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Notes of the Month

The Issue of Labor Unity

(February 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 1, February 1942, pp. 3–5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan.

When the New York Times, on January 19th, published an alleged agreement between John L. Lewis and certain top leaders of the AFL whereby the unification of the two labor organizations might be accomplished, it willfully distorted the most important labor problem of the present period by directing attention to the issue of labor unity as merely something to be realized by a division of posts and salaries. This journalistic fraud intended to convey the thought that the split in the American union movement had nothing to do with any fundamental issue of unionism, but was rather the result of a simple fight for power.

The Times’ story, moreover, intended to give the problem of labor unity an aura of mystery, pictured it as a mess of intrigue, politics, double-dealing, personal ambition. We are certain that all of these things are involved. However, important as they may be, the issue of labor unity is so powerful, so sweeping in fundamental importance for the American working class, that they decline in significance when compared to the main problem. The one merit the Times story had was that it pushed the whole matter into the open and revealed that the question of unity was discussed and considerably advanced. Everything else in the “scoop” was yellow journalism.

Almost immediately thereafter, Lewis’ letter to Murray and Green on the subject of labor unity was made public. The letter stated: “Labor imperatively requires coherency in order to give maximum assistance to the nation in its war effort to defend American liberties and American institutions.” Thus Lewis precluded, so he thought, any attack on his proposal for immediate unification of the AFL and the CIO, on the grounds of his isolationism and support of Willkie in the last presidential election.

The Opposition Lines Up

What followed the publication of the unity proposals took on the air of a Hollywood scenario. Roosevelt, who had heretofore insisted upon labor unity as essential to the war effort, suddenly reversed himself and came out flat-footedly against Lewis’ proposal. An isolationist plot was charged against Lewis, Wheeler, Norman Thomas and Dorothy Detzer of the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom. This charge was thereafter denied. Roosevelt also denied a Times story that he declared his belief that an isolationist plot was involved in Lewis’ proposal.

Lewis denounced the Times’ story about the retirement of Green at a pension of $20,000 a year for life, the division of posts with George Meany as president, Lewis as vice-president and Murray as secretary-treasurer of the united labor organization, the collusion with Dan Tobin and William Hutcheson, as a pure fabrication. There is no evidence to sustain the allegations of the Times’ report.

Dan Tobin entered a demurrer! William Green sulked and pouted until Roosevelt openly stepped in to stop Lewis and then suddenly Green began to bark like a puppy dog enraged. Murray hastened back from a Florida vacation to halt what he regarded as his demotion. The “isolationist bloc” denounced the story contained in the New York Post that they had in any way fostered the Lewis proposal.

Amidst the great confusion which necessarily emanated from the fog created by the incessant flow of charges and counter-charges, most people lost sight of the singular fact that the most outspoken, militant and threatening opposition to labor unity came from big business, the industrialists and financiers organized in the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce, and the venal toady of big business, the corrupt and reactionary “press of the nation.” How they howled and screamed! They, above all, were not interested in the Washington side-show. They were concerned with the issue of labor unity itself.

And finally, we come to the Stalinists. They too, joined the wolf pack in denouncing their erstwhile friend (before Germany attacked the Soviet Union) for his proposal on labor unity. They had found a new man in the CIO, Philip Murray. The Stalinist policy was based on a fear that unification of the AFL and the CIO would result in their elimination as an organized destructive force in the labor movement.

CIO Misses the Point

Several charges were levelled against Lewis’ proposal for labor unity. Roosevelt’s opposition originated from his fear, despite his denial, that there might be an isolationist scheme involved in the proposal, that unity now would bring forth an intensive period of class struggle arising from the determined opposition of America’s financial and industrial ruling class, or that a series of strike struggles would ensue from a unified labor movement’s desire to organize the unorganized. His proposal, at once accepted by Green and Murray, to set up a joint AFL and CIO committee under his personal supervision, to handle all jurisdictional disputes, has as its one and only aim the maintenance of class peace and, therefore, postponement until after the war the question of labor unity. Meanwhile industry “earns” fabulous war profits. And the labor movement remains disunited.

It seems evident that Lewis had done considerable exploratory work in the AFL and the CIO before launching his proposal. But the extreme pressure of the capitalist press and the White House compelled retreat among all the proponents of “unity now” with the exception of Lewis. Green and Murray reacted, the one meekly, the other violently, to what they regarded as a maneuver to eliminate them from the scene. Murray went so far as to charge that Lewis intended to sell out to the AFL on the issue of industrial unionism, that he had become, once more, a confirmed craft unionist. Murray also charged that Lewis had no right to make any proposals on labor unity except through the CIO executive board over which Murray presided. In its official statement, the executive board of the CIO declared:

Organic unity between the CIO and AFL is an additional problem which merits the attention of organized labor. The CIO desires a unified labor movement which will reflect the aspirations and needs of the American workers. This would necessarily require a recognition of the industrial form of union organization in the mass production and basic industries and the absolute need of non-discrimination against any affiliated union or any member of the CIO.

In this rather back-handed manner, the executive board of the CIO sought to create the impression that under Lewis’ program, industrial unionism would be surrendered in favor of the old-line AFL craft unionism.

Since a large part of the attack on the Lewis proposal revolved around the question of the war effort, the CIO executive board created another smokescreen, namely, that the Lewis proposal would hinder this effort. This was done by indirection, as is indicated in the following section of its statement:

The issue of labor unity must be viewed today in the light of the all-embracing problem which now confronts the American people. Every American is interested in one objective – to win the war. Any contribution which organized labor can make toward this objective must be the desire of every affiliated member.

