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A.J. Muste

The A.F. of L. and the Teachers Union

(28 September 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. I No. 40, 28 September 1935, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The rejection by the recent Cleveland convention of the American Federation of Teachers of William Green’s demand that Local 5, New York, be “reorganized” in order to (make it possible for the Linville-Lefkowitz faction in the Local to get rid of the opposition, must be considered as a part of the larger movement of insurgency within the A.F. of L. Recently there have been numerous and weighty instances of the insurgent spirit in Minneapolis Local 574 of the Teamsters has had its charter lifted by Tobin, the czar of the Teamsters’ International, and one of the dominant figures in the A.F. of L. machine, and has to battle in addition a combination of local trade union bureaucrats, Farmer-Labor politicians and Chamber of Commerce. Nevertheless Local 574 has not only been able to stand up under this attack but has organized new groups of transportation employees, has been the leading factor in a series of militant strikes and the mainspring of a widespread progressive movement in Minnesota and adjoining states.

Forcing Dillon on Auto Workers

A few weeks ago the federal automobile locals met in convention in Detroit for the purpose of establishing an International union under an A.F. of L. charter. At the beginning of the convention Green in person laid down an ultimatum to the effect that the delegates must accept Francis J. Dillon, who as head of the A.F. of L. work in automobiles had consistently sabotaged an effective organization campaign and betrayed the General Motors strike last May, as the president of the organization at least for the first year. They were also informed that the jurisdiction of their international would not cover the skilled craftsmen in the industry; in other words, that their demand for a genuine industrial union could not be granted.

Although in the main the delegates to this convention had not come from the progressive slates in the federal unions, they promptly rejected by a decisive majority the demand that they accept Dillon as the first president of their union. Notably, the Toledo delegates, who bad been elected as conservatives in their local union, voted unanimously against Dillon.

Despite this clear and to nearly everybody unexpected expression of rank and file revolt, Green felt strong enough in this case to impose Dillon in the teeth of the rejection of the delegates. Nevertheless, the action was a real blow to his prestige and a clear indication that among the members is profound distrust of the A.F. of L. bureaucracy, a spirit of independence and a strong demand for trade union democracy.

Teacher’s Convention

Somewhat later in the same week the struggle in the American Federation of Teachers convention came to a head. Doubtful of being able to put over their reorganization of Local 1 proposal on the delegates, Linville, Lefkowitz, Borchard and other reactionaries appealed to Green. Having the habit of issuing decrees and on every occasion whacking “Communists” over the head, Green sent a strong message to the Teachers. They must get rid of “Communist” influence, and to reorganize Local 5 and kick out the opposition was the one way to make their union safe for Americanism and “true trade union principles.”

There has been a reluctance, natural enough in a way, in the A.F. of T. as a small international, depending largely upon A.F. of L. support in state legislatures for advancing the interests of the teachers, to alienate the A.F. of L. leadership. But we are living in a new economic era and Bill Green is not Sam Gompers. The teachers by a decisive majority rejected Green’s demand. Whereupon the reactionary minority walked out of the convention, clearly revealing themselves and all such bureaucrats as Green as splitters of the labor movement. There is this difference between the case of the Auto Workers and that of the Teachers, that so far, at any rate, Green has not been able to impose his will upon the latter. Local 5 has not been reorganized.

Green at Akron

During the past week the Rubber Workers have been in convention in Akron, the demand on the part of the federal locals in that industry for an international union also having become so insistent that the A.F. of L. had to yield. In Akron Green was present in person as he had been in Detroit. Once again he undertook to lay down an ultimatum. The Rubber Workers must accept Coleman Claherty, the Francis Dillon of the Industry, as their president for the first year. Again a howl of protest arose. A pungent two hour debate started in the course of which, according to a press report, “the A.F. of L. officialdom was criticized strongly.” When on the following morning the vote of 44 to 9 for rejecting the proposed appointment of Claherty was announced, Green, perhaps “softened up” by the blows received at the Automobile Workers’ and the Teachers conventions, capitulated completely and announced to the delegates: “I accept your judgment in the matter as final”

All this has an important bearing on the question of what is likely to happen In the case of the A.F of T. at the approaching A.F. of L convention and what should be the course of the progressive elements in Local 5 and In the Teachers Union throughout the country. It seems to me most unlikely that an attempt to take away the charter of the entire Teachers Union or to “reorganize” the Federation will be made. Such an action is without precedent in the A.F. of L. It is true that the A.F. of L. frequently steps in in support of the machine

of an international union, in reorganizing a local, or an entire group of locals. In this case, however the recognized International officials are opposing the reorganization of the local. It is true also that where two distinct organizations emerge as a result of an intra-union conflict, the A.F. of L. determines which has “jurisdiction,” and, of course, almost invariably “recognizes” the conservative group. At yet, however, the locals which walked out of the A.F. of T. convention have not dared to organize a separate national union and to apply for an A.F. of L. charter which would invalidate the charter of the present A.F. of T. Even in normal times the A.F. of L. Executive Council tends to proceed slowly in such matters, since, after all, per capita tax income is one of its first considerations. That the drastic action of outlawing the A.F. of T. at this convention will be taken seems most unlikely because these are far from normal times in the Federation.

