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A.J. Muste

Build the Left Wing, Is Real Lesson
of AFL Convention

Put No Trust in Lewis and Co. Is the Slogan

(26 October 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. 1 No. 44, 26 October 1935, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A fist fight between the heads of the two biggest unions in the A.F. of L., Hutcheson of the Carpenters and John L. Lewis of the Miners, featured the closing day of the Atlantic City convention. In more ways than one this affair was symbolic. The boys were actually excited about something and that has not been true of the top leadership of the A.F. of L. for years. These comfortable bureaucrats were not the kind to take life seriously, and they did not need to excite themselves about anything except their golf scores and the stock market. That day is over. The rift in tile-leadership is the most serious that has occurred in the entire fifty-five years history of the Federation. The historic one-round bout of Hutcheson and Lewis took place over Hutcheson’s opposition to letting a Federal Union delegate speak for an industrial union in his industry. Lewis said it was “small potatoes” of Hutcheson not to let the “little fellows” have their say. Hutcheson rose to the full height of his six feet two and said he had been brought up on small potatoes and that’s what made him so little— just like a boy out of a Mark Twain story. He also, it is said, called Lewis a naughty name. With that Lewis sent one to the jaw. Soon the two men were rolling about on the floor. When they had been separated, Lewis brushed back his raven locks and like a nineteenth century Shakespearian actor strode to his seat. Hutcheson, the craft unionist, had to take time out to dress his wounds. That also was symbolic. Meanwhile William Green, face as red as a tomato, looking on at the struggle of personalities and forces too big for him, strove in vain to get order. And that also was symbolic.

“Progressives” in a Minority

It must not be inferred that the so-called “progressives” under the leadership of John Lewis constituted a majority in this convention. On the roll call on key questions they were regularly defeated by the Old Guard by a vote of about 18,000 to 10,000. The convention reaffirmed the San Francisco decision for “restricted,” i.e. fake, industrial unions in basic industries, thus favoring the craft unions. The convention is on record for the Roosevelt “social security” program and against the Lundeen bill. Labor Party resolutions were defeated and the A.F. of L.’s stand for “non-partisan” political action reaffirmed, though the Executive Council was instructed to draft an amendment to the U. S. constitution to empower Congress to enact social legislation. The A.F. of L. forces generally can be counted on to support Roosevelt in 1936, unless entirely unforeseen shifts in the economic or political situation occur. After the smashing blow at Matthew Woll for his connection with the red-baiting National Civic Federation, the Executive Council has to withdraw its proposed amendment to the A.F. of L. constitution barring all “reds” from any A.F. of L. union. However. a provision barring them from being delegates to any State Federation of Labor and city central body was adopted, as was a strong resolution against “Communism” in general.

It may be safely predicted that within a year or two the so-called “progressives” of the Lewis-Hillman et al. camp will achieve a majority. Their industrial union resolution e.g. got a bigger vote than resolutions for unemployment insurance at the A.F. of L. convention just preceding the one where it was finally adopted.

The Real Program of Lewis

It must again be emphasized that it now becomes of crucial importance for the workers, and especially the active and advanced ones, to understand precisely what forces suffered set-backs at Atlantic City and what is the real character and role of the elements now gaining ascendancy. The chief point that must be made is that Lewis-Hillman et al. do not represent genuine progressivism and labor militancy. They aim to build a more up-to-date model (up-to-date for the U.S., for it is the same type of unionism as that of the British Trade Union Congress for years and the famous German Confederation of Labor before Hitler so easily wiped it out, represented) of class-collaboration unionism. The Gompers craft model with its syndicated slant, its anti-state bias (opposition to social legislation, etc.) designed to bargain with small employers, could meet in some fashion the needs of an earlier period. What Lewis-Hillman stand for is a more efficient type of unionism, structurally adapted to dealing with big corporations and governmental agencies such as labor boards which can “bargain collectively” and thus hold the workers in line in the present period. Both proponents of the new unionism such as Howard of the Typographical Union and opponents such as Matthew Woll put their finger on the real issue in the convention debates. Howard, for example, stated that if members who had come into the new federal unions and the workers in the basic industries generally “were not permitted to organize under the federation’s auspices they would do so under other leadership or under no leaderships at all, and would present the government with a far more serious problem than if they had been taken into the federation.” Matthew Woll put it in his somewhat more theoretical fashion, that he feared the adoption of unrestricted industrial charters would “destroy the basis of voluntarism in the labor movement and work toward diverting control of labor organizations to the jurisdiction of government agencies.”

