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David Coolidge

Hillman Forces Dominate Shipworkers’ Convention

(6 October 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 40, 6 October 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Last week in Labor Action I reported on the first day of the shipbuilders’ convention and indicated that the convention was strongly under the influence of Hillman and that it would go strongly for “all-out aid” to Britain. Green started the ball rolling the first day in his presidential address. This sentiment increased as the days passed and by the last day one got the impression that the shipbuilding workers were convinced that the main role of their union today is to beat the war drums, build ships tor England and not worry too much about the outcome of their struggles with the government and Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp.

President Green and Secretary-Treasurer Van Gelder, both ex-socialists, steered the convention resolutely around even the smallest obstructions that arose from delegates who expressed any doubts whatsoever on the correctness of blind support to all the pro-war resolutions and statements presented to the convention. Like the British laborites and certain people in the ranks of labor in this country, Green’s position is that many of the economic demands of labor must wait until the war has been won.

When a delegate spoke against the “incentive system” in the shipbuilding industry, Green replied that “you can’t tell me that you can pass a motion at this convention and the members back home will take a cut in wages. You know they won’t. Your union has gone on record to support the defense program. Take your time and we’ll lay the foundations for improvements later. I agree with the sentiments expressed. I am against piece work wages.” Seemingly it hasn’t occurred to Green that the shipbuilding industry’s profits are large enough to grant substantial increases, in wages and yet leave unusually large sums for dividends.

Pro-War Barrage

The delegates to this convention were under a daily barrage of pro-war aid-to-Britain agitation. I reported last week on the speeches of Charles Irvin; of Hillman’s union, and Findlay from the British Trade Union Council. This came on Tuesday, the first day. On Wednesday, Hillman and Jack Jones of the South Wales Miners Federation, spoke. On Thursday, Carey, CIO secretary, and Thomas, of the UAW, added their bit to the parade of pro-war oratory and propaganda.

The low point in all this orgy of flag waving, drum beating and crawling over to the camp of the government and the bosses was the speech of Hillman. Coming from an alleged labor leader, Hillman’s utterances were shameful, brazen and traitorous. Hillman’s speech was no different from one that might have been made by Knudsen. In fact, Knudsen, not being a labor leader, would probably have been more cautious and not so brazen.

Hillman’s whole speech was directed at labor, what it must do and what its responsibilities are, with not a word about or against the bosses. The only body outside the working class that had anything wrong with it was Congress.

“I get tired,” said Hillman, “when I hear people talk about aid to Britain. It’s not Britain we are aiding. They are already fighting. It’s aid to ourselves you are providing. We must have production. Democracies have always done a little less than the emergency required. Our own labor groups have a great deal to account for. They have talked peace when dictators have prepared for war. Labor leaders of Europe said: ‘This is not our war.’ Where are they now? Where is the labor movement of France. The labor movement has its Quislings. You are the conveyor belts between us and Britain, Russia and China. We haven’t got our own timetable. The timetable is made by Hitter. You may not be able to hold a convention a year from now.

“I was called by the President to represent labor. I am responsible for the labor policy of the nation. I have not been turned down by the President even once. If there is anything wrong, blame me, not the President. Congress may not give you houses but Hitler will give you only concentration camps. I am sure that eventually the isolationists in the labor movement will stand by themselves. Everything that can be done to avoid stoppage of work must be done if we are to have national defense. If we have to take aluminum for planes, naturally we are not going to get it for kitchen ware.” Despite this, Hillman later remarked: “We are expanding our economy.”

Then Hillman told the delegates that “we called in your people for conferences. National collective bargaining was established. You got something by this that it took labor 50 years to get before these agreements. The battle for collective bargaining has been practically won. Labor is so well organized that I believe the only people that can injure the labor movement are those inside the labor movement.”

In the whole course of Hillman’s speech not a word was said against the employers or the OPM. Not a word about wages, hours or working conditions. The battle of labor, for Hillman, has been won and all necessary now is more and more production. His was a most scandalous effort not only to drug these workers to blind support of Roosevelt and the war, but an effort to frighten and terrorize them into a slavish submission to the demands of the bosses and their government for more production. There was only one dissenting voice after Hillman’s speech. A delegate from the West Coast took the floor to say that his local had written to Hillman several times but had received no reply. Green answered for Hillman, saying that he knew about these letters and that they would be answered.

Being a “foreigner,” Jack Jones of the Welsh miners, was far more subtle than Hillman. He made an eloquent appeal for aid to Britain and received tremendous applause from the convention. He assured the delegates that “no matter what past wars have meant, Britain, in the opinion of the vast majority of Englishmen, is now waging a war for human rights.”

