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A.J. Muste

From Atlantic City to Atlantic City

On the 55th Convention of the American Federation of Labor

(October 1935)

From New International, Vol. 2 No. 6, October 1935, pp. 182–184.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

AS THE 1935 Atlantic City convention of the American Federation of Labor approaches, one recalls that a decade ago an AF of L convention of decisive importance was held at the same place. During the year preceding this earlier convention William Green had been chosen president to fill the unexpired term of Samuel Gompers. He was by no means as yet secure in the saddle nor fully trusted by the office-holding elements in the great international unions who dominate the federation conventions. He was, in fact, suspected by many of them of having “radical leanings”. If he were elected to the presidency for a regular one-year term by the delegates at this convention, his position would become relatively secure. The chances were that he would then be elected year after year as Gompers had been. If, on the other hand, Green were defeated it would indicate confusion and instability in the official family and perhaps a number of years of internal strife.

By liberal elements in the labor movement and among its sympathizers Green was generally thought of as the progressive candidate who might inaugurate a new and better era in the AF of L. He was from the fighting (?) industrial United Mine Workers Union, not from the building or printing crafts. He had served in the Ohio legislature and sponsored there a model workmen’s compensation act. He was interested in the workers’ education movement, then largely in the hands of the progressive elements in the unions. If any candidate opposed Green it would probably be Matthew Woll, who had been regarded as Gompers’ choice for his successor, “the crown prince”, closer to the craft unions, more militantly conservative than Green.

Those were the days of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee, the period which in Great Britain culminated in’the General Strike. The leading fraternal delegate from the British Trade Union Congress to the convention was AA Purcell, at that time president of the BTUC and prominent in the activities of the A-RC. Purcell’s speech to the convention was a ringing challenge. He argued for militant unionism, the building of a Labor party in the US, the recognition of the Soviet government by the US government, and close fraternal relations between the trade unionists of the Soviet Union and of the United States. It is the custom for the president of the AF of L to reply to the speeches of fraternal delegates. Frequently these replies furnish an opportunity for important political pronouncements. Purcell’s speech presented Green with his first test.

His reply to Purcell was in substance this:

“The great American Federation of Labor is the most militant trade union movement in the world. As for a Labor party, we don’t need instruction on such subjects from our sister body. A Labor party may be good for the British workers, we don’t need it or want it here. We have just had another illustration [the LaFollette campaign] of the fact that independent political action does not suit the needs of American workers. We are opposed to the recognition by the United States of the Soviet government which does not observe its international obligations, which is out to wreck civilization and morality, etc. As for friendship with the Russian trade unionists, we feel an ardent affection for the Russian people. We hope that some day there will be a real trade union movement in Russia. We are, however, determined to stamp out every vestige of communist influence in the trade union movement and we will have no truck with the CP-dominated trade union movement of the Soviet Union.”

After the session a group of delegates and visitors was discussing the speeches on the boardwalk. John P. Frey, then editor of the Molders’ Journal, now head of the Metal Trades Department of the AF of L, a conservative of conservatives in his philosophy but personally honest, idealistic and well-read, was the center of the group. Frey rubbed his hands in glee:

“That speech,” he said, “elects Green to the presidency. It has made him. The AF of L is safe. We know now that we have a strong man who is worthy to stand in Samuel Gompers’ shoes.”

Thus with appropriate ceremony, so to speak, began the undisputed reign of William Green and the great turn to the Right which characterized the AF of L from that year to 1933. For, of course, Green was not and did not prove to be a progressive though quite possibly he still thinks of himself as a “constructive radical”. The doctrine that workers should be organized by employers who were to be persuaded that their production would be made more efficient if they put their workers into AF of L unions; that strikes were relics of the earlier barbaric era of employer-employee relations; political support of big capital represented by Coolidge and Hoover; the ruthless suppression of even the mildest opposition so that for years no opposition vote was recorded on any resolutions in AF of L conventions, and along with it the degeneration of many of the unions which constituted the backbone of the AF of L into racketeering outfits, marked this period. Monotonously Green was reflected to the presidency each year. Some were boom years, some depression. In any case membership fell consistently. Strikes were consistently lost. Yet they were comfortable years for the bureaucracy. There was enough per capita tax to keep them going; they basked in the sunshine of capitalist favor; internal opposition had been clubbed into submission or with the CP was on the outside pursuing the futile “Third Period” “dual union” tactics.

With the advent of the Roosevelt administration came an increase in union membership and a tremendous stepping up of activity, and with new members and open and bitter labor conflicts came trouble for the bureaucrats in the AF of L. Fundamentally, of course, the crisis developing in the Federation results from the fact that American capitalism is entering on a new phase and that in this phase pure-and-simple, class collaborationist, craft unionism can no longer obtain concessions from the employing class.

Thus Green comes to the 1936 Atlantic City convention having failed to date to compose the conflict which is threatening to tear asunder the important Building Trades Department of the AF of L; with the campaign against “Reds” in the unions on the whole a failure; and having suffered open rebuffs at three successive conventions – automobile workers, teachers and rubber workers – within a month.

It is by no means a foregone conclusion that Green will be faced with an open contest for the presidency at this convention. Undoubtedly the fact that he cannot handle jurisdictional conflicts with the political finesse of a Gompers, that he appears not to be the “strong man” to guard the citadel of craft unionism against the new union members from the big, industries and to put down the “Reds”, greatly disturbs the heads of the craft groups and the reactionary elements in the Federation generally. They are not, however, going to jump from the frying pan into the fire if they can help it. Before they put Green out they must be sure that they have a better man to take his place. The only serious contender who has appeared is John L. Lewis, to whom more than any one else Green has owed his position thus far. It is quite possible that Lewis, who is nothing if not a clever and resourceful politician, on the one hand thinks that he can still use Green, and on the other hand may prefer to see Green further discredited by his failure to dispose of the numerous perplexing problems facing the Federation before he openly runs against him.

