Max Shachtman

Analyzing the Tasks of the Auto Workers

The Progressives at
the UAW Convention

(October 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 43, 25 October 1943, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The United Auto Workers Union, CIO, is probably the largest single labor organization in the world. It is easily the most important one in the United States. And as its Buffalo convention a couple of week ago continued to show, it is also the most democratic of all the country’s unions, and the most promising for the future of our labor movement.

But the great promise of the UAW will be fulfilled only if the rank and file militants, the true progressives, organize and conduct themselves more ably, intelligently and courageously than they did at the Buffalo convention. For the future of the UAW, and with it the future of the better half of the American labor movement, the CIO, depends first and foremost upon these progressives.

That is what the Buffalo convention showed. That is what this article aims to show too.

Dominating the convention was to struggle for power between the two main groups. One was led by Addes and Frankensteen. The other was led by Reuther and Leonard.

The Addes-Frankensteen faction was made up in large part of the Stalinists (the Communist Party-liners), was supported by them and in the main organized by them. If convincing proof was need that the line of any union group dominated by the Stalinists is the greater danger to the best interests of the labor movement today, it was amply supplied by the Addes-Frankensteen-Stalinist combination in Buffalo.

On every question in dispute, it took the more conservative and more reactionary position. Every attempt to promote the independence, self-reliance and militancy of the union, every attempt to organize the defense of the union’s interests on a clear-cut labor basis – that is, on the only possible basis – met with more vigorous, more determined and more conscious opposition from the Stalinists and their allies than from anyone else.

For example:

Pretty nearly everybody in the convention favored support of Roosevelt for a fourth term. That is not to say that there was no discontentment with the growing anti-labor record of the Administration. There was – more of |t than ever before in the UAW. But many if not most of the delegates feared that a break with the Roosevelt regime might bring into office a more outspoken and determined opponent of labor. What is important, however, is the fact that it was the Stalinists who fought for a blank check to be given Roosevelt, an endorsement without qualification. They didn’t even want to sell labor dearly. They wanted to give it away for nothing.

They displayed the same attitude on the other disputed questions. The most deliberate and unyielding adversaries of the organization of a Labor Party, a party representing the interests of the workers and controlled by them, were the Stalinists.

They were the ones who stood like a rock against any attempt, however moderate, to regain that weapon without which labor is totally disarmed, the right to strike.

The fight to destroy the effectiveness of the union by the universal introduction of the speed-up system, politely known as “incentive pay,” was initiated inside the UAW, organized and carried almost to the point of victory, by the Stalinists.

Some nitwitted capitalist reporters sent out stories in which the Addes-Stalinist group was designated as the “left wing” of the union and the convention. By any meaningful standards, the Stalinists represented the RIGHT WING of the union. The fact that the Communist Party once represented the real left wing in the Americon labor movement, about twenty years ago has no more meaning today than the fact that the Republican Party once represented the left wing of the capitalist class, about ninety years ago.

The Reuther group was led by a motley combination of unprincipled office-holders, confusionists, double-talkers and ex-progressives who have grown tired of fighting and want to become respectable. Where they did not take an outrightly wrong position they took an ambiguous position. Privately, some of these leaders assure you that they are “for a Labor Party – but now is not the time to fight for it.” They speak – and act – likewise on all the other important questions before the UAW.

The fact remains, however, that the people around Reuther, and to a certain extent R.J. Thomas, too, do not have the same interests as the Stalinists. The latter are concerned with one thing and one thing only: to protect the interests of the ruling bureaucracy in Russia. If that requires the most reactionary, union-paralyzing and even union-destroying policies, those are the policies they follow and seek to impose on the unions. And such are the only policies that CAN protect and preserve the Russian bureaucracy.

The unions are not the natural basis of the Stalinists. Their basis is the Russian rulers who nourish and sustain them.

For the other officials and bureaucrats, the unions are a natural base. Destroy it and they are themselves destroyed. To one extent or another, they understand this fundamentally .important truth. That is why, with all their allegiance to the capitalist system and to the Roosevelt Administration, they dare not and do not go as far in union-wrecking as their Stalinist rivals.

If this is not clearly understood it is impossible to understand the fight between the Stalinists and a group like Reuther’s. It constitutes the basic reason why the Stalinists in the political-military interests of the Russian bureaucracy, were driving for the unconditional surrender of the UAW (and other unions) to the capitalists and their administration in Washington; whereas people like Reuther and Thomas, while continuing their own policy of surrender, were not inclined to make it so unconditional that the very basis of their existence as an officialdom – namely, the union itself – would be wiped out.

