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Present and Future of U.S. Labor

Ben Hall

Notes of the Month

Labor Unity: A Giant Step Forward

(Spring 1955)

From The New International, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Spring 1955, pp. 3–6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

By the year’s end it is virtually certain that the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations will have united. Top committees of both have endorsed a merger agreement. All that remains to consummate the unity is a joint convention scheduled for the fall. The Railway Brotherhoods, traditionally aloof and independent, are already talking of joining. For the first time, the prospect looms of a single trade union federation in the United States with the exception of the Stalinist-dominated unions and the possible exception, at least at the beginning, of the United Mine Workers Union.

The impulse toward unity arises not out of weakness but frustrated power. An organized labor movement, bigger and stronger than ever in its history, discovers that its strength is somehow vitiated and neutralized. Liberal Democrats, to whom it clings, endorses and whitewashes, are feeble and timid: since the early New Deal, only gargantuan promises and trivial deeds. Now, a Republican administration holds office; the Taft-Hartley Law stymies union advances, especially in the South, and offers employers a weapon, already successfully wielded in local instances, to wipe out unionism where it is weak. In the states, labor faces a widespread legislative campaign to abolish the union shop and limit the right to strike in the name of the “right to work.” The labor movement holds on to what it has achieved only through the sheer social weight of organized unionism and no further advance or even effectual self-defense, seems possible except through the most concentrated application of this power. George Meany and Walter Reuther, with the traditional labor leader’s instinct for the camouflage of respectability, explain their unity as a patriotic measure devised to promote national unity against Communism. If the truth were told, they are driven to unite because America is divided into classes and the working class feels compelled to unite against its capitalist exploiters. In a country where “capitalism” is dubbed “free enterprise” the class struggle is paraded under the guise of “national unity” but this euphemism changes nothing.

Unity is an historic step forward for U.S. labor but this will become evident in all its force only with time. Unlike the original AFL-CIO split, which meant an immediate dramatic shift in policy and a sweeping rise in the class struggle, the unity will leave all formal policies unaltered and everything, for the moment, will continue as before. A united labor movement will undoubtedly continue to string along with the Democratic Party and will persist in its loyalty to American foreign policy, complaining as always over its sordid details and pleading in vain for a somewhat more democratic spirit.

Unity is no reversion to the status quo ante; for the labor movement can never return to the days before the split. Merger becomes the starting point for a new advance. The CIO claims 5,000,000 members; the AFL, 10,000,000. But despite the numerical preponderance of the AFL, the fundamental character of the modern labor movement in the United States has been stamped by the CIO. The formation of the CIO was a gigantic leap forward of the American working class; the new movement sought not only a new form of organization, industrial unionism, but a new role for the unions. It transformed the union movement, until then a narrow stratum dominated by the skilled crafts, into a labor movement, the organized working class. It was the triumph of an American class consciousness in embryo: union consciousness.

When the case-hardened officials of the AFL expelled the CIO, they pitted the most trivial interests of union bureaucracy against the pressing needs of the working class. The organization of the unorganized, essential if labor was to emerge as an effective class force, was nothing but an incalculable danger to the permanence of their plushy office chairs. But in the period of rapid rise, their opposition was swept aside in a great mass outpouring of workers.

The CIO not only expanded the geographical scope of union organization, it broadened its social role. Unionism came forth as a leader in the fight against racial discrimination and a cadre of skilled and able Negro worker leaders were trained in union struggles. Racketeering and corruption were successfully fended off. In most of the new unions, the spirit of rank and file democracy prevailed. Labor came forward as an organized and potent political force.

Socialists of every brand and faction were in the very heart of the rising movement, occupying positions of leadership and influence. Hopes ran high that at last the isolation of American socialism would be overcome and it would grow to a mass force. At the very least, it seemed probable, even inevitable, that the labor movement under the impact of the CIO, would quickly move toward political independence and form its own party, raising the American working class out of its historical political backwardness.

But it was not to be. A cruel combination of international defeats for socialism in Spain and France; the rise of fascism and world Stalinism; a second world war and its aftermath of totalitarian Stalinist advance wiped out the socialist possibilities within the labor movement. It persisted in illusions over a warmed over, stale New Dealism. In the period of their friendship and sympathy for Stalinism, then in a pro-Roosevelt and pro-capitalist turn, labor militants were thwarted in their class development. And in the post-war period of Stalinist expansion when its anti-democratic, totalitarian features had become clear, the same strata of labor militants cast aside all sympathy for socialism in their justified revulsion against Stalinism. In the cold war with Russia, the unions remained tied to the old capitalist politicians.

