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Trotskyist Writers Section | Farrell Dobbs

Farrell Dobbs

The Unions and Politics

(July 1940)

Source: Fourth International, Vol. 1 No. 3, July 1940, pp. 73–75.
Transcription & mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

SEATED ON ONE SIDE of the conference table are worker representatives of a trade union. Handicapped by lack of academic training, laboriously computing figures with the stub of a pencil, they make their arguments for higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions. They must depend almost entirely upon their own personal experiences and observations for the facts which support their arguments.

They know what they have to pay the landlord, the grocer, the clothiers for the necessities of life. And how hard it is to make ends meet on the wages they are getting. They know the haunting fear of unemployment. But their knowledge of economic trends beyond the scope of their own direct experiences is more or less limited.

Seated across the table are the employers and their skilled aids – trained lawyers, accountants, statisticians. Better educated than the workers, well informed on local, regional and national economic conditions, they argue glibly, using a slide-rule instead of the worker’s pencil stub and paper. They are armed with imposing statistics obtained through the service of the employers’ vast national organizations created to combat labor. All the tested methods of beating down the workers have been previously studied by them. They juggle the figures to support their claim that they have lost money since the first day that the business was launched. They hold the workers responsible for conditions elsewhere. The workers cannot ask for a raise in a St. Louis plant they contend because the employer is already paying more than is received by the workers in a similar plant in Birmingham, Alabama or even in Bombay, India.

The workers know that if they are forced to go on strike they will have to depend largely on their own resourcefulness to find means of subsistence. They are aware of the fact that many other trade unionists will make every possible effort to aid them. But experience has also shown that the trade union movement has not found a way to gear itself to present a solid front in these strike struggles against the employers.

The boss, on the other hand, is assured in advance not only of the solid support of the boss class itself, but also of the police and the lackeys of the employers in the apparatus of government. He will eat regularly while the government does his fighting for him. If he is a big boss he may hire his own private thugs to help. If he is a little boss he will merely hire scabs to do the work and leave the rough stuff in exclusive charge of the police.

The foregoing is symbolic of the relative position of the workers and the employers in the day to day class struggle. Sometimes the workers are at less disadvantage. Again, they may be under even greater handicaps. Taken in its entirety, this is an accurate reflection of the relation of forces.

In general the bosses are much better prepared than the workers in employer-union conflicts. The reasons do not lie in any inherent weakness in the working class. Actually the workers are much more powerful than the bosses. The weakness of the workers lies in a leadership which has failed to recognize the class struggle in its real significance and to prepare the fight accordingly. To put it more accurately, the official trade union leadership has subordinated itself to the leadership of the political agents of the employers.

Beginning with the vast majority of the national leaders of the trade unions, reaching far down into the secondary stratum of the union leadership and including a section of the more privileged trade union membership, there exists a portion of the working class which looks with favor upon the system of individual enterprise. Compared with the conditions of the many poorly-paid and unemployed workers, they find themselves in fairly comfortable circumstances. They see a bright side to things as they are. They are capable of viewing social and economic problems from the general point of view of the employers. Sincerely deploring the plight of the less-fortunate workers, they are mentally incapable of taking decisive action to aid them. They decline to risk their own privileged position in the interests of this struggle.

The employers, understanding this, have pursued a conscious policy of nurturing a contented section in the official trade union movement. There are comparatively few communities in the country, including the smallest, that do not have a trade union group, based on the relatively better-paid skilled workers, which enjoys very good relations with the local Chamber of Commerce. These groups extend themselves into the gradually thinning ranks of the small minorities of skilled workers in the mass production industries.

AF of L Policy

The American Federation of Labor was built up into a substantial national organization primarily on this foundation. Its officialdom is dominated by those whose ideology and outlook is that of the individual who enjoys a certain degree of comfort and who therefore finds no serious fault with the present social structure.

This leadership continually reminds the workers that they “must learn to crawl before they can walk.” Main emphasis is placed on lobbying for “liberal” legislation as a means of struggle for unproved wages and working conditions. Direct struggles against the employers through strike actions are subordinated to this program and, in general, discouraged if not sabotaged.

The traditional political policy of the AFL in promoting favorable legislation is to reward political “friends” and punish political “enemies” – by votes. The term “friends” does not mean representatives of the workers. The “friends” do not always vote for the bills endorsed by the unions. They are considered “friendly” if they vote for the majority of them.

The AFL officialdom rejects independent working class political action. They advise the workers to confine themselves solely to trade union activity and let the bosses organize the political parties and run the government. The “friends” may be Republicans, Democrats or so-called “Independents.”

