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David Coolidge

AFL Convention Accomplishes Little
of Benefit to Labor

On Almost Every Important Issue – Racketeering, War, Labor Unity –
the AFL Officialdom Took the Reactionary Stand of Their Jingo Masters

(27 October 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 43, 27 October 1941, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

After being in session for about two weeks and accomplishing little of benefit to labor in the United States, the Green-Tobin-Frey-Hutcheson Federation of Labor convention adjourned and these leaders went home to another year of friendly and peaceful collaboration with the bosses and the Roosevelt government.

For all the good this totally bossed convention did for the working class it might as well not have been held. The delegates voted “right,” danced, looked at Mt. Ranier and the other scenic wonders of the Northwest, but as to taking a progressive stand on any of the great issues facing the working class, they showed no inclination whatsoever.

Such lethargy and inertia can not be accounted for by the absence of important labor and political issues: they were there, all right, but on every important question the convention took a completely reactionary position. There were the war, racketeering, strike policy and the Roosevelt message, race discrimination and CIO-AFL unity. These were matters of real working class importance that came on the floor of the convention. On each of them however, the convention took a position that cannot possibly be of any benefit to labor. On most of these questions the action of the convention was strictly in line with the desires of the bosses and the government.

FDR Sets the Tone

To make sure that the right ‘tone’ was given the convention, Roosevelt sent a message and Secretary of Labor Perkins was on hand to “greet” the delegates. Roosevelt called for the end of “organizational rivalries and jurisdictional conflicts.” He also said that government “mediation” machinery “must be used” before strikes were called.

Madame Perkins also took a lick at strikes, saying there should be no “strikes which hamper the national effort.” Perkins also hinted that the government is about to change its course in connection with the Wagner Act and the closed shop. She told the convention that the public demands that the closed shop be “studied with a view to the public welfare.” She also said that the government may be preparing to make further demands on the unions for “voluntary cooperation,” the same as the government gets from the manufacturers. Perkins then called on the unions for a “self-imposed discipline.” This discipline and “voluntary cooperation” with the government would presumably save the unions from attacks by Thurman Arnold or the army’s bayonets. Roosevelt’s message and the speech by Madame Perkins were enthusiastically received by the convention. Nobody moved to reject either or both of them. Nobody suggested that labor should and can take care of its own affairs without advice from Perkins and Roosevelt. Nobody took the floor to explain that by “self-imposed discipline” Perkins means that the labor movement should subordinate all its real interests to support of the boss imperialist war, and that by “voluntary cooperation” she means that labor should voluntarily give up the right to strike and place itself completely at the mercy of the boss class.

A Jingo Field Day

No, none of this was evident in this AFL convention. The delegates had been prepared in advance to receive the impudence and veiled threats of Roosevelt and Perkins with loud applause and approval. For over a year, Green and other leaders of the AFL have been bowing and scraping before the bosses and the government. They have been haranguing the membership about their “patriotic” duty and insisting that the organization pass resolutions against striking for the period of the “national emergency.”

All the heavyweights among the top bureaucrats were present to head the leading committees and guide the convention in the way that Roosevelt would have it go. There was, first, Bill Green, who was re-elected to the presidency for the 18th consecutive year. There was AFL “historian” Frey, of the Metal Trades Department, who made himself infamous in the eyes of all militant workers by inviting the Navy to break the Bay Area strike and going through the picket lines on a Navy truck. Hutcheson was there with all his immense hulk and stupidity, speaking against Randolph and using the term “nigger” in his harangue from the. platform. Tobin was present to receive the congratulations of his fellow “leaders” for his role in calling in the FBI against the militant Local 544 in Minneapolis. All in all the convention was a field day for Roosevelt and his collaborators in the leadership of the AFL.

The convention had the ever-present problem of racketeering before it. Green had made the rather asinine remark that of the five million members of the AFL, 4,999,999 of them were honest. Strange to say, this remark was made at the time Green was attending the hodcarriers’ convention in St. Louis, which is held only once in the active lifetime of the average hodcarrier. While the AFL was whooping it up for the war, Roosevelt and no strikes, St. Louis papers were carrying the news that warrants had been issued for four of the officers of a local of the hodcarriers union. They were charged with stealing $47,000 of the local’s funds. The district attorney’s office was also trying to locate an additional $79,000 which had been raised but which could not be located.

