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Arne Swabeck

After the A.F. of L. Split – What?

(November 1936)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 10, November 1936, pp. 13–14.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE AMERICAN Federation of Labor is now split wide open. No other interpretation can possibly be made of the action taken by the Executive Council against the Committee for Industrial Organization. Suspension of the ten affiliated international unions took place on September 5; and this is only a prelude to an intense conflict. A new chapter now begins. And it is not difficult to foresee that the conflict so far will have been mere childs’ play when we attempt to visualize what is still to come. Now the struggle between the A.F. of L. and C.I.O. begins in earnest From this point onward it will be in the nature of a struggle for supremacy between two rival movements.

Overtures for a reconciliation may still be made. However the essential issue of the conflict will remain.

But the full significance of future developments will surely extend far beyond the mere struggle for supremacy. Not only does the chapter which has come to a close mark a certain stage of a specific conflict, it also marks the end of a whole historical period of a peculiar type of American trade unionism. Henceforth the center of gravity of the movement will shift to new fields; it will face entirely new problems; it will set new forces into motion, all of which will contribute toward the molding of a new type of unionism. And, we may also rest assured. there will be deep-going changes in the traditional political policy that had become part and parcel of the A. F. of L.

What will be the consequence of this split and these new perspectives for the working class? Will this split retard the movement as a whole, or does it have distinctly progressive features? If the latter is the case and a new and more effective type of unionism arises as its logical outcome, what can then be expected to be its course of development? Above all the question arises: Will this split retard or advance the development of political consciousness among the working masses? For Marxists these questions assume the greatest importance.

Unity and Progress

Mere generalization about the desirability of unity as against splits does not constitute a sufficient answer. Naturally, the maintenance of trade union unity has an enormous advantage for the working class; but this becomes a hollow formula if it is abstracted from the concrete conditions of the movement. On the other hand, it is entirely impossible to agree that trade union unity should be subordinated to the whims of corrupted bureaucrats. In this case, for instance, the C.I.O. unions could have continued to remain within the federation only on the penalty of disbanding this organization. In reality this would mean to abandon the idea of industrial unionism and to give up the organization of the mass production industries. Such was the only alternative. A retreat of this character was not to be expected; nor would it have been desirable. A correct answer to the questions raised above can therefore be given only from the point of view of the historic tasks of the movement. In other words, only a Marxist answer will have real validity.

It is easy enough to agree in advance that this coming struggle for supremacy will possibly carry the devastating effects of internecine warfare. To such possibilities we cannot afford to close our eyes. At the same time this presents only the one side of the picture, and its negative side. More fundamental considerations must be taken into account if we are to understand correctly the perspectives that arise out of the present situation.

The American Federation of Labor, limited to its narrow craft union basis, embraces only a small section of the working class. Its total membership reported for the month of August 1936, is, including the C.I.O. unions, 3,682,224. The overwhelming majority of the workers have remained outside, and they have remained on the whole unorganized. In fact, the A.F. of L. structure, its policies and its methods, made it extremely difficult if not virtually impossible for the masses to join. Craft limitations became one of the factors which made out of it a mere bargaining agency for concessions from capitalism – obtained almost exclusively by virtue of skill. However, with the development of mass production industry, this could only mean that these concessions were obtained in reality at the cost of leaving the masses of unskilled workers, and partly also the semi-skilled workers, almost entirely without organization, and subject to more intense exploitation. By virtue of being bound up directly to the general staff of industry and bound up indirectly to the capitalist political parties, this leadership was motivated in its official policy and in all practical considerations by the idea of a partnership between capital and labor. Collaboration with the employers, according to this scheme of things, proceeded strictly within the framework of capitalism. It was carried on in conformity with the capitalist rules of the game in the most reactionary sense. The unions were not to be conceived of as actual class instruments of struggle of the workers, and they did not really function in this sense. Sell-outs and betrayals by corrupted bureaucrats were made easy. This condition enabled the officials to exert an almost undisputed domination over the unions. In return for concessions obtained, the traditional leadership kept the unions within strictly conservative bounds and thus effectively retarded the development of an independent class ideology.

Unionism and Decay

Years of unexcelled opportunities for organizational expansion and advance brought continued stagnation.. Resolutions were adopted successively at A. F. of L. annual conventions to organize the South, to organize the automobile industry and to organize the steel industry. None of them, however, was carried into actual life. The San Francisco convention two years ago went on record for the establishment of industrial unions in certain mass production industries; but this decision also remained on paper. Such organizational efforts as were made in these industries went ahead practically in spite of the official leadership and were at the outset faced with the problem of battering down the obstructions of craft union barriers. Even the great stimulus to trade union organization afforded by the beginning of the present business revival and the additional impulse given by the NRA, the bureaucratic leadership failed to utilize to advantage. Workers from basic industries streaming toward the unions were in many instances repelled. To the bureaucracy they represented simply an unruly and troublesome element. In successive strike waves it became perfectly clear that militant struggle alone could overcome the increasingly bitter and increasingly violent resistance offered by the big monopoly concerns to union organization; and the workers displayed their readiness for struggle. They proceeded to turn the unions into instruments of struggle. With this the need for mass organization grew. The very life of the trade union movement came to depend much more on mass numbers, for which the industrial form of organization alone could furnish an adequate basis. This simple conclusion, accepted by the more progressive forces, gave to the C.I.O. leaders their new prestige and power, but it also brought down on their heads the full and unmitigated fury of the craft union bureaucracy.

