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William Simmons

The Coming Upsurge of American Labor

(November 1944)

From Fourth International, Vol.5 No.11, November 1944, pp.327-331.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Following the big push during 1934-37 we have witnessed a period of relative calm within the American labor movement. But it is the calm before the storm. Soon this movement will be surging toward another great advance. The prerequisite of numerical strength is at hand. And the logic of the labor movement’s present position points toward changes in a progressive direction and of far reaching consequences for its future. The American labor movement is about to enter an entirely new cycle of development.

Viewing it superficially it may seem as if the labor movement passes through recurrent cycles. That, however, is not quite the case. These cycles are not merely recurrent. Each time they assume infinitely larger dimensions and occur on a higher level of development.

The whole history of American labor shows this to be a fundamental characteristic. At their inception trade unions were met with fire and sword. They had to fight fierce battles for their existence during the whole period of early and rapidly expanding capitalism. Especially was this the case in the years of expansion following the Civil War and up to the great upheaval of the ‘eighties. Union leadership at that time was not as clearly defined as now, and by no means as separate and distinct from the rank and file membership. An official union position did not provide a financial career for its occupant. This turbulent period of necessity required militancy, and the turbulent conditions produced a measure of such leadership. In this sense the internal dynamic generated by the movement corresponded to the conditions under which it developed.

This early militancy, at times somewhat chaotic, somewhat disorganized, but magnificent nevertheless – found its negation in the era of Samuel Gompers. This era grew out of the period of more stable capitalist development with its more tranquil labor relations. Certain privileges and certain concessions given to the small, skilled, and organized section, with rich plums to its official leaders, all at the expense of the unskilled and unorganized labor majority, were the outstanding features of these relations. The relations were permeated by the spirit and method of partnership between capital and labor, from which the former always emerged the gainer, and the latter often suffered even outrageous sell-outs. It was this atmosphere that the Gompers’ political creed of “rewarding friends and punishing enemies” held complete sway. In other words, class-collaboration reigned supreme.

Of course, there were violent outbursts of the class struggle also during that period, but on the whole the changes that had taken place in economic conditions left their basic imprint. Organizationally the labor movement became adapted to these conditions by the ascendancy of the nationally coordinated union, based on craft, and engaged in the business of selling skill at a “fair” price. Politically the “rewards” and the “punishments” handed out were largely perfunctory and, while netting few gains, contributed more often to downright corruption of the officialdom. That era extended beyond Sam Gompers. It marked a cycle of development which is now approaching its end.

Basically, economic conditions furnish the key to an understanding of the evolution of organized labor. There is always a close relationship extending from the former to the latter. In the United States, for example, economic developments have touched higher peaks and lower depths than elsewhere. By and large the labor movement has followed similar lines. At times it manifested great strength and resolution, at other times it was almost wiped out For an illustration of this we need only refer to the last great depression. Insofar as organized strength and militancy is concerned the trade unions had dropped to their very lowest. But they rose quickly after the bottom of the depression had been hit. They passed through the sit-down strikes and the CIO development. And now, when American capitalism has reached the height of its wartime boom and is struggling for world mastery, the unions have reached unsurpassed heights of organizational strength.

But it is also the evolution of capitalism itself which brings this parallel to an end. Already now – that is in the sense of its political implication – the spirals of these cycles have left their junction point. Henceforth they will proceed in opposite directions. There will be ups and downs to be sure; but while the spiral of the capitalist business cycle is definitely downward, recording its decline and decay, that of the labor movement has begun to record its steady upward climb.

The Gompers Era

During the whole of the Gompers’ era the profits of expanding capitalism made sufficient concessions possible to the small stratum of organized skilled workers to assure the relative smoothness and tranquility of class-collaboration. With the stage of capitalist decline such concessions become much more limited. Correspondingly the room for such collaboration narrows. That it could be continued at all up to the present moment, and after the emergence of the CIO is due primarily to the exceptional circumstances created by the Roosevelt New Deal period and the war conditions that followed. To a certain extent it is also due to the fact that the form changed to one of collaboration between the higher union officials and the federal administration.

