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David Coolidge

What is the Meaning of “Free Trade Unions”?

(3 July 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 27, 3 July 1944, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Robert Minor, first assistant to President Browder of Stalin’s Communist Political Association, has a piece in the Daily Worker of June 27 entitled: To Tell the Truth: There’s Nothing New Under the Sun. The article is concerned with the unions and capitalist enterprise in the post-war period. Minor, it must be remembered, is the man who says that the present war is “a sacred war.”

The article begins with the pronouncement that “in this war, every country that has a large free powerful trade union movement is winning. Every country that has not is being defeated,” This statement is not true. Russia is winning and Russia does not have a “free powerful trade union movement.” There are no genuine trade unions in Russia. There are no labor organizations in Russia such as exist in the United States and England, or such as existed in Russia when there was a Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky.

The Russian trade unions and all “free” organizations of the working class were suppressed and disbanded long ago by the bureaucracy headed by Stalin. The only group which is free in Russia is the group of government bureaucrats and the heads of the big industries. These form a class which exploits the workers and enriches itself from the toil of the masses.

A worker or a group of workers which demanded even the limited freedom which the workers in the United States or England have today would be thrown into jail or shot. Such workers in Russia would meet the same end as did workers in Hitler Germany who insisted on freedom of speech, assembly and organization.

Distorting the Truth

The other part of the above quotation is a somewhat subtle distortion and dangerous half-truth. It is true that the United States and Great Britain are winning. It is also true that there is a “large” and “free” labor movement in these countries. Now Minor wants us to believe that the United Nations are winning because there is a “free” labor movement in these countries.

There was a free labor movement in France. The working class in France had tremendously more freedom than the workers in Russia, yet France was defeated by Germany, where there was no “free” labor movement. In fact, we find the armies of all the belligerent countries composed of workers fighting against each other. Simple observation will tell anyone that the question cannot be determined by Stalinist word juggling about “free” and unfree labor movements.

It is true that many workers in the United Nations; in the capitalist democracies, believe that the war is being fought for democracy, that it is a war against fascism. In their minds they are fighting for democracy and not for the perpetuation of or the extension of United States or British imperialism. In their minds they are fighting for the continued existence of their “free” trade unions. In their thinking they accept the true but oversimplified statement of their leaders that if Hitler wins that will mark the end of their unions. The capitalist ruling class seizes on and inflames this attitude of the workers in the United Nations and exploits this for its own ends, namely, the waging of imperialist war.

Birds of a Feather

But Stalin and Hitler, who are dictators in countries that have no “free” labor movements, adopt a similar tactic. Stalin unearths the hoary nationalistic traditions of Czarist Russia and incites the enslaved Russian masses to defend the fatherland against the German aggressor.

This aggressor, Hitler, to be sure, just before the German army crossed into Russia, was hailed by Stalin, Browder and Minor as a friend of the Russian people and a pillar of world peace. Hitler, not to be outdone by all the rest, also claimed to be fighting a “sacred war.” Thousands of German workers hurled , themselves against the foe in defense of their fatherland, as they were taught.

The fact that there is an important difference between the political or economic set-up in the United States and England, Germany and Russia, or the fact that there are “free” labor movements in the United Nations and none in Germany or Russia is not what determines either the nature of the war or the probable victor in the contest. Russia will probably be on the winning side without a free labor movement, Germany will lose without a free labor movement.

Is Labor “Free” Today?

What is a free labor movement today? How is this question to be answered in the concrete circumstances of the present war? (The Stalin-Browder party called it an “imperialist war,” a war being fought by two gangs, before Hitler’s army crossed into Russia.) Is the labor movement as “free” today as it was before the U.S. entered the war? Are unions free to call strikes? Are workers free to move from one job to another? Can a union bargain collectively with management and come to a wage agreement? Unions and workers are free to do none of these things. These things are controlled by the capitalists through their government. Despite important differences now, these things are also controlled by the government in Russia and Germany, where there are no “free” trade unions.

The trade unions in England and the United States are in this condition because there is another freedom which they have not availed themselves of and taken hold of. That is political freedom and political independence. Workers have this opportunity in the U.S. but they do not have the opportunity in Germany and Russia. In Soviet Russia they made a beginning under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party with Lenin and Trotsky, but Lenin died and Stalin seized the country and suppressed the workers’ organizations.

Political Action Necessary

A genuinely free labor movement today in the United States would be a movement devoted to independent working class political action. It would be a trade union movement in the process of breaking with the capitalist parties and setting up a workers party, a labor party that would oppose both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

This, of course, is precisely what Browder, Minor and Stalin do not want. They say so. They are very clear and precise on this. Not only are they against independent political action by labor, but they are just as violently opposed to militant action by the unions.

The Stalin-Browder Communist Political Association demands that the working class support capitalism, the Chamber of Commerce, the NAM and the capitalist employers. Minor wants trade unions to exist after the war because trade unions are necessary to the continuation of capitalism, according to him. Of course this isn’t true because, for example, there is capitalism in Germany but there are no trade unions there.

In his piece Minor supports the demands of a capitalist publishing house (McGraw-Hill) for cooperation between labor and management. Minor says: Such cooperation could only come “by the integration of the efforts of labor and capital for the victory and for a post-war policy of no strikes, through the only agency that can exist – the United States government.”

“The Decisive Men”

Also, “it could only come after a growing habit of thinking realistically by decisive men of the capitalist class.” Now it so happens that the “decisive men of the capitalist class” in the United States are such friends of labor as Rockefeller, the Mellons, du Ponts, Ford, Stettinius, Weir, Girdler, Avery and others. These are the men, according to Minor, who want “strong, powerful, free” trade, unions. These are the men whom labor is to cooperate with after the war. It is through cooperation with these men and their like in Europe after the war that labor will achieve “great, free, and powerful trade unions and collective bargaining. It is through cooperation with the big capitalists that every nation in Europe, no less than the U.S., Great Britain and Russia, will have highly organized trade unionism after the war.”

We take it that the candidate of the Communist Political Association for organizer of the world labor movement after the war will be Harry Bridges.

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