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Ben Hall

Politics of the CIO Convention

The Forces Behind Walter Reuther’s Victory

(November 1952)

From The New International, Vol. XVIII No. 6, November–December 1952, pp. 271–277.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

By sheer coincidence, the labor leaders who met in convention at Atlantic City faced a drastically changed political climate just as they had to choose a new CIO president. Had Phil Murray lived and deigned to serve, they would have gratefully reelected him. And everything would have seemed unchanged. It would have been unthinkable for Reuther, at this juncture, to aspire to the presidency if Murray blocked his path. But Murray died on the very eve of the convention. To that extent, Reuther’s success was a fortuitous product of biological chance. But politics had its way in the end.

With the defeat of Stevenson, CIO officials discovered to their amazement and dismay that they were soon to live under a Republican administration. For two decades, labor’s politics were dominated by an alliance with a Democratic administration. The two largest CIO unions – auto and steel – were founded, reared and matured under Truman-Roosevelt and had experienced no other form of political existence. Whether it was willing to admit the fact or not, the CIO would be forced to become an opposition. Its leaders had not come to Atlantic City to alter their policies, or program. But the shock of November left its impression – a dull realization that tomorrow might imperiously demand new methods and tactics.

Because it was electing a new leader, the CIO gained an unanticipated opportunity to prepare itself for the new while clinging to the old. It could do both at once by elevating Reuther to the CIO presidency; and so his election became a relatively simple and painless process.

Murray died without an heir apparent and the field quickly narrowed down to two contenders: Walter P. Reuther and Allan S. Haywood. In the nature of their respective candidacies; the character of their support, and in the choice before the delegates lies the significance of the recent CIO convention.

A genuine struggle for succession erupted, no less serious because it was excluded from convention debate and confined to chats in conference chambers, private offices, and hotel rooms. Both sides contrived to mask the fight in a cloak of simulated total agreement. All resolutions were passed in virtual unanimity; the candidates and their respective spokesmen showered public praise upon one another. Yet neither would bow to his rival. Long after Reuther’s majority was guaranteed, Haywood insisted upon a convention roll call as a demonstration of continuing power and solid support sufficient to wrest concessions from his victorious opponent at the convention and after. Such stubborn insistence is an almost unprecedented violation of the labor officials’ code of ethics which prescribes that candidates in private may seek support from other officials but must bow out gracefully in public if their efforts are in vain. It is even laudatory, if not mandatory, for the disappointed candidate to nominate the rival whom he had been bitterly excoriating (in confidence) the day before. Haywood’s course pointed to the intensity of the fight – not critical enough to pose a split, but sharp enough to permit an open display of differences.

The official and public unanimity on every other question seemed to turn the elections into a personal contest based upon mutually exclusive private ambitions. What took place, however, was a conflict between two different tendencies in the CIO and the convention effected a shift of control from one to the other – by cold, uninspiring, bureaucratic methods but a significant shift nonetheless.

Like Murray, Allan S. Haywood came out of the miners union where he had been part of the arbitrary Lewis machine. But where Murray was able to carve out his own satrapy in the Steel Workers Union, Haywood always remained the hired hand of more powerful officials. When the break with Lewis came, he became a Murray lieutenant. He stood for office as the continuator of the regime, traditions, and policies of Murray and ran as the chosen candidate of the Steel Workers Union. He had been executive vice-president of the CIO, appointed to that post by his boss, Murray; in that capacity he directed and controlled the far-flung CIO organizational apparatus. He disposed of hundreds of appointed officials, regional directors, organizers and they in turn controlled scores of small local industrial unions, city and state councils, and even small dependent international unions. This staff supported Haywood, aggressively, anxiously, even desperately. They were for the status quo in the most ordinary sense; they wanted no change because they wanted to stay where they were.

