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Albert Gates

The U.E. Convention Fight

Is the CIO Heading Toward a Split?

(September 1949)

From New International, Vol. XV No. 7, September 1949, pp. 196–198.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The 14th convention of the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE-CIO) held in Cleveland on September 19–23, produced the answer to what Stalinist strategy in the CIO would be now that the Executive Board has issued its ultimatum to all officers and unions: submit to and carry out CIO policy or else suffer the consequences for failure to do so. The answer given was a direct one, as this article will show, and it points to the preparations made by the Stalinists to split over the issues which now divide them from their erstwhile allies in the CIO, endeavoring, of course, to place the onus for such a split upon the ruling officialdom.

All of this was certainly indicated after the May 1949 meeting of the CIO Executive Board. Readers will recall that while the Portland convention last year issued a stern warning to the Stalinist-dominated unions to relinquish their support to Russian imperialism in favor of American imperialism, no actual disciplinary motions were adopted to enforce such a demand. Reuther and others asked for it, but Murray was far more cautious, hoping for something, he knew not what, that might end the schism and bring peace to the CIO. There is no doubt whatever that the prospect of a split in the CIO is extremely distasteful to him. Yet this ardent supporter of American imperialism could not forgive the Stalinists for the manner in which they broke up their wartime alliance with him in favor of exclusive support to the Kremlin. And that which caused his gorge to rise was the way in which the Stalinist-controlled unions backed the CP campaign for Wallace for president. Of these unions, none was more aggressive and truculent in its opposition to CIO policy than the UE.

Murray was particularly touchy on this subject because Albert J. Fitzgerald, president of the UE, was also a vice-president and executive board member of the CIO, and James Matles, organization director, was also a member of the board.

Since the Portland convention, the national CIO has been moving in on state and local CIO councils and reorganizing them. That is to say, they have been taking them out of the hands of the Stalinists, who have used the councils (which they usually dominated with a disciplined and organized minority) to champion CP policies against official policies of the CIO. Now, nearly all councils uniformly reflect national CIO policies. But that is not nearly enough to satisfy the solidifying bureaucracy in the CIO. Of what avail is it to win control of the councils if the Stalinists continue to dominate a number of international unions and to use these as sounding boards for Kremlin strategy? Therefore, the Executive Board made and carried the following motions at its May meeting:

All members of the Board who are unwilling to enforce the constitution and carry out the instructions of the convention and, between conventions, of the decision of the Executive Board, are called upon to resign.

All unions affiliated with CIO who are represented in the Board by members unwilling to [do the above] are called upon to insist upon the resignation of such representatives and to nominate successor representatives who are willing to and will comply.

There you have the background to the UE convention. The Emspak-Matles leadership, however, was faced with another problem. For the first time in the history of their control of the union, a formidable and organized opposition actually arose threatening to overthrow their leadership. This opposition was created in a matter of months and even though it had no time to challenge the Administration in all districts and locals, its strength was enormous.

The Emspak-Matles leadership hesitated in the organization of the convention only momentarily. At first, they were prepared to ram through its sessions with the typical bureaucratic brutality of a CP convention meeting an opposition. They were going to select the visitors, choose the representatives of the press, act sternly on challenged delegations and do everything within their power to prevent a majority going to the Opposition. But when they were absolutely certain of a majority of the 3,800 odd votes, the reins were relaxed a little to give the convention an appearance of democracy. Only within limits, however, for they made certain that the chair of the convention would remain completely in their hands. No presiding committee was elected. Instead, the three main officers of the union, President Fitzgerald, Organization Director Matles and Secretary-Treasurer Emspak, occupied the rostrum throughout the convention, and Fitzgerald was the permanent chairman who conducted the sessions with all the formal fairness of a kangaroo court.

A Miscalculation of Strength

If the Stalinist leadership had any fears about losing to the Opposition, they may have been induced by James B. Carey’s confident pre-convention statements that the great majority of the delegates supported his group and its candidates for office, Fred Kelly, Michael Fitzpatrick and John Dillon. Carey’s estimate of the relationship of forces was highly exaggerated. As the convention showed, it was certainly not a sober analysis of the real strength of the Opposition. His confidence in winning a majority at this convention was not reflected in the wider circles of the Opposition. Carey undoubtedly came by his opinion from the fact that the larger and more important locals opposed the Administration and because for the first time in the history of the UE an organized opposition actually made its appearance at a convention.

