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Albert Gates

NMU Struggle Goes to Ranks;
Curran Meets Stalinist Attack

(27 January 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 4, 27 January 1947, pp. 3 & 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The battle lines in the National Maritime Union are sharply drawn and the internal struggle between its president, Joseph Curran, and the Stalinist faction in the leadership, which began more than a year ago, has reached a new stage. Curran’s resignation from the Stalinist-dominated Committee for Maritime Unity touched off the latest explosion in the union. Our readers are familiar with the reasons Curran gave for his resignation. He explained his step as deliberate, provoked by the control of the CMU by four craft unions under the leadership of Harry Bridges, which made a captive of the NMU, adopted policies against his union’s best interests, and then arranged for the NMU to bear the main costs of the committee’s activities.

Whatever the reasons Curran gives for his resignation, the fact is that the action reflects Curran’s desire to cut himself off completely from Stalinist influence and control. When the news of Curran’s resignation was made known, the Stalinist gang in the NMU, headed by Joseph Stack, Howard McKenzie and Ferdinant Smith, rolled into action. Their factional groups were set in motion in all the important ports.

The initial action of the Stalinists was to try to mobilize the ranks of the union against Curran on the ground that he violated a union decision when he resigned as one of the officers, co-chairman, of the CMU. Curran pointed out that he merely exercized his right; that the NMU was still affiliated to the CMU. Therefore, no decision of the union was violated. In the port membership meetings, Curran won the first fight. Although the Communist Party faction won a majority of the ports, they lost the most important meetings attended by the overwhelming majority of the members. In New York Curran won a three to one victory in a meeting of several thousand members.

The Stalinist Campaign

Smarting under the defeat administered to them by the rank and file members, the Stalinists then turned to the National Council which they control. This special meeting was devoted wholly to the Curran situation and the CMU. Over Curran’s protest, they refused to accept his resignation from the CMU, although they knew that their action could in no way compel Curran to continue to function on it. The council reindorsed the CMU and then continued to discuss the internal situation of the union.

The Stalinist tactics are familiar. First comes innuendo, then the lies and slanders: “Curran is making some deal with Lundeberg and other AFL maritime leaders; Curran is splitting the unity of maritime workers and strengthening the bosses.”

In addition, it is whispered that Curran is really not a good union leader; that he has become a red-baiter and wants to drive Communist Party members from the union. And finally, the Stalinists have brought into question Curran’s role, record and integrity as a union leader. It was this last that compelled Curran to make some closing remarks which presage a more intense struggle inside the union.

Curran Fights Back

Declaring that he had hoped to patch up the present fight, Curran stated that this is no longer possible since the CP gang has gone beyond permissible limits in the inner union fight. Harking back to the last union elections, when he first raised the question of excessive expenditures by officers, Curran said:

“I said sometime ago that I was not satisfied with the last elections. I have been gathering the facts and material since then, and when I am In full possession of the facts, they will be released to the union, and everybody concerned in them will be in [possession of] those facts for what they are Worth.”

He then went on to criticize the Council’s decision on his demand for an “immediate referendum” of the membership on whether the NMU should continue its affiliation to the CMU. The Stalinists pulled a typical trick on this question. They accepted in “principle” the idea of a referendum of the membership but postponed it until after the March meeting of the Committee for Maritime Unity. To this meeting, the majority decided to send a rank and file delegation of fifty. But this time Curran saw through the scheme and protested the idea of sending a rank and file group to attend a conference dominated by the officers of other unions. The Stalinists hope by this action to win the union for their policy by means of window-dressing and exploiting the decent sentiments of the membership for Maritime Unity. Curran has right on his side when he charges that “the CMU is narrow.” He might have added that it is a Stalinist set-up with the aim of controlling the waterfront in the interests of its political policies which begin in the Kremlin.

Curran was especially bitter at the Stalinist slander campaign and promises to tell the truth about the CP faction in the leadership. He already revealed that it was Stack who wanted to chase Smith out of the union on the charges of being “a fink.” “I didn’t raise any of that muck, and rake it before the Council, that he was in office illegally,” he said.

In answer to the charge of red-baiting, he said: “I have not started any war to oust the Communists out of this union, nor will I. But if a group of people, who call themselves Communists, who are officers of the union, are attempting to utilize that party (Curran may or may not be naive)—then I think that party should disassociate themselves from these people, because they are not Marxists by any stretch, not from the small study I have made of Marxism; the party must disassociate themselves from these people.” Elsewhere, Curran adds on this point: “I think the Communist Party, if it is a Marxist Party, today has allowed itself to degrade down to the point where it is nothing but a job security amalgamation on the waterfront, and a rule or ruin group on the waterfront.”

What Should Be Done

Curran is correct when he denies that the Stalinists in his union are Marxists. But conclusion to be drawn from that is not that they are different from the Communist Party, or that their “Marxism” is slightly off, but that the Communist Party itself is not a Marxist Party; quite the contrary, it is anti-Marxist. The Stalinist gang is not merely a “job security amalgamation” but a well-organized political group in the union, acting according to the “party line” and fighting for the political interests of Stalinism.

If Curran does not bear that constantly in mind, he will never understand why the Stalinists act as they do. If he does not understand the intimate relationship between Russian foreign policy and Stalinist policy in this country, he will never understand the Stalinist role as agents of totalitarian Russia. No, the Communist Party will not separate itself from its creatures in the NMU; on the contrary, it will only organize their fight more cleverly and more systematically.

There appears to be no halting this fight. The Stalinist gang is out to get Curran; he is too dangerous to their interests. And for Curran, this is a fight for his life in the union, whether he understands it or not. After many years of association with the Stalinists, he is beginning to learn that they are the greatest internal danger to unionism. But Curran will come to understand that he cannot fight them successfully unless he has a superior program of progressive and militant unionism. He must know that the Stalinists can change their line repeatedly, appearing one day as super-patriots, the next, as militant unionists. Therefore he will have to expose their lack of principle and their trifling with the interests of the union.

It is good that Curran refuses to engage in a red-baiting campaign. That would be the worst thing he could do; it would be self-defeating. At the same time it should not deter him from an open and vigorous fight against the Stalinists who can best be defeated by superior policies. An organizational fight against them would resolve nothing and create the dangers of a reactionary turn in union politics and tactics.

Curran is on the right road in trying to organize a fight against government encroachment on the rights of the maritime workers. He is correct in trying to establish unity between all maritime unions, CIO and AFL. There are, however, some dangers ahead in the craft ideology of the AFL unions, their practice of Jim Crow and red-baiting. But if Curran is uncompromising, he can do a great deal to change these conditions. Unity of all maritime workers and unions would make them an unbeatable force on the waterfront but it can only be done by a genuine and vigorous union program, by defeating the government policy, the shipping companies and the Stalinists.

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