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David Coolidge

Ten Years of U.S. Labor History

The Road Ahead for the AFL and CIO

(July 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 7, July 1944, pp. 221–224.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

To crowd the past ten years of the history of the labor movement in the United States into four pages of The New International is an impossible task. Space limitations will make it necessary therefore to attempt a selection of the most outstanding events and to integrate them into some sort of pattern of the whole. Into this pattern would go such significant events as the coming of the New Deal and its rules and regulations for organized labor, the formation of the CIO, the impact of the war on the labor movement, the tremendous expansion of trade union membership, particularly the increase in Negro membership.

The Coming of the New Deal

The attempt of the ruling class in the United States to halt the decline of capitalism, to restore the economy to “normal” functioning, to pacify the masses of the people, were concretized in the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency and bourgeois support of what came to be known as the “New Deal.” The United States and the whole capitalist world were in the throes of the most deep-going economic depression. Four years of the Hoover Administration had demonstrated even to the bourgeoisie that the politics and the economic thinking of the Great Engineer would have to give way, at least temporarily, to more “enlightened” plans, policies and schemes. This was admitted and agreed to by the ruling class except the most reactionary, inept and mediaeval-minded of their number. These were the people who supported Hoover for re-election. Their group comprised the leaders of heavy industry, the capital goods manufacturers, the big bondholders and the big bankers. They were against any concessions whatsoever to “the mob,” “the rabble” and to the masses of the people.

On the other hand, the chief support for the New Deal came from the lower middle class, including the small farmers, labor, small business, a large section of manufacturers of consumer goods and the liberals. It is important to emphasize that in so far as the New Deal was taken seriously and accepted as a permanent way out of the crisis, it Was a middle class phenomenon, a mass movement of the middle class based on the desire of the petty bourgeois to salvage his presumed place in society and save his small rural and urban property holdings. In so far as the proletarian thought at all of the meaning of the New Deal, his thinking was very simple and quite naive. The proletariat, as represented by organized labor, was mainly concerned with the maintenance of its unions, the right to organize, and employment. The unorganized part of the working class was first of all concerned with employment. Later, with the coming of Section 7-A of the NIRA and under the influence of the dubious and historically fallacious slogan: “Now the government has given us the right to organize,” the unorganized workers fell in behind the New Deal as “labor’s new Magna Carta.”

The result of all of this was rapprochement between the white collar middle class, the proletariat, the small farmer and the small business man. While it was true that each group had its own group reasons for rallying enthusiastically to the support of the New Deal, they were all unified for the time being behind the idea that the times demanded the intervention of the government, as it was put, for the protection of the masses of the people, for the rejuvenation of the economy, for the fulfillment of the American Promise and the American Dream. Those who talk glibly today about the “Century of the Common Man” in connection with the “war aims” of the United Nations forget that barely ten years ago they proclaimed the New Deal as the “Century of the Common Man.” Those liberals and their followers who exuberantly, piously or hopefully – dependent on temperament or stupidity – announce today that a “revolution” is taking place, forget that not over a decade ago they heralded the New Deal as “socialistic,” the broad avenue to plenty in our time, the forerunner of the rights of man.

Failure of the AFL

The organized labor movement and the unorganized workers, particularly in the mass production and heavy goods industries, were enthralled by the New Deal mainly for the reason that this panacea appeared on the scene when labor was besieged and embattled by all the hosts of a frightened but stubborn ruling class. The labor movement had declined during the depression years and before. The decline in trade union membership was taking place even before the crash of 1929; it began seriously about 1922. The AFL membership at the time of the Great Crash was only about fifty per cent of its 1920 total. There was some attempt at organization by the AFL, notably among the textile workers of the South and in the automobile industry in Detroit. Both of these attempts were dismal failures. The Executive Council of the AFL, holding fast to a degenerate form of the philosophy of Gompers, ignored completely the trend of the times both in respect to technological development and the company union plans of the employers. AFL President Green made a trip south during the depression, ostensibly to promote organization among textile workers. His efforts were confined to pious addresses to groups of business men, but he made no speeches to textile workers. He departed with the blessings of the business groups but the mill owners went their way totally unaffected by anything which had been offered by President Green in the way of AFL co-operation.

