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New International, November 1938


B.J. Widick

Labor Unity – A New Stage

From New International, Vol.4 No.11, November 1938, pp.331-334.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


JOHN L. LEWIS recently offered to resign as chairman of the Committee for Industrial Organization provided that William Green as president of the American Federation of Lahor would do likewise. “It then may be possible,” declared Lewis, “for the remaining leaders of the Federation of Labor and the remaining leaders of the CIO to conclude a peace pact, in which event the contribution made by Mr. Green and myself would be of some value.” That was a gesture the importance of which lies not in the fact that if carried into action Green would become merely another unemployed member of the musicians’ union while Lewis still retained power in the CIO, but that it symbolizes the tremendous and basic changes in the labor movement during the past year under the impact of the social crisis.

Perhaps even more striking was the attitude which Daniel J. Tobin, president of the teamsters union, largest and most powerful AF of L affiliate, took at the AF of L convention this year. One may well ask, what is really happening in the labor movement that a 66-year-old fellow-traveler of the AF of L executive council looms as the leader of a progressive revolt within the AF of L against the reactionary policies advocated by that board, on the question of labor unity? And above all, one asks, will there be unity? On what basis and to whose advantage? These are the problems that concern the militant and revolutionary workers. In their answer lies the future of the American labor movement.

It was no secret that the huge lay-offs in mass production industries cut deeply into the dues-paying membership of the CIO, while the AF of L appeared to be prospering, relatively speaking. The membership figures released at the AF of L convention were imposing enough: over 3,600,000 dues-paying and 1,400,000 unemployed members. A total membership of 5,000,000 compared to a very generous estimate of 4,000,000 dues and non-dues paying CIO unionists. The bitter struggles within the CIO such as appeared in the autoworkers union and elsewhere promised a stormy future. Newspapers were filled with talk of disintegration of the CIO The action of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, 400,000 strong, in refusing to participate in the formation of CIO councils tended to give credence to those pessimistic views of the CIO’s future. Would the CIO unions be forced to make peace, one by one, with the AF of L executive council? Yet precisely at the moment when things looked dark for the CIO, the edifice of the AF of L cracked wide-open at the convention, showing that the perennial domination of the aristocracy of labor over the industrial proletariat was doomed. In the past two years the AF of L itself had been forced as a defensive measure to organize many plants on an industrial basis.

In marked contrast to previous depressions, no wave of wage cuts have swept across the industrial scene this last year – a remarkable tribute to the power the proletariat has found in organizing industrially under the banner of the CIO. The AF of L registered 800,000 new members in this same critical year. But most outstanding was the signing of a pact covering 250,000 drivers with substantial wage increases. This was the achievement of the teamsters union, under the progressive influence of the Minneapolis labor movement. Superficially, the gains of the teamsters union, tended to reaffirm the hegemony of the AF of L in the entire labor movement. Actually it was a victory for the movement of industrial workers, and this was strikingly brought out at the AF of L convention. While the collapse in building activity seriously crippled the building trades department of the AF of L, heart of the die-hard craft-unionists, the gains of the teamsters effected a significant shift in the very social base of the AF of L.

It is reflected in the fact that the teamsters have taken control of the Central Labor unions from the building trades unions in such key centers as Akron, Cleveland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle, among others. By the very nature of their work, the truck drivers serve as a powerful buffer force between CIO and AF of L unions. When 350,000 truckdrivers say they will not fight the CIO but fight for labor unity, the “die-hard” clique in the AF of L becomes a general staff without an effective army. Months ago, an official CIO-AF of L coordinating committee representing the Industrial Union Council and the Central Trades and Labor Assembly was set up in Akron, Ohio, without unfavorable action from top AF of L leaders, although that was feared.

Further evidence of the change within the structure of the AF of L, and the effect of the social crisis, is the defeat of Mathew Woll, John P. Frey, and the other bureaucrats of the executive council when their demand that the convention endorse an attack on the New Deal (from the reactionary viewpoint) was rejected. That expressed in distorted form the desires of the rank and file AF of L for a solution to their problems along more progressive lines. The “socialism” of the New Deal over which Woll shuddered was exactly the only aspect which attracts the workers, even though they are dangerously deceived.

