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Mary Bell

Five Labor Conventions:

Progressives at the Rubber Convention

(October 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 10, October 1944, p. 318–320.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The United Rubber Workers of America was one of the first offsprings of the CIO and was nursed on heroic and violent organizing struggles in the cradle of sit-down strikes in Akron, Ohio. Since the war, the union has expanded to over 180,000 members. While in comparison with the unions of the miners, steel or auto workers, its numerical strength is small, its strategical importance is great. This fact is due not only to its militant record, but to the vital role of the industry in both peacetime and wartime.

As a microcosm reflecting the general unrest of the American labor movement over the no-strike pledge and War Labor Board restrictions imposed by the labor officialdom, the rank and file in the “Big Four” Akron locals carried on a five-day strike in May 1943. The strike, following that of the miners, influenced by it and accompanied by mass picketing and skirmishes at the plant gates, was due to the War Labor Board’s refusal to grant the wage increases asked by the union. It was stopped only by the intervention of President Roosevelt. The strike-breaking role of Sherman H. Dalrymple and his Stalinist and run-of-the-mill bureaucratic consorts on the International Executive Board in that strike, started an active tide of opposition to him in the ranks of the union which grew with his subsequent actions on behalf of the corporations.

Last January, Dalrymple undertook an action which aroused the entire Akron labor movement. When a strike of the bandbuilders occurred at General Local over company cheating on wages, transfers and other abuses, Dalrymple expelled the strikers, who were then fired by the company. He also expelled two past presidents of the union who took up the fight on behalf of the expelled strikers. The latter were then fired, blacklisted, had their draft deferments withdrawn and were immediately ushered into the army. This outrage moved Goodrich Local to expel Dalrymple from his own union, an action that may have been constitutionally questionable but one which placed Dalrymple in a ludicrous and precarious position. He was reinstated by the General Executive Board and the case was to be brought up by the Goodrich Local under “appeals” at the convention.

A weakness of the fight subsequently waged in behalf of the General strikers was that it was conducted not on the forthright basis of the right of these men to strike for redress of their grievances and in opposition to the no-strike pledge, but on the basis of “unconstitutionality” on the part of Dalrymple, and the fact that not all the expelled “instigated” the strike. It was an oblique defense of the right to strike, made at a time when the defense should have been a head-on collision with the policies of the officialdom.

The Nature of the Opposition

Goodrich Local, under the presidency of George Bass, then began its campaign for the international convention. This local was the core of progressive sentiment among the big rubber unions and was on record against the no-strike pledge. At the 1942 covention, Bass led a lively minority group opposing the pledge, labor-management collaboration, labor participation on the War Labor Board and standing for a general program of union democratization. He did not challenge the leadership for office, however, nominating Dalrymple instead! At the 1943 convention his fight was not so aggressive, although (and because) he was closer to declaring himself a candidate in opposition to Dalrymple. At the convention just concluded, where he ran finally against Dalrymple, he soft-pedalled all issues.

We are not concerned with Bass’ personality save as it is an indication of his politics and a reflection of the movement he leads. A leader who rose from the ranks and still has their interests at heart, he is described, not without justice, by the press of the rubber barons, the Akron Beacon Journal, as “a man of whom it never can be said that he is a friend of the rubber companies” Bass responds to and reflects the pressure of his ranks but he lacks a definitive program. At the same time, he has withstood the pressure of the reactionary newspapers, the government agencies and the Stalinists who characteristically but erroneously call him “an agent of the Trotskyites and John L. Lewis.” To call him a minor John L. Lewis has some aptness.

This year the opposition to the international leadership spread rapidly in all the Akron locals. It was consciously organized for a fight at the coming convention. Goodyear Local, long languishing under the domination of the Stalinists, overwhelmingly elected a progressive slate for the convention. General, smarting under the blow dealt it by Dalrymple, joined the movement. Firestone was in the majority sympathetic.

In the last stages of preparation for the convention, city-wide caucus meetings were held. The opposition was united on rescinding the no-strike pledge, opposing the Dalrymple administration with a slate of their own, contesting the reversal of the ouster of Dalrymple, appealing the General Local’s cases and a sheaf of demands to curb the bureaucracy and democratize the union. Some attempts were made to circularize the out-of-town locals with the case against Dalrymple involving the General firings and the program of the opposition.

What Happened at the Convention

Came the convention. Dalrymple, in effect, appointed his own trial committee by using his constitutional authority to appoint all committees, including the one on appeals which would hear the case against him. A test vote came in the early sessions over a motion by the progressives to have locals approve international representatives and to prevent international board members from being representatives at the same time. It was defeated, two to one, and this figure became the typical one on all contested questions throughout the convention. The Akron delegation, with one-third – and the most substantial third – of the convention assured in advance, failed with few exceptions to make any inroads on the out-of-Akron locals.

