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Arne Swabeck

A.F.L. Convention Talks “Radical”

Labor Discontent Forces Lip-Service to Left Measures

(December 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 49, 3 December 1932, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Two measures of great significance were adopted at the American Federation of Labor convention just concluded at Cincinnati, Ohio. It went on record for the universal adoption, without delay, of the six-hour day and five-day week, to carry with it no reduction in pay. It indorsed with only five dissenting votes, the proposal for compulsory unemployment insurance, to be inaugurated by the various states, at the cost of the owners of industry by assessing the amount of 3 percent of their total payroll. Here we have a reversal of positions formerly held, particularly in regard to the latter proposal, with a speed which left this assemblage of portly gentlemen gasping at their own audacity.

Is A.F. of L. Leadership Turning Left

This presents a picture to our imagination of superannuated troglodytes who, when coming out from their ultra-conservative dug-out, are struck by the impact of a superior force and begin to march at a pace which leaves their whole past in the shade. The question immediately occurs to us: Is the A.F. of L leadership turning Leftward? The answer, which is an emphatic NO, must, to be complete, cover several important aspects of the present situation; but it can nevertheless be summed up under the general heading: “mass pressure”. Only, and that should never be forgotten, these labor “leaders”, when they move forward a few inches at a time, always in doing so, lag way behind the masses.

Basically we are confronted here with the question of the changing economic structure of capitalist society in its decay stage. This is beginning to leave its marks also in the United States. We have here an army of millions of unemployed the permanent aspect of which cannot escape even the trade union upper crust. Conditions have become rotten ripe for such measures as those accepted by the A.F. of L. convention. The historic significance lies not in the fact that they were accepted at this time. It lies in the fact that they could be accepted at all in this gathering in which a genuine rank and file worker would have as little chance of getting in as the proverbial snowball in hell.

These gentlemen have been used to think that the “dole” was a sad plight of Europe alone. They denounced it at their last convention held in Vancouver a year ago. They labelled it “unAmerican”. They have always held that the Amsterdam international was too radical. But in time they will even find out that revolutionary struggles are not confined to Europe. And that will likely dawn upon them much quicker than the snails pace at which they themselves move.

Essentially their fear of the masses moving Leftward is a genuine one and compels them to move. In this sense they see the handwriting on the wall. The repercussion of the capitalist crisis has already created considerable havoc within the union ranks. There is a marked and ominous loss of membership. Whole unions have been almost wiped out under the capitalist offensive. Many members were unable to meet the inflexibly heavy financial obligations imposed by the trade union bureaucracy. Many others left in utter disgust seeing none of the working class interests protected and becoming victims of countless sell-outs. The bureaucrats fear a situation of lean treasuries. They have had to face incipient revolts in many unions against their offhand wage-cut acceptances. They have witnessed militant hunger demonstrations which by the way could often have been bigger and much more powerful if the Stalinist leaders could relent from their blind stupidity and adopt the united front policy. There is no reason to doubt that these essentially reactionary trade union leaders understand quite well how to judge the latent forces yet dormant within the American working class which is, however, potential material for the revolutionary movement once properly aroused and properly directed.

The Fear for Safety of Capitalism

But this is only the one side of the picture. On the other hand the fear of these capitalist lieutenants for the safety of the capitalist system itself is undoubtedly equally as genuine. To them the question presents itself also in the form of a grievance. How can they lead the organized workers within “safe” channels so long as tie employers insist upon what they consider a too heavy price of wage cutting – too heavy because the workers appear to become unwilling to accept? They still remember the editorial in the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain three years ago, at the time of the Toronto convention. That editorial gave them a gentle slap: “You self-complacent officers are too easy in your swivel chairs while the job of organizing the workers in the South is left to the Communists. You must assert your leadership.” They then smarted under the sting. And now, although this is likely going considerably beyond the scope of the advice of that editorial, the swivel chair artists are aiming to show leadership in order to regain their previous position of being able to force concessions from capitalism sufficient to become again the trusted and well-rewarded lieutenants. That this can be fully substantiated there need be no doubt and it would be dangerous to fall into any illusions whatever as to anything else being expected from them.

Even the most sketchy analysis will easily bear this out. For example, the main sponsor of the unemployment insurance proposal was John L. Lewis. The very one who has long ago solved his own problem of security – crisis or no crisis. By his one-time first lieutenant, Frank Farrington, he was accused – and there would be little reason to disbelieve the accusation – of having accepted $100,000 from the Kentucky coal mining interests to keep that field working during the miners national strike of 1922. He was accused of having received $650,000 from the Harriman bank of New York for services rendered in Pennsylvania during that same strike when 60,000 Fayette and Somerset county miners found themselves betrayed and their new budding organization destroyed. He now more particularly feels the sting of the most recent revolt in Illinois where 30 to 40,000 miners have definitely parted with his wrecking policies and taken the direction of the Progressive Miners Union. Surely he has reason to make an attempt at staging a comeback and he will have not the slightest scruples in making it apparently via the progressive route. Even Matthew Woll, the chairman of the convention resolution committee, to whom no red-baiting method is too debasing and no ambition too elevated, just as long it gives him publicity, was “won” for the proposal. Not to forget Victor A. Olander, the secretary of the resolutions committee, often named the statesman of labor because of his ability to give a kind of lofty theoretical interpretation to the base position of serving capital within labors’ ranks, also was “won” for the proposal.