One year ago we pointed out that the cost of civil war between the CIO and the AF of L would soon work towards the direction of unity. The suicidal strife between Dave Beck, Seattle teamsters union czar, and Harry Bridges, Stalinist director of the West Coast CIO was then at the height of its fury. The losses in wages, the arrests and imprisonment of leaders on both sides, the passage of strike-breaking and union-smashing legislation, coupled with the blows of the social crisis, forced a change in that disastrous policy. Beck recently urged an “economic united front with the CIO despite political differences”. When Akron, Ohio, cops broke a mass picket line in May at the Goodyear plants, sending hundreds of CIO workers to hospitals for treatment against tear-gassing and clubbing, labor mobilized under a United Labor Defense Committee composed of all AF of L and CIO unions in that area. “We’ll be next if the cops get away with it,” the AF of L unionists realized. The committee has been placed on a permanent basis now. Similar stories of united action can be repeated in many cities. Fear of wage cuts, fear of growing reaction, and the obvious need for labor solidarity in these critical times have intensified the sentiment for unity in the rank and file of the AF of L and the CIO This burning desire has forced its way into the highest ranks of the labor bureaucrats.

The independent railroad brotherhoods of nearly 2,000,000 members face the most serious challenge of many years in their negotiations with management. Already a strike vote has been taken by 1,000,000 members against acceptance of a proposed 15% wage cut. Only the united strength of the entire labor movement can give the railroad workers effective support against government or management treachery. It is of the utmost concern to the AF of L and the CIO to prevent a wage cut in this basic industry so that the example might not become a contagious one to the employers. This situation impels the brotherhoods towards desiring and becoming a part of the united labor movement.

The hegemony of the industrial workers in the American labor movement and the vital needs of this decisive force are bringing a rapid shift in the direction of unity. There are no longer any fundamental reasons that justify the separation of the AF of L and the CIO. This is evident to the rank and file workers in both sections. The leaderships are on the spot. Perhaps unity will take the form, in terms of leadership, of a Dan Tobin-John L. Lewis-George M. Harrison combination. For over a year we have heard reports in high CIO circles that Tobin would be Lewis’s candidate for president of a united labor movement. David Dubinsky, president of the ILGWU, is very anxious to emerge as the great “compromiser” in the labor movement. But these considerations are secondary. It is the content and not the form of labor unity that is decisive. The question no longer is pro-CIO or pro-AF of L Industrial unionism is a fact.

Roosevelt and Labor Unity

The message of President Roosevelt to the AF of L convention urging unity of the labor movement was hailed in many sections of the labor movement as a powerful factor in bringing about peace. It is undeniable that Roosevelt wants labor unity. The questions that must be answered, however, is what kind of unity? This summer a Roosevelt-appointed commission went abroad to study the British Labor Disputes Act, and the Swedish arbitration system. Why? Surely the “Brain Trust twins”, Corcoran and Cohen, know the provisions of those laws. The New York Times carried a complete analysis of them. What was desired by Roosevelt was publicity for the idea of arbitration, for the idea of “peaceful settlement” of the disputes between unions and management. Roosevelt is looking for a legislative method of taking away the right of labor to strike. And this idea is carefully being built up.

Simultaneously with this maneuver, another Roosevelt commission went into action. It was the Maritime Commission whose aims are (1) to build up a powerful merchant marine through huge subsidies, (2) to smash maritime unions. Both are essential points in Roosevelt’s war plans. Maritime labor is to be crushed by taking away the union’s vital right of control of hiring halls, and by the creation of “training schools for seamen”, i.e., for strike-breakers. Government fink halls instead of union halls. The progressive role of the Sailors Union of the Pacific lies precisely in its intransigent fight against this government strikebreaking. The war crisis in Europe caused Roosevelt to accelerate his activities to curb any independent and militant tendencies in the labor movement. Hence his message to the AF of L convention. Less than six months ago he refused to make such a statement, according to a revelation of Dan Tracy, president of the AF of L electrical workers union. But the war crisis forced Roosevelt to discard his usual caution in avoiding stepping on anyone’s toes.