End of Gomperism

It was, in other words, Gomperism which finally died at this A.F. of L. convention at Atlantic City. His physical presence was absent from an A.F. of L convention for the first time in the Federation’s history at the 1925 Atlantic City gathering. His ghost made its exit from the convention this year.

Because there is thus no difference in underlying philosophy but only tactical distinctions between the old guard and the so-called progressives, it was possible, as the New Militant predicted, for Lewis to “attack” Green repeatedly during the convention and then turn around and nominate him for president of the Federation again, an office to which he was unanimously re-elected.

The present set-up, therefore, presents its encouraging and also its ominous aspect. The fact that there is a serious rift in the top leadership of the A.F. of L. which always means freer discussion and more lee-way for dissenting conceptions of all kinds, is one of the encouraging features. The fact that hard-boiled politicians such as Lewis sense an intensifying insurgency in the rank and file which makes it necessary for such labor fakers to step out of their old roles entirely and to pose as fighters and “radicals” also means much. The fact that the insurgent newcomers in automobiles, rubber, etc., who before the convention openly attacked Green in their own conventions have now also seen him attacked, his prestige and Woll’s seriously undermined right on the floor of an A.F. of L. convention, will further encourage the militant elements.

Stalinists Trail Lewis

But it is a matter for the deepest concern that no voices were raised for genuine, as against fake industrial unionism and militancy, and that as yet no organized force appeared in an A.F. of L. convention to raise that banner. The Stalinists with their complete turn to the right in every field devote their energies not to building up a real left-wing but actually to playing up Lewis, Hillman, Gorman, et al. as the genuine article, pinning hope upon them for organizing steel and similar industries, carrying on cheap intrigues to get figures such as Gorman to introduce Labor Party resolutions and trying to make the workers believe that this is a triumph for progressivism. Browder and Company are not naive enough to believe this stuff. They are cynical enough, alter years of tutelage in the Stalin school of goose-stepping, to try to make the workers believe it. Thus under their present policy of conciliation toward the A.F. of L., as under their third period policy of “dual unionism,” they confuse the workers, dissipate the progressive forces and betray the labor struggle. And Louis Budenz, has after a few brief weeks in the Stalinist camp also already degenerated to the point where he goes about the country supporting these betraying policies!

“Militant” Socialists, while moving toward a trade union program which abstractly sets forth a Leninist position, have their economic base in their jobs in the needle trades and other unions under the so-called “progressives” Hillman, Dubinsky, Gorman, Lewis himself. The “Militant” Socialists, too, therefore, utterly fail to attack these leaders and their policies and contribute to confusing and misleading the workers.

Opportunity for Militants

The line of policy for revolutionists and for all genuinely militant elements in the unions is not that of an alliance with Lewis-Hillman to wage a mock battle against the corpse of Gompers or the non-entity Green or the much deflated Matthew Woll whose ideas, like his oratory, are of nineteenth century vintage. No, the conservative forces in the A.F. of L. today are the Lewis-Hillman forces, the more dangerous because they masquerade as progressive and up-to-date. The strategy of revolutionists is to take full advantage of any opportunity which these elements create for them by their attack on other trade union bureaucrats or by organizing campaigns or strikes on which they may embark under pressure on the one hand from the newer elements in the unions and in order, on the other hand, to show the employers and the Roosevelt administration that the workers will “really” follow them. On the other hand, the philosophy of these men must be combatted relentlessly. They cannot be depended upon to lead any organizing campaign or strike to a conclusion which is in the interests of the workers. In one way or another they will betray them as surely as Claherty betrayed the rubber strike and Dillon the General Motors strike. The militant forces in all of the unions, in every section of the country, in the A.F. of L. generally, must organize on a basis of class struggle, industrial unionism and genuine trade union democracy against the Lewis-Hillman line. The Atlantic City convention brought out the alarming fact that only the merest beginnings have been made with this job and that the would-be political leaders of the trade union movement are in reality sabotaging it. But the convention also made clear that in the coming year the genuine militants, if they are both aggressive and astute, have an unprecedented opportunity for work in the unions.

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