When Green heard about this he admitted that perhaps he had made a mistake when he said there was only one dishonest person in the AFL; he would be forced to change his estimate: there were perhaps two. The convention was faced with the brazen attempt of George E. Browne, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, to be re-elected to his post on the executive council.

The AFL had sought to get rid of Browne by reducing the number of the executive council from 15 to 13. But this didn’t work. Browne ran anyhow, but was defeated, 37,944 to 421. Only members of Brown’s union voted for their favorite son. Since Brown is under indictment for racketeering and extortion and since he was not re-elected to the executive council, these pious gentlemen feel that they have made a real start to clean the racketeers, from the organization.

As is their custom, however, the convention was very tender with the racketeers and gangsters. A suggestion was made to the internationals that if they find it necessary they should amend their constitutions so as to expel any member guilty of “serious wrong-doing which reflects dishonor on the trade union movement.” The report of the committee repeated the old story that the national organization had no authority to discipline international unions. The report closed with the usual refrain that the dishonest individuals in the Federation are “considerably less than those found in other organizations.” The executive council always makes this statement, but it never mentions what other organizations it has in mind.

The convention correctly took a blast at Westbrook Pegler, “but” it did absolutely nothing to disarm Pegler. Also it did nothing that would give comfort and hope to the hundreds of thousands of honest and militant members of the AFL who want to see racketeering and gangsterism out of their organization. These honest and militant members are left to the tender mercies of the gangster and racketeering leaders of many AFL unions and locals. Members of this type have little opportunity to make their strength felt because they don’t get elected delegate to the conventions, and if they did the top bureaucrats would smother them with their united steamroller.

While it is true that, the internationals are “autonomous” (and this is a charmed word among the AFL leaders), it is also true that the most powerful international presidents, 13 of them, are members of the executive council. It has not been reported that any of them have made a fight in the council to give the council the authority necessary to take drastic steps against the gangsters and racketeers. It is also not recorded that Bill Green has ever put up a real fight against racketeering.

No-Strike Policy

The convention approved the no-strike policy in national defense industries. Green said that this action would “strengthen and develop the national defense program and result in carrying out the no-strike policy of the AFL in a more universal way.” Green went on to say that Roosevelt’s no-strike appeal was almost a “word-for-word ... declaration issued by the executive council of the AFL six months ago ... More than 99 per cent of the AFL membership had refrained from striking.” Mr. Green understood how “impatient men and women” might act “hastily.” They may forget for the moment “the broader issues involved and the ultimate effect of their ill-considered conduct.” Green appealed to his membership to remember that the “national interest comes first.” He urged the AFL membership not to “gamble for pennies at the risk of losing everything we hold dear in America.”

Green’s idea is very simple: that is, keep at work and don’t bother about wages and hours during the national emergency.” It’s all right for the bosses to refuse to move until they are assured of bigger profits than they made last year, but the AFL workers should plug along hoping that somehow a few crumbs will fall into their plates. Of course Green and the others on the executive council don’t have to worry; they have their fat salaries and expense accounts.

But there is another element in this situation. The AFL unions, that is; the leading ones, are craft unions composed of skilled workers who are in the higher wage brackets. Their regular wage for an 8-hour day, 40-hour week runs from $45 to around $60 a week. For overtime they are paid time and a half and double time. It is these unions, along with the teamsters, which control the AFL and are its main base.

These unions have large treasuries and are numerically strong. They are stabilized and have established themselves with the employers. Because their occupations are the skilled trades, they do not have much difficulty in renewing their contracts. On the whole, these unions have developed into an “aristocracy of labor” and do not give much attention to the lower orders even in their own Federation. It is not very difficult, therefore, to convince these workers that the “national interest” comes first. In many respects (in their own minds) they can equate the “national interest” with their own financial welfare. The bosses of course reason in a similar manner. The war effort becomes a happy hunting ground for all those seeking to make more money. In these times of high prices and high taxes it is easier to be a “patriot” at $10 a day than at $5.00 a day. A $10 a day patriot may be less inclined to strike than a $5.00 a day one. Furthermore, it seems to be established that some, kind of a deal has been made between the AFL and the government with Sidney Hillman as the front for Roosevelt. The Currier fabricated house incident has made it clear that some promises were made to the AFL that if there were no strikes, the AFL building trade unions would get preference on government “defense” industries that came within the occupation field of these unions. That is, the government must have said something to the effect that “if you agree against strikes we will be prepared to throw some choice employment morsels your way.”

