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David Coolidge

Ship Workers Convention Shows
Poor Leadership

(7 October 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 40, 7 October 1946, pp. 5 & 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The Twelfth National Convention of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers (IUMSWA), held here last week, was a demonstration of what an inept and bureaucratic trade union leadership can do to disorient and retard the development of its members. Here was an international faced with the near wiping out of its industry, with the closing of shipyards, with mass lay-offs and unemployment, with the reduction of wages, with all-over attacks from the shipyard corporations and a government at Washington which had demonstrated its determination to hold wages to a year-old formula. Furthermore, this convention met after it had been shown that the present wage formula was a millstone around the neck of labor. This convention also met at a time when shipyard workers along with the rest of labor were without meat.

In this situation the leadership of this union came to the convention with a program which did not even approach what was necessary. Criticism for this must be directed at President John Green particularly. Throughout the convention he seemed to be in a fog of uncertainty and inertia. He did not see into understand that it was his responsibility to supply leadership to the union.

The convention was not only faced with the external problems, which I have enumerated but also with a serious internal problem. Green and the other top leaders were concerned with this internal problem: namely, what to do about the “Save the Union Committee.” Their handling of this group, however, was stupid; their proposals for dealing with such problems and situations in the future were reactionary and totally undemocratic.

A Stalinist Subterfuge

The earliest test of strength in the convention came on the resolution condemning the reactionary “Save the Union Committee.” This was the group which had been organized after the last convention under the direction of Communist Party members and followers to fight against the union leadership. Besides the Stalinists, the “Save the Union Committee” was composed of a few misguided and confused honest militants. Also in the group at the beginning, and associated with the Stalinists in the leadership of it, were outright conservatives who opposed the Green leadership for wholly reactionary reasons. About a month before last week’s convention this extremely reactionary group got the upper hand and expelled all the known Stalinists from the “Save the Union Committee.”

While the Stalinists were still in the leadership of the committee, it had instituted legal proceedings in the capitalist courts against the national officers of UMSWA, claiming that the 11th convention had been rigged and that its procedure was undemocratic. The committee asked the court to invalidate the convention and order a new convention. At the time of last week’s convention the case was still pending in the courts.

The resolution against the “Save the Union Committee” charged that this group had attempted to spread disunity in the international, that it was unscrupulous and undemocratic, that it had shown no tendency to discontinue its “harmful activity.” The resolution condemned the committee and instructed he General Executive Board to take such action as it deemed necessary against its “union-busting” activities.

Despite the fact that this was a resolution of the anion leadership, the leadership did. not seem inclined io give it any real vigorous defense. Here was only me of the many instances of leadership bankruptcy on he part of Green and Co. One delegate said that this issue should not have been brought to the floor of the convention in these “critical times.” It was his position that the convention should be discussing “political action.”

A delegate from Local 18, in discussing the resolution said that. Mike Shapiro, Stalinist organizer in IUMSWA had come to Mobile for the Save the Union group and had disrupted the development of good relations between the white and Negro workers by his activities. McPherson of Local 22 said that he did not start the suit in the courts but that he participated in the action because he agreed with the people who did start it. It was McPherson’s position that if the national officers did not want suits in the courts they should conduct the affairs of the union in a different way.

There was much talk about “unity” from the Stalinists. No one made any clear and adequate attack or the Stalinist “unity” talk. Even here the bureaucrats conceptions and attitudes of the top leadership were in evidence. They wanted to strike at the “Save the Union Committee.” This should have been done. But the hands of the leadership were far from clean and they just could not do an effective job. Their record of lifting charters and taking away the autonomy of locals was unenviable and reprehensible. They had sent organizers into various locals to do hatchet jobs on militants and opponents.

Place of Union Organizer

It was reported in the convention and not refuted by Green, Grogan and Blood, that there had been waste and inefficiency in the union’s organizing activities. Everyone knew that many of the organizers did not put in their time bringing workers into the union but spent it doing the Hatchet work of the top bureaucracy of the union. Therefore all that Green and Co. could do was to push through the resolution against the reactionary “Save the Union Committee.” They made no effort to tell the convention in an educational way, why the activities of the committee were “disruptive,” or why grievances of labor should be sent out of the capitalist courts. This leadership just used a mechanical majority to pass its resolution.

Yet, here was an excellent opportunity to give the delegates some genuine trade union education, to deliver an open blow to anti-labor Stalinism while at the same time opposing the reactionary “red-baiters.” But this leadership did not do this. It made blocs with the Stalinists many times before and may want to do it again.