The same policy of attempting to organize the workers through co-operation with employers was employed in the automobile industry. The AFL sought an agreement with General Motors through which this corporation’s workers would become members of the AFL without their knowledge or any effort on their pan. The scheme was not acceptable to General Motors and was later rejected by the Ford Motor Co. The essence of the AFL plan was to form the workers into federal unions, directly affiliated to the AFL. Later, however, these workers would be separated into the various crafts and put in the appropriate craft international union. Thus did the AFL hold to its fatal craft union philosophy in the face of the rapid decline of its membership and in the face of the difficult plight of workers in the mass production industries who had no union organization.

The attitude of the AFL was summed up by Wharton of the International Association of Machinists, who said at a later date that the AFL had not been remiss in attempting to organize workers in the steel industry. The fact was, according to Wharton, the steel workers did not want to be organized. The fact is that right through the period of the depression the AFL was so thoroughly craft-union-conscious that the workers in the mass production industries were considered a lower order than the skilled workers in the craft unions. This attitude persisted until the wide expansion in employment after the beginning of the war. There was no change in the basic craft-union philosophy, but the treasury-minded presidents of the AFL internationals suddenly realized that there were millions of dollars in joining fees and per capita taxes waiting to be collected in camps and factories under construction and among the workers in the aircraft plants and shipyards. Even the Negro workers were wooed to some degree when it was seen that they would be employed by the hundreds of thousands and that they too would have money for joining fees and per capita taxes. To be sure, the practice of placing these Negroes in Jim Crow locals or of some other form of segregation was followed, but there was a slight change from the former practice of either excluding the Negroes or ignoring them.

Capital’s Union-Busting Aims

The conservative practices of the AFL, pursued with extreme ineptitude and doddering callousness, persisted not only in the face of the ravages of the depression but also when confronted by the company-union designs of the bourgeoisie. This was the period when the employers and their associations were experimenting with various types of company unions under the mild-sounding name of “employee representation plans.” Rubber, steel, textiles, coal, railroads and the electrical companies were all busy with these schemes. Their aim was to get their company unions entrenched while the legitimate organizations of labor were in a weakened and disorganized state from the years of unemployment. The bourgeoisie was determined to finish the unions off before the business cycle began its upward climb and before re-employment began. Not only was the AFL blind to the manifestations which have been enumerated, but the craft union leadership had not even an elementary idea either of the magnitude or the nature of the sickness of capitalism. This leadership was completely incompetent to deal with the real situation. Industry was sick, capitalist society was sick nigh unto death, and the labor movement was in a condition that can properly be described as a state of decay. Along with the rest of bourgeois society, the trade union movement had been drugged on the superficial and artificially stimulated “prosperity” of the golden years of Harding and Coolidge. True, the car was now somewhat dilapidated and there was no garage to put it in. True, there were millions of pots containing no chicken, the grass was growing in the streets and the full dinner pail was only a plaintive memory. But despite the fact that this situation existed all over the capitalist world, many leaders of labor and industry were convinced that the Hoover era was a mere mishap, a miscalculation which would and could be corrected with the aid of Providence, the American Spirit, and the revival of our pioneer fortitude and courage.

“Section 7-A”

The answer to the prayers of the faithful, the hopes of the believing and the class resourcefulness of the “enlightened” among the bourgeoisie was the election of Roosevelt and the proclamation of the New Deal. We are primarily concerned with the unions under the National Industrial Recovery Act and the transformation wrought in the relationship between organized labor and the government. We have remarked before that after the passage of the act labor leaders toured the country announcing that now “we have the right to organize.”

In the light of what has happened to collective bargaining since the beginning of World War II it is important to quote the relevant section of the act. Section 7-A reads: “That employees have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers of labor ... that no employee and no one seeking employment shall be required as a condition of employment to join any company union ...” What the act did in fact was to legalize collective bargaining and to illegalize the company union. This was what was significant about Section 7-A. Formally, and so far as the law was concerned, employers were forced to bargain with their employees. And since labor had learned long before that its best bargaining agency was the union, it joined the unions by the hundreds of thousands and an upward swing in trade union membership began. It was a long and, to labor, a successful trek from the conspiracy trials of the early nineteenth century to government enforcement of collective bargaining in the second quarter of the twentieth century.

