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David Coolidge

AFL Meet Acts on Unity, War and Racketeering

(9 December 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 35, 9 December 1940, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

During its two weeks of deliberation many things of importance, along with much that is trivial, were considered by the American Federation of Labor at its 60th convention in New Orleans. The main questions on which decisions were made by the convention were the attitude of the AFL toward th. war; racketeering; unity with the CIO; labor standards and the war; and the organization’s attitude toward representation on the various government war boards.

The first week, of the convention was largely consumed by the usual routine organizational matters, speeches by outsiders, and the racketeering issue which was pressed by Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, spoke, and asked the federation to fight against “dishonest or subversive” influences. Sir Walter Citrine appeared at the convention to represent British labor and to ask for support to England in the war against Hitler. Sir Walter was received warmly and with open arms by President Green. Another convention speaker was Milo J. Warner, national commander of the American Legion. He urged “total preparation of our defenses now as a means to avoid war,” and pledged the cooperation of the American Legion with the AFL to “promote peace” and other goals mutually beneficial to the AFL and the legion. Dan Tracy, assistant Secretary of Labor, and formerly head of the electricians, was present to make a speech. Tracy told the convention that they must go on building the Department of Labor “to the end of making it the greatest in the government.” Green replied by saying that “at long last we have a fine entrée into the Department. We can talk to Mr. Tracy as man to man. He speaks our language and we speak his.”

Compromise on Racketeering

Dubinsky was present to fight for the fulfillment of the promises made him by Green before the ILGWU entered the AFL. Dubinsky was promised that the executive council would ask the convention to take from the council the right to suspend unions, and to vest this authority in the convention alone. Dubinsky was also promised that the one cent per capita tax would be eliminated and that the council would recommend strong action against racketeering in the AFL. All of these proposals, except the one percent per capita tax, hit a snag in the convention. On the racketeering issue Dubinsky had presented a resolution giving the executive council power to take action against unions that did not expel racketeers. Leaders of strong international unions were against the ILGWU resolution, and Dubinsky consented to a compromise resolution which called on all affiliated unions to adopt rules and amendments to their constitutions providing for action against officers or members “found guilty of betraying their trust or of having used their position for personal or illegal gain, or who have been convicted of acts casting discredit on the entire labor movement,” The resolution continued with: “we submit with pride the record of honesty and integrity of thousands of trade union officials. A far larger number of men in the professions, in public life and in business have shown criminal tendencies and been found guilty.”

The substitution of this compromise for the Dubinsky resolution was based on the executive council’s claim that. since the internationals are autonomous, the federation cannot dictate to them how they run their affairs and administer their business. The federation, according to Green, can only exert moral pressure on its affiliates.

It should be emphasized that this mild action by the executive council is certainly no less correct than the resolution proposed by Dubinsky, That resolution vesting authority in the executive council to remove individuals or unions, ostensibly for racketeering, would give reactionaries a lever against militants and radicals who were good honest union men. Furthermore, much of the racketeering in the AFL is either directly traceable to certain union leaders, or continued because these leaders, for one reason or another, close their eyes to the activities of racketeers in their organizations.

It is interesting that in the resolution on racketeering the federation found it necessary to include the following paragraph: “the opposition of our federation to communism and all forms of totalitarianism meets with public approval and support. Every effort we may make to keep our organization clean and self-disciplined will meet with the same public support.” The convention also gave the country a promise to “keep our movement law-abiding” and demanded legislation to bar the Communist Party from the ballot in any state because it is the agency of a “foreign power.”

The war question in the convention was really opened with Sir Walter Citrine’s speech. Labor, railway brotherhood newspaper, reports that Citrine’s address “was by far the most dramatic of any given during the convention. Veteran, grizzled labor leaders found it hard to keep from weeping. The mouths of many quivered, and tears glistened in many eyes. All were deeply touched.”

