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Farrell Dobbs

Industrial Unionism and Labor Unity

(May 1940)

Source: Fourth International, Vol. 1 No. 1, May 1940, pp. 6–10.
Transcription & mark-up Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Proofread: Chris Clayton, 2006.

THE NATIONAL TRADE UNION MOVEMENT has greatly increased in numbers since the split in 1936 over the issue of craft versus industrial unionism. Both the AFL and the CIO have grown during the four years of conflict. At least five million new members have entered the ranks of organized labor since the split, and the membership of all unions combined totals almost one-fourth of the organizable workers in the country. However, there are still more than thirty million unorganized.

Healthy growth has been recorded by the AFL and the CIO where they have functioned as parallel organizations operating independently and in separate sections of industry. On the other hand, the practice of organizational cannibalism in certain fields has resulted in many cases in the complete failure of both unions to make any substantial headway. In other cases the internecine struggle has weakened the contending organizations to a point where a maximum of militancy is required of the workers in their fight against the employers in order to realize a minimum of gain.

Disrupters In the Unions

Even when the most principled tactics are followed by the combatants in this civil war, the employers are able to direct their strategy in such a way as to strike heavy blows against the entire trade union movement under the subterfuge of demands for the protection of their “neutrality” toward the contesting unions. The workers draw many incorrect conclusions about trade union principles which they then have to unlearn before they can effectively fight against the employers. The employer on the other hand finds new ideas for the artificial creation of phoney independent unions. In watching one union fight another, the employer learns new methods which he will use in fighting all unions. These are present-day conditions under the best of existing circumstances.

There are individuals and groups participating in the conflict between the unions that are not motivated primarily by trade union principles. They turn an already bad situation into a state of complete chaos. The outstanding example of this unprincipled type is the Communist Party. This clique has drawn a disruptive trail through the auto union, the maritime unions, and every other section of the movement where it could find a way to attach itself to the struggle.

Roosevelt’s Kind of Unity

The realization of the harm which comes to the workers through this cleavage in their ranks has led many to work diligently for the unification of the movement since the day the division occurred. There is a rising clamor for unity today among an increasing number of the top officials of both the AFL and CIO. At first glance this seems healthy and entirely commendable, but there is more behind it than meets the naked eye. The main driving force behind this new burst of activity in the interest of unity on the part of the trade union officialdom is pressure from Roosevelt, who has his own special reasons for wanting unity in the labor movement.

Roosevelt wants unity; not for the benefit of the workers, but to serve the interests of the third-term movement and the war machine of American imperialism. To make war it is necessary to have strait-jacketed workers in the factories and patriotic worker-soldiers in the army. The best guarantee for this is to have a peaceful, orderly labor movement, dominated by leaders who believe firmly in the defense of capitalism in imperialist war as well as in its defense against the proletarian revolution. Roosevelt is justifiably confident that a majority of such leaders are at the head of both the AFL and the CIO. All that remains to be done in this phase of the war program is to bring these leaders together in a united labor movement, thus eliminating further possibilities of internal friction. That is why Roosevelt is for unity – his kind of unity.

Unity Against War

It does not follow that the workers, hating war, should be against unity. The workers must aim to present a united and militant opposition to war. It is not only the unification of the AFL and the CIO that is necessary; the Railroad Brotherhoods and all other bona fide independent unions must be included. The task does not end with the uniting of all the unions; the employed must unite with the unemployed, the industrial workers with the agricultural laborers; there must be a complete elimination of racial discrimination in all workers’ organizations. The goal must be genuine and complete unity of labor. The workers need leaders who are militant anti-war fighters.

In considering the problem of unity the issues which led to the schism in the trade union movement must be re-examined. It should be remembered that the progressive workers supported the CIO in the split because it was fighting for industrial unionism. The questions naturally arise: What is the present status of the industrial unions? Have they been accepted or rejected by the workers? Are the craft unions which still exist any longer a threat to the mass production workers?