Hence, Reuther favored a mild condition or two attached to the endorsement of Roosevelt for a fourth term. That is why he made his fight, wretched as it was, against “incentive pay.” That is why he worked out his super-clever formula which is supposed to leave the union a loophole for exercising again the right to strike under certain circumstances.

Whether they understood fully the difference between Reuther and the Stalinists or not, it is this difference that brought the overwhelming majority of real militants end progressives into the Reuther camp, for all the criticisms they made of its leadership.

It is perfectly clear to anyone who knows the UAW situation and who watched closely the Buffalo convention sessions that in addition to compromisers and tight-rope walkers like Reuther, there are many, many real progressives.

By “real progressives” we do not mean revolutionary socialists or “Trotskyists,” as the Daily Worker labels everyone who fights in the best interests of the union. We mean unionists who take at least this much of an advanced position: (a) take back the right to strike; (b) smash the incentive pay drive and fight for real wage increases; (c) break with Roosevelt and the capitalist parties and form an independent Labor Party. Such unionists exist by the thousand in the UAW and even had some spokesmen in the convention.

If they had, why didn’t these spokesmen organize a fight of their own and make their presence felt? It is a certainty that they are not isolated in the union, for they express the feelings of wide sections of the membership. This has been demonstrated already. For example, by the progressive decisions adopted at the recent Michigan CIO conference, and earlier by the Bushkill conference called by the people of Brewster Local 365.

It is true that the views of the progressives did find some expression on the convention floor. There were a few good, clear, aggressive speeches against the Roosevelt myth, for an independent Labor Party, against the incentive pay fraud, and so forth. But all of them taken together in no way corresponded to the real strength of the progressive program in the membership, or to the urgent requirements of the union.

Despite all these speeches (and there weren’t too many of them, either), there was no action or serious attempt at action.

I think that the real progressives were dominated far too much by a fear of the harmful consequences of an independent intervention by themselves and by a lack of self-confidence which they have neither the right nor the need to feel.

They seemed to fear that an independent fight would divide the anti-Addes, or anti-Stalinist front and facilitate a victory for Addes and the Communist Party-liners. They feared that a bold and uncompromising stand would be exploited demagogically by the Stalinists against the “general” Reuther camp. In other words, that the Stalinists would begin shouting: “You see! That’s the kind of people Reuther has on his side, or who vote for him! They’re against our great Commander-in-Chief! They’re against our great war effort!” And so on and so forth. And who (the progressives seemed to be asking themselves) would support them in fighting back? Reuther?

Now, their judgment of what the Stalinist fakers would do was undoubtedly correct. So was their judgment of how quickly Reuther would leave them in the lurch, if not directly attack them in order to show how respectable he is.

But this does not change the fact that the progressives made a mistake and a big one. If they keep on standing still on the same road they are lost and so in the long run, is the magnificent UAW that took so much time and militant effort to build up!

Once you think in terms I have tried describe, you are done for. The Stalinists understand this perfectly, and that is why they open up their dirty blackmailing and blackjacking campaign of intimidation the minute a progressive appears on the scene.

If the progressives continue to be intimidated, the road is clear to the steamroller of Stalinist destruction. The time will never be “ripe” for an independent fight of the progressives unless they rid themselves of the fatal tactical notions and fears inculcated in them by others – and partly by themselves.

The same holds true with reference to Reuther. If he can force the real progressives to give up their fight and knuckle down to his disastrous line of compromise and double-talk by warning: “If you don’t string alone with me, the Stalinists will win!” he will play that game forever.

The progressives will end up by being completely discredited, and they will deserve to be. The rank and filers who look to them for leadership will get good and fed up with them, arid proceed to look elsewhere for avenues of expression.

This means: ORGANIZATION! Not just at conventions, when it is usually too late, but before conventions, long before. Organization OF a union is needed to fight the capitalists. Organization IN a union is needed to keep it best equipped to fight the capitalists.

This means: organization now! The progressives in the UAW, as elsewhere in the union movement, must organize their forces! It is a job that can be postponed only at the greatest risk to the union’s future. If the Buffalo convention didn’t make this clear to the thinking militants in the UAW, there isn’t much time left for them to get clear about it!

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