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Arne Swabeck

A.F.L. and Union Unity

The Stalinist Policies Fail to Meet the Test of the Situation

(December 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 51, 31 December 1932, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In viewing the relationship of the revolutionary party to the trade union movement in the light of the events at the recent American Federation of Labor Convention, one specific feature stands out strikingly. And for the thinking worker there should be little difficulty in drawing a conclusion. We have, for some time, been faced with an unemployment situation pressing so acutely upon the working class that the Green bureaucracy found itself compelled to execute a change of front. The A.F. of L. became committed, though so far only on paper, to the important measures of unemployment insurance and the six-hour work day without reduction of pay. Yet the revolutionary party bad no direct influence in producing this change.

The best proof of this fact is furnished by the party’s own actions There assembled in Cincinnati, at the same time as the A.F. of L. gathering, a rank and file convention for unemployment insurance. It was sponsored by the official party, but, of course, without any apparent formal connection. It had up to 200 delegates in attendance, a few of them officially elected by A.F. of L. union locals. Its purpose was, as indicated by its name, to fight for unemployment insurance, to focus attention upon this issue alongside of the A.F. of L. convention, to expose the A.F. of L. stand and to serve as the true expression of the trade unions on this issue.

Yes, the party leadership had actually come down from its lofty perch of the third period dogma, from the “revolutionary upsurge of the American workers” – to speak to the A.F. of L. about unemployment insurance. From an adventurist position which had no foundation in reality to dragging entirely at the rear of events. This is the sum and substance of its recent course. But before the rank and file convention had even gathered, the hidebound reactionaries of the A.F. of L. had already framed their insurance policy and, in addition, made ready for the six-hour day proposal. The rank and file convention therefore became entirely overshadowed by the A.F. of L. action. It exposed primarily its own backwardness.

There is on the other hand, at least, a compensating feature in the fact that the A.F. of L. convention action has already served to influence the party views somewhat. Party speakers are beginning to use the term class collaboration unions instead of company unions. That marks an advance. Moreover, they will consider the advisability of the (six-hour day slogan and even state that it is necessary to pay attention to the question of trade union unity.

Will There Be a Change of Policy

In general the whole question of trade union policy, and in particular, the question of independent unions by splitting off minorities versus the issue of trade union unity is due for some serious attention by the Comintern and the various parties. That is not only indicated in the compelling force of developments of the class struggle but also in the shifting winds within the Comintern.

In Germany, for example, the official party has attained a mass basis. But it has, of course, pursued the Comintern policy of splitting the trade unions. The independent, “revolutionary” unions failed to attract the masses. Consequently the German delegation went to the fifth RILU congress with the slogan to “conquer Lozovsky but not to annihilate him”. They counted on the support of Piatnitzky. But that was before Stalin intervened. After that the idea of splitting and creating independent unions all along the line won out completely. One of the German delegates reproached Piatnitzky: “But comrade Piatnitzky you spoke yesterday in an entirely different vein.” Whereupon the latter answered laconically: “Yes, that was yesterday.”

But within the Comintern the turn toward the Right has since become more unmistakable. Many of the lesser bureaucrats, who want an end to the policy of trade union splits, are therefore again turning upon Lozovsky, not merely to conquer him, but also to annihilate him. The formula, by which he won them over in the past; that just as the revolutionary unions are schools for Communism so are the reformist unions schools for capitalism; that formula is now used as the noose with which to hang him and his policy. But such methods of change, of course, can not serve at all to educate the revolutionary cadres.

Should these shifting winds not fully succeed in affecting a change at this moment we may expect that the actual forces of class relations will soon exert a sufficiently strong pressure in that direction. We will not contend that the question of these independent, “revolutionary” unions and the liquidation of that kind of splitting policy is posed as acutely here as, for example, in Germany. Not at all. Nor do we attempt to draw a direct analogy. But we do contend that the increased speed of the class relations in motion compels much more serious consideration of this question than heretofore.

The Unorganized and the A.F. of L.

Such consideration involves primarily the question of attitude toward the two main problems: the organization of the unorganized and activity within the A.F. of L. Essentially the policy of organization of the unorganized adopted by the party in 1928, in the shaping of which we, who are today in the Left Opposition, had a considerable part, still remains correct. The potentialities in this field have not grown less today but nave rather increased That will be even more the case in the future period of rising struggles and therefore becomes decisive for our orientation. But this question cannot entirely await a future settlement; it demands a correct preparation today.

