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David Coolidge

The U.A.W. Convention

(August 1941)

From The New International, Vol. VII No. 7 (Whole No. 56), August 1941, pp. 170–3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE RECENT CONVENTION of the United Automobile Workers (now the United Automobile, Aircraft and Agricultural Implement Workers: UAW-CIO) was an excellent laboratory in which to study not only the technical problems of trade union functioning but also certain specific problems of the class struggle and working class politics. For here were assembled nearly 1,000 delegates representing workers in a basic mass production industry who had in the past few years been organized into an industrial union that now has 438,000 members. Here were workers who were beyond the exuberance and carefree attitude of youth but who were still active, alert and far from the blight of age. Literally hundreds of these delegates, in recent times, had been leaders of picket lines; they were shop stewards, officers of locals, members of wage committees and of various other committees that go to make up the administrative, organizational and educational apparatus of a mass labor international. These were the men who had been on the firing line, who had engaged in the battle of the picket line, the conference room and the legislative hearing. As the labor movement goes they were comparatively young in length of service but they had crowded in much experience, education and trade union training.

Since their convention was meeting in the days of the Second World Imperialist War, economic, social and political questions attendant upon imperialist war thrust themselves onto the floor of the convention and forced discussion and the adoption of policy. This means that the major questions before the convention were political and not the old fashioned isolated economic matters that formerly occupied the time of trade union conventions. It was this fact and the practical handling of some of these political questions that revealed both the weakness and the strength of the new industrial union movement in the United States. Because of the political nature of the topics before the convention and the presence of political party groups, it was not of course mere chance that almost from the start the convention was confronted with two well-organized political factions: the Stalinists on one side and a Hillman-OPM pro-war block of social-chauvinists, in charge of the “socialist” Reuther brothers.

The Two “Power Caucuses”

The leadership of these two factions were arrayed against each other in open, venomous and usually reactionary combat through the twelve days of deliberations. It is necessary to emphasize that this was really a struggle between the leadership of the two “power caucuses” for the reason that on a few important occasions the delegates rejected or sent back proposals coming from their own leaders or from the leadership acting in unison. And, too, there were independent delegates who were not members of either of the “power caucuses.”

The Reuther brothers’ faction contained many good militant workers, but due to their red-baiting and pro-war line they gathered in the most reactionary elements in the convention. This leadership, with some loose and tame connection with the Socialist Party, brought under its banner the most backward delegates of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, all the Hillmanites, the most blatant pro-war delegates and the most vociferous of the red-baiters and witch-hunters.

The Stalinist faction also contained many real militant workers, but they were also liberally supplied with old fashioned and stupid Stalinists whose skullduggery at times was truly amazing. They were in a bad position. There were no principled differences between them and the Reuther brothers’ faction or between them and Hillman, the real leader of the Reuther faction.. There was no real difference between the Stalinists and the Reuthers on the “Red” question, for, as we shall show later, the Stalinists also went in for a little red-baiting, in the circumstances, the fact that the Reuthers are American social-patriots and the Stalinists reactionary Russian patriots establishes only a very thin superficial difference between the two groups, neither of which is against the war. The fact that both factions were social-chauvinists and therefore could not oppose each other from a platform of working class political principles made it inevitable that the struggle should become a tug of war for mechanical control of the international union. Many of the delegates sensed this and that was the meaning of their description of these two factions as “power caucuses.” But it must be said that most of the delegates did not understand the motives and maneuvers of the convention politicians. This was notably so of the rôle played by Frankensteen. Neither the Reuther nor the Stalinist faction gave them any assistance.

Here was Frankensteen of North American Aviation infamy, the Horatius at the bridge to hold back the Stalinist hordes, coming to an understanding with the Stalinists that if they would not oppose him for vice-president and keep quiet on that section of the North American resolution dealing with his role, he on his part would deal gently with them and Michener. Frankensteen carried out his part of the bargain and so did the Stalinists, but the delegates failed them: they decided there should be no vice-president. The Reuther caucus knew about this deal. Nordstrom, a member of the Reuther group, took the floor and explained what a good job Frankensteen had done on the Stalinists in the international board. He lamented that Frankensteen had done no such job in the convention. The delegates had heard rumors and they wanted the facts but no one dared speak openly and frankly despite repeated demands from rank and file delegates.