Craft Unionism

The rise and decline of craft union organizational methods is graphically reflected in the history of the American Federation of Labor. The story of the AFL is the story of its inability to adjust the organizational structure of the unions to conform with the changing social organization of industry. The organizational policies of the AFL are not the unanimous expression of the opinions of all the leaders, much less of the rank and file. There are many sympathizers of industrial unionism in its ranks, even in high circles. The Executive Council, however, is dominated by a case hardened core of craft unionists, who stand facing the past, stubbornly refusing to recognize the new conditions produced by the grinding wheels of history. They have their main roots in the building trades and the metal trades, supporting themselves on a brittle mass base of one-time privileged workers who also stand with their faces to the past. William Green is not a part of this core. He is their helpless tool. It is one of the ironical pranks of history that a miner had to turn musician to remain at the head of the AFL.

The AFL today reports a membership which represents about ten per cent of the organizable workers. Prior to the NRA it had never more than seven per cent and more often less than five per cent of the organizable workers on its membership rolls. There is one exception; the period from 1919 to 1921. The wave of militancy which swept through the American working class under the impact of the Russian revolution, symbolized by the great strikes in the steel and packing industries, flooded the AFL. The crest of the wave was reached in 1920 when the reported membership exceeded by 72,386 the 4,006,354 represented by the delegates at the 1939 Cincinnati convention. But craft union methods and class collaboration policies had whittled this figure down to 2.9 million by 1923. Ten years later, on the eve of the New Deal; the AFL membership had dropped to 2.1 million, the lowest figure since 1916. Then came the NRA and with it a new crisis for the craft unionists.

Under the impulse of Section 7A, the first wave of workers came into the established unions outside the basic industries. Then the mass production workers began to stir. With ominous forebodings of the future in store for them, the craft union bureaucrats immediately pressed demands for their jurisdictional rights in the big plants they had never tried seriously to organize. True, they had sought to organize the skilled craftsmen in the plants, but they had no place in their unions for the mass of semi-skilled and unskilled workers on the mass production belts. Then, too, as good class collaborationist, they had no desire to enter into serious class struggle conflict with the huge industrial trusts. Their demands for jurisdiction under the new conditions did not represent any change in basic policy. They still had no desire to organize the semi-skilled and unskilled; they just didn’t want anybody else to organize the skilled workers. That they were prepared to fight desperately for their craft interests and policies has been indisputably demonstrated by events.


Lewis, Hillman and Dubinsky, representing unions already patterned along industrial lines, and therefore finding no serious contradictions for themselves in the problems of organizational structure in the mass production industries, sensed the dynamic character of this new mass pressure for unionism and saw a great future for themselves in taking the early leadership of the movement for industrial unionism. As class collaborationists of long training, as experts in this field of policy, they were confident of their ability to harness the revolutionary spirit of the workers and direct the new industrial unions into the safe channels of employer-employee, government-union cooperation. Lewis had learned this trade well in the miners – how to stem the tide of class struggle and how to twist the principles of union democracy out of shape in order to protect his ruling position. Hillman and Dubinsky had played the same game in the needle trades. Not as skilled as Lewis in strangling democracy in the unions, although they are far from being amateurs at this, both surpassed him in the more refined points because of their practice in giving a class collaborationist twist to the radical political movement. For the tasks at hand Lewis, Hillman and Dubinsky were a good working combination. With Roosevelt – a clever bourgeois politician who knew a good class collaborationist scheme when he saw one – in the White House, they felt that their plans could not fail.

The conflict broke into the open at the 1934 AFL Convention in San Francisco. A compromise was reached through the agreement of the AFL to issue Federal Charters under the control of the Executive Council. For immediate organizational purposes these charters were to have general jurisdiction in the basic industries. The final decision on jurisdiction was to be made later. The craft unionists decided to lay back until the plants were organized and then demand their pound of flesh. The Federal Charters were issued. The workers flocked into the AFL.

