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B.J. Widick

In the Labor Unions

(16 May 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 33, 16 May 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Too many reports have been coming from Washington, D.C., in the last two months of a growing estrangement between John L. Lewis, C.I.O. chairman, and President Roosevelt to ignore any longer.

Certainly, the Lewis letter blaming the Roosevelt administration for the impasse in the coal strike can hardly make relations between them friendlier.

Lewis was chagrined by the failure of the Roosevelt administration to support legislation guaranteeing union rates and conditions on all government armament orders, as we pointed out in, a previous column of the Socialist Appeal.

Then Lewis let it be known in Washington that he was suspicious of Roosevelt’s crusader policy in foreign affairs. Off the record he suggested to some reporters that he was an isolationist. At least his statements hinted strongly in that direction.

In his letter against the Roosevelt administration policy in the coal strike, Lewis made this very significant statement, referring to the fact that Kentucky, West Virginia, etc., were withholding unemployment benefits to the strikers. “The implications of this situation are obvious when one considers the political control in the four states in question.” Only Pennsylvania, with a recently elected Republican administration, has ruled that the strikers are entitled to unemployment insurance checks!

Union Sacred

Since Lewis can scarcely be classified as a dull politician, his attitude must be judged as reflecting to a large extent the feelings of his followers, especially the miners.

To the miners, one thing is sacred. That is the union. Unionism is part and parcel of their lives. All events and people are judged primarily by their effect on the union.

While Roosevelt has great personal popularity among the workers, it has been diminishing, and the empty stomachs of the miners will promote this growing tendency.

Under the impact of events Lewis’ followers are beginning to realize that a policy of tail-ending the Roosevelt administration means continued retreat and weakening of the C.I.O.

Over two months ago we heard from a man who has been associating with Lewis for twenty years that he was thinking of switching his party alliance again. It should be remembered that Lewis was a Republican for most of his life. And he considers the Southern Democrats and the Hagues as the most dangerous opponents of the C.I.O.

The fact that most of Lewis’ strength in the labor movement centers around industrial areas which are heavily isolationist, furnishes a clue to his position on foreign policy. The “unreasonableness” of the Army and Navy departments on the armaments orders must also have cooled Lewis’ ardor for supporting Roosevelt in a holy war against fascism.

Important Trend

The political implications of this new trend in the policies of Lewis – who is the decisive subjective factor in determining C.I.O. programs – are far-reaching and should be carefully borne in mind.

His blast at Roosevelt runs directly counter to the basic policy of his Stalinist allies who played down this angle of the coal strike in the Daily Worker. His private opinions on foreign policy, while not basically different, do likewise.

A more favorable setting for Labor Party agitation has been created as a result of his criticism of Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. It would be no easy job to switch the workers from one bankrupt party to another bankrupt party.

Postscript: Another, reason for the coolness between Lewis and Roosevelt is the wielding of what Louis Stark, New York Times labor reporter, called the “big stick” by Roosevelt on the C.I.O. and the A.F. of L. to patch up a labor peace. The “big stick” happened to be a threat of compulsory arbitration of all labor disputes, we were informed.

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