Outright passage of a Hill-Shepard Bill or a similar measure which would break the back of the labor movement in war time has proven too difficult at this stage. A more gradual build-up is necessary from Roosevelt’s point of view. Commissions to deal with “specific” problems. That is the way. Perhaps we shall even see a commission on labor unity. And even more important, the controversy over the Wagner Labor Disputes Act offers another wedge for the Roosevelt administration to foist union-controlling legislation on the labor movement.

The AF of L executive council was voted power by the convention to seek amendments to the Wagner Act. Its criticism of the Act was primarily reactionary. It helped the CIO, i.e., the industrial proletariat, in its organizing campaigns, the council declared. The Act, or rather the interpretation of it by the National Labor Relations Board, hurt a few AF of L unions. It made a few unjust decisions. Of any real criticism, that the Act and the NLRB didn’t help labor enough, we heard not a word from the AF of L So a campaign to modify it has begun. It so happens that this is precisely the program of the US Chamber of Commerce. Here lies Roosevelt’s opportunity. Pretending to succumb to the pressure of the AF of L and of the Chamber of Commerce, he will announce or permit modification of the Wagner Act – and slip in provisions similar to those contained in the British Disputes Act. And another chain in binding labor during war will have been forged! The fight against altering the Wagner Act carried on mainly by the CIO unions is therefore a progressive one and it must be supported. Roosevelt views labor unity as a step vital to “national unity” in war-time. Counter-posed to this is our concept of labor unity against “national unity” in labor’s struggle to block another world imperialist slaughter.

The recent war crisis also served to expose clearly the role which the union bureaucracy will play more openly in the future. William Green, speaking on Czechoslovakia sounded like an editorial from the Daily Worker. He has already publicly announced support of Roosevelt’s war plans. John L. Lewis in Mexico City did his part to try to swing Latin American workers behind the aims and needs of American imperialism. The never-ending poison of nationalism which the Stalinists feed their members and the labor movement is a guarantee that no matter what opponent America has in the next war, the patriotism of the CP is assured. Its special role in wartime will be the hounding of all progressives and revolutionists. Against this entire scheme of chaining the American labor movement to Roosevelt’s war machine stands an ever increasing section of the unions. The strong anti-imperialist war resolutions passed by the Minneapolis AF of L and the Lynn, Mass., CIO unions is a sign of this development The fight against the Hill-Shepard or May Bill by the entire labor movement is another indication. Real support for the original Ludlow war referendum bill also came only from the labor movement; the SWOC and the United Automobile Workers of America are two of the major unions which endorsed the war referendum proposal.

Future of the CIO

The key to a thorough understanding of the CIO lies in recognizing that it is primarily a social movement reflecting the needs, desires and aspirations of the conscious and decisive section of the industrial proletariat. It expresses itself on the economic front through industrial unions. Its political arm is Labor’s Non-Partisan League. It represents a historical break with the traditions of conservatism in the AF of L And it is inevitable that, under the limitations of purely economic struggles in an epoch of social crisis, the workers will turn more strongly in the direction of political action. Labor’s Non-Partisan League of today must necessarily become the basis of a serious Labor Party development of tomorrow unless war or a not impossible temporary upswing in industrial and business activity postpones it. The vital importance of the CIO movement to die progressive and revolutionary workers rests in understanding this conception.

