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David Coolidge

Mass Action

(27 November 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 48, 27 November 1944, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The story carried in Labor Action last week on the defeat of George Bass and his fellow militants in the Goodrich Local in Akron should be a warning to real union progressives and militants. Bass, who has served four terms as president of Goodrich Local, was defeated by a coalition of reactionaries who conducted the type of campaign that reactionaries always conduct, whether in the labor movement or elsewhere. They lied, they appealed to the primitive backwardness of many of the workers, they played on the prejudices of these workers, they sought to make it appear that the finances of the local were in shady condition and they allied themselves with the labor-baiting Akron Beacon Journal.

Our correspondent writes that this reactionary clique made their appeal mainly to those in the union who were inactive and who were not in the habit of attending union meetings. These are the workers the reactionaries usually appeal to. They are the least educated in trade unionism, they know less than other workers what the union program is and they are the workers most likely to be influenced by sugar-coated anti-union propaganda which appears in the daily press.

The defeat of the Bass slate demonstrates, however, that there was something seriously wrong in the picture at Goodrich. There were 5,600 votes cast. Bass received only 2,496 to 3,102 for his opponent. What have Bass and his supporters been doing the four years they have been in the leadership of the local? What kind of campaign did they carry on for re-election? What kind of program did they have for the local and how well was this program understood by the masses in the rank and file? What platform did the Bass slate have for the election campaign, how did they organize for the elections and how much attention did they pay to the important matter of getting their platform and their record before every member of the local?

Our correspondent says that Bass expected to be re-elected because his supporters comprised the bulk of the active membership. Bass evidently forgot that the inactive also vote and that the vote of an inactive member is equal to the vote of an active member. Furthermore, hasn’t Bass learned yet that one of the problems before the militants today is to involve the largest possible mass of the membership in the activities of the local and to make every effort to get the maximum attendance at union meetings?

This is the only way to bring the union rank and file under the influence of the progressives and militants and win them away from the appeals of the reactionaries. This is part of the very essence of inner union democracy: to involve the greatest possible number of members in union meetings, union activity and participation in formulating the Union program and policies. Any other procedure is bureaucratic; whether indulged in by reactionaries or progressives. A small group leading the union, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how militant, cannot substitute itself for the widest possible participation of the entire local membership. To attempt any such paternalistic procedure is to court disaster and defeat.

It is, furthermore, necessary for progressives and militants to proceed in the most democratic manner, involving the whole union membership, because this is the only way that the rank and file can be educated and led along the most progressive road.

What Progressives Must Do

Also it is necessary for progressive and militant leaders to remember that they cannot and should not depend too much on their popularity and past record. They must stand primarily on a clear and unambiguous militant and progressive program. They must fight for this program in the most forthright and uncompromising manner. To fight in a forthright manner means, first of all, to see to it that the program goes before the whole union and that the membership understands the program. Not only must the leadership be convinced that it is correct but they must bend every effort to guarantee that the rank and file are convinced that their leadership is correct.

Militant and progressive leaders must pay attention to the principles and tactics of organization. This means the devising of ways for penetrating the ranks of the union with the program; the organization of publicity and education; confronting the reactionaries with the militant program before the membership; refuting every lie and smear in the membership meeting, by leaflet and folder as well as by word of mouth.

Progressives must proceed in this manner because they must not and cannot resort to the tactics of the reactionaries. Progressives must not become a “power clique,” they must not be, in any degree whatsoever, mere place holders or job hunters. Theirs is the task of democratic and militant leadership and of education.

This means that trade union progressives must be prepared to lead today – now. Too many of them are living in the past in the remote past when trade union problems were simple and all one had to do was to go to the employer, beat the desk, utter a few threats and quite often walk out with a signed contract. If the demands were denied, the next simple step was to call the workers on strike. Despite the fact that things have changed, many militant leaders attempt to go on in the old way.

Role of the Government

With the entry of the government into the picture and with the whole ruling class lined up against labor as a class, the chief problems before the working class become political in nature, it is time that trade union militants learned this and prepared themselves to act accordingly. This goes for Bass and all the other trade union militants and progressives. Their opponents go into action with a political program: a reactionary, anti-working class political program. They are for the government’s no-strike pledge. They echo government officials and the employers about “inflation.” They sing the glories of “incentive pay” piecework schemes and month nonsense about “equality of sacrifice.” They are solicitous that the employer should have a “fair profit.” They wallow in spurious and fake patriotic blurbs about workers sacrificing for the war effort. They propagate the tricky and slimy catch phrases of reactionary papers like the Akron Beacon Journal such as “Decency, Honesty and Respectability Pay.”

This is politics and such a program is a political program, it is the political program of the government and the capitalist ruling class for labor. Any progressive leaders who does not understand this is out before he reaches first base. Such politics, such a political program, such an attack, can only be defeated by an open and democratic appeal to the rank and file on the basis of another program: a militant union program and a militant working class political program; openly propagated, explained to the’ masses and fought for without wavering or compromise.

Progressives Can Win

Many militant and progressive trade unionists draw back from this step. They often attempt to substitute cleverness or popularity or the assumed strength of a small group of loyal followers for understanding, a program, education of the membership and efficient and democratic organization. They always believe that they can “handle the situation” and that somehow they will come out on top.

One reason for this attitude on the part of some of the militants and progressives is their fear of “going too far,” of being seen in the company of the “radicals” in the union. They fear that the reactionaries will call them “Trotskyites” or “Labor Action people.”

What they forget is that they must adopt and defend a militant and progressive program and that they must associate themselves with those forces in the union which are the most loyal, the most militant, the most democratic and the most capable of formulating and carrying through a militant working class program.

They must do this with clarity, firmness and consistency and with full knowledge that such a course leads to political reorientation. Not to understand this is to fail in the most elementary responsibilities of militant and progressive union leadership today.

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