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David Coolidge

Toward a New Trade Union Program

Changing the Direction of the Labor Movement

(June 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 6, June 1944, pp. 178–182.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the May issue of The New International I discussed the trade union leadership in relation to the war, the no-strike pledge and the stabilization of wages. This article is to consider trade union leadership in relation to the economic and political needs of the working class and the programmatic reorientation of the labor movement. This question arises very acutely today and in a very practical way out of the most recent experiences of the organized labor movement not only with the trade union leadership but with industry and government. The main question is: how shall the working class secure the economic and political leadership which will provide that program necessary for promoting class-consciousness and raising the political level of the masses.

We do not ask: how shall the masses be made aware of the necessity for participating in politics, for even the trade union bureaucracy of the CIO is today conducting a nation-wide campaign to dispel political disinterestedness and inertness. This leadership has established a Political Action Committee for the purpose not only of engendering interest in “politics” in general but for concrete action in support of a particular party and a certain candidate. We pose the more restricted question of class-conscious political action, procedure and organization.

Policy of Political Action Committee

Under cover of vague but profuse statements on the necessity for labor to become interested in “politics,” the PAC of the CIO and various internationals endorse President Roosevelt for a fourth term; before he has announced his intention to run, before the national committee of the Democratic Party has indicated its campaign platform and before the convention has met to decide the platform and select the candidates. Their announcement in support of Roosevelt came also of course before the meeting of the Republican Party convention. This means that so far as the CIO bureaucracy is concerned, neither party will be faced with the necessity to do more than utter the ancient platitudes and shibboleths on “the dignity of labor,” “labor is not a commodity,” and “labor is entitled to its just reward.” Furthermore, the CIO leadership is willing to commit five million workers to the support of the Democratic Party, whose Administration comes increasingly under the domination of the Southern section of the party. The CIO opposes the poll-tax while at the same time endorsing the party of the poll-tax. It fights against anti-labor legislation and simultaneously supports the party of the framers of the Smith-Connally Act. Murray, Thomas, Hillman et al. speak out for Negro equality while in the next sentence they endorse the party of Eastland of Mississippi, who proclaims boldly in the Senate that the “white boys in the South Pacific are fighting for white supremacy.” They endorse the party of Bilbo, whose teaching is that “all history and biology for the past six thousand years have established the superiority of the white race.” Murray sneered at national service legislation, calling it “quack medicine,” but a few months later insisted that the CIO endorse the party whose leader proposed that “slave legislation.”

And the Policy of the AFL

The AFL claims to follow a wiser course: they do not put all of their eggs into one political party basket. They are more realistic. They put all their eggs into a basket let down by Eric Johnston of the United States Chamber of Commerce and Robert Gaylord of the National Association of Manufacturers. Green, Johnston and Gaylord are seeking an “economic trinity – of agriculture, management and labor ...”

They are a holy family proclaiming the deification of “free enterprise.” The AFL will find itself in the very embarrassing position of seeing its saintly president seated not only at the same banquet table with Johnston and Gaylord but with Earl Browder, who has become a prophet of free enterprise and one of capitalism's most fervid defenders and well-wishers.

Moving out from its alliance with the Chamber of Commerce and the NAM, the AFL will support both parties. Two of its pillars, Tobin and Hutcheson, are already spokesmen for the Democratic and Republican Parties respectively within the ranks of the AFL. Whereas the NAM and the Chamber of Commerce will contribute money to both parties and both candidates, the Federation will act in a more modest manner and content itself with endorsing and voting for the candidates of both parties.

