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Tom Kerry

Why Was the CP Ousted from the CIO?

(Fall 1957)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.4, Fall 1957, pp.129-131.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Communist Party vs. the CIO
by Max M. Kampelman
Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., New York. 1957. 299pp. $6.

Following the Twentieth Congress of the Communist party of the Soviet Union the leaders of the American CP undertook a re-evaluation of their past policies, including their trade-union line, in the light of the de-Stalinization campaign. The expulsion of the CP-influenced unions, which split the CIO in 1949, came up in particular for reassessment. With the breast-beating acknowledgment of past “error” characteristic of their orgy of “self-criticism” following Khrushchev’s revelations, the American Stalinist tops hastened to assume their share of the blame of the CIO split.

Writing in the April 22 Sunday Worker, labor-columnist George Morris affirmed:

“A serious examination of the trend in the left, especially since World War II, I am sure, is bound to lead to the conclusion that the split in the CIO, that came to a climax in 1949 might have been avoided. The blame for the split cannot be placed entirely on Philip Murray and the CIO’s right wing. For some time before the split it was apparent that the left forces – influenced strongly by the narrowness and leftism in the ranks of the Marxists forgot that the key to the success that marked the CIO’s first ten years was left-center unity.

That unity was breached – and the left itself contributed to that breach by its narrowness, over-estimation of its strength, refusal to retreat and compromise some when that was imperative – especially on the presidential race and on the Marshall Plan.” (Morris’ emphasis.)

The Morris version was corroborated by CP National Secretary Eugene Dennis in his report to the enlarged meeting of the Communist party National Committee held in New York City, April 28 – May 1, 1956, published under the title: The Communists Take a New Look. In a chapter headed: The Left and the Split in the CIO, Dennis purported to “deal” with what he called “a few tactical mistakes,” that contributed to the split.

“The split in the CIO,” he declared, “was precipitated through a number of issues on which the Left could have maneuvered and reacted more flexibly. But the Left’s fight-back policy suffered from all the sectarian tendencies that hampered its united front work in the mass trade unions led by the more conservative and Right-wing reformist and Social-Democratic leaders.”

This, in a nutshell, is the “New Look” Stalinist version of the 1949 split in the CIO. Needless to say, the Dennis report was “adopted” by the CP National Committee.

Could the Communist party have avoided a split through the application of more “flexible” tactics? The author of The Communist Party vs. the CIO disputes this. Although it terminates with the CIO split in 1949 and deals primarily with the period 1939-49, the book reads like a polemic in advance against the shallow “New Look” version of the conflict put forward by the CP leaders in 1957.

The main point is that the basic issue in dispute was over foreign policy – and this could not be reconciled or compromised. Not that the Stalinists didn’t try. At the 1948 CIO convention that laid the ground for the split, the CP contingent tried to compromise on the Marshall Plan by proposing that its funds be allocated through the machinery of the United Nations. To no avail. By that time nothing less than complete capitulation would have sufficed; i.e., a definitive break with the Kremlin and all-out support to the cold-war foreign policy of the US State Department. Nothing less would have satisfied the “labor statesmen” who headed the CIO with Philip Murray in their van. This was a price the CP could not and did not pay. And that is why they found themselves outside the CIO they had helped to build and lead.

The author points out that the Communist party’s “inflexible loyalty to the immediate interests of the Soviet Union eliminated any resilience within its group and made it impossible for the Communist party, and for Communist-led unions, to withstand the ebb and flow of American attitudes toward the Soviet Union.” The “ebb and flow of American attitudes toward the Soviet Union,” is a fastidious euphemism for the servile adaptation to the “ebb and flow” of State Department foreign policy by the “loyal” labor bureaucrats. This fundamental conflict between one group of labor bureaucrats owing allegiance to the Kremlin (which they identify with the Soviet Union) , and another, dominant group, subservient to the foreign policy of the capitalist rulers of America, is pin-pointed in this account of the internal conflict which culminated in the CIO split.

The meteoric rise of the CIO in the thirties coincided with the worldwide shift of the Stalintern to the Peoples Front policy. Following Hitler’s advent to power in 1933 the previous “Third Period” policy of building independent revolutionary trade unions was abandoned. The unions affiliated to the Trade Union Unity League in this country were dissolved and their members sent into the AFL. In fact, “unity within the AFL” was the line of the CP until the spring of 1937 when the CIO was well on its way.

The CP had a corps of trade-union militants and organizers trained in the unions of the TUUL and unemployed organizations who were thrown into the organizing drives of the formative period of the CIO. Many of these quickly rose to positions of prominence in a number of the new unions. Above all, with their new Peoples Front line of support to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, the CP followers found a common language and arrived at a common policy with the other union leaders who directed the CIO.

Another shift in line occurred following the Hitler-Stalin Pact which led to the outbreak of World War II. The fight for “peace” and fulminations against the imperialist warmongers characterized the slogans of the 1939 shift of the Stalintern. Hitler was pictured as a peace-loving vegetarian, and Churchill and Roosevelt were cast in the role of imperialist warmongers. Their central slogan: The Yanks Are Not Coming! While this led to a sharpening of relations with a section of the top CIO leadership, the author explains:

“However in 1939, the foreign policy of the Communist Party seemed in harmony with the general ‘isolationist’ position which permeated America and the labor movement as well. Opposition to war, therefore, and opposition to steps leading to war, was an easy cause to sell. Sharp differences between Communists and anti-Communists thus did not express themselves through foreign policy debates.”

