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Jack Wilson

From Our West Coast Correspondent

Shop Steward System Is Vital to the Union

(March 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 11, 17 March 1941, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A prominent union militant in Los Angeles made some interesting comments on the union stories and the rank and file aircraft letters in Labor Action that are worth discussing.

“I get the impression that the boys who read your paper or who support you think, that if only the Stalinists or the bureaucrats in charge of a union would be ousted, then you’d have real rank and file participation and good union meetings.

“I used to think so, too. In fact, in our own we had, as a major point against the Stalinists, the fact that they introduced so damn many resolutions that union business was never attended to, and the membership didn’t attend. And, of course, the CP was able to keep control.

“But after we finally ousted them and put in a program which I’m sure you’d say was O.K., we still had the same problem. In fact, I sometimes get disgusted with the whole business. You work and fight for the rank and file to control a union, and then they don’t pitch in with you,” he said.

Leon Trotsky made some very pertinent observations on this question a couple of years ago, in an interview with a Chicago union organizer which was published at that time in the Trotskyist press:

“More workers will participate in the union meetings if the business taken up is close to their hearts; if genuine union democracy prevails; if the workers aren’t wind-bagged to death with long speeches, etc.”

But the fact remains, and young and inexperienced unionists must bear it in mind to maintain a sense of proportion on union work, that even under the most favorable union conditions, rank and file participation never develops to the point desired by some.

In the very best days of the rubber workers’ unions in Akron, for example, a union membership meeting of 500 out of 9,000 dues paying members was considered good attendance.

On vital questions like a strike vote, about 50 per cent of the union membership would participate. This was in the days when the URWA wasn’t taking a back seat to any union in the country for militancy, rank and file participation, freedom of political expression, etc. Other unions likewise bad similar experiences.

You begin to understand this phenomenon when you see the regular union meeting as a sort of a representative assembly, as so many of the workers see it. That is, the boys who come to the Sunday meetings twice a month are usually the leaders In their department, shop stewards, militants, politically conscious elements, etc.

When the union is functioning properly in the plant through a shop steward system, the rank and file participates most decisively in the department or division meetings.

Democracy in the union movement consists, besides the usual right of criticism, speech, voice, etc., in building a union structure within the plant so that the rank and file pitches in to settle its own problems.

The proper way to get at the problem of the bureaucrats’ gag rules, etc., in union meetings, is through building the structure within the plants. The shop workers who don’t attend union meetings aren’t easy to arouse against something they don’t feel directly. But their grievances in the plant bear directly on their welfare, and they do want and will discuss them at a department meeting, demanding action. Here is where a smart union militant functions first. He becomes a leader there. This is the real union.

Experienced unionists have long said that a contract is neither good nor bad but enforcing it makes it so. A good shop steward system in the shop, fighting every inch of the way, can put teeth into a contract that the management never dreamed existed when they signed. And many a good contract became its opposite because no shop steward system was set up to follow through.

Of course, the ideal is to have the best contract and the best shop steward system. But, as people learn, there is nothing ideal in the conditions or aspects of the class struggle. You deal with the material on hand, the best you can.

Another thing, and I note this in some of the aircraft letters, in judging a union situation or a signed contract, what counts is not only what the union gets but, and sometimes this becomes decisive, what the “intangible” results are.

I mean by this the following. After the seven week Goodyear strike in 1936, the contract signed wasn’t so hot. That is, by itself it didn’t raise wages, etc., so much as one would have expected.

But that didn’t exhaust the question. The most important single gain was the development of union consciousness, of class consciousness, of arousing the spirit and determination of all Akron workers. The Goodyear boys went back, putting teeth into the contract, fighting grievance settlements, wage increases, against speed-up, etc., and in a short time had a real union.

That is why it is a fatal mistake, too frequently, indulged in by many “politicos” and unionists, to judge a strike settlement as a victory or defeat purely by what the capitalist paper said about the terms of the settlement. Often that is not enough!

This same kind of rounded out point of view is what is needed today in judging the many strikes in the country. It is what is lacking in the letter to the editor in a recent Labor Action where a headline on a story I wrote is criticized because it emphasizes that the CIO workers are on the march, rather than that the union leaders are holding the CIO workers back. (I skip the fact that a correspondent never writes the headline, or sees it beforehand. The editor does that.) What is important is that the critic falls to understand what is the vital thing to get across.

Today the vital point to make is that labor, despite all the national unity propaganda, is fighting for its rights, against bearing the cost of the war. The class struggle goes on. One must start from that decisive fact. It must be emphasized over and over again, because the capitalists are trying to conceal and suppress the struggle, and despairing souls fail to see it.

Don’t oversimplify the whole question by seeing the union movement as the rank and file straining at the leash while the bureaucrats always hold back. That is largely true, but not the whole story.

It is not true today, specifically in aircraft, the industry in which the letter-to-the-editor writer works. Aircraft workers in Southern California, to be concrete, are not union-conscious like the autoworkers, for example. It’s a job selling Unionism to them, hard work overcoming the propaganda on which they’ve been fed.

The union spirit here is something quite different from that in San Francisco, for example. Or Detroit, or Flint. It takes time, and struggle, and great struggles which burn themselves into the consciousness of the workers, to get that old do or die spirit which is perhaps the most magnificent characteristic of the American workers.

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