The Lewis Enigma

John L. Lewis, who is called wiser this year than in 1940, has not announced his “politics” yet. In many respects Lewis' UMWA Journal has been serving a strange and somewhat cryptic conglomeration to its readers. The editorial utterances of Editor Adams quite often leave us in a quandary and with many questions that we would like to put to this Horatio at the bridge. What does all this radicalism mean that we read in the UMWA Journal? Much of it sounds like mere street-corner ranting: against the “monopolies,” against “Wall Street,” against the “invisible government” which, according to the UMWA Journal, is headed by the investment firm of Lehman Brothers, who, as everyone knows, is the banking house of former Governor Herbert Lehman, who, as everyone also knows, is a Jew. While we have the feeling that the recent number of the Journal which contained the editorial on the “invisible government” sounds too much like Henry Ford's old Dearborn Independent, we do not intend to go into this question here. We are more concerned now with the general political line of Lewis and the Journal.

This is not clear and we may have to wait until the miners' convention next September, when Lewis may be expected to bring up the whole matter of the elections. If the Journal gives any line, Lewis is still violently anti-Roosevelt. Whether or not he would have supported Willkie again cannot be known now since, as the Journal says, Willkie “was given the bum's rush.” Some editorials sound as though they had been influenced by the opinions of the Chicago Tribune. Most of them are strongly nationalist and at times the flavor of “America First” can be detected. A great deal of the opinion expressed in the Journal is in language that reminds one of some of the strong language of the IWW. All in all, it is quite a mixture and so far it is impossible to tell just what the Journal is trying to say. On the question of the war, Lewis, like all the other labor leaders, is in full support. He only expresses himself on occasions when he evidently feels it necessary to make this point clear for tactical reasons. Despite the fact that Lewis is regarded as the ablest leader in the country, politically he is no less reactionary and opportunist than all the rest.

This is how the matter stands with the labor organizations and in the ranks of the leadership. It is necessary to examine more closely the “politics” of the trade union bureaucracy and the type of leadership it is giving the labor movement. One fact stands out clearly: the politics of the labor bureaucracy is a declaration against the class independence of the unions and of the working class. It is a declaration that the unions shall fee independent only in the administrative sense and independent only in so far as they are encouraged from time to time to shift their allegiance from one bourgeois party to the other. This is the type of “independence” advocated by the AFL.

The unions, according to the bureaucracy, must have the right to elect their own officials, to administer their own affairs and to bargain collectively with the employers. Added to this administrative independence is the demand of the trade union bureaucracy that there shall be no “politics” in the unions. Trade unions, they say, are economic organizations of labor to be concerned with employer-labor relations which involve collective bargaining for the purpose of improving the economic position of the working class.

The Source of Labor Difficulties

While this is at least in part a correct estimate of the role of trade unions in capitalist society, the trade union bureaucracy sees the trade union only as it is today and envisages the labor movement as functioning eternally within the framework of bourgeois society. For the orthodox trade union leader the highest point in the development of trade unionism is the successful establishment of collective bargaining. Whenever and wherever the unions win the “right of collective bargaining,” these leaders take the position that peace and harmony will reign between labor and capital. Labor and capital join hands and function in the interest of society as a whole.

Herein of course lies the .beginning of the chief difficulties which labor faces. From such a position and such naive analysis flows the repudiation of class distinctions, class struggle, and the enthronement of the doctrine and practice of class peace and class collaboration. Class differences are eliminated, the interests of labor and capital are correlated and the concept of nation, of national interest, of the people and the welfare of the people, arises. That this analysis does not fit the facts, or that it does not work, worries the trade union leadership not at all. In the first place, the majority of them do not understand the problem and the very small minority who do are motivated by personal interests, bureaucratic prestige, pessimism or renegacy from the progressive attitudes of former years.

