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Farrell Dobbs

AFL and CIO Conventions

(December 1940)

Source: Fourth International, Vol. 1 No. 7, December 1940, pp. 187–191.
Transcription & mark-up: Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

As the delegates from the unions of the AFL and CIO gathered in separate national conventions on November 18th, Roosevelt’s War Deal was rapidly unfolding in all its ugly reality. The aims of American imperialism in the present world conflict, and Wall Street’s program for the regimentation of the workers in the war machine had been made abundantly clear. These circumstances must serve as a point of departure in analyzing the decisions of the AFL at New Orleans and the CIO at Atlantic City.

To all practical intents and purposes, the United States is already in the war. Its alleged neutrality is a pure myth. True, Congress has not yet declared war, but that formal system of international conflict has become generally outmoded in 1940. The United States is giving wholesale aid to Great Britain against Germany and Italy and in an increasingly open and unconcealed manner. Diplomatic relations with Japan are constantly strained almost to the breaking point. Thinly veiled maneuvers are being carried out to assure the dominance of United States imperialism over the Latin-American countries. All that remains to make this country’s participation in the war open and complete is the actual outbreak of hostilities which can occur anytime in any one of several places. The “peacetime” conscript army is being mobilized for war and for no other purpose. The same is true of the gigantic armaments program.

When the huge armament appropriations were cleared through Congress, the Administration prepared to offer production contracts to the industrialists. But they found very few capitalists ready to accept their offers. The corporations, backed up by the big bankers, refused to accept the contracts until they were given full guarantees of super-profits from the production of war materials. Congressmen and Administration officials, alike, were quick to champion the cause of big business. Only a few isolated voices in the apparatus of government were raised against the demands of the capitalists. The reaping of huge profits by the industrialists and the bankers was fervently defended as the “American way.” Insinuations of “pro-Nazi tendencies” were raised against those few in the governmental apparatus who half-heartedly opposed the bosses’ demands. An understanding was reached between the government and the industrialists on the terms laid down by big business. Then, and only then, did the corporations agree to accept the war contracts.

Now Comes the Anti-Labor Drive

Now that the bosses are ready to begin production, all efforts of the workers to fight for the preservation and improvement of their living standards in the face of the war program are labelled “sabotage.” The boss-defined “American way” now calls for the dragooning of the workers into the capitalist-controlled armed forces and the war industries. Big business has sounded the keynote for the attitude of the Administration toward labor. C.E. Wilson, who succeeded Knudsen as president of General Motors, advises the workers that they must be prepared to sacrifice some material standard of living or some of their leisure. Knudsen, now heading the “National Defense Advisory Commission,” acting from inside the Administration apparatus, has successfully led big business’s fight for its super-profits.

Alfred P. Sloan, chairman of the board of General Motors, has spoken much more bluntly about the attitude of capitalism toward labor and the war. He demands the revival of the six-day week and advises against increases in the workers’ wages, stating that wages must lag behind prices. If this advice is not followed, says Sloan, there will be danger of inflation. This clap-trap which is palmed off on the workers as profound economic theory is coupled with an appeal for the workers to show their “patriotism” by keeping the war industries in operation.

The boss-controlled daily press has taken its cue from the Wilsons and the Sloans. Elaborate editorials appear in almost every issue, propagandizing the bosses’ line. Headlines in the newspapers smear the striking workers. Almost every strike action is depicted as against the armaments program. This hue and cry against trade union action reached violent proportions upon the outbreak of the Vultee strike in California.

The Government Joins the Drive

The stooges of the bosses in the House of Representatives were also quick to pick up the cue, using the boss press as their forum. “Treason, sabotage,” they shouted against the Vultee strikers, “You are hijacking the government.” They took up the infamous Roosevelt slogan: “You can’t strike against the government,” and are attempting to apply it against the striking workers in the war industries. They demand that such strikes be outlawed. “The strikes are the program of communism by the CIO,” shouts Representative Ford of California. Hoffman of Michigan sees in the CIO Ford campaign, “further subversive activity.” Sumners of Texas, Chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, has this advice to offer: “Give the strike leaders a double dose of the kind of violence they understand.”

