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The Dress Strike Settlement

Some Lessons the Left Wing Must Draw from It

(March 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 10 (Whole No. 106), 5 March 1932, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The New York dressmakers’ strike came to an end with the workers returning to practically the same conditions as before – that is, to the sweatshop. This was not because of the lack of a fighting spirit on their part. On the contrary. At a time of general working class acceptance of wage cuts without resistance, these dressmakers set a glorious example by walking out and bringing a considerable number of workers along from the unorganized shops. Their ranks were solid. But their officials of the dominant union, the International Ladies Garment Workers, were primarily concerned about not inconveniencing the jobbers and manufacturers. They themselves proved to the hilt our often repeated warning, not only to watch their declarations but also to watch their fingers signing new agreements. Yet it must be said: Above all, this strike demonstrated the disastrous weakness of a situation where workers are divided in struggle.

Inevitably this situation is reflected in the settlements made by both unions. The I.L.G.W., for example, agreed with the jobbers and inside manufacturers upon certain measures of when and how to fix prices of piece work, but without any guarantee of the demanded minimum price amounting to $1.10 per hour. The employers’ demand for a 10 per cent reorganization right was rejected, but still leaving provisions at their command for reduction of the working force at the end of the season. A certain form of union recognition is granted, but it amounts in this case to facilitate the ironing out of conflicts between the various strata of bosses. The jobbers association has agreed to confine their work to members of the contractors association. The union obtains the right to protest any working in the shops over and above the five day week, but even that is left for final decision of the impartial chairman. On a whole, no practical change from conditions before the past agreement expired, but leaving plenty of loopholes for further connivance between the employers and their union agents.

Did the Left wing forces in the industrial union fare better in regard to actual strike gains? In this situation that could hardly be expected. As a matter of fact it had to rest content with agreement obtained one by one in individual shops, generally speaking also on practically the same conditions as prevailed prior to the strike.

The Serious Weakness of Two Separate Strikes

Such is the balance sheet of another settled conflict in which the workers, again forming the battling ranks, became the mere object of maneuvers. Their grievances were identical. All were working in the same industry. Yet there were two strikes, called separately, conducted separately and settled separately despite the unity obtained on the picket lines. This could not be conducive to wringing great concessions from the bosses. That the industrial union – that is the Left wing – side of the fight was conducted in the name of a united front committee altered nothing but brought more confusion to the serious objectives of actual workers’ unity.

The actual situation in the New York dress shops is now, as before, one in which working conditions and piece work prices are practically the same in unorganized shops, in shops controlled by the I.L.G. and in shops under industrial union control. That, of course, is no great inducement for workers to organize. After all, to the rank and file the most telling argument for organization is one of conditions obtained by the union. That is true even for the dressmakers who have such a splendid fighting tradition. In the same measure it must also be emphatically stated that, while it cannot be expected that the Left wing industrial union, as a minority organization, can forge far ahead in gaining conditions, if it cannot at least advance a policy which stands out clearly as superior to that of the Right wing officialdom it forfeits its possibility of winning the masses. Mere propaganda for the Left wing position in its abstract sense is not sufficient. When it degenerates to pure and simple demagogy, as is now the case of the official party leadership of the industrial union, it becomes actually harmful, because the result is that the workers lose respect for the Left wing and lose confidence in its ability. Moreover, the gentlemen in charge of the I.L.G.W. are far more skilled in the art of demagogy and have proven alert in maintaining their hold upon the workers on that basis: In this strike the Left wing union, under immediate party direction, did not at all show superiority of policy or in leadership of struggle. Here was a plain problem: Workers of two organizations struggling against a common enemy, against conditions commonly abhorred and commonly hated. What was the burning need, if not that of common struggle and common working out of the immediate objectives in such a way to help frustrate sell-outs. This was a plain duty confronting the revolutionary party and the industrial union leadership.

What did the official party leadership propose? It established a shibboleth which it called the united front committee. It called upon the dressmakers to support this committee, informing them that they did not need to belong to either of the two unions. What argument is that for unionization? Is a substitute for either, or both of these two unions, what is needed? Obviously that could not be the need and ultimately it would negate the very right of the industrial union to exist.

The revolutionists among the needle trades workers must first of all tell them categorically that union organization is the vitally necessary instrument of struggle for their everyday needs. Next they must make clear what kind of union is required, certainly stressing the superiority of the industrial form. They must in actual practice help demonstrate the tactics of a militant policy as a substitution for the treacherous connivance with the employers. But the most powerful weapon of the revolutionary party remains the one of unification of the workers against the common enemy and against the treacherous influence of the yellow leaders. That, of course, would in its first step mean a united front of the two organizations and final trade union unity.

In some cases there is no other way out but by separate unions. That was so at the time of the formation of the industrial union. At the present time, however, the question of trade union unity looms as a serious one, and particularly in the needle trades. That at least should be a lesson from the strike.

Consequently the Left wing should urge the workers in the I.L.G.W. to remain there and to fight for unity. We do not propose this slogan of unity on the basis of whatever conditions the reactionary officials may desire to lay down. Not at all. It is a fighting slogan and implies a simultaneous fight for certain definite conditions. We do not propose unity merely in its abstract sense but for the attainment of specific working class objectives.

Despite the present situation of the sweatshop still obtaining in the garment industry future growth of the I.L.G.W. is not precluded. But with that also growth of the problems of this union for satisfaction of the demands of the workers. Certainly this implies possibilities of formation and growth of a Left wing within the union. With equally as much certainty we can also point to the prospects which are available for growth of the industrial union provided it proceeds correctly. To that can be added the general prospects of a developing workers’ resistance to the enemy onslaughts which is destined to assume real proportions for the future. From this must be concluded that on a whole the need and the possibilities for trade union unity of these organizations who are rivals today will increase. This contains a warning which must be heeded.

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