Struggle for Leadership

There is, in the first place, a struggle for leadership in process and in consequence a division within the official family itself. It is not yet clear whether John L. Lewis will openly contest the presidency with Green in Atlantic. City. The mere fact, however, that the contest is possible will tend to prevent extreme and precipitate action in the Teachers’ case. Each side will be looking for votes and anxious to maintain the present organization intact though, of course, Lewis, no more than Green, entertains any affection for the progressives and militants, not to speak of the revolutionists, in the Teachers’ union. In the second, place, with such evidences of insurgency in the ranks of the workers as I have already noted (and these instances could easily be multiplied) the A.F. of L. bureaucrats, no matter how much it may irritate them, will have to think twice before they run the risk of adding fuel to the flames of revolt by pulling off so raw deal as would be involved in the reorganization of the entire Teachers’ International or the setting up of a dual organization which certainly at the outset would represent a decidedly small minority of the organized teachers.

Conditions Favor Progressives

The Executive Council of the A.F. of T. and the progressives throughout the union face on the whole, therefore, at this moment favorable situation. There is no doubt that they can, for the present at any rate, have the upper hand, counting upon the general spirit of insurgency among the workers and in the A.F. of L. unions, provided that they stand their ground firmly and carefully avoid giving the bureaucrats any impression of fear or weakness – an attitude of which the bureaucrats know only too well from long experience how to take advantage. The proposition, for example, which the Stalinists made in Local 5 to conciliate Linville and Lefkowitz by dissolving all groups in the union is, even from the lowest tactical point of view, unsound. To run after a retreating enemy, so to speak, urging him to stop in order that you may give him concessions, in fact, turn over your sword to him, is more than a little ridiculous.

This is, however, not to say that the progressives in the A.F. of T do not have a stiff fight now and will not have a stiffer one in the future. The reactionaries, both in the A.F. of T., and in the A.F. of L. generally, will fight back. The Teachers must utilize the present opportunity precisely in order to consolidate their positions, strengthen their forces, organize the progressive elements locally and nationally and equip themselves for effective resistance against counter-attack and for future advances and victories for progressive, militant unionism.

Groups in Unions

In this connection, insistence upon the right of groups to function in a responsible fashion within the union is of the greatest significance. Having such groups is not by any means without precedent in the American Federation of Labor. In the Typographical Union, for example, there have for years been two or more openly recognized “parties” putting forward their programs, putting up slates in the local and national elections, etc. The Printers find it as logical to have parties functioning in the trade union democracy as that there should be parties, for example, in a political democracy. A similar situation has existed, though perhaps not so continuous or on so large a scale, in many other A.F. of L. unions.

There are bound to be varying points of view in any living organization. It is far better that they should function openly than that they should operate in an underground fashion.

Why is it that the reactionaries in a union always fight against the existence of “groups,” insist that this means splitting up the union, etc.? Does this mean that there are then no groups in the union? Not at all. What it means is that there is only one group, and that is the group which is dominated by the union machine. It is perfectly well known that in the unions thus bossed there are always organizations, frequently known as “clubs,” which constitute in effect the caucuses of the trade union machine. The cry of “no groups” means “no groups except our own” representing the union bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy is Organized

The bureaucracy always functions in an organized fashion and never relaxes its vigilance. Consequently, even if an occasional revolt breaks out, the machine presently rides roughshod again, because the opposition does not maintain a continuous organization. The Teachers must not only not give up the right of groups to function but must steadily and rapidly extend the organization of the progressives.

Nor must the teachers permit themselves to be intimidated by the cry of such elements as Linville and Lefkowitz, that these groups are “dominated by political parties and do not have the genuine interest of the union and of the Teachers at heart.” To say that the politically most developed members of a union must not function as fractions in an organized way is to say that precisely those elements which should know most about the problem and be most devoted to the cause of the working class must not make their maximum contribution to the solution of the union’s problems.

To try to forbid members of a revolutionary party to function as fractions in the union and in progressive groups does not mean to remove political influence. Anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with the union movement in this country knows that in proportion as the influence of working class parties is weak, the capitalist parties (Tammany Hall in the New York building trades and printing trades unions, etc.) dominate the union. Trade unions cannot possibly function in a non-political world, least of all unions of teachers.

“Politics” in the Union

The Stalinists have, of course, by the irresponsible and disruptionist fashion in which they have functioned or tried to function in the mass movement, put a weapon in the hands of the trade union bureaucrats and have alienated many honest but uninformed workers. But this does not mean that “politics must be kept out of the union.”

Political organizations, the same as progressive groups in the unions generally, must be tested first by the program for the union which they advance, and secondly by the way in which they seek to advance that program. The Workers Party stands for a progressive, militant teachers Union in which trade union democracy obtains and believes that its membership should seek to davance what they regard as the sound program for the union openly, by educating the membership, trying to win them to this program, at no time seeking mechanical domination or resorting to cheap politics, alliances with reactionaries, etc., in order to advance their views. The members of the Workers Party, bound to act under the discipline of their party in the union, will, precisely because they are under that discipline, work harder for the union, fight more vigorously in all its battles, display a deeper and more consistent loyalty to the union.

Revolutionists Play Their Part

It is not an accident that in each of the situations mentioned earlier in the article the Workers Party and its members have played a part – in some instances as in Minneapolis and among the automobile workers in Toledo a leading and conspicuous one; in others as among the teachers and rubber workers a lesser role. We are not by any means seeking to make revolutionary political parties out of the unions. But even now, only with a core of revolutionists equipped with Marxian methods of analysis and disciplined and hardened for struggle, can progressive groups be built in the unions which can successfully challenge the entrenched and hardened bureaucracies; and in the end it is only under the leadership of the revolutionary party that the workers will be able really to solve the problems which the present age creates and to free themselves from poverty and insecurity and the frustration of spirit to which the masses under capitalism today are subjected.

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