When the Dies Committee announced that it would investigate the Vultee strike, Attorney General Jackson rushed into print to inform the waiting world that the FBI had already investigated and found that “Communist influence caused and prolonged the strike.” The Dies Committee charges that the National Labor Relations Board is helping the “campaign of sabotage” by blocking the bosses from firing suspected workers. The Committee urges the bosses to use its files to prepare black-lists against the workers.

The AFL Convention passed a resolution protesting against the prosecution of trade unions under the anti-trust laws. Thurman Arnold, in charge of that division of the Department of Justice, replied that he was “not influenced by the resolutions of any special group.”

The Gallup Survey reports that 60% of the population wants more regulation of the trade unions. This announcement was given a big play in the press. The capitulatory attitude of the trade union officialdom on the war question has, no doubt, confused the minds of many members and sympathizers of the trade union movement. This would be reflected in such a survey. But even under such circumstances the accuracy of this reported finding is highly dubious. In any event, it is certain that if the trade union leadership took a clear-cut class position on the question of the workers and the war the entire working class, with the exception of an occasional fink, would be solidly lined up behind a program of independent working class policy and against regimentation of the trade unions. The Gallup survey undoubtedly raised the question as a trial balloon on behalf of the forces seeking government regulation of the unions.

Representatives Hoffman of Michigan and Smith of Virginia have prepared new bills for rigid control of the unions. They would impose compulsory arbitration upon the workers and brand picketing or delay of production as an “oppressive labor practice.” They would revive and extend the system of individual yellow-dog contracts between the workers and the bosses. They demand life imprisonment for “sabotage.” The workers are not saboteurs, and these philistines know it. They intend this provision as a medium for the preparation of frame-ups against the workers. And to doubly guarantee the throttling of the unions they would prohibit the soliciting of union membership in the war industries.

NLRB as an Anti-Labor Weapon

An “informal” statement has emanated from the conference room of the House Judiciary Committee to the effect that the enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act in the war industries is “at variance with the declared policy of Congress.” This Committee, under the chairmanship of Representative Sumners, who wants to give strike leaders “a double dose of violence,” is also working on a measure whereby the workers would automatically lose deferment from military service if they go on strike.

The appointment of Dr. Harry A. Millis to the National Labor Relations Board signalizes a turn to the right for this government agency. William Green is reported to be “enthusiastic” about the Millis appointment. So is the Wall Street Journal. And with good reason. The new policy of the NLRB has been outlined by a Washington correspondent of the New York Post. “Conciliation” will be substituted for enforcement of the Wagner Act, which is now to be construed as an instrument for avoiding labor disputes, rather than a means to protect the rights of organized labor. The Board will now attempt to “settle” disputes without issuing complaints against the bosses, considering that its “first duty” is to “avoid production delay.” This means that the NLRB, which was originally declared to be an agency for the enforcement of the workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively, is now switching over to a policy of outright strikebreaking.

Roosevelt, on his part, warns that “labor must make sacrifices.” He has stated plainly that he “intends to keep the war industries running.” This threat, not made against the corporations when they were holding up his war program over their demand for guarantees of huge profits, is directed at the trade union workers. Roosevelt says that he has no new plan for labor legislation, “as of today.” He will first give the class-collaborationist trade union officialdom a chance to whip the workers into line. If this is not done to his satisfaction, he will not hesitate to resort to drastic measures in his efforts to regiment the workers in the war machine.

