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Geo. Clarke

The Crisis in the Auto Workers Union

Martin, Waging Fight Against Wreckers,
Is Hampered by Bureaucratic Tactics, Reactionary Allies
Internal Struggle Exposes Stalinism as Major Threat to Labor Movement;
Party Only C.P. Shadow

(September 1938)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 38, 17 September 1938, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The crisis in the auto workers’ union moves rapidly to a final showdown. With Sidney Hillman and Philip Murray, armed with a ukase from John L. Lewis, attempting to force an odious decision on the U.A.W. Executive Board in Detroit, it is only a matter of time before the crisis is resolved and a split rends the union, or what is the same or worse – the Stalinists grab control. A third possibility is a compromise which will postpone a solution of the faction fight at least until the next convention.

Whatever the outcome, the auto workers’ union faces a difficult and trying future. The new Roosevelt depression has turned a large section of the membership out of the plants, reduced the union rolls, emptied the union treasury. The motor magnates are obviously biding their time for a major onslaught to slash wages, re-introduce the vicious open-shop practices – in a word, smash the auto workers’ union. And in the meantime they are transferring, wherever economically feasible, all work to open shop centers. The powerful fighting reserves in the rank and file make the union more than able to cope with the new attack. But the debilitating effects of disruption from within are paralyzing the hands of the union and exposing it to untold dangers. The labor movement is by this time well acquainted with the source of that disruption: Stalinism.

Crimes of Stalinism Few unions have escaped the disastrous activities carried on by this wrecking crew whose aim is to harness the labor movement to the war machine of the Roosevelt administration. The auto workers’ union has been singled out for the full brunt of their campaign. U.A.W. locals have been kept in constant turmoil; every opportunity has been utilized to keep a constant fire of dissention burning; real issues have been distorted and unimportant ones magnified; real sentiments of the rank and file have been demagogically exploited and betrayed; organization drives were sabotaged if the glory did not fall on some Communist Party idol, and the W.P.A. auxiliary was almost wrecked because it did not serve their treacherous political aims. A catalogue of the crimes of the Stalinists in the auto union would fill a book.

The worst possible outcome of the present conflict will produce at least one salutory result. A large section of the workers will have learned “what the score is” as far as the Communist Party is concerned. The scourge of the labor movement, the Stalinists, deliberately set out to wreck the U.A.W. after they failed to capture it. Unionism means a constant struggle against the boss for better living conditions – it is a weapon for the workers. Stalinism on the other hand serves not the workers but the interests of the dictator of the Soviet workers. It uses the unions for over-the-counter trading with the crooked diplomats who are only agents of the duPonts, Fords and Chryslers. The Stalinists have no allegiance to the union. They are responsible only to Stalin and his G.P.U. Stalinism and unionism are mortal enemies. To know this is the beginning of wisdom for every good union man. The major bid for power made by the Stalinists in the U.A.W. has placed all groups before the acid test. Fine speeches and wordy resolutions could not remove the unavoidable necessity of taking a stand.

A combination of circumstances made the Socialist Party an influential force in the union. Throughout they have performed a wretched role – the shadow of the Stalinists. Left to their own, they fumbled the ball consistently. But the intensity of the fight did not permit them this luxury for long. The cowardliness of the party leaders and shabbiness of the party program made them an easy prey for the cynical and unprincipled careerist, Walter Reuther. His personal ambitions dominated the party policy. Norman Thomas fumed and even made public declarations but Walter Reuther continued to put the party through the paces. With Reuther at the helm, the difference between the C.P. and S.P. was not decisive. The S.P. whined and even protested but in the end it always tagged along behind the Stalinists. Undoubtedly, Reuther will repay the S.P. one of these days for their tolerant treatment, just as David Lasser of the Workers Alliance did – by leaving the party when he is done with it and kicking it in the face on the way out. That is of little importance, however, to American workers who are having demonstrated for them once again in the U.A.W. the utter bankruptcy of the Socialist Party as a force for progressive unionism.

* * *

Martin Fights the C.P.

Only a blind man or a fool would deny that Homer Martin has waged a persistent and courageous struggle against the union busters. He has refused to make any rotten compromise with the Stalinists, resisted their blackmail and spurned their repeated attempts to buy him off. Where countless C.I.O. leaders from Lewis down have taken the easy road and become fronts for the Communist Party in the unions, it is to Martin’s credit that he refused to sell out.

But good intentions never made a good fighter. Especially in a political fight are skill and principles of paramount importance. Martin’s skill in the struggle against the Stalinists has always at best been questionable, and the principles of the administration group allied with him have been open to serious criticism by progressive unionists. Under these conditions, the Stalinist game was tremendously facilitated. As long as Martin fought them with bureaucratic weapons, they could shout “democracy” to the high heaven although secretly they planned a dictatorship. As long as Martin allied himself with reactionaries, the Stalinists could pose as “progressives” although their real policies differed not an iota from those of Martin’s right-wing allies. The auto workers rightly jealous of their democratic rights and desiring a progressive union fell victim to the Stalinist demagogy.