Alter reading through Sir Walter’s speech it is difficult to determine just what the “grizzled labor leaders” were weeping over. After recounting the story of the “terror unloosed by Nazi hordes on Britain, of death and destruction strewn over his homeland ...” Sir Walter told how the British trade union movement had “surrendered the right to strike ...” And also that labor had agreed to unlimited extension of the working hours to as many as 80 a week. The maximum now, however, is only 60 hours a week according to Sir Walter. When we read this speech of the Secretary of the British Trade Union Congress, and learned about the weeping of the grizzled AFL veterans, we wondered whether or not the weeping was occasioned by the surrender of the right to strike and the labor’s consent to the 80 hour week? Furthermore, there was another “terror unloosed” that Sir Walter did not mention. In many respects it is the more significant terror: the terror unloosed over India and Africa by British imperialism. On this terror, the knighted labor leader made no report to the convention. Sir Walter pleaded for America’s help, the help of trade unionists in the U.S. (That was really the purpose of his journey to this country.) When he finished, “President Green responded in a voice breaking with emotion.” He said that America will produce as never before to help “our friends ... win the battle for democracy. The American Federation of Labor will make it our chief object to send a stream of war materials, of all the things Britain needs in her hour of deepest need.” The convention officially went on record for all aid to England short of war.

The convention also went on record supporting the “defense program” not only for the United States but for the whole western hemisphere. The convention fervently prayed for the victory of England because, “she stands as the last outpost in the Old World in the defense of the democratic form of government.”

Unity Question

On the matter of AFL-CIO unity, the convention continued its “peace committee” and instructed the committee to communicate with the CIO asking for resumption of negotiations. Green said that no conditions would be set in advance but that he did not expect anything to be accomplished because John L. Lewis was still head of the CIO miners. Green’s attitude was that not only should Lewis resign from the CIO presidency but also as head of the mine union.

The convention adopted a resolution forbidding state and local central organizations from considering communications from CIO unions. There was dissent by a few delegates who claimed that such action would hinder unity moves and close the door to any cooperation between the organizations. Another interesting commentary on the unity situation was the position of Green when he told Madame Perkins that the AFL would cooperate with her if she would recognize that the AFL, end not the CIO, was entitled to speak for American labor.

War-Time Demands

The convention declared that while labor is “thoroughly patriotic,” the introduction of undemocratic practices would be looked upon by the AFL as a blow at the “soul of what we would defend.” The convention said that majority rule must continue, that the war program must be in the hands of civilians, that labor must be represented by persons of its own choosing.

When the U.S. enters the war the AFL would have three demands: Universal obligation to service for defense – industrial or military – under democratic conditions. “Labor should have representation on all policy-making and administrative agencies and draft boards.” “Labor standards and other provisions for social welfare must be maintained under emergency conditions as essential to efficient production, as well to national morale.”

In condemning the Thurman Arnold anti-trust prosecutions, the convention resolution said that they were “the most vicious attack” ever made on labor in this country. The resolution said that all the prosecutions had been against the AFL and that the prosecutions were conceived in malice toward the federation. The convention said “interference with interstate commerce in restraint of trade by sitdown strikes and other activities staged by dual and rival unions, in the CIO, brought no prosecutions against these dual and rival organizations, whereas AFL unions, having engaged in peaceful activities have been prosecuted by the score.”

Convention Similarities

There are many things which might be said in connection with the above statement, but we will have to reserve comment to future numbers of Labor Action when we will have more to say about both the AFL and CIO conventions. The points of similarity in the demands of the two bodies must, however, be pointed out now. Both conventions were positive in the demand for the retention of the social security acts, including the forty hour week. In the consideration of the unity question both organizations said that no matter what the probability for or against unity, it was their duty to prosecute a vigorous organizing campaign among the unorganized. The AFL resolution said: “in connection with the subject of peace negotiations, attention must be called to the large number of wage-earners who are still unorganized and unable to advance their wages and improve their conditions of employment. Regardless of the trend taken by peace negotiations, it is mandatory that the AFL make use of all its agencies so that trade unionism may be brought to the assistance of those who are at present unorganized. This is a duty and responsibility which we cannot and must not evade.”

The leadership of the AFL and the CIO have before them the task of carrying their convention decisions into action. The pressure on both organizations will be the same and will come from the same sources, the government and the bosses. In their “hour of need” the bosses will make no distinction between the two unions. The interests of the workers in the two organizations are identical. Perhaps under the pressure of the war, with governmental and boss terror, and with the guidance of the politically advanced workers, the masses in the AFL and CIO will discover this. Then they will effect unity for their own protection and for winning their demands.

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