The convention of the CIO called for November marks a milestone in its history. Here the conflicts, contradictions, present and future of the CIO will be decided one way or another. It faces three major problems requiring urgent solution. Every recent development within the CIO indicates that it will stand ready to negotiate its differences with the AF of L and unite. The rubber workers convention and the New Jersey CIO conventions took clear and progressive positions on this question recently. So have many other CIO unions. The presence of delegates from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, 400,000 strong, at the CIO convention would virtually guarantee a proper policy on labor unity. Indirectly, the ILGWU exerts great pressure. Its refusal to accept the Lewis leadership unqualifiedly, and its withdrawal from CIO council building moves helped curb the CIO zealots. Now, a tactical change in policy for a drive within the CIO would be a great impetus for labor unity, as was Tobin’s action at the AF of L convention. Which course the ILGWU adopts, remains to be seen. Its executive board is meeting a few days prior to the date of the CIO convention.

Two events in the CIO served to bring out its most serious weakness and internal menace, i.e., the Stalinists. It took the acute crisis in the autoworkers union and the division in the West Coast CIO to warn the entire labor movement of the disastrous consequences of the Stalinist “rule or ruin” policy. Serving only the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy, the Stalinists opened up a reckless campaign to smash Homer Martin, president of the autoworker unions, mainly because he opposed their war-mongering “collective security” program. Harry Bridges, Stalinist West Coast CIO director, alienated the AF of L movement by his raiding, he split the Maritime Federation of the Pacific in an effort to obtain dictatorial control over the maritime workers, and drove the SUP back into the AF of L by his “rule or ruin” tactics. All this was done with the objective of chaining the militant maritime workers to Roosevelt’s war plans. And on the East Coast, the National Maritime Union, Stalinist-dominated, accepts the government fink halls for the same reason. In every union, and many CIO unions are controlled by them, the Stalinists frame-up militants, engage in an orgy of red-baiting against progressives, trample on union democracy, and ignore the most elementary union tasks necessary to preserve the unions.

Within the CIO itself the reply to those ruinous policies was not long in forthcoming. The Los Angeles Progressive Trade Union conference, dealt Bridges and the Stalinists a heavy blow when they proclaimed publicly their opposition to that reactionary clique. They issued a 60-page booklet giving a detailed account of the Stalinist wrecking activities in the West Coast CIO They demanded that Lewis remove Bridges from his appointed post!

The six-point program of the Los Angeles progressives offers a real weapon in fighting the Stalinist union wreckers and their bureaucratic allies.

  1. Labor solidarity in the struggle for better conditions of employed and unemployed alike. We offer aid to any union, AF of L, CIO or railroad brotherhood which is engaged in such a struggle.
  2. Organize the unorganized.
  3. Industrial unionism in the industries for which it is suited. No raids on existing organizations.
  4. An actual democracy in the trade union movement.
  5. Struggle against anti-labor legislation and government interference whether through use of courts, the National Guard, the police or otherwise. For the enforcement and extension of workers’ rights.
  6. For independent political action to supplement the trade union struggle. Around this program of action the CIO can have a progressive future.

Insofar as this program finds expression at the CIO convention will the convention have a progressive character. Against this platform will be rallied the Stalinists and other reactionaries in the CIO.

For supporting the Stalinists in the autoworkers union, and for appointing Bridges as West Coast Director, John L. Lewis bears responsibility to the CIO membership. The temporary successes of the Stalinists in the CIO are largely due to Lewis’ assent to their “rule or ruin” policy. Yet the defeat of the Stalinists rests not merely in a change of policy on Lewis’ part. Quite the contrary. Only where the CIO rank and file unites behind the Los Angeles program will a really serious struggle against the Stalinists be possible. The Lovestonite theory of “using” one bureaucracy to fight another revealed itself bankrupt in the auto union crisis. Martin, in the autoworkers union, answered the Stalinist attack with an essentially progressive program, unfortunately applied in a bureaucratic fashion. It was this weakness that played directly into the hands of the Stalinists, and along with the intervention of John L. Lewis, won for them, at least temporarily. The subsequent dismissal of militant organizers known as oppositionists to the Stalinist wreckers casts an ominous shadow on the future course of the union.

