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David Coolidge

Afterthoughts on a Union Convention

Comments on the UAW

(September 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 8, September 1942, pp. 233–237.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The most significant occurrences of the recent United Auto Workers’ convention demonstrate anew the woefully inadequate political preparation of the American workers for playing a class role in the Second Imperialist World War. Despite the fact that the new industrial union movement and organization is now seven years old, that it arose in the course of the severest economic crisis in the whole span of American and world capitalism, accompanied by the imminence of world fascism, the movement remains today politically illiterate, naïve and other-worldly. This is expressed in its continued trust in Roosevelt and its failure to achieve even the most elementary understanding of what Roosevelt is, what he really stands for and whom he represents.

We say that the American proletariat is not yet prepared to play a class political rôle in the present world drama. It is important to emphasize this lack of proletarian class consciousness today because it is in the period of imperialist war that the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie reaches its highest point and can be dearly seen, no matter how thick the covering layers of patriotic, chauvinist propaganda. In this period of the death agony of capitalism, the bourgeoisie is in continual crisis. From its class point of view it is urgently necessary to close ranks and act in a consistently class conscious manner. The leaders of the bourgeoisie know that the wars waged today by the capitalist states are in fact a struggle between the ruling classes of these states, fought for what is conceived to be the predominant national interest of each group. On a world scale, therefore, the present war is an intra-class struggle, i.e., a struggle taking place between the world bourgeoisies.

The leaders among the bourgeoisie know this to be a fact; they know what their aims are and what their goal is. They conceal these aims and their goal from the proletariat because this is indispensable if they are to have what is necessary to fight the war, namely, manpower in the armies and an unceasing flow of war material in the largest quantities possible. They also know that the mere physical presence of the proletariat at the guns and at the factory machines is not enough. There is a qualitative aspect to the question of war efficiency; the workers must not only be there in millions but they must have high “morale,” they must believe in what they are doing and be induced finally to replace their interests with the interests of the ruling class. The attempt is made of course to effect this replacement peacefully but if this cannot be done, the bourgeoisie does not hesitate for an instant to produce it by force. To be sure, this only means that the effort is made, by “education,” to bring the proletariat to acceptance of the “defense of the fatherland” concept and if this is not successful, to suppress the militancy of the unions by legislation or by military force.

This is the standardized procedure of the bourgeoisie in every capitalist country. They operate consciously and deliberately. They fight cooperatively on a class basis and always for what they think are their class interests. Do they want to win the war? Do they want to defeat Germany? Of course they do. But what the proletariat does not understand is that this is not the simple matter that the ruling class pretends it is when it seeks to win the working class to its side.

In this instance the bourgeoisie talks in simple terms and puts forth very simple formulas: This is a workers’ war. Hitler is a barbarian. The Japanese unleash a brutal anti-white terror in the conquered areas. Our democratic way of life is endangered. This is a war of democracy against fascist barbarism. Should Hitler win, the trade unions will be destroyed.

One or two of these sayings are totally true, others are partially true, while others of the bourgeois slogans are totally false. The trade unions will surely be destroyed if Hitler wins, but the war is not a workers’ war. It is an imperialist war waged by the imperialists of the several nations for the consolidation of imperialist gains and interests. (It must be remembered also that there is a concerted drive by the ruling class to destroy the unions now, before the arrival of fascism.)

The financiers and big industrialists want to win the war, it is true, but winning the war to them means not only the defeat of Hitler but also the maintenance of their class dominance in the United States. They are against Hitler and the German bourgeoisie because they threaten the class power and domination of the bourgeoisie in the United States. Hitler threatens to force the American bourgeoisie into the position of subordination to the German bourgeoisie. The war is truly a war between German and American capitalism for world mastery.

Nature of Bourgeois Aims

Class dominance and world power to the bourgeoisie have solid economic roots. They are based on the need for markets, raw materials, labor power (domestic and colonial) and above all, on profits with which to pay salaries, dividends and interest. The conflict between the necessity for defeating the German imperialists and their internal class needs and demands create certain contradictions for the native bourgeoisie. They want to defeat the German bourgeoisie but not at the expense of their rule at home. And thus they face a dilemma. If Hitler wins they will at least be partially stripped of their power and profits. But to make concessions to the unions and the working class in general is, in their opinion, also to be partially stripped of power and profits. Consequently, they attempt not only to maintain but to increase their profits, to “pacify” the working class and thereby increase its exploitation while attempting to gain a military victory against the enemy. In the long run, a victory for Hitler would be preferable to them than a victory for the proletariat in the United States.