The Split

On the field of action against the employers the mass production workers found themselves thwarted. The fight in auto was steered into a governmental board. The same thing occurred in rubber, although some gains were made in spite of the leadership as a result of militant strike action. A hard-fought strike in textiles, where the workers went up against police, special deputies and national guardsmen, was steered into a similar cowardly settlement. Decisions on even the vicious speedup and stretch-out systems were referred to governmental boards. The steel workers fared no better. In sharp contrast stood the militant, victorious struggles of Toledo and Minneapolis. And in the midst of it all the craft unionists began to clamor for jurisdictional guarantees. The AFL was through in the basic industries. The workers were tearing up their membership cards.

Lewis-Hillman-Dubinsky had stood on the sidelines and cheered the workers as they fought the craft unionist leaders to a standstill. They now had a clear field before them. The industrial unionists had rolled up an impressive minority vote at the 1936 AFL convention in Atlantic City. The time had come to act.

The Committee for Industrial Organization was formed, under the Lewis-Hillman-Dubinsky leadership, at the end of 1935. Its announced purpose was to work as an organized group within the AFL to promote the cause of industrial unionism. Suspended in advance by the AFL Executive Council, they didn’t get to the 1936 AFL convention at Tampa.

Industrial Unionism

The industrial unions correspond to the modern organization of industrial life. The development of modern industry, with its automatic machinery, capable of great precision, has sharply reduced the need for the skilled worker. In his place has appeared a predominant element of semi-skilled and unskilled workers, chained to the production machinery in such a manner that dividing lines cannot be drawn among them as is demanded by the craft unionists. In each industry there must be one union for all the workers in the plant, with all the plants tied together through the democratic organization of the administrative machinery of the industrial union. In like manner the various industrial unions must be linked together. The complete organization of labor must envisage the uniting of all unions in the closest bond of cooperation, with full democratic rank and file control on the job and in the administrative apparatus of the entire union movement.

The organization of the industrial unions has produced a decisive change in the social composition of organized labor and tapped new reservoirs of working class power. The workers in the basic-industries are the most complete proletarians – creators of wealth who share in none of its benefits. They have introduced real militancy into the trade union movement in their first wide-scale struggles. Their full power is yet to be shown. The great sitdown strikes, conducted in spite of the restraints by the class collaborationist leadership of the CIO, are only heat-lightning. The revolutionary courage and determination of the American workers, once it unfolds in full scope, will sweep everything before it.

The relation of forces between the repressive leadership and the aggressive rank and file has been sharply altered in the new industrial unions. The rapid development of the shop steward system, plant committees, grievance committees, industry councils; the immediate appearance of broad strike committees when open conflict breaks out with the employer; the decisive manner in which the workers take matters into their own hands when the union leadership fails to force the employer to abide by the union contract – these are the convincing evidences of a rising pressure for rank and file control in the unions. This pressure from the ranks, upon the class collaborationist leaders reduces their value as an insulation between the workers and the employers. Capitalism feels ever more keenly the heavy hand of the working class.

Ferment in the CIO

The CIO, now the Congress of Industrial Organizations, has enjoyed a speedy growth, especially among the unorganized workers in heavy industry. Since its suspension from the AFL in 1936 it has recruited two new members for every one taken in by the AFL. Beginning in 1936 with an organization only two-fifths the size of the just purged AFL, it today claims a membership equal to if not larger than that of the AFL. The actual size of the CIO is a disputed point. Most of this growth and the resultant mass actions have occurred in industries controlled by the most powerful sections of the bourgeoisie.

There is great ferment in the ranks of the industrial unions. Dissatisfaction with official policies of the CIO leadership is widespread. Failure of the officials to enforce the union contracts is leading to frequent strike revolts initiated by the workers in the plants. Important contracts are coming up for renewal. The workers want action. The 30 hour week at 40 hours pay is today demanded by the auto workers, ground down by chronic unemployment. The 30 hour week with no reduction in pay is the slogan of the ladies’ garment workers. Demands for constitutional conventions, democracy in the unions, are heard with increasing frequency in the CIO. Pressure for independent working class political action, an independent Labor Party, takes on new force. These CIO sentiments are telegraphed into the more progressive sections of the AFL. A new wave of working class militancy is on the way.