Citrine Peddles the Bosses’ Line

Sir Walter Citrine, Secretary of the British Trade Union Congress, came to New Orleans to address the AFL Convention and the American workers over a nation-wide radio hookup. This gladiator, knighted by the crown for his treachery to the British workers, came to the United States to do double duty, to serve the interests of the British bosses and the interests of the American bosses. He did not come in the interests of the American workers or the British workers. Sir Walter proudly related how the British trade union leadership had agreed “without haggling” to submit the British workers to the “war sacrifices” demanded of them by the British bosses. He told how the British workers had “voluntarily” given up their right to strike; how they had “accepted” longer hours of work. “We” insisted, he said, that these rights were not to be taken away “without labor’s consent.” In other words, Citrine and his ilk were demanding the democratic right to give away the workers’ gains. Labor yielded these rights, he said, on the condition that “the sacrifices would be temporary.” What guarantees did the Citrines demand? That the British trade union leaders have “a full voice in all questions of policy.” What policies? Nothing more nor less than the war policies of British imperialism. Citrine explained all this to lead up to his main point: “The American workshops are the first line of defense for world democracy.” This explains why Sir Walter was sent here. He is trying to shove the class-collaborationist war program of the British trade union leaders down the throats of the American working class.

“British society,” said Sir Walter, “is no longer divided into classes. Look at my own case. I left school at twelve and went to work. Now I am a member of the Privy Council.” What about the British workers who are not on the Privy Council and who have not had the dubious benefits of rubbing shoulders with the flower of knighthood? They are constantly reminded by their miserable conditions of existence that there are two classes in British society and that there is a class struggle. Four million workers in British industry are today pushing demands for wage increases. Pressure for strike action against the bosses is becoming quite strong in several sections of the British trade union movement. The Citrines and the Ernest Bevins are striving desperately to head off this movement.

It is only in the light of this background of events – the role of the United States in the war, the rising tide of reaction against the trade union movement, the rapid shift in policy by the Administration, the increasingly violent campaign for the regimentation of labor in the war machine – that the significance of the convention actions of the two great sections of the trade union movement can be properly understood.

Green Takes Citrine’s Cue

William Green, comfortably ensconced in the AFL presidency at a salary of $20,000 per year, was visibly moved by the oratory of Sir Walter Citrine and the pleadings of the long list of government and employer representatives who addressed the New Orleans gathering. He heard only Citrine, and not the voice of the struggling British workers. Nor did he show the slightest sign of understanding the vital problems of the more than four million AFL workers whom he is supposed to represent.

Green informed the workers that to furnish aid to Britain is their primary responsibility. There will be no production stoppages in American industry, he said, “for trivial reasons.” And then, as if to give double assurance to the capitalist overlords, he added, “or for any reason.” It is Green’s stated opinion that arbitration tribunals can satisfactorily adjust all of the workers’ grievances. Holding that the question of longer hours of work can be taken up “when the situation requires,” Green expressed the opinion that the payment of time and a half for overtime over 40 hours “will meet the present needs.” He hastened to add that the cost of such overtime would be “insignificant,” so that the bosses would understand that he was not making any harsh demands upon them. The question of the 30 hour week, said Green, can be taken up after the war is over to serve as a cushion against unemployment. The essence of this program outlined by Green was subsequently adopted by the Convention.

This brief examination of the policy of the AFL leadership is necessary in approaching the question of unity between the AFL and CIO. Unity on AFL terms would place the mass production workers, who are most completely involved in the war industries, under the complete dominance of such a thoroughly capitulationist leadership.

The Key Question: Industrial Unionism

And this is only half of the question. What about the preservation of the industrial form of organization in the mass production industries? A clear example of the present AFL attitude on this question is to be found in the action taken against the Federal locals of the AFL at the New Orleans Convention. The Federal locals, which are chartered under the direct supervision of the AFL Executive Council, were used as a stop-gap measure when the fight for industrial unionism was first breaking into the open inside the AFL. After the split, out of which the CIO was formed, the AFL Executive Council continued the use of the Federal locals as an instrument for its organizational struggle against the CIO. There are today a number of such local unions in the AFL, having a quasi-industrial jurisdiction.

A resolution was passed at New Orleans which authorizes the craft international unions to make immediate jurisdictional raids upon the Federal locals. The delegates from the Federal locals protested strongly against this resolution. The Electrical Union World, official organ of Local No. 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, AFL, quotes from a protest speech made by a Federal union delegate from Philadelphia: “Please leave us alone,” said this delegate, “We are O.K. and better than a whole lot that are regimented into craft unions.” Green sought to smother the debate by stating that the recommendation was “not mandatory.” This statement is nothing more nor less than utter duplicity and Green knows it. The craft internationals are not forced by the resolution to make jurisdictional demands upon the Federal locals, but the action makes it mandatory upon the Federal locals to yield up their members to the craft internationals on demand. And the demand will be made or the resolution would not have been introduced and adopted by the craft internationals. This is the kind of “unity” that the craft union hierarchy on the AFL Executive Council has in mind for the industrial unions.