In this we have an example of certain features of one historical stage being carried over to another in spite of the disappearance of conditions for its existence. Of course, it is also a testimony to the still remaining backwardness of the labor movement. So while the relationship existing between the trade union hierarchy and the most authentic and the highest representative of the ruling class must be accepted as the very pinnacle of class collaboration it also definitely marks the beginning of its end. From now on this relationship will lead toward a head-on collision.

However, while these carry-overs have remained, this docs not at all denote a static condition of the labor movement, or even anything approaching such a condition. Considerable changes have already added new and important characteristics that are antagonistic to the old basis. At the present moment the labor movement represents the opposites of both the old and the new. These opposites interpenetrate.

Insofar as official policy and practice is concerned, the old prevails. The trade unions are still held in the vise of class collaboration. Just now this is expressed most abjectly in the form of compulsory arbitration implemented by the no-strike pledge, which is most often enforced by joint punitive actions of the governments, the employers and the union officials against striking militants. Wherever Stalinist influence has made inroads among the higher bureaucratic strata the latter has become only more abject, more debased, and more treacherous. On the whole the trade union leadership presents a sordid picture. It is, if anything, more servile, more subservient than ever before and more dependent upon the capitalist rulers. It is therefore also more devoid of actual ability of leadership for only men of mediocre stature can be made completely servile. Even the adroitness and dexterous skill in driving a bargain that was characteristic of Gompers and Lewis is entirely lacking in Green and Murray. While the former often exhibited an instinctive healthy distrust of government hand-outs, the latter have entrusted the welfare of their organizations entirely to the mercies of federal administrative agencies. Both were hoisted into their exalted positions by more cunning confederates because they were malleable. Both the former Baptist deacon of Conshochton, Ohio, who remains today a parson, and the pious Scotchman, who speaks of conscience and independence of spirit as if to persuade himself, appear equally grotesque in the mantles of their predecessors.

Simultaneously, though it may seem paradoxical, the exact opposite also exists in vigorous and healthy proportions within this labor movement A new militancy has already arisen. The emergence of the CIO marked its beginning. It became an entirely new experience for American labor: A venture into organization of mass production industry and the ascendancy of the industrial form of organization. In this alone is present a change of far reaching consequence. Moreover, the method and tactic of the sit-down strike became a modest mirror of the future taking over of industry. The labor movement began soaring to new heights. With the old, antiquated, and the decrepit still predominating in official policy, a new-found strength and a new confidence were nevertheless evolving within the shell of the old.

These opposites interpenetrate. Even the CIO is weighed down to this day by a leadership, by policies, and by methods of the past. This in spite of the fact that the leaders under modern economic conditions can no longer deliver any important results to the rank and file on the basis of the old policy and outlook. Consequently their leadership and control becomes further enfeebled.

Revived Militancy

Within the ranks, however, there is again discernible the beginnings of a revived militancy. So much so that in disregard of the combination of war reaction, war restrictions, and the dangers of joint governmental and bureaucratic punitive actions to enforce the no-strike edicts, unofficial strikes mount and multiply. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 1943, after the enactment of the Smith-Connally anti-strike law on June 25, there were, all told, 1,919 strikes of which only 34 were called in compliance with the law. In other words, less than 2 percent were legally sanctioned. This year has brought the tempo to a higher pitch. And there need be no doubt that, while the joint punitive actions will be intensified, we will likewise witness a crescendo of actions of revolt. This is taking shape primarily in the new industrial unions in mass production industry; but the AFL, as experience has already shown, is not immune from these developments, either. The recent convention of the United Automobile Workers presents another side of the same process – a side that is even more significant. The overwhelming sentiment displayed there against the no-strike pledge is basically a revolt against the still remaining class collaboration policy. As such it represents a great advance toward class consciousness.