Position of the AFL

The AFL has replaced the one million members lost with the suspension of the CIO and has added an additional half million. Its membership today is slightly over four million. The tonic effect of the CIO campaign immediately gave new life to the AFL. The CIO sitdown victories, the contract with US Steel, gave new courage to all the workers. The AFL registered increased vitality and strike activity. The favoritism of the employers toward the AFL as against the CIO added to its recruiting power among less advanced workers. Outside the basic industries the workers were more inclined to lean toward the AFL as the traditional organization of labor. It had stable unions of long standing. There were partial adoptions by the AFL of the industrial organization form in a few specific cases. In the first stages of the campaign the CIO carried on little activity outside the basic industries. The AFL continued to remain the union of the skilled workers. The absolutely unprecedented activity of the AFL organization staff was also a large contributing factor in its growth.

The main foundation of the AFL is the building trades, the metal trades and the truck drivers. The secondary strata is composed of actors, bakers, barbers and beauticians, brewery workers, building service employes, clerks, firefighters, laundry workers, postal employes, stage hands, teachers, affiliated railway organizations and small miscellaneous groups. The secondary organizations are in fields not seriously disputed by the CIO, but they also are not a decisive factor in the movement. Among them are groups with strong sympathies for the industrial union movement.

The building trades, the metal trades and the truck drivers are both the main strength and the greatest weakness of the AFL. The building trades are now under direct attack from the CIO. At the outset of the struggle they have felt themselves compelled to begin experimenting with new organizational policies. The heat of the battle will force more radical changes. The metal trades have before them the futile task of protecting their hegemony over the skilled workers in heavy industry as the only substantial possibility for growth. Failing to grow they cannot help but retrogress. The powerful and fast growing truck drivers organization, whose aid is especially vital to the building trades in its present fight, is becoming more and more outspoken in its demands for unity. The craft union core is in dire straits.

Position of the CIO

Beginning in 1936 with about one million members, the CIO today claims more than four times its original size. Its main base is in aluminum, auto, mining, needle trades, oil, radio, rubber, steel and textiles. The extent of organization varies in these industries, but it does not follow that failure to organize decisive majorities will result in successes by the AFL. It is more often the case that those workers who are not in the CIO are either unorganized or in company unions.

The most serious defection suffered by the CIO was the withdrawal of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which is headed by Dubinsky, one of the original CIO leaders. The ILGWU, now independent, has just recently negotiated a jurisdictional agreement with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, CIO, headed by Hillman, also one of the original CIO leaders. There is a possibility that the ILGWU will return to the AFL. If so, there is little likelihood, in view of the pact with the ACW, that a jurisdictional fight would develop in the needle trades as a result. However, reaffiliation to the AFL on the part of the ILGWU would give unwarranted moral and material support to the craft union core.

Among the secondary CIO fields not seriously disputed by the AFL are the distillery workers, certain sections of the transport workers and numerous small organizations. The newspaper editorial workers are generally with the CIO, but there has been quite a battle in this field in Chicago.

FBI Attacks

The disruptive AFL attack upon the CIO in auto turned out to be a dud. The auto workers have definitely had their fill of the craft unionists. It will take a great deal more than a Homer Martin, gone haywire, to change their minds. The AFL campaign in mining has been noisy but ineffective.

The main danger to the industrial unions does not come from the attacks of the AFL; it lies in the bold counter-offensives of the corporations and in the governmental preparations for wartime regimentation of the workers. The ignominious and still unretrieved defeat in Little Steel, the failure to organize Ford, the retreat of the union leadership before the onslaughts of the corporations and their government – these are the most serious dangers to the CIO workers. Nor can the industrial unions afford to maintain silence while the FBI attacks the AFL unions. They will be next on the list of victims of the Roosevelt-Arnold-Hoover drive.

Fields of AFL-CIO Conflict

Among those most seriously handicapped by the internal struggle in the trade union movement are the maritime workers. Both unions contend for membership in the packing houses, but company unionism remains strongly entrenched in the industry. Even less impressive are the accomplishments of both organizations in the utility field and the tobacco industry. However, the AFL has recently made important gains in one of the larger tobacco companies. There are sporadic AFL-CIO conflicts in the furniture, glass, paper, and shoe industries. Competition is stronger in the struggle for members among the wood workers, government employees and office workers.