The next fight arose over a proposal in connection with the appeal rights of hired organizers, who are members of the union. The proposal was that when and if fired they could have no right of appeal to the convention. It did not occur to anyone that this question might be solved by making it mandatory for all organizers to be members of the union with the same rights as any other member.

Issue of Local Autonomy

There was a contest over the question of lifting he autonomy of locals. It was not difficult to see that the delegates were dissatisfied with the past procedure of the national officers in lifting autonomy and placing dictatorial administrators over locals. A resolution was introduced which would require the officers and General Executive Board to use the most elementary procedure in the case of charter lifting. This amendment to the constitution would require the GEB to review the case 30 days after autonomy was suspended. A two-thirds vote of the GEB would be necessary for continuing the withholding of autonomy. At each meeting of the GEB thereafter the case would have to be reviewed and only a majority vote would be required to restore the autonomy of the local.

The position of the administration resolution was to keep the matter of autonomy in the hands of the GEB with the local involved having no right of appeal. The minority amendment was defeated by a combination of parliamentary trickery and skullduggery. A two-thirds vote is required to amend the constitution. It is required that a minority resolution or motion be voted on first. This is the customary parliamentary procedure. It was the procedure in this convention. On another question, Green had apologized to the convention for not putting the minority motion first. But on the autonomy issue he put the majority amendment first. He then announced that the “minority amendment has not carried because it takes a two-thirds vote.” Actually, the delegates were not voting on the minority amendment. As a result, the procedure was confusing and many delegates were not clear on how to vote for their real sentiments.

What is important to emphasize is that this leadership was opposed to any genuine democratic procedure in connection with taking over locals and placing them under an administrator. The attitude of the leadership of IUMSWA on this important question as on others was reactionary and bureaucratic.

The resolution finally passed was far better than the original one proposed by the leadership. It requires that in case of the lifting of autonomy that a provisional government be set up, consisting of eight members of the local. The administrator need not be a member of the local. The case may be reviewed by the GEB on appeal, by any deposed local officer or by any member.

There was one issue on which the officers were defeated. This was on the proposal to raise the dues from $1.25 to $2.00 a month. The delegates would have none if this; not even those delegates who belonged to the administration bloc. Later, however, the convention voted favorably on a proposed amendment to permit those locals which desired to set the local dues at $2.00 a month. The amendment specified, however, that the per capita to the “national office” would not be increased. Here was an extremely interesting situation. Delegates who had voted for the reactionary position of the administration on the autonomy question voted against Green on the dues question and then voted to permit locals to increase dues provided the per capita to the national office was not raised.

A Little Horse-Trading

It was evident therefore that the delegates were really only against the national office getting any more money. They felt that the organizational work had not been done effectively and therefore no money was necessary. But these same delegates were willing to continue the disgraceful arrangement by which the leadership could lift charters at will and maintain a dictatorship over the locals.

This wasn’t all. Delegations which were really against the motion to permit locals to raise their own dues, finally voted to permit. Local 1 with the biggest vote was against. Local 2 was against. Before the vote was completed Local 1 asked for a recess for a caucus. They returned and announced that they had changed their minds and would vote for. Local 2 did likewise. Green and the other officers voted for.

It was clear that something was going on. This something was the preparation for the forming of blocks looking to the elections the following day. Local 9 had introduced the amendment under consideration and was insistent on its passage. The administration wanted the vote of Local 9 for its GEB slate. Local 1 wanted the support of Local 9 for support to its nominees for the GEB. Local 2 also wanted support for its two nominees. It was necessary for all concerned to woo Local 9 and try for its support. The amendment was passed overwhelmingly.

There were two more contests. One was over the lowers of local executive boards and the other over he rights of members who had been fired, laid off or who had quit the industry. Here the stupidity and the bureaucratism of the leadership revealed itself again. The amendment on EBs as first presented stated that the EB had the right to appoint all standing committees. When the question was asked from the floor whether or not this was subject to review by the local the answer was “No.”

This being entirely unsatisfactory, Green took the floor to explain that, of course, the grievance and negotiating committees were to be elected. But nobody took the pains to word the amendment in such a way that it would be clear from the amendment itself. Nor did it occur to Green and Co. that there was a simple democratic way out of the objections which were raised. That was to say that all committees but the two excepted were to be appointed by the EB subject to the approval of the membership.