By the hundreds, socialists in the labor movement ceased to be socialists, they emerged as the molders of a new American labor movement; anti-socialist but social-reformist; politically conscious but pro-Democratic.

In such a context of domestic and world politics, the CIO had exhausted its role as an independent movement; it was stalemated in bourgeois politics. Reuther’s elevation to the presidency of the CIO climaxed, symbolized, and concluded this whole period. The former socialist rose to the top post at the very moment when he had abandoned, for the time, the advocacy of a new party.

Meanwhile, the AFL could not remain rooted to the past. To stave off the CIO which threatened to supplant it, many of its craft unions were forced to adopt the practice, if not accept the principle, of industrial organization. As the labor movement grew from less than three to more than 15 million it discovered that its life was dominated by politics. In an era of war and war economy, the government confronted it everywhere. Wages became an affair of state. Increasingly, the AFL was forced to abandon its traditional non-partisanship and enter with the CIO into bourgeois politics as a left-wing. Its more responsible leaders gained a glimmering of the social role imposed upon unionism. The CIO formed its Political Action Committee; the AFL followed belatedly with its Labor’s League for Political Education; and both endorsed Stevenson in 1952.

Beneath these progressive externals, lay the undissolved, hard core of the old AFL. Racketeering continued to flourish, undermining the moral standing of unionism at the very moment when it had decided to crusade among the whole people. The AFL, still dominated by the old crafts, did nothing. The watchword “autonomy” became the pretext for sheltering plain corruption. On a local level politics had degenerated into wardheeling and narrow self-seeking labor officials simply integrated themselves into the corrupt machines of the old parties. Racial discrimination, open, official and legal continued in some Internationals without interference from the Federation.

With the death of William Green, all the elements that sought to weaken the power of shortsighted craftism and cleanse the Federation of ordinary crookedness gathered around the new president, George Meany. It was this group, from the AFL side, which made the success of unity negotiations possible. The terms of the merger agreement are unquestionably a total triumph of everything that the CIO has symbolized:

  1. The two federations enter as equal partners in the new center.
  2. Industrial unionism is recognized as equal in status to craft unionism.
  3. The new constitution will make race discrimination illegal.
  4. The new constitution will outlaw racketeering and thus legalize federation action against corrupt affiliates.
  5. The CIO will retain its independent structure and treasury on a national and local scale as a separate department within the new federation. Former AFL unions will be free to join it.

The agreement, a moral victory for the CIO, came not at the peak of CIO strength but at a time when it was cut down in numbers and undermined from within. The expulsion of Communist Party-dominated unions decreased its size. At the same time, David J. MacDonald, conservative president of the Steel Workers Union, allied with the AFL right-wing led by David Beck (Teamsters president), initiated a running campaign of provocation, nagging and threatening against Reuther to force him into a unity of complete capitulation. Far from taking advantage of Reuther’s exposed position, Meany and his supporters deliberately strengthened the hand of the CIO president. And not without reason. Through the unity, Meany was able to bring the weight of the CIO to bear; with the CIO, he could bring the AFL to accept terms that might otherwise prove inacceptable.

Thus, the achievement of unity is already a victory for those labor leaders, who, however inadequate from the standpoint of independent class politics, represent the modem labor movement; and it is a defeat for the hidebound conservatives left over from yesterday.

A new alignment takes place within the labor movement. MacDonald is allied with Beck. Beck is allied with the Carpenters, Hodcarriers, and Operating Engineers in an artistically accurate pooling of union conservatism and toleration of corruption. And on the other hand, a working collaboration between the forces around Meany and Reuther is inevitable, an alliance with all kinds of weaknesses and shortcomings but incontestably superior to and more progressive than the other. Up to now, the ultra-conservative right-wing enjoyed enormous, often decisive, power within the AFL and weighted down the whole labor movement. But with unity its relative weight instantly decreases.

From every standpoint, unity is an achievement. Inside the labor movement it strengthens the most progressive sections. And simultaneously, it encourages the self-confidence of the working class, stimulating it to demand more from employers, government, and politicians. The stage is set for a forward march.

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