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The New International, January 1944

Joseph Leonard

What Are the ‘Community Councils’?

A New and Important Stalinist Enterprise


From The New International, Vol. X No. 1, January 1944, p. 21–24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The need for better organized expression of the political strength of the unions has long been recognized by many unionists, conservative and otherwise. The creation of union Community Councils by the New York City CIO is a move in this direction.

The Community Councils form a sort of union political headquarters in every area of a city, partly to deal with neighborhood and consumer problems, but mainly to decentralize the political activity so that as many as possible will be drawn into it. Just as a union is divided into locals – and often a single shop will have its own local – so on the political field, mass organization, to be effective, must be as widespread and all-inclusive as is consistent with efficient action. The shop is the best place to organize unions that fight for better working conditions; the working class neighborhoods are the best place today to begin organizing these same union members as consumers and voters.

The idea of Community Councils was formally launched in May 1934 in an announcement by the New York City CIO Council. The city was divided into blocs of election assembly districts, one Community Council to be set up in each area. Each Community Council was to consist of representatives of CIO union members residing within that area; representation was to be on the basis of one councilman for every twenty or twenty-five members of his union living in the area. The idea is ultimately to set up a Community Council in each assembly district.

Community Councils are a slightly new angle in union political activity. Organization of unionists along this or some what similar lines has been talked of often, but this is the first time that a group of important size or influence has launched such a movement.

Not much publicity has been given to these councils so far because they are still in an experimental stage, but they bear watching. Among the minor resolutions passed by the recent CIO convention was a resolution supporting Community Councils. Nothing dramatic, just a sympathetic curiosity, a sort of ear-to-the-ground resolution. Readers may have noticed that a Community Council is playing an active part in the protestations growing out of the vicious anti-Negro meeting held in Brooklyn’s “Little Harlem” section not long ago.

Controlled by Stalinists

In New York City the Stalinists control the CIO Council and its Non-Partisan (!) Political Activities Committee (of which Michael Quill is chairman). In other words, the Community Councils are their idea, are being organized by them, and are completely dominated by them. However, as the fact that a resolution supporting Community Councils was passed by the CIO convention implies, there is no reason to assume that the idea will remain monopolized by the Stalinists, if it turns out to be a good one. There is no reason to assume, either, that the Community Councils will remain a New York City phenomenon. Already, in fact, beginnings have been made in Boston, Cleveland, Bridgeport, Conn., upstate New York, and California.

The Stalinists set about organizing the Community Councils in their usual fashion – from the top down. The CIO Council and its Non-Partisan Political Activities Committee instructed the leaders of those CIO locals that are Stalinist-controlled to get going, and within two months there were fourteen Community Councils set up, most of them at the same address as the largest Stalinist local in that section. No serious attempts were made to stir up rank and file support. The local union bureaucrats were instructed to make a list of their members, arranged according to the assembly district in which they live. Then bureaucrats of still lower grade were assigned to get themselves elected as representatives of the members in their community to the Community Council. At the present time they are all, big bureaucrats and small, engaged in a campaign to recruit (and appoint) 3,500 election district leaders, one for every election district in the city. (An election district is a few blocks, a sub-division of an assembly district.)

The literature put out on the Community Councils indicates that they are ostensibly to (1) elect pro-Roosevelt (”win the war”) candidates to office, (2) enforce OPA price ceilings, (3) build up civilian defense organizations, and (4) put pressure on legislators, both state and national. This is pretty much the conservative, patriotic, hypocritical program to be expected of the Stalinists. That it is conservative and patriotic is “discovered by inspection,” as mathematicians say; and anyone acquainted with the Stalinists in action will not be surprised to learn that the actual primary purpose of these servants of the Kremlin is to create a front organization, one of whose main functions is to expand their activities within the American Labor Party.

Inasmuch as the Stalinists’ main orientation in the unions these days is to humble all men before Roosevelt, the preponderance of activity exhibited by the Community Councils to date has been one or another phase of electioneering. In June, the Non-Partisan Political Activities Committee announced a six-point program which the Community Councils were to use in deciding which candidates to support:

  1. CIO organizations and members give all support – moral, financial and manpower – to those candidates for public office who are unqualifiedly for the war, who support our Commander-in-Chief and who endorse and actively support the program of the CIO.
  2. CIO organizations vigorously oppose all candidates who are against the war or give only lip service to the policies of unity of the United Nations, who openly or covertly fight the foreign and domestic policies of President Roosevelt, who openly or covertly support the disruptionist tactics of John L. Lewis and the appeasement forces in our nation, who seek to destroy the unity of the American people through anti-labor legislation, through race hatred campaigns and through red-baiting or other forms of attacks on any force or minority group supporting our nation’s war effort.
  3. CIO members be entered as candidates for the county committees in all primaries in all boroughs and CIO organizations be active in the circulation of nominating petitions ...
  4. CIO organizations demand a voice in the selection of all candidates for public office to be nominated through the primaries or through county or other electoral committees ...

The last two points tell all CIO members and their families to vote in the primaries (where the Stalinists were fighting the Social Democrats for control of the American Labor Party) and to register in the fall so that they can vote in “the all-important presidential primary elections in 1944.”