A Record of Blunders

Let us cite the record to make the point clear:

1. Martin’s chief lieutenants are men like Fred Pieper and Loren Houser. Notorious for their incompetence, they liberally indulge in red-baiting of the good old-fashioned variety. Hatred for them and their like turned considerable sections of the auto workers against Martin.

2. Martin’s appointments of organizers, whose only quality is their loyalty to the machine and the payroll, alienated progressive workers in nearly all the auto centers. Militant workers, who had grown suspicious and distrustful of Stalinist organizers, were held in line when Martin replaced the Stalinists by arrogant chair-warmers.

3. Martin’s campaign against unauthorized strikes very often had a demoralizing effect on the union and weakened his support among the militant elements. In enforcing the agreement, fighting hostile foremen and managements and beating down provocations, the workers in the plant were forced to resort to a sudden sit-down or slow-down. Some of the unauthorized actions were undoubtedly the work of company agents, but most of them were clearly a manner of settling legitimate grievances on the part of the workers. Instead of Martin pursuing an aggressive policy towards the motor companies for the enforcement of the agreement, he granted General Motors a letter giving them the right to discipline union men engaged in unauthorized actions. This did not help the union in negotiations, it did not discipline the union, it did not help Martin with the militants

Weak with G.M.

4. Negotiations with General Motors were handled in a very timid and conservative manner. Lacking boldness and decision, Martin lost opportunity after opportunity to wrest concessions from the corporation, then he lost the moment to maintain the status quo and finally when depression struck with full force, he was forced to retreat. Then he bungled all over again by signing the agreement without consulting the membership. The Stalinists, originators of this type of high-handed action, unscrupulously exploited Martin’s bureaucratic action and lined up the membership against him.

5. For months Martin sailed along with no program whatever, at least with none visible. C.P. demagogy about militancy and democracy found ready listeners in. this period. Their demagogy went up in smoke when Martin championed and carried the 20-point program at the Executive Board last May. But the program was carried out in the most dilatory fashion. The membership remained uninformed about the union busters. Then Martin startled the entire union by his suspension of five of the leading officers. This terrible mistake consisted not in the innocence of the careerist and stooge officers. No! Their crimes were heavy enough to warrant expulsion ten times over. But no educational campaign had prepared the membership for these disciplinary measures. The bureaucratic suspension put the Stalinists back on the map of the auto union and gave them their strongest talking point. Martin has never fully recovered from the irresponsible manner in which he carried out the suspensions.

Stays Among Friends

6. With no other road open Martin finally began an open campaign. While the campaign lacked the effectiveness it would have had before the suspensions, it was a step in the right direction. But here again he bungled. Instead of going into hostile territory to convince opposition locals of the correctness of his action, Martin remained among his friends and kept repeating his story to locals already lined up for him.

Despite all his blunders, Martin’s record – as the head of the most democratic of C.I.O. unions, of the union which had gained most for its membership through militant action, of the union which had organized unemployed workers on an unprecedented scale – gave every reason to expect that the fight could be taken into the camp of the enemy and the Stalinist opposition smashed. But Martin missed his boat once again. And now lines are drawn hard and fast to a point where at least for the present it is impossible to change anybody’s mind.

Events in the auto union are dramatic proof on a large scale that there is only one way to defeat the Stalinists. Harry Lundeberg and the West Coast Sailors gave the Stalinists the trouncing of their life because they fought the C.P. bureaucrats as champions of democracy; they fought the C. P. reactionaries not as conservatives but as progressive militant unionists. Democracy and militancy are the only weapons against Stalinist reaction and dictatorship. These methods are dictated not by expediency but by the needs of the unions, by the true relation of forces and the real role of the C.P.

* * *

The Compromise Proposals

The Socialist Appeal has already pointed out the hypocritical nature of the Lewis “peace plan.” The plan is a clear attempt to destroy the autonomy of the union and to saddle the union with a Stalinist regime. Wiseacres have termed the plan a “compromise.” Yes, something like the compromise Mussolini made with Hailie Sellassie! There is no other course for progressives but to fight the Lewis-Stalinist plan with every ounce of strength at their disposal.

Yet the danger of a split remains an imminent possibilty. With union forces almost equally divided between Martin and the Stalinists a split would create untold damage. The rival unions would be thrown into immediate and bitter conflict. Between court actions and physical violence among workers, the manufacturers would have an open field for wrecking both organizations and re-establishing the open shop.

To avoid the eventuality of such a split, it is necessary that some compromise be made. The compromise cannot and must not surrender the union to the Communist Party, as Lewis proposes. But it must find some formula for composing the differences at least temporarily. Naturally, no one need have any illusions that peace will be achieved by any compromise whatever. The Stalinists will, not lose a minute after the compromise is signed to resume their attempts to capture the union.

Peace within the auto union will come only after the union-wreckers are decisively defeated and discredited in the eyes.of the membership. That is the job for the progressives who must now organize as an independent force and carry the campaign to the rank and file – the only guarantee that the United Automobile Workers will be saved from the cancer of Stalinism and pursue a militant and progressive policy.

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