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Gordon Haskell

Two Tactics

Oakland, Calif., Labor Backs
‘Friends of Labor’ – And Loses

(16 May 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 20, 16 May 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The two candidates for City Councilmen endorsed by Labor’s League for Political Education (political arm of the AFL in Alameda County) suffered a crushing defeat in the nominating election for city officers in Oakland, held April 19.

Just two years ago the nominees of the Oakland labor movement, united in the Oakland Voters League, swept the field in the nominating elections and went on to win hands down in the runoffs against the hysterical red-baiting, labor-baiting opposition of the Oakland Tribune and the business interests it represents.

From that victory to this defeat, there lies a tale which should be of interest to everyone concerned with the role of organized labor in the political life of America.

Two years ago the labor movement of Oakland had just gone through a general strike provoked by some highhanded scab-herding by the city cops. The ranks and even the labor leadership had just experienced a fresh lesson in “politics” learned the hard way. United and determined, they taught the business community here a lesson in what labor can do in politics when it decides to stop fooling around with making deals with its economic and political enemies, and strikes out on its own. The labor leaders picked their candidates, decided on their program, ran them in the teeth of the fiercest kind of opposition, and won.

They Voted Labor

True, even then the “brains” of the labor movement here were afraid to march openly under their own colors. They created the “Oakland Voters League” and tried to camouflage it as a “broad citizens’ group” by getting endorsements from a number of doctors, lawyers, businessmen and others. But no one was fooled by this – except, perhaps, the labor leaders themselves.

The Tribune saw to it that every citizen who could read a headline knew that this was labor’s slate. The labor movement put up the money and did the work. The Tribune was so successful in convincing everyone that this was a clear-cut fight between organized labor and business, despite the repeated denials by the labor leaders, that the workers and their families and all the “little people” turned out and voted ... for labor.

That should have taught the leaders of the AFL and CIO something about politics, but it didn’t. Instead of transforming the Oakland Voters League into a permanent political body, based on the active participation of the locals, they let it die.

Such a political organization could have exerted a continuing pressure on the councilmen it had elected. It also would have given the whole labor movement, down to the ranks, a feeling of real power in city affairs.

The trouble is, however, that a political body based on the active participation of an informed rank and file would also have made it necessary for the labor leaders to subject themselves to the will of the ranks in political matters. But that kind of democracy is dangerous. It’s much more pleasant for a union chief to be in a position where he can “speak for labor” in political matters without having to bother about any democratically elected political representatives of his membership.

Retreat in ‘49

So the Oakland Voters League was not transformed into some kind of local labor party. A contributing factor to this was and is the split in the CIO between CP and Murray wings of that body. The AFL leaders had formerly worked mainly with the CP wing, as two years ago they represented the bulk of the CIO membership. No similar working arrangement has been made with the Murray leaders who now claim to represent such a majority. But this was a minor factor in the defeat.

The defeat in this election for the candidates endorsed both by the AFL and the Murray CIO group was due mainly to the fact that the same workers, who two years ago felt they were voting for a slate of their own candidates in a fight against the concerted forces of big business, this time could have no such feeling. This time labor did not select its own candidates and did not run them on a clear-cut program.

This time the union movement went back to the old Gompers policy of simply endorsing some of the candidates who had decided to run on their own or had been induced to run by others. These candidates ran their own campaigns on “programs” which they decided on themselves (such as the program of Al Braga, AFL endorsed councilman for the 6th District: “New Blood – Business Judgment – Common-Sense Efficiency”).

Even the Tribune couldn’t work up a good sweat about the danger of labor’s winning in this election. For how could labor possibly win when it confined itself to endorsing a couple of real-estate agents who have never had any connection with the labor movement? Win or lose, the Tribune and the business interests it represents would have been on top.

Without a real political organization involving the ranks of the labor movement the leaders haven’t been able to keep in line all of the councilmen elected last time. What chance would they have of exerting any real influence on these two businessmen, had they been able to convince their membership to vote for them?

Something to Learn

Looked at from any angle, the “policy” of the labor leaders in this election has proved the complete bankruptcy of that kind of labor politics. They will now no doubt set up a big wail about the indifference of the membership to the endorsements made by their leaders. They had better save their tears and take a good look at the kind of leadership they have given.

It is too much to expect that the lesson of their victory two years ago and their defeat now will really teach them too much. For it proves to the them too much. For is proves to the saying for years.

There is one way labor can really win in politics. That is to apply the same principles to politics which they have applied to their economic organization. To win economic concessions from the employer, you organize the workers into a union. You have to start with a membership which knows what it wants and is willing to fight for it. To win in politics you have to organize the workers into a party of their own which can select its candidates and decide on their program in the same way that a union chooses its officers and votes on the contract demands to be made.

That kind of a movement the workers will support, because it is theirs. If the leaders of labor in Oakland didn’t understand this before the election, and if they won’t understand it now, there is only one thing for intelligent workers in Oakland to do. Start electing leaders who are not only good union men, but who are capable of understanding the ABC of labor politics.

Footnote: In this election the Socialist Workers Party ran Philomena Goelman for Councilman at large. She ran eighth in a field of nine, polling 2,054 votes. The AFL-endorsed candidate ran third with 5,618 votes. Total votes cast: 60,013.

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