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A.J. Muste

Labor in 1935
Panorama & Prognoses

(May 1935)

From New International, Vol. 2 No. 3, May 1935, pp. 102–103.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

RECENT weeks witnessed some amazing manoeuvres in the trade union field. The chief actors were the American Federation of Labor officials and the Roosevelt administration. The chief victims to date are the workers in the basic industries. There will be other rounds in the battle. These the workers will win.

The beginning of 1935 found the workers in what may be described as a state of suspense. A period had come to an end. They needed to adjust themselves to new conditions before entering fresh struggles. Employers were on the aggressive. The Federal administration was turning to the Right and abandoning any appearance of “friendliness” to labor. The AF of L leaders had sabotaged the struggles of 1934 in steel, automobiles and rubber, but no alternative leadership was in sight.

But “beware the Ides of March”. Fundamental causes of unrest had not been removed. The relief rolls were growing bigger. Prices were going up. Work was mercilessly speeded. Anti-labor sentiments coming from higher-ups in Washington created bitterness among trade union leaders and rank and file alike. June and the expiration of NRA were approaching, with the employers seemingly intent on wiping out even such meager protection as section 7a had seemed to afford. The automobile code had been reversed and the Automobile Labor Board was holding “collective bargaining” elections against labor’s protest and chiefly in plants which were notorious company union strongholds.

Toward the end of March the electricity thus generated seemed about to discharge itself. The bituminous coal agreement was bout to expire. The United Mine Workers of America demanded a thirty-hour week and a six dollars per day minimum wage. John L. Lewis, the UMW of A head, of whom it has been said that he can strut sitting down, threatened a complete shut-down of the industry on April 1 if the demands were not granted.

A strike in coal would affect the “captive mines” of the US Steel Corporation, would presently tie up steel, automobiles and rubber plants. The progressives in the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers announced that the steel workers would walk out with the miners. In Akron the rubber workers who had several times been on the verge of striking but were “dissuaded” by the AF of L leaders, grew restive again and strike polls were started in their Federal locals. A spark, so it seemed, and the strike conflagration of 1935 would burst forth.

But the hour for the decisive battle in the basic industries has not yet struck. There is still room for trade union bureaucrats and capitalist politicians to manoeuvre. The workers still have lessons to learn.

On March 31, John L. Lewis announced that the UMW of A had agreed to a truce with the coal operators until June 16, the date when the present National Recovery Act expires. At about the same time spokesmen for Roosevelt, away on a cruise off the balmy coast of Florida in Vincent Astor’s yacht, let it be known that in some way – a little vague to be sure – the administration would support Senator Wagner’s bill to “outlaw company unions”. Also, Senator Harrison pulled out of his pocket a bill which had evidently reposed there since the President’s departure from Washington, providing for a renewal of NRA for two years. The number and scope of the codes is to be greatly reduced, but section 7a is to be retained.

How stands the balance sheet after these swift manoeuvres?

  1. The threat of big strikes in the big industries was used by Roosevelt to club the employers into accepting a modified NRA and to prevent them from trying to abrogate every vestige of such protection as had been given to collaborationist trade unionism as a “balance” to the vast impetus given to monopoly and to employer organizations under the New Deal. They have had to moderate for the moment their truculency toward both Roosevelt and the unions. They have, however, gained much. By June 16 the slack season in coal will be well under way, the peak of production in steel, autos, etc. will be past, unless an entirely unforeseen business spurt develops. The threat of strike in the heavy industries has been put off, perhaps for many months. As for a renewed section 7a or even the Wagnerian “outlawing” of company unions, the employers doubtless believe they can find ways to evade serious consequences from them, especially with Roosevelt and the AF of L leaders to be counted on to check the workers’ militancy. Such of the restraints under the codes as they disliked will be eliminated.
  2. The great performer himself, Franklin Delano, retains his footing on the tight rope and bows graciously in all directions. He is still performing his role of keeping capitalism going, preventing the class conflict from breaking out nakedly, that is, saving the employing class from a gigantic assault by labor. The “friendship” with the AF of L leaders which seemed to have been irremediably ruptured is renewed. The act in which “tough” John L. Lewis denounces suave Donald Richberg, Roosevelt’s spokesman, as a traitor to labor is followed by an act in which John and Don have their pictures taken together.
  3. On the side of labor, the dominant figure in the recent events, in addition to Lewis, was Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and most active of trade union bureaucrats in the NRA. The Hillman-Lewis strategy is now clear. Since it will exercize a preponderant influence in the next period it is very essential to understand it.

They would like to see industrial unions built in the basic industries. They are astute enough to see that the day when the AF of L can exist as a force on the ever narrowing base of craft unions of the skilled, is finally gone. They know that unless “safe” leaders do something about unionism in heavy industry, the radicals will gain the leadership. They believe that unions can be built only with government support. Another way of putting it would be that they understand that unions based on workers’ struggles would have no place for them.

They hold, therefore, that for a successful organizing campaign in steel, autos, etc., some such psychology must be created among the workers in these industries as existed in the honeymoon days of the New Deal in 1933 when tens and hundreds of thousands of workers were enrolled in the Hillman and Lewis unions. The renewal of section 73, the enactment of the Wagner bill, the abolition of the present Auto Labor Board, will, they expect, do the trick. To secure these they used labor unrest and militancy to produce the threat of big strikes. Having gotten satisfactory assurances, as they believed, they put the brakes on the strikes.

It is common knowledge that some weeks ago Lewis submitted to the AF of L Executive Council a proposal to organize steel and was voted down by the die-hards. But the AF of L will be forced under such leadership as that of Hillman and Lewis to make a spurious attempt at organization in such industries, or the present leaders will be forced to surrender either to the company unions or to a radical leadership.

Any such attempt on the part of the AF of L will furnish a golden opportunity to a realistic revolutionary leadership. The workers in these industries feel that they need the support of the entire labor movement if they are to achieve organization. If the AF of L actually puts forces to work, they will respond. A merely negative attitude on the part of revolutionists to an organizing campaign, will not be understood by the workers, will isolate the revolutionists from them. In fact the latter must take the initiative, and that vigorously, in union organizing work in this period. This City a Union City, this State a Union State, this Industry a Union Industry, this Country a Union Country – these are the slogans today.

It is very doubtful whether the AF of L leadership will carry an organizing campaign through effectively to the finish, even assuming that it will launch one. That is why the honest, fighting elements in the unions must be organized as an independent force to put vigor into the campaign and to carry it to completion.

It is certain that the AF of L leadership will not carry out effectively the large scale, militant strike action without which no union which is more than a puppet of the government will be established in the basic industries. If the progressive-Left elements do make themselves an independent and powerful force in the unions, and they will have only themselves to blame if they do not, then when favorable conditions again develop and the workers under the lash of the crisis are once more brought to the point of striking, a terrific battle for leadership will be fought.

Then Lewis, Hillman and Green will not be the only ones claiming to represent the workers in Washington, and in any case the decisive events will not then occur in the White House with the smiling Roosevelt presiding as the cigars are passed, but on the picket lines in the steel, coal and automobile towns, as the gas bombs and the bullets fly about.

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