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Arne Swabeck

A.F.L. and 6-Hour Day

Cincinnati Convention Shows Left Wing Opportunities

(December 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 50, 17 December 1932, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The present storm and stress of the capitalist economic system begins to leave an indelible imprint upon the American Federation of Labor. It has produced a new view, which is advanced under pressure and solely for the record. In this respect the four years from the end of bourgeois prosperity to the present day widespread destitution and starvation, record a change of front on the key problem of unemployment. It is graphically illustrated in the last four annual conventions.

At the Toronto convention, in 1929, there gathered a galaxy of labor skates gaily partaking of the coveted liquid stream which flows so freely across the border. Their main subject of conversation, outside of the monotonous convention routine, was the latest quotations on the stock exchange. At Boston in 1930, some rumblings of dissatisfaction were audible; but the gathering denounced any schemes of unemployment insurance in customary reactionary terms. At Vancouver, in 1931, the rumblings became almost a storm; but the gathering remained adamant and only the phrase became radicalized. At Cincinnati, during the last couple of weeks, the delegates were compelled to debate serious issue and the convention adopted a policy of favoring unemployment insurance.

This change, of course, is not so sweeping when we consider the acuteness of the present crisis and the millions out of work. Moreover the view of the A.F. of L. leadership of the measure is purely a parliamentary legislative one. It is not so much its proposed scheme of insurance upon a state basis, although it absolves the federal government from responsibility, which is important. No, it is rather the fact that these officials can now foresee the possibility of capitalism actually being compelled to accede to a measure of unemployment insurance. They therefore found it necessary to give allegiance, at least in words. And what with the traditional A.F. of L. “non-partisan” political policy – which objectively is partisan to capitalism – as a legislative proposal only it can mean nothing but a continuation of begging capitalist politicians for favors. The working class, however, from a long range perspective, is confronted not only with the question of the necessity of obtaining this measure, it is confronted much more definitely with the question of strengthening its class position in the struggle for this immediate objective.

Toward Social Reformism

That the official A.F. of L. direction is making a bend toward social reformism is only further substantiated by the fact that the Cincinnati convention also went on record against the sales tax. It was branded as a device to soak the poor and then tor good measure the convention went on record to soak the rich by a proposal for increased income and inheritance taxation. But that this bend is essentially with the objective of more effective opposition to the advance of Communism was very well attested to in the unanimous greeting of the remarks of the American Legion national commander before the convention. He proclaimed that the Legion and the A.F. of L. would have to do the bulk of the fighting against Communism.

In this connection it is necessary again to examine the approach of the official party leadership to the trade unions on the question of relief measures for the unemployed. In that respect, the same as in regard to the general working class problems, it has proven true to its Centrist position. It has sown confusion and harm, combining the adventurists policy of isolation from the unions with a lagging behind, dragged at the rear of events. The party leadership did not approach the unions as living organisms, subject to changes dictated by the economic structure within which they function. The party leadership did not at all press forward endeavoring to take its part in determining and speeding the direction of the change. When it should have been pressing relentlessly upon the A.F. of L. and its leadership for a united struggle for unemployment relief, it continued the opposite course of seeking to withdraw these activities from the unions. Today when the party should be in the midst of building up strong Left wing groups within the A.F. of L. in preparation for the coming serious battles, it is still way behind, agitating from the outside in a manner which widens the separation of the vanguard from the trade unions. Meanwhile, this has facilitated the efforts of the A.F. of L. officialdom to again reinforce its position of domination over the rank and file membership by giving paper allegiance to progressive measures.

Are There Signs of Coming Struggles?

Outstanding today is the fact of the general trade union retreat in face of wage cuts, all along the line. Practically throughout, the officials have been the most active sponsors for acceptance on the general plea of hard times for industry and easy replacement of labor. But within the general retreat there are sufficient indications of what is coming. It is established by the fact of union membership refusal to accept wage cuts and strikes despite the easy conditions of labor replacement, as well as by the fact of oppositions crystallizing against attempted official sell-outs. Throughout the southern textile fields there have been during the recent months a wave of strikes against the inhuman conditions under which unskilled workers reach as low as $5.00 weekly wages. Thus while labor it still cheap in the south, the additional bourbon boast of it being contented definitely belongs to the past.