Point 1 shows the typical lack of Stalinist restraint in these matters. Here is no critical support, no backing Roosevelt as a lesser evil against open reaction. We are in the realm of utter debasement – moral, financial, and manpower – until the line shall change again.

Point 2 is an amalgam, Stalinist variety. The victim in this case, of course, is John L. Lewis, who although he retreated four times under government pressure (and promises), nevertheless came near enough to indicating the correct road for labor to be lumped by the Stalinists with revolutionists, pacifists, politicians who are skeptical of sending aid to Russia, Republicans, liberals, militant unionists, pro-fascist “isolationists,” labor-baiting congressmen, Southern reactionaries and misguided patriots who still think the Communist Party is communist.

The other points are all designed to keep labor’s nose straight into the official political wind (that is, the Republican-Democratic wind) and so prevent any dangerous shying at an independent Labor Party.

Under the same “reward-your-friends-punish-your-enemies” heading belongs, also, the election leaflet printed jointly by the three Community Councils in the Bronx. No candidates are specifically endorsed or opposed, but short summaries of “how your legislators represent you” are given. A sample:

Patrick J. Fogarty and John A. Devany, Jr., acted for the Interests of the people and labor by voting for increased state aid to education; for apportionment. They acted against the interests of the people and labor by voting to continue the Rapp-Coudert Committee. Mr. Devany was absent on important vote to increase the sales tax in New York City.

The Community Councils at Work

Although the Community Councils are still in a process of “sub-committee forming,” it is already obvious that the main emphasis is to be placed on house-to-house canvassing, records being kept by each petty bureaucrat of who was visited, when, and “action taken” (postcards to congressmen, OPA complaint forms filled out, air raid warden activity, etc.). The idea is to “service the union members in their homes. If the members won’t come to the union, the union will come to them.”

The momentum so far (six months) has been furnished almost entirely by the top leadership; the Stalinist brain-storm is thus facing a critical test. If the campaign for election district leaders does not widen their base, the Stalinists will be stuck with a “front” organization composed only of Stalinists. The November municipal elections over, the Stalinists are looking for other “issues,” and there are plenty to be found. Recent directives to Assembly District leaders, Election District leaders, union legislative directors and shop stewards list five “issues requiring immediate action”:

  1. Rents. Tenants should be informed of their rights under OPA rent regulations and all violations should be reported to Assembly District leaders.
  2. Prices. Get all CIO members and neighbors to report sale of black market goods and price violations in local stores. (CIO complaint forms available now in Council office.)
  3. Taxes and Subsidies. Pressure in form of letter or delegation to local congressmen on CIO tax program and support of President’s subsidy program.
  4. PR. Pressure by letter to newspapers and City Councilmen to retain democratic election method of proportional representation in New York City.
  5. Literacy Classes. Get all CIO members who did not vote in last election because of literacy requirements to register now for literacy test classes to be organized by CIO next month.

Here, again, we cannot fail to notice the extreme modesty of the program. Point 2 might, under progressive leadership, amount to something, but we can trust the Stalinists to see that the complaint forms are used safely; that is, to guide and supplement “our” law enforcement agencies rather than to put them on the spot. Point 3 doesn’t mean much because the CIO tax program is a milk-and-water affair, and the President’s subsidy program is little more than a government bribe to manufacturers and merchants, paid out of the taxpayer’s money. Point 4 is inserted because three Stalinists were elected to the City Council in the November elections, and the Republicans and Democrats are muttering angrily about the evils of proportional representation that permits large minorities to take representation away from them.

It is pretty obvious that this is a description of Stalinists engaged in building a new “front” organization. The programmatic spinelessness of the Community Councils stands contrasted with the detailed attention given to all organizational matters: that is, all the emphasis is being put on canvassing, getting lists, electing this or that officer or committee, visiting, keeping records of all unionists, etc.; while such things as getting out leaflets or other literature, holding public lectures, signing up the unorganized, etc., are never mentioned. The North Queens Community Council, for example, has formed a Committee on Discrimination and Fair Employment Practices. The only action contemplated is reminding other members of the Council that there is a problem. The suggestion of sending speakers around to get affiliated unions to pass resolutions of support was regarded as “good, but a little too, well, you know.”

There is one exception to be noted, however. This regards all matters relating to the American Labor Party. Although officially non-partisan, the Community Council bureaucrats are specifically instructed to “get enrolled ALP members to become active,” and there are special instructions, not freely passed out, relating to ALP activities. The Stalinists are very anxious to head off any third party, i.e., any anti-Roosevelt sentiment, and the Community Councils and the ALP are excellent nets for such butterflies.

The Organization of a Community Council

In form, the Community Councils are democratic enough. Under other leadership, the same organizational set-up could be a source of tremendous strength to organized labor. The first step in the organization of a Community Council is to get from each union a list of members, broken down according to the Assembly Districts in which the members live. Then the union calls a conference for all its members living in the same bloc of districts. This conference elects representatives to the Community Council, “in ratio of one council member for every twenty to twenty-five of the union’s members living in that community. Important community organizations may have one representative each on the Community Council with voice but no vote.”

