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B.J. Widick

Labor Unity, Union Democracy Issues
Stir CIO Convention

Lewis’ Miners Machine in Full Control;
Attempts Steamrolling of Bureaucratic Constitution

Stalinists Lewis’ Cheering Squad

(November 1938)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 50, 19 November 1938, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

PITTSBURGH, Pa., Nov. 15. – The cut-and-dried character of the first session of the C.I.O. convention was broken on Tuesday when the major questions of labor unity and democracy within the C.I.O. came before the delegates for consideration.

After the Stalinist forces headed by Harry Bridges, West Coast C.I.O. director, Mervin Rathborne, of the Communications Union, and Joe Curran, of the National Maritime Union led a fifteen minute demonstration for John L. Lewis, they got a taste of the Lewis “democracy” that kicked them right in the face.

Shortly after the tune of “Lewis is our Leader, we shall not be moved,” died down, the constitutional committee reported on a proposed constitution for the C.I.O. Thomas Kennedy, secretary-treasurer of the miners’ union, acted as spokesman. Copies Not Available The C.I.O. top leadership tried to get a constitution passed by a verbal reading of it! No copies were given to delegates. Finally, pressure from the floor succeeded in postponing discussion until copies were printed.

Meanwhile, a dangerous clause was adopted in the constitution that gives Lewis a legal weapon for a possible purge of the political groups within the C.I.O., despite the weak-hearted opposition of Bridges and the others.

The clause reads, “to bring about the effective organization of the working men and women of America, regardless of race, creed, color or nationality, and to unite them for common action into labor unions for their mutual aid and protection.”

Jeopardizes Political Rights

The clause fails to guarantee the right of a C.I.O. unionist to belong to a political party of his own choosing. The absence of this vital safeguard was so obvious that Curran, Bridges and Rathborne urged the reconsideration of this clause privately with the committee.

The Stalinists wanted to make a deal which would guarantee them the right to exist within the C.I.O. Naturally, they weren’t concerned about the problem of other political minorities within the C.I.O.

However, Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, who was acting as chairman, rode rough shod over their opposition.

The adoption of this clause has created the legal basis for wholesale expulsions of any minority political groups. It is in particular a club that John L. Lewis has over his Stalinist allies.

Right to Overthrow Leaders

A second dangerous provision, which has not yet been considered, gives the newly-formed C.I.O. executive board the right to intervene anytime in any international union affiliated to the C.I.O., when in the judgment of the board such intervention is necessary!

Not even the bureaucratic constitution of the A.F. of L. has such a dictatorial clause which wipes out autonomy of the inter-national unions. It would give the C.I.O. top leaders the right to enter into every situation like they did in the auto controversy!

The entire constitution as presented by the committee is a means whereby the Lewis-miners’ machine would absolutely control the entire C.I.O. from top to bottom. It remains to be seen if this provision can be defeated. The Lewis forces control the huge majority of votes. The hope of the progressives lies in exposing this bureaucratic maneuver and forcing a change.

Labor Unity

The question of labor unity was discussed for a half day following the presentation of a special report as a reply to the message of President Roosevelt urging labor peace.

The convention unanimously adopted the policy outlined by the committee. It reads,

“The C.I.O. states with finality that there can be no compromise with its fundamental purpose and aim of. organizing workers into powerful industrial unions, nor its obligation to fully protect the rights and interests of all its members and affiliated organizations.”

“The C.I.O. accepts the goal of unity in the labor movement and declares that any program for the attainment of such goal must embrace as an essential prelude these fundamental purpose and principles.”

C.I.O. Committed

This is a re-statement of the previous position held by the C.I.O. with one important difference. The goal of unity has been accepted as part of the C.I.O. program!

The tremendous applause given the Roosevelt message worried the Lewis clique, primarily because they feared a stampede for peace which would mean a trampling of the C.I.O. principle of industrial unionism for mass production industries.

The long discussion on the committee report was intended as “educational” talks to show the C.I.O. and A.F. of L. rank and file that the C.I.O. was for peace but not at the cost of sacrificing industrial unionism.

It was felt that the position adopted by the convention would gire the C.I.O. a stronger lever in negotiating with the A.F. of L. There was a general impression among delegates that resumption of negotiations with the A.F. of L. was in the offing.

* * *

PITTSBURGH, Pa., Nov. 14. – How strong the sentiment within C.I.O. ranks is for labor unity was illustrated by the reception given the Roosevelt message urging labor peace.

The demonstration that followed the reading of the Roosevelt message was the first real evidence of enthusiasm at the convention.

John L. Lewis immediately appointed a special committee to draft a reply to President Roosevelt. It was headed by Phillip Murray, vice-president of the C.I.O.

Among delegates there was more talk about peace with the A.F. of L. than any other subject. It was generally believed that one of the main purposes of this convention was to put on a show of strength to the A.F. of L. and the public.

