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B.J. Widick

In the Labor Unions

(29 September 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 74, 29 September 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The conventions of the AFL and the CIO called for early in October assume historic significance because Congress will be in session on the war question at the same time.

Many a Washington politician is not going to cast his vote for or against Roosevelt’s war policies until he sees what the labor movement has to say.

Many Issues

War! That is the burning issue before the delegates to the two conventions. For or against the Roosevelt war program. For or against a people’s referendum on war.

Labor unity! Will it take the form of a united front against war and its menace to Organized Labor or will it be a unity with the Army and Navy to hogtie the unions to the military machine?

Roosevelt? Will the man who turned the New Deal into the War Deal be repudiated or is labor going to put its stamp of approval via a third term endorsement on its chief opponent?

While both conventions face many other important problems, these three questions are the decisive issues. Recent events give a fairly accurate forecast of how labor will give its answers.

Stalinist Turn

The new turn of the Stalinists (“Keep America Out of Imperialist War”) already has been felt in the labor movement. The New Haven Central Labor Union adopted the new line which includes ducking the neutrality issue as presented to Congress.

The American Federation of Hosiery Workers, CIO, rejected a resolution endorsing Roosevelt’s “peace policy,” and adopted the new C.P. line of “Keep Out of Imperialist War,” and for “true neutrality.”

Evasion of the fundamental problem of fighting against the war policies of Roosevelt is the essence of the new Stalinist treachery. It will carry much weight at the CIO convention because of the strength of the Stalinists in those unions.

Lewis Silent

The decision of the CIO convention, however, rests primarily on John L. Lewis and the top bureaucracy. Outside of his Labor Day blast Lewis has been silent. Perhaps he is waiting for the CIO convention to give his views a more authoritative backing?

Present indications are that Lewis will follow along the same lines of his Labor Day speech. His criticism of Roosevelt for spending sleepless nights worrying about entangling America in a foreign war while the unemployed starve at home probably will result in a convention decision against a change in the neutrality law.

Since the AFL top leadership has had a “more friendly ear” at the White House than the CIO in recent months, William Green and the AFL executive council will be more receptive to support of Roosevelt’s war program.


But they face an obstacle that will be very difficult to overcome. The Minnesota Federation of Labor convention went on record for a people’s referendum on war. Passage of a similar resolution at the national convention would constitute a heavy blow to Roosevelt’s war aims.

Let the People Vote on War! This rallying cry from the AFL and CIO conventions would gather whirlwind speed and support throughout the country. It would put a serious crimp in Roosevelt’s style.

Unity Prospects

Prospects for labor unity of any kind are less than they were a year ago. The AFL leaders think the CIO is rapidly disintegrating. Let time solve the problem.

John L. Lewis hasn’t even made a gesture towards reopening unity negotiations which were postponed at his suggestion during the coal strike last spring.

Roosevelt is pushing for a reactionary unity behind the war machine. The rank and file in both camps want unity but its voice has not been powerful enough yet to force a progressive unity.

Unity in action against M-day; against emasculation of the unions; against the de facto repeal of the wages and hours law and the Wagner act; against war profiteering; this kind of unity must emerge from the conventions. It will come only from rank and file pressure.

All the ballyhoo in the world can not keep the terrible tragedy of unemployment from demanding attention at the conventions. Will the unemployment problem be “solved” by sending millions to European trenches, or will all war funds go to the unemployed?

A Job for Delegates

The sniveling attitude of Lewis and company in begging for a labor representative on the War Board shows that any serious action will not come from them. It’s a job for the delegates.

A third term for Roosevelt was the usual stand of many labor conventions, both CIO and AFL. However, recent events changed this situation somewhat.

Rebuke Roosevelt

The New York State Federation of Labor very deliberately avoided a vote on that question as a rebuke to Roosevelt for his WPA wage cuts. There is much sentiment of that kind in the AFL. The executive council has always been divided on support of Roosevelt. A Republican wing headed by William Hutchinson of the Carpenters union, has other reactionary ideas.

From every point of view, this is one question on which the AFL convention will find itself divided. If a progressive wing develops at the convention capable of clearing through the muddle-headed thinking, repudiation of Roosevelt as a war-monger and anti-labor politician can become a reality.

Lewis Changes Tune

John L. Lewis recently changed his tune in regard to Roosevelt, as we outlined in a previous column. No longer is it the policy of the top CIO leaders to call for an unqualified endorsement of Roosevelt for a third term.

The Transport Workers Union convention, Stalinist-directed, last week passed a resolution giving the new line. For a president who carries out New Deal policies. No direct endorsement of Roosevelt! It’s the same line that Eli P. Oliver, executive vice-president of Labor’s Non-Partisan League, gave to the United Rubber Workers convention.

But will the CIO convention break with all capitalist politicians. Will it call for a labor candidate for president on a “Down with the War” program! On this decision rests the future of the CIO and the entire Labor Movement.

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