A trade union leadership with such an outlook on capitalist society and the function of the labor movement in that society, cannot provide the impetus for the class independence of the unions nor can that leadership divorce itself completely from capitalist politics and bourgeois political organizations. It is impossible under their conservative leadership to make clear the great class divide between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. “No politics” to them comes to mean no independent working class politics, no political activity by the proletariat as a class in capitalist society. If there is no class political activity of the proletariat in capitalist society, then there can be no such thing as sustained economic activity of the working class as a class. This, for the reason that economic and political activity in bourgeois society are indissoluble. The so-called economic organizations of the capitalist are at the same time political organizations. They are not political parties but they are the “outside” organizations which supply political programs to their political parties. This is not the only sustenance which the Chambers of Commerce and the other economic organizations of the bourgeoisie supply to the capitalist parties. They supply leadership. The bourgeois has established a configuration of relations which comprehend the whole of his life, crowned by the capitalist state with its bourgeois-democratic government. The bourgeois goes his way and pursues his activities with a high degree of class consciousness and class solidarity. The point I wish to emphasize is that the ruling class integrates its economic needs with its political demands and it is the economic needs which give content to its political demands and engender the political activity of the bourgeoisie as a class. This class takes over the state and state power for the protection of and the enhancement of its basic economic interests.

Class Struggle Through Unions

When the trade union bureaucracy seeks to orient the labor movement away from proletarian class politics, it does not lead the movement to neutral ground but into the arena of bourgeois politics. It cannot be otherwise with a leadership committed to the principles of class peace and class collaboration. There is no neutral ground for classes in capitalist society. The ruling class understands this. It pursues the class struggle with unrelenting vigor and persistence. The titular heads of the class, with their academic ideologists and petty-bourgeois sycophants, always attempt to make it appear that the bourgeois leader and his class speak for the nation as a whole; for the whole people. He claims to represent the present and historical interests of all the people. His announced program is always a “people's program,” his political organizations are organizations of the people; the government is “of, for and by the people” and the bourgeois vows that it “shall not perish from the earth.”

The proletariat, however, in the course of its experience in the actual class struggle, becomes aware that this is not a true picture of the society in which it lives. There are blots on the escutcheon: economic crises, insecurity, extremes of wealth and poverty and ever-recurring international wars. The most advanced section of the proletariat, influenced by the revolutionists, develops to class consciousness and challenges the representations made by the bourgeoisie. Not only is the right of the bourgeois to lead challenged, but also his right to private property and domination of the state. This does not disturb the ruling class unduly because it has at hand an ally: an ally from the working class itself, the trade union leadership. Yesterday it was Gompers, Mitchell, Morrison today it is Murray, Green, Lewis, Thomas. These leaders must play this r61e and perform this service.

The small and circumscribed orbit of their thinking, their acceptance of bourgeois political and economic concepts, their class collaboration makes of them purveyors of the ideology of an alien class to the proletariat which they represent. They endorse capitalism and give it their full support. They endorse and support the political organizations of the bourgeoisie. They have no class economic and political program for the proletariat. They seek a way to resolve all the contradictions of capitalist society: whether in war or peace. More than this, they tell the working class that it has a duty to solve the problems of the bourgeoisie. They advise the proletariat that it is possible for labor to solve the complex problems of capitalist society, within the framework of that society. This can be the only meaning of the statement of R.J. Thomas that if the employers will not act in a disinterested and patriotic manner during wartime and in the national interest, then labor must.

A Petty Bourgeois Ideology

This anti- or non-class struggle attitude of the labor bureaucracy demonstrates their essentially petty bourgeois class role. In relationship to capitalism and the bourgeoisie they belong to the working class but their economic and political thinking is that of the middle class. Along with the middle class the trade union bureaucracy is nationalistic, social-patriotic and opportunist. The economic roots of their opportunism and social-patriotism grow in the soil prepared by the bourgeoisie. Like the non-labor petty bourgeois, they receive favors from the capitalist class and support from the bourgeois government so long as they keep within the confines set for them by the rulers of society.

