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Tom Kerry

The Leap from Open Shop
to Industrial Unionism

(Winter 1965)

From International Socialist Review, Vol. 26 No. 1, Winter 1965, p. 28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO
by Art Preis
Pioneer Publishers, 1964. 538 pp. $7.50.

There have been in recent years a spate of books published decrying and bemoaning the decline in prestige and influence of the American trade union movement. The liberal “friends” of labor are especially distraught over the absence of that crusading spirit which characterized the explosive birth and development of the CIO in the middle 1930’s. They tend to “identify” with the movement of social reform which developed parallel with the rise of the CIO, little dreaming that it was precisely the liberal reform program, policy and practice embraced by the labor leaders which sapped the energy and devitalized the fighting spirit of the ranks.

Other critics go further. They proclaim the labor movement a putrefying corpse and write off the American working class as the historical agency of social transformation. Such sentiments are nothing new. With greater justification the Cassandra’s of the “roaring 20’s” wept over labor’s lost cause and predicted in sepulchral tone that the American workers would never, but never, succeed in unionizing the mass production industries in this country.

The great merit in Art Preis’s book is that he takes as his point of departure the profound wisdom of the sage who opined: “Ours not to weep but to understand!” To understand means to comprehend and relate the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is only thus that correct lessons can be derived from the history of labor’s struggles. In the telling some sacred cows are gored, some hoary myths are laid. How can it be otherwise?

The twenty year period covered by Labor’s Giant Step encompasses some of the most bitterly fought class battles in the history of the American labor movement. When the class struggle reaches such peaks of intensity it lays bare the anatomy of class society and discloses the true relationships between capital and labor and, more to the point, between labor and government, which functions as the executive arm of the employing class. It is no surprise therefore, that Preis applies his scalpel to the most pernicious myth of all – the legend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the friend and champion of labor and the scourge of the moneylenders who ruled the Temple of Mammon in Wall Street – and Washington.

Myth of Roosevelt

Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was a rescue operation designed to pump new blood into the sclerotic veins of American capitalism. In order to assure mass acceptance of the real and tangible subsidies doled out to business and agriculture Roosevelt felt constrained to make some concessions to the unemployed and to the organized segment of the American working class. The most highly touted was Section 7-A of the National Labor Relations Act.

Under Section 7-A the workers were ostensibly guaranteed the “right” to organize and bargain collectively through unions of their own choosing. The workers soon learned that this concession was more fictitious than real. To win this “right” labor was compelled to struggle on a massive scale. In practically all of the key union battles of the early period of the “New Deal” the central demand was for “union recognition.” Invariably, Roosevelt’s intervention aimed at undercutting, compromising and weakening labor’s struggle for union recognition – sometimes through government “mediation” and when that failed, by force.

All this is part of the record. Despite Roosevelt’s role the labor leaders continued to cling to his coat-tails and along with them the Stalinists, especially after Moscow laid down its People’s Front line at the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in 1935. Time and time again the more advanced sections of the working class tried to break through the class collaborationist political barrier erected by the conservative labor and Stalinist leadership. They failed. And therein lies the real tragedy of the historic movement sparked by the CIO.

Unfinished Task

It remains one of the unfinished tasks of Labor’s Giant Step from virtual non-organization to the building of what is numerically the largest and potentially the strongest organized labor movement in the world. In the short span from the rise of the CIO in the early 1930’s to the outbreak of World War II the American working class proved unable to overcome its political immaturity. It did develop to a high degree its spirit of union consciousness. Thanks to the restraining influence of its leadership it failed to develop a comparable degree of political consciousness.

The wartime reaction and post-war period of prosperity-reaction served to further retard the political development of the American workers. While gaining many concessions in trade union battles with the employers they still remain captive to the class collaborationist policies of the conservative bureaucrats who head the union movement. But, it would be the most colossal error to prematurely pronounce a requiem over so lively a corpse. As Mark Twain observed when he was informed that his obituary had been published: “The news of my death has been greatly exaggerated.”

The lesson Art Preis teaches is that of the enormous potential that is lodged in powerful loins of American labor. Since the rise of the CIO the American working class has suffered no major defeat. While its native militancy has been temporarily damped its explosive quality has not been impaired. Those who absorb the lesson Preis teaches and are able to probe below surface appearances can already discern the embryonic stirring of the molecular process that erupted with such volcanic force to accomplish Labor’s Giant Step in the few short years of the middle 30’s.

This is the book of a man who has lived, breathed and acted the events he describes. It is an indispensable antidote to the poison of pessimism that permeates the literary output of the prophets of despair.

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