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Stalinists in the C.I.O.

E.R. Frank

Stalinists in the C.I.O.

A History of Union-Wrecking and Corruption

(9 March 1940)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 10, 9 March 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Prior to the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact, the Stalinists constituted a major force in the American trade union movement. Posing as the best union fighters, the true champions of honesty, militancy and democracy in the labor movement, supported by a well-organized national apparatus, a strong press, with huge funds at their disposal, the Stalinists caught the rising CIO movement of young unsuspecting workers completely unawares and easily wormed their way into control of numerous unions.

Once in the saddle, they showed the American labor bureaucrats how to really organize an autocratic, reactionary and corrupt machine.

They signed agreements that disgraced the labor movement. They blandly united with racketeers, gangsters and any reactionary forces in the unions, in order to gain control. They systematically hounded, slandered and persecuted all genuine militants and progressives who dared to revolt against these high-handed practices.

It was the “Peoples Front” period of Stalinism. In this scheme, the unions constituted the most important battle grounds. The labor movement, suspecting nothing, was to find itself, according to the Stalinist plan, one fine day, lined up to a man behind the Roosevelt war machine and hellbent on shoving through a “collective security” war alliance of America, England, France and Russia, against the “bad, war-making fascists.”

Were Roosevelt’s Most Servile Agents in Unions

To push through this infamous scheme, the Stalinists converted themselves into the most servile, belly-crawling supporters of Roosevelt’s New Deal, picturing it as an almost suitable substitute for socialism itself. They hounded and slandered any worker who had the temerity to question this dishonest, reactionary policy. Thus, this crew of union wreckers, posing as the left wing of the unions, sidetracked the whole labor movement and helped destroy its fighting power.

The Roosevelt government, in this period, was on passively friendly terms with the Soviet Union. And since the American Stalinists were laboring with might and main to line up the trade unions behind his war machine, Roosevelt displayed an attitude of toleration towards the Communist Party and its activities. Many of the lesser New Deal officials actually became outright supporters or fellow-travellers of the Stalinist movement.

The Stalinists had the additional support of John L. Lewis and were in an official bloc with the latter throughout this “People’s Front” period. Why did Lewis make a bloc with the very people against whom he had waged a bitter struggle in the miners union? It was not Lewis who had changed his basic philosophy! The Communist Party, during the “People’s Front” period cynically dumped overboard all talk and pretense of working for socialism or militant union policies. It began to drape the Stars and Stripes around itself and bellowed more patriotically than even the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Lewis Was Sure He Could Break Them

Lewis and his lieutenants, drunk with victory as a result of the first brilliant successes in rubber, auto, steel, maritime and other industries, thought they could work with everybody, use everybody and outsmart everybody. The Stalinists had a machine, a national press, experienced journalists, speakers and organizers. In return for the services of this machine, Lewis made the alliance, handing over to the Stalinists the maritime unions, the whole west coast CIO movement, the radio workers, the agricultural workers, the white collar unions, etc. He was positive that he could always get rid of the Stalinists, if he so desired.

The period from 1936 to 1939 was the hey-day of Stalinist rule and marks a fever chart in the history of the unions which the Stalinists controlled. Determined to line up the unions behind their "collective security" program regardless of cost, feeling no responsibility for the unions, cynically indifferent to the real needs and desires of the union membership, the Stalinists pursued a deliberate policy of “rule or ruin.”

In those unions that would not bend to their will, as in the Sailors Union of the Pacific, the Auto Union, etc., they engaged in bitter, irresponsible factional wars that threatened the very life of the unions. Where they seized control, their rule was marked by

the signing of wretched contracts, making outrageous deals with the employers, belly-crawling before any two by four politician or public official, and a disloyal, ruthless suppression of all opposition. The Stalinists left in their wake a trail of wrecked unions, honest union militants corrupted into cynical officials and thousands of disillusioned, disoriented rank and file workers.

Wave of Revolt Against the Stalinists

The Stalinists were driven to be more cautious and diplomatic in the last period just preceding the signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, as great rank and file movements sprang up in union after union, challenging their autocratic rule and exposing the union-wrecking activities of the Stalinist gang.

In 1939, this rank and file revolt gained strength and swept through both CIO and AFL unions – in the Pocket Book makers, the Maritime unions on both the coasts and the Gulf, the Teachers Union, the West Coast Office Workers, the secession of important unions from the Los Angeles CIO Council, the New York Painters and Food Workers. This imposing rank and file revolt against the Stalinist machine was climaxed by the titanic struggle in the Auto Workers Union.

By 1939 the American trade unions presented a far different picture than at the beginning of the CIO movement. The unsuspecting, inexperienced union militants of 1934 and 1935 had undergone a profound transformation. The new officials of the new unions had become more cautious and more conservative both under the pressure of capitalist public opinion and because of their lack of class consciousness and working class philosophy.

The union movement represented to these officials, however, their life’s career. They became therefore extremely suspicious of and antagonistic to the Stalinists who viewed the unions merely as a pawn and tool to realize the “Line” of the Stalinist Party. The union officials knew one thing for sure: that their importance and prestige, as well as their salaries, depended upon a strong, virile union and they were interested in preserving that.

Even more hostile to Stalinism were the rank and file leaders who were arising in different localities, veterans of the strike struggles of the CIO, hardened and toughened by their experiences. They had learned the hard way the meaning of Stalinism and the fact that it was the most reactionary force in the American labor movement. They were determined to destroy the Stalinist cancer, in order that the labor movement might advance and grow.

(A second article on the Stalinists in the CIO will appear next week.)

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