Strengthening the Bureaucracy

The next matter was the position taken by the leadership that all members who were laid off, discharged or who quit the industry could not hold office in any local or have a vote in any local. As was usual with the proposals brought forward there was no explanation as to its meaning or effect until objections were raised from the floor. There were delegates who could not understand why a member who was fired or laid off by the company should be placed in the same category as a member who left the industry. Also, it was not clear why a member should be denied the vote merely because the company laid him off of fired him.

Then the Constitution Committee and Green came forward with some lame explanations. Of course, they said, this would not apply to members whose cases were still pending before the company or to members who were only being “shaped up.” But the point is that even this lame explanation came under pressure. Obviously, the explanation was not adequate. It was one more reactionary proposal which meant that loyal members of the union were to be penalized merely because they were not momentarily employed.

The elections took place on Friday morning, the day before adjournment. The three top officers, Green, Grogan and Blood, were re-elected without opposition. Then nominations were made for the GEB. Here was the place where the Stalinists attempted to get in their licks. They nominated two delegates from Local 2, Quinn and Belcher, a Negro, and more from other locals. There was also an administration slate without any known Stalinists on it. It was an anti-Stalinist slate. There was a great deal of opposition to the re-election of Carter, the only Negro on the GEB. Among the Negroes, Carter is known as “Uncle Tom.” They took the position, however, and correctly, that Carter must not be “dumped” in any anti-Negro move or for any other reason than that a more militant Negro than Carter would get the place.

The administration slate won by about two to one. The Stalinists were defeated. On Saturday, the Daily Worker reported that “unity” had been given a slap in the face at the convention. This, of course, was nonsense. What had been given the slap was not “unity” but elementary trade union democracy and simple trade union education.

With all the caucusing and maneuvering, often over the most trivial matters, there was not much time for the consideration of a program for the international or the pressing and harassing problems before the shipyard workers. Resolutions were passed on foreign policy endorsing the Baruch plan for international control of atomic energy. The resolution was aimed at Russia and called for abolishing the present veto system in the United Nations.

There was a resolution on wage policy which no one can take seriously if it is to be carried into effect by the present officers of the union. It warned that if employers or the government agencies “fail to allow” peaceful methods “we shall have to rely on our organized strength and on the collective determination of our members. For we mean to do our utmost to see to it that each shipyard worker receives economic justice.”

This resolution means very little in a union with a leadership which is more militant at lifting charters and sending dictators to locals than it is at fighting the employers and opposing a reactionary capitalist government. Furthermore, a group of officers, who give as an argument for increasing dues that it is necessary to save the shipbuilding industry in order that there may be jobs, is not a leadership which should inspire confidence. In his speech in support of the dues increase, Blood said that there is need for a maritime industry for this country “second to none.” He did not explain how the union can save the maritime industry, if it needs saving, or how 75 cents more in dues would accomplish this. Nor did he explain how and why it, is the business of the working class to save capitalist business enterprise.

All in all, this convention saw a miserable performance by a trade union leadership. It is not a real leadership in any sense but a petty, inept and blundering little group of jobholders which is retained, in office only because the members of the union do not know what to do about it. They are bureaucratic, ignorant and inefficient. Green is the worst of all. He has gone down a long way since he was a member of the Socialist Party and a member of the Revolutionary Policy Committee in that party, which was going to make a militant revolutionary organization out of that party. One year he is crying out against the Trotskyists in the union and making a bloc with the Stalinists. Another year he is sobbing and shedding tears because the Stalinists have him hemmed in and will not consent for the militant Local 42 to get a place on the GEB. This year he is engaged in a drive against the Stalinists but has no program for the union. He just stands there, gavel in hand, turning this way and that, hoping that somehow or other, unknown to him, the delegates in their mercy . and political backwardness will return him to office.

The Stalinists at the convention were up to their usual tricks. They wanted “unity.” This means, of course, that they did not want the resolution on the “Save the Union Committee” passed. They did not want Green re-elected but they had no alternative but to support him and lie in wait with dagger poised for the stab in the back. “Unity” to them means to get enough people on the GEB and among the organizers to exercise their type of bureaucratic control, in the interests of the murderer in the Kremlin. They didn’t get far, but neither did the shipyard workers. And this is the pity of it. But perhaps by next year these workers will have learned better and will know how not to let such a stupid and undemocratic leadership hold them in check.

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