A new leadership growing out of this renewed militancy exists so far only in an embryonic stage; and it is therefore still rather formless. But the important thing is that these new factors are in the making. They are a product both of the changes of internal circumstances as well as of the higher level of internal dynamics. These new factors in the making are decisive. For while the old and the sordid still exists alongside of the new developments the latter already carry impressive weight because they are destined to supersede the former.

The emergence of the CIO and the simultaneous growth of the AFL has brought the labor movement up to approximately 15 million members. This is a very impressive record. This in itself is an enormous quantitative change which has not failed to produce a qualitative difference: A new and higher quality is added. Millions of workers have become union conscious. And many of them have also learned that lasting benefits and permanent security can be gained only by their own solidarity and actions. Naturally, a greater and better organized labor force generates a far greater consciousness of strength and a readiness to make use of it. Every actual experience of effectiveness can only add to this consciousness. And the fact that labor organization now embraces the workers in practically all of the major basic industries – the decisive section for both industry and labor – has added a full measure to this potential effectiveness. This movement is now a much more complete expression of labor as a distinct and powerful social force. Moreover, the turbulent emergence of the CIO and the simultaneous growth of the AFL reintroduced into the ranks of organized labor the spirit and method of revolt.

A New Cycle

It is now quite certain that the specific features of the Gompers’ era of development will be negated. The forces for their destruction and change are already at work. That the new cycle of development will assume infinitely larger dimensions and occur on a higher level is equally certain.

The logic of present social relations leads inescapably to this conclusion. The decline and decay of capitalism already carries ample evidence of becoming much more stormy, dramatic, and even much more violent than its rise. The more desperate its position, the greater the fury of its attacks upon organized labor. But also, while at its inception the labor movement fought only for the right to bargain collectively and for the establishment of trade unions, it will now be fighting for its very life. Moreover to attain any success at all, it will have to take on the fight for a new social order.

The lines are being drawn for the conflicts to come. How well is the labor movement prepared to meet the test? Organizationally it is reaching its manhood. Politically, however, it is still an infant; “mai c’est l’enfant terrible,” Its political growth and maturity are now about to begin. And, remaining true to its recent past it will most likely progress in gigantic leaps. Thus history will once again record a change of far reaching consequences; for its coming political growth and maturity will have a terrific impact on all future social developments.

This turning point is linked up directly with the war’s end and a return to a peace economy. Of course, we are not going to witness anything even approaching what is called a normal peace economy. Under declining and decaying capitalism this is no longer within the realms of possibility. On the contrary. Depressions, crises and wan – relieved only by temporary ebbs and flows which in no way alter the basis – this is all that capitalism can offer. And this is also the fatal weakness of its economic structure.

Existing governmental regulations, restrictions and controls of the productive forces were established as a matter of necessity – the adaptation to total warfare. Because of the highly integrated and socialized organization of production there was no other way for capitalism to assure the colossal requirements of war and to secure the manpower needed for production. Nor was there any other way for it to make sure that labor be held in check while it reaped super-profits out of war. So, naturally, the restrictions were not applied to profits at all. Yet the employers were not entirely free to deal with labor in their own way. The government took charge of industrial and social relations.

In order to provide a cover for the fiction of national unity the governmental regulatory and controlling agencies, from the War Labor Board, the War Manpower Commission, etc., to the Economic Stabilizer and the War Mobilization Director, had to appear as “impartial” arbiters. This complex of agencies supposedly represented equally capital and labor together with the so-called public. But, alas, in class society the government is always and exclusively the executive authority of the ruling class. In a society based upon capitalist production the government functions in the interests of capitalism and can function in no other way. No matter how deftly these agencies manipulated they turned out to be instruments of the employers against labor. Through repeated and bitter experiences the labor movement found them to be by and large one-sided affairs. The big corporations had little difficulty in securing ever mounting profits; labor however, was thwarted.

As a result of this the workers are now beginning to assimilate their first lesson. They are learning that the much touted impartiality is a hollow mockery; that the no-strike pledge defrauded them of their only real weapon.

