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New Chapter

E.R. Frank

A New Chapter Begins in American Labor History

Some Lessons of the Recent UMW Convention

(10 February 1940)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 6, 10 February 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


The recently concluded convention of the United Mine Workers ushered in a new stage in the history of American labor and revealed once again that the CIO is the progressive wing of the trade union movement, because it is based on the workers of America’s mass production industries.

After the smashing defeat of the “Little Steel” strike in the fall of 1937, the CIO lost the momentum of its splendid offensive and retreated slowly before the counter- drive of the employers. As the militancy of the workers cooled off after the first taste of defeat, the rear line trenches of the capitalist class opened fire. What they dared not attempt during the period of labor upsurge, they found the courage to do in the days of labor’s retreat. The courts began harassing the labor movement with anti-union judicial legislation. The state legislatures regained their lost courage. Beginning with passage of oppressive labor legislation in Washington and Oregon, the reactionary wave swept eastward, until today almost three- fourths of the states have new tyrannical laws designed to cripple the labor unions.

Union-Busting Campaign Taken Up by FDR

In the past year, this union- busting campaign has been taken over by the federal government itself. The campaign against the WPA strikers and the infamous Thurman Arnold “Anti-trust law” indictments are but highlights in the anti-union campaign launched by Roosevelt as a part of his feverish preparations for war.

The index of business activity stands today about 10% higher than in 1929. Ten million workers still remain unemployed without the possibility of being re-absorbed into private industry. This huge army constitutes an ever-present threat to the unions, menaces the wage standards of the employed workers, and hinders the progress of the labor movement. Partly because of these employment conditions, the unions have made no important advances during the past year. And in the labor movement, as in other great ventures, it is impossible to stand still. Either you move forward or you are ruthlessly pushed backwards.

Lewis Could Not Ignore The Permanent Crisis

Lewis chose to ignore the existence of this permanent economic crisis and its significance for the labor movement, at the CIO convention held in November at San Francisco. But Lewis could not afford to ignore these matters for long. He is not some Matthew Woll, who bases himself on the aristocratic Photo-Engravers and a million dollar insurance company. Lewis is the leader of the unions in the mass production industries: coal, steel, auto, rubber, glass, oil – the nerve centers of American economy.

These mass production workers are not experts in economics or statistics. They have not delved into reports of the Federal Reserve Bank or the Department of Labor. But they have seen with their own eyes production stepped up to the highest level of the last ten years and they know that, in spite of this, one third of the labor population still remains unemployed, and given present conditions, will always remain unemployed.

This industrial proletariat, employed in the huge plants, mills and factories of America, feels in its very bones how important and indispensable it is to the economic life of the country and it understands better than anyone else the full potentialities and latent strength inherent in the labor movement. These workers are determined to win economic security for themselves and their families and they are groping around and looking for the labor leaders who will show them the path to achieve this goal.

Why Lewis Broke with Roosevelt

For the last two years, they have seen the courts and the legislatures attempt to hurl them back to the slavery of the open shop. They have further seen Roosevelt and the New Dealers, whom they considered to be labor’s friends, take the lead of this reactionary open-shop campaign. The bitterness and hatred of this industrial proletariat is storing up and creating a powder keg of social dissatisfaction and revolt that will inevitably explode. Lewis Murray and their associates understand this fact. They know full well that they must adapt themselves to this mood, if they are to retain the leadership of the CIO. This is the explanation and the only explanation for Lewis’s dramatic break with Roosevelt.

But where is Lewis going? Where is he leading the CIO? Lewis himself does not know. He is extremely bold in method and violent in speech, but very timid and hesitant in his policies.

The indicated policy for the CIO is to break once and for all with all capitalist politics, correctly dubbed “company unionism” in the political field, and march forward onto the broad highways of an independent political party of labor, with an aggressive, fighting program for jobs and security. Such a policy would open up new vistas for the entire labor movement and would, by comparison, pale into insignificance the advances made by the CIO in its golden period from 1935 to 1937. But this step Lewis will not take. He does not have confidence in the independent strength of labor.

AFL-CIO Split Doesn’t Explain Weakness

Many bourgeois writers, commenting on the lack of progress of the American labor movement in the recent period, have ascribed this decline solely to the split in labor’s ranks and the consequent warfare that ensued between the two labor factions.

Is it true that the decline of two years can be ascribed solely or mainly to the split in labor’s ranks? No! Of equal and even of greater importance is the policy of the labor movement. Labor is today marking time, first of all, because of the inadequate, conservative, class-collaboration policies of its leadership; the lack of a militant, realistic program to point the way for a genuine solution to the problems of unemployment, insecurity and the threatening war.

For example, the AFL is today being subjected to an attack unprecedented in recent labor history, in the form of the “antitrust” indictments, which threaten the very existence of numerous AFL Internationals. How is the AFL responding to this mortal threat? It is confining its resistance to the hiring of lawyers, the drawing up of briefs and the button-holing of individual politicians. A pitiable campaign! Is this poor resistance, perchance, to be explained by the split in labor’s ranks? No! It is explained by the timid and cowardly policies of the AFL national leadership.

These timid and cowardly policies make those of the CIO leadership shine by comparison. But only by this comparison. By the measure of the problems which the CIO faces, by the measure of the desperate needs of its membership, the policies of the CIO leadership are almost as bankrupt as those of the AFL. Lewis’ lack of confidence in the independent strength of labor, in the ability of the working class to march forward onto the broad highways of an independent political party of labor, merely means that he does not visualize the policies which organized labor would require on that road. His vacillating policies won’t work on that road. But that only means that the necessary policies must be put forward in place of those of Lewis. There is no short cut to pushing the CIO along the road it must go to solve the needs of the masses. Only as voices arise which articulately and accurately reflect these needs, will the CIO move in the necessary direction.

(Part II)

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