Arne Swabeck Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Arne Swabeck

New Trends in the Trade Union Movement

(May 1934)

From The Militant, Vol. VII No. 19, 12 May 1934, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There is an unmistakable trend in the trade unions today which foreshadows the tempestuous developments to come. It is shown in its boldest outline in the steel workers’ union and came particularly to the fore at the recent convention. The rank and file delegates delivered some severe blows to the president, old “Grandmother” Tighe, and rode rough shod, breaking down all the fences he had so carefully built up. The trend is shown in the newly constituted federal unions organized in several of the mass production industries where a struggle is beginning for a status of industrial unionism. It was shown in the automobile workers situation, where at one time Collins had to wield his gavel heavily to prevent a representative delegate conference from taking strike action for union recognition. Yes, also, the change of front of the railroad union executives in actually presenting demands to the carriers, reflects the pressure upon them from the workers.

Leaders Under Fire

The high-priced labor leaders sense the quickening tempo. Some of them are already hit squarely by the impact and fear themselves riding the whirlwind. Others are trying to adjust at least their language to the pressure from the workers. All of them are endeavoring with might and main to hold back and to keep the movement within safe channels behind Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Bill Green, who is still a deacon in the Baptist church of his native Coshochton, Ohio, were he used to teach Sunday school, released a May Day forecast in which he says:

“Labor believes that notwithstanding this refusal a concentrated drive should be made to compel, through the use of forceful methods if necessary, an immediate reduction in the hours of labor. There is no other remedy available.”

Of course, he has said that before. We do not harbor any illusions that he, or any of the others in exalted positions of leadership, are becoming militant. Not at all. But the truth is that they all find themselves confronting new conditions.

New Forces in the Unions

New forces in large numbers are coming into the unions. They are mainly proletarians from mass production and basic industries. They look upon the unions as instruments of struggle and as means of protecting their interest. They mean to use them for this purpose. They bring forward the basic interest of the class as a whole, themselves representing its lowest layers.

We are no longer in the conditions of the past where the most powerful unions concerned themselves almost purely with the interests of privileged sections of skilled crafts. Concessions could be wrung from the employers for this privileged section on the basis of keeping the masses of unskilled and semi-skilled without organization and on a low standard of living. These concessions became the breeding ground for bribery, graft and corruption amongst the officials. The exclusive craft unions became the instruments to keep the rest of the working class in subjection. Now new problems begin to face these union officials.

The convention of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers is a good example of these new problems. The union has witnessed a considerable influx of new members, rising from practically nothing to what, in the various estimates, range between a membership of 50,000 and 100,000. Its president, Mike Tighe, counted upon his office as a life-time job and always relied upon his good friends amongst the owners of the means of production.

Rank and File Revolts

To his consternation at the convention the rank and file delegates began to take charge. First they overruled his ideas, that delegates coming from local lodges who had not paid their per capita tax because of unemployment due to blacklisting of union members should not be seated. Secondly, they saved the convention from the disgrace of listening to “puddler” Jim Davis (the senator from Pennsylvania) and forced him off the floor. The actions of this powerful opposition delegation culminated in the convention adopting the following program:

  1. Immediate presentation of demands to the Steel Companies for Union Recognition and a substantial wage increase.
  2. To give a ten-day ultimatum to the trust, with preparations for a general strike if the demands are not granted.

For good measure the delegates decided to set up a special convention committee to be in charge of the “offensive action”. This drew a declaration from Tighe, that he “washes his hands of the whole business”.

Officials in a Dilemma

Mike Tighe may yet try to defeat and nullify the convention action. Sell-outs are not merely a thing of the past but can be expected to be repeated on a more serious scale. But this is an entirely different matter now that the workers are in motion toward a higher level of class consciousness. “Outlaw” strikes and “outlaw” movements can be expected to occur. Today, however, such are not so easily defeated. The union officials are in a dilemma with the company unions pressing from the one side while on the other side hangs the shadow of more militant organization and action by the workers.

In the automobile situation the union officials accepted the Roosevelt agreement which legalizes the company union; Bill Green’s “greatest strike in history” was won for the time being by the auto bosses. The union officials accepted the special mediation board whose duty is to forestall and defeat action. As a result an “outlaw” movement is already in its inception. It started from St. Louis where the union locals proposed secession from the A.F. of L. and found support from locals in other parts of the country.

Danger of Premature Splits

In this action, however, there is a great danger of a premature split which can be isolated and led into the void. The center of gravity of the trade union movement is still within the A.F. of L. A continuation of its policies and betrayals will unmistakably lead to the possibilities of new militant unions emerging. But such moves can become successful only after the rank and file thoroughly absorb the experiences after a period of crystallization of forces and a better understanding of the purposes and tasks of militant unions. Above all it can become successful only under the direction and influence of a conscious left wing movement. Nevertheless this trend shown amongst the automobile workers is highly indicative for the future.

Within the federal unions trends in a progressive direction are visible. At a conference in Washington the latter part of January delegates representing almost 100 federal unions with an estimated membership of 250,000 formulated demands to the effect:

  1. That the organization of federal unions be continued aggressively.
  2. That the members of the federal unions be not segregated into craft unions.
  3. That a bureau be established within the A.F. of L. to “aid and stimulate the formation of such industrial unions”.
  4. That where “a reasonable and sufficient number of such federal unions form a national organization and apply for a national or international charter, same shall be immediately granted”.

Trend Toward Industrial Unionism

Here the trend is very definitely toward industrial unions to be established on a national scale for the respective industries. Unquestionably, that trend will take further hold and finally take on the form of a definite movement which it will be difficult for the reactionary officials to check or to defeat.

The workers from the mass production and the basic industries, who are now joining the unions in great numbers, have lost some of their great illusions about the NRA. They propose in the main to rely upon the power of their organization. In this they press the union officials for action. They put the officials to the test and the failure to head their demands will be clearly demonstrated before the eyes of the rank and file.

On the one hand preparation is made for many of them to be swept into discard. On the other hand, the militant currents become strengthened. Already today these new mass numbers in the unions are in the position of defending the unions, of fighting for their recognition and of driving them into action on a large scale against the leaders who yield to the company unions and accept the class collaboration basis instituted by the NRA. The trends which are now in the making point toward a new stage of militant unionism.

Arne Swabeck Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 6 May 2016