The Community Council itself is thus formed of delegations representing each union. The Council meets once every two months. There is an Executive Committee, which meets once a month. The Executive Committee is composed of the chairmen of each delegation plus four officers (president, vice-president, etc.) elected by the Council as a whole.

Each committeeman (member of the Council) is given twenty to twenty-five names of fellow union members living in his neighborhood. He must visit each at least once a month (so the directives say). “Each committeeman must have with him on his visits the necessary information or literature on the issues on which he seeks action by his fellow union members.” This is the familiar Stalinist Jimmy Higgins work, which gets them very good results.

The net was quite beautiful when first unfurled in the sunlight:

... the growth of government mediation agencies whose good faith must always be questioned and freshly re-examined; the superior advantages the employer has in obtaining access to the members of these government agencies and to the executive and legislative branches of government which, directly or indirectly, control them ... The stark facts are that the shop forms of union organization, while basic and necessary, are inadequate today as defensive weapons and, when used alone, are obsolete as offensive weapons.

Collective Bargaining in the Community

Today, the same trade unionist who would not dream of taking up his grievance alone with boss or of fighting alone for a wage raise, is still an unorganized, helpless and weak bargainer as a consumer and voter ... [He] sends his wife out alone to bargain with his grocer, butcher or utility corporation ... [He bargains] with his legislator ... in a private polling booth ... He knows that his real wages are being slashed today, not by his boss in the shop, but by bosses who control or who are his grocer, butcher or gas and electric company. He is increasingly aware that his power to defend his economic gains and rights is being whittled away, undermined, or, as in many states, simply smashed by his “representatives in government.” He is learning that at the same time his “bosses” of all varieties are an organized lobby or, more often, hosts and advisors to his representatives.

Good, eh? But how would you answer a good union man who recited this to you and then asked you to become active in your Community Council?

The question is not as simple as it sound. The Stalinists have stolen progressive thunder. Should militants try to wrest the leadership from the Stalinists? Or refuse to cooperate with the Community Councils? Should they try to form their own Community Councils?

The Community Councils and Working Class Politics

The Community Councils are (a) composed of class-conscious workers, (b) formed for political action, (c) based on the unions, and (d) independent of the Republicans and Democrats. The independence of the Community Councils from the Democrats must be qualified, since the Stalinists, and the ALP especially, are in many respects an out-of-power faction of the Democratic organization; nevertheless the Community Councils are organizationally separate, and ideologically their fountainhead is in Moscow, not Washington.

Marxists habitually ask certain questions concerning any working class movement: Where is it going? What is it against? Will its program, its composition, its leadership, its methods, its goal, bring it into conflict with the present political leaders of the workers (both inside and outside the union movement)? In brief, will the movement raise the class-consciousness of the workers?

To put these questions to the Community Councils is to answer them. Revolutionary Marxists have said many times that the Communist Party and all its works constitute one of the main brakes on the progressive development of the American working class. Marxists can no more help the Stalinists build their latest facade than they could help them build the American League Against War and Fascism.

How about forming progressive Community Councils? That depends on two things: how much sentiment there is for taking up this kind of political action – and militants must do everything in their power to stimulate such sentiment – and how well the Stalinists succeed in corralling the development.

It is not only the Stalinists who must be fought. The most important leaders of the workers today are within the union movement, and they are not Stalinists; they are the labor lieutenants of the capitalist parties, the AFL and CIO bureaucrats. Before the War Labor Board and its Little Steel formula can be smashed, before “incentive pay” can be stopped, before the Smith-Connally bill can be repealed, before a progressive Labor Party or Community Council movement can develop – in short, before labor can really rescind the no-strike pledge and begin to solve the problems that beset it on every side – the rank and file millions must clean house. Labor cannot hope to engage in a successful struggle with its class enemy and the government controlled by that enemy until it finds militant leadership.

The Community Councils are developing from the top downward. They are not the spontaneous expression of rank and file sentiment. They are not the creation of a genuine, democratic leadership encouraging and leading the vague but growing conscious militancy of the rank and file. The present Community Councils are not what the rank and file requires at all, but only an imitation of what is wanted.

The Stalinists have launched the Community Councils to stop the movement of workers toward independent political action, to stop a class-conscious Labor Party.

The abortive development of Community Councils brings to the fore, more than ever, the need for a Labor Party. A Labor Party that starts among the opponents of the present policies of the union bureaucrats – such a movement is progressive. The fate of an independent labor political movement, be it as Community Councils or as a Labor Party, is like that of a union: if it goes to sleep after initial successes, it will wake up in bureaucratic chains. This danger, however, is hardly a reason for not forming unions. The point is that the initiative and the drive come from the rank and file – the reactionaries can only take hold when the militants leave off.

Far from being too late to try to form an independent labor political movement in America today, the task becomes daily more necessary. The Stalinists see it coming, and have started action; they must be overtaken. It is only mass political organization of union militants that can raise the class consciousness of the entire working class, lead them from bourgeois politics to proletarian politics, from bureaucratic conservatism to democratic militancy, from reformism to revolution.

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