The Primacy of Politics

The labor movement had to deal directly with these governmental agencies and it found itself again and again in conflict with them. The conflict extended beyond the framework of the agencies. United States Congress became an anti-labor forum. So much so that trade unionists today pretty well accept the Smith-Connally Act as typical of the Congress attitude. What is less clear to them is the general relationship between these various branches of government and between the government and the employers of labor. Vaguely they understand that the monopoly concerns always get the best of bargains in Washington. Most often, however, they tend to absolve the President of any responsibility for the hostility or the actions of his officially appointed subordinates. Consequently they do not yet see the full implication of class government. But once the logic of this relationship makes itself sufficiently felt, which will not take long, the second important lesson will follow quickly. They will learn that labor has no friends among the political agents of privilege.

Nevertheless the labor movement cannot at all relapse into political indifference. Every problem that it faces becomes increasingly political in character. Not only is this the case with ordinary civil liberties but it applies ever more and more to questions of wages and working conditions, the union shop, the cost of living, and above all it applies to the rapidly approaching post-war problem of jobs. Workers are now restless, demanding higher wages and showing their fear of coming unemployment. Promises made by the politicians for jobs are greeted with growing doubts and suspicion. Every struggle in which the workers now engage is elevated immediately into a political struggle. And it will be no less so in the post-war period of struggles for jobs and for bread.

Under such conditions organized labor will be compelled to acknowledge the futility of continuing to play the capitalist political shell game. For just as the no-strike pledge helps to preserve and increase capitalist profits so does the antiquated Gompers’ political policy help to preserve capitalist rule.

The conclusion to be drawn from these lessons cannot be long delayed. In fact it lies immediately ahead. It points definitely and unfailingly toward independent labor political action – the organization of a labor party. That is the only possible conclusion that the labor movement can come to at its present stage of development. It is inevitable. The 1944 presidential election will be in all likelihood the last in which the traditional and exclusive two-party system is retained. If President Roosevelt, about whom many workers have illusions, is defeated in ‘this election, which is not excluded, the process will be swifter. Nevertheless, regardless of the outcome of this election, a labor party is a certainty. Sheer necessity will compel the trade unions to supplement the inexorably severe industrial struggles that lie ahead with independent political action.

It is entirely possible that this may take on a somewhat emasculated form at first. Instead of a distinct labor party, based upon the trade unions, we may witness an initial beginning in the form of a third party of labor together with so-called liberal petty bourgeois elements, including diverse and frustrated politicians. But even this would be no serious deterrent. The labor movement will be sufficiently strong and cohesive to assert its undisputed preponderance. Besides, under the conditions of the impending events, labor alone can give leadership.

We are not unmindful of the fact that any suggestion of independent labor political action has so far remained a complete anathema to the patriarchs of the AFL. To them it appears entirely too revolutionary. And anything even mildly revolutionary has about as much chance before them as before a Vatican conclave. It is looked upon as the devil’s own handiwork. But their opposition will be sure to prove much less formidable than that of the Roman hierarchs. The power and sweep of coming political developments will be even more irresistible than the great organization drive following the last great depression.

To speak of the cohesion of the labor movement may just now seem premature in view of the existing division into two almost equally powerful organizations. That, however, need not be counted as a serious obstacle. And it will prove less so in a field of political activity once the ties between the present labor leaders and Roosevelt’s coattails are severed. The likelihood is that such activity will provide a strong impulse toward organizational unification.

Incidentally, the Political Action Committee, headed by Sidney Hillman, is itself an unwitting proof of present labor political trends. It has emerged at this time only as a stop-gap. It appeared in order to create the illusion of a political departure, of projecting new policies and methods, while in reality it is only a repetition of the futile past. One could apply to the PAC the terse sarcastic remark of Marx when he said, in reference to Hegel’s statement about great events and personalities reappearing upon the stage of universal history in one fashion or another, that: “He forgot to add that, on the first occasion, they appear as tragedy; on the second as farce.” William Green carries the Gompers’ credo to the point of endorsing Congressman Dies and receives in return a protest from the unions of Dies’ own bailiwick in Texas. The Illinois AFL State Federation of Labor endorses Senator Lucas in spite of his vote for the Smith-Connally Act. And now comes Sidney Hill-man. With the greatest bravado he claims credit for the defeat of some particularly odious legislators and proclaims his power to deliver the votes to Roosevelt while remaining in deadly fear of setting the masses into motion for his own professed aims.