Addes also came in for a great deal of criticism. There were some forces in the convention who were looking to him to take the lead in steering the delegates toward a militant and independent formation. But while Addes took a generally progressive position on the various questions, his chief activity seemed to have been centered around getting re-elected to office. He was the chief organizational target of the Reuther faction and it was necessary for him to clear himself of the charge of being a Stalinist before the day of the elections rolled around.

President Thomas is generally looked upon as a sort of middle of the road person. This description is neither adequate nor accurate. Thomas seems to be a person who realizes that the two factions in the organization will tear it to pieces if he does not insist on listening to many of the democratic demands of the ranks. He therefore ran the convention in an unusually democratic manner, paying attention to the pressure and the needs of the rank and file delegates, who acted as a barrier against the machinations of both the political factions. Although it is probably true that Thomas is not a formal member of the Reuther machine, he expressed a preference for most of the positions held by Walter Reuther at the convention. One notable instance in which he did not agree with Reuther was in the vote for Addes to be secretary-treasurer. There is reason to believe that he finally decided to vote for the re-election of Addes after telephone conversation that he and Addes had with Murray. It is this writer’s guess that Murray was favorable to the re-election of Addes. Thomas is a strong Murray man and if he has any real and fast alliance it is with Murray. He made this clear more than once at Buffalo.

Some of the capitalist papers and the social-democratic New Leader are insisting that it was a John L. Lewis convention and that Alan Haywood, who was in Buffalo, was there, not as was announced by Thomas, representing Murray, but Lewis. Most of this chatter should be discounted. Addes is also said to be a Lewis man. This may be true, but it seems that he is also a Murray man. Most of the talk and propaganda about Lewis being in command or that he is reaching out to take over the leadership of the CIO again is based partly on fear that the return of Lewis will cause a loss of prestige in some quarters, also opposition to John L.’s isolationist stand by the outright pro-entry leaders in the UAW. It is probable that the Stalinists will eventually come out in opposition to Lewis and swing all their support to Murray. They laid the groundwork for such a step at Buffalo when they voted for a Reuther faction resolution binding the UAW delegates to the CIO convention to vote for Murray for re-election. When the vote on the resolution was taken Thomas was careful to urge that all who opposed the resolution should be men enough to stand and vote against it. Only a handful of Stalinists stood. The resolution was sprung from the floor by Richard Leonard and the Stalinists did not have an opportunity to caucus before voting.

These were some of the issues that the delegates were confronted with, sometimes getting them openly from the convention floor but often having them blow in from the faction rooms through rumor-mongering. This was the high internal lad ion politics that the mass of the rank and file delegates was confused by. This political “power caucus” jugglery and scheming created great difficulties for the delegates when they faced the important questions such as the war resolution, the elections, the North American and Allis-Chalmers events and the anti-Communist, Fascist and Nazi constitutional amendments. This was especially true in the case of the independent militants who did not have the consolation of blindly and passively following their caucus or party leaders.

Politics and Politicians

There was plenty of talk in the convention about “politicians.” This word was on everybody’s tongue; even Frankensteen was disturbed, he said more than once, over the activity of the “politicians.” He was sure that sweetness and light would prevail if the “politicians” would only be less active. No one was willing to be labeled a “politician”; every faction activist, according to his own representation, was only interested in defending the union constitution and preserving democracy in the organization. No one wanted to touch politics or a politician. It is not necessary to go into this matter any further in relation to the real faction demagogues, but there is something to be said about the sincere worker-delegates who took this position.

It was plain in Buffalo, as it is at other workers’ gatherings, that militant and honest workers fall prey to the demagogic, opportunist and social-patriotic schemes of clever trade union leaders on this question of politics in the unions. Not understanding the class organization of society and the nature of the class struggle, these workers look upon “politics” as being only or primarily the intervention of working class parties in the union. This is a troublesome and difficult problem for any revolutionary party. A representative of Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau spoke at the convention in the interest of the sale of “defense” bonds. To the overwhelming majority of the delegates this was not “politics,” and the speaker of course was not a politician. But if a delegate, known to be the representative of a revolutionary party, had spoken against the purchase of the “defense” bonds he would have been lucky if he was permitted to finish the ten minutes allotted to speakers from the floor. Such political immaturity was of course exploited to the utmost by the Hillman-Reuther faction. The Stalinist delegates, who knew better, joined the chorus at every opportunity and helped add to the confusion of delegates who were really willing to learn a few things had there been anyone around to teach them.