This class collaboration and social-patriotism on the part of the trade union leadership creates a real dilemma for the working class and an obstacle in the way of progress. This leadership, which is of the working class, which represents the proletariat, but which does not represent its class interests, is nevertheless well entrenched at the head of the labor movement. This leads trade union militants and revolutionists into conflict with the bureaucracy and into conflict with the bourgeoisie and government, which comes to the aid of its trade union allies. What is far worse, this class-peace policy of the union leaders retards effective trade union or political education of labor, spreads confusion and muddle, and creates a sort of non-political sectarianism among immature trade union militants. It is difficult for this type of worker to resolve the contradiction in his mind between the fact that the trade union bureaucracy is a part of the labor movement, retain their base in the trade unions, but who in practice attempt to serve both the capitalist bourgeoisie and the labor movement. Worst of all is the development of bureaucratic concepts and practices which make it all but impossible for militant and progressive unionists to exercise their formal democratic rights and establish democratic procedures in the union.

The naive militant is likely to think of the bureaucracy in office or a similar group seeking office as a mere “power caucus.” He doesn't and cannot go behind the appearances to the real seat of the trouble, which, of course, is the class-collaboration ideology and policies of the leadership. The everyday class struggle experiences of the rank and file bring the labor movement into conflict with the policies of the bureaucracy, which ideology the leadership has absorbed from the bourgeoisie. It is only through the suppression of democracy and the establishment of bureaucratic control that the union leadership could have any success at all in hblding the unions to a policy of class peace. Furthermore, the bourgeoisie is well aware that its program for labor would be unacceptable if presented directly and bearing the label of the National Association of Manufacturers. The NAM sends its program to the schools, the press, the pulpit and the government. It is from these institutions that it is transferred to the trade union bureaucracy. It should be stated that I am not considering those relatively rare occasions when the ideas and program of the bourgeoisie enter the labor movement directly through racketeering, collusive agreements or by the speaking done by government officials at trade union conventions. These are special situations and are themselves based on the more basic classless and non-class struggle concepts of the bureaucracy.

Behind the Bureaucracy

Just as the bourgeoisie cannot in general tolerate genuine democratic procedures for the masses of the people, so the trade union bureaucracy cannot tolerate genuine democracy in the unions. The trade union bureaucracy, as is the case with any other bureaucratic group in capitalist society, takes its methods from the bourgeoisie. The dictatorship which the trade union bureaucracy establishes over the labor movement has its roots in capitalist thinking and in the capitalist way of life. Its practical forms are similar to those which the bourgeoisie has established over society as a whole: that is, it is a dictatorship.

There is an important difference, to be sure. Subjectively the aims of the trade union bureaucracy are not identical with those of the bourgeoisie. They cannot be so long as bourgeois democracy lasts. Under democratic capitalism, the proletariat has a certain amount of freedom of organization and protest. This, coupled with the fact that the bureaucracy has its base in the labor movement and draws its livelihood, prestige and power from the movement. It will always seek therefore to preserve the labor movement and struggle in its own way to improve the condition of the working class. The bureaucracy are at the same time representatives of the bourgeoisie and of the proletariat. Because of the class dominance of the bourgeoisie, however, the result is the infusion of bourgeois ideas into the labor movement and at times the complete subjection of the trade unions to the will of the dominant ruling class.

This contradiction is the very essence of the difficulties of the labor movement today, and if not resolved will become the source of more pronounced and dangerous problems of the days to come. I say that subjectively the aims of the trade union bureaucracy are not those of the ruling class. But objectively, class collaboration and class harmony produce results not desired or dreamed of by trade union leaders. It is the sincere desire of Philip Murray that workers enjoy the good life of freedom and abundance, but freedom for a subject class cannot be attained by any effort at harmonizing the interests of the oppressed class with those of a dominant class exercising a social dictatorship over the whole of society.

Democracy and Fascism

Also, there are no prophets of sufficient insight or prescience to say that bourgeois democracy will have a long life in the United States. Bourgeois democracy is the pre-socialist form of capitalist political organization which gives the proletariat room for class struggle, for keeping its own leaders and the leaders of government and industry under mass pressure. For the proletariat, this is the chief distinction to be made between fascism and capitalist democracy: in capitalist democracy, with its bourgeois-democratic forms, the proletariat is enabled to prosecute the class struggle with far greater vigor than under fascism. This is not generally understood by the proletariat, suffering as it does from petty-bourgeois illusions about bourgeois-democracy. The answer usually given is that “democracy” is more tolerant than fascism, there is more freedom – freedom of thought, assembly and petition. Workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively.