On AFL-CIO Unity

Following Roosevelt’s message the convention had to say something about “unity” with the CIO. Green replied to Roosevelt’s request on “unity” in a national broadcast. He said that the President should direct future appeals to the CIO and use “all the influence at your command until the representatives of that organization agree to confer with us ... We are willing to talk peace and make peace at any time.” This was as far as the matter got: Green replying to Roosevelt in these vague sentences in a broadcast. It would appear that all that stands in the way of “peace” is the refusal of the CIO to confer with the AFL. But, as is well known, this is not the case. The point is not just “peace,” or any old kind of “unity,” but a unity that will not destroy the CIO and industrial unionism.

This is what the bosses want to do – DESTROY THE CIO. They want Bill Green and Sidney Hillman to help. Such a labor traitor as Hillman, of course, is ready to do the will of Roosevelt and the bosses. A pious and impotent fraud like Green also is ready for such a consummation. The craft unions, the backbone of the AFL, at present have no interest in the maintenance of industrial unionism. This does not create a situation favorable to unification that will preserve industrial unionism.

The chief “unity” howlers today are Roosevelt and the war-mongers among the bosses. All workers, AFL and CIO, should turn a deaf ear to this type of “unity” plea. This is not a plea for unity but for the regimentation of the entire labor movement and specifically a scheme for breaking the CIO. If the AFL and the CIO can come together on a plan and program that will really strengthen the labor movement -- the entire movement – then the workers should be for it. But labor, especially the CIO, should beware of the Roosevelts and the Hillmans bearing gifts.

Vote Aid to Russia

In line with the signs of the times, the convention decided to support aid to Russia, but the convention resolution said that “the proper support now being given to Russia so that her people may more adequately defend their national existence” does not in any way change the attitude of the AFL toward communists. “It is the opinion of your committee that a victory by Stalin over the other countries in Europe would be as disastrous to free institutions as a victory by Hitler.”

It seems as though the committee wasn’t quite certain just what position the convention should take. It wanted to help the Russian people defend their “national existence” but at the same time they seem to say that this isn’t what is at stake, but rather only the existence oi the Stalinist bureaucracy. The AFL seems to be saying also that it would be well if neither Stalin nor Hitler wins, that they should destroy each other.

This is probably what the AFL bureaucrats really would like to see happen. They are not interested in the “national existence” of the Russian people. These high placed and high salaried bureaucrats have only lapped up the propaganda of the government and the bosses about aid to England and her allies. Green & Co. are for aid to Russia for the same reason that Churchill, Roosevelt and the bosses are for aid to Russia. They all want to save their own hides, profits, salaries and jobs. They believe that right now the best and cheapest way to do this is to give material aid to Russia with the hope that Stalin’s armies will defeat Hitler’s armies.

These hypocrites and “democrats” are willing to see the last Russian man, woman and child slaughtered by Hitler’s tanks, if only this will keep Hitler away from their factories, mines, mills and banks. Therefore their cheap talk about “brave Russia,” “national existence” and “religious freedom.” Also Deacon Green will have a tough time keeping the Stalinists off his doorstep these days. They have the same ideas and opinions on the war, “national defense” and strikes.

Suspend Brewers

In the midst of the “patriotic” fervor, aid to Russia hypocrisy and anti-racketeering fakery, the convention took time out to suspend the Brewery Workers Union, the only industrial union in the AFL. These workers had refused to give up their drivers to Tobin’s teamsters and were kicked out.

The disgraceful attitude of the convention and the AFL leadership to Randolph’s condemnation of Jim-Crow in the AFL will be dealt with in next week’s Labor Action.

All in all, one can say that this year’s AFL convention reached a pretty low point. It is difficult to point out any good reason why the convention was held except to go through the “democratic” formality of holding annual conventions. From this year’s gathering one can easily imagine what the next one will be like if the United States is at war with Germany by that time.

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