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Jack Wilson

Roosevelt Trips Up Labor Unity

His Spurious ‘Pence Plan’ No Substitute for Labor Unity

(February 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 5, 2 February 1942, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Fearing the independent power and vast influence of 10,000,000 organized workers unified into one organization, President Roosevelt brazenly maneuvered last week to block labor unity between the CIO arid the AFL, and to substitute in its place a spurious peace plan.

His direct intervention, as President and as a capitalist politician, into the internal affairs of the labor movement, in order to carry out a “divide and rule” policy, set a most dangerous precedent for the union movement, and one which should be repudiated by labor.

The prospects of immediate labor unity frightened the Roosevelt regime and the big industrialists, primarily because they realized that the attractive powers of a unified labor movement would bring millions of more workers into the unions.

Roosevelt also knew he would have much more difficulty in controlling such a vast union movement, so he rushed to counteract the effects of John L. Lewis’ proposal that labor unity be achieved promptly. The big majority of the capitalist newspapers and magazines, as part of the drive to block labor unity, twisted and turned the issues involved so that they might confuse the ranks of labor.

In explaining why the press turned against the Lewis proposal, James S. Twohey Associates, a service which specializes in studying and reporting newspaper editorial opinions, said it resulted from four factors:

  1. Fear of too powerful a labor group.
  2. Fear that Lewis would control all labor.
  3. Fear that labor would be in a better position to press for the closed shop.
  4. Fear that labor was not sufficiently aware of its own responsibilities to warrant one federation.

The main factor of these four according to the survey, was the basic fear that labor would become too powerful!

Most Convincing Argument

Could there be any stronger, more convincing arguments for labor unity, as outlined in last week’s Labor Action, than the openly expressed, almost hysterical fear the bosses have of labor unity!

There is an historical parallel between the ways the newspapers reacted to John L. Lewis’ proposal for labor unity and his moves to form the CIO in November 1936.

At that time, fearing industrial unionism, the newspapers sought to confuse American workers and alienate them from the CIO by saying that the only effect of the growth of the CIO would be to make Lewis a dictator.

Events showed, however, that the advantages to the rank and file workers in mass production industries by the victories of the CIO far outweighed any personal gains Lewis might try to make out of the situation.

Essentially the same thing holds true today for the proposal for labor unity. The advantages to the ranks of labor, as outlined in our last week’s article, far outweigh any personal advantages which Lewis might seek to obtain through his proposal.

Especially since the basic issue between the CIO and the AFL, namely, craft unionism vs. industrial unionism in mass production industries, has been settled in favor of the CIO, and no labor official, of any group, could get to first base if he were to try shattering the industrial unions into helpless craft union organizations.

The actions of the CIO executive council in rejecting Lewis’ proposal were reactionary because they placed the CIO formally under the thumb of Roosevelt and they failed to answer clearly and honestly the issues involved in labor unity.

Few newspapers reported that Lewis proposed to the CIO council a special convention to debate the issue, or else hold a national secret referendum of the rank and file of the CIO. No matter how demagogic the motives of Lewis in making these proposals might be, and Lewis is no stranger to demagogy, they deserve a serious and direst answer for the benefits of the ranks.

Both the CIO and the AFL executive councils, under the thumb of Roosevelt, went counter to the interests and views of the vast majority of organized workers in America, as emphasized again in the recent Gallup Poll on the question of labor unity. The ranks are overwhelmingly for it.

The CIO has a very simple way to assure its continued domination in the mass production industries in the event of any unity negotiations. Get a closed shop in Big Steel, in autos and elsewhere. Fighting for this demand is not something apart from unity. It is part and parcel of the trend toward unity, which is strengthened by having all labor back the steel and auto workers.

Short-Sighted Approach

The short-sightedness and bureaucratic approach to the labor unity question on the part of CIO leaders was expressed crudely by R.J. Thomas, president of the CIO Auto Workers: “I am not interested in the American Federation of Labor. I am willing to cooperate in avoiding jurisdictional disputes, but I am still not willing to sit down with a bunch of racketeers.”

That there are racketeers in the AFL leadership is no secret. To use this as an argument against taking steps, together with AFL representatives, is nonsense, and comes with poor grace from labor leaders who sit down like a flash with imperialist war-mongers to discuss how to keep labor’s nose to the grindstone during the war. The argument, in another form, of course, is often heard from AFL bureaucrats who “won’t sit down with communists.”

Isn’t Thomas interested in 5,000,000 organized workers who comprise the AFL? He is getting to sound like one of those diehard reactionaries in the AFL who spend a lifetime not being interested in the interests of the millions of industrial workers.

The best methods of avoiding jurisdictional disputes is not to take them up piecemeal as they arise, but for the unions to settle this question fundamentally during any unity negotiations.

As for the question of racketeers in the AFL, the CIO in a drive for labor unity would be in an excellent position to help the AFL rank and file clean out any racketeer elements.

If the CIO executive council would call for labor unity and put on the agenda as one of the points of negotiations, cleaning them out, the AFL leaders’ who cover up those elements would be unable to get away with the present disgraceful situation.

And by the way, Thomas and other CIO leaders find no difficulty whatever in sitting down with Dan Tobin, of the Teamsters Union, which has none too healthy a record, nor with William Green, AFL president, who has gone to one AFL union convention after another without lifting a finger to help oust the racketeers from power.

The needs of the working class as a whole demand a class approach to the labor unity question, not the narrow bureaucratic approach of the various cliques in the trade union leadership.

Speculation about the future course of John L. Lewis does not concern us greatly. His actions, as head of the powerful United Mine Workers Union, have considerable importance but are not decisive in this question.

Against this spurious peace plan of Roosevelt, which makes the three CIO and AFL leaders on the new six-man board his bootlicking flunkeys, the ranks of labor must continue to struggle for labor unity, for democracy in the trade unions, for organisation campaigns, and to make the rich pay for their war.

The main purpose of the new board, as openly admitted by the CIO and AFL leaders, and by Roosevelt, is to tie the labor movement more closely to the imperialist war machine.

Experience will demonstrate again that the only real weapon labor has in obtaining its rights is its own independent power and strength. And that labor unity is the way to concentrate this power and strength most effectively.

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