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David Coolidge

A Report on the Steel Workers’ Convention

Murray’s Speech Makes Headlines,
but Is Not Discussed

(27 May 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 21, 27 May 1946, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The United Steelworkers of America held their biennial convention in Atlantic City last week. The first comment which has to be made is that this convention was a very dull affair. The convention was not only dull and flat when looked at in comparison with a UAW or UMW convention but also from the standpoint of the steel workers themselves and the way their own problems were presented and handled by the leadership of the International.

The steel workers’ convention had more the appearance of a large mass meeting than of a convention. There were 2,600 delegates seated as in a mass meeting. There were no tables, and should a delegate desire to make a few notes for a speech or take down anything which was being said, he would have to use his knee after he had dug for a piece of scrap paper in his pocket. There were no tables and writing material supplied the delegates as in a convention of the automobile workers. There were no banners, signs or placards. One delegation or local could not be distinguished from another. All one could see was over two thousand men and women seated in an auditorium as an audience listening to speeches being made from the platform where the leadership of the international and its top functionaries sat. Of course, the audience participated in the meeting by speaking from the floor and asking questions. On the whole, however, it was a case of the leadership calling a conference to report to the membership.

A most astounding thing occurred on the first day of the convention.

Philip Murray made what has been called his warning to “outsiders.” He said that “we are run solely by our membership.” To be sure, this isn’t true, but we will let that pass for the moment. He then went on to say that:

”... this union will not tolerate efforts by outsiders – individuals, organizations or groups – whether they be Communist, Socialist or any other group, to infiltrate, dictate or meddle in our affairs. I do not direct that remark to any one person or group ... At the same time, however, we will not permit any limitation on the free and democratic right of full discussion of trade union problems in our ranks ... We have no ulterior or subversive aims and we will not tolerate any attempts to divert our activities into such channels ... As a democratic institution we engage in no purges, no witch hunts.”

What was astounding is the fact that there was no discussion from the delegates. Nobody wanted to know what Murray considered “meddling” or what was his conception of an “outsider.” Furthermore, it might have been pertinent for some delegate to rise and ask Murray to explain and clarify his conception of the “full discussion of trade union problems in our ranks.” Also, what are “trade union problems” to which discussion must be confined? What does Murray mean by subversive aims? Does he mean the same thing as Fairless, Ford or Truman? We would also like to know just what is Secretary-Treasurer David McDonald’s conception of trade union or any other kind of democracy. But more about McDonald later.

No delegate seemed interested in any of the questions raised above.

If they were, they did not let it be known. It was clear that Murray’s speech was directed at the Stalinists and the Communist Party. It is reported that the source of the speech was some agitation which occurred in the Board meeting just before the opening of the convention. There were some Board members who wanted a clause in the constitution barring “communists” from membership. Murray’s formulation in his speech was a compromise position. This ambiguous speech was adopted as the official policy of the union without discussion.

Who Are “Outsiders”?

We don’t know how Murray intends to carry out and apply this “policy.” The Workers Party and Labor Action will certainly not “meddle” in the affairs of the steel union or in the affairs of any other union. But we are certain that we do not agree with Murrays’ notion of what meddling is. Furthermore, neither the Workers Party nor Labor Action considers itself an outsider.

Murray and McDonald, while not outsiders, function as outsiders occasionally, in a very important sense. They bring notions, ideas and programs into the labor movement from the outside; that is from the capitalist ruling class. They and other labor leaders bring in capitalist ruling class politics. They brought the Second World Imperialist War into the labor movement and insisted that the workers support that imperialist slaughter. They organized the PAC for the support of the Democratic Party, a capitalist party. They have consistently opposed a party of, for and by labor. They are organizing now in the PAC for the support, not of labor candidates, but of Republican and Democratic Party candidates in the fall congressional elections.

To Murray, it is meddling by “outsiders” when the Workers Party and Labor Action speak out against these practices and try to win the workers in steel and elsewhere to the support of a working class program and an independent labor party. To oppose the late imperialist slaughter and tell the workers that they should do likewise, is to Murray, meddling by “outsiders” with “subversive aims.”