Industrial Workers Convention

The C.I.O. convention is a somewhat unusual gathering. Its place in labor history as the first national convention representing mainly the industrial workers is assured. Its record of achievement is obvious. Lewis stated it succinctly when he declared in his 66 page report, “What the A.F. of L. in fifty-four years of existence couldn’t accomplish, the C.I.O. did in three years.”

There can hardly be any doubt that industrial unionism has been established permanently in the mass production industries. The C.I.O. claims of 4,000,000 members are perhaps a bit high, but it is very significant to hear of the new wave of union spirit growing among mass production workers who have recently been rehired. Undoubtedly, dues-collections are very low in the C.I.O. but the ideas for which it stands in the minds of the industrial workers are as firmly entrenched as ever.

Miners’ Machine Dominant

This convention is being run strictly as a John L. Lewis, miners’ union bureaucracy affair. Every important committee has as its key figures, a miners’ union official. Murray, Hillman and Lewis are the trimvirate who are determining the destinies of the C.I.O. at this convention.

Because of the firm control of this powerful machine over the convention, it is somewhat listless. Its opening session was presided over by Pat Fagan, miners’ union official. He praised John L. Lewis. Then Lewis spoke on “democracy” and made his pledge to support American imperialism during war in return for a few concessions.

For two hours in the afternoon session, Walter Smethurst, another miners’ official, and executive assistant to Lewis, read the lengthy report of the C.I.O. chairman to the convention. The day ended with the hearing of the Roosevelt message.

Stalinists Cheering Squad

The role of the Stalinists at the sessions has been to lead the cheering for the Lewis machine. It is quite apparent that Lewis is perfectly agreeable to their support and some of their ideas, but he is going to keep organizational control of the C.I.O. in the hands of his machine.

Since very few of the 476 delegates are rank and file workers, the attitude of the membership to the C.I.O. policies is not receiving clear expression at the convention.

The future program of the C.I.O. as outlined by Lewis in his report which was accepted without any discussion by the convention is merely an extension of that already being carried out.

The C.I.O. top leaders are desperately trying to reform capitalism. Legislation for a ‘little more social security, for higher, wages, for preservation of the Wagner Act, for a housing program, for a “guarantee” of civil liberties. These are the immediate demands of the C.I.O. All of them deserve critical support, of course.

Major Issues Evaded

But the huge problem of unemployment, which the convention recognized in the report, has not been discussed nor is it likely that any serious discussion will develop.

The announcement of General Motors of its “income security” plan caught the C.I.O. leaders flat-footed. Although it is imperative that the convention adopt more progressive proposals for a sliding scale of hours and a rising scale of wages to answer fake company plans of “security” it is improbable that the questions will receive consideration.

On every question facing the workers today, the C.I.O. convention recognizes the problem but has no answer except vague generalizations about the need for adequate legislation, security and other phrases. Civil liberties are being trampled, the Lewis report pointed out. But how the workers can fight for their rights is not shown. How Mayor Frank Hague and other fascist-minded leaders can be stopped is not indicated.

The “swing to the right” in the recent elections worries the C.I.O. leaders. They know that even the program of mild reform legislation which they want stands little chance of passing under the present relationship of forces. However, they are afraid to take steps which would arouse the militancy of the workers ant through class action force Congress to give concessions to the labor movement.

“Honeymoon” Days Over

It is this dilemma which they cannot answer. The “honeymoon” days of the C.I.O. are over. Bitter opposition to every move of the C.I.O. is admitted by all. The Lewis report said “it (the opposition) was not understandable.” This is so only because he refuses to recognize the existence of the class struggle. He fails to understand that in a period of declining capitalism, the bosses relentlessly fight against every manifestation of labor solidarity and seek to destroy the union movement.

Fortunately, American workers have a great experience behind them in the organizing drives and sit-down strike wave that build the C.I.O. It is very probable that the C.I.O. workers in action will work out more progressive policies to meet the great problems of today than will the C.I.O. convention.

In the fact that this C.I.O. convention shows little if any signs of the hide-bound conservatism which marked the A.F. of L. convention, is the hope of the American labor movement. New ideas, flexible tactics, and response to social conditions will be manifest quicker in the C.I.O. than in the A.F. of L.

Skate Around Politics

The noticeable lack of “political” talk at this convention is another illustration of the sensitivity of the C.I.O. to social changes. Before the convention began, Lewis announced the need for “reforming” the Democratic Party in view of the election defeats. He criticized “fake liberals and New Dealers.” He even mentioned the possibility of a labor party development.

His speech was an admission of the bankruptcy of the present policy of Labor’s Non-Partisan League of supporting capitalist party candidates. His mention of labor party politics was a concession to a growing sentiment: for an independent working class party.

Again, however, the C.I.O. leaders fear to break with the Democratic machine. Yet they know the futility of “playing ball” with the bourgeois politicians. And they don’t want too much discussion of the question at this convention. That is why no political figures have been invited to attend. That is why the Lewis report says nothing about labor in politics.

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