of the steel strike, Business Week made the following comment:
“As leader of the largest strike army this nation has ever seen, Murray ... is prepared to use standard radical tactics such as the nationwide strike, to achieve essentially conservative trade union goals. Murray has no sympathy, for example, with Walter Reuther’s demands in the GM strike for a look at the company’s books. His only basic interest is having his union get more money for his Steelworkers. To do that, however, he is prepared to go to lengths that might daunt a more revolutionary labor leader.”
We must repeat that Murray said two and a half years after this, “Collective bargaining has become less and less a contest and more a collaboration.” But the soul of the collaborator lives in a body that is fed by an organization whose only reason for existence is the class struggle.
Murray exists in the midst of this contradiction. But let no one think that he has any inner contradiction or double personality. He is not torn between loyalty to the workers on one side and to the capitalist system on the other because he does not admit any basic antagonism between them.
During the last war he was one of the principal participants in, and upholders of, the infamous “no-strike pledge.” He faces the next war far more determined to support it than the last one. He is tied more closely than ever to the capitalist government. But the capitalists, in the last war, gave crumbs of conciliation to labor and thus smoothed the road for Murray ... The road to the next war begins with labor already paying for the last one and with taxes and prices going up. The workers at a certain point will have to fight back.
True, a new stall is being prepared to delay then awakening. The capitalists are apparently willing – at the moment – to give labor some concessions, the better (with Murray’s aid) to tie them up for the period of militarization.
Murray has grown stronger in the past ten years simply because his masters have done so well for themselves. It is not so fantastic after all that this sanctimonious pie-card “made good,” as he himself puts it, considering the expansion of American imperialism in those ten years. But today American imperialism hovers over the abyss. Its vast internal market gave it unexpected strength. But its external commitments are already proving to be too great. The world proletariat and colonial masses are even now pushing against the pillars of Wall Street’s empire.
Thus Murray is caught in the middle of two colossal struggles: the acute conflict between the US imperialists and the peoples throughout the world and the growing antagonism between the monopolist rulers and the industrial workers. The stresses and strains arising from such a position would tax the resources of a far stronger personality with a better program than Murray possesses.
The American labor movement has to prepare itself for a new period of extremely rough weather. This is precisely the kind of atmosphere most unsuited to Murray. So long as calm prevails, he may pass for a seaworthy captain. But he is a worthless pilot in stormy weather.
Last updated on: 18 March 2009