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David Coolidge

Shifts in the Union Movement

The CIO and AFL Conventions

(November 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 10, November 1943, pp. 300–302.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Trade union conventions this year have carried on their deliberations in the shadow of strikes and the threat of strikes. While the CIO was meeting in Philadelphia, the miners were out for the fourth time this year and in Philadelphia itself CIO members employed by the city transportation system walked off the job in protest against a company order not to wear their CIO buttons on the job. In Detroit a UAW local was voting overwhelmingly in favor of a strike despite the efforts of the National Labor Relations Board to intimidate these workers by asking them to vote on the question of whether or not they wished to hold up war production by striking. There were other strikes in the making, not the least important of which was the strike vote being prepared by the railroad unions.

These events and others unquestionably had some effect on the slow thinking of the trade union leadership. This leadership has been compelled to bend just a little away from its blind and uncritical support of the Roosevelt Democratic Party and its governmental machinery to give attention to the restlessness of its own membership. It was unmistakable that there was an acceleration of the unrest and resentment over the fact that, so long as labor adhered to the no-strike pledge, it was an army without a weapon.

These sporadic but stubborn and ominous outbursts evidently compelled the leadership to think over its course of the past two years, and especially during the past eleven months, since giving the no-strike pledge and adopting as its main slogan: the first duty of labor is to make any and every sacrifice necessary for complete victory over the Axis powers. This “Win the War” slogan of the trade union leadership had been dinned into the ears of the membership, not always skillfully, sometimes tearfully and beseechingly, but always with persistence and constancy. The whole labor movement had been encompassed about with the conception: “this is labor’s war;” “victory through equality of sacrifice;” “support to our Commander-in-Chief.” “My primary consideration ... for the moment,” said Philip Murray, “must necessarily, therefore, be the winning of this war.” R.J. Thomas, president of the huge UAW, told the delegates to the aircraft workers’ convention that he knew the employers had not cooperated but that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Labor must submit, suffer under indignities, accept all manner of inconveniences, but renew its sacrifices. If the ruling classes refuse to win the war, then labor must win it for them.

One illuminating aspect of the submissiveness of the trade union leadership was its elevation of Roosevelt to a new post: Commander-in-Chief of the United States. He was no longer to be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy only, but of the civilian population as well. Roosevelt seemed to think well of this promotion granted him by the Stalinists and the CIO-AFL leadership because he himself began to use the title and had it appear on billboards for the war bond drive.

The Policy of the Labor Leaders

For the past year or eighteen months, the trade unions have attempted to carry on their proper functions within this “Win the War” framework. Every consideration and every need of the labor movement was crowded into the narrow compass of this main slogan. The most important resolutions of conventions emphasized that, no matter what the grievances, they must be subordinated to winning the war. And what was to be labor’s main contribution to the winning of the war? Refusal to strike for the duration!

The struggle against John L. Lewis is at least partially motivated by the attitude of the CIO and some of the AFL leaders on the war and what they hold to be labor’s responsibility. Bureaucratic interests of course are prominent on both sides but the other factor is far more important and relevant. Lewis is not sufficiently patriotic for Murray and friends. He doesn’t keep his word as given the President. The bitterness of this conflict and the heat that has entered into this fight can only be properly understood if the struggle is evaluated in the light of the unqualified pro-war position, for instance, of the CIO leadership. Many of the CIO leaders, aside from the Stalinists, approached very near to the line of treason against the labor movement in their attitude toward Lewis in relation to the miners’ strikes. These treasonable attitudes can be interpreted properly only if we fit them into the general position of the trade union leaders on the war and the support of Roosevelt.

What Murray would call the first “constructive,” “intelligent” and “wholesome” contribution of labor toward the war was made on December 17, 1942, when he, Green, Lewis and others went to the White House and gave the “Commander-in-Chief a pledge that the millions of workers in the United States would not strike for the duration of the war. To be sure, no conventions were called to go through the forms and mechanics of getting the consent of the workers, following argument and discussion. This little democratic detail was considered either a luxury not to be indulged in during the war, or these leaders were fairly certain that their proposals would be rejected by their memberships. Subsequent happenings and events prove that their fears were well founded.

