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The New International, January 1938


B.J. Widick

The Question of Trade Union Unity

From New International, Vol.4 No.1, January 1938, pp.13-15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE GIGANTIC STRUGGLES and brilliant advances of the American workers, especially in the mass production industries, during the past two years constitute an extraordinary and very decisive chapter in the history of the trade union movement, one that might well be entitled The Triumph of Industrial Unionism. Yet it represented more than a triumph of a trade union principle of organization. It constituted a series of class struggles that began as minor skirmishes and developed into an embryo civil war, pitting decisive sections of the American proletariat in desperate struggle against its class enemy in the strongholds of capitalism, the basic industries of auto, rubber, steel and the like.

Even a superficial glance over the industrial map of America offers impressive testimony of the advances made by the proletariat during this period. In Michigan, notorious open shop center of the auto industry, Detroit and Flint are strong union cities. Only Ford has been able to stave off the march of the union banner. In Ohio, Akron, rubber center of the world, is a union town. The feudal-like Pennsylvania steel towns, bulwarks of the Steel Trust dynasties, totter before the never-ending union activities and development.

In 1935 the American trade union movement rested primarily on craft unions, representing chiefly the aristocracy of labor such as the building trades unions. Less than a third of the 3,000,000 members of the American Federation of Labor were industrial workers (coal miners, textile workers, etc.). The AF of L Executive Council, which held a deadly grip over the membership, was a corrupt, reactionary and senile bureaucracy, utterly incompetent to carry out any serious campaigns of union organization.

Today, there are over 3,000,000 mass production workers enrolled under the banner of the Committee for Industrial Organization. Despite the fact that nearly 1,000,000 members left the AF of L when the CIO was forced to split from the parent body, the AF of L reports over 3,700,000 in membership. If one adds to those figures the membership of the Brotherhoods in the railroad industry, and scattered unions, it can safely be said that organized labor represents 8,000,000 workers. The decisive section, more or less, of the American proletariat has been organized.

Although these sweeping organizational gains came in a period of general decline of American and world capitalism, the upswing in industrial activity, giving the appearance of “prosperity” (already disappearing, to be sure) offered the economic basis for the resurgence of the labor movement. Industrial profits grew high. Rising living costs squeezed the workers from one side, the demands of the industrialist for increased productivity pressed them from another side. Low wages, long hours, and the terrible strain of the speed-up made inevitable the coming of strike struggles to alleviate this pressure.

The utter failure of the AF of L to retain the hundreds of thousands of steel, auto, rubber, and other mass production workers who had joined the union movement in the first flush of the NRA in 1933-1934, made further organization or leadership under that body almost impossible. The AF of L policy of hopelessly dividing the workers into numerous craft unions (22 in the auto industry, for example) was properly viewed by the workers as a deliberate attempt to split them in favor of the bosses.

In the eyes of the workers, the AF of L symbolized sell-outs, betrayals and impotence. The harsh lesson of the Green-Roosevelt auto-truce agreement in 1934 which broke the huge auto workers’ unions into pieces and caused the growth of independent unions, rankled in the minds of every conscious mass production worker. The crass betrayal of the steel workers, the sell-out Washington truce agreement shoved on the rubber workers – these glaringly exposed the real reactionary nature of the AF of L bureaucracy.

Revolt against those hopeless policies was inevitable. It appeared in the October 1934 annual convention of the AF of L Over 10,000 votes were mustered for a resolution demanding that the mass production industries be organized on an industrial union basis. Rubber worker and auto union delegates especially sought to organize a nation-wide caucus in the AF of L to fight for industrial unionism. They turned, quite naturally, to John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, whose 400,000 members were united in industrial unions. It was here that the seed was planted which grew into the CIO of 1936.

When the AF of L Executive Council was finally forced into accepting a compromise resolution which would permit certain mass production industries to be organized into industrial unions, with international charters, it stalled and delayed action as long as possible. But the rank and file was learning from its experiences. Green was forced to issue an international charter to the auto workers in August 1935, although he assumed control of the union through appointing its president, Francis Dillon, a henchman.

