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V.R. Dunne

Revolutionary Tasks and Work
in the Trade Union Movement

(October 1938)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 46, 22 October 1938, p. 4.
Reprinted in Socialist Appeal, California Election Special, November 1938, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A Marxist understanding of the state and of the role of the revolutionary party as the vanguard of the class, without which the class cannot raise itself to power, results in our having a different attitude towards work in the trade unions than that held by any other organization claiming to represent the American workers.

Alone of all parties in the United States, the Socialist Workers Party advocates that only a Workers and Farmers government, basing itself upon nationwide councils of elected representatives of the workers and farmers, can solve the economic and social problems facing the masses. It flows from this concept that our party must extend its influence to all sections of the economic organizations of the workers and farmers – particularly of the workers, because it is the working class that will lead all the oppressed in the onslaught on capitalism and the fight for a socialist America and a socialist world.

Our Task

The task of our party consists of gaining influence over the trade unions – more, of winning, through the trade unions, influence over the majority of the working class.

We can only succeeed in this if the methods used by our party in the trade unions help to build the unions, to strengthen them, to increase their influence among the unemployed, the farmers, the oppressed minorities and the small people of the city. That the trade union work of our party, limited in scope as it has been up to now, has been based on a correct policy is verified by the truly remarkable way in which unions in which our members are active and influential have thrived.

Because the Socialist Labor Party and the I.W.W. answered “no” to the question: shall revolutionists work in reactionary trade unions? they doomed themselves to sterility.

Because the Socialist Party and the Lovestone group have degraded socialist politics to the level of trade union politics, their work in the mass movement has not resulted in diverting the labor movement from subservience to the capitalists.

The movement for the Fourth International took shape in America and throughout the world, not only in the fight against the theories of “socialism in one country,” of “social fascism,” etc., but in the struggle against the theory of dual “red” unionism fostered by the Communist International until 1935. Lenin in 1920 had demonstrated theoretically, in his Left Communism, that for communists to turn their backs on reactionary unions and invent new “revolutionary” unions was to render “the greatest service to the bourgeoisie.”

The Reactionary Stalinists

But the Communist Parties throughout the world had long since turned their backs on Leninism. When the “Communists” re-entered the trade unions following 1934 they continued to wear the leading strings of the counter-revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia. With the drift to the right of Soviet policy,

the trade union work of Brow der’s party has developed to the point where today this group is the most reactionary force in the labor movement. Whereas the fortunes of the Greens and the Hillmans are, after all, bound up with the fortunes of the movements which they head, the fortunes of the Stalinist unionists derive from Stalin and his clique.

Unlike the Communist Party which up until the spring of 1937 favored the A.F.L. over the C.I.O. only to swing overnight to the other extreme, the Socialist Workers Party has no fetishism for either set of initials.

Mistakes of the C.I.O.

The C.I.O. has accomplished a great historic task in organizing the heavy industries, a task that the craft unions could never have accomplished. The new C.I.O. unions succeeded, not only because they were industrial in form but because they utilised militant and revolutionary tactics (sit-down strikes etc.) to gain their goal. Had the C.I.O. continued its original policy of organizing the unorganized, of concentrating on the basic industries, of avoiding raids on established A.F.L. unions, there is little doubt but that, despite the blows of the depression, it would today be in a far better position in the American labor movement.

Desperate for organizers, Lewis committed a tragic error in opening wide the doors to the Stalinists in return for their unconditional support.

Weakened by the defeat of “Little Steel” and the hammer-blows of the new depression, the C.I.O. organism could not shake off the Stalinist poison. On the West Coast and elsewhere the Communist-controlled C.I.O. has followed a brutal and callous anti-working class policy of raiding the A.F.L., of violating the picket lines of unions under the control of the progressives. In Minneapolis, the Stalinized section of the C.I.O. has not hesitated to connive with the bosses against the A.F.L., even to appeal to the courts for an injunction against the latter.

