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David Coolidge

Report and Comment on the IUMSW

Ship Convention Muffs Vital Issues

(4 October 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 40, 4 October 1943, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Many shipyard workers who were delegates to the ninth convention of the Industrial Union of Marine & Shipbuilding Workers must be asking themselves by now just why this convention was held at all. The delegates have had time to think over their recent convention held in New York last week and the most militant and intelligent of them must be amazed that they sat quietly through four days of indifference, lethargy, futility and bunkum.

The dullness and gloom that pervaded this convention were punctured only by the discussion on the “Velson case:” This “case,” however, which we will report on later in this article, certainly was no credit to either side.

To add to the general dullness of the convention, there was an unusual array of stupid and puerile speeches by government officials. While all of these government officials are attending the conventions for a purpose – to put over the line of more production for less pay, for labor to work longer hours, to admonish the unions to do police duty against “absenteeism,” to harangue the delegates about “this is labor’s war” – their presentation at the shipbuilders’ convention was really a miserable spectacle. It must have been embarrassing to President Green to have to stand there like a master of ceremonies in a night club, asking the audience to give a hand to some ham of a performer.

The Zombies Take the Floor

There was Assistant Secretary of the Navy Bard. He is a regular visitor to labor conventions. He always makes the same speech. We remember his speech at the CIO convention last year when he gave as proof that this is a “workers’ war,” the fact that there are more workers in the United States than there are corporation lawyers, corporation presidents or millionaires.

Admiral Land was present to give the delegates some “inspiring remarks,” as President Green put it. The admiral began his remarks by saying that he had “known Johnnie Green for many years.” He had also known the meaning of a dollar for fifty years, because he had come up the hard way. In his youth he had worked from sunrise to sunset. “We have a common purpose and a common future,” said the admiral. “War is hell. Production costs in Canada and England are lower than in the United States. Absenteeism has cost a hundred ships since Pearl Harbor. In some yards there is too much beating the whistle. Team work is needed. We are all interested in the profit motive. That applies to management and it applies to labor. We all wait for payday. We want no profiteers. Labor, management and government must sit down and plan jointly. I have come to the conclusion that labor leaders are smarter than management. Some day this global war will cease. God speed the day. I haven’t told you anything new.”

This was the kind of rubbish that President Green called an “inspiring message.” An inspiring message from the man who a few months back talked about labor organizers like a Southern backwoods deputy sheriff. This was the “inspiring message” delivered to workers who just recently were denied a small increase of nine cents an hour in wages.

A delegate from Local 43 took the floor to say that Admiral Land was interested in “our production record; we wish that he would be just as interested in our health record.” The admiral was invited to visit the Bethlehem-Fairfield yard during the lunch hour to witness the conditions under which workers are forced to eat their lunch.

Bull Session Goes On

General DeWitt was present to represent the Army with a speech. It would be difficult to say just what the general was trying to get across. One thing we remember is that he said he didn’t know anything about ships. This seemed to be the high point of the general’s remarks.

A representative of the British Embassy was present to make a speech. There were the usual speeches by Carey and Haywood, representing the CIO. This is formal procedure, of course.

Charlie Irvin, official press agent for Sidney Hillman and unofficial press agent for Franklin D. Roosevelt, was on hand with a few of his best platitudes. Brother Irvin is convinced that the “Declaration of Independence has never been put into practice, and it won’t be until it is put into practice by working men.” According to Irvin, the only way for workingmen to put the Declaration of Independence into practice is to vote for Roosevelt for a fourth term. “I don’t believe that the American people will ever go back on the man that never went back on the working people,” said Irvin with a great deal of fervor and emphasis.

All of this speaking, most of it irrelevant and nonsensical in any labor convention, took place in four short days that the shipbuilding workers had at their disposal to devote to serious problems that vitally concerned the welfare of themselves, their families and their union. About half of the working time available to the convention was consumed by these speeches, waiting for committee reports and other time-wasting devices, some due to inefficiency and others no doubt deliberately planned by the leadership.

