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David Coolidge

A May Day Program for American Labor

Class Militancy, Political Action –
These Are the Order of the Day

(26 April 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 17, 26 April 1943, pp. 5 & 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The celebration of May Day was instituted by the working class in the United States during the struggle for the eight-hour day. Involved in the fight for the eight-hour day was the broader struggle for better working conditions, higher wages, the right to organize, to bargain collectively and in general to secure for labor greater security and more of the fruits of daily toil in the mines, mills and factories. The spirit of May Day represented the demands of the working class for freedom, security and happiness.

This struggle was a conflict between two classes: the working class and the ruling class of industrialists and financiers. The struggle for the eight-hour day was a political struggle between the bosses and their government en one side and the Arising working class on the other. It was not a fight over simple trade union rights, important as these were, but a struggle of the entire working class for an increased measure of control and greater economic and political power.

Immense organizational gains resulted from this conflict between the bosses and the working class. It was the demonstrations and the strikes that brought gains to the organized workers of the seventies, eighties and nineties. It was the demonstration of their power through mass action that produced the results from which labor benefits today. It was out of this struggle that the American Federation of Labor was born and took its place as the most progressive section of the labor movement of THAT day. Here was the first great national movement of wage earners organized as a class, becoming wage conscious and fighting a class battle against the organized power of the bosses.

Another Nationwide Struggle

Today, over a half century later, labor finds itself engaged in another nation-wide struggle against the bosses and the bosses’ government. This struggle takes place in a different period and under different conditions.

The United States has moved away from the relatively simple capitalist economy of the eighties to enormous mass production based on the most advanced scientific and technological discovery and invention that the world has ever seen. On the foundation of this scientific creation and technological invention, industry has been concentrated, huge monopolies have been reared and around it all centralized wealth has fastened itself like hoops of steel.

Furthermore, the United States is no longer a young nation feeling its way toward economic sufficiency and political democracy, isolated from the rest of the world. It is now the world’s greatest producer, hoarder of the earth’s wealth arid resources; the greatest of the capitalist nations. The “American Way of Life” has already triumphed and “Our System of Free Enterprise” has extended its reach to every corner of the earth.

Today the United States is producing for war and spending at the rate of $250,000,000 a day to prosecute that war. Now it is a great imperialist nation engaging in the Second Imperialist World War to determine which nation shall dominate the world and all its people.

As always, the working class finds itself enmeshed in the tangled web of the imperialist conflict. As in all the struggles of the national ruling classes against each other, the workers are called upon to bear the brunt, to toil ceaselessly, to bear arms, to die.

Just as in the May Day struggles of the nineties, the workers forged a new weapon with which to fight their battles against the boss, so today they have called to their aid a new type of trade union organization: the industrial union. And just as in the eighties the new craft unions of the AFL could aid labor only insofar as they tackled the concrete problems of the day, so industrial unionism must lay hold on the concrete and pressing problems before the working class today.

Labor is in a better position to do this now than it was fifty years ago. The working class is approaching maturity. It is stronger numerically and organizationally. It has a better understanding of capitalist society. It is beginning to understand vaguely today, as it did not in the eighties, that the economic struggle is not sufficient but that this struggle must be raised to a political level and from the economic struggle independent class political action and organization must emerge.

Many Still to Be Organized

The first big task before the labor movement, especially the industrial union movement, is the completion of the organization of the masses of industrial and agricultural workers. This means to spread the industrial union movement, particularly into the South. The country is not organized. There are millions of agricultural workers virtually unorganized.

The organization of the industrial workers is nowhere near complete. It can be estimated that aircraft is only about 75 per cent organized; aluminum, 75 per cent; iron and steel, 60 per cent; machine tools, 30 per cent; laundries, 30 per cent; metal mining, 35 per cent; electrical, 60 per cent; farm equipment, 35 per cent; chemical industries, 10 per cent; lumber, 15 per cent; petroleum refining, 15 per cent.

There is plenty of work to be done and the surface has only been scratched by the industrial union organizations. The unorganized workers will not care who does it – Murray and the CIO or Lewis and District 50. They want the job done. In these days the organized labor movement should count its membership by tens of millions, and not by the few millions that are organized now.

There are millions of Negro workers to be brought into the organized labor movement. Most of these workers are in the South. Here again it is necessary to emphasize the imperative necessity for the penetration of this section by the industrial union movement. These Negro workers must be integrated into the labor movement. The industrial unions must take it as their especial task to wage a ceaseless battle against Jim Crow, discrimination, disfranchisement and segregation. They must initiate the fight for social, political and economic equality for the Negro; first inside the unions and then in the country.