Despite the fact that the most reactionary of the employers resisted the operation of Section 7-A, not only by their efforts to maintain their company unions but by the persistence of their spy systems, their constant efforts to frustrate collective bargaining and often by open resort to anti-union violence, the movement grew rapidly. The AFL leadership at least knew enough to seek whatever organizational advantage there was in the new governmental paternalism. Also there were many employers who concluded that the easier road was recognition of the unions and the consent to bargain collectively. They knew that the whole New Deal was a necessary concession granted to the masses in a period of great stress and strain from which the bourgeoisie had been unable to deliver itself. Furthermore, big business was still in control of industry through provisions contained in the codes of “fair competition.” Furthermore, under the NRA set-up, labor leaders were drawn closer to the government and thereby made more amenable to conservative suggestions coming from the new “friends of labor” in the government.

From later developments, the contention of Norman Ware that “there are signs that the Administration originally regarded the collective bargaining clause as more a hindrance than a help to recovery” may have great weight. Ware continues: “It seems to have been the opinion of both President Roosevelt and General Johnson that minimum wages, maximum hours, employer paternalism and the suggestions of the Labor Advisory Board were all the wage earners needed for their protection.” Ware then quotes from Roosevelt’s message when he sent the NRA to Congress: “Workers know that the first move expected of the nation is a great co-operation of all the employers ... to improve the case of the workers. Industries can do this only if they have the support of the whole public and especially of their own workers. This is not a law to foment discord and will not be administered as such ...” Ware remarks that there is not a word here about collective bargaining or any other principle on which trade unionism is funded. The whole concept advanced is one of employer and governmental paternalism. Of course this and many other aspects of the New Deal, the codes and Section 7-A, were explained by the Marxists at the time and the Blue Eagle was often described as the “Blue Buzzard.”

The Unions Grow Stronger

The quantitative advance of the labor movement in the early days of the New Deal was, however, unquestionable. The AFL unions revived and increased their membership. Not only this, but scientific progress and technological achievement had created a situation in the mass production industries which made this decisive sector of the economy the most fruitful field of trade union expansion. The finance-capitalists understood this. It was here that they were determined to hold the line with their company unions, espionage systems and blackjacks. It was the conjuncture of the severest economic crisis in the history of capitalism, the attempt to resolve the crisis by strictly controlled concessions and bourgeois planning and the already demonstrated high level of the productive forces which brought to fruition the long but sporadic efforts to establish an industrial union movement in the United States. Here had been erected plant capacity far in excess of what was necessary for supplying the needs of the domestic population. It was estimated, for instance, that the large automobile companies could produce enough cars to supply the whole world, and not just a restricted capitalist world market. This was true to one degree or another of the actual and potential production of other goods and services.

Despite this, the productive forces – labor, plant and natural resources – were idle. The New Deal had begun its regime of price-fixing, wage-fixing, artificial competition-stimulation, artificial expansion of the market and provisions for taking care of the halt, the lame and the aged.

Rise of the CIO

It was out of this objective situation that the industrial union movement and the CIO emerged. It was by working in this milieu, seizing the advantages offered by the New Deal and comprehending, in an elementary way, the potential role of the mass production workers, that John L. Lewis and his associates became makers of labor history. The AFL leadership, on the other hand, seeing nothing and learning nothing; encrusted with a decadent craft union philosophy; contemptuous of the needs of the mass production workers; ignorant of the fact that 1935 was not 1885; plunged ahead and confined its efforts to the expansion of its craft union membership. The craft union theorists could not understand that the protagonists of industrial unionism were not latter-day Knights of Labor nor ideological heirs of the founders of the Socialist and Labor Alliance. The tremendous struggle which ensued therefore was a conflict between craft unionism, which had once played a progressive role in the labor movement, and new conceptions suitable to an age of monopoly capitalism, a higher level of technology and mass production. With the emergence of the CIO it can be said that the labor movement attained a higher level, and in relation to the AFL the CIO became the progressive section of the labor movement.

It has been remarked often that the New Deal was instituted as a recovery measure; which, being interpreted, means that the New Deal was a mechanism for the rehabilitation of capitalist production. Business was permitted to write its own codes of “fair competition.” Temporarily the government replaced the private monopolist as the price-fixer. It is interesting that the New Deal government took over from monopoly capitalism one of its favorite modes of price-maintenance and price-appreciation by artificially holding down production. Furthermore, industry was stabilized and the profit function protected by government subsidies and enormous loans. Despite this, all that the labor bureaucracy could discern was Section 7-A, “which gives us the right to organize.”

