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Arne Swabeck

Progressive Issues Confront the A.F.L.

(September 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. I No. 39, 21 September 1935, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Bill Green and the whole A.F. of L. leadership was challenged at the rubber workers’ convention. It suffered another heavy blow, directed simultaneously at its methods of bureaucratic domination and its reactionary “red baiting” campaign. Coming, as it did, right upon the heels of the defeat administered to this leadership by the teachers’ convention, the rebuke by the automobile workers’ convention and the manifestations of certain progressives elsewhere, the issues involved are sure to loom large as a prelude to the fifty-fifth annual A.F. of L. convention.

The new-born rubber workers’ international union refused, by a vote of 44 to 9, to accept certain A.F. of L. charter provisions, presented to the convention by Green, which would confer upon him the right of appointment of officers for a probationary period to be left at his discretion. With that vote the convention also rejected his choice of hand-picked officers.

Overwhelmed by this decisive vote, Green had to beat a hasty retreat. He accepted it, packed up his belongings and left for the more tranquil atmosphere of his home town Conshocton, Ohio, where he still remains a deacon of the Baptist church.

Problem of New Unions

These recent experiences cannot be easily ignored by the A.F. of L. officials. No doubt they are beginning to ask themselves some serious questions and preparing to straighten their own fences. But there are many difficulties to overcome, particularly in regard to the new unions.

It was with the greatest reluctance that they had agreed in the first place to grant international union charters to these unions. They fought to the last against the idea of granting industrial union charters and accepted it in principle only to sabotage it in actual practice, as they have done so far. But they are still faced with the dilemma of pressure from present economic conditions out of which grow the demands of the rank and file workers. These demands begin to crystallize into distinctly progressive tendencies. Naturally this is much more marked in the basic and the mass production industries where exploitation is most ruthless. And here the A.F. of L. officials will be much more closely bound-up with the development and growth of these unions than has been the case in the past.

Old Basis Undermined

So long as the hidebound craft unions of the skilled trades formed the backbone of the movement matters were comparatively simple. These workers enjoyed certain privileges and questioned much less the doings of their union officials. The unions could be managed fairly easily and the bureaucratic regime solidified. It was not so difficult for the latter to make all kinds of shady deals with the bosses. Much has now changed. Many of the privileges formerly enjoyed in the skilled trades have disappeared. Mass production has advanced and the unions of the skilled trades play a far less important role. For the future the very existence of an effective trade union movement depends upon its ability to build up a solid backbone of unions organized in the mass production industries. Despite the official reluctance that must be the orientation.

Trade Union Democracy

It is very interesting to note that the change toward the new conditions places as the first point on the agenda the question of trade union democracy. This was inevitable. Only by means of its bureaucratic control were the reactionary officials able to function effectively as the agents of capitalism and prevent the unions from engaging in serious struggles for their rightful demands. As a result the unions were stunted in their growth and their power of organization remained largely ineffective.

The free and unhampered development of the trade union movement therefore demands democratic union control as a first prerequisite. It becomes a first class progressive issue and it will play an important role in the crystallization of a progressive movement in the trade unions. The attitude to this issue will be of a determining character in the test for leadership.

In these recent experiences the fact that the progressive tendencies reflect the needs of the movement and represent its vital interests is verified once again. On the opposite side, the retarding reactionary influence of the A.F. of L. top officials is just as clearly revealed. Not only did the latter attempt to maintain its control by the celebrated steam-roller method, but they did actually succeed in preventing the. new-born international unions in automobile and rubber from taking on their necessary industrial form. According to the charters, the shop crafts are to be organized as heretofore in their old craft unions, separate and apart from the production workers.

Industrial Unionism

In the light of recent economic changes, the question of the industrial form of organization is only reinforced as a progressive issue. It is likewise connected up intimately with the future life and growth of the trade union movement. If the unions in the mass production industries are to meet the ruthless onslaughts of the gigantic corporations effectively, this form of organization is imperative.

At the time of receiving their charters, both the automobile workers .and the rubber workers’ unions appeared with greatly reduced ranks. The reason for this is not difficult to find. It was due essentially to the sheer incompetence and downright treason of the A.F. of L. officials who had been in charge of affairs up to now. Still, with an aggressive policy of organization, there are undoubtedly good prospects for the building up of strong unions in these industries. For the life of the movement as a whole this is necessary; but this has very much to do with the kind of leadership.

Progressives Grow in Struggle

It is no accident that more voices are heard every day in the trade unions demanding an aggressive policy of organization. In many instances on a local scale the demand has been carried out in practice, and thereby the progressive tendencies gained. Wherever unions have set to work, organizing aggressively without fear of the bitter struggle that it involves and ready to meet the sacrifices that it imposes, progress has been made. A good timber for a new and progressive leadership is being seasoned in such struggles.

The coming A.F. of L. convention cannot escape facing these issues in one way or another. Of course, they will not be reflected at this gathering in the same direct and decisive manner as in the general field of the class struggle. The labor party issue will most likely appear. There is little chance that very many distinctly progressive spokesmen will slip into the convention hall. But it is to be expected that perhaps several of the well-paid officials already now in or near to the higher councils, out of fear of the potential progressive movement for one reason, or due to pressure from below for another, will take up some of these issues in order to appear as spokesmen and head off the actual crystallization of a genuine progressive movement. When that occurs it is well for real progressives to be on guard.

Political Tendencies

It is yet too early to speak of a progressive movement already in existence. Only tendencies in that direction are manifested so far; and much confusion still prevails among these tendencies. Where they appear they represent, generally speaking, a combination of elements of various degrees of political consciousness. But in most cases they are not yet strongly influenced by the workers’ political parties.

Without at this moment going into the positions that these parties hold in regard to the problems of the trade unions and the issues and struggles within them, it is necessary to remember that the building up of a progressive movement is a first class political job. But it will also be a test of these parties, not only of their ability to organize the movement, but above all of their ability to influence it in the direction of political consciousness. There will be a struggle of political tendencies in this movement.

It should not be difficult for the revolutionary party to meet this test. But there is more required than merely to counterpose its program to those of the other political tendencies and parties. It will be necessary also to take over the responsibility for active, persistent and devoted work right on the firing line of the movement.

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