Traveling next to Akron, Ohio, Green attempted a similar coup among the rubber workers at their small convention to set up an international union. He received an astounding defeat. Progressive rubber workers threw out Green, his right-hand man, Coleman Claherty, and formed an international union based on the principle of industrial unionism and dedicated to a program of militant struggle to achieve the organization of that industry.

Meanwhile, the continued demands by rank and file workers throughout the country, and the jeopardy to their own unions if the basic industries remained open shop, caused Lewis, Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers, and others to form the Committee for Industrial Organization. These officials had sought to convince the other members of the AF of L Executive Council to allow formation of industrial unions, but to no avail. Lewis and company then decided to promote the organization of industrial unions by using their power and prestige, and the backing of their membership, to aid the skeletons of the steel, auto, rubber and other mass production industry unions.

A spontaneous strike in the huge Goodyear rubber plants in Akron, Ohio, in February 1936 offered the first test and opportunity to the newly-developing industrial union movement. The CIO was urged and decided to help the rubber workers win this struggle. The courage, determination and militancy of the workers brought success. It gave inspiration and impetus to the union movement everywhere, especially in the auto industry. The CIO aided progressive auto workers in capturing control of the United Automobile Workers away from the AF of L completely, and extensive plans for a nation-wide organizing campaign were adopted at this convention held in April 1936.

The lessons of the Goodyear strike enabled both the CIO leadership and the unions to proceed with greater success. Mass picket lines, wide publicity of the strikers’ grievances by use of radio, newspaper and other mediums of propaganda, gave understanding, won sympathy and dramatized the struggle in an appealing fashion. The drive to organize the steel industry employed all the new technique: Impressive union headquarters, publicity specialists, research directors, a huge staff of organizers. Campaigns in textiles, oil and other industries, also were mapped out.

Precisely at this juncture, in 1936, developed an unheard-of and unexpected weapon of strike struggle which changed entirely both the plans of the CIO and the course of the labor movement. It was the sit-down strike. Little attention was paid to the stoppages of work in the rubber industry in the winter of 1935-1936 which a reporter dubbed “sit-downs” because the workers sat by their machines in protest against grievances until they were settled. Since fifty men in a key production department could tie up a whole plant of 10,000 workers, it gave the workers a new sense of power and it cost the companies so much money that sit-downs brought favorable results. After nearly 100 sit-downs in Akron, Ohio (most of them very successful) the idea gained ground. It caught the imagination of every kind of industrial and other worker when the French working class in May 1936 startled the entire world with the sweep and power and victory of the nation-wide sit-down strike wave that shook the very foundations of bourgeois France.

The ebbs and flows of the sit-down strike wave movement developed with intensity towards a major convulsion. A group of messenger boys here, waitresses elsewhere, steel workers, retail clerks, auto workers, even grade school children, used this weapon of sit-down strikes to win concessions from their masters. Minor sit-downs disturbed the production flow in the auto plants. Soon these developed into the shut-down of the Flint auto plants. The six-weeks General Motors sit-down strike in February 1937 became a fact before the CIO leadership understood what was happening. This struggle of the auto workers was the greatest strike – and the most significant – since the NRA days began. Its direct effects were felt from Atlanta, Georgia, to Los Angeles, Calif. It involved over 130,000 workers. It laid bare the class nature of the capitalist state in a fashion seldom equalled. It threatened, because of the sit-down aspect, the very sacred concept of private property. Bitter street battles, vigilantism, the National Guards as strike-breakers, the double-crossing politicians; these indicate the character of the struggle.

Sit-down strikes as the most effective mass production industry weapon of the workers were vindicated a thousandfold. Again, the proletariat had demonstrated its ingenuity in finding new and invincible weapons of struggle against the ruling class when historic conditions demanded it. Despite the vacillating role of the CIO leaders and the auto workers’ union officials, the rank and file fought sturdily to gain the victory, even though the agreement itself was only a compromise. Union consciousness, and to some extent class consciousness, permeated the ranks of thousands of hitherto “backward” working class elements, although the Roosevelt regime, the Stalinists and the CIO leaders did their utmost to soften and conceal the basic class antagonisms which leaped to the surface in the course of the battle.