The newly developed AFL organization drive in the South is mainly a move against the CIO. The minimum objective is a block of members recruited from every possible field in this poorly organized section of the country. A stronger motive is the desire to make a flank attack on the CIO by attempting to organize the Southern plants of the mass production industries. These plants in the South are steadily increasing in size and number as a result of the attempts of the industrialists to evade the rising militancy of the northern workers.

The overthrow of the late Charles P. Howard, president of the ITU, one-time official secretary of the CIO, was hailed by the AFL as a victory for craft unionism, but this was followed soon by the refusal of the union, through membership referendum, to pay the special assessment levied by the AFL for the fight against the CIO. The AFL has suspended the ITU and it now has an independent status. Although the union clearly does not endorse all the policies of John L. Lewis, it is also plain that the typographical workers, although themselves dominated by a craft psychology, do not give approval to the policies of the AFL in fighting the CIO.

Trade Union Unity

The main responsibility for the AFL-CIO split rests upon the AFL as does the main burden of the blame for the continuation of the split. The formation of the CIO was a progressive action. The stand of the CIO leadership on the question of unity with the AFL is progressive only insofar as they defend the industrial organization methods against the onslaughts of the craft unionists. Both leaderships are class collaborationists; both are subservient to the bourgeois government. The basic differences in policy between the top leadership of the AFL and the CIO relate formally to the question of organizational structure. The leadership of the CIO, however, is based on a more dynamic stratum of the proletariat and is more sensitive to their bitter discontent.

This explains why the CIO has followed a somewhat more enlightened policy of social legislation, on the problems of the unemployed, and on the housing question. It has given more concrete expression to the political sentiments of the workers. But its superiority to the AFL in these respects is rather the result of rank and file pressure than of a more enlightened policy on the part of the leadership. This pressure from the ranks will continue with increasing vigor in a united labor movement.

The manipulations of the two leaderships for positions of power in the united movement are of interest to the workers only to the extent that the CIO leaders represent tendencies which are more or less progressive. They have no interest in the aspirations of the leaders to positions of special influence with the bourgeois politicians. Nor are the workers concerned in the ambitions of the officials to enthrone themselves in high positions in the bourgeois political apparatus. On the contrary, the workers need democracy in the unions and their own independent political party. The criminal action of the leadership in utilizing the division in the movement for the achievement of their own personal ambitions is against the wishes and the expressed desires of the trade union workers.

Formal trade union unity at the expense of the industrial form of organization and the gains of the industrial unions would be a catastrophe. But once the preservation of the industrial unions has been assured in the united movement, there can no longer be any justification for a continuation of the split.

For a Rank and File Referendum

The test of time has proved to the hilt that craft union organizational methods are outmoded. The success of the industrial unions has demonstrated to the rank and file AFL workers the false position of the craft union core of the AFL Executive Council. The decisive majority of the organized labor movement agrees that the industrial unions have proved to be an indispensable instrument for working class organization in modern industry. The lessons of the recent struggles, gained the hard way, have literally penetrated the trade union movement to the marrow. The only ones who remain unconvinced are the craft union leaders and the small section of skilled workers who support them. They no longer deceive anyone but themselves. They are discredited.

The great majority of the workers want unity and yet it does not come. The usurpation of the right of policy making by the present undemocratic official apparatus of the trade union movement is responsible for this intolerable situation. The trade union workers must insist upon a referendum vote in the AFL, the CIO, the Railroad Brotherhoods and all other bona fide independent unions for the complete unification of the organized labor movement, on the basis of full guarantees for the preservation and extension of the industrial union method of organization.

The launching of a big movement for such a referendum would provide the trade union militants with the best opportunity to fight for full union democracy and rank and file control in the united movement, and an orientation toward class struggle policies on the field of action against the employers. Such agitation, in turn, is the best way to develop an unyielding opposition to the war.

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