For militants and progressives the important point so far is that there is instability and conflict within the AF of L bureaucracy and that the leadership is not now able to dispose of opposition in an off-hand manner. Militants and progressives must take advantage of this condition and press the offensive. In no situation is this a time for retreat or compromise.

Above all, however, it is necessary to understand the real character of the present conflict in the AF of L officialdom. It is not a contest beween reactionaries and genuine progressives, between class collaborationists and advocates of class struggle. Leaders of the “opposition” are Lewis of the miners, Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers and Gorman of the United Textile Workers. Behind them are ranged the lesser officials in the unions led by them and in some of the other unions. These men are led to seek a new course for the Federation, of course, under the pressure of their rank and file who in turn suffer under the impact of the crisis. It does not follow that they are interested in leading the rank and file to victory in genuine struggles against employers; the exact opposite is in fact the case.

Lewis, Hillman and Company stand for efficiency and up-to-dateness in union administration; for “aggressive” organization work and strikes (if strikes are necessary as a “last resort”); for “industrial” or vertical unionism. Some of them openly advocate a Labor party; others are willing to play around with the idea. Their basic concept, however, is that of class collaboration and their strategic aim is to develop a kind of unionism which can effectively, from their and the employers’ point of view, carry on class collaboration under present conditions.

The unions in an earlier period, whether under Gompers’ or Green’s leadership, operated within the framework of the capitalist system. The idea was that unions must be there to bring pressure on the bosses who in the absence of them might take not only a “fair profit” but an unfair share which would result in the workers being deprived of a “fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”. Strikes might be resorted to on occasion in order to test out the relationship of forces. But eventually, and preferably sooner than later, a “bargain” was struck.

Now Lewis, Hillman and Company want to continue this game. But in the first place employers in the basic industries cannot get any results by dealing with craft unions. These do not “take care” of the mass of unskilled and semi-skilled workers who are most likely to make trouble for the employers. Unless, therefore, they can be provided with “industrial” unions which, having a semblance of independence from the employer, can more effectively keep workers in line than out-and-out company unions, these employers will resort to the latter and root out so-called independent unionism altogether. Lewis, Hillman and Company want the AF of L to build efficient vertical unions which can keep the workers in line and with which employers will make “collective bargains”.

Above all, these leaders are aware that in the present phase of capitalist development the government will intervene more and more extensively in industry, that it is in effect the administration as the agency of the employing class with which, via Labor Relations Boards, etc., the collective bargain must be made. Having no faith in the masses and no concept of class struggle against the government they are convinced that unions in the present period have no chance to exist at all save on government sufferance and indeed with positive government protection. They want to build, therefore, an AF of L which finally abandons the anti-government, “syndicalist” leanings of Gompers and the craft unionists, which makes itself useful to the government in preventing and settling strikes, and which consequently receives administration favors.

It will be recalled that the most enthusiastic defender of the NRA was the Lewis-Hillman outfit, that Lewis has obtained a “little NRA” for the coal industry (in exchange for repeated postponements of a strike struggle) and that Gorman is campaigning for a similar “little NRA” for the textile industry. On the other hand, Roosevelt’s support has been most consistently given to these same elements, a support which the administration could well afford to give in exchange for assistance in keeping down revolt in steel, automobiles, rubber, etc.

So far then from being progressive, the Lewis-Hillman outfit is to be more feared by progressives and militants today than the other elements in the AF of L leadership. The old-timers cannot possibly handle the situation any longer. Their bungling attempts are bound to play into the hands of the militants. Lewis, Hillman and Company are the agents of the capitalist class who might be able to fasten a class collaboration trade unionism on the masses generally and especially the membership of the new unions, for a period. That John L. Lewis in the face of his atrocious record in his own union and his present philosophy should today be thought of by many honest workers as a progressive and as the hope of the workers in the developing crisis is indeed ominous. When the Stalinist party today encourages or permits steel workers, teachers and others to think that in Lewis they may find a real ally who will help them in organizing campaigns or in defending trade union democracy, the CP is simply carrying out its job of undermining and betraying the mass organizations by new means suited to the new conditions.

The same holds good in relation to the Labor party question. Objectively, even when there is not direct collaboration, the CP encourages the Labor party propaganda of such figures as Dubinsky, Gorman, etc. It is represented as an evidence of progressivism in the AF of L. But in the first place, no matter what some of these men may say under the pressure of the restlessness of their own rank and file, they will not only not give real support but they will definitely sabotage any concrete steps for the building of a Labor party so long as the Roosevelt administration gives them any crumbs from its table, in other words, so long as liberal capitalists can make use of them. In the second place, if and when they do support a “Labor party” it will be when it is safely under their own control and on a social-patriotic, social-pacifist basis. Not to see and expose this is to sabotage the building of a genuine revolutionary party and therefore to sabotage political unification of the American workers on the only basis which can possibly lead to the solution of their problems.

Against Lewis-Hillman as much as against Green the progressives and militants in all the unions must build their forces on a program of class struggle, trade union democracy and genuine industrial unionism. As the AF of L convention will demonstrate, only the merest beginning has as yet been made in the building of such a Left wing. The recent developments, however, in the Local 574 situation in Minneapolis, in the automobile, teachers’ and rubber workers’ conventions, etc., demonstrate that a beginning has been made. As the economic crisis deepens and the threat of war draws nearer, the masses will be helpless and the unions will be crushed unless the work goes steadily and rapidly forward.

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