Coming directly along with the General Motors strike as part of the CIO success, the announcement that the US Steel Corporation had signed a CIO contract involving over 250,000 marked the high point of development of the new industrial union movement. The CIO was generally viewed as the successor of the AF of L as the main stream of the American labor movement. Certainly, it was the progressive section of the union movement. Both the CIO leadership and the rank and file began to consider itself invincible – repeated warnings by revolutionary socialists wherever they had influence, as in rubber, were ignored as “pessimism”. Achilles heel of the CIO was its belief in class collaboration policies, its dependence on the government, specifically on Roosevelt. The union movement, by and large, failed to understand that the rubber and auto strike successes were possible only because, in action, the workers had adopted a policy of class struggle; that the power of the picket line and intransigence of the rank and file against bad compromise settlements had brought victory.

This inherent weakness of the CIO (and of the AF of L, of course), namely its pursuit of a class collaboration policy whenever possible, revealed itself in the spring of 1937 at great cost to the workers, in the so-called “Little Steel” strike.

Refusal of the four independent steel companies, Inland, Republic, Crucible and Bethlehem, to sign a contract with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (CIO) in April 1937 made a strike inevitable. It appeared to the workers as a sure-fire success. The CIO top leadership, Lewis, Philip Murray and others, were in direct charge. The Stalinists, with their usual pomposity, also predicted inevitable success. They had bootlicked their way into secondary leadership, and had considerable following because the rank and file considered them – what a ghastly illusion! – as Progressives.

The steel companies didn’t waste any time. Terrorism, tons of false propaganda, injunctions, and all the other means of oppression were immediately employed against the strikers who shut down all the key plants. The steel workers had expected a fight. Years of brutality by the bosses had taught them that only a life-and-death struggle would bring victory. But the militant workers were cursed with the capitulatory leadership of the CIO and the Stalinist fakers. Instead of mass picket lines, a militant counter-offensive against the steel barons’ attacks, and a policy of class struggle, the workers were influenced to a program of faith in government agencies.

It took the brutal shock of the Memorial Day massacre of 14 steel workers by Chicago police thugs to reveal the weakness of the CIO policies, the danger of disastrous defeat unless the workers were given a program of action which had been tested and proven correct in the auto and other strikes. An aggressive campaign against the bloody murderers could have stirred into decisive action hundreds of thousands of workers in other industries. The rubber workers’ rank and file demanded a general strike, as advocated by revolutionary socialists. The auto plants were seething with the anger of the union men. Mass action was the order of the day.

But the CIO leaders, seconded by the treacherous Stalinists, turned instead to Roosevelt. He rebuffed them, as was to be expected, with the classic statement: “A plague on both your houses.” Governor Earle of Pennsylvania, a political and personal associate of the CIO leaders, double-crossed the steel workers and opened up the large Cambria plant in Johnstown. Governor Murphy, the “Roosevelt of Michigan” as Lewis called him, gave free rein to vigilantism in Monroe, Mich., but threatened to call the National Guard, if the workers defended themselves at a steel plant there. The CIO-backed governor of Ohio, Martin L. Davey, was called by Lewis to stop the terrorism in Youngstown and Canton. He did. He broke the strike by opening the plants with the bayonets of the Guard. Davey substituted “legal” terrorism for the cruder form of vigilantism.

How little prepared the strikers were for these events was illustrated, most unfortunately, by the fact that the arrival of the National Guards was cheered by them, with the Stalinists and the CIO leaders arranging meetings to welcome the khaki-clothed strike-breakers! Such betrayal demoralized the ranks of the steel workers. When they saw the consequences of the leaders’ policies, the strikers returned to work, bitter, disillusioned, but not forgetting.

The role of the AF of L leadership was that of strike-breakers during the “Little Steel” strike. They tried to sign contracts and to make deals with company unions. The AF of L rank and file showed how it stood, however, by its support on the picket lines – in Youngstown, Ohio, for example, the AF of L truck drivers’ union called a general strike to support the steel workers. Taking advantage of the CIO defeat, the AF of L Executive Council ordered all Central Labor Unions to expel CIO affiliates wherever the labor movement was still united. Splits were carried out in Akron, Cleveland, Detroit and other industrial cities, precisely when labor solidarity was indispensable to prevent the “Little Steel” defeat from turning into a rout. This indicates why the middle-west is the center today of a growing reaction against the labor movement which threatens to take away the gains of the past two years.