The third question before the coming CIO convention is the future course of Labor’s Non-Partisan League. The CIO leadership apparently has learned nothing from the bitter experiences suffered by the policy of supporting Democratic or Republican “friends of labor”. Martin L. Davey was elected governor of Ohio with CIO support. He used the National Guard to break the “Little Steel” strike. Now the CIO is supporting Charles Sawyer, in Ohio. He is a millionaire corporation lawyer, described two years ago by the CIO leaders as a “reactionary capitalist”. In Pennsylvania, the LNPL again endorses Governor Earle for re-election after a public break in the primaries. In New Jersey, the Hague machine controls the Democratic party and holds a strong influence over the Republicans, and the CIO workers won’t swallow either. Yet the CIO leaders quietly ignored the mandate of a special state-wide convention last winter to set up a Labor Party. This was done by a simple device. The executive committee elected at the Labor Party convention later reconstituted itself as the executive committee for Labor’s Non-Partisan League. Now it refuses to run independent candidates when this is the only course left outside of boycotting the elections or supporting the Hague machine.

Labor Against Fascism

Incipient American fascism found its leading vocal expression in “I am the Law” Frank Hague, mayor of Jersey City, and member of the national committee of the Democratic Party. His ruthless crushing of CIO organizing drives, his expulsions of “outside agitators” from the city through vigilante force, his redbaiting, and above all, his tremendous political power make him a serious challenge to the labor movement. It is a sad commentary on the state of the AF of L movement in New Jersey that many prominent AF of L leaders endorse Hague. One central union council even passed a resolution to that effect. Hague is out to protect the sweatshops of his area from unionism. He has fought the efforts of the CIO to organize those exploited workers by thuggery and by clever demagogy. The CIO record against him is deplorable. Stalinist stooges, weak-kneed “liberal” congressmen, fake Stalinist “civil liberties” committees, Sir Galahads of the Norman Thomas stripe, have tilted with the effect of a Don Quixote against the Hague menace. Surrounded by Stalinists, W.J. Carney, militant New Jersey CIO director, has found himself swamped by the resolution-passers while the courageous SWOC workers at the Crucible steel lodge in Jersey City find themselves alone in a successful fight for unionism against Hague. In the fact that the steel workers district council of New Jersey adopted a militant program of action for organizing in Hague’s domain – the best way to fight him – lies the hope of smashing Hagueism. It should hardly be necessary to add that the Stalinists spend most of their time fighting the steel workers policies.

Elsewhere in America a similar acceleration in the growth of vigilante movements directed primarily against the union movement was witnessed this past year. The terror against the CIO in New Orleans; the vigilante attack on the CIO workers in Westwood, California; the kidnapping and beating of union organizers everywhere; these are cumulative manifestations of the growth of reaction. Rev. Gerald K. Smith again finds audiences for his gospel of fascism. The Silver shirts, the Bund and a score of other fascist groupings take on a new lease in life. What is the answer? A United Labor Defense Committee with special squads in Akron is a partial solution. Union Defense Squads in Minneapolis was the quick answer of the labor movement to threats by the Silver Shirts that they would raid the union headquarters and run the union leaders out of town. Extension of the idea of Workers Defense Squads – in this alone is there a safeguard against fascist attacks.

There is another danger. Division of the workers and farmers is a major point in the strategy of the bosses. Wealthier farmers organize into Associated Farmers, Inc. on the West Coast and the Middlewest. They recruit vigilantes and propagandize against the unions. In reply, the unions in Minneapolis, Omaha, the West Coast, and the rubberworkers in Ohio, unite with the lower strata of farmers. They cooperate with the farmers in obtaining equitable prices. The CIO has a national tie-up with the Farmers Union. Unity against the common enemy, America’s Sixty Families, has been the only effective slogan for rallying the farmers to the worker. Labor is rapidly learning that it must give leadership and support to the sharecroppers, the lower strata of farmers, and the agricultural workers. Otherwise, a valuable ally can easily be turned into a foe.

