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A.J. Muste

The Problem in Akron

(30 May 1936)

From New Militant, Vol. II No. 21, 30 May 1936, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Several “sit-down” strikes have occurred recently in the Akron rubber plants including the Goodyear where a great strike came to an end only two months ago. Last Saturday thirty-one militants of Plant Two of Goodyear were suddenly rounded up on charges of rioting in connection with one of these “sit-downs”. What is behind these turbulent developments?

As readers of the New Militant will recall, the “settlement” which marked the end of the Goodyear strike was by no means fully satisfactory to the workers. For one thing, the demand that the Goodyear company union be abolished, or at least that the company definitely agree no longer to finance it, was not achieved. Thus the workers went back partly as union men, a minority as company union men. Now no situation where a real union and a company union exists side by side can possibly be a static one. The employer immediately resorts to direct or indirect methods to undermine the union. The union men, unless they are prepared to lose the ground which they have won in their strike struggle, must work to win over or eliminate non-union or anti-union workers. The fight is invariably transferred from the picket line to the plant. In this case the conflict is peculiarly sharp, because the men have maintained at top pitch the militancy which they displayed during the strike at Goodyear, the other big companies, and the employers in the basic industries generally are well aware that if the rubber union actually establishes itself, the movement in steel and automobiles will receive a tremendous impetus.

Conditions Still Bad

If there was a particle of ground left for the assertion that the “settlement” of March 21st effected even a partial adjustment of basic problems, that particle is now removed. Even the capitalist press admits this. The Cleveland Press, for example, stated the other day: “Impartial observers say that in reality conditions in Akron are as bad as ever. They point to the frequent sit-down strikes in recent weeks as showing dissatisfaction in the ranks of the workers. Thus the use of company union pace-setters for speed-up purposes continues. In at least one department recently an attempt was made to increase hours without first taking a vote as provided in the strike settlement. Attempts to lay off union men continue though in each instance the militancy of the workers has thwarted them. The general fear of excessive lay-offs when the slack season comes, induced by the abolition of the thirty-hour week by the companies and the failure to get it restored by the strike, continues to dominate the thinking of the men.

Since production in rubber is still at a high level and in view of the automobile production level seems likely to continue for some weeks, the highly provocative acts of the company against union men present on the surface a puzzle. The most likely explanation is this. Though the company probably desires uninterrupted production at the moment, it cannot afford to appear supine and weak in face of the aggressiveness of the union men who in a recent sit-down practically took entire control of one of the Goodyear plants. Such a show of weakness would be certain to lead the men to begin the general strike against the large rubber firms to gain the genuine recognition and other demands which they failed to get in the strike settlement. Such a strike may also come if the company’s attitude is hard boiled. In fact provocative measures carted beyond a certain point would certainly precipitate a strike. Thus the company will try to pursue a middle course until the main drive for production is over and an inventory is piled up when it may institute a lockout or answer a strike with a complete shut down for a considerable period.

A shut-down in the fall might be regarded as injurious to the Roosevelt election campaign and the big industrialists are trying to push Roosevelt still further to the right by such measures. It must be borne in mind also that the Supreme Court’s decision on the Guffey Case threatening also the National Labor Relations Board, etc., is an open invitation to employers to take the offensive against the unions.

In the present Akron situation, charged with dynamite as it is, timorous and reactionary union officials will seek to curb and repress the magnificent militancy of the workers. Nothing could be worse. In a hit or miss, undirected use of the “sit-down” there is danger. The company might provoke such demonstrations to rouse the public prejudice against the workers, etc. But the militancy which will not tolerate employer injustice and insolence must be organized – not repressed. To company wails that the workers are interfering with production, the union can answer that corporations which refuse to recognize unions and to set up machinery for prompt adjustment of grievances are inviting trouble and ought to get it, since the alternative is submission and slavery for the workers.

The problem will not be solved, however, by the kind of agreement between the union and the employer which apparently “recognizes” the union but actually “recognizes” the union officialdom as agents for carrying on class collaboration with the employers. Not outward forms but the content and essence count in the matter of union agreements.

The basic fear of the Akron workers is layoffs, i.e. insecurity. The basic demand of the union is for no layoffs, the restoration of the normal thirty-hour week and reduction of hours to an even lower point in the slack season. That will mean job security. And that will lay the basis for confidence among the workers on which militancy can be permanently sustained.

The workers of Akron look to the leadership of the Rubber Workers Union and of the C.I.O. to advance toward that goal. What is their answer?

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