This quotation reads as though it were taken out of the editorial columns of the Daily Worker, for it reads like a typical Stalinist document of the “new turn” type. A more grievous implication of this statement is that it ties the CIO movement behind the war machine, placing the defense of the labor movement in a secondary and, therefore, weakened position.

Thus the CIO made use of the patriotic issue to nail Lewis to a cross. But in doing so, it has only prepared the ground for future attacks upon it as an “unpatriotic organization.”

The Constitutional Issue

Finally the CIO executive board declared that Lewis had no constitutional right to initiate any moves for labor unity since this right was vested only in the board and Murray. For our part, we are not too greatly concerned with this legal conflict. It is beyond the issue of labor unity. In any case, Lewis has a constitutional case. Lewis is not a member of the executive board and did not attend its meeting. But in his letter to Murray, he points out several interesting things in connection with the constitutional issue:

  1. The third constitutional convention of the CIO specifically conveyed this authority (to initiate unity moves) to three of its representatives, designating them by name.
  2. The foregoing convention unanimously adopted the following motion: “Your committee recommends that this convention continue its negotiating committee, consisting of Mr. John L. Lewis, Mr. Philip Murray and Mr. Sidney Hillman, with the authority to participate in any future negotiations, looking forward to real labor unity, which must be in conformity with the foregoing principles.”
  3. This action was not nullified by the Detroit convention.
  4. Under the CIO constitution, the executive board is an inferior agency without power to change “the enactment of a constitutional convention.”
  5. That unity negotiations were adjourned in 1939 with the proviso that it may be reconvened by Lewis, chairman of the negotiating committee of the CIO.

Lewis, in anticipation of a rejection of his letter to Murray, concluded with the following proposals to the executive board:

  1. Express their good will and their hopes for successful negotiations, fully protective of the interest of the CIO and its membership.
  2. Exercise the constitutional powers of the board by convening a special national convention of the CIO to take action on this question under the white spotlight of open public debate.
  3. Submit the question of participation in further negotiations to a referendum vote by secret ballot of the members of each of the thousands of local unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

These proposals were swiftly rejected. The unity proposals had already been torpedoed by the President and by the actions of Green and Murray.

Opposition from Other Quarters

From an examination of the cross section of “opinion” on the Lewis proposals, it is clear that the opposition to them stems from considerations having nothing vitally to do with the issue of unity itself. The Nation of January 31 put it plainly when it stated in its editorial, Everybody Wins but Lewis, that “John L. Lewis’ sudden espousal of unity in the labor movement is, if we may slide into Lewis English, the accouplement of an unimpeachable idea with the most impeachable auspices.”

The Militant, weekly organ of the Socialist Workers Party, for example, attacked the Lewis proposal on the ground that it was favored by the bosses, President Roosevelt, the reactionary Congress and was, above all, a war measure. The Militant, as usual, was wrong on all counts, with the possible exception of the last. In its issue of January 31, however, it goes on to say that “President Roosevelt has countered John L. Lewis’ inacceptable proposal for AFL-CIO unification with a plan that shelves the question of unity altogether.” But The Militant fails to explain why Roosevelt shelved a plan which he is presumed to have fostered.

The Militant also fell in with the official line of the CIO executive board when it incorrectly attributed the defeat of Lewis’ proposal to “disfavor among the militant workers not because it proposed unity, but because it threatened to sacrifice the interests of the industrial unions and lead to the kind of unification that would weaken the labor movement.” (Emphasis mine – A.G.). Following this type of reasoning, we are to conclude then, that the bosses, Roosevelt, the reactionaries in Congress, Murray and Green, all united to oppose Lewis’ proposals because it would weaken the labor movement!

In its over-all significance, the issue of labor unity is far superior to all the secondary considerations posed by everyone who joined the chorus of denunciation of the Lewis scheme. For our part, we are not greatly concerned, at this moment, with what Lewis may have had in mind by the proposal – that is, how his espousal of labor unity may or may not have pushed him, once more, to the top in the labor movement. We do not hold the slightest brief for Lewis. We regard him, as always, a reactionary labor bureaucrat. By the same token, however, all the other “outstanding” labor leaders fall in the same boat – many of them having been tutored by Lewis, and were, only until yesterday, his loyal subordinates. If Lewis had in mind by his proposals an improvement of his bureaucratic position in the labor movement, his opponents, too, were chiefly concerned with their own positions in fighting him.

Unity Is Still the Issue

We are against all the bureaucrats, we are against the high salaries which these bureaucrats vote to each other, we are opposed to any and all behind-the-scenes maneuvers and deals, no matter from what quarter they may arise. But one of the initial steps by which such things can be eliminated from the labor movement is by the unification of all labor organizations into one mighty federation. Of infinitely greater importance, is the cumulative effect of a single labor organization to the tune of 10,000,000 workers. Given such an organization, the unification of the entire American working class becomes a genuine reality. This is by far the paramount consideration in the whole situation. Given such an organization, the South could be more readily organized. Given such an organization, the great mass production industries could be completely organized. Given such an organization, labor in this country could not possibly be at the mercy of the best organized and strongest ruling class in the world.

We know that for some years the issue of labor unity was not real. But the fact that it was propelled forward in the dramatic manner in which Lewis announced his proposals made it the burning issue it is today. The labor movement would be remiss if it did not do all in its power to effect such genuine unity. The politically conscious working class organizations would be doubly remiss if they did not openly declare their unqualified support to labor unity – and cast aside all secondary considerations. Labor unity is the great hope of the working class for the immediate period ahead.

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