Highlights of the C.I.O. Convention

(30 November 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 4 No. 48, 30 November 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

One of the most wonderful things about the convention was complete absence of speeches by government officials and other capitalist politicians, such as filled the first week of the AFL convention. Whatever motivation John L. Lewis may have had for thus arranging things, the net result was fine. Think of it! A trade union convention in which only trade unionists talk!

In its own way the capitalist press indicated which convention it considered most important. The crackerjacks came to Atlantic City, while the second-string men were sent to New Orleans. A total of 105 reporters registered with the press committee.

* * *

That 43-minute ovation to John L. Lewis on the first day was a pretty mechanical affair, engineered by the Stalinists and perfunctorily participated in by the rest. But, make no mistake about it, the ovations he got during and after his Tuesday afternoon speech on “labor unity” were the real thing. Lewis made the greatest comeback I have ever seen. He could get practically anything out of that convention – except one thing: re-election to the presidency. He made it quite clear, however, that he’ll be back for that next year. And in his speech after election, Murray made clear – in an almost involuntary ejaculation which was edited out of the stenographic record – that he was under no illusions as to the ‘ quirk of fate ’ which had given him the job.

* * *

The Stalinists were crazy enough to try to persuade Lewis to stand for re-election. After the “Draft Lewis” resolutions, passed in whatever locals they could manage it, the Stalinists flooded the convention with enormous buttons bearing the legend, “Forward with Lewis and CIO.” Lewis poured cold water on all this in his very first speech the first day, but the Stalinists still kept hoping. None of them, however, dared to take the floor and make the proposal. Nor, for that matter, any other proposal of their own. They were conspicuous by their silence. Matles, Quill and Curran were their only big-guns who took the floor and then only to agree with administration proposals. The only time their Fur Workers delegation sent a man to the microphone was to speak for a resolution against the government’s frame-up of the union’s leadership. And Harry Bridges never once took the floor!

* * *

With the national elections over and done with, an attempt by the clothing workers’ delegates to work up some indignation against the >CIO NEWS>’ failure to print pro-Roosevelt speeches was a flop. One of them dramatically (so he thought) pointed to the fact that the post-election number was “perhaps the only paper in the U.S. that didn’t carry Roosevelt’s picture.” He got very little applause for his pains. A Negro delegate followed him to the mike and asked him why the CIO “should cringe before the powers that be”; the applause was good and strong.

* * *

The Hillman crowd had proposed a constitutional amendment barring Communists from paid office. Fortunately it didn’t get very far. Nor did the Hillmanites carry the issue to the floor. Unfortunately, however, the Lewis-controlled resolutions committee brought in a thoroughly reactionary resolution denouncing communism, a resolution which can easily become the base for a red-baiting campaign in any CIO union. As the vote was called for, a grinning SWOC organizer called out: “Watch the commies vote for it.” They did.

* * *

Next to the debate on “labor unity,” the high point of the convention was the discussion on the poll tax. The way in which it enables a tiny handful of Bourbons to perpetuate a naked dictatorship over the eight Southern states where the poll tax still is in force; to send to Congress the starkest reactionaries of all, who through long tenure in Congress rise to hold most of the all-powerful committee chairmanships in Congress and thereby spread their rule over the whole country – all this was brought out by a series of dramatic speeches by Negro and white delegates from the South.

Incidentally they showed how deep is the bond of -black and white solidarity in the CIO – it was just a matter of course to them and the rest of the convention that a delegate was a brother no matter what the color of his skin. What a contrast to that painful moment at an AFL convention, when the lone Negro delegate. A. Philip Randolph of the Railroad Porters, rises to plead with the “lily white” craft unionists for justice for his race!

* * *

The high point – carefully prepared for and finally reached – of Hillman’s speech was his declaration that he had the “full confidence of the President of the United States.” He stopped and waited for the applause. It was pretty tepid. The speech was a supreme effort by Hillman, but it fell flat. Hillman’s strong point is committee-room and string-pulling stuff; he is neither an orator nor has he the necessary presence for the platform. In addition, of course, he had a very bad line to sell – the duPont-Morgan Defense Commission.

John L. Lewis has the best poker-face in the business. He gave no sign of any kind during Hillman’s speech, but kept doing two things as he sat on the platform facing the audience. He kept teetering back in his chair until he had to grab something to save himself from falling. And he kept spitting on the floor.

* * *

Hillman scored off Lewis just once, but that was very effective. That was when Hillman, in the course of his speech, reminded the delegates that the United Mine Workers’ constitution bars communists from membership. “What’s good enough for the UMW is good enough for the CIO.” said Hillman. Needless to say, the Stalinists have never, in this whole period, ever published that disgraceful fact about the constitution which John L. Lewis rules over.

For long, dreary hours the convention would drone along, drugged in routine. Then, suddenly, some delegate would come alive at the microphone and rouse the entire convention, sometimes with just a single sentence. As when a Negro delegate, speaking on the need for more democracy, told what happened to him in 1918 when he came back from France to the Southern town from which he had been drafted. “They ripped the medal from my breast and the uniform from my body and drove me back to the cotton fields.” There were enough moments like that in the convention to, make it more than worth while. Never mind the “responsible” speeches of Lewis and Murray and their associates, their talk of collaboration with the employers, etc. etc. That convention was as much a part of the class struggle as any picket line that ever slapped down a fink.

Last updated on 16 November 2020