The “Unanimous” Decisions

The overwhelming majority of resolutions were passed “unanimously.” We say it this way with quotation marks because, although this was what was announced and although no delegate voted against, it was and is clear that the real feelings of the delegates were not expressed in the voting. A fourth term for Roosevelt, reaffirmation of the no-strike pledge, support of Roosevelt on extending the war in Europe and ideas on postwar planning were embodied in resolutions and passed unanimously.

Of course, it isn’t true that all the delegates to this convention favored a fourth term for Roosevelt. We don’t believe that all of the six hundred delegates to this convention are so naive, backward and politically immature as to believe that independent political action means to vote for Roosevelt or a Republican.

Many of the shipyard workers have come to this country from Scotland and England. They know about the labor parties in those countries. They must know that even with the present policies of these labor parties they represent an advance in many respects beyond the point that labor has reached politically in the United States. There must have been hundreds of delegates in that convention who know that they should have voted against the resolution supporting Roosevelt for a fourth term and in favor of an independent working class Labor Party, free from Roosevelt and Willkie.

Also every delegate to that convention, except the most reactionary, is against the no-strike pledge. How can the rank and file of labor be in support of such a union-breaking device? The very fact that numerous strikes take place is proof enough that the workers are in practice against this pledge given to Roosevelt without their consent. One delegate spoke against the no-strike resolution but he did not vote against it.

Perhaps some of the delegates were intimidated by the fear that they would be charged with “aiding the Axis” and perhaps there were some who believed that “adhering to the no-strike pledge brought gains to the unions and raised wages.” But most of the delegates believe no such piece of foolishness and claptrap. After the “vote” was taken on the no-strike resolution, Green announced: “All right then, remember this resolution was passed unanimously. It is not just a token, it means just what it says.”

On the Smith-Connally bill, one delegate said that Roosevelt did not want the bill, that Congress does not support the union and that “our heads are on the chopping block.” In reply to this, Green said that if labor had taken time out to vote there would have been no Smith-Connally bill. No one, not even the Stalinists, told the convention that John L. Lewis was responsible for the passage of the Smith-Connally bill. This is the official line of the Stalinists and of some of the top leaders of the CIO.

After the admirals, generals and others had completed their rounds, and the resolutions had been given a “unanimous” vote, the convention readied the “Velson case,” and the election of officers and a general executive board.

The Velson Case

This case concerned one Irving Velson, president of Local 13 and member of the GEB. Velson had been expelled from the GEB by that body for being a member of the Communist Party. Such membership is in violation of the section of the international constitution which provides for the expulsion from the GEB of anyone who is a Communist, Nazi, Bundist, or who holds to these philosophies.

The appeals committee reported to the convention sustaining the action of the GEB. It was presented as evidence that the Daily Worker had carried an interview with Velson’s mother saying that he had told her that he did not go to Russia because it was better that he stay here and work for a Soviet America; that his teacher’s certificate had been lifted by the New York Board of Education; that his real name is not Velson (he had changed his name to Velson legally); that he had run for office in Brooklyn under the name of Velson before his name was legally changed; that the committee hall received information on Velson from a government body. This government body was reported to have put the committee under oath not to reveal the source of the information.

As to whether or not Velson or any other union member is a member of the Communist Party is not the important side to this case. There were some important aspects to this trial, however. One is the exclusion amendment itself. The amendment was included in the constitution in 1941 before the Stalinists had become the howling “patriots” they are today.

It is our opinion that if such an amendment had not been included in the constitution already it would not have been presented to this convention, for instance, unless for reasons entirely different from those which motivated the union’ officers in 1941.

It was declared on all sides that Velson was a “good union man” and a good organizer. He had been given important tasks by the GEB. The case dragged on for eight months and Velson was expelled from the GEB just before the convening of the convention. Velson and the rest of the Stalinists are just as patriotic now as Green. To be sure, the Stalinists will change their line should Stalin, in the course of the war, decide to make another deal with Hitler. The Stalinists are just as rabid supporters of Roosevelt as is Green and the other IUMSW officers. This, too, of course, will change if Stalin and Hitler get together again. Whether or not a change in line by the Stalinists is likely, is beside the point. We are only talking about how the local Stalinists get their line and how they act on orders from the Kremlin bureaucracy.