Majority or not, the opposition did represent the decisive sections of the union. It did not, however, command the support of the “doubtful” delegates who came from the lesser urban centers and whose primary contact with the union was through the great horde of International representatives and district functionaries, all of them Stalinists or fellow-travelers. In any case, the Administration realized that for the first time since it took complete charge of the union in 1941, its stranglehold was being loosened.

Given their record over the years, the Stalinists could not parade before the convention with a list of achievements. It was not very long ago, that these wreckers had instituted union-wide “incentive pay” systems and the speed-up to support the war. They had gone much further than any of the old-line unions. They had done what none of the conservative and reactionary unions even dreamed of doing: turned their union back a decade or two, reintroducing a murderous speed-up system against which the entire labor movement had fought for years. They failed miserably in the important negotiations with the giants of the electrical industry, Westinghouse and General Electric. The regime of Emspak-Matles (it is hard to talk about Fitzgerald seriously since he is merely the slow-moving, slow-thinking, not very competent captive of the real leaders of the union, the Stalinists) was brutal and dictatorial. Their effort to compare the gains of UE to those of the UAW and Steel was not very effective. On the whole, their fight would have been a defensive one had it not been for one event: the report of the fact-finding committee for the steel industry and the decision of Murray and his steel union leadership to forego the wage struggle and to accept the pension proposal of this government board.

It was a running fire against the conduct of the steel union that formed the basis for the Stalinist strategy in the convention. Almost before the convention was organized, Matles presented a “surprise” resolution on collective bargaining (not given beforehand to the resolutions committee) calling for a renewal of negotiations with the companies, rejecting a fact-finding commission and demanding a $500 Christmas package from industry to cover wages, pensions, etc. The resolution contained a running reference, ineffectively camouflaged to the acceptance by Murray of the fact-finding committee’s recommendations, thus precluding any wage fight by the CIO. The design of the resolution was to put the opposition on the defensive, and by contrast to make the UE appear as a militant, progressive union. In a word, Murray’s derelictions were used to cover up the crimes of the UE leadership. Putting the opposition on the defensive might have meant changing the whole character of the convention struggle and thus enhancing the position of the Administration.

The first day of the convention found the opposition, along with their floor leader Carey, biting this bait. In contrast to the vigorous floor work of the Administration and its hand-picked supporters, the opposition made a very weak fight. Outside of some rather empty boasting and a little red-baiting, it presented nothing. And this for one little reason. They fell into the Stalinist trap and forgot all about their own program. Fitzgerald showed the kind of stuff he was made of when, in the debate, he called upon one Administration spokesman after another. Thus the first debate on this resolution showed nine speakers for the Administration and three for the opposition.

The Opposition Line Changes

On the following day, a considerable change took place. The caucus of the opposition thrashed out the question of convention strategy and decided that its course up to that point had been wrong. They had permitted the Stalinists to take the play away from them. Their floor work had been poor. Their speakers were ineffective, merely giving personal testimonials to their hard work, loyalty and Americanism. They seldom knew what points to make, and when they made one, did not know how to clinch it. Since the caucus had decided not to organize its fight on the convention floor, there was a free-for-all around the microphones, and in these mêlées, Fitzgerald picked the speakers! Only delegate, Jennings of the New York Sperry local, saved the day for the opposition with a vigorous and militant dressing down of the Stalinist administration.

