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David Coolidge

Miners’ Entry in AFL
Poses Serious Questions

(11 February 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 6, 11 February 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The entrance of the United Mine Workers of America into the AFL has resulted in a great deal of speculation and prediction as to the significance for the trade union movement as a whole of this shift in the labor scene.

This is true of the labor movement and also of the “friends of labor.”

There are those who predict that the return of the UMWA to the AFL is the signal for a raiding expedition on the CIO. If not this, then the AFL, under the influence of Lewis, will experience a resurgence of “Gompers- ism,” particularly on the question of the relations between the government and unions on the one hand, and the unions and the employers on the other.

A third position is that the entry of the Mine Workers into the AFL will be a blow at industrial unionism. A fourth contention states that the return will be a setback to the political development of the working class and a blow against the formation of an independent Labor Party.

History of the Split

To be in a position to deal with the questions raised in connection with the entrance of the UMWA into the AFL it is necessary to go over some of the history of AFL-CIO-UMWA relations during the past few years. First, it is important to recall how the miners got out of the CIO because it was the events leading up to leaving the CIO, which the UMWA had done more to found than any other single organization, that created difficulties both for the UMWA and the CIO.

In a reactionary outburst in 1940, Lewis announced his support of Willkie and promised that if Roosevelt was re-elected he (Lewis) would not remain as president of the CIO. Roosevelt was re-elected and at the 1941 convention of the CIO, Lewis announced that he was not a candidate for re-election. The Stalinists, who feared Murray because they were of the opinion that he would institute a CP purge if he succeeded Lewis, put on a 45-minute demonstration for Lewis, demanding that he stand for re-election. Lewis kept his “promise,” however, and Murray was made president. This was the beginning of the rift between the UMWA and the CIO.

The breach was widened later when, at the instance of Lewis, Murray was removed as vice-president of the UMWA. The situation was not helped by the Stalinists when, with their usual opportunistic approach, they climbed on the Murray bandwagon and began the organization of an anti-Lewis campaign in the CIO and the whole labor movement.

While all of this was happening, the rank and file membership of the UMWA was being fed an anti-CIO diet. The top leadership of the CIO did not deport itself in such a way as to clarify the issues for the miners and lead them to understand that the CIO was not anti-UMWA. Anyone who attended the convention of the UMWA in 1942 and 1944 could very easily detect this tragic situation, which was deliberately fostered by Lewis and which the CIO leadership aided and abetted by its stupid attitudes during the numerous strikes engaged in by the miners.

The fact that the top leadership of the UMWA and the CIO was indulging in the most impermissible forms of bureaucratic internal prestige politics was in itself enough to disorient both the miners and the workers in the CIO, especially during the mine strikes. To this, however, was added the machinations of the Stalinist betrayers, who by this time had gone over to full support of Roosevelt and the war. They crawled into bed with Murray.

The fact that Murray and the Stalinists were both ardently supporting the war gave the Stalinists greater prestige and influence in the CIO. This and the opportunist attacks on Lewis by the Stalinists, combined with the Stalinist attacks on the miners’ strikes, infuriated the rank and file of the UMWA and served to turn them against the CIO. Neither the leadership of the CIO nor of the UMWA turned a finger to correct this situation or to effect a reconciliation between the two organizations.

The workers of the UMWA and of the CIO were made mere pawns in a game being played by their leaders. The Stalinists were always present and active, keeping the witches’ brew boiling and bubbling and creating trouble such as only the Stalinists know how. The whole struggle between these bureaucrats at the head of the UMWA and the CIO expressed itself in the support of Roosevelt by Murray and Co. and opposition to Roosevelt by Lewis and Co. Murray and the Stalinists supported Roosevelt, and Lewis supported Willkie and Dewey against Roosevelt. Not one of them made any proposals for independent political action by their organizations, or by the working class as a whole.

Such fratricidal strife could only lead to a split in the CIO and the establishment of the UMWA as an independent unit in the labor movement. This was the end of the road for the miners after the events of 1941 when Lewis refused to remain as president of the CIO.


It is pertinent, in light of the above, to ask the question: What business did Lewis have leading the UMWA out of the CIO? There was no valid reason. His reason was an extremely petty one. It was based on the outcome of an election which in no sense should have been a determining factor in deciding the course of a leader of a working class organization. His action was reactionary for the reason that his basing of his course on the outcome of a contest between two ruling class politicians subordinated the interests of labor to the interests of the capitalist ruling class.

The fact that Murray performed in the same manner cannot be advanced in mitigation of the course pursued by Lewis. He was the outstanding leader of labor in the U.S.

In the circumstances, and, with the background detailed above, it would have been, and still is, unrealistic to take the position that the UMWA should have entered the CIO and not the AFL. We do not say that it was impossible but extremely unlikely that such a consummation could have been achieved. Also one must be careful not to establish a difference in principle between entering the AFL and becoming part of the CIO. There is no difference of a principled sort between the two organizations.