One reason for this failure was the above-mentioned tactic of Bass, to soften his resistance the nearer he comes to power. This was evidenced in the convention by the fact that he did not lead the opposition; rather, he let other progressive spokesmen speak first and exhaust the main arguments on most questions, thereby drawing fire from himself. This was a poor stratagem for a man who was bidding for the presidency on the basis of a program. His device did not fool the waverers, who saw him nevertheless vote with the Akron bloc on all questions. Another reason the pro-Dalrymple locals could not be won over was the amateur and opportunistic corridor and hotel-room procedure employed by the Bass supporters to garnet votes for their candidates. With their own ranks critical, the Bassites were out to gain executive board posts, not to discuss the program of opposition to Dalrymple.

Another important factor prejudicing the other delegations against the Akron caucus was the pre-convention campaign of the Dalrymple machine itself against the Akron group. Many of the delegates from other locals refused to speak to the Akron members in the first days of the convention. These other locals, being outside the main center of the rubber union, are more dependent on the international and have its representatives, either Stalinist or machine-men, stationed in their unions. Their delegates also included southern locals and representatives of unions in the “war babies,” i.e., plants whose unions were new and inexperienced in the fighting traditions of the labor movement. These things forced the Akron bloc to remain a minority throughout the convention.

Struggle on Appeals

The minority report of the appeals committee, condemning Dalrymple for his action in the General affair, might have gained the Akron candidates some votes in the elections, since the evidence of Dalrymple’s high-handedness and flouting of the constitution was amply supported. However, the union leadership had set the time for elections in advance of the report of the appeals committee, a characteristic bureaucratic trick. Also, the two contending sides agreed to a compromise on the two major appeals. Goodrich Local agreed to drop the appeal on the expulsion of Dalrymple. Dalrymple agreed to restore the expelled members to their former status, return fifty per cent of the fines imposed on the strikers, while back pay claims were denied.

Although it is probable that Dalrymple with his mechanical majority could have made the penalties on the strikers stick and, even more easily, thrown out the appeal on his own expulsion, he could have done it only by having the report on his behavior and the damaging testimony of many of the members against him made public to the convention. The opposition would have lost any restitution for or vindication of the strikers. But the compromise was therefore really weighted in their favor. It was, in effect, an admission of guilt by Dalrymple.

Despite the fact they remained a minority, the Akron delegates did not break ranks throughout the convention. Bass ran against Dalrymple and lost, 394 to 756. There was a a high esprit and a will to continue the progressive caucus based on the unity of the convention and founded on a pro-grogressive program. The defects of the opposition were that it was on the instinctive-progressive level: while it opposed the no-strike pledge it supported the candidacy of him who demanded it – Roosevelt. The idea of a Labor Party is almost totally lacking from the consciousness of the rubber workers. What the opposition in the rubber workers needs is a leavening of conscious rather than instinctive action, in its political as well as its economic program. When the rubber workers struck for higher wages, it was Roosevelt, whom they support through the PAC, who broke their strike and upheld the WLB. Inside their union, it is Dalrymple’s upholding of the no-strike pledge, supported by Roosevelt and the corporations, which hinders their progress.

What About the Future?

The struggle in the URW is by no means over, for the simple reason that the issues which confronted the convention will remain with the union. No matter how many times votes may be obtained to reaffirm the no-strike pledge and to support FDR, the sponsor of the wage freeze, the Little Steel formula and the WLB, these issues constantly recur. With each passing month the effects of Roosevelt’s policies become increasingly disastrous for the rank and file union member. The fight against the policies of the President and his Administration thus becomes a matter of life and death for the average worker.

Dalrymple won a victory over Akron. He succeeded in creating an antagonism between the small locals which dot the country and the large Akron locals which constitute the flesh and blood of the union. Only a little intelligence will reveal to one that in the coming post-war period it will be the Akron unions which will continue to be the strongest defensive and offensive weapon the union has in its fight against the bosses’ drive to destroy the labor movement. Without the Akron unions, which make up the strongest single section of the URW, the union would be doomed. Does Dalrymple understand this? Maybe. But he conducts himself as though the Akron militants are the greatest clanger to the union, rather than the rubber barons. In the coming struggle, however, the Akron locals will wield the great power in defense of the Rubber Workers Union.

The defense of the union will depend upon the kind of policies that are developed to fight for the maintenance of the union standards won after many years of heroic struggle. This is the decisive question and it is on this question that Bass and his followers present their weakest side. They failed to understand that a clever evasion of a dispute on issues, on the ground that they might be “unpopular,” played into the hands of Dalrymple. This was foolish because, as already pointed out, on the differences which existed between the bureaucracy and the progressives, Bass and his followers voted against the former. But in failing to make a clear and uncompromising struggle on issues, Bass aided Dalrymple in his strategy to present the progressives as a power-mad group seeking only to win offices. That is why it is doubly important for the Akron progressives to wage their struggle around the important issues which divide them from the conservatives, who, if allowed to continue in their course, will run the union into the ground. A great responsibility rests on the Akron militants, the men who made the Rubber Workers Union and whose struggles have won them the plaudits of the entire labor movement. That responsibility is to prepare now a program for revitalizing the union, for strengthening it in preparation to meet the bosses’ anti-union offensive.

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