The second day saw a complete reversal of form by the opposition. This time it challenged the Administration not merely with speeches, but by its infinitely superior counter-resolution on the task of the UE. Indicating the Stalinist misleadership, the resolution ended with the following 9-point program:

  1. That UE stop discrediting those in our union who seek to restore the union to its proper place as a militant labor union;
  2. That UE devote all of its strength and activity to collective bargaining and stop diverting its energies into suicidal political adventures;
  3. That UE return home to its membership;
  4. That UE take its membership into its confidence and give direction and guidance to them in an effort to solve their immediate problems and improve their working conditions;
  5. That UE vigorously demand a pension of $100 per month on a non-contributory basis from the electrical industry exclusive of government social security benefits.
  6. That UE shall not rest until its membership is covered by a non-contributory plan of social insurance which will provide adequate life insurance, a weekly sickness and accident benefit of 75 per cent of weekly earnings, hospitalization costs, a schedule of surgical benefits which will cover costs and complete medical care;
  7. A general wage increase to equalize earnings with those prevailing in steel and auto;
  8. That UE restore to its members the right to fight for and hold union security;
  9. That UE return at once to bargaining with GE and Westinghouse to secure these vitally necessary improvements.

Given this strong minimum program, the opposition delegates presented an entirely new face to the convention, and even though they did not carry their resolution, they did give the Stalinists a warm time of it. So aggressive was their fight that when Matles, in summary, made a scurrilous attack upon some of the outstanding opposition locals in the UE he was unable to complete his summary speech over the booing and left the speaker’s podium.

The Stalinist Resolutions

It would be impossible in an article like this to report the entire convention in detail, nor would it be necessarily fruitful. Once the fight over the above-mentioned resolutions was completed, the way of the convention was fairly determined. There remained two decisive questions yet before it: the Administration’s resolution on raiding and the opposition resolution on support to CIO policy; and the Administration’s constitutional amendment to permit the General Executive Board to supersede locals in the trial and discipline of members. (The election of officers was a completely secondary matter in face of the real situation and struggle in the union.)

The Stalinist resolutions announced their strategy in the current struggle. In their resolution on raiding, a series of ultimatums was proposed to be placed before the coming convention of the CIO. These ultimatums, deploring the threat of a split initiated by the action of the May meeting of the Executive Board, demand of the Board the cessation of “hostility” to the UE and warn that if attacks and raiding on the UE continue, the UE would, in turn, cease to pay its per capita tax to the CIO. At this point, Stalinist cleverness seems to have gotten the better of them, provided ... it was their real intention to remain in the CIO and not form a third trade-union center, as John Williamson has contended in his open letter to Murray.

The Threat of a Split

But obviously, the threat not to pay per capita tax, which means automatic exclusion from the CIO, is a threat to split, no matter what the provocations might be. Common sense alone dictates that, given the political programs of the CIO and the Stalinists, buttressed by the latter’s undeviating loyalty to the Kremlin, there will be no end to the internal struggle until one side or the other prevails. The question then reduces itself simply to one of whether the Stalinists want to remain in the CIO as a defeated minority. The resolution of Emspak-Matles (read: CP) indicates their readiness to accept the full consequences of a refusal to pay per capita tax. Only the uninitiated would regard such a split a matter of a financial dereliction or as a technicality.

In order to emphasize this course, the Administration introduced a most astounding bureaucratic amendment to the constitution that would permit the GEB to bring charges against and try any member of the union directly, without bringing such charges to the member’s local union and having him tried there. To emphasize its real aim, the Board calls on “the membership [!] (to) ... drive the traitors out of their locals and the union.”

The constitutional amendment gives the Board the means of side-stepping the opposition locals to expel their leaders, and if necessary whole locals, such as they have already done in Chicago and elsewhere. So, when the Stalinists cry bitterly that they want unity and want to remain in the CIO, they are merely deceiving the membership of the CIO. More important to these agents of the Kremlin than remaining in the CIO, is their freedom to act in behalf of the foreign policy of the Stalinist State. And if remaining in the CIO means a reduction in their effectiveness, they are going out of the CIO where they will be free to carry out “the line.”

If a split does not occur immediately following the CIO Convention in Cleveland, the split situation is nevertheless already present. The next stage will see an intensification of the internal struggle with the Stalinist administration taking punitive actions against the opposition. The opposition, however, makes up the real backbone of the union and the Stalinists will not be able to take the UE with them. At best they will take, for the time being, the smaller and dispersed locals, as administrations usually do. That, however, would be only the beginning of the struggle and not its end.

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