Although they were most conspicuous at the convention, applauded loudest and gave an aura of mass support to his candidacy they were not his main base. Without the Steel Workers Union he could not have even announced his candidacy. The leadership of this union was nurtured by Murray and trained in his tradition. Conservative in ideology, distrustful of new things it was suspicious of Reuther for his socialist past, his unorthodox background, his unusual slogans and methods, and his radical, intellectual and socialistic admirers. While the conservative Association of Catholic Trade Unions, as far as is known, took no open public position it was undoubtedly on Haywood’s side. Just before he died, Murray had appeared as the invited guest at an ACTU convention – an unusual endorsement by a high labor official for a small faction inside the union movement. When leading labor officials conceal real differences and ignore genuine issues because of a mistaken sense of diplomacy, the frank expressions of groups like ACTU, give us an invaluable insight into what remains hidden. In Michigan, where many ACTU members are part of the Reuther faction, it has carried on a permanent campaign against the “socialists” in the UAW. In New York, ACTU warned Reuther, after his election, that he would have to get rid of the “secular liberals” that surround him or face a future of trials and tribulations. After his election to the CIO presidency, its spokesmen held out a diffident hand, offering to support him but warning him to cut loose from radicalism. The ACTU reaches its conclusion via its own private ideology, which does not necessarily correspond to the trend of thought among Reuther’s CIO opponents, but in their conclusion they express openly the misgivings which his critics inside the labor movement prefer to express in private.

The Communication Workers of America and the United Packinghouse Workers Union joined the Haywood camp. But although he could mobilize some smaller unions, steel, and the CIO paid staff, it was not enough. The vote stood at 2,613,103 for Haywood and 3,079,181 for Reuther.

The decisive mass production unions lined up in the Reuther column: Oil Workers, Rubber Workers, Textile Workers, Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Auto Workers, Electrical Workers. Jacob Potofsky of the Amalgamated memorialized Murray and James Carey of the International Union of Electrical Workers expressed his humblest gratitude toward him; Rieve, Reuther and other paid their respects to the memory of their late leader. But when the time came to choose his successor, they selected not the man who symbolized the continuation of his policies, but a new, younger, and different type of leader, Walter Reuther.

In contradistinction to the Haywood bloc, Reuther and the UAW constituted a left-wing; and the CIO convention witnessed its triumph over the more conservative right.” “Left-wing” is a relative term [we employ it in its authentic sense to signify a more radical tendency and not to imply any similarity with Stalinism]. It serves to pinpoint the geographical-political location of Reuther in relation to all its rivals. If Reutherism displays few of the inspiring characteristics which we might associate with an ideal left wing – the militant, pioneering, idealistic spirit, self-reliant and aggressive – then this is one sign of the backwardness of American unionism. Such is the left-wing of such a union movement. In the absence of any mass socialist wing or even of any more uncompromising tendency. Reutherism, with all its weaknesses and vacillations, stands on the extreme left of the American labor movement. The convention saw its push for power in the CIO and at the same time recorded its utter failure to maintain its own self-chosen perspectives.

In his rise to power in the UAW, Reuther assembled around him a group of rank and file union militants and secondary union leaders who viewed his struggle as a crusade for a new brand of unionism. They were inspired by the magnificent traditions of the sit-ins and were fresh out of their own war-time struggle against the no-strike pledge, a fight waged without his support. He rallied them and won their confidence with the slogans of the GM strike of 1945–6. He led a fight against Stalinism which appealed by reason and argument to the best class sentiments of the UAW membership – a model procedure in a labor movement whose first recourse in every dispute is bureaucratic suppression.

Many of his closest supporters had been socialists in their union youth, Emil Mazey, now UAW secretary-treasurer, most conspicuous of all. By this time, they had abandoned or forgotten their old socialist perspectives but they retained a belief that it was the destiny of their union to breathe fresh life into the labor movement. The ideals they had once sought through socialism were now to be realized in down-to-earth fashion in keeping with the facts of life in the United States. How and when, they were not sure; hut that this was their task, they knew. To the UAW came a group of professionals attracted to its staff by similar goals. Here they could build a union not as mere hired hands, but as full participants in creating “the vanguard in America, the architect of the future.”

It was this UAW, these men with their not quite defined aspirations that brought Reutherism to the fore as the left wing in the labor movement. It is the same tendency which came to the CIO convention. But in the interlude their dreams had faded, their ideals became somewhat shopworn. Reuther called in vain for a revival of the crusading spirit of the days of the sit-in strikes; he must first recapture the crusading spirit that once animated Reutherism as it rose to power and prominence.

His victory in the UAW was a successful revolt of active union militants against their old leadership and a rebellion even of the appointed staff. His program remained ill-defined – effective enough to undercut the rise of any serious opposition but not distinctive or adequate to create a conscious mass cadre of effective political supporters. At any rate, he felt compelled to consolidate his hold, and make it permanent, so to speak, by creating inside the UAW a replica of the machine which dominates virtually every union in the country. Former militants joined the paid staff and abandoned their once irrepressible rank and fileism to assume the demeanor of appointed officials, respectful and acquiescent to the top leader. He built a machine similar in type, although more progressive in its ideology, to that which Haywood had constructed within the CIO and which Reuther defeated at Atlantic City.