The fact that Velson is a member of the Communist Party in no way justifies the constitutional provision for expulsion on the ground of such membership. It is a bureaucratic measure that can be and is used in the labor movement against any and all militants. Moreover, it is a substitute for democratic procedures and education. A merciless exposure of the Stalinists an an anti-labor force would have a thousand times more value than the present action. The difficulty the Green administration finds in such democratic and educational methods is that it stands close to the Stalinists on so many issues.

What Motivated the Action

What might have been involved in Green’s motivations briiigs us to the second important aspect of the Velson case. That is the fact that in the GEB and in the convention Velson was supported by Van Gelder, secretary-treasurer of the IUMSWA, and by Walter Pollard, Green-appointed dictator of Local 9 in San Pedro, Calif.

Reports had been going around for many months before the convention that the Stalinists would attempt to take over the union at the next convention. If was reported that Van Gelder was their man. It had been known for some weeks that Pollard, out in Local 9 in San Pedro, formed a bloc with the Stalinists in the local. Pollard maintained this bloc in the convention. The sixteen delegates whom Pollard had appointed to sit in the convention, against the instructions of the GEB, voted solidly against Velson’s ouster from the GEB. Pollard, who is a GEB member, and Van Gelder spoke from the convention floor for the retention of Velson on the General Executive Board.

It was clear that although the Stalinists would not attempt to oust Green or to assume the leadership of the International, the reports about their projected plans to acquire greater influence were in large measure true and factual. Whether or not Van Gelder was involved in these maneuvers, we have no way of knowing, but the evidence certainly supports the belief that Pollard was consciously involved in them.

We are of the opinion that Green and other officers knew about this plot of the Stalinists and that Green’s attitude on the ousting of Velson was dictated in part at least by these considerations.

It should be reported right here that the three delegates who were democratically elected to represent the members of Local 9 in San Pedro and who were financed to the convention by contributions made privately by the membership, voted to sustain the GEB on the Velson expulsion. The important aspect of the vote of these three delegates, Bailly, Malloy and Turner, is that they refused to vote with the bloc of sixteen Pollard-Stalinist-appointed delegates. These three real delegates were seated by the convention on recommendation of the appeals committee. We will deal in detail with Pollard, the Stalinists and Local 9 in another article.

The Evidence the Union Used

A third aspect of the Velson case is the source from which the evidence against him came and how it was obtained by the GEB. It seems clear from the testimony given that the information came from one of the government’s police agencies, such as the FBI or Naval Intelligence; or that it came from the Dies Committee. Did the unnamed government agency approach the GEB or did the GEB’s investigating committee seek out the unnamed government agency? What is the attitude of Green and others officers’ of the IUMSWA toward information obtained from government agencies about members of the union? Where will they draw the line? Is it to be the policy of the GEB of the IUMSWA to accept uncritically any information about their members given by government agencies? Are Green, the GEB and other union officers ready to accept passively reports on Workers given by government agencies? Is Green ready to proceed summarily against any member of his international that is labelled “subversive” by a government agency? The employers have the same standards as the government. Will Green accept the word of the employers also? Green knows that this is a very handy tool to be used against any militant worker, a club that is poised over the head of the whole labor movement.

Where the Convention Failed

All in all, the convention of the ship workers was a sad affair. There was no discussion on the most serious and vital questions facing the ship workers and the labor movement. There was no discussion on wages, taxes, working hours. Not a word on the WLB and, above all, not a word on the Roosevelt work-or-fight decree of August 16.

There was no committee report on wages and working conditions. According to the Shipyard Worker of September 17: “Green declared that this committee’s actions would have been academic, since wage problems today are mainly resolved by the NWLB and the Director of Economic Stabilization.”

It was a cowardly performance by the top officers of the international and the leadership of the local unions. The convention did virtually nothing that will benefit the shipbuilding workers. It got nowhere.

The delegates did not protest at the convention. It is to be hoped that when they make their reports to their own local unions they will at least speak their minds and tell the truth openly and frankly. And then when they come back next year to their national convention they will have learned how to speak in an organized way in the interest of the thousands of working people they are supposed to represent.

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