Who Gave the No-Strike Pledge?

In an address to the CIO Executive Board in May 1943, Murray made the statement that “we have consistently adhered to our no-strike policy for the duration of the war. That commitment was made to the President of the United States. ... The President did not ask for that commitment. Organized labor went over to the President of the United States ... and said: ‘Mr. President, we are not going to strike for the duration of the war.’ He did not ask for it ... It was made voluntarily. There was no compulsion, there was no legislation pending.”

This statement by Murray can be correctly called bureaucratic nonsense. “Organized labor” did not give Roosevelt that no-strike pledge and had no part in it. Organized labor was bureaucratically delivered to Roosevelt by Murray, Lewis and Green, claiming to represent the sentiments of their organizations. This act was fully in line with their other actions, especially those of Green and Murray, before Pearl Harbor. They had been preparing the way for this capitulation for many months. Roosevelt had been consistently putting on the pressure and tightening the screws. After Pearl Harbor the labor bureaucracy knew full well what was expected of it, i.e., what rôle it was to play. It had been through the First World War and knew its place.

Murray also attempts to make much of the fact that they made obeisance before Roosevelt voluntarily and without “compulsion.” “The President had addressed no communications to anyone,” says Murray, “asking them to give up the right to strike, nor had he any conversations that I am aware of with any leader of labor asking labor to withhold its right to strike.” Murray evidently wants us to believe that Roosevelt really had no interest in this question. It was only the great men of labor who thought about strikes and their relation to production. It had never occurred to Roosevelt. But the mass of labor was not panting in its dash to the White House to give a no-strike pledge. It was left to Murray and Green and Lewis to get Roosevelt and labor together in this “constructive” and wholesome “Win the War” commitment.

Murray consistently berates Lewis for not keeping the no-strike pledge. And not only this but, according to Murray, “Mr. Lewis knows perfectly well that his acts were wholly responsible for the conduct of the Congress in seeking the enactment of the Smith-Connally Bill.” The “acts” of Lewis that Murray was speaking of were the miners’ strikes.

It is necessary to ask how Murray can confine his anger to Lewis and the miners? Did Lewis alone break his pledge to the President? But thousands of workers in the CIO did the same thing. That is, if we take Murray’s word for it that “labor” as a whole gave Roosevelt the no-strike pledge. Murray’s steel workers have been on strike in town after town, in mill after mill and from week to week. The shipyard workers have been on strike – thousands of them. The rubber workers, after yean of peaceful slumber, virtually had a general strike of the industry in Akron. The aircraft workers have had strike after strike, despite their leader’s solemn dictum that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” There have been strikes in every type of industry in the CIO and AFL. And now the railway labor executives, the elder statesmen of the labor movement, have authorized a strike vote in their crafts.

Background to Labor Conventions

This year’s crop of trade union conventions faced discontentment, resentment and strikes. The labor chieftains had given the no-strike pledge without “compulsion” and had in all probability been rewarded with the promise of maintenance of membership clauses in contracts approved by the National War Labor Board. Under this exchange, they would maintain union membership at high levels and thus build up local, international and federation treasuries. But the workers wanted something more than big unions and million dollar treasuries. They wanted more wages, less job freezes, lower prices and the settlement of grievances through genuine collective bargaining.

It was one thing for three men to tie labor bureaucratically to the imperialist war machine by making a no-strike promise without the consent of the workers; it was a far more difficult task to induce the millions of workers to live up to that promise. It is one thing to tell labor to make sacrifices and carry the main burden of the war, but it isn’t so easy to keep labor on its knees after months of experience with knee-bending and retreats in which their union directors took the lead.

While it is true that the leaders of labor have learned something about the mood of the working class today, they haven’t learned too much. I suppose, however, that we should be thankful for even this small amount of progress made by these men. What is also important to remember is whence the fire comes that causes them to step up forward just a little. The many strikes tell the story. Sad and bitter experience is beginning to have effect. Roosevelt is a little less “labor’s friend” now than a year ago.