This was particularly true of the CIO. Its theoreticians, those in the organization, and its friends inside and outside the New Deal government, hailed the new role of the government as the protector of labor. This despite the fact that the New Deal was again and again announced as a recovery measure; that is, as a measure to restore the status quo before the depression. This new theory of the role of the government was not at all understood by the CIO leadership. While it was true that the government was playing a new role, it was not what the labor movement believed it to be. Some of them were to understand this later, with the coming of World War II.

One of the reasons for the CIO succumbing so completely to the blandishments of the New Deal was somewhat fortuitous. The NLRB, under Madden, Witt and Edwin Smith, was partial to the CIO as against the AFL, and the CIO profited greatly from decisions of the board which were not always objectively arrived at. This was partially due to the influence of the Communist Party in the board, the CP at this time being violently pro-CIO. This was enough for empirically-minded labor leaders who were more concerned with the building of their organization than with the making of political analyses, which they were not competent to make even if they had been so inclined.

The War and the Unions

Concomitant with the progress of the labor movement in membership and prestige the bourgeoisie continued its struggle against the New Deal and the unions. This was accentuated as the “depression” was magically transformed into the “recession” and some measure of “prosperity” was restored. The organized workers fought back persistently and continued the extension of their organizing drives. But the course of world events disturbed “the American Dream” and the utopian hopes of the labor leadership. War clouds appeared on the horizon and “recovery” through the forty-hour week, collective bargaining, “premium pay,” minimum wages, burning the wheat and killing the pigs, was turned into “recovery” through the forty-eight and sixty-hour week, the abolition of collective bargaining, job stabilization, maximum wages, taking away the right to strike and the elimination of “fair competition.” The subsidies were still there, only bigger. The profits were there, but huge beyond compare, even after the taxes went higher than ever before. The big bourgeoisie which had allegedly been driven from the temple in 1933–35, appeared again in full view, and in total control of the government.

The drive began to unify the nation behind the “war effort.” The labor leaders responded to this call, which they described as the call of “our government.” The CIO devised the slogan of “Victory Through Equality of Sacrifice.” They and their friends among the dwindling New Dealers fought for the retention of all the fundamental New Deal measures and legislation. What they did not know was that the real spirit and essence of the New Deal was being retained. The essence of the New Deal was “planning” for the salvation of capitalism in a period of decline extremely alarming to the bourgeoisie. We have already quoted Roosevelt on the NRA: “This is not a law to foment discord and will not be administered as such.” At a time when the bourgeoisie is facing a life-and-death struggle with a foreign imperialism, to administer the New Deal as was the custom during peacetime would “foment discord,” in the eyes of the bourgeoisie and its government.

Furthermore, it must be emphasized again that the ruling class, in a period of capitalist decline especially, will not worry overmuch about how “recovery” is effected. They do not put all of their eggs into one basket, neither are they committed to the use of the same basket from period to period. They have many avenues of approach to the maintenance of their monopoly, prestige and profits. At one period it is a New Deal, at another it is imperialist war. The fact that they do not have control over the course of history, or that they cannot have control over the course of history, or that they cannot predict without error does not deter them from seizing on events and using them for their own class interests, whether in war or peace. The profits accruing from the manufacture of munitions are no less profits than those flowing in from peacetime monopoly or New Deal plowing under of cotton.

Militancy of the Workers

An outstanding feature of the past ten years of the labor movement with all its ups and downs has been the persistent militancy of the proletariat. True, its militancy has been dampened since the outbreak of the war and under the betrayals of the trade union bureaucracy, but no one can say that the working class in the United States has capitulated. No matter what one’s ideas and opinions may be about “this being a period of reaction,” this fuzzy saying cannot be interpreted to mean that the proletariat is or should be quiescent. The numerous strikes, especially those after the declaration of war, give the lie to any such declaration.

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the resurgence of the organized labor movement during the past decade has been the entrance of Negroes, until today there are nearly a million Negroes occupying a place in the trade union movement. The outstanding feature of the entrance of the Negroes into the ranks of organized labor is their making a place for themselves, primarily as workers and not as Negroes. This is attested by the virtual passing of scabbing on the part of Negroes, their development of union loyalty and their support of the militant actions of the unions of which they are members. This development of course is part and parcel of the industrial union movement. There is no evidence that the AFL has changed its ideas or its practices in connection with the Negro worker. If anything, the position of this organization has become more reprehensible under attack. One can hear from AFL bureaucrats such statements that “the AFL treats Negroes better than the CIO.”

