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Arne Swabeck

The Split in the AFL-CIO

(August 1958)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.4, Fall 1958, pp.119-123.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What happened to “Operation Dixie” and the organization of white-collar workers? While labor officials vie for favor in business circles, new union-busting laws spell fresh danger

SCARCELY three years ago the AFL and the CIO joined forces in a united organization. Ostensibly, this action was inspired by the compelling need for common defense against the trend of punitive and oppressive labor legislation which had become so painfully apparent with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. But now, while punitive and oppressive legislative measures have been building up to a formidable threat and even before the merger has been fully consummated on the local levels, the body so recently united has again split wide open.

This split has none of the progressive features that characterized the turn of events during the great struggles of the thirties. The division that took place then was motivated fundamentally by the irresistible urge for organization displayed by millions of workers in the giant mills and factories across the nation. The major segment of ossified craft-union leaders was utterly incapable of facing up to this task; the craft-union form of organization was hopelessly inadequate; so the CIO arose outside of the parent body.

This time, however, the split has been engineered exclusively at the bureaucratic top levels. It has been compounded by corruption, racketeering, and criminally irresponsible disregard of the pressing need for labor unity to head off the mounting attacks by Big Business and its governmental agencies.

Less than a year ago the 1,500,000 member Teamsters union was expelled from the AFL-CIO. Shortly thereafter followed the expulsion of the Bakery Workers union and the Laundry Workers union. The unscrupulous crooks and panderers at the head of these organizations had been hauled before the McClellan Committee as a part of its effort to discredit the labor movement. Even though Meany and Reuther, sounding off for the bureaucratic hierarchy, could not avoid recognizing the anti-labor bias of the committee, their reflex action was instantaneous.

Above all they were concerned with the question of bourgeois respectability. Facing up to the committee’s challenge was farthest from their thoughts, Instead they resorted quickly to the only measure they seem to know – punitive action against the unions already victimized by the pandering parasites.

Subsequently, the expelled Teamsters union entered a series of mutual aid pacts with a number of AFL-CIO affiliates. Among them, the Retail Clerks union is deeply indebted to the Teamsters for aid in obtaining a union contract with Montgomery Ward & Company. And in cooperation with other unions the Teamsters are now tackling the organization of workers in the far-flung Sears Roebuck commercial chain.

The expulsion did not impair the patently powerful strategic position occupied by the Teamsters union. This is the union that moves things to the mills and plants, to the construction sites and to the commercial establishments, reaching into every hamlet of the nation. This invests the Teamsters union with exceptionally potent economic bargaining powers vis-à-vis the employers. Its strategic position in relation to a large number of unions is no less pronounced. This derives from the fact that the latter, in their efforts to hold the union line, whether it be in struggle for wages and working conditions or to expand organization, are most directly dependent upon the support of the men who drive the trucks. The teamsters have won renown everywhere for their aggressive and militant union action. They come closer than the members of most other unions to living up to the indispensable working-class principle: Never cross a picket line.

That the Teamsters union intends to take further advantage of its strategic position is clearly indicated. Hoffa, who succeeded Beck as president, did not escape too successfully the heavy corruption charges levelled against him. Perhaps he now feels that he holds office on probation, so to speak, and is eager to strike out along new paths. At any rate, bold and audacious plans for a huge transportation union combine have come out of Hoffa’s sumptuous headquarters at the Teamsters Palace in Washington, D.C.

The plans envisage the welding of all land, sea and air transportation unions into a grand alliance, which could, if successful, embrace some fifty unions, both inside and outside the AFL-CIO, with a present combined membership of about 3,500,000 workers. If successful, it could also open up prospects of ending the debilitating disunity, conflicts and rivalry which have racked the unions engaged in transportation. This fact alone suffices to mark its distinctly progressive nature.

Signing a document on July 3, embodying the ideas of the alliance and projecting a conference of all unions concerned, were Hoffa for the Teamsters, Joseph Curran and William Bradley for the National Maritime Union and the East Coast Longshoremen’s union, respectively. It was further reported that the president of the Seafarers International Union had agreed to become one of the initiators of the conference on transportation unity.