On November 14 in Pittsburgh, the C.I.O. will hold its first national convention, at which will be decided the question of who is to control that body: the workers or the Stalinists in a bloc with Lewis or other C.I.O. leaders. It can be said bluntly that only to the extent to which the C.I.O. rids itself of Stalinism can it recover its lost ground and develop.

The Strength of the A.F.L.

A phenomenon not sufficiently appreciated by the students of the labor movement – not by Stolberg and not even by certain of our own comrades – is the manner in which the A.F.L. has not only withstood the effects of the depression and the competition of the C.I.O., but has even managed to gain a million new members. The A.F.L., having an experienced organizing staff and great sums of money at its disposal, was better able than the C.I.O. to take advantage of the ground-swell of organization which swept across the country, and to stabilize itself when the newly organized unions faced the ravages of the depression.

Despite the Greens, the Wolls and Tracys and Freys – incurably narrow-minded, selfish, jealous, divorced from the ranks – the A.F.L. finds itself, after three years of the C.I.O., with a membership approaching the all-time peak figures of 1919. To be sure, the A.F.L., in the struggle to maintain itself, has used the organizational forms and even, at times, the militant tactics, which it officially condemned in the C.I.O. This has a special meaning for us.

The A.F.L. convention recently ended in Houston was marked by the fight which Tobin led against the executive council for unification of the A.F.L. and C.I.O. Tobin today finds himself and his International Union in a commanding position in the American labor movement. The Brotherhood of Teamsters is the largest national body in the Federation and has an almost unlimited field for expansion. With the strategic position of the drivers in American industry, the I.B.T. can play an important role in unifying the movement.

The Road Ahead

On the road ahead, it is not impossible that a third national union grouping may arise. The history of unionism in other industrial countries indicates that such a formation is not out of the question. Forces that might go to make up such a body are Dubinsky’s I.L.G.W.U.; the Printers; the Teamsters; the Sailors; the Auto Workers and Rubber Workers, etc. Should such a formidable group arise, it would have the power to bring great pressure to bear upon the top leadership of both the A.F.L. and C.I.O.

It is evident that unless labor succeeds in itself unifying its armies, Roosevelt, acting for American capitalism, will intercede to bring about unity from outside and above, in a way that can only have disastrous consequences for the independence of the trade unions.

The Unemployed

Of the 35,000,000 workers, almost half are today unemployed. Any trade union policy that does not provide for these unemployed will bring disaster to the working class.

The A.F.L. nationally has disregarded the problem.

The C.I.O. under the pressure of the depression, which hit the mass industries harder than the the skilled trades, has after too much delay tackled the problem in many localities. On the initiative of progressives, many C.I.O. unions have unemployed sections thereby binding the jobless to their working brothers. In areas like Detroit, these unemployed sections have achieved tremendous proportions and have been a major factor in maintaining the union’s hold on the workers.

Both bodies or the new united movement will have to intervene much more vigorously on behalf of the unemployed if the jobless millions are to be saved from fascism.

Political Action

No sooner had the C.I.O. organized the great basic industries when the new economic crisis posed problems which the unions could not solve. The C. I. O. was forced to take steps toward independent political action of the working class. These first moves have been timid and bureaucratic. Nevertheless, they represent an advance over the Gompers tradition, and it is the duty of progressives to encourage this process and to give to the growing movement a bold program.

Historic Role of S.W.P.

If the Socialist Workers Party, the American section of the Fourth International, is to rise to its historic tasks, it must redouble its work in the union movement. The last year has seen us making great strides forward in both the A.F.L. and C.I.O. But we are progressing much too slowly. Time is short. It is truer than ever that our most important field in the coming period will remain the trade union movement.

No one claims that our party has said the last word on the problem of the relationships between the revolutionary party and the trade unions, or that we have achieved the final pat formulas which will guide us in all the twists and turns of an American union movement that is becoming increasingly complex. But our policies are Bolshevik policies and represent the accumulated experience of decades in the world union movement.

Armed with these policies, our cadres can attract all that is healthy in the movement, can expand into proletarian armies that will lead behind them the American masses in the revolutionary onslaught against the cruel system which is preparing only greater misery, and against the insanities of imperialist war.

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