A second example of the AFL’s unchanged attitude on the question of industrial unionism is contained in its proposition for amendments to the Wagner Act. It demands that the Act be changed to permit the recognition of craft units as bargaining agencies in the industrial plants. These craft units would be carved out of the existing industrial unions. The AFL wants the Wagner Act changed to provide for direct court appeals by the unions against the decisions of the NLRB. The craft unionists want to go to court against the industrial unions. Guarantees are demanded for the preservation of craft agreements. This demand arises from the action of the NLRB in outlawing some craft union contracts in industrial plants. The Board contended, in handing down its decision, that these contracts had been secured through collusion between the craft union officialdom and the corporation management.

The craft unionists want to carve up the industrial unions by whatever means they find at hand. In pressing these demands, the AFL is blinded by the motivations of petty craft and personal interests. In their desire to strike at the CIO, the craft unionists would jeopardize the few remaining beneficial provisions of the Wagner Act, in the face of the rising tide of reaction and the sharp turn to the right on the part of the administration which is responsible for the enforcement of the Act.

Industrial Unionism Must Predominate

Unity of the trade union movement is highly desirable in the interests of the workers. But the CIO cannot unite with the AFL until it is given full guarantees for the preservation and extension of the industrial form of organisation. Despite the wishes of a broad section of the rank and file, the official hierarchy in the AFL is obviously not prepared to give any such guarantees. Nor will they be prepared to yield on this fundamental point until the CIO is much stronger than it is today. Even then, it is not assured in advance that the craft unionists will yield.

The co-existence of craft unionism and industrial unionism in a united organization is not at all a 50–50 proposition. It is conceivable that the craft unions and industrial unions can live side by side without internecine conflict. But the very nature of the present-day methods of production makes it mandatory that industrial unionism must be the dominating factor in the trade union movement. Craft unionism can play only a secondary role.

The whining of the deserters, Dubinsky and Zaritsky, who call upon the industrial unions to “come back to the AFL”; and the shallow arguments of the Hillmanites, who plead for an exploration of the minds of the craft union leaders, cannot in any way alter these facts. It is this fundamental issue in the AFL-CIO conflict which gave Phillip Murray, the CIO President, the courage to make a “mild protest” to Roosevelt against any “shotgun unity” with the AFL.

The Conflict Will Continue

It is clear that the internal conflict in the trade union movement will continue and grow sharper. The action of the AFL, in rescinding the special one cent tax originally imposed for the declared purpose of fighting the CIO, was a phoney peace gesture, calculated mainly to save face for Dubinsky. By increasing the regular per capita tax from one cent to two cents, the AFL retains its special fund with which to fight the CIO. One of the reasons why the AFL leaders prostrated themselves so brazenly before the capitalist war mongers was an attempt to gain a cloak of “respectability” which they hope will aid them in their fight against the industrial unions.

The CIO is increasing its organization staff and appropriating special funds for an organization campaign right in the heart of the war industries – in steel, Ford, aircraft, rubber, aluminum, chemicals and shipbuilding. The CIO victory in the Vultee strike will give strong impetus to this drive, Although the Vultee strikers made heavy compromises from their original demands, it must be recognized that in the face of the great pressure brought to bear upon the strikers and upon the class-collaborationist leadership of the CIO, the workers achieved definite gains. The success of the strike is emphatically demonstrated by the fact that it has forced “voluntary” wage increases for the workers in the Douglas, North American, Lockheed and other aircraft plants. The CIO News now carries the slogan, “No matter what you do, there is a CIO union for you.” This indicates an orientation toward war with the AFL on all fronts. However, the main CIO drive will be concentrated in the basic industries.

