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Walter Jason

A Turning Point for the CIO

What Was Done and Not Done at the Cleveland Convention

(December 1949)

From The New International, Vol. XN No. 8, December 1949, pp. 227–230.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

No gathering in the history of the American labor movement attracted anywhere near the attention given the 11th annual convention of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in Cleveland, Ohio, during the first week of November 1949. More than 250 reporters, journalists, radio commentators and other writers covered this convention whose five days of sessions were broadcast throughout the world on the Voice of America programs and whose deliberations provided sensational daily headlines in the American press. Nor was this worldwide attention amiss. For it was a turning point in the history of the American labor movement, because for the first time since its birth and growth in 1937 the CIO as a decisive sector of the American labor movement was considering openly and unambiguously the problem of Stalinism both within the CIO and as a political force on the world scale.

A Convention of the Bureaucracy

Who confronted this problem at this convention? Primarily the CIO bureaucracy with nearly 613 delegates, most of whom were leaders of international unions which constitute the CIO. It was, so to speak, a porkchoppers’ convention. There were no rank and filers present. This then was the new labor aristocracy which had arisen in the past 10 years, and which had arrived at a breaking point in its past and not so complex relations with the Stalinist machine. Many of the CIO leaders had worked closely in alliance with the Stalinists over a period of years. Others were almost indistinguishable in their conduct from the Stalinists, leaders like Michael Quill of the Transport Workers Union and Joseph Curran of the National Maritime Union. This convention represented an irremediable break between the national trade-union bureaucracy rooted in the American labor movement and the Stalinist totalitarians desperately seeking to retain some organizational and political influence in the industrial union movement of America. The clash between these two forces was and is an uncompromising struggle for domination and control of the key industrial union movement of America, which has a membership of around five million and whose loyalties are largely with the CIO bureaucracy. It is unlikely that the Stalinist-controlled unions have more than 600,000 actual members.

The personification and symbol of the CIO bureaucracy was, of course, Philip Murray, president of the CIO, a man who rose to national prominence as a loyal lieutenant of John L. Lewis, founder of the CIO, and whose 35-odd-year career in the labor movement is marked by an unbroken record of bureaucratic domination, methods and outlook. (It seems like only yesterday, although it was three years ago, that Murray was still working closely with the Stalinists against progressive anti-Stalinist movements from below such as were symbolized by Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers Union.)

The outstanding Stalinist apologist at the CIO convention was Harry Bridges, president of the International Longshoremen’s Union, who earned nationwide prominence as a labor leader during the 1934 San Francisco general strike, and who has since then destroyed his militant past record by becoming acknowledged as the most capable, shrewd and undeviating Stalinist party liner in the CIO.

The Reasons for the Conflict

What were the sources of the open rupture or, more exactly, the amputation of the Stalinist bureaucrats from the CIO bureaucracy? Fundamentally there are two causes. First, within the framework of trade-union organization and policies the Stalinists have built up an unparalleled and terrible record of misleadership which included such items as (1) strike breaking, as, for example, in the Montgomery Ward strike during World War II, (2) totalitarian rule or ruin tactics against all opposition and critics, (3) advocacy of totally reactionary not to speak of antiunion policies, as, for example, agitation for piecework and incentive pay during the last war, and (4) total irresponsibility toward the union movement.

Such a criminal record would have long ago boomeranged and caused the Stalinists to be ousted from all strategic positions in the CIO except for the fact, which must not be forgotten, that during this period they were in an alliance with the CIO top leadership, including Philip Murray. Whatever strength they retain in such unions as the United Electrical Workers,

Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers and nine other smaller if somewhat vociferous unions, is due to the fact that the CIO rank and file was unable to defeat this unholy alliance. They were unable to break through the protective covering that the CIO bureaucracy gave the Stalinists. Only in the UAW-CIO with its magnificent and rich tradition of rank-and-file democracy were the active union cadres gathered around Walter Reuther able to smash Stalinism. An important factor today in the belligerency of the rest of the CIO bureaucracy toward the Stalinists is the triumph of the Reuther tendency in the UAW and the enlistment of this million-man-union against Stalinism and all it stands for in the labor movement.