He rose in the UAW as leader of a democratic mass caucus. This alone sets him apart from most labor officials who inherited their office as a hand-me-down from other powerful labor leaders. A distinctive feature of UAW life has been a rich internal caucus life through which the active militants dominated the political existence of the union. In the dull bureaucratic calm that has settled over most unions, the UAW stands apart for its vigorous internal life. But it was not this that fascinated those who voted for Reuther at the CIO convention. Their confidence in him rose as they saw the old UAW caucus life tend to disintegrate. Perhaps his union is becoming more like ours, they seemed to say, and they felt secure against any outside stimulus that might make democracy pulse inside their own bailiwicks. Not that they oppose democracy; they are eminently for it but shun the uncertainties which it carries along. They look upon a free inner union caucus life as a bearer of disunity, a seed of disruption, a revelation of weakness and a potentiality for an overturn in leadership. In retrospect, the past shines differently even to Reuther, former faction leader now a successful labor leader.

R.J. Thomas, former president of the UAW defeated by Reuther, addressed the most recent auto convention as an invited guest; as is fitting, he urged them to forget the past and think only of the harmonious future. The now totally victorious Reuther, willing to forget his own past as a faction leader, utilized the occasion to admonish the delegates.

“... The past is dead, as far as the factional considerations are concerned; and I urge the fellows in those few remaining locals where they are still living in terms of the 1946 convention and 1947 convention and the Grand Rapids convention and the Chicago convention and the Buffalo convention – those conventions are behind us and the future, that bright future that beckons us all, where a better life awaits us and our families and our kinds ... You are going to have contests for offices, we are going to have an election tomorrow; anybody who wants to run for president who is eligible ought to run. That goes for every other office. But let’s have democratic contests without factionalism. Let’s have democracy but not factionalism. That is what we need.”

In this spirit, O.A. Knight, president of the Oil Workers Union, who nominated Reuther commended him for bringing unity to a divided and faction-torn union. Here, in one union, representatives of hundreds of thousands of workers, demonstrated in life that they could hammer out their differences, keep their union powerful and settle their acute problems without the heavy-handed arbitration of an all powerful bureaucratic machine. Out of UAW history, today’s crop of labor officials remembers only the inconveniences of the democratic struggles and not its inspiring quality.

UAW political policy is the most radical expression of labor’s line in the CIO; but it was never advanced in the councils of labor with vigor and forthrightness. In this respect it permits a concentrated summary of Reutherism: a left policy proclaimed in the UAW but never defended inside the labor movement.

In 1948, the UAW called for the formation of a new progressive party to bring about a “political realignment.” In a special message to his membership, Reuther solemnly vowed to press urgently and continuously for its achievement. With the passage of time and the election of Truman, the latter became a museum curiosity and the policy was relegated to the status of an ultimate objective without relevance to the tasks of the moment. Nevertheless, during the crisis of labor’s walkout from all war agencies, the 1951 UAW convention went on record for the summoning of an emergency political congress of labor to gird itself for the presidential campaign. Wherever the UAW dominated the labor movement, as in Michigan, Reutherites actively intervened in Democratic Party policies with the intention of dominating it in practice if not in theory.

The 1952 elections have come and gone; the CIO heard nothing of the UAW political plans; UAW delegates sat through CIO conventions, well-mannered enough not to allow their views to obtrude into the harmoniously unanimous sessions. Leaders of other CIO unions could relax; their equanimity would never be ruffled by any of the distinctive proposals of the UAW.

There is no question here of “insincerity.” The Reutherites are quite serious about their political views; they see organized labor acting as the driving force behind the Democratic-labor coalition without gaining the recognition and influence it deserves. A “new political realignment” aims to magnify the power of labor in general and of the UAW in particular. But Reuther has no intention of irritating other labor leaders. “We must not get too far ahead of the parade,” he is fond of cautioning his followers. What he means is now clear. The progress of the UAW and the success of its policy is so inseparably intertwined in his mind with his own personal advancement that the two are almost indistinguishable to him. To win the CIO presidency, he had to allay the suspicions of fellow union presidents and prove his own reasonableness. If this meant soft-pedalling, even abandoning, his own political line, was it too high a price to pay?

