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David Coolidge

First Days of CIO Meet Bring Heated Discussion

(19 November 1940)

From Labor Action, vol. 4 No. 33, 25 November 1940, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ATLANTIC CITY, Nov. 19 – The “Third Constitutional Convention” of the Congress of Industrial Organizations opened here Monday morning with the usual ceremonial prayer and address of welcome by the mayor. After this and a few other routine matters the temporary chairman worked up to the event that the convention was waiting for: the introduction of John L. Lewis. The forty-five minute ovation had been well prepared and organized by the Stalinists. I do not mean by this that the ovation was a purely Stalinist affair. This would be far from the truth. There were many delegates and other members and friends of the CIO who were sincere in their rapturous reception of Lewis. These were old associates, friends and members of the organization who are convinced

that Lewis stands for something important, vital and necessary in the labor movement in this country. They look upon Lewis as the living symbol and chief protagonist of the idea of industrial unionism. These workers are convinced that industrial unionism has given them something that they never had before and that the CIO holds great promise for the workers in the mass production industries. They attribute the results obtained during the past five years to the leadership of John L. Lewis. That is why they applauded him so vigorously.

Inflated by Stalinists

There is no doubt however that the ovation was pumped up and inflated by the Stalinists. They arrived here on Sunday, and by Monday were as thick as flies. They were organized to put over the re-election of Lewis. When you entered the lobby of the Hotel Chelsea, where the convention is being held, delegates and visitors were handed lapel buttons two inches in diameter bearing the legend, “Forward With Lewis and CIO.” It was evident to any of us who have seen the Stalinists in action that these buttons were a part of their “draft Lewis” campaign.

During the forty-five minute ovation the Stalinist cheering sections in the gallery and among the delegates were busy with confetti, streamers and various types of noise makers. There were cries of “we want Lewis,” and the singing of “Lewis is our leader, we shall not be moved.” The band attempted the ruse of playing the Star Spangled Banner on the assumption that at the end of the “national anthem” the delegates and gallery cheering section would, with due reverence, become silent. But nothing of the sort happened; the din continued. Finally, I suppose with fatigue approaching, and with the efforts of Lewis, order was restored and Lewis began his speech: began what he called an accounting for his stewardship for the past five year period.

The Speech

This first speech of Lewis wasn’t long. It was concerned with a discussion Of matters pertaining to his leadership of the CIO and some of the controversial questions that have arisen since his pro-Willkie campaign speech. He said that what he had done what was his considered judgment and that if he had it to do over he would not change his position.

“There were those,” he said, “who hoped that the Democratic Party would do something about the fifty-two million empty bellies in the country. Well go ahead and hope. I take my stand with the fifty-two million empty bellies.” This drew tremendous applause. Lewis then told the convention that he was leaving the post of CIO president and that he would be their leader only a few days longer. He attacked those who would bring discord into the organization and cause it to be weakened by internal conflict in the face of the big job to be done. (This was interpreted to mean the Hillman group.) He said that those who say that the CIO is controlled by subversive groups lie. Continuing his attack on his critics Lewis said, “I was something of a man before I became president of this organization and I will be something of a man when I leave. That’s what I think.” His answer, at least to some of the handclappers was, “your applause does not enthuse me overmuch, your attacks move me not at all.”

At the close of the speech there was another ovation. The Stalinist cheering sections however had been a little weakened and discouraged by the categorical declaration of Lewis that he would not retain his post of president. With some of them it was as though they had been ducked in the cold waters of the Atlantic just a few hundred yards away.

The Stalinists were not finished however, for all during Monday and Tuesday telegrams were pouring in from locals all over the country demanding that Lewis stay on. The overwhelming majority of these telegrams were from unions and locals either dominated by the Stalinists or where they have appreciable influence. The dullest part of the convention was sitting and listening to the reading of these “canned” telegrams. There was one telegram from a steel local demanding that Lewis resign. One from a Jewish local of the United Office and Professional Workers of America, asking the convention to accept Lewis’ resignation. This telegram also condemned the draft Lewis movement. One came from the American Catholic Trade Union Association of Detroit calling for the unity of the AFL and CIO. There were a few telegrams, praising the work of the CIO and promising continued support, but omitting the demand for Lewis to continue in office.

