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New Chapter

E.R. Frank

A New Chapter Begins in American Labor History

What Is at Stake in the Fight on Labor Unity?

(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).


John L. Lewis took a fall out of Roosevelt in their exchange on the question of labor unity. In Washington on Saturday, Lewis read with malicious pleasure the reply he had sent last October to the president’s “peace” proposal; that took care of Roosevelt’s assertion that Lewis had not deigned to reply. What is more, Lewis was able to repeat his proposal of last year: labor unity by the simple method of each CIO unit being chartered by the AFL, with all “questions of detail” settled within the joint organization – i.e., an organization in which the CIO forces would have a decisive voice.

Progressives in the labor movement, whether in the AFL or CIO, must clearly understand why the only worthwhile kind of unity for the labor movement is that in which the industrial unions will remain the leading tendency in the labor movement.

The split neither originated nor is it continuing today because of the personal hostility of Green or Lewis or any other individuals. Such an explanation is only for little children. The split originated on the basic question of organizing the unorganized industrial proletariat of America’s mass production industries.

The split continues today over the question of which unions and which policies shall possess the hegemony of the labor movement; the industrial unions under Lewis, Murray, etc., or the old craft unions under the domination of the Hutcheson-Frey-Woll clique. A bitter personal antagonism exists between these two groups of men, to be sure. But this conflict originates from the different type of unions that the two sets of leaders control, the different interests involved, the different policies pursued, and not merely an expression of personal dislike or hostility.

The Kind of Unity Roosevelt Wants

Roosevelt is not interested in a united labor movement because of solicitude for the welfare of the American working class. His interest arises solely out of his war program. He fears that the continuation of the labor split makes more difficult the realization of his goal: to reach a definite understanding with the top officialdom on putting the unions into the strait-jacket of his war machine. Roosevelt is working for a united labor movement that will be headed by a servile and cowardly leadership, willing to act as the agent of the War Department inside the labor movement. That is why Roosevelt is today putting the squeeze on Lewis and through Lewis on the industrial workers who make up the unruly, the untamed, the aggressive type of unions, whose industries constitute the nerve centers of America’s war machine. Roosevelt wants to mobilize public opinion against the CIO industrial unions in order to force them to subordinate themselves to the servile, house-broken bureaucrats of the Frey-Woll-Hutcheson stripe. This is the meaning and the aim of the Roosevelt Peace crusade.

The Meaning of Tobin’s Unity Demand

Tobin’s recent attack against “less than a dozen men” who are “responsible for the division of eight million men” and his call upon the rank and file to “rise up and demand” the complete cessation of hostilities between the two labor organizations, has an entirely different meaning and purpose than the Roosevelt peace campaign. Tobin’s call-to-arms is an attack primarily upon the reactionary clique that runs the AFL Executive Council and was so understood and received by the entire AFL leadership. Tobin is demanding, in effect, that the craft unions drop their stiff-necked attitude and give in to some of the demands of the CIO.

The Teamsters Union and Tobin have travelled a long way since the 1934 San Francisco convention, when Tobin denounced the “rabble and riff-raff” that were attempting to invade the AFL. Tobin today heads a powerful semi-industrial union of 400,000 men; he is, in a way subject to the same influences and pressures that operate on the CIO leaders. Because of the changed status of his union, Tobin’s whole labor philosophy and approach is today much closer to that of Lewis than to the policies of Tobin’s colleagues of the Executive Council. Tobin envisages today a united labor organization, stronger and more aggressive than the federation of the past, with the power divided somewhat evenly between the new industrial and semi-industrial unions and the old line AFL craft unions. Tobin

is a logical compromise candidate for the leadership of such a united labor organization and unquestionably so considers himself. Tobin remains an ardent New Dealer, but he is above all the president of an important labor union, and that is why his unity aims are so different from those of Roosevelt. That is why Tobin is putting the squeeze on the AFL Executive Council to “give in” and make peace with the CIO.

The Kind of Unity Green Wants

Green, who has the responsibility of the AFL national office and who has no base in any International union, fears even more than the other old line craft union officials, the eventual decay of the AFL unless the labor split is healed and the federation is allowed to absorb the young blood of the modern industrial unions. Just the same he, like the craft union clique, to which he has tied his fortunes, fears the new unbridled masses of proletarian workers as he fears the plague itself. The AFL leadership want unity, but unity with the assurance that the new unions will keep their place, pay their per capita taxes and not challenge the leadership of the Executive Council.

How Lewis Estimates the Coming Period

Lewis is convinced that the coming period will be marked by a huge expansion of all mass production industries, feeding both the American and European war machines. He remembers the marvelous organizational union growth of the last war period of a decade ago, when the AFL, its membership. He is convinced with little effort, almost doubled that the CIO with its centralized authority, its industrial union structure and its modern and aggressive methods of organization will achieve huge gains in membership in the coming period and thus establish unquestioned hegemony over the trade union movement. Firmly convinced that the future is with the CIO, he is determined not to subordinate the CIO unions and their freedom of action to the majority of the AFL Executive Council, come what may. He wants unity and a united labor organization with the upper hand and the determining policy vested in the leadership of the industrial unions.

Progressives have the task of explaining to the membership the full meaning of the unity campaign. The progressives must fight for a united labor movement, achieved only by the action and the pressure of the rank and file itself. They must condemn unreservedly any interference into their internal affairs on the part of Roosevelt or any other capitalist politician. They will then, in every case, put pressure, first, upon the old line craft union officials, in order to force through a united labor organization, with the hegemony in the hands of the industrial unions and the industrial proletariat – the most advanced section of the American working class.

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