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Arne Swabeck

The Strike Movement Begins

(January 1937)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 3 No. 1, January 1937, pp. 8–9.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A NUMBER of strikes are crashing the periphery of the great industrial combines. They have the appearance of vanguard skirmishes, attempting to seek out the weak spots on the enemy’s flanks and gathering forces the while for a mass attack. Soon this may culminate in a mighty test of strength in the steel and the automobile industries. Probably these numerous strikes, now taking place, are the harbingers of a new great strike wave.

Industry is in the grip of restlessness and ferment. The direction of the forces set into motion by this ferment may not yet be entirely clear. The workers may not follow very closely the curves of the industrial production chart, nor do they study comparative statistics of wages and profits. The meaning of the production index of the Federal Reserve Board, recording for October last 98.9 percent of the 1928 average, while mass unemployment remains, is perhaps not so clearly understood by them. Alongside of fabulous dividends to stock-holders, employees in many industries have received a bonus; but the lean pay envelope does not measure up to the demands of the rising cost of living. The turn to recovery did not bring the much-wanted economic security, the pressure of increasing speed-up on the conveyor system; remains, and above all there is a growing recognition amongst ever broader working class layers of the need for protection through an economic organization of their own, not subject to labor relations boards, nor dominated by the industrial corporations. For the first time in many years this general ferment is taking root in the mass production industries.

The strikes take on varied forms, sit-down strikes, stay-in strikes, or massing on the picket lines. Even company unions have become saturated with the general ferment. Through all of it, it is possible to trace the line or conflict between the A.F. of L. and the C.I.O. Open rivalry within individual unions or local central bodies is not yet particularly apparent. At the present moment the A.F. of L. is quiescent while the C.I.O. has become by far the strongest center of organization.

Wave of “Sit-Downs”

The strikes have for their objective primarily the establishment of trade union organization. But in every instance the specific character is determined by the degree of organizational advance made. The most elementary form of these strikes is the shop action, sit-down. In the automobile industry these have become so numerous, arising entirely spontaneously at the mere drop of a hat without awaiting official sanction, that union leaders look askance, fearing a wildcat movement that may interfere with the routine of the planned organization campaign. But they have been in the most cases highly effective. Starting in the accessory plants they quickly spread to the auto plants. One notable instance was the Kelsey-Hayes Company, where 5,000 workers after a ten day sit-down strike gained union recognition and an agreement covering minimum wages.

The potentialities of this movement the manufacturers recognize as well, so much so, that at times the mere threat of action has brought quick results. Some weeks ago one large manufacturing company was notified that the workers would not handle frames sent in by a struck plant. This action served to help liquidate the strike in the frame plant. The workers are not even inclined to tolerate too much temporizing in meeting the demands for union recognition. Thus for instance, at the time of this writing, a sit-down strike started in the Cleveland Fisher Body plant, employing 7,000 workers, because of the company’s postponement of a conference with union representatives. Similarly, a remarkable degree of solidarity has been manifested throughout these strike movements. Perhaps one of the best examples in this respect is furnished by the flat glass workers union, whose action also affected very directly the auto industry. This union struck for a closed shop agreement in the five plants of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. The company transferred its orders to the Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company plants. Distance did not interfere. Even though these plants were located in various parts of the country, the workers responded quickly and the strike was extended to every one of them, tying them all up completely.

Company Unions Revolt

Similarly the rubber industry, the ship building industry, the radio industry, and others, have all had their quota of strikes and in every instance bringing the C.I.O. unions into action. While in the steel industry developments in the campaign for organization have been less spectacular they have been no less significant. There the most important events have originated in the most unexpected quarters. The greatest conquests of the C.I.O. have been made in the very heart of company unionism. The company unions, so carefully fostered by the steel corporations, and fostered with the intention to be a bulwark against genuine unions, have now made their own “declaration of independence” from the employee organization plan. Representatives of these company unions from no less than forty-two plants between Cleveland and the Atlantic Coast, who recently met in conference, decided to transform their employee council into a C.I.O. Representative Council. In other words, they took the first step toward transforming a whole network of company unions into becoming an integral part of the steel workers industrial union. Theoretically such a possibility could never be excluded. Militants have emphasized before this the favorable opportunities available, at the time of certain conjunctures, for work inside the company unions. But this is the first time that such work has brought concrete results, and certainly the first time that it has brought results on such a grandiose scale. This alone is an eloquent testimony to a growing ferment in the steel industry as well as to the powerful sweep of union organization. A further national convention was planned by the company union representatives who took this first significant step. No doubt, the time for this will coincide with the convention of the steel workers union which has been planned to take place this coming Spring.

