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Susan Green

Pressing Union Problems on Floor
at 63rd Annual Meeting of AFL

(25 October 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 43, 25 October 1943, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The convention of the American Federation of Labor meeting in Boston the week of October 4 took up a number of vital labor questions on which we shall report in this article. Further analysis of its action will be taken up at another time.

The AFL, for example, had an opportunity to strike a severe blow at Jim Crow in the resolution introduced by A. Philip Randolph of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, calling for abolition of all Jim Crow locals and bars to equal union status for Negro workers.

To the shame of the AFL leadership, none of the white delegates either spoke or voted for Randolph’s resolution – not even the delegates of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, who were presumably representing one of the first unions in the country to fight Jim Crow. Randolph himself and Milton P. Webster, also of the Sleeping Car Porters and the only other Negro delegate, were the only supporters of the resolution.

Instead of support in his efforts to bring real unity between white and black workers, Randolph faced a barrage of unjustified attack from President Green and the AFL tops. He was called an “AGITATOR” and a “PROFESSIONAL NEGRO” by his fellow delegates. John P. Frey, president of the AFL Metal Trades Council, characterized Randolph’s courageous speech as a “MORAL CRIME.”

In rebuttal Randolph asked:

“Is anybody here taking the position that racial auxiliary unions are justified? No one will contend that Jewish or Catholic unions should be organized. A racial auxiliary union is either right or wrong. If it is right, it ought to be justified. If not, it ought to be condemned and exterminated. If you were in the Negro’s place and were put into auxiliary unions without rights and had to pay dues and you were not permitted to exercise your skill and yon were not permitted to rise, what would you do? We contend that the AFL itself is not secure so long as the Negro is denied the same rights as white workers. Nothing has been said here to cause me to retreat from the position I’ve taken.”

In spite of Randolph’s fight, the convention side-stepped its responsibility and adopted a routine resolution for education against race prejudice, for the appointment of a sub-committee on minority questions, and for endorsement of the limping and ineffectual Fair Employment Practices Committee.

The UMW on the Floor

The question the outcome of which was awaited with the greatest interest by the whole labor movement was the readmission of the United Mine Workers into the AFL, from which it once withdrew to form the CIO.

Reaffiliation of the miners is surrounded by side issues having nothing to do with the main point – which is to solidify labor’s strength by unity. The difference between Lewis’s political ideas and those of many of the AFL leaders also was an undercurrent affecting the re-entry of the UMW.

The New Dealers in the AFL, among them Daniel J. Tobin, head of the Teamsters’ Union, and Harvey W. Brown, head of the Machinists’ Union, are not anxious to add he Republican tendencies of Lewis to those of W.L. Hutcheson, head of the Carpenters. Today, when independent political action is a must for labor, a great labor federation had its problems befogged by its leaders struggling to strengthen one capitalist political party or another!

On the legitimate matters requiring adustment, such as the status of District 50 of the UMW and the relation between the Progressive Miners of America and the UMW, Lewis sent a letter to the executive council giving assurances of his willingness to make settlements fair to all concerned. However, the criss-crossing of interests was not straightened out sufficiently to result in positive and immediate action by the convention. The matter was referred back to the executive council for further negotiation, with the right to unions having jurisdictional disputes with the UMW to file their grievances within thirty days. The counter-resolution to wait until the 1944 convention before settling the question of the miners was defeated, and the general feeling of the convention was that the miners would be admitted within a few months.

Machinists’ Return Ups Membership

The International Association of Machinists, which had quit the federation because of jurisdictional disputes with the Carpenters’ Union – such constant disputes being inevitable under the ancient craft divisions in the AFL – returned to the fold, with its membership of 625,000.

Secretary George Meany announced the paid membership of the federation to be 6,654,141. With the reentry of the UMW, it is expected the number will be brought to over the 7,000,000 mark – a mighty force of organized workers whose militant development, however, can be assured only by the rank and file yanking it out of the groove of class collaboration into which its leaders have sunk it.

Incentive Pay and the WLB

Of the burning union issues facing the convention, the delegates – to their credit – took swift and unequivocal action on incentive pay, rejecting all wage systems based on incentive pay as merely “speed-up” camouflage. Whether it was planned that way or not, Joseph D. Keenan of the War Production Board, who came to the convention to peddle propaganda for incentive pay, delivered his piece after the convention had acted on the incentive pay resolution.

Much time was given to the issue of the War Labor Board, without taking the simple action – required by labor’s interests – of calling labor’s representatives off this government agency which operates so effectively against the workers of this country. The resolution to continue the AFL’s futile efforts to defend trade union rights before the board, also voiced resentment that the CIO and not the AFL is the WLB’s pet.