Undoubtedly the officialdom considers as a bad omen certain rumblings of revolt amongst unions of the skilled crafts. Therefore they feel the necessity of stepping a little livelier. In the New York Typographical local, the “Big Six,” very strong opposition developed to the international president Howard’s proposal to accept a wage cut. In the big electricians’ local [a] number refused to accept a wage cut sponsored by the officials. And to register their opposition further they carried through to victory their fight against the reactionary local machine of president Frank Wilson, despite its support from the international office. But largest of all is looming on the horizon of future indications the revolt of the Illinois coal miners.

These manifestations are small but they point to much more serious clashes with the continuing wage cuts and the ever more persistent demands from the employers for new and additional cuts. The large centralized banking corporations not only make these demands in more definite terms upon the interlocking industrial concerns but they also press the government into action, from the federal down to the municipalities. Hoover has already responded, setting an example in his message to congress, advocating a wage cut for all federal employees down to the lowest brackets, where it hits the hardest, to those earning $1,000 yearly.

The Six Hour Day Slogan

We have often repeated the contention that as a means of issuing out of the crisis the American capitalists will resort to further lowering of living. The proof of this contention is at hand. This proof forms a part of our conclusion of coming: serious struggles. And it is important to remember, that, though yet in retreat, the American workers have not been defeated. On the contrary. They can fully be depended upon to put their strength to the test in battle. It is in this connection that real attention must be paid to the proposal adopted by the A.F. of L. convention for the six hour day, the five day week, without reduction of pay.

As already mentioned, the resolutions adopted are only a paper allegiance so far as the reactionary leaders are concerned. Towards them it is necessary to be more vigilant and more watchful than ever. Not only to watch their resolutions but also to watch their fingers. Yet the resolution is of enormous importance both in respect to the condition which called for its adoption and in respect to the opportunity it offers. There is the possibility of making it a real live slogan, of making it a central slogan which will help to turn the workers’ retreat into its opposite, into the direction of the offensive. From this we can begin to perceive the enormous significance of this slogan from the standpoint of class relations, that is when this slogan is really taken up seriously and actively and pressed forward by the revolutionists and militants.

Even in what is indicated by the acceptance of the six hour day at Cincinnati, and despite how little it is taken serious by its sponsors, there is nevertheless a powerful substantiation of the correctness of the Left Opposition in proposing it as a central slogan. But what will it mean to the Stalinist leaders of the official party? Will, they insist that the A.F. of L. bureaucrats should make a little step backward and give lip service instead to a proposal for the seven hour day? It would be inconceivable to think that the party leaders should not want to have the trade unions adopt their slogans. The chief “theoretician,” Browder, last year, in arguing against our advocacy of the six hour day slogan, said that as against that the slogan for the seven hour day leads in the direction of the “revolutionary working class solution” of the unemployment problem. But why there is such a distinction, he failed entirely to make clear. And the reason is because it cannot be made clear. It cannot be defended any more than the general false Stalinist views of policy for the revolutionary and working class movement can be defended.

But the Stalinist party leaders have made the additional mistake of obscuring the shorter workday proposal in its present program of immediate demands. Is that accidental, or is that a part of their general failure to pursue a strategy in which the slogans of today become preparations for the struggles of tomorrow? Are they content to leave that field entirely to the whims of reactionary trade union leaders and the social reformists? Are they content to let that slogan rest in Green’s hands? That That would mean leaving it in the hands of the agents of the class enemy.

Green spoke strong words in its favor at the Cincinnati convention. He spoke for strikes to secure this measure. Other worthies seconded him. Is it then not time now to begin to call them to the test in action before the working class whom they are supposed to lead? The method by which to do this is through the building of a Left wing movement within the A.F. of L. The very least that this A.F. of L. convention action should call for from the Communists is to undertake now and in earnest the task of arousing the labor movement as a whole to an actual struggle for the six hour day, the five day week, with no reduction of pay.

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