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B.J. Widick

S.W.P. Labor Secretary Gives Account of Tour

(May 1938)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 19, 7 May 1938, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Traveling through the main industrial centers of America during the past two months, when the Hitler seizure of Austria, the third Moscow trial and the acute economic crisis weighed heavily on the minds of the people, we were afforded an excellent opportunity to study the reaction to these significant events.

In the New England area with its many “ghost towns,” the main topic of conversation with union leaders was the critical situation in the newly-formed C.I.O. unions. The hammer blows of the depression, combined with the inexperience of the unionists, was creating havoc in the unions. Many were falling apart. Wage cuts, lay-offs and the miseries of unemployment and insecurity were facing most of the industrial workers, six years after they had backed Roosevelt and the New Deal as the hope of their salvation.

Attitude To Trials

A little incident in Philadelphia illustrated the reaction of the American workers to the third Moscow trial. Two workers were talking about Krestinsky’s repudiation of his confession and his subsequent retraction the next day.

“Hell, what else would you expect after the guy spent another night in Stalin’s jail. You’d talk plenty, too,” one of the workers said. Skepticism was prevalent everywhere, but little real interest was found. The workers were too occupied with their own pressing economic problems to worry much about another trial.

The political situation in Pennsylvania, complicated by the C.I.O.-A.F. of L. fight, has one amusing aspect, a railroad porter told the writer. “Last summer Governor Earle was our leader, and now we are supposed to vote against him,” he said. It was treason to the C.I.O. to criticize Earle’s strikebreaking actions in the Bethlehem strike a year ago. Now it is treason if you praise him.

Fight for Existence

The depths of the present crisis reflect themselves in the contrast between the state of the C.I.O. union movement of one year ago and today in the Ohio region. In those earlier days the name C.I.O. sounded invincible. The spirit of the workers soared sky-high. Today the unions are having a grim fight for existence. The defeat of the Little Steel strike and the mass lay-offs in the Mahoning valley steel region have been heavy blows. In Salem, Ohio, one steel lodge has maintained its strength. Its leadership is militant and progressive. It is free from Stalinist influence.

In Akron the impression is gained that another Goodyear strike is on. Headlines scream of the dispute between the United Rubber Workers and the companies. The radio is filled with pro or anti-union speeches. Peeling is as tense as during the critical moments of the Goodyear strike. The class struggle rages furiously.

Goodrich threatens to abolish 5,000 jobs unless wage cuts are accepted. Businessmen demand that the unions take the cuts. The rubber workers stand pat. The bosses cannot understand why all the anti-union propaganda has not smashed the U.R.W.A. Unless one has been through the strike and sit-down struggles, it is impossible to know how unionism has been burned into the souls of the gum-miners in the fires of picket lines.

Workers’ Control Needed

The rubber workers want jobs, decent wages, and security. The industry is only operating at 30 per cent. If it were running full blast, thousands would still be unemployed because of technological advances. Unions alone cannot solve the problems. There is but one answer to the rubber workers’ problems and most people are afraid to mention it: Workers’ control of production.

In Akron as in Lynn and other branches where the party’s main orientation is the trade union movement, one finds a different spirit among the comrades. They are working hard, they feel the

class struggle in their day to day activities, they drive forward despite many obstacles. They are confident of the future. Republic Steel opened a new plant in Cleveland the week we were there; 2,000 men will do the work of 16,000 and the steel will be of a higher quality in this modern factory. This example illustrates the entire problem of technological unemployment facing the union movement.

Characteristics of Detroit

Detroit is the center of three things today: the auto industry, the largest number of unemployed industrial workers in proportion to population, and the most ambitious program of the Stalinist party in America. The C.P. is concentrating its leading forces here in an effort to rule or ruin the United Automobile Workers of America. That leading red-baiter, Richard Frankensteen, first vice-president, is their candidate in the battle against Homer Martin, whose blast against the C.P. pro-war line has had a telling effect in the ranks of the auto workers.

Our party contains some very fine auto union militants. It has a great task ahead in this C.I.O. center. The comrades are working hard to overcome numerical weakness. In Detroit, hundreds and not tens are necessary to give the working class powerful leadership.

It was a pleasure to see “new” faces at the anti-war meetings the branches held in the middle-west. A young rubber worker joined the Y.P.S.L. in Akron after the rally. Some auto workers attended the Cleveland meeting. A Stalinist militant listened attentively at the Toledo meeting.

Stalinists Applaud

Sixty steel workers came to the Indiana Harbor anti-war gathering. Plenty of rank-and-file Stalinists were in the audience. The C.P. organizer took the floor. It was an exciting evening. The C.P. members applauded our attacks on the C.P. line!

The entire area around Chicago, heart of industrial America, presented a tragic picture of the plight of workers under capitalism. We went to the scene of the “Little Steel” strike massacre. One of our comrades still suffers from wounds sustained in leading the workers’ defense. The union never recovered from the defeat in that strike. Mass lay-offs were another blow. While the finest industrial plants in the world waste away, hundreds of thousands of workers exist in misery resulting from unemployment. The S.W.P. has its roots in a strong shop committee at a large plant. A young proletarian branch is active at Indiana Harbor.

The Stalinists in the United Electrical land Radio Workers in the Chicago region are having a tough time these days. Two locals adopted the anti-war resolution of the Minneapolis Central Labor Union. Young Chicago comrades are doing a good job there.

In Minneapolis

Minneapolis seemed different than the rest of the country. It is an exception. The Stalinists are conspicuous by their absence from the main stream of the labor movement. The unions are still on the march, while elsewhere in the country the unions are at best in strategic retreat. Watch Minneapolis for hot developments when many union contracts come up for renewal next month. The St. Paul branch did a real job in the recent primary and is an up-and-comer in party circles.

How did the workers and other people react to Hitler’s Austrian coup? We watched them read the newspapers intently at the factory gates before ringing the clock card. In movie houses, dead silence except for our boo was maintained as newsreels showed the Nazi seizure. The nightmare of another world war loomed before them. Pacifism and isolationism are very strong, conversations with union militants revealed everywhere, in the Middle West.

While it is a bit early in the middle-west for political campaigning, Labor’s Non-Partisan League has ambitious plans in Ohio and Michigan for the fall elections. The League is packed with Stalinists who fight viciously every attempt towards independent working-class political action. Advocacy of that slogan becomes “Trotskyism.”

Our conclusion from the tour was a simple one: Even greater emphasis on and attention to the immediate problems of the American workers and concentration on activity within the unions will help build our party along proletarian lines.

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