It will be recalled that Curran, who is a vice-president of the AFL-CIO, was one of the hatchet wielders in the ostracizing of the Teamsters less than a year ago. He now breathes defiance at any threat of interference from his former partners in the hatchet job. The East Coast Longshoremen’s union had been previously expelled; but its membership defeated in three successive elections repeated attempts by Meany and company to set up a rival organization.

Anticipating the opening of the St. Lawrence seaway, preliminary steps have already been taken for an all-out drive to organize an estimated 200,000 Canadian dock and transportation workers. Decision to go ahead with the campaign “almost immediately” was reached at a recent meeting in Montreal of union representatives from both sides of the border, and sponsored by the initiators of the conference on transportation unity. The meeting received assurance of Canadian Labor Congress support.

“I Never Went on Strike in My Life!”

Not so here in the United States. The grandiose plans and projections from the Teamsters headquarters provoked a violent reaction. The mouthpieces of Big Business and its Washington political representatives opened a barrage of denunciation: “It’s a monopoly; it’s outside the pale of the legitimate trade-union movement; its power could paralyze the nation,” they screamed in a rising crescendo of vituperation and abuse. And George Meany joined the chorus in his own way and with his own bluster and threats.

Immediately upon his return from a month-long visit to Europe, Meany declared war on the spreading network of pacts between Federation units and truck drivers. Like John Foster Dunes, Meany has a penchant for the “art of brinkmanship.” But it must be said in justice to Dunes, that while he retreats, under compulsion, to meditate on agonizing reappraisals, Meany, on the contrary, rushes ahead.

Meany lost no time letting it be known that he would press for the expulsion of affiliated unions joining “any alliance to build up the strength and prestige of exiled organizations.” Commending Meany for his stand, Labor Secretary Mitchell raised the threat that unions may be put under anti-trust regulations if the proposed alliance of transportation unions succeeds. Chairman McClellan hurriedly summoned Hoffa and other Teamsters union officials for another round of Senate Committee “investigations.” Counsel to the Committee, Robert F. Kennedy, declared the projected alliance to be “far, far more dangerous to the US and its economy than all the Mafia and secret criminal organizations combined.” Overtly or covertly, measures of collaboration to prevent the unity of transportation workers have thus taken on wide ramifications. Implicit in these combined efforts is the threat of a deeper and more debilitating split in the AFL-CIO, further undermining its present precarious position.

Meany’s attitude is not at all surprising. His craven surrender in face of the obviously anti-labor objectives of the senatorial “investigations” is in perfect harmony with his arrogant and arbitrary schemes for a completely housebroken union structure. In this scheme labor militancy is to be shunned. Conversely, that type of structure leaves no room for trade-union democracy; much less does it enable the labor movement to accept what should be its natural role – that of leading champion of democracy in the nation.

Proceeding on this path, the AFL-CIO Executive Council, at its midsummer meeting, ordered all unions in the federation to cancel their pacts with the Teamsters. At the same meeting Meany filed charges of corruption against the Hotel and Restaurant Workers, the Meatcutters and the Carpenters unions. No thought was given to the idea of appealing to the rank and file members to clean out the crooks and racketeers. Such action is anathema to this bureaucratic hierarchy.

In every respect Meany personifies the bureaucratic upper crust, who adapt themselves in thought and action to the philosophy of the capitalist profit system and succumb in practice to all its implications. Meany never passes up an opportunity to affirm his faith in the capitalist system, including its present imperialist cold-war policy. Officials of the Hoffa type differ from this bureaucratic hallmark only in their greater and more reckless proclivities for pandering and pilfering.

In December 1956 Meany appeared as guest speaker at the convention of the National Association of Manufacturers. Evidently he had accepted the invitation as an opportunity to demonstrate how reliable and how indispensable he and his fellow bureaucrats are as “petty but active stockholders” in the capitalist enterprise, its plans and programs at home and abroad. Here is how Meany stated his qualifications for partnership:

“I never went on strike in my life, never ran a strike in my life, never ordered anyone else to run a strike in my life, never had anything to do with a picket line ...

“In the final analysis, there is not a great deal of difference between the things that I stand for and the things the NAM leaders stand for. I stand for the profit system. I believe it is a wonderful incentive. I believe in the free enterprise system completely.”