When they understood, the actions of these automobile workers were superb. The voted unanimously against the proposal of the international board to hold biennial conventions. This, after all the heavy artillery on the rostrum, including Thomas, Addes and Frankensteen speaking in favor. They voted almost en masse against a recommendation to have three classifications for “organizers.” Their attitude was: “Give all the organizers the same pay and make them all earn it.” Although they voted for the Murray-Thomas-Frankensteen whitewash in the North American affair, they would not yield to the pressure for Michener to be expelled from the union or barred from holding office below the rank of board member and regional director. Neither would they yield to pressure to let the eight blacklisted workers from North American remain blacklisted without help from the union. They voted at first not to seat the Allis-Chalmers delegates but were insistent that a new election be held immediately so that these workers could be represented at the convention. They refused to be trapped by the criminal scheming of the Reuther faction and Nordstrom which was planned to let the convention go by before the new election could be held. When the original committee returned with a lurid report about Christoffel’s low estimate of the worth of the union leadership and that he would not “cooperate,” the delegates brushed this aside, added four members to the original three, and told them to go back and stay there until the election was held.

They refused to permit the dues to be raised from $1.00 to $1.25 monthly. They refused to increase the number of paid officers by adding a vice-president. They passed a resolution against the freezing of wages over the protest of the resolutions committee, who felt that this should be left to wage-negotiating committees. There was virtually no flag-waving at the convention despite the fact that these workers are “patriots.” Their deep concern over the practically day-to-day problems of the automobile industry was really more active than their “patriotism.” They understood thoroughly the need for intensifying the organizing drive in aircraft. They were indefatigable protagonists of constitutional procedure and zealous defenders of internal union democracy.

Convention Shortcomings

These were the things they understood, the aspects of trade unionism they had learned from their own experience. But there were fundamentally important questions they did not understand and grasp. For instance, the real meaning and implications of the North American affair either from the side of the government and the bourgeoisie or the rôle of Murray and Thomas. Since Frankensteen’s strike-breaking was so open and crass, they could get their teeth into this so far as his objective acts were open to their gaze. They missed completely, however, the motivations of Roosevelt and the easy manner in which Murray, followed by Thomas, was trapped into covering the union-breaking plans of the North American employers and the imperialist war plans of Roosevelt. In fact, it never seemed to have occurred to the independent militants in the convention to emphasize that the real culprit was North American and not Michener, even though Michener may have violated the discipline of the union. Had the delegates or any part of them attacked this situation with the same alertness and perspicacity they did some other issues, Roosevelt and the ruling class would be having sleepless nights wondering what the automobile workers were planning to do next, for instance in connection with the coming lay-offs in the industry.

These delegates, as is the case with the majority of workers, did not understand the real dangers of Stalinism. Due to their lack of political understanding of the Stalinists, they play into the hands of the vilest anti-Stalinist reactionaries, into the hands of people who politically are really not anti-Stalinists, but anti-progressive and hostile to all suggestions for revolutionary program and activity. In the Allis-Chalmers case they virtually closed their eyes to the real essence of Stalinism. They rejected the credentials of these delegates at first because it was proved that the election was unconstitutional: that is they had been nominated and voted for on the same day. When the same delegates were re-elected the convention was satisfied: the constitution had been upheld. It had not, however, settled the relevant question of Stalinism in the union as manifested in the course of the Stalinist handling of affairs in this local.

It was not brought out and emphasized in the convention that despite the fact of Stalinist undemocratic tactics and strong-arm practices at Allis-Chalmers, as elsewhere, the workers there had in all probability voted for Christoffel delegates again because this was the group that had led their 76-day militant strike. The workers at Allis-Chalmers didn’t vote for the Nordstrom-Reuther delegates – despite the fact that Nordstrom is director for that region – because they evidently believed that in the circumstances of that strike, if it had been led by Nordstrom, the strike would have been sold out long before the 76th day arrived. This is, the workers at Allis-Chalmers, most of them, were voting for militant action when they supported the Christoffel Stalinist delegation, and not for “radicalism.”

Nobody in the convention emphasized this point or the further point that red-baiting as a substitute for militant action or as a cover for one’s Hillman pro-war politics will not advance the interests of the labor movement. There were independent militants at the convention who know this but they did not know how to formulate, present and fight for their views.