“We are not fighting for territory or any particular class,” said Jones, “and we’ll fight with hammers and pickhandles” if necessary. He told the delegates that the South Wales miners had voted to work an extra shift on Sunday nights. The miners get about as much meat, he said, in one week as a worker in the United States has for a single meal.

“You are backing a good horse,” Jones told the convention. “You are backing a winning horse. If you will sweat for Britain, Britain will be prepared to bleed for democracy.”

Stalinist Issue

Another matter which aroused the interest of the convention was the Stalinist issue. This came up to three phases: the anti-communist resolution, the appeal of the expelled officers of a Baltimore local and the action of the convention that an attempt be made to have the CIO enact anti-communist legislation at its forthcoming convention in Detroit.

The anti-communist resolution passed was presented by the Brooklyn Bobbins Drydock Local No. 39. It read as follows: “Be it resolved that this organization shall not condone the workings of fascism, nazism or communism within our ranks. Be it also resolved that any member who advocates to overthrow the democratic constitutional government of the United States shall be, on proven guilty, asked or be forced to resign from national or local membership from our union.”

This resolution passed without objection, except from one delegate. This delegate proposed that nazism be separated from communism, saying that nazism is not a philosophy of government but that communism is, whether you like it or not. A delegate from Local 39 remarked that “if we have commies, and we have them, we should oust them.” A GEB member from the South got up on a “point of order” to say: “I have been a dues paying member since 1937. I came here to represent my local and I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here and listen to a speech to the advantages of communism.” The point of order was not sustained and the delegate was allowed to go on but to no avail. The convention, from President Green down, was solidly for the resolution.

The appeal of the former officers of the Baltimore local from the action of the GEB in expelling them from the union as communists was referred to a committee. This committee reported back unanimously to reject the appeal and to sustain the action of the GEB. The convention had already expressed itself on “communists” and no one expected anything else from the committee hearing the appeal, nor was there any doubt that the recommendation of the committee and the action of the GEB would be overwhelmingly approved by the convention delegates. In his closing remarks to the convention, Green said that at the coming CIO convention strenuous efforts would be made by the union’s representatives to have a resolution passed condemning communism. “We firmly advocate aid to Russia;” said Green, “in its struggle against the Nazis, which is our struggle too. We are not embracing the American communists who would suborn our movement.” Of course it did not occur to the delegates that there was any attempt on the part of Hillman to “suborn” their movement and betray it to the bosses and the government. Also that Hillman and the Stalinists are making identical speeches today and singing the same song.

Other Business

I don’t want to give the impression that all this convention did was to cheer the pro-war speeches they were drowned in and to pound the Stalinists. I emphasize these because they were the highlights of the convention. By a vote of 98 to 53 the delegates voted against increasing the GEB from 8 to 10 members. Since this had to be done by constitutional amendment a two-thirds vote was required. The amendment had the support of Green and Van Gelder but was defeated by Camden Local No. 1 voting a solid block of 48 against the proposal. By voting solid, Local 1 also defeated a proposal to make organizers eligible for election to the GEB. This proposal was also supported by Green and Van Gelder along with the smaller locals and locals from areas that do not now have representation on the GEB.

The convention passed a resolution calling for support solely to candidates who are pro-labor. The resolution also called for independent political action and the formation of a Labor Party. As was the case with many other resolutions, this was passed. without discussion either from the officers or from the floor.

A telegram was read from John L. Lewis commending the union for its stand in favor of the “union shop” and pointing out that this was the cause of the conflict between the UMWA and the steel companies owning the captive mines. Van Gelder reported that this question is the “biggest issue today in the field of labor relations. The CIO is headed for a showdown on this issue. Our union has 15 agreements open on this issue. We have not been able to close any except with the New York Shipbuilding Co. at Camden.”

Hillman Convention

Despite the fact that the convention concerned itself with many important questions in connection with conditions in the shipyards, as for instance a resolution against the freezing of wages and to conduct an intensive campaign of organization at the Fore River shipyard of Bethlehem, these were not the questions that aroused the delegates. This was true because it can be said that it was a Hillman convention. And Hillman, of course, as was clear from his speech, is only mildly interested in such questions. This struggle to tie the CIO unions to the Roosevelt war plans will go on right into the CIO convention in November. Hillman is out to capture the organization and get enough votes to place the whole CIO solidly to the camp of the makers of the Second World imperialist War.

It was clear that the shipbuilding workers did not see and understand what was going on. They will probably learn what is being done to them when the cost of living and taxes continue to rise and they find themselves helpless before hostile employers demanding wage increases to meet the rising cost of living. At the same time they will discover that their leadership has been bound by the Roosevelt administration in support of the war. Then they will have to strike out with or without their leadership to fight the battle that they should be waging right now.

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