The character of the AF of L national convention at Denver, Colorado, in September of this year, was partly determined by the CIO defeats in steel and, subsequently, elsewhere. Moreover, the AF of L, for many reasons, had developed new life and strength during the period of the rise of the CIO Victories in rubber and auto furnished impetus for all unions. The AF of L was forced to conduct more aggressive organizing campaigns. In some sections, as in Minneapolis, the AF of L is the progressive movement, (due there, of course, to the outstanding work of the revolutionary socialists in the truck drivers’ union). On the West Coast, the maritime unions, affiliated with the AF of L until recently, were continuing the forward drive started by the 1934 general strike victory. On the basis of the victories of its rank and file – against the official top leadership’s policies – the AF of L bureaucracy is now seeking to reestablish itself in the dominant role of the labor movement.

Meanwhile, the blows of the reactionary forces on both the AF of L and the CIO unions accelerated the development recently of the unity movement in the ranks of labor. The decline in business activity with the attendant lay-offs and the disappearance of the concessions won from the capitalists in the recent struggles, have alarmed the entire trade union movement. The militancy of the workers is at a low stage because of these factors, and particularly because the bureaucracy subdued the progressive elements under the slogan of “union responsibility”. The Roosevelt regime wants a unified labor movement behind its war-preparation program, and feels it can better control the workers under one banner, so pressure from the White House has been in that direction.

The most important factor for unity, however is the settlement of the splitting issue, industrial versus craft unionism, by the test of events in favor of the CIO This is indisputable, as both the CIO and AF of L officials realize. An interesting light on the course of development of this question is shown by the fact that one of the bitterest opponents of the CIO, Wharton, president of the machinists’ union, has organized his union on an industrial basis wherever possible. The dispute between the CIO and AF of L no longer rests on this basic question. Since the CIO began issuing charters to craft unions, the jurisdictional aspects remaining have been aggravated, but nevertheless, the real issue, industrial unionism, has been settled basically.

A unity of the labor movement which curbs the serious and bitter internecine warfare would obviously be a progressive one. The present costly fight between the Stalinist-dominated CIO unions and the reactionary Dave Beck controlled AF of L unions on the West Coast is a crime against the working class, which bears the brunt of the blows. This deplorable situation on the West Coast is mentioned specifically because it emphasizes the problems facing labor in its movement towards unity.

Both the CIO and the AF of L leaderships must be condemned sharply for the lack of democracy within the unions. The high-handed action of Lewis in appointing Harry Bridges, Stalinist stooge, as West Coast CIO director, played directly into the hands of that notorious labor czar, Beck. The entire set-up of the CIO is bureaucratic by its very nature. A committee of fifteen, dominated by Lewis, is the sole policy-deciding body of the CIO, and the rank and file membership has no vote whatsoever. The steel workers haven’t had a convention to elect their own officers after two years of existence. Lewis-appointed henchmen control the steel workers union. The growth of bureaucracy in the new CIO unions like the Auto Workers is dangerous. Of course, the sins of the AF of L union heads on this score would fill volumes. Democracy within the labor movement, autonomy of international unions, election of all union officials; these are some of the demands and serious problems before the rank and file. In these struggles, the revolutionary socialists must take first place as leaders of the workers’ opposition to bureaucrats.

The general trend of the labor movement in America, because of the various factors indicated in this article, is towards unity. The revolutionary Marxist, above all, must pose the question of what kind of unity? There can be only one kind of unity which has real validity for the revolutionary socialist. It is unity of the workers against the bosses, under a program that advances the basic interests of the workers, namely a program of class struggle. Our task, in the coming period, consists in fighting for a unity of the labor movement which includes

  1. democracy in all unions;
  2. militant class struggle policies against the bosses;
  3. recognition of the rights, if not the superiority, of industrial unionism.

In struggling for these demands in the coming period, the revolutionary socialists can not only win to their ranks the militant and progressive workers but can prepare the working class for its historic mission – the revolutionary overthrow of American capitalism.

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