The myth fabricated by the trade union bureaucrats, which had Roosevelt on one side of the barricades with labor, and Congress, along with the administrative boards, on the other side, is not so palatable to labor today as when it was first invented. The President was pictured as a sort of man of sorrows, always busy with foreign affairs, while his aides distorted his real aims. These aides carried on anti-labor practices behind Roosevelt’s back which were unknown to him. But labor today has learned enough of the truth to be able to influence the leaders of all except the Stalinist - dominated unions to withhold, for the present at least, endorsement of Roosevelt for a fourth term.

Furthermore, while it may be easy to get a no-strike pledge formally reaffirmed, the leadership knows now from experience that in order to get labor to give heed to its unwilling reaffirmations, it is necessary to take a stand against the crippling Little Steel formula. If you don’t want strikes, pledges are not enough; you must talk very concretely about practical things like more wages for the workers. Hypocritical sobbing about not letting “our boys suffer for the lack of supplies” no longer suffices for workers who are getting their eyes open to the fact that they have produced but haven’t been paid for it; who know that supplies are piled high all over the country and who know now that where there has been a let-down in production it is due to the venality of profit-hungry employers always protecting their capitalist class interests, and, finally, to the skullduggery of bureaucrats in Washington bureaus.

New Pressures from the Ranks

This is what gives meaning to, and helps explain, the fact that the UAW convention modifies its support of Roosevelt while the CIO convention fails to pass any resolution on the fourth term. Murray can say, today, that he doesn’t like what is going on in Washington and that he does not intend to permit the CIO to be delivered to the Democratic or any other party. He can say these things because he must. The CIO and the ranks of all organized labor are stirring. This is what has pulled the trade union leaders off their chairs and into some action.

I said that the leaders have moved forward a little bit, but not much. The CIO convention was a good illustration. The leaders were aware of the dissatisfaction but they undoubtedly decided to wait as long as possible before taking any action such as demanding the elimination of the Little Steel formula. This decision was made on Tuesday, the second day of the convention, in a special meeting of the international board.

The very first resolution of the convention was on Murray and his leadership. This unusual procedure probably had several reasons behind it. For one, in the face of the known flop of the no-strike pledge and the failure of the workers to profit by the policy of bowing to Roosevelt, it was necessary to make sure that none of the resentment was directed at Murray. Positive and glowing support, presented in a resolution right at the beginning, would take care of this.

The next resolution was on the no-strike pledge. It was necessary here, too, to keep the lines clear. There were a lot of matters coming up in the convention that might lead some of the bolder delegates to suggest that a strike vote might be the solution. To steer the convention away from any such dilemma, the no-strike position was presented second and passed without any discussion at all.

Then came the resolutions on organization, Smith-Connally Act, WLB, NLRB, support of Roosevelt war policies, political action, and manpower. The discussion on each of these resolutions revealed clearly that the leadership was in a very contradictory position in advocating support of Roosevelt’s war policies and reaffirmation of the no-strike pledge and at the same time hoping to solve the problems raised in the above-mentioned resolutions. Of course this was true also of the resolution on the Little Steel formula. Concrete instances came up in the convention, for example, the case of a copper plant in Utah where the CIO had won an NLRB election, but the employer refused to bargain. The refusal was made on the grounds that the so-called Frye amendment to the appropriations act to the NLRB forbids the NLRB to proceed against a company union that has a contract which had been signed three months or more prior to an election in which the company union was defeated in the voting.

It was clear that there was one simple, tried and true procedure for the copper workers: strike. But the no-strike resolution had been passed the first day of the convention.

It is reported that this matter was raised in the meeting of the CIO’s International Board just before the convention. Reid Robinson, president of the Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers, and Stalinist line advocate, was complaining bitterly over the plight of his union in this case. He didn’t know what to do. Murray expressed surprise that an international president expressed impotence in such a situation. Murray said that if that happened to his union he would fight. Robinson asked whether or not Murray meant that he would, call a strike. Murray replied again that “I would fight, I would fight.”