Now that the mass production workers have broken the strangle-hold of the craft unions and have successfully established their industrial unions, a new pressure has developed on the political front. The bosses have few crumbs to offer to these great layers of the working class. The membership of the industrial unions find themselves in constant conflict with the bosses. They have the grave problems of low wages, poor housing, unemployment, industrial diseases in the most aggravated form. They are little impressed by the time-worn dictum about the “long road” to the realization of their aims. Especially when those “aims” are only a few cents more an hour or a few hours less work per week. There is little satisfaction in “progressing” from starvation to mere malnutrition. They want action. And on the political as well as the economic front.

CIO and Labor’s Non-Partisan League

The leadership of the Congress of Industrial Organizations pretended to give the industrial workers a vehicle for independent working class political action through Labor’s Non-Partisan League. But it is only a pretense. The LNPL is not an independent working-class political party. It is nothing but a new method of applying the hoary AFL “reward your friends and punish your enemies” policy.

A typical example of the policies of the LNPL is found in the record of the Labor Voter, a publication issued by the LNPL of Illinois. This publication was launched during the 1936 presidential campaign. Seven issues appeared, giving unqualified endorsement and support to Roosevelt and the New Deal. Publication was then suspended for a period of two years. It was revived again during the 1938 election campaign with the publication of issue No. 8. This time the paper endorsed 94 Democrats and 33 Republicans for seats in the United States Congress and the Illinois legislature. The publication was again suspended.

An examination of the record does not speak well for these political “friends” who are backed by the officialdom of the AFL and CIO. Few workers can remember a time when one of these “friends” appeared before a union meeting to urge the workers to go on strike and use their economic power in the struggle for their rights. But many workers can recall incidents where the “friends” have gone before meetings of the workers urging them not to go on strike, or to call off a strike already in progress, to say nothing about statements issued by them against the workers. They have many, many times helped the bosses to cram an unfair contract down the workers’ throats or to force the workers to accept an insincere boss promise and no contract at all.

When the time comes for a show-down these “friends” of labor show that their real allegiance is to the bosses. Their promises to the workers were not made in good faith.

In fact, the record shows that the policy of supporting “friendly” politicians is in reality a matter of supporting those who are least hostile.

Some of the most serious defeats have been suffered where the unions depended on “friendly” government officials instead of militant class struggle policy. For example, in Little Steel, the CIO workers got a large scale demonstration of betrayal by the very people they had worked so hard to elect into posts in the government.

When a politician takes a more or less bold course in opposition to the workers or piles up too long a record of anti-labor actions the workers turn sharply against him. The alibi-artists in the trade union movement find it difficult to apologize for him and sometimes he does not survive the next election.

However, he is replaced not by a workers’ representative, but by another slick politician who is also subservient to the bosses. He, too, is palmed off on the workers as their “friend.” The union leadership must be put on record as approving or disapproving all action of these “friendly” politicians. Nothing must remain unmentioned or covered up.

They will try to evade this responsibility, claiming that there is danger of embarrassing the “friends” and risking the election of “enemies.” The workers must insist upon an end to such “friends” and the election of government officials from the workers’ ranks by the workers’ own party.

The workers do not elect bosses or boss stooges to lead the unions. Such an action would be patently foolish. It is done only in company unions. It is just as ridiculous for them to elect such people to political office. The theory that the workers are not capable of governing themselves is false to the core. Unthinking people in the trade unions who repeat this prevarication do an injustice to their class. Every worker who has participated in trade union life knows that the working class has a tremendous capacity for efficient administration.

Those parties which have represented themselves as labor parties are only substitutes for the real article. They confine themselves to competition for political posts of the lower rank. They do not seriously challenge the boss’ political parties for the key positions in the government. Occasionally they elect a mayor; very rarely a governor or a congressman. They avoid putting up workers as candidates. Lawyers, drug store proprietors and professional politicians have been more popular with them as standard bearers.They buckle under just like the Republicans and the Democrats when the bosses really turn on the heat.

For an Independent Labor Party

An independent labor party, sponsored and launched by the trade unions, will represent the political power, not only of the organized workers, but also of a broad strata of the unorganized industrial and agricultural workers who will give it their support.

Farmers, small merchants, professional people and other middle-class elements will also in large numbers follow the independent political leadership of a dynamic working class as opposed to the present leadership of a decaying boss class.

Class collaborationist leaders of the workers have been, and will continue to be, in political offices as timid before the bosses as they are in the unions. The independent labor party will no doubt elect to political office, among others, many class collaborationists. Their performance in office will help show them up in their true colors before the eyes of the workers. They can thus be compelled to change their policies or be eliminated entirely from leadership in the working class movement in any capacity.

The class conscious working class leaders will fight as militantly in political office for the rights of the workers as they do in the unions. They will give a new meaning to the struggle of the workers for their rights. The workers will find powerful new weapons at their command.

The electing of workers’ representatives to political offices will surely not solve the basic problems of the working class. But when the workers begin to participate in politics as a class, through an independent party of their own, they will have taken a long step forward toward their goal.

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