There are millions of women workers in industry and more going in daily by the thousands. These women workers present new problems lor the unions. They are taking the places of men who have been taken into the armed forces. Serious post-war problems may arise in connection with the employment of millions of women in industry, if the unions do not do their job and make of these women workers the best and most loyal of union members.

The Problem of Unification

As important as is the matter of organization, the labor movement cannot win by size alone. It may have its millions and yet be continually pushed back by the bosses and the government. In fact, if the bosses today could be assured that organized labor would be docile, inactive and submissive they would prefer to deal with organized workers. It is far easier, pleasanter and more beneficial to the bosses to come to agreement with Phil Murray and Bill Green than to have to deal with militant shop, plant or industry committees democratically elected by the union membership.

As a means of increasing the striking power of labor it is necessary for the working class to pay attention to the tough problem of the unification of the labor movement. Merging of the AFL, the CIO, the Railway Brotherhoods and the UMWA would mean a national organization of ten millions. A properly conducted organizing drive could increase this membership to 25,000,000 in one year. Such an organization of workers, if correctly led, would be invincible.

Again, however, mere size is not enough. Merely having larger numbers will not automatically produce the results the mass of workers want. Any worthwhile unification must have as its base and dominant force the millions of workers in agriculture, mining and the mass production industries. The principle of industrial unionism must prevail – and there can be no compromise on this point. Even if the AFL should not consent to this, there are enough unorganized workers to make such a mighty force, if organized, that the craft unions would be rendered helpless and impotent except in a very narrow field.

Return to Collective Bargaining

Organized labor today has virtually given up the practice of collective bargaining with the employer. This practice, which labor has fought for since the earliest days of the trade union movement, has been almost surrendered right at the moment when labor is numerically stronger than ever before. This surrender has had a most enervating effect on the unions and has given the

ruling class a club which it is using today in a most devastating manner. In the place of collective bargaining between the unions and the employer, government has interposed a host of boards. which claim jurisdiction in all matters for which labor formerly used the procedures of collective bargaining.

Any movement of the unions to regain their former prestige must start with the demand for the restoration of genuine collective bargaining. This should begin in the shop with the shop stewards and go on up to the negotiations which are the province of the higher union committees and representatives.

To restore collective bargaining between the workers, and the boss, organized labor must cease to bend the knee before these government boards: the WLB, the WPB, the OPA and the rest of them. The ranks of organized labor should and must demand that their elected leaders get off the government boards, stay off of them and give their time and attention to the just grievances of the workers who pay them and whom they have been elected to represent.

Connected with the shelving of collective bargaining is the nor strike agreement, sealed and signed by the trade union leaders, without the consent of the membership. Labor can only agree to a no-strike policy for a period if it gets some concessions front the bosses in the course of collective bargaining. As could have been known in advance, the no-strike agreement has worked terrible hardships on labor. As soon as the bosses, with the assistance of Roosevelt, got the promise of Green and Murray to oppose all strikes for the duration of the war, they began to crack down on labor and on the unions. All workers know this story and there is no need to repeat it here. Of course, there have been strikes; the workers had to strike or they would have been far worse off than they are today.

If labor wants to protect itself and its standards, the unions must say that “our agreement not to strike is contingent on your agreeing to our demands about wages, hours, working conditions and union recognition that we will present from time to time, just as we have in the past.” These demands can be discussed and settled in the process of collective bargaining between the union and the employer. In no other way can the integrity and the power of the trade unions be preserved. The unions cannot be and will not be preserved if they bow to the will of. the government boards or submit to the present offensive of the bosses.

These are simple matters that should be understood by every worker in the factories, the mines, the mills and on the farms. They have been through the experience of depending on the WLB and the WPB and they have gotten nowhere. They have seen Roosevelt issue a wage-freezing and job-freezing decree while doing nothing about profits. They have seen Congress and the state legislatures pass anti-labor bills. They have tried to make ends meet while the profiteers push up the price of the necessities of life daily. There ought to be an end to this docility, this turning of the other cheek, somewhere – and soon.

Twenty-Five Years of Experience Is Enough

During the First World War the workers were faced with problems similar to those which we face today. It has always been so in capitalist wars and will remain so as long as capitalism exists In the First World War we were told that “this is a workers’ war.” Government officials, just like Bard of the Navy Department today, and employers’ stooges, just like Rickenbacker, were going up and down the country telling labor that the war was for democracy and that the working class had everything to gain by supporting the war. Big labor leaders supported that war also, just as they do today.

