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The New International, January 1939


B.J. Widick

France and the CIO


From New International, Vol.5 No.1, January 1939, pp.25-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE CLASS STRUGGLE disturbs John L. Lewis like a perennial nightmare. He kept all mention of it from appearing at the recent CIO convention. The French general strike, however, posed the question of the life-and-death struggle between the workers and bosses in unmistakable fashion. The class struggle can not be concealed. It can not be wished out of existence. American workers felt the repercussions of the set-back in France. Leon Jouhaux and Maurice Thorez were no more worried about the prospect of revolution than Lewis in the United States. The CIO top leaders are in the same dilemma as the French trade union bureaucrats. For American industrial workers, the path of militant struggle offers the sole hope of breaking the Gordian knot that paralyzes and binds them to this decaying society called “American Democracy”. In a more acute form, this is the question facing the French workers.

Two stubborn facts kept appearing over and over again at the CIO convention. The grave problem of mass unemployment with its attendant miseries symbolized all the troubles of the CIO If American industry returns to the highest level of production in history, 7,000,000 men would still walk the streets in the army of the permanently unemployed. John L. Lewis’ economists told him this fact. The monopoly investigation committee repeated it publicly a few weeks ago. The “American standard of living” is a ghastly illusion. Cold figures on wages which were contained in Lewis’ convention report pointed this out. Technological unemployment threatens 200,000 members of the SWOC. The CIO political policy is bankrupt. Petty-bourgeois reaction set back the political plans of Labor’s Non-Partisan League. CIO-endorsed candidates fared badly in the fall elections. “I am the Law” Hagues grow stronger. Reactionary forces everywhere intensify their attacks on the labor movement. In a word, the CIO faces the problems created by the social crisis in America. It is recognized by most of the CIO leaders, including Lewis. That is Fact Number One which stood out at the convention.

To defend the gains of the CIO, to combat the growing reaction which daily assumes a greater fascist character, and to answer the burning questions of the day, the CIO adopted the stock “progressive” program based purely on immediate and mild demands. The program differs not in a single important iota from that which the social democrats hoped would save Germany from Hitler, and which the Popular Front tried in France and likewise found wanting. John L. Lewis fervently hopes to “reform” America, as the Popular Front tried it in France. This program collapsed in France. Lewis hopes America is “different”. Yet each day brings a fresh experience which says otherwise. The bankruptcy of the “New Deal” speaks for itself. Six years of American-style Popular Frontism under Roosevelt, and America plunges deeper into a basic crisis. What will the CIO leaders do when an American general strike movement arises? The workers and bosses can’t live amicably within the framework of capitalism. The workers must struggle. France today; America tomorrow. What is to be done? Fact Number Two is that the CIO leaders are afraid, or rather unwilling, to draw the conclusions of their own experience.

Leon Trotsky is quoted in the press as speaking about the “terrible revolution” facing America. It shocks John L. Lewis in Washington as well as President Roosevelt. Trotsky has the habit of being right. His profound analysis of world conditions is hated, to be sure, but never refuted. In the face of this historical prospect, Lewis reacts in a very simple fashion. He is bewildered. He growls his anger. He cannot answer the crisis with an effective program. Stung by the election defeats, Lewis threatens to back a Farmer-Labor party. This was before the CIO convention. A few days ago, he came out for reforming the Democratic party, a policy that already failed under more favorable conditions. The vacillations of the CIO leaders reflect their bewilderment. The CIO is like an invincible giant stumbling along because it has no clear vision of the road ahead. Since the CIO convention voted Lewis greater power of policy determination than ever held by a labor leader in American history, he merits this extensive analysis. The official CIO policy will tend to be primarily the attitude of Lewis, reacting to pressure from his own ranks, and the general political situation.

The CIO convention faced, in one form or another, all the problems confronting the working class. Its answer was contained mainly in the legislative program adopted. Insecurity, unemployment, wages, hours, working conditions, suppression of civil liberties, strike-breaking by the governmental agencies, a housing program, arid a thousand and one other serious questions were taken up and legislation aimed to solve them endorsed. How was this program to be carried out? Pressure on Congress. However, the fact that the swing to the right in fall elections will make Congress even more reactionary was conveniently ignored.

Actually, if the CIO can prevent the present Wagner Labor Disputes Act – with its limitations – from being further emasculated, this would be a victory. Between the lobbying of the reactionary AF of L leaders and the National Manufacturers Association, there will be terrific pressure exercized against the Wagner Act. Congress as a whole will be definitely and intensely “anti-CIO.” John L. Lewis and the CIO leaders know this from daily contact with the legislators. It is little short of blindness, therefore, for the CIO convention to adopt a policy of still depending on President Roosevelt and the Democratic party to solve the workers’ problems instead of depending on militant and independent class action. American sit-downs built the CIO. The French sit-down strike wave put the Popular Front in power and “legalized” what the workers had already won.

The hope of the CIO does not rest in its present leaders or in its political program. Industrial unionism was built permanently in America mainly by the splendid work of the countless rank-and-file workers whose direct action through sit-downs swept aside opposition. The temporary increase in industrial activity already has returned thousands of militant CIO members into the shop and unions. In auto and steel, reports of strikes manifest the fresh and unexhausted courage of the industrial workers. A reliable Washington survey predicts a sharp and bitterly-fought series of strikes for 1939, accompanying the temporary upswing in business. The prospect offers a respite for the CIO It can recuperate and gain strength. More time to solve the contradictions in the CIO policy is probable, unless war intervenes. The strikes in auto today can again serve as the prelude to larger battles in a similar fashion to 1936.

In the darkest days of the present crisis, the banner of the CIO was kept aloft by the unflinching struggle of the shop stewards and shop committees. Braving the undying wrath of the bosses, this union-conscious body of men patiently held the unions together. Is it a wonder that General Motors, for example, seeks daily to fire shop stewards, and discriminates against union militants? Among these people will come the next progressive group of leaders in the CIO. Local CIO and AF of L unions are putting labor unity into effect, despite the opposition from above. Stockton, Calif., workers create a joint AF of L, CIO and Railroad Brotherhoods council. Under influence of the overwhelming sentiment of the CIO rank and file, the convention formally accepts labor unity as its goal.

The nature of the deal between John L. Lewis and the Stalinists was brought into the spotlight at the CIO convention. The political interests of the CIO leaders are with President Roosevelt in his campaign for imperialist war to save “American democracy” i.e., Wall Street profit in the world markets. Browder seeks to bind the labor movement to Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy. Lewis represents Roosevelt. Browder speaks for Stalin. Both are interested today in a huge armaments program and the support of American workers for the coming world war. Yet the rule-or-ruin policy of the Stalinists has ended some of their usefulness to Lewis. He has and will continue to remove a few from key posts. But he can’t get rid of them so easily, because their political programs coincide. Lewis rejected every Stalinist-written resolution at the convention only to have his resolutions committee present reports which were Stalinist in ideology.

Again, on the war question, as with all others, the final word rests with the ranks of the American labor movement. Their day in court has yet to come. It depends entirely on the progress and activity of the progressive, militant, advanced and revolutionary workers. Coming events in France are destined to have a world-shaking effect to which the United States in particular will be subject. The future of the American working class will be influenced strongly by the fate of the French workers. By aiding the French workers today, the CIO will be helping itself tomorrow.

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