The leadership of both organizations are class collaborationists. In a fundamental sense, the programs of both organizations limit the struggles of the working class to the framework of capitalist society and capitalist democratic procedure. This is illustrated by the fact that both organizations supported the Second Imperialist World War. Both gave a no-strike pledge during the war. The leaders of both organizations oppose the formation of an independent Labor Party in favor of support to the two capitalist parties and their candidates.

There is a difference of course between the AFL craft union movement and the industrial union movement represented by the CIO. This difference is important and determines the preference of real militants, progressives and revolutionaries in the labor movement. The AFL, in so far as it advocates craft unionism, represents the interests of the “aristocrats of labor” and not the decisive mass of workers in the mass production industries. Any strengthening of craft unionism is therefore reactionary. The CIO is the organization of the real toilers; the millions of laborers in the mines, fields and factories. To organize these millions of workers in the decisive sections of modern industry into industrial unions is progressive, over against craft union division and organization.

For these reasons it can be said that it would be better for the UMW to become a part of the CIO. It does not follow from this, however, that the entry of the miners into the AFL is a blow at industrial unionism. The UMWA is an industrial union and will remain so. Its influence in the AFL will not be such as to strengthen craft unionism. Furthermore, the spirit of the times, the temper of the working class and the structure of modern industry are not conducive to the increase of craft unionism. The presence of the miners in the AFL might well become a source of increased tendency away from craft unionism.

On Government’s Role

Lewis is not an heir to the philosophy and teachings of Gompers in any basic sense. Lewis does not believe that the “time has come for capital and labor to sit together around the council table and arrive at decisions to the mutual interests of both groups.” At least he does not adhere to this position in the way meant by Gompers. Lewis believes that labor should sit with capital around the table, but he knows that the interests of the two are not mutual. He does not practice such an attitude in his negotiations with the coal operators. True, as we said above, Lewis practices class collaboration, but his collaboration is not identical with that of Gompers and Bill Green.

Lewis has been correctly criticized for taking the same position as the AFL leadership in the dispute with the CIO leadership over the question of the role of the government today in the affairs of the working class and its organizations. Lewis takes a very conservative position. This is based largely on his inability to understand the political needs of the working class, and a naive belief that if the government keeps out he can beat the employers back. He does not understand that the role of the government in a capitalist society, whether headed, by a Roosevelt or a Willkie-Dewey, is to stop a labor organization from bringing the employers to their knees.

Murray and his followers of the CIO do not understand this question any more fundamentally than does Lewis. They have a glimmering notion about the inevitability of government intervention. They understand vaguely the need for government aid and assistance to the masses of the people in a period when capitalism faces disruption and is not in position to provide plenty for all.

But Murray, too, in his approach to this question, is just as reactionary as Lewis. His program is also inadequate and does not fill the political needs of the working class. He has the naive belief that the capitalist government will function in the interest of the working class if it is headed by a Roosevelt. Neither Murray nor Bill Green nor Lewis understands or supports the idea that labor must resort to political action and establish its own government.

A Setback for Labor?

Will the entry of the UMWA into the AFL result in a setback, to the political development of the working class? To say this is to attribute to Lewis ideas and a position on this question which he does not hold, or to say that the political development of labor is in some significant sense dependent on Lewis to the exclusion of other more potent factors. The working class today in the U.S. is in motion politically. The movement is slow and not very articulate. But it is there, and not even Lewis can stand immune from any ferment in the ranks of labor, whether in the economic field or the political field.

Lewis organized the CIO but he did not create it. He organized an industrial union movement which was erupting in the ranks of the mass production workers because the mass production workers had long felt-the need for such a type of organization. They were ready for the program which Lewis formulated and presented to them.

It is true that there could have been no CIO merely because there was a need for an industrial union. There had to be some organization in existence ready to project itself on the objective scene with a program, money and a staff of organizers. This was what Lewis did; but the importance of this must be properly estimated. Lewis seized on a situation created by the development of modern capitalist industry, and exploited that situation.

It is not excluded that Lewis and other labor leaders like him might be propelled toward the advocacy of independent political action by the working class, just as he was pushed toward industrial unionism. Lewis or Murray may not forever be able to say “NO” to the demands of labor for independent political action. What Lewis or Murray may do in the future cannot now be answered by them, or by us.

Any attempt on the part of Lewis or the AFL to raid the CIO in, the interests of craft unionism; should be roundly condemned a reactionary in the extreme. Perhaps Lewis has such a step in mind; we do not know. Even if such a reactionary course should be attempted we do not believe that it will succeed. The working class of today is not the working class of 1900 or even of the first Roosevelt Administration. It is a far more advanced working class than of those periods. There will be no advance by craft unionism in the days to come.

We believe that the above considerations are the relevant ones in connection with the entry of the UMWA into the AFL. The new shift may or may not prove beneficial to the labor movement. That remains to be seen. The AFL is not the AFL of Gompers, nor is the CIO the organization which it ought to be as an industrial union set-up. The working class is not the working class of Gompers’ day, nor of ten years back. Should Lewis practice the militancy of the miners’ strikes of ’42 he will not only serve to improve the situation in the AFL, but such an AFL will certainly not be an obstacle to the development of the CIO and industrial unionism. And such an AFL will not be a hindrance to the development of independent political action by labor.

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