The other basic source for the bureaucratic expulsion of the Stalinist-dominated unions and the Stalinist leaders from the top CIO officialdom is the pressure of the cold war between American and Russian imperialisms. The shift in the world situation with the adoption of a new line of the Comintern signified for the American Stalinists the advocacy of Henry Wallace for president on a pseudo-third party ticket and irreconcilable opposition to the Marshall Plan and all other manifestations of American foreign policy. The clash on these questions like the Marshall Plan, the Atlantic Pact, attitude toward the Polish question and other foreign policy problems between the Stalinists and the CIO bureaucrats at this convention mirrored the imperialist antagonisms of the two great world powers.

No one expected the CIO bureaucracy, which had worked with and often adopted the techniques of the Stalinist totalitarians, to carry out a militant, progressive and genuinely democratic struggle against Stalinism. The Murray leadership of the CIO resorted rather to the time-honored bureaucratic methods of all conservative labor officialdoms. Having failed to build up decisive majorities within the Stalinist-controlled unions by a progressive program, the CIO leadership seeks to regain control by summarily expelling the so-called “left-wing” unions like the UE and replacing them with newly chartered CIO unions. In the case of the UE, the convention action of expulsion was facilitated by the failure of the UE leaders Fitzgerald, Matles and Emspak even to show up at the convention to defend their viewpoint. The CIO executive board was empowered furthermore by the convention to take all necessary action, including expulsion of any affiliated union which showed consistent “political unreliability,” that is, leanings toward Stalinist ideology and program, or with Stalinists in its leadership.

The Weakness of the Stalinist Position

Against this purge, which was conducted in an extremely hostile and bitter atmosphere, neither Harry Bridges nor any other Stalinist spokesman made or could have made effective or important counterattacks for the very simple reason that there was no bureaucratic action, no political abuse and no fiery and emotional statement hurled at them at this convention by the CIO bureaucrats which had not been outdone 100 times over by the Stalinists in their 11-year history in the CIO.

When Bridges cried for “democracy” or international union autonomy, the CIO leaders replied by exposing his own nefarious record of bureaucratic machinations. It was not accidental that the hatchet man for the CIO leaders was none other than Joseph Curran, who for 10 years was Bridges’ closest ally in the CIO and who was trained in the Stalinist school of falsification, slander and bureaucratic bludgeoning.

Often at this convention, in terms of the democratic rights involved – and these are important considerations – the debate took the form of the kettle calling the pot black. But this should not conceal the important and decisive distinction between the CIO bureaucracy with all its limitations, and the Stalinist totalitarians. For the CIO bureaucrats do in their own miserable and faint-hearted fashion represent and seek to represent the interests of the American industrial workers organized into the CIO. Their actions do reflect a pressure of the rank and file, and their timid, half-hearted struggles for pensions, social security and other bread-and-butter demands do indicate at least an elementary self-interest. As for the Stalinists, their record in the CIO, as exposed quite ably and devastatingly by such speakers as Walter Reuther, is one of functioning solely and exclusively as colonial agents of a totalitarian power, namely, Stalinist Russia.

Fundamentally the very sources of the split between the CIO bureaucracy and the Stalinists are the reason why the overwhelming bulk of industrial union workers will support the CIO bureaucracy no matter how poorly conducted, how bureaucratic or how pitifully inadequate their struggle against Stalinism may turn out to be. This is doubly true today precisely because there is lacking a third genuine alternative to the contending factions. There is no significant socialist cadre or socialist-dominated union with power to intervene effectively and on a consistently progressive basis in the struggle against Stalinism. Those unions like the powerful UAW-CIO which are the genuine left wing of the CIO lack a sufficiently courageous and progressive leadership to serve as that kind of rallying center for all liberal and labor forces who want to conduct the best and most successful kind of struggle against Stalinism.

The Issue of Foreign Policy

While the differences on a trade-union level between the CIO bureaucracy and the Stalinists are clear, and one can support without a moment’s hesitation the CIO’s fight to retain all the unions from the Stalinists, the problem is far more complex and the issues greatly blurred when it comes to the basic and broad political questions involved. No thinking worker will be fooled by the repetition of the hard-and-fast line of the Cominform which the Stalinists like Bridges, Ben Gold of the Fur Workers or others presented on foreign policy questions.