Credentials Report

The credentials committee reported on Monday that 548 delegates had been seated in the convention. The final report on the number of delegates to the convention has not been made. There are delegates from every section of the country and of every race and creed of the national population. There are miners, smelter, workers, packing house workers, cereal workers, textile, steel, agricultural, marine, radio, office, automobiles, glass, clothing, furniture, forest, cannery, oil, quarry, paper, shoe, transport, distillery, construction, utility, etc., etc.

There were men and women delegates present who know what it is to fight on the picket line from long experience and many a hard fought battle. There are Negro delegates. I saw a gnarled Negro women from the sharecroppers union – here to get something to take back to the most exploited workers in the whole country. All of them are here because they believe in the CIO. They appreciate the fact that they are better off than they were five years ago and they are determined to go out from the convention to complete the job.

Heated Discussion

The second day of the convention opened with the reading of more dreary telegrams demanding that Lewis stay in office. I suppose that they will continue as long as the convention is in session. The first important business was the report of the Committee on Officers Reports. This is a committee that discusses and reports to the convention on its findings in connection with the annual reports made by CIO officers. The content of these reports will be discussed later. The section of the report dealing with the CIO press brought the first heated discussion in the convention from the floor.

Baldanzi, formerly of the Dyers Federation, which has been merged with the Textile Workers Union took the floor to disagree with the evaluation of the CIO News given by the report. Baldanzi said that the News was the only paper in the United States that did not carry a picture of President Roosevelt after the election. He mentioned Len De Caux, editor of the News, whom he accused of bias in withholding items sent to the News by some sections of the organization.

De Caux was given the floor to defend his administration of the News. I thought his “defense” very weak. He didn’t seem to be very sure of himself. He contended that he had edited the paper in conformity with the decisions of the executive council and that the only position taken was laid down by that body. But we knew that DeCaux was leaving his defense to Lewis.

A Little Rough

Blumberg, of the Laundry Workers Joint Board (ACW) also took issue with the report on the News. Blumberg objected to the printing of the Lewis speech endorsing Willkie. Then Lewis took the floor to answer Blumberg. Sensing the situation the convention and the galleries drew up to strict attention. They expected something and they were not to be disappointed. Lewis said that his speech was printed in the News by De Caux because he (Lewis) had requested it. He said that thousands of telegrams had come in asking for copies of the speech. And then, despite the fact that Lewis had announced at the time of the speech, that he spoke only as a private citizen and not as the representative of the CIO; he decided later that the thousands of copies of the speech that were asked for should not go out privately printed, but in the official organ of the CIO.

This was strange reasoning and I was surprised that no delegate called this to the attention of Lewis. But John L. had not shot his bolt yet. He said that he fully endorsed the way the News had been conducted under De Caux and that De Caux had carried out the policies of the executive council. While Lewis was speaking there was some booing. At this point Lewis did an inexcusable and impermissible thing. He suggested that if the “gentlemen who did the booing will come to the platform we will put on an audition for them.” One of the booers sitting beside me stood to let Lewis know that he was one of them but was not observed by Lewis. Lewis then remarked that he would appoint a committee to bring the booers up and remarked: “the committee that I will appoint will bring them up.” This sounded to me like the John L. Lewis of an earlier day, the day of intimidation and rough tactics toward workers who were demanding simple democratic rights in the miners’ union.

The next part of the report of the Committee on Officers Reports was the section dealing with unity. This discussion will be reported in Labor Action next week along with a full report on the convention. The convention was scheduled to last two days but it looks no was if it will run through Thanksgiving.

There is one thing that I forgot to mention. That is the plan to have Phil Murray replace Lewis. This plan hit a snag in the negotiations of the executive council last night where Murray took the position that he would not accept unless he could get a resolution from the convention authorizing him to eliminate all communists, fascists and nazis from official posts in the CIO.

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