The convention knew that it would deal with the Stalinists and the delegates just waited for the so-called “red issue” to come to the floor. It did in the form of a constitutional amendment. There were three of these amendments, one from the Stalinists. But lo and behold! all three of them were identical in that each called for the barring of “Communists, Fascists and Nazis” from holding office in the UAW. The Stalinists opposed the other two resolutions only because they did not include the “Socialist Party.” This should have been a lesson to many of the militants in the convention: that you will have a devil of a time catching the Stalinists if you are armed with nothing more than a constitution. “You want to do a little red-baiting,” the Stalinists said in effect to Reuther, Leonard, Doherty, et al., “all right, we’ll show you how it’s done, for after all, we are experts at this game. Under our great leader, Stalin, we have had a whole decade of experience at this sort of thing. All that we insist on is that you include everybody except Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, even the palest of the pink groups, even the Socialist Party.”

The workers have not yet learned that the attack on the Stalinists must be a political and programmatic attack; that to attempt to eradicate Stalinism from the labor movement by mere constitutional means is reactionary and that such amendments in the hands of a reactionary leadership will serve as a club against all and any militants, whether Stalinists, true revolutionists, Republicans or Democrats.

The War Resolution

When the war resolution came up the delegates also demonstrated their political incapacity. This resolution, which embodies the position of President Thomas, was for defense but against an AEF. The country must prepare to defend itself against aggression but must not participate in any foreign wars. The convention gave far less attention to this resolution than to the question, say, of competitive shops. The best of the militants did not know that when he is voting on a war resolution he is taking a political position and not deciding a trade union question like wages or reclassification. True, the worker is interested more in wages than in the war but he doesn’t understand that he must not be more interested in the question of wages than he is in a resolution committing his union to a position on the imperialist war.

The war resolution of the UAW convention was particularly dangerous and pernicious. Resolutions calling for “defense” but no “foreign wars” may give the impression that their sponsors are against the war and thereby draw support of labor. This is due to the political backwardness of the mass of workers. Thomas and the workers who vote for resolutions of this type are perhaps convinced that there is a fundamental distinction to be drawn between defending “one’s own country” from inside against an aggressor and going out to meet the enemy or the potential enemy elsewhere. To accept such a position is to swallow whole all of the propaganda of the ruling class about the present war. The workers fail to grasp the problem and find the correct working-class solution because they do not comprehend the nature of imperialist war and how and why national states become involved in such wars. They get bogged down and wrapped in muddle and mystery about “defense” and “aggression.” Such questions are beyond the political range of the trade union leaders.

The matter of strikes was also the subject of constitutional amendment. This was to be expectd after the North American affair. The regulations against “unauthorized strikes” were made more rigorous. It is now mandatory for the International Board to withdraw all financial support from a union that continues with an “unauthorized” strike. The problem of strikes is a hard nut for the non-political trade union militant. He knows that there must be union discipline and that “unauthorized” strikes must be held in check. But he also knows that if strikes are confined to those authorized by the leadership, something bad for the union is likely to happen. This was brought out in the convention, one delegate reminding the delegates that the great Ford strike began as an “unauthorized” strike. The point is that a provision in a union constitution giving complete control over strikes to the union leadership can work against all progress by the union and the working class. If there were never an “unauthorized” strike in time there would probably be no strikes at all and labor would be faced with virtual slavery.

This question of strikes ties up with the problem of “legality” and the unions. The trade union leadership, as a rule, wants to proceed within the framework of bourgeois legality. To the bourgeois there is a certain “illegality” about an “unauthorized” strike, even though no statute is violated. He will call the strike illegal and then go to the courts or to Congress and ask for protection. This was what happened in the case of the very effective sit-down strikes.

The last point that we wish to cover that was revealed at the UAW convention was the inability of the non-political trade union militants to truly grasp the nature of the real problem before the labor movement. We have said that these problems were mainly political. Despite this fact there is a strong hangover of former days and a persistent tendency to seek solutions by economic action alone. Even among those unionists who are beginning to get a glimmer of the necessity for political action, there is lack of experience and capacity for understanding the method of translation from economic to political action. But the responsibility for this immaturity cannot be laid at the feet of the militant trade unionists. They are doing their job as best they know how. This was clear at the UAW convention. They understand the day-to-day practical struggle against the employer but they do not understand capitalist society. They do not understand any kind of politics, bourgeois or proletarian. In this field the revolutionists and Marxists alone are competent to assume the rôle of teacher, leader and guide. Leadership cannot be left to a brute empiricist like Lewis or a religio-social patriot like Murray. All of this was very clear at the UAW convention. Marxists claim to understand this but they haven’t done much yet in a practical way.

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