Most assuredly, the profit system is a wonderful incentive for those who were assembled in the NAM convention. It is the source of their fabulous power and wealth. But it is also the source of wars and crises, of exploitation, of unemployment, of inequality and insecurity. Under the profit system, the only maxim considered worthy of note, by those who reap its bountiful harvest, is to sell as dearly as possible and to buy as cheaply as possible – including the buying of labor power. Living up to this maxim, the manufacturing monopolists, the same as capitalists everywhere, resist wage increases, improvements of working conditions and recognition of workers rights with all the means and forces at their command. It is this that forms the basic content of the class struggle.

There is no evidence that the hard-boiled employers of the NAM accepted Meany’s assurances as sufficient qualifications for partnership in the capitalist enterprise. They will permit Meany to pick the crumbs from their banquet table while demanding that he translate his faith in the partnership into concrete terms of squelching any notions of militant action by the workers. But, in the final analysis, they are the conscious class enemies who give no quarter. And, just now, when the trade-union movement is beset by the ravages of unemployment, these monopolists appear determined to strike the blows that they hope will reduce its great potential powers. The rank-and-file workers therefore owe it to themselves to take another hard look at Meany’s qualifications for labor leadership.

“We Don’t Believe in the Class Struggle”

Reuther’s nimble shopkeeper type of opportunism supplements Meany’s rock-ribbed conservatism in the AFL-CIO leadership, imparting to it an appearance of well-rounded flexibility. Reuther recognizes as a guiding policy only whatever seems to him to be dictated by expediency. He fancies himself a “social engineer” and he has often displayed an ability to advance slogans, demands or lofty social ideals. In most cases, however, these have remained stillborn or been whittled down to such an extent as to be bereft of serious content.

In the realities of capitalist life, this is what happened to Reuther’s more recent proposals. The much-advertised “guaranteed annual wage” was reduced to meager supplemental unemployment compensation, honored by some states, rejected by others. The high-sounding profit-sharing plan was conveniently forgotten.

Admittedly, Reuther was catapulted into his present prominence by the dynamic rise and growth of the United Automobile Workers union, which itself had its origin in one of the most stormy periods of the class struggle in the United States. Yet he is now at great pains to repudiate that authentic history. The New York Times of March 28, 1958 quotes Reuther as saying: “We don’t believe in the class struggle. The labor movement in America has never believed in the class struggle.” But the class struggle catches up constantly with both Meany and Reuther.

Too often they mistake themselves for the labor movement, attributing to it their own views and beliefs. Meany’s turn to do so was last year when his message to the Big Business-sponsored Industrial Development Conference declared: “American labor believes that private enterprise has been and can be a great force for economic and social progress.” That was said just before the private enterprise system brought its present “recession,” leaving millions of unemployed workers to subsist on relief.

Thus by their own repeated declarations of views and beliefs these preachers of class peace provide a measure of judgment of the present-day American labor leadership. Their actions as well as their failures, furnish even more conclusive evidence. The labor leadership, so closely tied in words and deeds to the capitalist system, has become a distressingly true reflection of the decay and degeneracy of this system. The movement it leads suffers from the corrosive effects of these influences.

Why Have the Unions Stopped Growing?

The stinging observation made by Fortune magazine (April 1953) rings tragically true today:

“US labor has lost the greatest dynamic any movement can have – a confidence that it is going to get bigger. Organized labor has probably passed its peak strength ... Since 1946 the working population has expanded but union membership has remained stationary.”

While some unions like the Teamsters claim to have increased their membership, trade-union growth on the whole, judging by available evidence, has not kept abreast with the growing labor force. Most generally the officialdom lays the blame for this situation upon the union-busting Taft-Hartley Act and similar repressive labor legislation. However, as we shall see later, while there can be no denying the sinister effect of such legislation, this is not at all a complete explanation; much less can it serve as a justification for failure.

Indeed, the first decade of the Taft-Hartley Act has proved costly to trade-union organization. This, is further aggravated by enactment of the misnamed “right to work” laws which virtually outlaw the union shop – in not less than eighteen states, several of them located in the North, including the extensively industrialized state of Indiana.