CIO is More Dynamic

The AFL reports a membership of 4,247,443, which is the highest in AFL history. The CIO indicates that it has a membership of about 4,000,000; however, no exact official figures have been given. The CIO may be somewhat weaker than the AFL in the number of paid members, but it is much more dynamic than the AFL and that is what is decisive. The press coverage at the two conventions reflects this contrast between the two organizations. 105 newsmen covered the CIO Convention at Atlantic City, and a London correspondent filed 1,000 words a day to his paper on the news of the CIO deliberations. On the other hand, fewer newsmen were sent to cover the New Orleans convention and, in general, the second-string men were sent to the AFL gathering, while the first-string men covered the sessions of the CIO. There was a continuous parade of stuffed-shirts before the AFL delegates at New Orleans. But this was not true at Atlantic City where trade unionists did the speaking. Good, bad or indifferent, they were trade unionists and that is an important point. The qualitative difference between the AFL and the CIO was graphically reflected on the Negro question. A. Phillips Randolph, the president of the Sleeping Car Porters, introduced a resolution at New Orleans asking for the creation of an inter-racial committee to end racial discrimination in the AFL. The Resolutions Committee sidestepped the issue, bringing in a recommendation that the international unions give “most sincere consideration” to the problem. Speaking against the report of the Committee, Randolph made a forty minute plea to the Convention, urging the delegates to show courage and face the issue. He cited, as an example, a case in a Tampa, Florida shipyard where, upon the signing of an AFL closed shop contract, all the Negro workers were fired and replaced by white workers. He told how, when the Negro workers attempted to organize a protest, the local AFL leaders aligned themselves with the Ku Klux Klan in opposition to the Negroes. “The trade unions,” said Randolph, “have taken over the capitalistic, imperialistic idea of inferior races.” When Randolph had finished speaking, Matthew Woll moved the previous question, shutting off debate.

The New Orleans AFL Central Labor Council was in charge of Convention arrangements. The various local unions in New Orleans, including the Negro locals of longshoremen, made contributions toward a fund for the entertainment of the delegates. The Central Labor Council gave a check to the Negro locals and suggested that they arrange a separate program of entertainment for the Negro delegates to the Convention. This proposition was rejected by the Negro trade unionists. “We may not participate in the entertainment of the other delegates,” said Randolph, “but we won’t accept any Jim Crow program.”

Negroes Feel at Home in CIO

The reception accorded the Negro delegates in the CIO Convention stood in sharp contrast to the AFL attitude. There was no sign of the customary – in the AFL – ripple of laughter when a Negro delegate rose to speak. It was not considered a light moment in the meeting, as is so often true in those craft unions which do permit Negroes in their ranks. The Negro delegates at Atlantic City spoke without any feeling of constraint. They did not display that attitude of subservience often seen in an AFL union. They evidenced a belief that the CIO is really their union, that the convention was their convention. And, as they spoke, they poured forth the pent-up wrath of their persecuted race. They were equals among the delegates and their remarks were seriously received. This bond of solidarity between the Negro workers and the white workers reflects the great strength of the industrial union movement.

Green Swears by Capitalism

A select group of AFL officials, with Green as their spokesman, gave a special interview to the press in which they declared that they “support capitalism as vigorously as they support the trade unions and the right to organize and bargain collectively.” They appealed to big business to understand Roosevelt. And on numerous occasions the AFL officials expressed the opinion that the class-conscious militants were opposed to the industrial unions capitulating to the AFL craft unionists because “the left wing fears loss of authority in a united movement.” Having declared their undying allegiance to capitalism, this was the AFL officials’ way of serving notice that they want no critics of capitalism in their ranks.

The CIO passed a resolution on political action in which the executive officers and executive board were instructed to “look towards the formulation of a program to assure an independent role for labor.” Ambiguous as this statement is, as little meaning as it will have if not followed up by a militant program of action, it stands in sharp contrast to the pronouncement of the AFL hierarchy. Green saw in the defeat of Willkie after his endorsement by John L. Lewis the “vindication of the traditional non-partisan policy of the AFL.” Disregarding the fact that the real meaning of Lewis’s action was a desertion of the interests of the workers whom he is supposed to represent, which, of course, Green does not understand, Green read into the results of Lewis’s performance a justification for his own peculiar method of tying the workers to the political leadership of their class enemy.