Another mitigating factor was the special role of John L. Lewis, who turned against Roosevelt and came out in support of Willkie in the presidential race of 1940. At this period the CP contingent in the CIO were the most vociferous supporters of Lewis. Later, after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and America’s entry into the war, they reserved their choicest epithets for the leader of the coal-miners union who dared to call strikes against the wage-freeze during wartime.

When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the CP line underwent another turn about. And with America’s entry into the war they became the most rabid jingoists. They were ready, willing and eager to sacrifice the most elementary needs of the workers in pursuance of what they called the “war effort.” So unrestrained were the CP leaders in advocating the most drastic union sacrifices that they often encountered opposition from conservative trade-union bureaucrats. The author lists a few of their more flagrant strikebreaking actions:

  1. They “enthusiastically endorsed the principle of permanent selective service.”
  2. They were “actively in favor of the labor conscription program and the National Service Act recommended by Roosevelt in January 1944,” despite the official opposition of the CIO.
  3. In the famous Montgomery Ward strike suported by the CIO, Harry Bridges rejected “repeated requests to cooperate and not act as a strikebreaker,” but “he ordered his members not to strike and wrote a letter to President Roosevelt on December 22, 1944, repeating the no-strike pledge.”
  4. They jammed a resolution through the Minnesota state CIO convention on September 8, 1944 “condemning” the 18 Minneapolis Teamsters Union officials and Socialist Workers party leaders jailed under the Smith Act.

It was their reply, comments the author, “to those civil-liberties-oriented organizations and individuals who had protested the Smith ‘peacetime sedition’ act and the federal governments indictment of the eighteen Trotskyite leaders under the law. This law was the same law applied later against the eleven Communist leaders in 1948-50 ...

The CP’s wartime crimes against the workers alienated many of the best militants in the union movement and played no little part in the isolation and discreditment which facilitated the expulsion of the CP-dominated unions by the Murray faction in 1949.

The edifice of wartime betrayals was crowned at the war’s end by the CP slogan of the permanent no-strike pledge. Advocacy of the permanent no-strike pledge was justified by the “theory” that the pacts signed at Teheran and Yalta by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt, had ushered in the era of peaceful coexistence. Teheran and Yalta, the CP spokesmen explained, had outmoded the class struggle and therefore any further need for employing the strike weapon had been eliminated. It wasn’t long before history again corrected the Stalinist theoreticians; instead of “peaceful coexistence” Churchill’s Fulton Missouri speech in 1946 ushered in the period of the cold war.

The cold war heated up the atmosphere inside the CIO. “All ties of ‘unity’ within the CIO,” remarks the author, “strained and eventually broke as the war came to an end and tension developed between the United States and the Soviet Union.” The labor lieutenants of the American capitalist class, who could commit the worst betrayals of the worker-members of the CIO, gagged at “unity” with the Stalinist opponents of Wall Street’s foreign policy. The Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine were two of the main pillars of the cold-war structure. Given the character and connections of the two contending groups in the leadership of the CIO, a showdown was inevitable.

As a way out, the Stalinists toyed with the idea of setting up a “third” union federation. This is disclosed by evidence attributed to Michael Quill, head of the Transport Workers Union. Quill relates that he went to see William Z. Foster, national chairman of the CP, to persuade him to abandon the Progressive party campaign for Henry Wallace in 1948.

“I expressed to him fear,” Quill is quoted as saying, “that this move will split the unions, and weaken our position locally and nationally against the employers. He said the Communist Party ... decided that all the unions that it can influence within CIO are to go down the line behind Wallace, if it splits the last union down the middle, but he said, ‘We have also decided to form a Third Federation of Labor in the United States carved out of the AFofL and the CIO in order to implement the Henry Wallace movement’.”

This would seem to be confirmed by the Dennis report to the CP National Committee which states:

“A contributing factor to the split in the CIO, the slowness in taking measures to try to overcome this division – was no doubt the practical abandonment of the Left’s initiative in the fight for trade union unity. This went hand in hand with speculation in certain quarters about the desirability of eventually establishing a ‘third’ labor federation” (My emphasis.)

His examination of the record leads Kampelman to the conclusion that:

“There is little evidence to prove that the goal of the Communists in the trade union movement is to achieve economic revolution or the overthrow of capitalism. There is, however, overwhelming evidence to prove that the goal of Communists in the trade union movement is support of Soviet strategy in foreign affairs, regardless of what that strategy happens to be at any particular moment. Communist unionism, therefore, does not so much represent a trade union philosophy in any meaningful sense of the term as a system of power.”

The author accurately traces to its source the bewildering twists and turns which have cut off the American CP from the main stream of organized labor. The chief value of his book, however, resides in the facts he presents rather than in his conclusions. While exposing the CP errors, he attributes to their expellers from the CIO virtues which they do not possess. He does not give a correct evaluation of the role of the established union officialdom as transmitters of imperialist influences into the labor movement. But this role alone explains the duality of the Murrays – why they were able to cohabit for a time with the Stalinists in leading the CIO and then why they moved to throw them out when the needs of the capitalist rulers so dictated.

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