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A.J. Muste

Developments in the Needle Trades;
A Program for the Progressives

(25 January 1936)

From New Militant, Vol. II No. 4, 25 January 1936, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Developments are taking place in the needle trades unions which are in themselves important and are also in considerable measure typical of what is taking place or will in industry generally.

When we seek to understand trends in the union movement, we have first of all to examine industrial conditions and in particular the developments in the industry in which a given union operates. What, then, is taking place in the garment industry today? For reasons which space does not permit us to go into, but among which the National Recovery Act was not the only or even the most important one, the garment industry experienced a decided upturn in 1933–4. Cut-throat competition had in the closing days of the Hoover era resulted in such chaos that even the employers, at least important sections of them, were prepared to accept government “regulation” and to deal with unions in return for an opportunity to put prices up and maintain them at some level. Something like “prosperity” obtained for a couple of years.

The Changing Situation

Gradually, however, the scene has been shifting. In the general economy of the country the basis for genuine and lasting prosperity has not been laid. There is a huge army of unemployed. The wage level remains far below that of 1929. The market remains a restricted one for every industry. The upturn which has occurred, however, causes employers to be impatient of the slight restraints to which they were subjected in the early days of the Roosevelt administration. The N.R.A. is declared unconstitutional. Even in the garment industry where the nightmare of 1930–2 is not yet entirely forgotten and N.R.A. conditions are in considerable measure “voluntarily” maintained, competition becomes ever more severe.

The urge to break all bonds – move “out of town” in order to escape union wage rates, the policy of playing off an unlimited number of shoestring contractors against each other, etc. – becomes ever stronger. For the most part it does not yet take the form of direct and open cutting of wage rates or of a fight against the unions, but of resistance against any further concessions as to wages, hours and conditions and a steady pressure on union representatives in the shops to relax standards while formally the contract is maintained. The time when the employers will resort to the more extreme methods is probably not far distant, however.

Union Gains

The unions in the garment industry made huge gains in 1933–4.They were instrumental in lowering hours and raising wages from the depression level. The internal controversies which had rent the unions subsided, as they have a habit of doing in a period of growth and success. Even the Old Guard and the top bureaucracy were able to put up a plausible appearance of efficiency and progressivism. Were they not making demands on the employers and getting results? Witness, in another industry, John L. Lewis even before he openly launched his crusade for industrial unionism. (We are not speaking of the essential role played by Hillman, Dubinsky, et al. under the New Deal on which the New Militant has frequently stated its position.)

There was an immense amount of organizing, administrative and educational work to be done and the officials turned to young workers and intellectuals, Socialist party members, Lovestonites in the needle trades, etc. to assist; and the fact that these more politicalized workers could give militant talks to the workers and a militant collaboration to the union was an additional recommendation in the eyes of the officials. We were supposed to behaving a “revolution” under Roosevelt in 1933. On their part militants and progressives who did not hold a clear-cut and complete Marxist position (in more than name) found it fairly easy to keep their consciences quiet while not differentiating themselves from the top bureaucrats. There were workers to be enrolled, strikes to he organized. One could agitate for a labor party. Discussion over deeper implications of union policy would have to wait. Figures such as Zimmerman of Local 22, I.L.G.W.U. and others less prominent, became the administration in some of the local unions.

Test Yet to Come

We have pointed out that in the garment industry this is a transition period. The real test of the unions in the industry, and of the various elements in the unions has therefore not yet come. It will, when the employers go still further with abrogating the contract, in fact even if not in name, and presently demand substantial “concessions” in the contract itself and seek to wipe out the unions if they offer real opposition. Such a testing period these unions passed through after the war and post-war expansion, with what disastrous results for the workers is too well known. In such a period a well-organized progressive or left wing with a nucleus of revolutionary Marxists under the guidance and discipline of a revolutionary party, is needed.

Such a progressive movement does not exist in the needle trades today. We are as a matter of fact witnessing the disintegration of the old left wing forces and only the early beginnings of a new genuine left wing adapted to the needs of the coming period. The Stalinists and those under their influence are no longer a left-wing force, but rather an extremely conservative one. In not a few instances in the needle trades unions they ally themselves openly with the S.P. old guardists or even more reactionary elements. It is not necessary to dwell on the details. The dissipation of the left movement in the unions as a result of the insane policies pursued by the Stalinists over a period of years is, however, a factor that cannot be too strongly emphasized. The fact that it is possible for the Stalinists still to masquerade as “the real revolutionists” makes the situation more difficult. They will not fully expose themselves until the crisis in the industry and the unions is much further advanced than it is today.

A Hot-House Plant

The same holds true of the Lovestoneites, for example. The so-called progressive movement under their leadership by no means constitutes a dependable left-wing fighting force. It is a hot-house plant fostered by the union administration. It is not a rank and file movement born out of and hardened by the struggle over issues. For the present the Lovestoneite union officials can still obscure and evade the issues. But when the conditions in the trade worsen and employers demand real and open concessions from the unions, and the Hillmans and Dubinskys are prepared as ever to help the employers “save the industry,” then they will be unable to equivocate successfully, to work hand in glove with the top bureaucrats and at the same time pose as “progressives” and “Bolsheviks.” And when we observe that already Lovestoneite officials such as Zimmerman find it necessary to go out of their way to seek to combat the still weak forces of the Workers Party in the needle trades, we get an inkling of the course they will then take.

The fact that this is such a transition period as we have sketched accounts for the utterly confused picture presented by the various“groups” and “clubs” in the needle trades unions and the maneuvers in which they are engaging. It largely accounts also for the extent to which the members in these unions are impressed by the Stalinist proposals for unifying groups, even though this often takes the form of unification with out-and-out right-wing machine “clubs” and even on occasion the proposal that “there ought to be no groups in the union at all” which in practice always means that there be no organized force opposed to the union “machine!” The members sense that something is wrong; they feel vaguely that danger threatens. But the issues are not yet sharply defined. It must be, they feel, that there are “too many groups”; let us have“unity.”

No one can lay down a set of simple rules which can be applied in every specific case in this confused situation. There are, however, a few guiding ideas for the activity of the genuine progressives in this period.

Guiding Ideas for Progressives

  1. It must be frankly recognized that this is a transition period. Confusion, inability to make rapid headway, and so on, must not induce discouragement or impatience.
  2. The desire of the workers for unity cannot of course be met with a negative, head-on attack. Progressives themselves must, however, not fall into the notion that the real left wing is going to be built by an attempt to fuse heterogeneous elements on any or no program. So far as possible they must wean the workers away from illusions and sentimentality about “unity in the abstract.
  3. As a general thing unity with Stalinist “rank and file” groups is not a progressive step. What is progressive is to expose the role the Stalinists are playing – their capitulation to the S.P. old guard, the union right wingers, their reactionary proposals of “no groups in the union”, etc. United action for specific ends to test out the genuineness of unity proposals may be resorted to. If in a given local union merger with such a group is the only way to break up the old situation and toward developing a genuine left wing, progressives must take the step in awareness of its meaning, must not regard merger as the end, as good in itself, and they must so far as possible disabuse the membership of illusions.
  4. Finally, a genuine left-progressive movement is built upon issues. The issues will emerge ever more sharply. Then the various tendencies and elements in the unions will appear in their true colors. Since a new left wing must be built on the basis of a program, those advanced workers who constitute the nucleus of that left wing must already begin to differentiate themselves in the eyes of the members from others, to become the exponents of issues as they arise, to show themselves as militant and responsible leaders in the shops, so that as the conflict deepens the members may know to whom to turn.

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