The past decade witnessed not only the formation of a new trade union center but sporadic efforts at unification and a split in the CIO with the withdrawal of the UMWA. The agitation for unification was confined largely to the top of the AFL and CIO. The whole proceedings were conducted bureaucratically with no apparent effort to arouse the rank and file of the two organizations in favor of a merger. In fact, the rank and file demonstrated little interest in unification. This was in part due to the conflicts engendered in the course of competitive efforts at organizing, especially in the war industries. Furthermore, on the part of the CIO membership there were the recent and unpleasant memories of their experiences with the AFL before the coming of the CIO. On the part of the AFL, craft-union exclusiveness acted as a deterrent to the development of unification. In practice it was difficult to discover a point at which the interests of the two groups of workers coalesced. This was true despite all the theoretical and practical reasons that might be adduced for the merger of the two organizations.

The Roosevelt government for a while intervened in this matter in favor of unification, but two situations lessened the interest of the government in such a consummation. First was the unity proposal of John L. Lewis and the second was the solid support received from the AFL and the CIO in the prosecution of the war. Roosevelt was opposed to any step which would enhance the power of Lewis in the labor movement and unanimity of the AFL and CIO on full support of the war and other measures of the Administration made it unnecessary to intervene further in the direction of unification. Since the Administration had complete support for the war program there was no need to risk the dangers of a unified trade union movement.

The Road Ahead

In closing this brief survey it is necessary to say something on the road ahead for the labor movement in this country. What are the prospects for the post-war period? This problem worries the leadership, especially the leadership of the CIO. The AFL craft-union bureaucrats are more sanguine. They have several advantages, at least of a temporary sort. This, of course, is enough for them. They could not be expected to concern themselves with the really important omens in connection with capitalist production and world trade. They base themselves on what they believe to be the abiding features of industry at the point of the need for skilled craftsmen. This applies to the building and construction industry, the metal trades and transportation. This is the backbone of the AFL. They believe that after the war, even though there is a “recession,” there will be enough work for enough of their membership to maintain the organization and the treasuries of the Federation and the international unions. Furthermore, many of these internationals have millions of dollars in their treasuries. They can go through several lean years, they believe, and maintain themselves.

The CIO is in a somewhat different condition. Its unions are younger, not as stable in an organizational and financial sense, and, more important, the CIO can live effectively only if it continues to expand.

The drive that is already under way to smash the union movement will gain momentum after the war and will be centered on the CIO. It is easier to come to an understanding with the AFL craft-union aristocracy than with the lower-paid semi-skilled and unskilled masses of the CIO. Furthermore, there will be layoffs in the mass production industries that will tend to decimate the CIO membership. In order to meet this, the CIO will probably resort to a series of mergers between internationals. This is presaged by the United Steel Workers taking in the Aluminum Workers.

Neither the AFL nor the CIO will be able to withstand the attacks of the bourgeoisie now and after the war if they persist in their present policies. This is especially true of the CIO. It is this organization that we are especially concerned with because of its greater promise and significance, which flow not only from its vertical structure but its composition. At no point in its existence, however, has the leadership of the CIO understood what is really fundamental, important and potent in the industrial form of organization. That is, the industrial form of organization lends itself more readily to class struggle and a class struggle program.

It can be maintained that beneath the demand of the proletariat for industrial union type of organization is an unuttered demand for a class struggle program. This demand is inchoate and vague but it is there. This is the point at which the industrial union movement can and should distinguish itself from craft unionism. The CIO bureaucracy, however, rejects class struggle notions and programs in favor of class collaboration and intermittent capitulation at every decisive phase of the struggle.

The CIO will not be able to maintain its leadership after the war with a continuation of such crass class collaboration as it has practiced in the past and practices today. The organization will never be in a position to repulse the assaults of the bourgeoisie without the most determined and conscious class-struggle action.

The leadership of the CIO has some vague understanding of this point. This is the meaning of their resistance to independent political organization of the proletariat. It is true that sustained economic struggle augmented by the intrusion of the ideas of the revolutionaries will promote class consciousness among the proletariat and impel them to independent political organization and class political action. The CIO leadership resists this class demand of the proletariat because, as meek class collaborationists, such a demand is not of their world. But this is the direction the labor movement must take if it is to make any further genuine progress at all.

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