Before Hitler invaded Russia, Robinson would have fought also. He knew precisely what Murray meant. Let the president of the local call the workers out. That would be no violation of the no-strike pledge: for what a leader does in such situations is proclaim the walkout to be “an unauthorized strike.”

During the whole week of the convention the delegates seemed to be suffering from an acute case of inhibited jitters. They were not rank and filers but high officers of the internationals and of the CIO. They knew that the millions they were expected to represent were watching and waiting to see what come out of Philadelphia. These high ranking officers knew also that the masses were against the no-strike pledge. After they had reaffirmed the pledge their pent-up emotions were unloosed in a flow of oratory on the resolution, “Organization.” This continued throughout the convention in connection with other resolutions. It was a sort of safety valve, a kind of therapeutic against bad dreams caused by voting for a no-strike resolution which these men knew they had no business to vote for and which they feared they could not enforce.

The worst case of jitters was among the Communist Party delegates. (Perhaps I shouldn’t say the Communist Party, since there is some evidence that it may change its name to the “Community Party.”) They certainly must have sent in a crop of resolutions on a fourth term for Roosevelt and for incentive pay. But none of these appeared in the resolutions book nor did they breathe a word on these pet themes in the convention. This is really astounding. It seems that the only possible explanation for this curious conduct is to say that they were halted and driven into retreat before the convention opened. It is highly probable that they were told by Murray not to bring in any fourth term resolution, that he would have to oppose it and that this would impair the unity of the convention. The Stalinists, being in favor of “unity,” therefore subsided.

On the matter of the wage resolution calling for the elimination of the Little Steel formula and for an increase in the base pay, the Stalinists were probably caught off guard.

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt appeared at the convention to discuss the no-strike pledge and related matters. Her speech was interesting from several points of view. She was glad that the convention had adopted the no-strike pledge but “for us at home there is something that must go along with that pledge ... and I think sometimes you haven’t done it quite as well as you should do it. That is, I believe that you should tell the story of injustices, of inequalities, of bad conditions, so that the people as a whole in this country really face the problems that people who are pushed to the point of striking know all about, but others know practically nothing about.” Mrs. Roosevelt said that she was convinced that a great deal more would have to be done to change conditions, and recited what a soldier said to her overseas: “Since I have been out here I have had medical care, dental care, so that I would be in good fighting shape. They watch me all the time. I wonder why I could not have had that when I was at home and growing up, in order to be better able to live.”

The President’s wife received tremendous applause. The reason behind the applause is significant. To the CIO leadership arid to hundreds of thousands of trade union members, Mrs. Roosevelt, along with Wallace, represents the struggle of the New Deal for survival. It is said at time that Wallace and Mrs. Roosevelt express the real opinions of the President, which he cannot say due to the necessities of his political position in connection with the winning of the war.

Whether or not this is true, it is true that Mrs. Roosevelt represents a very insidious danger for the labor movement. She is a liberal, a genuine liberal, and there is no reason to doubt that she means what she says. But what does she say? She says that she is glad the workers have agreed not to strike. But they must publicize their grievances and let the public know that they are suffering injustices. The inference, of course, is that the public will be sympathetic, it will put pressure on the employers (and presumably on the government, Roosevelt and the WLB) and the grievances will be resolved. According to Mrs. Roosevelt, the employer and the worker will come to understand that “their interests are identical.” When the public understands, and the employers and the workers understand, there will be no need for strikes. This, of course, will not happen. The CIO, the AFL or any other group of workers know from experience that they will only be wasting time and falling into a morass of weakness and low morale if any such philosophy is adopted.

The labor movement has at last started to its feet again and is slowly beginning to move forward as it did two or three years ago before the days of no-strike pledges. What is necessary now for all of us in the working class movement, is to renew our pledge of militancy and struggle and solidarity. Striking out against the Little Steel formula and refusal to endorse Roosevelt now is a small and faint beginning in the right direction. The next step is not to endorse Roosevelt at all: nor Willkie, nor any of their kind, but independent political action of the working class and the organization of the Independent Labor Party.

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