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George Clarke

AFL Council Pettifogs While
Major Issues for Workers Are Ignored

(17 February 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 7, 17 February 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Executive Council of the American Federation of Labor has finished its grave deliberations under the warm Florida sun. It labored and labored and produced – a mouse that even the rodent family would be ashamed to claim its own.

With good whiskey and mellow cigars plentiful, the punjabs of America’s craft unions leaned back in their plushy hotel chairs and pondered the state of the nation. They found

conditions deplorable. The depression is still with us after ten years – lingering on like a bad dream. Capital lies idle by the billions in the banks. Business stagnates, there is no expansion, factories are idle. Ten millions are unemployed. And with it all, the nation teeters on the brink of war.

In other words, which no one can deny: America remains in the death grip of the most intense social crisis in its history. Patch-work schemes won’t work any more. This is a time, obviously, for bold men with bold programs. The leaders of 4,000,000 workers, who are most seriously affected by the crisis, should call out the might of organized labor for immediate aggressive action.

They should, yes – but the old, old men of the Executive Council have another idea of what should be done and how. For them the proverb “discretion is the better part of valor” is a hoary principle frozen in their bones. To the waiting world they uttered solemn words:

“Unemployment still is the most acute domestic problem of the nation ... the American Federation of Labor refuses to accept the idea of chronic or permanent unemployment ... We believe that a democracy owes a basic obligation to its Citizens to provide them with opportunity to work and achieve a progressively higher standard of living ... The AFL calls upon both political parties to incorporate in their platforms this year a constructive program for the elimination of widespread unemployment.”

And what is this constructive program ? “... find out the facts and face them courageously ... Ascertain just how many men and women willing and able to work are unemployed through no fault of their own ... Find out the extent of unemployment among our youth and among middle aged workers.” In short: take a census. The government should easily comply with this demand as this is census year. Cut a notch in the Council’s belt. The victory is already won.

But what then? “... provide jobs for the unemployed in private industry.” Noble thought. But how, when in the words of the Council “... there are not enough jobs to go around”?

“We demand,” the Executive Council whispers meekly after Tom Dewey and Senator Vandenberg, “that those in authority take whatever steps may be necessary to restore business confidence. We urge that all government actions that tend to discourage business expansion cease ...”

Yes, yes, we heard that before. The Republican National Committee, the National Manufacturers Ass’n, the American Chamber of Commerce has been dinning that tune in our ears for a decade. But what about the unemployed, the jobs, the idle factories? “... we urge Congress to create a national advisory council on unemployment which would have representatives of government, business, labor and consumers. Such a council could bring about unity of purpose and unity of action on a constructive program.”

But suppose the members of the council couldn’t agree among themselves? Suppose labor is voted down by “business” and “government”? Suppose labor doesn’t like the program? Suppose there is a lot of speeches and no program? Ah, well! A fine effort but perhaps the times are not auspicious for “unity of action” and “unity of purpose.”

Patience! There is something positive.

“Organized labor has long felt that the shorter work week without decreases in pay provides a positive and progressive offset to the natural displacement of workers by the introduction of labor-saving machinery.”

How is this most necessary step to be obtained ? Action, strikes, demonstrations? Take it easy, brother! This is the Executive Council of the American Federation of Labor. “The AFL will continue to press for the five-day week and the six hour day.” And that’s that.

Four days later, apparently slowly recovering from the shock of this radical declaration, ten leaders, led by Hutcheson and Wohl, unlimbered 5,000 solid words of Republican indignation on the New Deal. The statement bears the startling title: A Call for United Action.

There has been too much “tinkering” with business. Public confidence has been destroyed. The poor banks have been forced to finance the government. This unrestricted “experimentation” has provoked strikes and labor strife. Taxes are much, much too high – in fact the suffering Sixty Families are being bled to death. Too many g——m radicals, too much “innovating.”

On the question of war, the Council was united. “The US (must) maintain strict neutrality and keep out of European wars.” Not a word, however, about Roosevelt’s hurried moves towards US entry into the war, not a word about turning the US into an Allied arsenal, not a word about the American zones of continental influence, not a word about the huge armaments programs, not a word about the M- Day plans to strangle the labor unions.

But there was “condemnation of Soviet-Nazi imperialism” – in line with the ideological preparations for intervention on the side of the Allies. There was an exhortation to the government to extend a loan to Finland to purchase arms and war materials in this country. Green and Co. join with both feet in the anti-Soviet crusade.

A touch of progressivism was added to the deliberations by the strong onslaught on Thurman Arnold, who was condemned in bitter terms for invading the independence of the trade union movement. Nevertheless, the statement shied away from placing blame where it properly belongs – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, initiator and instigator of the “anti-trust” prosecutions against the unions.

* * *

That’s the story of another AFL executive council meeting. The one potentially progressive act that took place was the fight between Dan Tobin and the arch-reactionary Hutcheson. All the newspapers report is that Tobin challenged Hutcheson’s right to the No. 1 seat on the council, and that it nearly came to a fist fight. Undoubtedly, however, other issues are involved, which may become public at next week’s meeting of the executive board of the international Brotherhood of Teamsters. Tobin is reported threatening to take the teamsters out of the AFL. That step, considering the enormous power of the teamsters, might under certain conditions weigh the scales decisively in favor of the CIO. It’s a pity that Hutcheson and Tobin didn’t actually come to blows, as Hutcheson did with Lewis at the San Francisco convention over the CIO issue.

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