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Arne Swabeck

Two Events in the Labor Movement

The Railroad Brotherhoods Meet

(December 1930)

From The Militant, Vol. III No. 34, 1 December 1930, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Recently two events, little known and little noticed, have rendered splendid proof of increasing unemployment pressure by the rank and file, at least within certain sections of the trade union movement, to the point where some officials have felt compelled to endeavor to get into some sort of motion so as to stave off what they consider “something worse.” They have, of course, been entirely overshadowed by the din of the noisy charity campaigns to which capitalism has resorted in every city. But they grew from the same cause, the unemployment crisis, and likewise materialized because of the fear of real working class action.

The Railroad Conference

The first event was the national conference of some seven hundred general chairmen and executive officers of the five railroad transportation brotherhoods, the Engineers, Firemen, Conductors, Trainmen, and Switchmen, convening in Chicago on Nov. 12 at the fashionable Palmer House, in the gorgeous main ball room, for a two weeks’ session to consider the six-hour day. The second event was the meeting of the Chicago Federation of Labor, Nov. 16th, adopting a resolution for the shorter workday for all federal employees.

The Palmer House gathering had a good proportion of paid officials, though some were specially elected delegates, more than fifty per cent being actual workers. It came about entirely as a result of the growing pressure from below, from among the railroad workers for relief in the present heavy unemployment situation. At the inception, the conference selected a committee of 25, representing equally all the five trades present, to work out a program of action. This committee submitted a majority and a minority report. The majority report, which is most significant, recommended a campaign for the six-hour day, without any reduction in the day’s pay, to be obtained by all organizational measures possible, tho not the strike weapon. It had the backing of the Firemen, Trainmen and Switchmen. But during the days of sharp debate the representatives of the Engineers and Conductors absolutely refused to go along with this program and instead backed the minority report which provided for a request that President Hoover call the railroad executives, financiers, and bondholders together and endeavor to have them stop their present drastic retrenchment and lay-off policy.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune appeared with editorials paying some pious attention to the stress of the railroad workers but admonishing them not to help tax the industry out of business and thus “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” The railroad executives also managed, opportunely enough, to make their big splurge about an allegedly new policy of “maintaining and expanding” present employment on the roads, which will eventually turn into the opposite, like all the other “golden” promises. Evidently it helped. On the last day of the conference the five brotherhood presidents, always eager for a compromise and the eradication of class lines, threw themselves into the breach of the sharp differences, proposing that all agree to unite on first trying out the minority plan of appeal to Hoover before the majority project of eventual strike is to be further considered. It carried.

The resolution adopted by the Chicago Federation of Labor states that industry is paralyzed, commerce is bankrupt, unemployment is growing due to increased mass production, a situation which can be met only by the palliative measure of reduction of working hours without reduction in the standard of living. It calls attention to the more than one million federal employees working as high as twelve hours a day and places this as a direct government responsibility. From this it proceeds to petition the A.F. of L. to urge President Hoover to proclaim the shorter workday and shorter work week in all governmental employment, national, state and local, adding that this is not a radical measure but a “hope to inspire confidence in government, respect for law,” etc.

“The Capitalist System is Shot”

The animated discussion, lasting a whole session, brought out much sharp criticism of the utter failure of the A.F. of L. executives, conservative delegates exclaiming: “The capitalist system is shot, if we don’t do something, somebody else will.” Others piped up: “Yes, now we are all radicals and revolutionists” but put heavy emphasis on labor party ballots. Throughout, a sharp undercurrent of pressure, with its reaction, some cunningly contemplating, others merely hesitant, some willingly, but above all a fear of real working class action.

What the actual results will be of the railroaders appeal or of an A.F. of L. request to Hoover for either proposals need not be the least in doubt. Designed purely to prevent what has been named “something worse”, it will mean for those workers who may cherish hopes, only new disappointments, but also added experience. Nevertheless, these manifestations of pressure of discontent from the masses and the slight response, no matter what the motive or design of the latter, is significant. It points but further to the beginning of the upward curve of working class struggle tn the United States. It also propounds again, rather forcefully, the question of just what part can and must the demand for a shorter workday without reduction in pay play in revolutionary unemployment tactics.

* * *

It is imperative that the tactics of the revolutionary forces at all times correspond closely to the level and to every stage of development of objective conditions, and be in harmony with the readiness of the subjective factors, becoming sharper and bolder with the rise of the level. In this instance, it means the development of the economic crisis and the readiness for struggle of the working class in general and its unemployed section in particular. The curve has been continually downward. The crisis has moved step by step to greater severity, greater unemployment and, at the end of 1930, is still moving in that direction. Unquestionably, general discontent is spreading among the working masses suffering the wants of unemployment with wage cuts and more speed-up for those having jobs. No let up in the capitalist offensive but the workers’ discontent so far expressed, in its political sense, is chiefly in the “stupendous” step from the republican to the democratic party. These demands for the shorter workday without reduction in pay are the early signs of their pressure showing concrete manifestations.

The Party’s Tactics

The exact opposite of corresponding with these developments have been the unemployment tactics pursued by the Communist Party leadership. It started from the top and coming downward, not increasing in boldness or sharpening its line, but modifying it, turning to the Right and losing its revolutionary basis. The very beginning was made with the organization of unemployment councils – without preparations, without mass propaganda, without mass basis but voluminous in demands. Next came the concentration on the social insurance bill (purely a parliamentary proposal, of the kind which will most likely not even reach parliament and thus at best be able to move workers only toward a social reformist direction). The third step has now been reached in the complacent settling down to collecting signatures for this bill.

The mass propaganda, which should have preceded organization, was neglected. The councils did not grow out of a movement, did not represent the unemployed, could not gain their adherence and have remained for all practical purposes almost non-existent. The party proceeded from the premise, of a “revolutionary upsurge of the American working masses” and was stunned by the Democratic landslide. Will it now jump back and endeavor to fill the gap; when there should be a sharpening of its line and a greater balance?

Much of the necessary mass propaganda and preparation must, still be done. Correct issues, demands and slogans are still to be formulated and undoubtedly the demand for the six-hour day with no reduction in pay can become a powerful lever to help set the masses into motion. A concentrated propaganda campaign now could soon lead to the organizational steps and become real preparations for the coming stage of working class offensive.

* * *

It is well, in this connection, to remember the great movement for the eight-hour day of the Eighties. Following upon a decade of unexampled growth and expansion of industry and immediately upon the heels of a severe economic crisis – very similar to the present moment – it became a sharp offensive struggle immensely advancing the working class movement of those days. The Chicago revolutionists, the Haymarket martyrs – commonly dubbed anarchists – showed their ability to turn this eight-hour day demand into something more than just a reform measure. They gave it militant content and made it an integral part of the general struggle against the capitalist system.

There is much for us to learn from this.

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