The CIO leaders with few exceptions had no program apart from that of the American State Department to counterpose to the Stalinist views. To be sure, one prominent CIO spokesman, George Baldanzi, said that he and the CIO were against American imperialism as well as Russian imperialism, and he pointed out that no Stalinist spokesman dared to utter as much as one word in criticism of Russian imperialism. But the fact is, as a shrewd Stalinist pointed out, the CIO resolution on foreign policy did not contain the slightest criticism of American foreign policy; on the contrary, it rejected vigorously all charges and claims of war-mongering on the part of Washington. The most telling part of this aspect of the convention was not, however, the inability of the CIO leaders to reply to the demagogy of the Stalinists, but rather the alarming as well as truly unprecedented fact that the real reply to the Stalinists was made by none other than three of the outstanding figures responsible for implementing America’s imperialist policies.

The CIO convention heard Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Omar Bradley and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, as well as Secretary of Labor Maurice Tobin virtually dictate the policies of the CIO on the all-important foreign policy problems. Their appearance at this convention could only signify one thing to Stalin and the Politburo in Moscow. This was the CIO’s reply to the cold war – 100 per cent support in the struggle between Washington and Moscow. Unquestionably this aspect of the CIO convention could only have a very negative effect on the European labor movement and above all its conscious politically thinking elements who are searching fervently for signs in the American labor movement that it might be a real as well as potential third force counterposing itself both to Russian imperialism and Wall Street’s atomic war perspectives.

Stagnation in Political Action

The primary if not total preoccupation of the CIO convention with the problem of Stalinism inevitably aggravated another weakness of the CIO movement. Labor lives today in an epoch in which it is threatened with strangulation by Taft-Hartleyism. It feels keenly the defeat of the coal miners’ union. It is disturbed by the small and very inadequate gains it wins only after great strike struggles like the steel walkout. It is puzzled by the defeat of important strikes like the Singer and Bell Aircraft walkouts. It is haunted by the fear of growing unemployment. Yet the attention paid to these burning and living problems was at best perfunctory. As a matter of fact, the behind-the-scenes deal which caused the Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s settlement with the Steel Workers Union was timed to coincide with the opening of the convention and to facilitate an evasion of these acute problems on the domestic front. The political discussion was desultory and very routine. After one or two brief speeches, the convention simply reaffirmed the policy of supporting liberal candidates of both capitalist parties and explicitly rejected any third party political realignment such as the Reuther leadership in the UAW has been timidly suggesting off and on during the past three years. We do not doubt that a continuation of the present capitalist “prosperity” will give the CIO leaders a sufficient breathing spell to stumble along for a while without suffering too painful defeats and making themselves easy targets of Stalinist criticisms. But in the event of a depression, the lack of vision and lack of perspective in the CIO political program will turn out to be more than an Achilles heel. It will constitute a house built upon sand.

Not until the last day of the convention did the delegates bother to discuss even the vast difficulties which arise in the organizational struggle for the domination of the eleven unions which are being or have been expelled from the CIO. At this point Philip Murray felt it necessary to warn the delegates of some of the tribulations that lie ahead, for every unionist knows it is one thing to pass a set of resolutions at a cut-and-dried convention where one has an overwhelming majority, but it is an altogether different and more difficult task to carry them out in practice. Already the disputes, the court fights, the injunctions and the free-for-alls between the Stalinist machine and the loyal CIO members in the UE suggest that the inadequacy of the CIO program will make doubly difficult the organizational success of the CIO against the Stalinists. (When one reads that the IEU-CIO organizational conference in Philadelphia on the weekend of November 27 had among its featured speakers Secretary of Navy Francis P. Matthews, Secretary of Air W. Stewart Symington and Secretary of Labor Maurice J. Tobin, it becomes increasingly clear that the CIO leaders are more concerned with the political consequences in terms of the Moscow-Washington war than with the day-to-day union problems to which this convention should have been devoted if the Stalinists are to be smashed in the electrical industry field.)

In one of his early speeches Philip Murray bewailed the fact that “decent American labor is caught between dictatorships and totalitarianism, like Wall Street and the Communist Party.” Although Murray denounced both of them, his strongest language was reserved for the “diabolical, subversive Communists.” The whole tone of the convention was that of a crusade or “holy war” against Communism.