Workers or their leaders may object that this is therefore not a consideration at the present; that the ruling class can well afford to bargain collectively with the unions and pay higher wages. It is their contention that, in the circumstances, this is the only decent, patriotic and American course for the bourgeoisie to follow. This will promote “national unity” and enhance the country’s “war effort.” But the bourgeoisie, being extremely class conscious, especially in wartime, knows more about these matters than the proletariat. It is suspicious of the working class and its organizations, particularly the industrial unions. It is even suspicious of its labor lieutenants. It says openly that Murray’s industrial councils will be an entering wedge for the unions to encroach on ownership.

The labor-management committees are a kind of “socialistic” experiment. The bourgeois leaders know well that the strength of the proletariat is in its numbers and that these numbers organized in the industrial unions such as the DAW and led by revolutionists can become an irresistible force.

Furthermore, the bourgeoisie has its own ideas of decency, patriotism and Americanism. In its own thinking and acting, it proceeds from a class basis. It knows that it is its class which prosecutes the war against the German and Japanese ruling classes for its own class ends. It knows that the German and Japanese ruling classes on their part wage the struggle for their own class needs. It knows that there is a Japanese patriotism and a German patriotism as well as an American pa-tirotism. It knows that it is all cut from the same piece of cloth: world capitalism, world imperialism. Therefore the bourgeoisie in the United States practices its own decency, class decency; its own patriotism, class patriotism; its own Americanism, class Americanism. It seeks to win the proletariat over to its ideas of decency, patriotism and Americanism and to hurl the working class ideologically and physically not against the German, Italian and Japanese ruling classes, but against the German, Italian and Japanese nations and their people.

“Good” and “Bad” Capitalists

The “exposure” of the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey and the General Electric Co., the charges that the big steel companies are selling steel to a “black market,” the hijacking operations of the meat packers, the refusal of the airplane companies to produce for less than an eight per cent profit – all these things are traditional and typical of bourgeois decency, patriotism and Americanism. This has been true from the days of Valley Forge, when Washington’s army was left to starve by the food brokers of Philadelphia because they could get “good” money from the British in place of the continental script of dubious value. The decent and patriotic bankers mulcted the federal government during the 1860 rebellion; the meat men sold rotten supplies to the government during the Spanish-American War; Morgan patriotically led the country in the First Imperialist World War in order to protect his investments in Europe. The contemporary bourgeoisie acts no differently.

The workers and their leaders can see what the “bad” capitalists do. But they do not see what the capitalists as a whole do. That is their main weakness. They do not understand that capitalism is an indissoluble unity, that it is not a matter of their private opinions but of men functioning as a class and in the interests of their class. The workers and their leaders complain about Henderson, Nelson, Smith of Virginia, Cox of Georgia, Ford and the dollar-a-year men in the government. These are terrible men and should be replaced, they say. But the proletariat does not realize that it is just at the time that capitalism is in crisis that dollar-a-year men come forward to take the reins of government. In times of calm and peace there is no need for the big bourgeoisie to place their strong key men in the government. The little men can then handle the team: the college professors, the theoreticians, the dreamers and experimenters.

The Social Order or “Bad” Capitalists?

During the past eight years they have gone back to the Middle Ages and beyond for their philosophy: to the paternalistic conceptions of the medieval manor, the Catholic Church and the benign paternalism of Augustus Caesar. Roosevelt is their Augustus, their kind lord of the manor. What they do not grasp though is that the Rooseveltian rôle is not to promote the basic interests, that is, the class interests, of the workers but to erect a bridge over which the proletariat can pass, be led or driven into the camp of the bourgeoisie. First Roosevelt must establish unity, even though temporarily, inside the ruling class. They must be unified behind the war effort. The national interest, that is, the class interests of the bourgeoisie as a whole, dictates this. The fact that some sections of the bourgeoisie do not always see this is beside the point; it is the business of Roosevelt to create harmony and make them work as a team. Roosevelt came to save American capitalism and not to fight for collective bargaining for American workers except to the degree that this was necessary to save and perpetuate capitalism. If the workers could get this in their heads then they would be able to understand Roosevelt and his rôle. They would understand why Roosevelt sent the army to the North American Aviation Co. strike, why he demanded the giving up of the strike and of double-time pay.