All have become “convinced” that drastic steps are required by the present unemployment situation. Undoubtedly they feel that they have been let down by their benefactors and are animated by the zeal of a “just” grievance. The New York Times quotes Green as hinting “force” at the A.F. of L. convention to get the shorter week. Yes he did speak very radically when he exclaimed:

“We say that we are going to strike for this great economic reform. Just as the carpenters led the fight for the eight-hour day, so the time has come for some militant union to lead the fight for the shorter work-day and work-week. I and my associates on the executive council are going to find a way out even though we may be compelled to resort to forcible methods to compel industry to yield. We will not be denied the realization of this great reform. It will be given to us in response to reason or we will secure it through force of some kind.”

Thus spoke the pious Baptist Green, but we are sure that we get a much better picture of him from one of his typical statements appearing in the Federationist of June 1931. He said:

“As depression has laid its paralyzing hand on the business of the world, bringing catastrophe to a quarter of a million of people, we look to gatherings of captains of finance and leaders of industry to find the way out.”

The Real Green

We still remember Green in his true role pledging at the Hoover conference, during the early part of the crisis, that there would be no strikes during this period of economic stress. We remember him speaking at West Point, close to that time, giving what was tantamount to a pledge of labors’ docile readiness for the next war. While there has been a change in phraseology, has there been any change in essence since that time? Hardly.

The old heads, if such a distinction can be made in the convention corridors, deplored the actions taken by the delegates. They were more intransigently standpat and could not see the reason for indulging in the luxury of such a modern maneuver. Listen to the argument of Furuseth, who by his own powers, guarded as the rock of ages, has succeeded in reducing the International Seamen’s Union to a mere shell. He exclaimed: “The insurance proposal will make out of a free man a pledging beggar who must go for his food to others.” Well, is that not already the position which he has helped the members of his own union so excellently to arrive at? Howard of the International Typographical Union – the one time “progressive” – and Frey of the Molders’ union were others opposing the unemployment insurance proposal. If these two latter are not amongst the older heads it would nevertheless be incorrect to accuse them of being more reactionary than any of the others.

As a matter of fact we do not at all claim a distinction or a division within this present coterie of unvarnished purveyors of deception. And yet, as it is false to lump all the A.F. of L. unions into a category of one reactionary mass so it could be wrong even to conceive of the officialdom as a homogeneous reactionary whole which is never subjected to the pressure of conditions of the masses. But this sort of confusion, and worse, is what springs from the Stalinist theorizings of “social-Fascist” unions and “social Fascist” leaders. In this connection it is well to remember first of all that the historical conditions for Fascism have not as yet arisen in America. Capitalism here can yet manage its affairs more effectively by the bourgeois democratic methods. Secondly to lump even the general A.F. of L. officialdom, the higher bureaucrats and the lesser ones, who are of necessity closer to the rank and file, into the category of Fascism or “social Fascism”, does not at all serve to make clear its essential role. On the contrary this object becomes obscured. Workers will not become convinced by that method. It is therefore now more than ever necessary to remain straightforward and to endeavor to educate the working class to an understanding that the role of the trade union officialdom is essentially the one of serving as lieutenants of capitalism within the ranks of labor. These officials have accordingly, in the past, while striving to gain collective bargain measures sufficient to justify their position, in every fundamental respect used the best of their endeavors to obstruct the working class advance on a class basis. They have used as their method cunning, deceit, violence and outright betrayal. Just now they feel it necessary to step in a progressive direction sufficiently to justify their official positions within the unions whose members they fear to be moving Leftward. They feel it necessary to propose reform measures in the sense of being a safety valve for the capitalist system. They feel it necessary also to capitalize upon the mass pressure to ask some concessions from capitalism in order to maintain their positions. The future may see the A.F. of L. officialdom in general becoming more closely integrated with a social reformist movement, for which there are still possibilities of growth in a limited sense in the United States. But in essence, even on the path of reformism, these reactionaries of today will serve in the same role as in the past – a barrier to working class advance.

There can, of course, from such considerations as these be no expectancy of the A.F. of L. hierarchy undertaking any fight whatsoever actually to obtain the measures adopted at the convention. Nevertheless the adoption offers an additional opportunity for serious Left wing activities within the trade unions. The economic pressure upon the masses will inevitably drive them in a Leftward direction. It will thrust forward serious and genuine progressive elements. It will bring new life, new spirit and new obligations to the present declining unions. But with that also new and additional opportunities for a Left wing.

Note – Another article taking up further the A.F. of L. convention will follow in the next issue.

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