At best the CIO convention gave a very, very inadequate answer to this problem of the dictatorship of Wall Street or the totalitarianism of the Communist Party. This is true in spite of the fact that the CIO, assisted by the American state, that is, the Truman administration, the courts, the FBI, etc., may and probably will defeat and destroy the Stalinist influence in the CIO. But if the cost continues to be the brutal violation of all democratic rights, the complete hardening of the arteries of the CIO bureaucracy and its transformation into a bureaucratic machine dominated by conservative leaders like Philip Murray, then certainly the rank-and-file unionists throughout the country are entirely justified in the grave concern with which they view the coming period of the CIO.

Need of a Balance Sheet

Only by drawing up carefully a balance sheet can the militants in the American labor movement begin to prepare themselves for the difficult tasks ahead. What are the costs, of the struggle against Stalinism as it is being conducted today in this social milieu? On the trade-union level the war between the Stalinists and the CIO bureaucracy has as its first victim the Southern drive, the so-called Operation Dixie of the CIO. The postwar organizational campaign of the CIO to carry out a very necessary task of organizing the open-shop South had already bogged down. The CIO has neither the energies, talents nor the ability to carry this on and to struggle with the Stalinists simultaneously.

There are many indications that the AFL will gain because of the fight. The disillusionment with the CIO (“It’s too damned factional”) and the bewilderment of many of the rank and file by the complex issues are something that the AFL will not lose an opportunity to take advantage of. Of course, the appeal of both sides to provisions of the Taft-Hartley Law to help them win the struggle, and the fact that the rule rather than the exception is to take the intra-union struggle into a capitalist court, signify a growing dependence on the part of the union movement to the bourgeois state. It is a step away from labor’s organizational as well as political independence. This development, coincident with the greater and greater dependence of the CIO leadership on the national administration through techniques like fact-finding boards, signifies a very disturbing dissipation of organizational power and independence. In terms of trade-union structure and democratic rights, the newly adopted constitution of the CIO tends to transform this trade-union movement which should be a free association of individuals united on primarily economic questions, into a sort of hybrid political party in which membership depends as much on political views as it does on an economic united front.

Such important democratic manifestations as the power of the city, county and state councils of the CIO to express their own views on problems of the day are a thing of the past. These organizations have been transformed into mere agencies for carrying out the “line” of the national organization. The genuine autonomy of international unions no longer exists, since all unions must carry out national CIO policy, something which not even the hidebound AFL bureaucracy demands, at least at present, of its affiliated unions. Concomitant with these bureaucratic changes comes the hardening of the bureaucratic arteries, for the whole national CIO becomes a powerful, cohesive bureaucracy patterned largely after the machine that Philip Murray has used to solidify his complete control of the Steel Workers Union.

The Danger of Witch-Hunting

The virulence of the speeches against the Stalinists and the “anything goes” policies have a special significance in this epoch in which reactionary hysteria and witch-hunting are dominant features of American political life. Outside of the restraints of the national convention where the entire CIO is, so to speak, parading before the public eye, the struggle against Stalinists in the shops and in the local unions will take on a much more brutal and vigorous form. The protestations of the CIO bureaucrats that they are democrats and believe in “honest differences of opinion” are a little too much when one views the outrageous actions of Curran of the NMU against a clearly nonStalinist opposition in his union. We do not think that this will be an isolated incident, but rather reflects the hardening of the CIO structure on a nationwide basis throughout all the unions. In passing, we might point out that both the UAW and the United Rubber Workers will feel more and more the pressure of the CIO to transform themselves into images of the bureaucratized Steel Workers Union.

In the struggle against Stalinism the CIO bureaucracy at this convention gave every indication that it was tied – lock, stock and barrel – to the war machine. There was not one ounce of the traditional anti-militarist or anti-war sentiment at this convention.

As against all these negative features, there was and remains only one positive accomplishment. The Stalinists no longer have the cover of the CIO to carry out their nefarious activities as agents of a totalitarian power. Last and by no means least, no report or analysis of this convention would be valid unless it stated truthfully that the most glaring and fatal feature at this turbulent gathering was the lack of a single socialist voice to counterpose the real workers’ struggle for freedom, peace and security against the impending days of doom and the Third World War.

The reconstitution, or more exactly, the building up of a socialist cadre in the American labor movement whose sole and exclusive right and claim to existence is its devotion to the cause of emancipation of the American working class, is a task that today has ten times more acute importance than it had yesteryear. Without it the American labor movement will retreat and suffer more and more defeats as it gets caught in the squeeze between Wall Street and Moscow. With it there is a world to win.

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