Strong objection was taken to the present situation where wage decisions of the WLB are subject to Economic Stabilization Director Vinson and War Mobilization Director Byrnes, and a resolution called for the removal of the “load of super-agencies” from the WLB’s back and the restoration of the board to “its former position.” This action avoided the conclusion that the WLB was always the graveyard of labor’s demands.

The convention-approved telegram sent by Tobin to the chairman of the WLB indicated that the delegates realize that the WLB is just such a graveyard. The telegram said in part:

“I now notify you and the WLB that both myself and my associates find it impossible to convince our membership immediately in many places of the necessity of observing our no-strike pledge because of what they and I consider an unnecessary delay in endeavoring to make decisions.”

No-Strike Pledge and Connally Act

Furthermore, while admitting in this telegram that the workers have no redress but to strike for their demands, the convention at the same time reaffirmed the no-strike pledge. The leadership is between the devil and the deep blue sea on this question of strikes. For instance, they rightly and roundly condemned the Smith-Connally anti-strike law as “a new high point in anti-unionism in this country.” Yet because of the harmful no-strike pledge, Tobin made a spectacle of himself by actually complaining that the Smith-Connally law permits strikes.

Price and Post-War Plans

The delegates undoubtedly voiced the opinion of the whole working class when they expressed in a resolution on prices and rationing that prices are now stabilized at too high a level – though the word “stabilized” is far from a realistic description of the price situation.

A resolution urging the women’s auxiliaries to mobilize with union representatives on price control and rationing in each community was definitely a step in the right direction, but it is all too plain that sentiment is still for collaboration with existing boards rather than for action on labor’s own steam.

While the convention recognized the problem involved in 30,000,000 potential post-war unemployed, the measures it voted are very inadequate. For example, it overstressed the role of post-war housing in solving the unemployment problem. This, at its best, can provide only some 1,250,000 new jobs for a short time.

The convention opposed the AFL entering into an international committee including the Russian unions on the ground that “The fundamental differences between the federation and the government-controlled Russian unions are so glaring that no liaison between the two is now remotely possible.”

In this connection, it must be recalled that the AFL leaders were venomously opposed to the Soviet unions when Lenin and Trotsky were in power and when they were genuinely free institutions – the freest in the world. Refusal to have anything to do with the free Soviet unions was an expression of the bigoted and reactionary stand of the AFL leadership. Its refusal today to have anything to do with the “government-controlled” Russian unions is not a recognition of what Stalin has done to the once free Soviet unions, but the continuation of the same bigotry.

Indicative of the extent to which the AFL tops are still prejudiced and reactionary was the action on the Chinese Exclusion Act – which even the reactionary capitalist Congress no longer likes. The argument that the “Chinese are our fighting allies” did not rally enough convention support to defeat the recommendation of the executive council not to permit Chinese immigration. The convention merely voted to have the language “toned down” and referred the matter back to the council for “study.”

FDR in the Dog House

Although the body rose and cheered when Democratic Senator James Mead eulogized the President as “the man given to us by divine power – the most popular leader in the world today – President Franklin D. Roosevelt,” there was no pro-Roosevelt frenzy at the convention. There were plenty of references to how the Roosevelt Administration is giving labor a “kicking around.” Perhaps the delegates didn’t care too much for the part of the President’s message to the convention which said: “The working people will be asked to continue to support the war effort by lending their money and making sacrifices and modifying their personal habits.”

A resolution entitled Co-operation with President Roosevelt and praising “his progressive and far-sighted view on domestic and foreign matters” was prevented by the committee from coming before the house – and nobody got mad about that. Some convention observers took this lack of enthusiasm for FDR to indicate that the AFL leadership is putting itself into a trading position with FDR – others thought it a definite trend toward the Republican Party. Horse-trading with capitalist political parties is indeed a far cry from using labor’s political might independently to serve labor’s class interests.

The Italian Situation

The delegates considered the question of trade unionism in Italy and pledged the AFL to assist the workers of Italy in restoring their “free trade union movement which had been crushed by Mussolini.” There seems to be a bad contradiction, however. For at the same time the convention expressed its wish for the leaders of the “underground Italian labor movement” to be put “in charge of the former fascist unions.”

Atherton Puts Green on Defensive

There were, of course, the usual avalanche of pep speeches by all and sundry. The speech that attracted most public attention was that delivered by Atherton, reactionary head of the big-business-controlled American Legion, who had the brass to come before a convention of labor to say that “it should be treason” for a worker to strike.

In rebuttal, President Green did not do himself so proud. He allowed this reactionary – who had no business to have been invited to a labor convention in the first place – to put him on the defensive. Instead of attacking this enemy of labor, who uses the war as an excuse for his labor-baiting, Green assured him that labor is making “a fine record in a most imperfect world” – Green’s idea of perfection presumably being the same as Atherton’s, namely, no strikes by labor.

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