The greater the need for progressive change, the greater the fury. Of course, the craft union bureaucracy frowned upon all ideas of an open struggle with monopoly capitalism. It had far greater love for its own harmonious relations with these agents of privilege than it had desire for organization. The mere advocacy of industrial unionism and the launching of an active campaign by the C.I.O. to conquer the steel industry for organized labor, this bureaucracy characterized by the fantastic charge of fomenting an insurrection in the A. F. of L. Under these conditions it was manifestly impossible to find a solution to the most vital problems of the movement within the old craft union framework. The living dynamics of the movement made the conflict inevitable.

In view of these considerations we cannot escape the conclusion that in its essence the split has distinctly progressive features. This fact itself will be of decisive importance in the coming struggle for supremacy between the two rival movements. No doubt needs to remain of the incomparably more favorable position of the C.I.O. Its affiliated unions are the most cohesive and the growing unions. It has already gained the support of many state and city central organizations of the A.F. of L. Sympathizers with its ideas are numerous. It has begun to strike roots in mass production industry, and it is perfectly clear that this must become the actual basis of the future movement. Now the C.I.O. faces its real test. It set out on a progressive course, but it can succeed only by maintaining this course. Only through the building of a movement that is powerful by virtue of mass numbers can supremacy be attained. The logic of the position now occupied by the C.I.O. leaves it no alternative other than to pursue this course.

Pursuance by the A.F. of L. of the opposite course can only hasten its own doom, which it invited when the Executive Council embarked on its splitting policy. To attain success for itself the C.I.O. will therefore be compelled to distinguish its own position sharply in many important respects from that of the A.F. of L. A return to the reactionary position of the latter would gain it no support whatever. On the contrary, the rival struggle for supremacy will tend to drive the C.I.O. unions in a leftward direction. Facing the furious opposition of the big monopoly concerns, and facing a struggle for organization in which no quarter is given, this general trend can only be reinforced. And the C.I.O. can hardly afford to retreat if it is not to give up the field to the opponents. The attempt to organize the steel industry, even if success cannot be assured in advance, will undoubtedly lead to consequences extending far beyond the question of union organization alone. This is tantamount to a challenge to the giants of industry and the giants of finance capital. The struggle for organization cannot help but become a gigantic one. It will place all the important issues of the class struggle at the very top of the agenda. In such events as these, the peculiar type of American trade unionism, now known as the remnants of the Gompers era, is bound to give way. A new type of unionism will begin to take shape. It stands to reason that these events may also give a great impetus toward the development of political consciousness among the working masses. This question is bound up also with the development of an effective revolutionary Socialist party.

C.I.O. Politically Backward

No doubt the leaders of the C.I.O. are aware of these possibilities. Some of their present efforts would indicate that much. In the field of trade union organization their position is distinctly a progressive one and it should receive the full and complete support of all revolutionary Socialists. Expressed in terms of politics it becomes clear, however, that their position on questions of basic class ideology cannot at all be termed progressive. These leaders have become the main sponsors within labors’ ranks of the re-election of President Roosevelt. Basically this represents the same old capital and labor partnership idea; only in a new version. It is obviously an attempt to forestall, by new methods, the development of an independent class ideology. This becomes so much clearer by the suggestions made by these leaders, that the support to re-elect Roosevelt this year may be the fore-runner of a national labor party for the next elections. The actual organization of a labor party in the state of New York for the re-election of Roosevelt also makes more clear what they intend a national labor party to be. This party is organized as a direct opponent of the Socialist party. It is organized precisely in the State of New York in order to furnish an illusory medium through which to swing workers who are socialistically inclined behind Roosevelt. As such it represents an attempt, still in embryo form, but an attempt nevertheless, to forestall revolutionary growth by swerving it into the channels so much safer for capitalism – the reformist channels. But in this we have also – still in embryo form – the beginning of a change in traditional political policy pursued by the labor movement in the past. And it represents also a beginning in opposing revolutionary growth by a large scale reformist movement.

All of these developments in the A.F. of L., from the emergence of the C.I.O., through the split to the present events, have taken place entirely without the slightest conscious influence or intervention by any of the existing workers’ political parties. Obviously, this fact cannot be in the least flattering to revolutionary Socialists. For the future, however, their active and conscious intervention will become an imperative mandate.

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