Labor was regimented and lined up similarly to the way it is today. Only today matters are worse and with less reason, because the workers have had twenty-five years to learn a lesson. And today there are more industrial workers and their potential strength is far greater.

What is happening to labor in the United States is going on elsewhere; in England, for instance. There too there are promises and the same old speeches. There too the profits pile up and the militancy of the unions decays. American labor must look on the problems faced by labor in Europe, Asia and Africa. They are our kind and suffer the same blows that we do. The struggle for the emancipation of the working class in any one country cannot be separated from the struggle for the emancipation of the working class of the entire world.

Workers in the United States are fully aware that fascism must be defeated. It is the most barbarous form of capitalism. It is the most vicious manifestation of imperialism.

There is only one guarantee that even if there is a military victory over Hitler we will have the opportunity to live in a truly democratic world. That guarantee can only be given by the working class of the world. Whether or not the combined ruling class of England and the United States can gain a military victory ever Hitler, it cannot guarantee a victory over fascism. No capitalist and imperialist ruling class can; neither the American nor the British.

The working class in the United States can take the lead in providing guarantees against the advance and spread of fascism. It is the largest working class in the world. It is the strongest working class in the world also because it has not come under the heel of an oppressive totalitarian government such as the Stalinist regime. It still has a large degree of freedom.

Political Action a Prime Need

The first step of the working class to guarantee a victory over fascism is the mass militant, economic organization that we have already been talking about. But as we have said many times before, this is not enough. The all-important step today is the political organization of the working class. The struggle in which labor is engaged today arises out of the political offensive of a capitalist and imperialist government which represents the needs of an imperialist ruling class. It is a struggle of one class against another.

It is urgent that we ask what we mean when we say “the government.” Government in the United States as in all capitalist countries, is party government. That is one political party or another is in power, as they say. It is political parties that run candidates for office: for President and for Congress. These parties seek to control the government; that is, to govern, to rule. In the United States the party in power is always. the Republican or the Democratic Party: It has been demonstrated through successive administrations and in all changes in administration that both of these parties are the political organizations of the ruling class, of the bosses.

Due to the fact that at the time of the coming of the present war the Democratic Party was in power and in control of the government, it was the Democratic Party which made the decision to enter the war. It would have been no different of course if the Republican Party had been running things and controlling the government. This is demonstrated by the fact that this party is in solid support of the war today. There was no fundamental difference between the platforms of the two parties in the last election. This is as it must be because both parties serve the same ruling class, the same bosses.

It is necessary to re-emphasize that decisions are being made today by political parties: by the Republican and Democratic Parties. This is what in practice is meant by “the government,” the rule of a political party. Today it is the Democratic Party. If Willkie defeats Roosevelt in 1944 then “the government” will be the Republican Party.

That will make no essential difference in “the government” because the two parties together form a unified class political organization representing the ruling class. This Democratic-Republican Party has as its main function the protection of: the interests of capitalist society. It makes decisions, issues decrees and passes laws for the minority and against the majority, that is, against the working class. Therefore, “the government,” that is, the President, the Cabinet, government boards, Congress and the courts – are not neutral or impartial: they represent their class.

How can labor, the working class, face this organized political force of the bosses with only their economic organizations – their trade unions? It can’t, and the truth of this is being demonstrated before »our eyes. Labor unions as they are – that is, not politically organized – cannot control the government. This is the function of political organization. Not just any political organization, but a class political party that represents its own class and the class from which it gets its strength.

Every class in history has formed its own political organization or institution and fought for the establishment of its own government. The working class in the United States and in all capitalist countries is confronted with this necessity today. This is the only guarantee for the birth of real democracy, the only guarantee against the extension of fascism: political parties of the working class in control of working Class governments all over the world. And not only is this the only sure way to defeat fascism, it is at the same time the best guarantee for the military defeat of Hitler.

This is a call to the militants in the labor movement. This call comes to us from all of labor’s martyrs of the past: the men, women and children of the labor movement who died for the freedom of their class and the liberation of mankind.

New leaders must step forward. The present leadership is tied body and soul to the capitalist oppressors and the imperialist War makers. They have had their day and have played their puny role. The task of political organization is beyond these labor leaders. They must be replaced by men and women who think in terms of a victorious working class and who know how to: organize for this victory. A working class victorious over hunger and fear, exploitation and oppression. And, above all, a working class victorious over both fascism and imperialist war.

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