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Arne Swabeck

Burning Problems Face 55th A.F.L. Convention

Fear of Progressive Tendencies in Labor Movement Disturbs Officials
Bankrupt Union Leadership Must Be Challenged by Awakened Membership

(September 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. I No. 38, 14 September 1935, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Problems of unusual importance face the fifty-fifth annual A.F. of L. convention, scheduled for October 7, at Atlantic City. Some of them cause new conflicts in the movement. Bill Green and his cronies at Washington may watch with dismay the several indications of a rank and file challenge to their present position and policy. They do not yet anticipate a direct threat to their leadership; but the fear of progressive tendencies is beginning to haunt them like a nightmare.

Fundamentally this is the outstanding issue before the coming convention. A living movement is compelled to respond to the pressure of conditions under which it exists; and the lower strata of the officialdom as well as the state federations and city central bodies, that are closer to the rank and file membership, begin to reflect this pressure. In several respects they come into conflict with the top bureaucracy and so, while the progressive tendencies are still very much undeveloped and confused, their existence begins to worry the leadership.

This official hierarchy has received some serious blows to its bureaucratic method of domination and control of the movement. Its “red scare” campaign has been given a setback. Its policy of organization is being challenged and its time-honored political policy, is subjected to a severe scrutiny.

In turn this despicable officialdom becomes more perfidious and moves closer toward a more outspoken reactionary position. This is the inevitable logic of antagonistic tendencies and it can only become more pronounced the more the conflict intensifies. Finally the struggle must result in the victory of the one or the other. The question of leadership and policy is completely interlocked with the very life of the movement. With the increasing pressure exerted upon the workers by the weight of capitalist exploitation progressive tendencies are bound to make their way in the trade union movement no matter how much the top leaders fulminate against them. But the latter know no other recourse than to lean more directly on their alliance with the enemies of the movement, by more complete collaboration with the bosses and in more outspoken support of the capitalist parties.

Some Blows to Reaction

Both the growth of progressive tendencies in the movement and the increased reaction of its leadership are apparent as the A.F. of L. faces its fifty-fifth annual convention.

The heaviest blows to the bureaucratic domination and control of the movement have come from two widely different directions: from the teachers union and from the newly constituted international union of automobile workers. The first was, by far the most decisive.

At its recent national convention the teachers union administered a serious rebuke to the “red scare” campaign of Bill Green and Co. and rejected by a firm majority vote his arrogant demand for expulsion of its New York local which he charged to be under Communist influence. Not content merely with this rebuke the convention elected the entire progressive slate for officers and executive board. When this happened Bill Green had not yet finished his personal supervision of the convention of the newly constituted automobile workers’ union. There also he suffered a reverse. The assembed delegates refused to give a vote of confidence to his handpicked crew of officials. Green had his way by use of sheer autocratic measures, but the attitude of the delegates constituted a challenge to bis leadership and gave him an indication of what he may expect in the future from the workers in the mass production industries.

Political Policy Challenged

These, however, are not the only manifestations disturbing the tranquility of Green and company.

Their policy is challenged or at least subjected to serious questioning, elsewhere. The Oregon State Federation is going leftward. Its recent convention came out in condemnation of the profit system and voted to establish a new political party. No doubt there was as yet little clarity on what kind of a party is needed, but the outworn policy of rewarding friends and punishing enemies amongst the agents of privilege does not at all find the same favor as before in trade union ranks. That holds true also for the Connecticut State Federation of Labor. It has decided to conduct a referendum vote of all local A.F. of L. unions in the state on the question of creating a labor party. Likewise the New Jersey State Federation of Labor, now in convention, is giving serious consideration to the labor party question.

These latter manifestations become doubly significant in view of Green’s constant reiteration of fictitious labor gains achieved by legislation in the capitalist Congress and presented by him as real. These he hails as new progress in relations between capital and labor. Undoubtedly the Executive Council report to the convention will attempt to bolster up its record with these fictitious gains. The trade unionists may not understand so well the lawyers language of the laws that have been entered on the statute books. Their attitude is much more likely motivated by a realization of the effects of these laws on their organizations and on their attempts to struggle for better conditions. It is hardly necessary to assume that they have a conscious aim of creating a large reformist party or that they envisage great parliamentary victories. Rather the manifestations in the direction of new parties and labor parties represent a desire to break with the policies of the past and to get a square deal by their own efforts. This aspect invests these manifestations with their greatest significance.

Retreat in Face of Bosses Assault

They are closely tied-up with the whole question of working class economic standards. And it is precisely in this respect that the incompetence of the A.F. of L. leadership is the most glaring and where its turn to greater perfidy and a more reactionary position is the most outstanding. The logic of the opposition encountered in the living movement drives it inexorably in this direction because, like the capitalists, this leadership has vested interests to protect.

Many grandiose proclamations were issued from A.F. of L. headquarters against the coolie wage level set by the Roosevelt administration on the WPA relief projects. Much active lobbying was conducted in Congress and at its committee hearings. The scale of $19 to $94 repeated Green, and all his cronies after him, – and they were correct – will tear down the whole American standard of wages. But the coolie scale went into effect. And, out of sheer incompetence to ward it off and downright sabotage of the struggle against it by the A.F. of L. officialdom, the American workers now face this scale as their basic standard. In this field things are much more real than are the so-called favorable labor laws on the statute books. And in this field the miserable capitulation to the coolie wage scale sacrificed important trade union principles and squandered many real gains attained in hard-fought struggles.

Faith in System of Exploitation

But the A.F. of L. Executive Council does not intend to tolerate any of the new manifestations in the trade union movement. It rallies to the support of the capitalist system and its present spokesman who so shrewdly put over again the old capital and labor relations in a brand new clothing. It backs up Roosevelt’s declaration that the economic emergency is passed and supports his promise of a “breathing spell” for business. It is preparing to strengthen his political fences for 1936. In the most contemptible fashion it hails the present upswing as the “healthiest thus far,” for it is “due chiefly to inherent economic strength ... Dividend payments in August exceeded last year by $11,000,000,” says the Executive Council report preparing to whoop it up at the coming convention; for are not these higher officials all interested in dividend payments? What other feature is “healthy” about this upswing? It cannot be the employment feature, for in regard to this the Executive Council states: “Employment this Spring has been below last year’s level although production was higher.” In other words: with the upswing, proclaimed as healthy by Green and company, unemployment is growing and the speed-up system is growing with it. And the Council statement further makes clear that while the cost of living continues to rise, recording in July this year 62 percent above last year, the share of the workers in the total national income had dropped from its 21.9 percent in 1929 to 18.1 per cent in 1934. A “healthy upswing” indeed.

Crucial Issues Still Remain

In face of these facts the decrepit A.F. of L. leadership, proclaims as healthy an upswing accomplished entirely at the expense of the workers, through increased exploitation, and it reiterates its faith in this system of exploitation. This, let us not forget, comes also as a prelude to the coming convention. It makes only so much more clear that this leadership remains wedded to capitalism in theory and practice and depends upon the active forces of capitalism, to sharpen its own class in order to deal the more effectively with any opposition to its reactionary policies and bureaucratic domination.

But the crucial issues still remain to be decided in the future. The coming A.F. of L. convention may proceed in comparative calm and without the serious conflicts yet coming to the fore. Nevertheless the reactionary course of its corrupt regime lays the trade union movement ever more open to new capitalist assaults. What direction the workers will take when facing these assaults should not be in doubt. That can be clearly ascertained from their attitude and their actions up to now.

In the coming battles both ideas and leadership will be put to the test.

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