Confusion of the Workers

It is through their allegiance to Roosevelt that the workers succumb to the “spiritual” paraphernalia of capitalist society today. They are led to believe that this imperialist war is a “workers’” war, they come to accept “our way of life.” They come under complete domination of the bourgeoisie. They think and believe that they carry on the fight against fascism, not realizing that to the bourgeoisie the “fight against fascism” is basically a struggle to save and perpetuate the American brand of capitalism. They and their leaders act as though they believed that Roosevelt and the ruling class were at war with Hitler because he destroyed the trade unions.

The proletariat is impressed with the tremendous power of the capitalist state. This power is not something to be ignored because it is real and terrible, oppressive and cruel. What workers seem to forget is that they are part of this power, in a sense the main part. The capitalist state would be nothing more than little Switzerland without its main prop – the proletariat, the chief of the productive forces of capitalism and the bulk of its military forces. Also, the proletariat does not yet understand that a workers’ state would be still more powerful and infinitely more productive. The energies of the people that could be unleashed by the workers’ government: their productive capacities and spontaneity, their proletarian patriotism and the ensuing military might, would sweep Adolph Hitler and every other Hitler from the seats of power.

The proletariat has some vague and wandering feeling that all is not well. They see the drive against the unions and against their living standards. They behold the National War Labor Board tie them tp their shacks and poverty as of January 1, 1941. They listen to the shout of dissent that went up from the bourgeoisie when the steel workers got a small increase in pay. And while their wages are “stabilized,” they read about rising prices, soaring profits and the doubling of the big salaries. They do not catch on because they do not know and understand what we have been discussing above.

Occasionally some union convention will pass some fleeting resolution calling for the formation of a Labor Party. This is only an old-fashioned longing for a change of some sort. But this is not enough. The offensive of the bourgeoisie is political in nature and the unions reply with the simplest of age-old economic demands and the intention of winning them with routine collective bargaining, all within the framework of rampant, predatory, exploitive and imperialist capitalism. Hence Roosevelt represents neither the economic nor the political interests of the proletariat. Just as in the case of the bourgeoisie, with its Democratic-Republican Party, the proletariat must have its own political party to formulate its program, fight its political battles and lead it to victory. The Republican-Democratic Party does this for the ruling class and for this class alone. The day that the proletariat grasps and understands this elementary political idea it will break with the bourgeois parties and form its own class political instrument. The break with the bourgeois parties is the beginning of a definitive break with the ruling class; a casting out of the bourgeoisie with all its anti-proletarian baggage and ideas. This is the first and fundamental political and organizational task confronting the working class, the gulf between the economic militancy of the American proletariat and their political class consciousness is still very wide.

* * *

These observations are prompted by the procedure of the recent UAW convention and the antics of the leadership at that convention. Every question raised and discussed here is pertinent for an understanding of the deliberations of that convention and all the other labor conventions that take place today. Each of the labor conventions is used by the bourgeoisie as a forum for the propagation of ruling class ideas. Today these conventions are only formally a gathering of labor. Specific economic problems of the labor movement are always on the agenda but they are distorted, crowded out or passed through the hopper like pension bills going through the House of Representatives.

The main part of the program is devoted to deliberation on proposals on the war coming from Roosevelt or from some other representative of the ruling class. These bourgeois ideas and resolutions are brought into the convention by the union leadership. This leadership today functions exclusively as the labor lieutenants of the bourgeoisie. As discussed above they seek to cover this up by placing Roosevelt outside the bourgeoisie, by giving him a sort of no-class status. Objectively this is the chief rôle played today by Murray, Thomas, Addes, the Reuthers and all the rest of the trade union leaders. They virtually have no other function. Their pro-imperialist war, class-collaborationist politics makes them the ideal persons to represent Roosevelt and his class in the ranks of the proletariat. They are the leaders of the workers and have or had their confidence. By the time that this confidence had begun to wane the workers had already been chained to the war drive.

