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David Coolidge

With the Labor Unions – On the Picket Line

(23 September 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 24, 23 September 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This Will Make the Bosses Cower!

Organized white street car and bus employees of the Birmingham (Ala.) Electric Company called a walk-out recently in support of 108 Negro mechanics and helpers employed by the same company. The white workers struck in order to get a higher wage scale for the Negro mechanics and helpers. The cars and buses were tied up for 48 hours. It was the first tie-up on the system for twenty-six years. It was the first strike on record in that area called by white workers in support of the demands of Negro workers.

This action of the white workers of Birmingham must have spread consternation among the employers of Birmingham. The same consternation will exist everywhere when the action becomes known to employers North and South. Because, this is just the kind of thing that employers have been organizing and fighting against in their employers associations, chambers of commerce and boards of trade. Their slogan is; “no peace but constant warfare between Negro and white workers.” For peace and good will among the workers of all races, creeds, sexes and nationalities is the beginning of the end of the rule of the bosses.

The ruling class knows this all too well. The workers have been slow learning this lesson. The destruction of every barrier; racial, religious, national or otherwise that divides the workers is the first step in strengthening the unions: in making them mass and militant organizations that can force higher wages and shorter hours from the bosses. Wiping out all the differences that have been planted in the ranks of the workers by the employers and their stooge politicians, will demonstrate the solidarity of the working class.

This solidarity will inevitably express itself in the economic struggles of the unions. More important these economic struggles will intensify the class struggle, aid in heightening the political thinking of the workers and impel them to decisive political action against the bosses. The action of the white street car workers in Birmingham is a concrete and fundamental step toward this end.

Something for the Machinists to Do

The International Association of Machinists (AFL) is holding its convention in Cleveland. This organization of 200,000 skilled workers have an opportunity in this convention to render a mighty service to the working class and to increase the solidarity of Negro and white labor. The IAM can remove the provision in their constitution or ritual which bars Negro machinists from membership in the union.

At the last convention of the IAM in Milwaukee, in 1936, an effort was made to wipe out this disgraceful, scandalous and anti-working class Jim-Crowism. The motion was defeated overwhelmingly. By this act IAM members served notice on Negro machinists that their union is a white man’s union just as to them the U.S. is a “white man’s country.”

“Business Unionism” With a Vengeance

One of the first actions of the Teamsters at their international convention in Washington was to vote increases in the salaries of the leading officers. President Tobin and the Secretary-Treasurer got their salaries increased from $20,000 to $30,000 a year. Tobin was given an assistant at $20,000 yearly.

This is an amazing performance for a workers organization. It is even more amazing that Tobin would accept an increase in the amount of money he takes from the workers in his union. This means that the president and secretary-treasurer of the union will take from the pockets of union truck drivers $576 a week; $82 a day! Tobin’s assistant will take $384 a week! These salaries, comes not from a wealthy corporation but from the pay envelopes of ordinary workers. This $82 a day comes from truck drivers, some of whom draw no more than this for two weeks work for the boss. The top scale for union truck drivers is not more than $53 a week.

The reason given for the steep increase in pay, or any increase at all is that the union is the biggest in the U.S., and of course Tobin was the chief factor in the growth of the union. This is “business unionism” with a vengeance. It’s the same conception that corporation boards of directors have when they vote a big boost in pay for the president. “Our company is the biggest in the country and our president Joe Doe is the one man to whom the credit is due.” But the union is not a corporation, it is not a business. It is not an institution ran for private profit that rewards its officers financially in proportion as the income increases. the union is an organization of the working class come together to contend with the boss for higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions. Officers are members of the union and have no rights and privileges not enjoyed by other members of the union. They do not, or should not, have a similar relationship to the union rank and file that the corporation president bears to the workers in his factories. Furthermore these fabulous union salaries and the reasons given for granting them encourage an extremely dangerous tendency in the labor movement. This sort of thing gives an impetus to racketeering. Racketeers such as Scalise and others take the position that if the union can be milked so easily by its officers the proper thing for the racketeer is to get into a union, or organize one and start milking. Scalise too, had his rewards for building up the union but he took his directly. He got a rake off on all dues paid by new members. Furthermore, Scalise also had a big salary taken from the pockets of the workers in his union. Also this “get mine” policy penetrates the lower ranks of the union and at times results in workers landing in jail.

The whole policy of “business unionism,” huge salaries and the granting of great power to union officials tends to knock the unions off the main track and to develop a trade union bureaucracy. A gap develops between the officers and the rank and file. The bureaucracy tends to fall away from its working class past. The officers don’t think like working men any more. They are successful American business men. They have made good. They don’t live like the workers any more. They live in swank hotels, direct the union from luxuriant offices and act pretty much like a high paid corporation executive. The racketeer union leaders also live in this same manner. Scalise too had his palatial home in a fashionable New York suburb.

A Vital Difference Between Tobin and Scalise

Now when we mention Scalise in connection with Tobin it should be obvious that we are not calling Tobin a racketeer. Not to make a fundamental and important distinction between Tobin and Scalise is to be a nit-wit or a scoundrel. Not to be able to make a fundamental distinction between labor leaders such as Tobin, Green, Lewis, Murray and others and the bosses of the ruling class, is to fail completely to comprehend the meaning of the labor movement and the class organization of society.

Scalise and his kind are racketeers, real “labor fakers.” They “build” unions solely for personal gain and other questionable results that flow from their union activities. They have not grown up with the unions and are not genuinely union men.

The Kind of Leadership Workers Need

The employers of the workers are members of another class, an enemy class that conducts continual class warfare against the workers as a class. And despite their seeming friendliness at times, their surface collaboration, the bosses include Tobin, Green, Lewis and other labor leaders in the working class and look upon them as enemies. They seek to win them over and often succeed, but they know that these men are the representatives of the organized working class. The bosses are also aware that the trade union bureaucracy is subject to pressure from the union ranks. The bureaucracy cannot always do as it pleases. Furthermore the bosses know the source of the workers’ dissatisfaction and unrest. They know that it springs from his work, his living conditions, his place in society.

The workers must increase this pressure on the union leadership to bring the leaders increasingly into tune with the needs and aspirations of the rank and file. This is the kind of leadership the unions must have: men and women who are committed to irreconcilable warfare against the boss on the picket line. This type of leader will refuse to take $30,000 a year from the workers. He will put himself in the worker’s place and refuse to pay himself more than the worker in his union gets. This kind of leader will refuse to take more wages than he can get from the boss for the workers in his union.

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