The trade union bureaucracy thinks that the problem of whether or not the proletariat shall support the present war is settled when it has been stated that there are no trade unions in Germany and that if Hitler should win the workers in the United States will be reduced to the status of the German proletariat. While this statement is the brutal truth, it is not the relevant truth for the proletariat. The statement is not meaningful, is totally inadequate, useless for the working class and harmful. Identical statements were made by the French trade union bureaucracy and French liberals, and yet Hitler is in France today and the trade unions are dispersed. In order to avoid such a defeat in any other capitalist country the proletariat must lay hold of bourgeois democracy as a weapon for unrelenting class struggle. For the working class, bourgeois democracy is only a sort of instrument in the fight for complete proletarian democracy and socialism. For the proletariat to view capitalist democracy in the manner of the middle class and the labor bureaucracy, as an end in itself, is to provide the broad highway for the victory of fascism.

This analysis indicates the imperative necessity for a new orientation of the labor movement and a new trade union leadership. There are a great number of people who believe this and have said so. There is the liberal “friend of labor,” the radical militant who is disgusted with the undemocratic tactics and conservatism of the bureaucracy, the union-conscious worker who in despair concludes that what is needed is another organization independent of both the AFL and the CIO, and of course the Marxian revolutionaries. Quite often, the demand is put very simply even by revolutionaries: “the unions should throw out their present leaders,” “the unions need a house-cleaning,” the unions must do this, that and the other. Such platitudinous advice is thrown at the rank and file of the unions in utter abandon, as though these problems of the working class could be solved by radical golden texts and admonitions.

Militant Unionism and New Leadership

The problem of trade union leadership must be approached with a consideration of the questions raised in this article. Such an approach must also include a deep consideration of the history of the trade union movement and the rise of the bureaucracy in that movement. In order to understand any bureaucracy and to organize the struggle against it, it is necessary to discover its roots, the source of its power, the functions it performs and its connections, economic, social and political. Bureaucracies cannot be prevented, nor retarded, nor replaced if the only weapons available are radical phrases and adjurations.

The demand for a new leadership for the trade unions, to have real meaning, must be a demand for a new program. Not merely a new program of immediate demands such as “revocation of the no-strike pledge,” “restore collective bargaining” or an internal demand for “more democracy in the unions,” but more far-reaching and basic demands. The demands of the labor movement today, such as the above, are correct but they are inadequate. They are simple, democratic demands already recognized by bourgeois democracy. That they are violated today indicates that the labor movement must struggle to get these rights back. But their abrogation does not indicate that a program containing these and other demands like them is a sufficient one nor that the struggle to regain these rights is of sufficient proportions. On the contrary, it is clear now to many workers that the loss of these rights is proof that the programmatic base of the labor movement is too narrow, too petty bourgeois, too bourgeois-democratic and too deeply embedded in the conceptual structure of capitalism.

If the main consideration in any concern with the need for a new trade union leadership is not placed on the demand for a new program, a new orientation and for new methods of carrying on the struggle, then we are only insisting on the replacement of one bureaucracy by another, of one “power caucus” by another. All of the revolts, “unauthorized strikes,” grumblings and dissatisfaction on the part of militant trade unionists today are inchoate, primitive, but ominous demands for a new program for the movement. Explicit and implicit in the above presentation is the thought that the new program must exceed the orbit of immediate demands, must renounce class collaboration in favor of class struggle and, above all, must raise the thinking of the proletariat to a far higher class-conscious political level.

Since I have exhausted the space allotted it will be necessary to continue the discussion of these questions to another number of The New International.

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