An open and public demand for a new political policy would not win out immediately in the CIO. In this, Reuther’s calculations are doubtless correct. But it would have wide repercussions in the labor movement. It would begin a reorientation; it would stimulate a reexamination in the conscious ranks of the unions and tend to create a sort of union-wide Reutherite tendency. But a Reuther responsible for such trends could hardly endear himself to his CIO colleagues.

He had to make a choice. Either (1) play the role of left critic as a minority, banking upon the impact of his line upon the ranks and leadership of the labor movement in the course of time; or (2) conciliate the existing CIO officialdom, serve as its instrument in advancing its policies today in return for the prestige of office and the hope of standing at the head of the parade when they themselves had finally decided to move forward. This chapter in his career got its title from the decision: “He would rather be president.”

Reuther came to Atlantic City with over one-third of the total votes in his pocket. This alone gave him a powerful bargaining position with the secondary International Unions. Clearly, he had the strength to lead the CIO. But he did not bludgeon his way into the CIO presidency by sheer force of numbers. Haywood matched his strength with the aid of the Steel Union.

Reuther’s strong and insistent bid for leadership was a sign that he and the UAW were at last ready to play first role in the CIO; that he was strong enough to replace Murray and Steel in aiding and directing the whole federation. This intention he had announced in effect many months before at the auto convention when he drove through proposals for increasing UAW dues to finance the struggles of other unions and for lengthening the period between UAW conventions to free himself for broader participation in the work of the CIO. All this could only encourage the leaders of other mass production unions who, under the special impact of the 1952 defeat were wrestling with the grim possibilities of tomorrow. In a way, their own left leanings were stimulated. Emil Rieve, president of the Textile Workers, more clearly than the others illustrates what was happening. In 1948, he had hinted darkly of the formation of a labor party while Reuther was calling for the new progressive party. In 1951, when the CIO rejoined the War Boards he ended up on the Wage Stabilization Board, but quickly expressed a restive dissatisfaction. We are still just captives, he said; and he tried to resign in protest. But the conservative counsels of Phil Murray induced him to remain. In 1952, he voted for Reuther. In the breast of every labor leader two instincts battle for supremacy. Reuther’s strong candidacy strengthened the instinct of self-preservation through struggle – if necessary.

Reuther had proved himself responsible by their standards; able to replace the domination of steel; progressive yet safe and sane. And thus he emerged as their leader. The election of Reuther does not signify a radical turn or the adoption of a new program. But it reveals that the decisive sections of the CIO, despite the efforts to cling to the past, are induced to revamp the control of the CIO and hold the door open for a future reorientation.

As Reuther expands his role to encompass a wider purview of activity in the labor movement, the significance of Reutherism is altered; it becomes less a source of power to stimulate and urge the labor movement forward and more a tool to be picked up by labor officials when they are ready. Reutherism remains suspended, a potential, a future possibility. It arises as a crusading force to raise a new clean banner of labor struggle. We see, however, how its inordinate preoccupation with the sensitivities of the labor officialdom has, at least for the time being, turned its eyes away from the ranks of labor and led it to evade the responsibilities which it had proclaimed; that of reorienting the labor movement.

The next step before the labor movement, one which is indicated by every consideration of logic and politics, is the reunification of CIO and AFL. For a moment, any union left-wing, would find the balance of power shifted toward the right as the more conservative crafts are thrown into the scales. But, by enhancing the social power of the working class, such unity would soon stimulate more demanding and less compromising policies. In a combined federation, a left wing tendency could present its policy with great persuasiveness and cogency; it would be addressing a united labor movement conscious of new power and not a section of it.

The story of the UAW is one chapter in the strivings of the working class toward a new policy. This left wing had to be able to maintain itself against the Stalinists, to keep intact its union strength against a powerful group of industrialists, withstand the pressures of the rest of the union movement and its bureaucracy – all without a clearly defined platform to bind its militants into a homogenous group. If this proved too difficult at the moment, it is not because the task is impossible but because this tendency is temporarily stifled in the general union conservatism. In electing Reuther, the CIO leaders were recognizing, in their own way, that the road ahead may lead through new political and strike battles. The evolution of the CIO saw the first beginning of a genuine, if amorphous, left wing in the union movement, most strikingly evident in the UAW but not confined to it. And in the days ahead, it will have many opportunities to demonstrate its viability.

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