The Unemployed

Around 15,000,000 unemployed suffer in misery from conditions brought by the social crisis of American capitalism which offers starvation as the only permanent prospect for the working class, under this system. Of these, less than 100,000 pay dues into the Stalinist-controlled Workers Alliance, although it claims 400,000 membership. For the first time in its history, the AF of L took note of its unemployed members in convention reports. They number 1,400,000. The CIO has at least that many. Of great importance is the new attitude towards its unemployed members. Unemployment is considered as the problem of the union movement. The idea of a completely independent organization for the unemployed hasn’t worked out in the last decade, whatever the reasons may be. The only permanent and really successful – in obtaining concessions from the government – unemployed organizations have been those allied directly to the union movement. This has been the experience of the Federal Workers Section of 544, in Minneapolis. It has been followed in Salem, Ohio, in Lynn, Mass. and has begun in Akron. The auto-workers in Detroit, steel lodges in the middle west: in fact, in many sections of the CIO, the union movement retains the unemployed as members in good standing, and takes up the problems. It gives the unemployed much greater power and prestige in fighting against present relief conditions when direct union affiliation has been retained. It unites more closely the employed and unemployed.

The recent national convention of the Workers Alliance consummated the final rites over this once large organization and turned it completely into another Stalinist stooge outfit. The progressive section in New York City broke away from the national organization. Other defections are on their way elsewhere. The Stalinists have but one hope left of covering up their criminal irresponsibility and actions in the Alliance that crippled it for life. For a year David Lasser, head of the Alliance, has been begging John L. Lewis for a CIO charter. Against this maneuver and its ruinous consequences, hundreds of CIO unions have written to the national office urging the CIO to coordinate its unemployed work on a national scale and itself form a CIO unemployed union, along industrial lines. Such a step would clearly be progressive, if the Stalinist wreckers are isolated and kept from capturing the proposed set-up. The question is coming before the national CIO convention. It must be noted, that the AF of L has been able to maintain high wage levels for its members on WPA projects, and is talking about organizing the unemployed. This much is certain for the future, no matter what particular organizational forms emerge. The trade union movement in America must definitely and to an ever increasing degree concern itself with the unemployment question.


In the midst of an epoch of triumphant world reaction marked by the ascendancy of fascism, the American workers made remarkable advances. The brilliant wave of sit-down strikes of 1936-37 shook American capitalism to its foundations. It established industrial unionism permanently. Young, inexperienced, and barely organized, the CIO carried on though it was plunged into the depths of a severe social crisis. And the American Federation of Labor found itself hammered by the blows of this same crisis. Yet, today the labor movement has held its own. In some respects it has made organizational gains. After the first shocks of mass unemployment, the labor movement steadied itself. American workers are groping around for an answer to the crisis that has brought such increased misery and insecurity for them. Proposals for $30 every Thursday, for an annual guaranteed wage, for a 30-hour week, for unemployment insurance, and a hundred other plans are advanced and experimented with by the labor movement.

There exists a certain inner cohesion in all these events. Inexorably, the American workers are moving towards class solidarity reflected in the trend towards unity in the labor movement. Dissatisfaction with capitalism is revealed in every proposal, good or bad, that the labor movement accepts against a continuation of the status quo. It is precisely this situation that offers unparalleled opportunities for the revolutionary movement. A program of transitional demands that express the desires of the workers in terms of tomorrow, a program that accelerates the development of class solidarity, a program that gives a better answer for today and prepares the workers for revolutionary advances tomorrow: This is a tremendous weapon held by the SWP.

The prospect of immediate world war in the recent European crisis threatened to cut short the opportunities of the revolutionary movement. The American labor movement would have been unprepared to meet that fundamental question except to fall victim to social patriotism. In the respite from war, history has given time as an ally to the revolutionary movement. Its agitation for a sliding scale of wages, for a 30-hour week, for turning over idle plants to workers, in a word, its program of transitional demands is on the order of the day. And war will not interrupt immediately. Our opportunity to cultivate the slender roots we have planted in the labor movement into a solid and broad base of the revolutionary movement is here now.

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