Among examples of the impact of such legislative measures on labor organization, the case of the hosiery workers is perhaps the most extreme. Over 100,000 workers are employed in this industry, and it is one of those industries which are heavily affected by plant migration to the South. “Today union influence in the industry is at an ebb,” says a special report issued by the Industrial Department, AFL-CIO. Between September 1947 and September 1957 the union membership dropped by 76.5% and whole local branches were completely wiped out.

Another indication of decline in the ratio of union growth is presented by collective bargaining elections conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. In 1937 unions won nearly 95% of all elections, and about 87% of those voting favored the unions as bargaining agents. Of the elections conducted in 1955 the unions won 68%, whereas in 1957 the figure had dropped to 61%. Among those participating in the elections in 1953 about 79% voted for the unions; but in 1957 only 63%. In other words, the percentage of collective bargaining elections won by the unions shows a constant decline, and the same holds true for the percentage of workers favoring the unions as bargaining agents.

It is of course not to be expected that the trade-union movement should be able to keep on growing numerically and in terms of quality and power at all times and at the same ratio. Nor can it be expected under any and all circumstances to gain improvements for the workers that will ease their conditions of exploitation. Unions are instruments of struggle but their own internal dynamic remains at times dormant, only to explode and display a new spirit, vitality and strength at certain economic and political junctures when workers needs become particularly pressing. This is what happened during the thirties when the workers made a giant leap forward from the most backward to the most modern trade-union movement and did so on a grand scale. This complete transformation foreshadowed its immense potentialities for the future. By the same token this movement can fail to take advantage of its possibilities; it can fail to respond to its duties as an instrument of struggle; or it can retreat in the face of attacks at the cost of serious impairment of its own moral fibre and the undermining of its special economic and political position.

Precisely in this lies the real explanation for the pitiably weak and disoriented position of the trade-union movement now. The evil consequences of repressive labor legislation tell only a part of the story. Far more distressing is the dismal failure of the AFL-CIO leaders to pursue an active policy of organizational expansion.

There can now be no doubt that these leaders are as insensitive to the pressing needs of organizing the unorganized as was the pious Baptist deacon from Coshocton, Ohio, who preceded Meany in the presidency of the AFL. Moreover, if the builders of Rome had shown no more vigor and alacrity in their task than do these labor officials today, the streets would be still unpaved.

Plans for organization campaigns have been announced with a fanfare of publicity that has become so characteristic of the firm believers in the free-enterprise system. First it was “Operation Dixie” – a campaign to organize the South. Next came plans for a campaign to organize the white-collar workers. Both died a-borning. Not even a whisper can now be heard about such ventures.

Meanwhile the South remains a haven for the open shop and runaway plans. Enactment of “right to work” laws has proceeded virtually unchallenged. And the more intense exploitation of workers under open-shop conditions in the South, reinforced by these vicious laws, presents a constantly greater threat to the labor movement everywhere.

Among white-collar workers about 84% are still not in the unions, leaving a potential reservoir for organization of thirteen to fourteen million workers. Any economically peculiar position that white-collar people may think they occupy, says C. Wright Mills, is now practically a thing of the past:

“All the factors of their status position, which have enabled white-collar workers to set themselves apart from wage-workers, are now subject to definite decline. Increased rationalization is lowering the skill levels and making their work more and more factory-like.” (White Collar, p.297)

But unorganized white-collar workers have no power of collective bargaining. This deficiency has not been without effect on their economic status, especially during recent decades. The income level of the great mass of office workers and sales people has tended to decline relative to that of organized industrial workers. All these factors should indicate that conditions in this field cry out for organization.

Myth of the Well-Paid Worker

Against their failure of organizational expansion, it may seem from superficial observation that the unions have at least managed to uphold the wage level pretty well. But this is more appearance than reality. Wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of living; and wages always tend to lag behind output and profits. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that as of April 1958 a city worker with a wife and two children (the average American family) needed a minimum income of $90 a week for a “modest but adequate” standard of living. But the average weekly wage in manufacturing, after taxes, reported by the Department of Labor for June 1958 was $75.55. The average factory worker’s family thus falls nearly $15 short every week of a “modest but adequate” standard of living.