The CIO and Roosevelt

Murray made the deal with Roosevelt which resulted in halting the advance of the CIO at least for the duration of the war. The membership was not consulted for the reason that the leadership of the CIO did not trust the membership to go along. This leadership is experienced and wise enough to know that the agreements they have made are in conflict with the interests of the workers. It also acquiesces in the plans of Roosevelt and the bourgeoisie for the unions because it does not have the courage to resist these powerful leaders of American capitalism. Murray, Thomas, Reuther and the others know that in order to stand out against Roosevelt they must have the mass support of the proletariat. The proletariat is willing and anxious to give this mass support even to the point of mass strikes, but Murray & Co. are afraid of the spontaneity of the masses. They draw back from the picture of the masses in motion. They know that the proletariat marching is a dangerous working class. The movement will get out from under their control and they will not be able to carry out the commitments they have made to Roosevelt and the bourgeoisie.

This is one reason why the organizing drives of the CIO have been halted, especially the drive to organize the airplane industry. This is the chief and the biggest war industry today. The workers there are young and militant. They are not what the New York Times calls “responsible” old-time trade unionists.

The CIO has a resolution for beginning the organization of the South. It is safe to predict that this organizing campaign will not begin until after the war is over. The organization of the white and Negro paupers of the South into fighting industrial unions would be like placing a stick of dynamite under the seat of every bourgeois in the nation. Murray, Thomas & Co. will not do this.

Not only do Murray, Thomas and the rest not have the courage, but also they do not feel that a militant mass movement of the proletariat is in their interest today. As class-collaborationist trade union leaders, they are of the working class but their thinking is not directed by the class interests of the proletariat but objectively by the class interests of the bourgeoisie. Hence they become the deputies of the bourgeoisie in the organizations of the workers. For the reason that the core of their political philosophy is class collaboration it is especially in war time, the period of greatest crisis for the bourgeoisie, that they succumb completely to bourgeois ideology and therefore fail to resist the plans of the ruling class for the proletariat.

Explanations by the Leadership

In what way did these factors manifest themselves at the UAW convention? The UAW is an excellent example because not only is it the largest of the CIO internationals, but, aside from the miners, the most militant, the one in the key war industry and the one with the youngest workers. Their recent convention in Chicago was a first-rate illustration of what we have been saying.

The leadership knew that they faced a rank and file revolt and had made plans to control the situation and to direct the convention to the “proper” goal. The bureaucracy had two types of proposals for the delegates: political and organizational. The political proposals concerned the relationship of the international to the government and therefore to the bourgeoisie. The main resolution and the one around which a real revolt threatened was that presented by the War Policy Committee on overtime pay. This resolution illustrated the complete dependence of the union leadership on the Roosevelt Administration; its complete trust in Roosevelt, its repudiation of class struggle methods and its refusal to invoke the mass power of the 600,000 UAW members. The resolution complained that whereas both the AFL and CIO had made a pledge to Roosevelt to give up the overtime pay, the AFL had not abided by the promise. The claim is made that the loss of the Curtiss-Wright election by the CIO could be attributed to the repudiation of the agreement by the AFL. The resolution called this a repudiation of the President. It went even further and said that : “Many employers approached by the UAW-CIO local unions for the purpose of revising their contracts to conform to the policy enunciated by the President of the United States have flatly refused to do so and have insisted upon payment of premium time.” The resolution demanded that the giving up of “premium” pay be made “universal” within thirty days or the UAW will demand return to the former status.

Pawns of the Administration

Here was a demand by a labor union for the government to enforce a wage cut for workers in plants where the bourgeoisie had refused to make the cut. They admit in the resolution that this is a policy put forward by Roosevelt. It was not a demand of the union. There is no claim that the demand is in the union interest. The bureaucracy does not even pretend to claim that the giving up of the “premium” pay will increase production. It only says that the workers must make sacrifices and that this is a sacrifice that Roosevelt desires. That the workers it is supposed to lead do not desire it is of no consequence; they must make sacrifices! How giving up premium pay will support the war is not explained, only that the President says so. Perhaps Thomas, Addes, Reuther and Frankensteen thought that the explanation would be too technical for the UAW membership to understand. Also, it did not occur to them to look into Roosevelt’s motives. Was Roosevelt by this move attempting to pacify the bourgeoisie, which was against the “premium” pay? Was there any connection between Roosevelt and this bourgeoisie? The leadership was silent on all these questions; all it knew was that the workers must sacrifice.

The Open Letter

The leadership acted as though it was operating, not under capitalism, but in a workers’ state which was at war with an imperialist state. In such a situation the delegates would have understood and there would not have been the tremendous outcry against the resolution and all the talk of the leaders about “sacrifice.” But this was not the case; the delegates new that there was something out of joint. What it was about they had only the vaguest proletarian notions.

