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James Burnham

Their Government

John L. Lewis and the Labor Party

(10 February 1940)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 6, 10 February 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What, exactly, led John L. Lewis to open up against Roosevelt and the Democratic Party at the recent convention of the United Mine Workers? Where does it suggest that he is leading?

There is no doubt that Lewis is a sensitive reflector of mass opinion. He has proved this by his whole career, outstandingly by the organization of the CIO itself. He now feels a groundswell of discontent, or resentment against Roosevelt, beginning to grow among the workers. It is undoubtedly there, though not yet explicit enough to be noticed by the Gallup polls.

Roosevelt is becoming too open and too crude in his drive toward reaction. During the last year, he has had to appear more and more into the open: his budgets propose the slashing of relief; he gives the quotation to help break the WPA strike; his department of Justice smashes down on civil rights; he becomes brazenly the head war-monger.

Lewis’ speeches at the convention articulated the resentment felt at this lengthening series of actions. He went – in words – farther than the workers themselves have yet gone – in words, and thereby holds on to his position of leadership, at the front of the rising wave.

CIO and the Administration

But there was additional motivation as well. Until a year and a half or so ago, it was undoubtedly the case that the administration favored the CIO as against the AFL. This was shown by many decisions of the Labor Board, by the designation of bargaining units, etc.; and was marked for Lewis himself by his easy personal entry to the White House. He was made to feel very much at home around the Presidential fireside.

It would hardly be correct to say that the pendulum has swung today all the distance to the AFL side, but this has certainly been the trend. Last Spring the private Washington letters had already begun to note that Congress and the White House were paying more serious attention to the AFL leaders than to the CIO.

The Labor Board, with Leiserson replacing Smith, has been handing down frequent decisions with an AFL slant. It is rumored that, in the talks dealing with war plans in their relation to labor, Lewis is not being given much consideration. At the same time, Lewis has more difficulty arranging conversations with the smiling chief of the White House.

Here, then, was a second group of reasons calling for public action by Lewis.

What Is Lewis After?

Lewis seemed to be burning a good many bridges by his remarks. But a careful study of what he said, and left unsaid, shows that there were not so many teeth behind the barks.

For a labor bureaucrat to express the resentment of the workers does not at all mean that he will act to implement this resentment. Indeed, history shows that most often the expression serves to quiet down and divert the resentment: if it were allowed to remain bottled up, it might explode in ways most awkward for the bureaucrat. There is no good reason to imagine that Lewis intended to do much more than carry out this time-worn function of the labor bureaucracy.

In order to keep his hold on the workers, he has got to show more than he has been able to during the past year. Unquestionably his speeches were meant as bargaining threats directed to the leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties, He is trying to remind them that if they want to get labor votes, they will at the very least have to give more lip-service to labor.

I do not, however, think that he himself took even his predictions of “inglorious defeat” for Roosevelt, if Roosevelt tries a third term, as literally as the words would seem to say. If Roosevelt runs again – and it seems to me the most probable variant – I think Lewis will still want to go along. Roosevelt is clever enough to give him a formula which will help him in re-writing his convention predictions.

There has been much gossip in Washington of Lewis’ dickering with members of the Republican National Committee. Many of the younger men in the administration are convinced that Lewis wants to swing the CIO into the Republican column next November – the Republican Party, until a few years ago, has been Lewis’ traditional allegiance.

In the face of the attitude of most of the other union heads, this would seem to be a move almost too dangerous even for Lewis. It is noteworthy that his remarks at the convention were almost all in the mode of a critical, “left” supporter of the Democrats. He was calling on the Democratic Party to “be sensible” about labor.

What of a Labor Party?

There is not the slightest indication in Lewis’ actions that he is moving toward a labor party for this year. Here also, his words were, if anything, designed to head off, not to further, incipient labor party sentiment. Lewis remains convinced that a labor party is “unrealistic politics” in this country, with its two-party parliamentary structure.

Nevertheless, Lewis was compelled to say more than he doubtless wanted to. The only possible logical conclusion from his attack was, in actuality, a clean break with both of the boss parties and the building of a labor party. Though he refused to state the conclusion, Lewis really proved that labor cannot make use of the boss parties and must have a party of its own. There must have been many delegates at the convention, and many workers throughout the country, who drew this conclusion for themselves in spite of their not hearing it from the platform.

A first step to put this conclusion into practise will have to be the realization that a fight for an independent labor party now is a fight against Lewis. We must not allow Lewis’ bold words to deceive us into thinking that he intends to follow them with bold actions next summer and autumn. If Lewis goes into a labor party, it will be because he sees as the alternative getting out of the labor movement altogether. It would be a fine thing if that choice could be put before him.

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