Some startling comparisons between wages and profits have been presented by Leon Keyserling. He says that during the period 1953-57 total dividend payments increased 80% faster than total wages and Salaries, and personal interest income about 110% faster. Comparing the first three quarters of 1957 with the like period of 1956, Keyserling finds that profits of the large automobile and steel corporations increased three times faster than wage rates in these industries.

Questions such as these become particularly pertinent in view of the growing employer resistance to wage increases, a resistance that is motivated entirely by the urge to maintain swollen profits, in callous disregard of the continually rising cost of living. Moreover, the hands of the employers are immensely strengthened and the unions are correspondingly weakened by the mounting anti-labor legislation, by Labor Board rulings increasingly hostile to labor and last, but not least, by the public scandalization of the unions before the McClellan Committee.

It is therefore not surprising that resistance to wage increases, and resistance to union organization, finds the corporations and the employers organizations more united than has been the case in the past: Witness the solid front presented by the Big Three in the automobile industry against the UAW. Who can deny that their ruthless abrogation of all former contract provisions has struck a formidable blow at the union? At the moment the trucking concerns in the eleven Western States are attempting, by united action, to enforce a total lockout of all union truck drivers. Its effects were felt immediately, idling workers far beyond these states and beyond the trucking industry. These are danger signals for labor.

The Legislative Assault

What Trotsky pointed out in his penetrating study, Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, is now very much apropos.

“Monopoly capitalism does not rest on competition and free private initiative but on centralized command. The capitalist cliques at the head of mighty trusts, syndicates, banking consortiums, etc., view economic life from the very same heights as does state power; and they require at every step the collaboration of the latter. In their turn the trade unions in the most important branches of industry find themselves deprived of the possibility of profiting by the competition between the different enterprises. They have to confront a centralized adversary, intimately bound up with the state power.”

This is evidenced on every hand. “Right to work” laws already enacted in eighteen states are now up for referendum vote next November in six additional states, including California and Ohio. Needless to mention, these initiatives are actively supported everywhere by the National Association of Manufacturers, with which Meany expressed identity of views and objectives; they are supported by Chambers of Commerce, banks and utility companies.

The relatively moderate Kennedy-Ives bill of regulatory union control seems sure to be shelved for this session of Congress. The reason is, however, that Big Business made its opposition clear and demanded a more definitely anti-labor bill, with teeth in it.

Meany and company, acting on behalf of the AFL-CIO hierarchy, supported the passage of this bill. With their craving for bourgeois respectability, they are ready to submit to further government regulation of the unions. That is, regulation by the government which they themselves have at times been compelled to accuse of favoritism to Big Business. This is the same government that they charged with failure to live up to its responsibilities concerning the present recession. It is the government that wields the club of the Taft-Hartley Act. This executive of the whole capitalist class is also the promoter of imperialist ventures so repugnant to the common people everywhere; ventures that are too often fraught with dangers of atomic annihilation.

What we witness now is the culmination of a decade of retreat and surrender by the present labor leadership. Since the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act a whole series of blows have rained down on the unions. And, from their erstwhile demand for repeal, the AFL-CIO chiefs have come down to the level of lobbyists pleading for further union controls. Their constant retreat and surrender served to embolden the centralized capitalist adversary while simultaneously disorienting the workers. The adversary has made full use of the opportunity to unite his forces more firmly, while the labor chieftains have been preoccupied with the deepening and widening of the split in the so recently merged AFL-CIO.

However the trade-union movement did not arise to promote the “wonderful incentive” of the profit system but to fight it; to fight against its injustices, its inequality and its abuses. The trade-union movement is a living organism, subject to change under the influence of changing conditions, under the influence of pressure from the class struggle.

The trade-union movement possesses its own internal dynamic which, though long dormant, will most assuredly be again manifest in new vitality and militancy. Its present equilibrium, held together by a heavily bureaucratized superstructure, lacks a stable foundation. This equilibrium may well be upset by the open and brazen utilization of repressive state powers by the centralized capitalist adversary.

For the trade-union movement, one choice may then hold out the greatest hope for restoring its position as a serious and mighty social force – entry onto the road of independent political action in the interest of all those who toil.

August 1958

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