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Arne Swabeck

The Industrial Situation

(September 1929)

From The Militant, Vol. II No. 14, 15 September 1929, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ever more the strike movements give evidence of working class exasperation from deep seated grievances, of rebellion against the increased class pressure in industry. They foreshadow the trend of the American workers toward a more definite class position and toward a class movement. They indicate the great possibilities becoming available for militant unionism.

The Textile Workers

Naturally the struggles of the workers in the Southern territory command the major attention. A newly developed industrial proletariat in rebellion against the rapidly established capitalist trustified industry, with its intense exploitation, is of the greatest significance. Not only are the unorganized textile workers, engaging in this revolt, but even members of such conservative craft unions as the streetcarmen of New Orleans go into action against the employers with organization sentiment ripening amongst the workers everywhere in these states.

The shameful sell-out by the officials of the United Textile Workers Union of the strikers of Elizabethton, Tenn., is not the end there. These workers will again take up the fight. In the other little Southern mill towns spontaneous strikes of the unorganized workers occur almost continually. The most militant fight has unquestionably been made by the Gastonia workers under the leadership of the National Textile Workers Union. But for the time being the mill barons have succeeded through the celebrated murder frame-up tactics of American capitalism in putting the movement on the defensive. But the misery of the workers increases their deep-rooted discontent grows and it will be a matter only of time when they will again be able to resume the offensive. With united support of the American working class that day will arrive so much sooner.

It is unquestionably due to this aggressive, militant struggle led by the Communists at Gastonia, combined with the ruthless pressure upon the workers by the mill bosses that the officials of the United Textile Workers have decided to exploit the growing union sentiment in its announced intention to carry on an organization campaign throughout the Southern states. But their actual efforts, as already demonstrated in the Elizabethton betrayal, will be to lead this sentiment into channels safe for capitalism.

On the Railroads

Among the railroad workers growing militancy has been demonstrated of recent date in determined rank and file votes for strike to adjust their grievances. Held back however, by conservative craft prejudices and class collaboration practices nothing has so far gone beyond the usual procedure of arbitration. Yet the demand made by the railroad brotherhoods for the six hour day can only be ascribed to the increasing pressure of the rank and file upon the officialdom. Reasons for this pressure can easily be found in the fact that during the last eight years the combined roads of the country have cut their working force by 180,000 men; that in 1928 the total payroll was 90 million dollars below that of 1927 with an increase in profits of 108 million dollars; in the further fact of the corresponding heavy increase of speed-up, loss of union conditions, governmental action to defeat the workers and the general failure of the union leadership.

In the general working class condition the picture is a similar one, however, with the exploitation of the large masses of unskilled workers being much more intense. The U.S. department of labor reports that in 1928 there were fewer factory jobs than in any previous year since 1921 while payroll totals reached the lowest level since 1924. The reduction in the employment average since 1923, shown by the department, represent loss of jobs to more than 1,000,000 workers.

Building and Automobiles

Building activities according to the Commercial and Financial Chronicle in a report, covering 354 of the largest cities shows a decline for 1928 compared to 1925 of $878,477,171 or about 20 percent. In addition the workers are faced with a rapid mechanization of the industry with machinery replacing labor and hand-tools, all of the material used being entirely finished in the factories mostly under non-union conditions. Thus even the privileged position of these skilled workers divided by craft prejudices, craft union barriers and reactionary corrupt leadership is being threatened, compelling an orientation towards new methods and forms of struggle.

It is understandable that the capitalist institutions view with considerable concern the “uncertain” situation in the automobile industry. In Detroit the per capita earnings of the auto workers decreased 8.5 per cent during 1928. Men over 45 years of age can find no jobs, unemployment is growing, layoffs and hiring at lower wages has become routine. Speedup is constantly increasing; among the workers discontent is spreading and is manifested in repeated strikes and growing sentiment for organization. In the latest report of the Student Industrial Commission we find a summary of these conditions as follows:

“With all these shop strikes before us; with all this boiling indignation bursting on our ears; with men in discontented mobs gathering before factory employment offices, we see no other alternative than unionism. Human nature will stand just so much, then it breaks over the dams and overflows. One day this is going to happen in Detroit.”

With the same tempo of these developments the trade union bureaucrats in general are moving constantly in the opposite direction, further to the right. They are proceeding to more bitter denunciations of militant tactics and of the Communists, increasing their betrayals and strengthening the fortifications of the capitalist system. Just now when the Gastonia strike leaders are facing framed up murder charges and execution the A.F. of L. Executive Council is again broadcasting its “warnings” to the affiliated unions not to give any money to “such Communistic organizations” as the I.L.D., the W.I.R. and the National Textile Workers Union, condemning with the Communists also the “Conference for Progressive Labor Action”. This becomes so much more brazenly reactionary in view of the fact that the Southern struggles involve not merely the right to strike under Communist leadership but the right of any and all strikes, of any and all workers organization.

But it is not merely the budding Southern industrial oligarchy which pursues such savage methods of repression against its unorganized workers. At the almost opposite end of the pole, among the craft conservative building trades workers, we saw this Spring the threat of a lockout by the employers against the whole of the building trades of New York, directed mainly against their struggle for the five day week, a threat which is sure to be renewed at a more “opportune” time.

The Ripening Movement

Thus the objective possibilities, the response to which can be noted both among the unorganized masses of workers as well as those within the trade unions, are slowly ripening for the building of a class movement of the American workers. The surest signs appear in the moves of the heavily exploited section of the workers in the basic industries. To unite these beginning struggles and give them organized expression is the particular task of the left wing. There is no other force able to lead and inaugurate the movement for building of new unions of the unorganized workers and to crash through the barriers of craft conservatism and capitalist ideology among the masses in the unions, winning them for class policies. To us this is axiomatic. To the working class, however, it must be proven and false steps will lead to isolation instead of broadening and increasing of the left influence.

The present policies pursued by the Party and the T.U.E.L. represent such false steps. The contradictions of these policies are already appearing. Thus the force of events has already compelled a certain modification of the original policy for the “Cleveland Unity Congress” away from the building of a center in the sense of a new trade union federation and more toward the correct attitude of building a left center as an organizing instrument. But they have not yet changed the “new line”.

The “New Line” and Leninism

This “new line”, non-Marxian and non-Leninist in conception, leads to splitting and the isolation of the small left wing and its followers as is now actually the result where the left wing appears today. Refusal to “draw these masses, now just awakening to the need for organization and struggle, into the A.F. of L.” Refusal to “try to affiliate them collectively through the new unions to the A.F. of L.”, separating the left wing from the now appearing progressive movement which, no matter how vacillating and spineless the leaders, nevertheless represents pressure from below as well as commands a following. In reality the “new line” means to withdraw entirely from the existing unions despite all protestations to the contrary.

With the masses awakening, the role of the existing unions having a mass basis will be of so much more importance no matter how reactionary their leadership. To direct this awakening toward the building of a class movement the left wing must work among the masses everywhere and closely co-ordinate its work within the old unions with that among the unorganized workers. Only when going hand in hand can it succeed.

Moreover, only through a broad united front organized with all forces ready to work toward a class movement – for militant unionism, exposing and fighting bitterly all self-seeking phrase-mongering aspirants to leadership, can the left wing become a real factor and prove its worth and capacity for leadership to the. masses. But this is the opposite of the present Stalinist “new line” – this is the Leninist line.

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