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International Socialism, May 1974


John Newsinger

Labour’s Giant Step


From International Socialism, No.69, May 1974, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Labour’s Giant Step
Art Preis
Pathfinder, £1.65.

THE GREAT slump was a disaster for the American working class. It was a man-made tragedy that wrecked homes and broke up families, etching misery and hunger in the faces of millions of working men and women. Millions were thrown out of work and millions more had their wages savagely cut.

The trade unions, organised in the American Federation of Labor, were badly hit By 1931 membership was falling at the rate of 7,000 a week. Whereas in 1920 the unions had four million members, by 1933 they had only two million.

Despite this the union leaders showed no fight Instead of resisting the attacks on the working class, they clung to corrupt sweetheart agreements with the employers that accepted almost any deterioration in wages and conditions in return for union recognition.

By 1934 the rank and file was stirring. The first indications of this were provided by militant hard-fought strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco that gave inspiration to the entire labour movement Bitter class warfare spread across the United States. Altogether in that year 52 strikers died at the hands of the police and armed scabs.

This upsurge of grassroots militancy split the AFL leadership down the middle with a powerful group led by John Lewis, the miners’ leader wanting to put itself at the head of the new forces that were stirring. In November 1935 Lewis and his supporters formed the Committee for Industrial Organisation and drafted hundreds of organisers into the mass-production industries.

The years 1930 and 1937 saw a wave of sit-in strikes involving half a million workers overwhelm the employers’ opposition to union recognition in industry after industry.

The AFL leadership did their best to sabotage this upsurge and in October 1938 the CIO formally broke away to establish its own independent organisation. But already the seeds of bureaucratic degeneration were taking root The organisers sent into industry by the CIO had organised the new unions along strictly bureaucratic lines with democracy kept to a bare minimum. When the first onrush of militancy began to falter in 1938 these men were able to consolidate their hold.

Many members of the American Communist Party played a leading part in the struggles that had taken place and through their militancy, courage and self-sacrifice had achieved dominant positions in a number of unions including Harry Bridges’ International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union and the United Electrical Workers. Instead of fostering internal democracy and rank and file involvement in union affairs, they increasingly came to adopt the same bureaucratic methods as the right wing.

When the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941, the CIO leadership hastened to give Roosevelt a no-strike pledge for the duration. This did not go far enough for the Communist Party. Guided by Stalin who at this time hoped to carve the world up in alliance with the United States, the Communist Party advocated that the no-strike pledge be extended beyond the war. This was too much for even the most hardened right wing union leader.

After the war the CIO leadership turned on the Communist Party and at the 1949 Convention expelled 11 unions that were Communist controlled. The Party was unable to fight back. When Harry Bridges proclaimed his militancy and devotion to the interests of the working class, Philip Murray, the CIO President cut the ground from under him:

‘I remember in the year 1945 Harry Bridges attending a meeting of the CIO Executive Board and proposing ... that the National CIO and all its affiliated organisations agree not to have any strikes in any of our unions for five years following the war. I wonder if Mr Bridges had submitted that proposition to his rank and file before he made it to the CIO Executive Board. Had we accepted that kind of proposal offered by Mr Bridges, the ranks of our movement would have been decimated.’

The wheel came full circle late in 1955 when the CIO and AFL agreed to merge.

There is much in this story that is of value to socialists today and this book is recommended. Art Preis, the author, was throughout the period a journalist on the American Trotskyist paper, The Militant, and viewed the events he describes at first hand. The only criticism is that the detail is piled on so thickly that there are times when the overall picture of developments is obscured.

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