The C.I.O. has now announced its plans for a concerted drive to complete organization in the steel and auto industries and to compel these powerful corporations to deal with the unions. If this is carried out – and, in the light of recent events, there need not be the slightest doubt of the fact that the workers are ready to respond – all the scattered strikes, and all militant action, will tend to converge into one gigantic movement, the impact of which is bound to have far flung reverberations. Several important mass production industries are closely connected with the two that are to be the major point of concentration. The unions in these industries are all affiliated to the C.I.O. and all face the problem of becoming stabilized as the recognized representatives of the workers. It is therefore natural to expect that they will all be drawn into this general orbit of struggle. And while the United Mine Workers, the real backbone of the C.I.O., is fully established throughout the mine fields, it also faces the probability of a struggle at the expiration of its present agreement on April 1. So, on the whole, all of these present developments point very definitely toward a new strike wave far greater in scope than anyone hitherto witnessed, and far greater in its significance to the working class.

Effect of Struggles

It is of course inconceivable that such a titanic movement for organization, which is now under way, can be brought to its conclusion without struggles that will cut deeply into the whole social structure of American capitalist society. Its impact upon the working class movement itself is inestimable. But it is possible to say that it holds within its scope the possibilities of enormous and irresistible working class advance. Organization of the most important mass production industries will by itself mean a tremendous step forward to a new position of power not hitherto attained. That, however, may even come to seem insignificant when compared to the actual development of class consciousness that struggles on such a vast scale are bound to engender.

But we cannot afford to close our eyes to the dangers that this movement may be stopped short in its tracks. After all, we still remember that two important strike waves were smashed since the turn toward recovery began, and as a result the workers were robbed of the fruits of their struggle. The union officials had a not inconsiderable part in the responsibility for the smashing of these strike waves. And several of them now hold the most important positions, in the present movement. Moreover, this is an almost entirely new movement, wholly inexperienced, which can easily become a mere prey for unscrupulous agents of capitalism. In view of this it is so much more important not to forget the lessons of the past.

Even the fact that these leaders now begin to frown upon the spontaneous sit-down strikes, a fact that may seem; small of consequence, but which can nevertheless become a big question insofar as this is indicative of their attitude. It is entirely true that the American model of sit-down strikes, or stay-in strikes, does not compare at all with the highly developed political quality of the occupational strikes of the French workers. The latter are no doubt inspired by the general trend in France toward working class struggle for possession of the factories. It is true also that such forms of job action as the sit-down strikes which we have experienced here, unless coordinated properly by the unions, may become a disturbing influence in a general and concerted campaign of organization. They may even, if conducted purely passively, divert the actual struggle for organization into futile channels. But such features have not so far been the case. On the contrary, the sit-down strikes have served in the main to stimulate further action. They have represented in essence the ingenuity and resourcefulness of a working class which has hitherto known union leadership in most instances as a force of betrayal and defeat.

One excellent example for the role that the sit-down strikes can play in the class struggle was furnished by the Akron rubber workers, more than a year ago, when this form of action served as an effective prelude to the great Goodyear strike. There is no reason why this valuable form of spontaneous action cannot be coordinated properly to fit into the general strategy of the great struggles for union organization. After all is said and done, the most important principle of strike strategy is the utilization of all the possible means of struggle that the working class possesses and then to bear down with all its weight on the class enemy.

Socialist Action Necessary

The dangers of betrayal cannot be too much emphasized; they exist no matter how great the prospects of success may seem. And these prospects are great indeed. The existence of the C.I.O. itself marks an enormous difference from the conditions of the previous strike waves. Its position in a rival struggle for supremacy against the A.F. of L. compels it to go forward. The movement which it has set into motion must of necessity generate new and more genuinely progressive forces. On the field of action they will also learn the lessons that will help to steel the movement against betrayals.

With this present perspective the trade union movement will once again begin to play a really important role in all the developments of the class struggle. To the same extent it becomes not only true, but doubly true, that no working class party can lay claim to the revolutionary title unless it strikes deep roots in the trade unions. This must be the basis of our approach to the coming struggles. Keying-up the party to a full realization of its responsibility in this situation should be considered the most important task by all revolutionary Socialists. Now above all, the party must get into active trade union work without a moments delay.

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