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David Coolidge

With the Labor Unions – On the Picket Line

(9 September 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 22, 9 September 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Union Democracy Is Antidote to Racketeers

Far too many union leaders are landing in the capitalist courts on charges of racketeering and mulcting their organizations. There is plenty of evidence at hand to show that the overwhelming majority of these charges are fact. Virtually all of the union racketeers and gangsters are in the American Federation of Labor. The reason for this lies principally in the craft structure of the AFL.

Division by craft creates a happy hunting ground for all manner of racketeering, gangsterism, and thieving by employers and corrupt trade union leaders. A corrupt union leader, or an outside muscleman, can make a deal with employers to organize a new union or split one already formed where the craft structure prevails. In the building service field it is possible to have separate organizations for elevator men, window cleaners, scrub women and male janitors. A first rate racketeer can find all manner of distinctions to make between the various types of public and private buildings. In large cities such as New York it is possible to have autonomous organizations in each borough. This same scheme can be carried out in other industries.

It is extremely difficult to operate in this manner under the industrial union structure. Here the industry is organized vertically, one union to the industry. Racketeers don’t go for this; they like to operate where they can bite off a slice and chew it in their own way and to their personal advantage.

The workers should clean out the racketeers and gangsters. They should reject the position of Bill Green who wants the FBI and the police to clean up the AFL unions. Unions should set high and rigid standards for union officers to live and act by. First is insistence on internal democracy. Almost no racketeer or strong-arm bureaucrat can live up to this test. Internal democracy means free, honest and regular elections. Regular and frequent meetings of the locals and internationals. The determination of all important procedure and action by vote of the membership after open and thorough discussion. Insistence that officers and committees carry out all decisions of the membership. This applies especially to contracts with the bosses and strike call and settlement. Where these safeguards are erected there will be little trouble with racketeers. This vermin thrives in unions where they are the whole show and are permitted to do pretty much as they please.

It’s Union Organization That Really Gets Results

There is another reason for the strangle hold that racketeers have on some unions. A racketeer leadership is slick enough to know that they must get something for the union members. Quite often they do get an increase in wages and improvement in working conditions. They threaten the boss with a strike, they make agreements to organize one shop or area and leave another unorganized. They connive with one boss to gyp another boss, provided “their” men get a raise. The boss and the union racketeer divide the loot, while at the same time the racketeer demands a “kick-back” from union members. What union workers must understand is that the racketeer official “gets results” for them only because he represents a mass organization of workers. It is the union that is the racketeer’s chief weapon. The boss is afraid of a strike only because there is an organized force that can actually stop production.

A democratic, militant, mass union can force far more out of the bosses than a racketeer controlled union. A union that shuns shady deals with the boss and puts up a hard clean fight will, in the long run, get far higher wages and shorter hours than can be procured by any double dealing racketeer leader. If the unions function on these principles, clean out every every corrupt leader and go to bat as genuine militant working class organizations they will save themselves many headaches and be freed from the disgrace of being successfully charged with racketeering in the capitalist courts. The bosses will drag the workers to the boss courts but let them go there from the picket line that they have voted for and that they control.

Beware of “No Strike” Agreements With the Boss!

Suits against unions by the bosses for “violation of contract” is [sic!] on the increase. This is part of a general drive against the unions by the bosses in league with the Department of Justice. The New Deal Department of Justice with the help of the New Deal Supreme Court has put unions in the same class as corporations under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the “law” of contracts.

The latest victims are the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Milk Wagon Drivers Union in New York City. The electrical workers are being sued for $500,000 for striking in violation of the contract. The milk wagon drivers were fined $10,000 by the “impartial chairman” of the milk industry. The milk company accepted a reduction of the fine to $5,000 “as a means of promoting better labor relations.” The union refused to pay by the date of the dead line and the fine went back to $10,000.

As long as we have capitalist collective bargaining and capitalist contracts it will be necessary for unions to exercise some care and precaution in the observance of these contracts. In the present social order collective bargaining is a give and take between the unions and the bosses. They reach an agreement which is presumed to be binding on both sides. It is well known of course that the bosses violate these agreements far oftener than the unions.

Since the unions function as collective bargaining agencies through agreements and contracts with the bosses, it is a simple matter to understand that it is necessary to be cautious in making agreements and signing contracts. It is imperative that every agreement be presented to the before it is signed by union negotiating committees. No union should vote officials the right to sign contracts and agreements with the bosses, before approval by the union membership. Any officials who do such things on their own or who act in violation of the union decision should be severely disciplined.

There has to be flexibility in all union negotiations. Neither side can take an all or nothing attitude as a principled position. The main point for the union is to drive the best possible bargain under the concrete conditions at the time of the agreement. At a later time conditions may change and a different type of agreement may be necessary for the protection of the union and its members.

This makes it especially important that great care and foresight be exercised in the making of agreements. This applies particularly to no strike clauses. The two unions mentioned got into difficulties on this point. They are charged with striking in violation of the contract. No matter what compromises may be feasible from time to time no union should surrender the right to strike. No union official should be given power to sign a no strike agreement even for the briefest period without the expressed consent of the overwhelming majority of the union.

Unions should reject completely all “impartial chairman” set-ups. In the first place “there ain’t no such animal.” He will be for the union or for the boss. If he is for the union the boss will reject him; if he is for the boss the union should reject him. The union must not accept a status which means that its action is to be determined outside the membership.

A Weapon the Workers Can Use

At the recent convention of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (CIO), Allan Hay wood in the course of his convention address made the statement that “if you (the union) did what the corporations did recently, and sat down for more than 8% net profit, you’d be accused of being traitors.” Haywood is correct. If the workers sat down and stayed put until they got more money from the bosses they would be called traitors and fifth columnists. But Haywood didn’t make any explanations. He didn’t propose anything. He just stood there and made a sob speech. Haywood should know better; he is an old miner. He knows how the miners improved their working conditions and raised their wages. There was some shedding but it wasn’t tears.

The bosses know that the government at Washington is their government and they’ll sit down on it when they damn please. Nobody is going to call the army and national guard against the bosses because it is their army and their guard.

The employers know that society is divided into two warring classes; owners and wage workers. The bosses know, and its about time the workers learned this, that the government at Washington, in every state and city is a part of the capitalist state, the bosses, state. Karl Marx called such a government the executive committee of the ruling class. That is, the government of Roosevelt and Willkie manages the state, for the benefit of the ruling class, the bosses, just as the board of directors manages a corporation for the benefit of its owners.

The workers should learn a lesson from what is going on today with the so-called defense program. They want higher wages and shorter hours. They won’t get this by calling the bosses fifth columnists, traitors and charging them with a lack of patriotism. This is nonsense. Bill Green and John L. Lewis won’t move the the ruling class and the boss government by indignation. They’ve got to lead the workers to the sit-down and to the picket line.

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