The PAC started out with well attended conferences in many localities. Local unions were attracted in the expectation of some sort of political action. But the top leaders, ever mindful of the latent explosive dynamics of an aroused mass movement, quickly narrowed the whole affair to their own committee and added some “respectable” citizens. After that it was sustained only by the outcries of the fearful middle class and by the publicity of those who used the PAC deliberately as a punching bag to enlarge those fears for their own partisan purposes. While its ability to deliver the labor vote to Roosevelt is questionable, its service to the labor movement is nil.

The Labor Party

Of course, the working class will not find the solution to its serious problems raised by the conditions of decay capitalism even in the emergence of a labor party. This is not a final answer. At best it is only a preliminary and partial answer. In its classic sense a labor party can do no more than fill an interim stage. In fact it will raise more problems than it solves. Naturally the existing interrelation of class forces in motion will determine its position, its attitude, and its actions.

However, it is not our purpose to go into this question now. That is the subject for a subsequent article. Suffice it to say at present that the formation of a national labor party will be a concrete expression of a higher level of political consciousness on the part of the working masses. As such it serves as an important step on the road leading toward workers power.

But the culmination of present political trends in the concrete form of a labor party still remains a short term perspective. If we examine the outlook for the labor movement from the long term point of view we will become only so much more certain of the impending deep-going changes of which the labor party stage is a part.

The war is now drawing toward its end. It would be idle to speculate at this time about the degree of governmental regulations and restrictions that are to be carried over into the peace economy. The salient fact is that as the decline of capitalism progresses alongside of its narrowing into fewer and greater monopoly combines, governmental regulations, restrictions and outright control will of necessity increase.

During the decades of the celebrated “rugged individualism,” capitalism resented all direct governmental intervention into or control of economic enterprise. All that it expected from the government in a field of open economic expansion was the necessary stimulus and protection. Free and untrammeled competition was the slogan. But under that slogan the exact opposite, the process of monopolization took shape and grew to monstrous proportions. Not only have automatic processes and assembly line production, vastly accelerated by the war, created a condition of complete interdependence of manufacturing operations. But monopolization means an ever greater social organization of production, integrating all spheres of social life. And – once again a paradox – the more gigantic the monopoly concerns the less they are able to stand on their own feet precisely because of this social integration. Their ups and downs affect the economic fabric. Their growth spells doom to the independent small business. The huge scope and the explosive nature of their labor relations become a threat to the whole structure. Therefore governmental regulations and controls, formerly an interference, now become a necessity to the capitalist system. This also has changed into its opposite owing to the interplay of economic and social relations.

This necessity was foreshadowed in the governmental plant seizures; but it will not be any less in the coming post-war depression. In the first place the government is confronted with the task, imposed by the capitalist system of production and distribution, of attempting to realize the profits of imperialist conquests, of attempting to keep some of the huge manufacturing plants in operation, finding outlets for the enormous surplus of finance in the hands of a few, attempting to create jobs and provide measures of relief. Above all the government is confronted with the task, also imposed by the capitalist system of production, of attempting to keep the masses of the disinherited in subjugation under conditions of stress and of class antagonisms sharpened to the point of a razor’s edge. Obviously all of these tasks require extensive governmental regulations and control.

Both wars and depressions are after all manifestations as well as the direct outcome of the mounting social contradictions of decaying capitalism.

Historical Alternative

The monopolists of finance and industry will be compelled to accept these extensive state interventions. But, with their lucrative war profits at an end, they will turn so much more savagely against any union restrictions, against any labor demands, and against the standard of living established by union organization. They will attack the labor unions to destroy them.