Stalinists Vote to Condemn Communism

A comparison of the attitude of the two organizations towards radical tendencies in the trade union movement is evidenced by their action on the question of the Communist Party. The AFL bans members of the Communist Party from membership, and it passed a resolution at New Orleans, requesting the government to outlaw the Communist Party. The CIO Convention passed a resolution condemning “communism,” for which the Stalinist delegates voted. The resolution added, however, that there is “room for all of us” in the CIO. At least a part of the top strata of the CIO leadership is in full accord with the AFL attitude toward radicals generally. But they are not in a position to indulge in any large-scale campaign of red-baiting. This is partly due to the exigencies of the fight with the AFL but also, in no small measure, a result of the pressure from the CIO rank and file which is by and large more class-conscious than the membership of the AFL.

Green and the Secretary-Treasurer George Meany got huge raises from the AFL Convention. This question was not on the agenda at Atlantic City. The high-salaried CIO officials are paid by their own unions. The wages of the CIO staff men are generally low by comparison with the AFL standard. The CIO has in the course of its existence found many willing workers ready to do everything they could to promote the welfare of the organization for “coffee and.” This is always true of a dynamic movement. The top layer of the CIO staff men dream of better days with higher salaries but a well-knit machine leadership is necessary before this dream can be translated into reality.

Such a machine is attempting to form itself in the new CIO unions. However, machine leadership is well entrenched only in the older unions of the CIO, such as the United Mine Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. The pie-card artists who covet large salaries may never realize their desires in the CIO. They are preparing a start in that direction as evidenced by the phoney demonstrations put on for the leaders at the Atlantic City convention. But these demonstrations were largely hollow.

Why CIO Is More Progressive

The sharp and continuous struggle between the workers and the big corporations in the mass production industries maintains a heavy and healthy pressure on the leadership of the CIO. The big corporations are not willing to hand out even the small crumbs that class-collaborationist methods can obtain for the more privileged sections of the craft union organizations. Therefore the CIO leadership is forced to support policies that are somewhat more progressive than those of the AFL officialdom. Yet the program of the AFL and the CIO is basically the same on many fundamental questions. This flows from the fact that the top officialdom in both organizations has the same class-collaborationist ideology. Both groups are supporters of the capitalist system and the war program of American imperialism.

The AFL, as well as the CIO, has raised a demand for the enforcement of labor legislation in the war industries. But both sets of leaders also agree on a policy of collaboration with the bosses’ government. They urge “union-management cooperation” as against trade union action. Neither group has learned anything from Hillman’s role in the “Defense Commission.” His feeble efforts to get a crumb for the workers from the table where the big industrialists were cutting up the fat war profits was an inglorious failure. He stood unmercifully exposed as a “representative of labor” sitting in the camp of the workers’ enemy. But he stays there. Hillman can do this because, as he very bluntly admits, above all else he is out to promote the “defense program.” The AFL and CIO leaders completely ignore the significance of this experience. Instead, they demand more boards, one for each industry, a board of review above each of these boards and a super-board at the top on which, as Murray put it, the president might sit. And they reaffirm their loyalty to capitalism.

As the war crisis sharpens, capitalism will make increasingly heavy demands upon the officials in the hierarchy of the AFL and CIO. They, in turn, will yield repeatedly before this pressure. They will serve the bosses more and more, the workers less and less. The already big gap between the officialdom and the membership will grow increasingly wide. The workers will begin to look for new methods of struggle. They will feel the need for a new leadership, a fighting leadership.

The class-conscious militants must be prepared to step into this gap, to give the workers a class-struggle program, to lead them in the fight to preserve their industrial unions, to show them the way onto the road of independent working class political action, to give them leadership in the class war to end imperialist war and exploitation forever, to show them how, as the vanguard class of society, to fight for the emancipation of the human race.

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