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Arne Swabeck

National Progressive Movement
in Trade Union Is Party Task

(January 1935)

From The New Militant, Vol. I No. 6, 19 January 1935, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Definite trends in a progressive direction are apparent in a number of trade unions, and especially in the unions in the basic and in the mass production industries. In practically every instance determined support from the rank and file membership has followed spontaneously. But so far it is possible to speak only of trends, here and there taking on an organized form. The specific features that will give to these trends the character of a movement are still lacking. Unified plans and clear perspectives have not yet been brought forward. It is in view of these conditions that the Workers Party convention in its Program of Action laid special emphasis on the creation of a national progressive movement in the trade unions.

Progressives to Steel

In the steel workers union the progressive group which came forward last summer is now renewing its activities and it is now also enriched by one more valuable experience. The group is demanding that the union president, Mike Tighe, reconvene the convention adjourned last summer to force action on a number of grievances dating back to the Weirton case. Of course, the essential issue is still union recognition; but the prospects that Tighe will agree to reconvene the convention are exceedingly slim. Apparently the progressive group understands this and it has therefore called its own progressive conference to be held during the first week of February. Reports indicate that the progressives feel that now is the time for action in view of the present upturn in the industry due largely to the heavy orders from the automobile manufacturers.

Auto Workers

From the automobile workers’ federal unions, which have suffered a serious setback since the sell-out agreement was concluded last summer, comes word also of incipient revolts. Recently a number of Detroit federal locals decided, in face of an edict by William Green to the contrary, to get together in a conference and discuss their problems of organization. In other cities federal local unions have begun to make demands for the creation of city central councils of federal unions. Thus the direction of these trends is unmistakable. They tend in a progressive direction although still on a very elementary level. Clarity of perspectives has not yet been arrived at. But this is usually the way that progressive movements begin, centering at their inception around the most elementary issues of organization. With the pressure of economic necessity these trends are bound to advance toward a greater clarity of objectives and take on organized form. They are bound to spread because of the fact that everywhere the problem exists of finding a way out of the conditions of stagnation imposed by the trade union bureaucrats.

Period of Calm

At present the whole trade union movement is in a state of calm before the storm of new strikes and new struggles. Last year in some of the local strike situations, not only did the progressive tendencies become pronounced, but in Minneapolis, as one example, the truck drivers strike saw a conscious left wing in the leadership. Toledo followed this example and on the Pacific Coast the left wing forces had a powerful influence in the harbor workers unions prior to the San Francisco general strike.

Yet the reactionary trade union officials appear on a whole as strongly entrenched as ever. That is what appears on the surface. When looking beneath the surface to the undercurrents of rank and file discontent that breaks through from time to time it will become noticeable very quickly that the entrenchment is not so secure. This fact will undoubtedly become much clearer in the coming contests between progressives and reactionaries over the immediate and pressing issues of extension of union organization and of union recognition to be attained through the organized mass power of the workers – the only way it can be attained.

Fears of the Officialdom

Under the conditions of monopoly capitalism organization of the unorganized in the basic industries is possible only through fierce struggle against the owners of the powerful corporations and their government servants. In some instances the workers in these industries have already proven that they will respond most readily and that they do not at all fear the struggle. At the same time the trade union officialdom has demonstrated just as clearly its fear of any heavy influx into the unions of the healthy proletarian elements much more than it fears the aggressive onslaughts of the employers. It shrinks from organization of the unorganized in fear of the consequences of the struggle. The trade union officialdom knows that rapid growth and expansion of the unions also means a fundamental change in their composition and character, leaving room for demands for action and demands for leadership; leaving room for rank and file rebellions.

Counting on this officialdom to give leadership in the organization of the unorganized would be hopeless. Nay more, it would be inconceivable that the trade union organization of the basic industries can be undertaken seriously with this gentry in a position to block every move and to enter into treacherous agreements with the owners of monopoly capital of the kind that makes an aggressive policy of organization impossible. Certainly, unless there is an effective counterbalance created, an effective progressive movement, real prospects of success would be very slim.

The Job Before the Progressives

This is the job for the progressive and left wing elements to tackle. It is a job of large dimensions and requires a fight on two fronts. It requires an intransigent fight against the reactionary officials who block the road and a determined fight against all the obstacles to organization laid down by the well-fortified employers. But it is necessary to repeat: The left wing and progressive forces will not get very far without a clear understanding that they are called upon to lead and that conditions are ripe for such a leadership. Now is the time for action. The progressive forces owe to the trade union movement that they organize themselves and work out their plans in common. Their movement may start on a local or otherwise circumscribed scale, but to be really effective it must be national in scope and unified in character, interlocking from industry to industry and from union to union.

The problem before them is first of all to chart a new course for the trade union movement and to gird up their loins for a serious struggle. A militant class struggle policy and leadership in the trade union movement is the objective. This the Workers Party will aim to sponsor. The party will endeavor to reach an agreement with the progressive elements to attain the elementary objectives, agreements honestly arrived at and with the pledge to carry them out in common action. Some of the progressives may falter and weaken in fear of reprisals by the hostile trade union officials, but this fear will be far outweighed by the needs for the building of the progressive movement and the pressing needs for action. Today there is not such a national movement in existence and its actual creation represents for us an unpostponable task.

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