The bourgeoisie, however, is not so stupid as Murray and Thomas, nor so dishonest as Addes, Frankensteen and Reuther. It knows it can afford to give the overtime pay, that it has nothing to do with the winning of the war. Those who do so keep up the overtime pay because they believe that it is in their class interests to continue the “premium” pay. They of course are not philanthropists, they are hard-headed capitalists. It could be true and probably is, that some of the capitalists who continue the overtime pay do so in the hope of disrupting the UAW. The union must do something about this but the proper approach is not that of the UAW officers. They want the government to punish the recalcitrant employers, to use its might to make the President’s policy “universal.” They do not appeal to their own class but to the enemy class, that is, to Roosevelt, for action in behalf of the proletariat.

One other illustration of the blundering class collaborationism of the Murray-Thomas leadership was the Open Letter to the German workers. Here again was revealed not only the crass and criminal stupidity of this leadership but also the political backwardness of the rank and file.

This obnoxious and windy Open Letter to the German workers said in part:

“You have two clear alternatives. The one is to continue what you are doing now sacrificing yourselves and your children, dragging Germany and the whole of Europe with you into an ever-deepening brutality, until Germany and all the German hopes will lie buried upon the battlefields of the world; and ... A workers’ alternative to make your inevitable suffering and sacrifices meaningful to the ultimate realization of a free and decent world ... for the workers anywhere there is but one side in this war ... in this fateful hour we call upon you workers of Germany to join us – the workers of the world – in our struggle for a workers’ victory and a workers’ peace.”

This Open Letter ignores every political consideration that is important in the situation both here and in Germany. In the first place, in their haste to advise the German workers to join with Roosevelt, Churchill and the Anglo-American bourgeoisie, the UAW bureaucrats ignore the history of the development of fascism in Germany. They speak as though the German workers were responsible for Hitler and fascism. They forget that the German labor movement had its Murray and its Thomas, class collaborationists and capitulators, who advised “sacrifice” and trust in “the President.” And doesn’t the “socialist” Reuther know that there was a Social-Democracy in Germany and that it had its Reuthers in the labor movement? Have these bureaucrats forgotten that it was the Murrays, Thomases and Reuthers that tied the German working class to the bourgeois war chariot in 1914? They and all the other trade union and socialist leaders in the United States today are playing the identical rôle as that of the German trade union and socialist leaders in 1914. In Germany the political capitulation of the trade union and political leaders to the bourgeoisie led straight down the road to HitJer and fascism. How will the CIO leaders explain this to the working class?

The Open Letter says that for the workers there is only one side in the war. To these bureaucrats, there are only two sides: “The Axis” and “the United Nations.” Which side shall the German workers choose? Thomas wants them to join the side of the United States and England. But is there no other alternative?

Political Clarity Is Indispensable

The German workers have been forced to serve the side of Hitler. But Thomas & Co. have no right to condemn them for this. Murray, Thomas and Reuther are voluntarily supporting their own ruling class, their own imperialists.

We say too that “for the workers anywhere there is but one side in this war.” But it is not the side that Murray and Thomas have taken, for the side they have taken is the position of the bourgeoisie: the side of death, misery and destruction; the side which in Germany and under similar conditions led to fascism and the complete destruction of the labor movement.

There is a “workers’ alternative,” the way of the class struggle. This means to break from the bourgeoisie and from support of its wars; independent political action by and for the working class; a party of workers to educate the proletariat politically, to lead its battles and to organize its victory.

Fully 95 per cent of the delegates to the UAW convention disagreed with the antics and the proposals of the leadership. Yet this leadership came away with the victory. The militants among the delegates talked and talked and pounded. But their fury and militancy accomplished comparatively little. The reason is easy to see. These militants had no political or organizational program. They do not understand capitalism and bourgeois-democratic society. They confuse politics with parliamentarianism. They do not think in terms of working class politics and of the urgent need for militant and independent working class political action.

The Open Letter calls for a “workers’ victory and a workers’ peace.” Who can organize this victory and this peace? Only the most militant, class conscious political party of the proletariat can organize and lead the working class to such a victory and such a peace. It can never be accomplished in a million years by the Murrays, Thomases, Reuthers and their kind. They fight for the victory of the bourgeoisie; they lead to the defeat of the proletariat. The trade union militants don’t yet understand this. But these lessons must be learned, and learned quickly – else the fascist deluge.

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