All the virulent forerunners of this attack are plainly visible in newspaper columns and clearly audible from radio commentators. With the specter of unemployment a grim reality for millions of war workers and for other millions of service men and women, the attempt to strike a crippling blow, if not a death blow to the labor movement, will not be long delayed. Capitalism will seek to repeat the methods derived from its decades of early and aggressive expansion. At that time, during depressions and panics, it more than once succeeded in striking crippling blows to a youthful labor movement. Now again it will attack with all the means at its disposal. It will utilize particularly its political power – its control of the state. All state restrictions and controls will be enforced particularly in the field of relations of production, i.e., in the interest of the employers and against labor. In that capacity the state becomes more directly and more openly the armed institution of force at the disposal of the capitalist class.

Therefore, from the long range perspective, even more surely does the labor movement become compelled to take a political class position. It will turn leftward. It will become rapidly radicalized. There will be no lack of determination as the labor movement meets the attack blow for blow; and every strike it engages in, even over the most ordinary industrial disputes, will become much more directly a part of an openly acknowledged class warfare.

Facing a struggle of life and death it cannot take long before the labor movement will be obliged to accept the revolutionary way out. It will enter the struggle for socialization of the means of production and for all power to the workers. That, of course, is a political struggle of the highest order.

Every step in this direction the labor movement will tread on the road opposite to that of its past: the exact opposite of the Gompers’ type of political neutrality. That policy was not only futile hut devoid of class content In its essence it was and it remains reactionary, thoroughly conforming to the spirit and the method of class collaboration. The fundamental change will begin. From seeking the means of preserving capitalist rule labor will henceforth seek the means of its destruction. From a political policy of helping to maintain the capitalist system labor will turn to the political struggle to overthrow it.

Changing economic conditions leave the labor movement no other alternative. The labor movement is no longer a mere bargaining representative of a narrow strata of skilled workers; it is the organized, articulate, expression of the American masses. Its growth and change began in earnest after the capitalist system had already reached its downward curve. And for the latter, the conditions of constant expansion have also turned to the opposite. Each depression and crisis becomes more deadly to its social system. It is this situation which poses the alternative of a decaying capitalist world or a rising workers world.

And let us remember that it was the labor movement which from its very inception proceeded to write some of the most glorious pages of American history. During the ’thirties of the last century this young virile body was the outstanding single force which contributed so much to basic social reforms and marked out the lines along which progress was to be made for the next generation and more. To mention only a few: the establishment of a public school system, the abolition of imprisonment for debt, the abolition of property qualifications for voting, the abolition of legal property qualifications for holding political office, and so on. Later, this same labor movement proved, in the struggles leading up to and during the crusade for the eight-hour workday, that its spirit and actions were thoroughly filled with the revolutionary tendency of the times.

The antithesis which under Gompers and his successors replaced this early grandeur is now about to pass into limbo. The class actions, born of a revolutionary spirit once prevailing, will again be restored. But the movement will assume infinitely larger dimensions and occur on a much higher level than before.

The American labor movement is reaching the turn of the road. Will it measure up to its tasks? Will it fight? To those who might have doubts I want to quote from a simple but earnest message.

It was in 1937 during the sit-down strikes in Flint, Mich. General Motors had declared its readiness for a last ditch fight. The National Guard had been brought in. Its officers were coldly discussing the methods of clearing the plants: Should it be by shooting the strikers out or pouring gas through the ventilating system? A court order set three o’clock on February 3 as the deadline. The final decision for action was in the hands of Governor Murphy. The strikers remained grimly in the plants and wired Murphy their decision:

“Unarmed as we are, the introduction of the militia, sheriffs or police with murderous weapons will mean a bloodbath of unarmed workers ... We have decided to stay in the plant. We have no illusions about the sacrifices which this decision will entail. We fully expect that if a violent effort is made to oust us many of us will be killed, and we take this means to make it known to our wives, to our children, to the people of the State of Michigan and the country, that if this result follows from an attempt to eject us, you are the one who must be held responsible for our deaths.”

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