The Workers Party is a revolutionary socialist party. That means that it is a working-class party. It is a part of the labor movement, a politically advanced part of the labor movement. Labor Action is a working-class paper and is read by thousands of workers, who buy it and subscribe to it: steel workers, coal diggers and other workers.

The Workers Party attempts to recruit steel workers, just as it attempts to recruit other workers. We don’t know of any speech by Murray which can stop this. We see no reason why any steel worker should refrain from reading Labor Action or joining the Workers Party because of Murray’s talk about “meddling” and “outsiders.”

The Workers Party has not and will not interfere in the organizational affairs of any union nor in any way seek to dictate to any union. We believe in the independence of the trade unions. But independence for a labor organization should mean first of all independence from the capitalist ruling class and independence from Republican and Democratic Party capitalist politics. It should mean independence from Roosevelt, Truman and the capitalist government at Washington.

Let Murray see to it that the program of the capitalist employer and the programs of the capitalist government at Washington do not “infiltrate” the labor movement. That is a cornerstone of the Workers Party program for the unions, and that in fact is what Murray means when he talks, about “meddling” and being subversive..

On Housing Negroes

Another event at the convention deserves comment. At the 1944 convention in Cleveland, Secretary-Treasurer McDonald, who is really the overseer of the USW, sent out a notice on housing of delegates in which it was recorded that Negro delegates would be accommodated at Negro hotels. This was a decision on the part of McDonald that no effort would be mads to house the Negro delegates with their delegations. The Negro delegations raised this question on the floor of the convention and McDonald replied that he had adopted this procedure because he felt that the Negro delegates would rather stay with their own people. Here was a clear case of discriminatory practice by a high official of a CIO union.

At the recent convention in Atlantic City McDonald proceeded to accomplish the same ends by a different route. He merely sent out a circular prepared by the Hotel Bureau of Atlantic City. But this circular notified the delegates that such and such hotels were for “colored only.” It was understood, of course, that the Negro delegates would stay at “colored” hotels and the white delegates at “white” hotels. This was not the procedure at the UAW convention and never is, but this is the way that McDonald does it, even after he has received warning.

The Negro delegates brought this discriminatory practice to the attention of Murray and to the floor of the convention, where it belonged. McDonald replied in a very weak attempt to prove that what had happened was a mere routine practice carried on by the Hotel Bureau in Atlantic City. He, however, was in agreement that all hotels should get some of the business which the convention brought to a city. To the Negro delegates this was a very tame excuse. And they were correct.

When the question of electing a third, vice-president who was to be a Negro came up, Murray spoke on the whole question of the Negro membership and said that he had discussed these matters with Negro delegates. He said that he planned to hold a conference around this question and that definite plans would be started for bringing the affairs of the international in connection with the Negro members in line with its declarations.

Right here we would like to indulge in a little meddling. The Negro members of the steel workers and the white members who want to see real equality and democracy in the union should not depend on Murray to correct this situation. They should begin in their locals and make a fight against every and any discriminatory practice.

If a Negro wants to be bn the International Executive Board, let him run for District Director. If a Negro member wants to be president or to hold any other office in the steel union, let him announce his candidacy and run for that office.

Oppose Constitution Change

Among the resolutions passed by the convention were those calling for the guaranteed annual wage, protection of democracy, against peacetime military conscription, against the poll tax, and a resolution on foreign policy calling for support of the United Nations “so that it may grow strong in the battle for peace.”

The only real flurry which took place in the convention occurred during the report of the constitution committee when that committee read its motion for changing the basis of representation to the convention. The revised section provided that instead of there being one delegate for each 100 members there should be one delegate for each 500 members. This brought the delegates to their feet. No one was to be allowed to tamper with this. The motion, if adopted, would mean that in 1948 there would be about 1,800 delegates instead of around 2,800. The motion was soundly defeated.

If the steel workers were as alive to the really important issues which come before the convention as they are on the matter of just getting there, they would have a far better union, more democracy and a better fighting organization to win their economic and political demands.

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