Today the only trade union base resembling a mass character is the A.F. of L. and the kindred unions of the railroad brotherhoods. It would be foolish to contend that things will always remain so. As a matter of fact, as the A.F. of L. has constantly become narrowed down toward embracing skilled trades exclusively, it is well to pay attention to the possibilities of organization within the basic and unorganized industries arising entrely as a new movement. That should also mean possibilities for a new militant base. But even that gives no reason whatever to assume that the A.F. of L. will pass out of existence. Nor should the revolutionary policy be predicated upon that. On the contrary, even the most favorably variant of future possibilities would still not eliminate the question of trade union unity. If the revolutionists are able to build up some strength within the unions they will also be able to participate in determining conditions for unity.

These, in general, were our views when we participated in shaping the correct party policy. But, subsequently, following our expulsion, the policy became completely emasculated. Instead of organization of the unorganized we had the withdrawal of the militant minority sections from the A.F. of L. unions. The TUEL was taken off its path as the center of the Left wing within the mass unions. It was transformed into a revolutionary center to organize “revolutionary” unions from the top down which all remained numerically small, sectarian and kept in leading strings. This could serve only the A.F. of L. bureaucracy leaving it in undisputed control. Generally speaking the reactionaries gained at the expense of the revolutionists. In the South, whatever unionism is left is in the hands of the A.F. of L. In the needle trades the A.F. of L. has gained. In the mine fields new independent unions have replaced the TUUL. And to complete the picture practically the same conditions obtain throughout the union field.

The Question of Trade Union Unity

This is the picture of devastation wrought by a false trade union policy. And it is from this that the Left Opposition proceeds with the slogan of trade union unity fully cognizant of the fact that the forces of class relations are in constant motion. Hence the process of unity cannot remain the same at every stage or in every sphere. While revolutionists have the general road to their goal definitely marked out, the method of making the curves encountered depends entirely upon the nature of the curves and territory traversed. We are not bound in advance, nor can we lay down in advance, any specific form or formula which will fit the various situation which arise. Our slogans, our tactics and our methods while fitting into a general strategy must also be so molded and applied that they harmonize with each specific stage of development.

Two years ago the Left Opposition advanced the unity slogan for the needle trades unions in the form of proposing a united front leading to a merger between the party directed industrial union and the ILGWU. Today we propose, as a step toward unity, that the industrial union should declare its readiness to re-enter in a body into the ILGWU on the condition of trade union democratic rights being guaranteed. In this there is no change of general policy; only the formula for realization of unity has changed and, of necessity, so as to correspond to the relation of forces which have become more favorable to the Right wing. The proposal of two years ago did not attempt to define in a direct sense the relations to the A.F. of L. while the present directly implies inclusion within it. Such questions, of course, must also be determined primarily upon the basis of the relation of forces in each specific instance.

In the minefields today, on the other hand, we have a situation of a different character. In the soft coal fields the U.M.W. of A. broke down, the rebel forces within became the majority and found no alternative but the formation of a new, independent union. Nevertheless the unity issue is posed there and has been advanced correctly by the Left Opposition. But it is an issue of unity not with the U.M.W. of A. but of the various new miners unions against it, and in this sense also against the A.F. of L. In this field, as elsewhere, the formula for the realization of unity must correspond to the existing conditions, because it is primarily determined by the relation of forces. But while the formula is quite different from that of the needle trades it is still essentially the same general policy.

To the party leadership these questions are still anathema. Can they remain so very long? Obviously not. It will also be compelled to take cognizance of the development of the relation of forces within the trade union field. In the future, the question of trade union policy will have more far-reaching implications.

If the revolutionary party is to have any influence upon the future course of the trade union movement it must, first of all, return to the policy of active work within this movement. It should now be in a position to draw a balance from its period of creation of new, “revolutionary unions”. The result will, of course, appear quite negative; but it can and should become a starting point for a new orientation, an orientation toward trade union unity. Within that general orientation should be coordinated the efforts of a correct policy of organization of the unorganized together with active work in building a Left wing within the existing mass unions.

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