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A.J. Muste

A.F. of L. Begins New Year

Has It Really Become Progressive and Militant,
or Are Its Leaders “Just Talking”?

(21 January 1933)

From Labor Action, Vol. 1 Zero Issue, 21 January 1933, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE American Federation of Labor is still the largest body of organized workers in the United States though by no means the only spokesman for Labor us its leaders sometimes try to claim. What the A.F. of L. is likely to be and do in 1933 is therefore of importance for the workers and for all those who are interested in the labor movement ...

From the standpoint of those who want to see a fighting, progressive union movement some positions the A.F of L is taking at the beginning of the new year are encouraging, others not so encouraging. Let us take first the encouraging signs.

Unemployment Insurance

1. The A.F. of L. is now fighting for the establishment of a system of compulsory unemployment insurance in all the states. That means saying to government and business:

“After this when depression comes and men are thrown out of work, the jobless are not to be dependent upon haphazard charity as millions of self-respecting industrious American workers are today. In the future if a man does not get a pay envelope from the boss at the end of the week, he must get one from the state.”

This is not the place to go into a detailed discussion of the feature of the bill or bills which the A.F. of L. is prepared to sponsor. We may remark on some good points in its proposals. It demands, for example, that workers are not to be made to pay into the unemployment insurance fund. The fund is to be a charge upon industry. No one is to be compelled to take a job below the prevailing rate of wages or forfeit his insurance benefits if he refuses. The unemployment insurance scheme is not to be used as a means to force workers to leave their unions.

The fact that this conservative organization of trade unions is on record for unemployment insurance, when only two years ago at its Boston convention a mere handful dared to vote for the proposal which had been viciously denounced as un-American and Bolshevik, suggests that the “world do move.”

30-Hour Week

2. The A.F. of L. has come out strongly for the six-hour day and the five-day week and has called upon the workers to engage in an immediate and vigorous fight for this change. It is a very important step. In factories work that required 52 hours in 1919 could be done in 34 hours in 1929 as a result of all kinds of improvements in machinery, etc. But the actual working week during this period declined only from 52 to 50 hours. Inevitably thousands of workers were thrown out on the street. There is no way of putting the millions who are now jobless hack to work unless a drastic change is made in the hours of labor.

This move for the 6-hour day and the 5-day week is important not only because of its object but because in the past great and effective organizing campaigns have centered around the movement for the shorter work week. Perhaps once again the slogan of drastically editing down the hours of labor may prove a rallying cry bringing hundreds of thousands of workers in the basic industries into fighting, industrial unions.

For Force “of Some Kind”

3. As the new year opens there are indications that there may be more fighting spirit in the A.F. of L. than for some time past. Certainly there is more talk of fight. President Green caused a tremendous demonstration in the A.F. of L. convention In Cincinnati and precipitated a lot of talk outside the convention when in a debate on the 6-hour day and the 5-day week he roundly asserted: “We will not be denied the realization of this great reform The world must know we must be given it in response to reason or we will secure it through force of some kind.” At a hearing before a Senate Committee in Washington the other day he spoke of general strike and “class war” if, as he thought likely, the leaders of Industry refused to listen to reason and to grant the shorter work week.

For a number of years the A.F. of L. had the idea that the best way to organize workers was to “sell” the idea of unionism to employers; make the bosses believe that it was to their advantage to have workers organized and they would induce their employees to come into the union. The fact that A.F. of L. leaders today openly admit that this policy has been a failure and that the labor movement today, as in the past, must build upon the fighting spirit of the workers and nothing else, is a welcome sign.

There are, however, some serious considerations of a less encouraging kind.

Losing Membership

1. A labor movement that is going to do big things must be strong. The American labor movement confronting the most powerful combinations of capital in the world needs to be especially strong. Unfortunately, however, the entire American movement, and especially the A.F. of L., is weak. Only about 10 per cent of all the gainfully occupied people in this country are organized in unions.

The A.F. of L itself lost membership even during the boom time, the first time in the history of this country that union membership has declined during a period of prosperity. The Executive Councils report announced a drop of over 350,000 as compared to the previous year. What is more serious, we have practically no organization in this country in some of the great basic industries such as steel, automobiles, textiles, electrical equipment, soft coal. public utilities.

No Organizing Program

2. It appears therefore that some real organizing work will have to be done if the A.F. of L. is to be able to put up a fight against the forces massed against it, and the plans for such organizing work ought to form an important, if not the most important, part of Labor’s program in the present crisis.

But almost nothing was said on this crucial point of organizing work either in the Executive Council’s report or in the convention proceedings. No large-scale, concrete plan for organizing work has been developed by the A.F. of L. and placed before the workers. All the wisdom that the Executive Council had to offer on this point, it summed up in these two mighty sentences: “In the coming year we must depend upon personal appeal as our chief reliance in spreading the cause of unionism.” And in the second place: “We urge unions in all localities to begin continuous efforts for organizing workers during this coming year.”

Undoubtedly organizing work is difficult now. New methods will have to be devised. That is no excuse, however, for such utter evasion of the key problem as the A.F. of L. leaders are guilty of.

Unemployed ignored

3. Furthermore, if the employed cannot easily be organized today, there are many indications that the unemployed can be. There is, in fact, a rapidly growing network of unemployed organisations throughout the land, some of which indeed are only “chiselling brigades” but many of which are carrying on collective bargaining activities and pressure activities of various kinds.

Surely, if a vigorous labor movement is to be built under the economic conditions which we now have, it is of the utmost importance that the unemployed league» be ’inked up with the unions. There is no evidence that the A.F. of L. has given any serious consideration to this problem. This indicates an utter lack of organizational sense which certainly does not bode well for its future.

Racketeers Still In

4. If in some respects a period like the present is not favorable for extending organization, it is an excellent time to clean house and put existing unions on a sounder basis. The rank and file in the unions are less tolerant of abuses than they were in the heyday of prosperity.

President Green and the Executive Council some months ago professed themselves greatly stirred by racketeering, gangsterism, corruption, bureaucracy and allied evils in the unions. They stated they were going to take extreme measures to drive these evils out. President Green went so far as to threaten with expulsion from the A.F. of L. international unions which permitted their locals to tolerate such “leeches” as gangsters and racketeers.

Nothing serious has as yet been done about this evil, however. The result, as pointed out elsewhere in this issue of Labor Action, is that a New York court recently threw a local union of the Motion Picture Operators into a receivership, appointing as one of the receivers John W. Davis. Davis is a Morgan attorney. That picture of a Morgan attorney as the business agent of a labor union suggests how low a part of the trade union movement has sunk and how certainly a movement, which does not eradicate the cancer of racketeering must before long perish.

Doing Nothing About a Labor Party

5. The A.F. of L. is not yet taking any definite steps toward the formation of a labor or farmer-labor party. Its leadership thinks that the Democratic sweep in the recent election represents a victory for Labor and it looks for favors from the Roosevelt regime. But the party of Raskob-Owen Young-Dupont-Baruch and that crowd is not going to do any more for the workers and farmers than the party of Rockefeller and Morgan.

The question whether the A.F. of L. has turned genuinely progressive, even the question whether it can survive has not yet been answered.

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