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Walter Jason

Lewis’ Victory and Proposals
Create Ferment in Labor Ranks

(27 March 1950)

From Labor Action, Vol. 14 No. 13, 27 March 1950. pp. 1 & 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Once again John L. Lewis is giving the American labor bureaucracy the willies. For John L. is on the move, and the thrones as well as the reputations of various labor leaders seem somewhat shaky as a result of recent developments.

At the moment the repercussions of the coal miners’ great victory are permeating the entire tanks of the union movement and the popularity of the coal miners’ leader, especially among the industrial workers, has risen to a new high level.

In the steel and coal mine areas which are adjacent, the discussions about the coal miners’ pensions and the welfare fund, compared to the $100 a month pension won by CIO President Philip Murray, usually end in favor of John L.

Lewis Popular in UAW

The rank, and file movements to help the coal miners during their bitter struggle, and the spontaneous applause which greeted the mention of Lewis’ name at the recent Chrysler strike rally of 20,000 workers in the Detroit area, testify to Lewis’ popularity among the UAW members.

These signs are, of course, just symptoms of the deep unrest and dissatisfaction in the ranks of labor today with the results of the policies of their top leaders. The labor movement is in a process of ferment. The labor movement seems to be searching for a new direction and for leaders who will bring success.

Few men understand this better than John L. Lewis and thus he has begun, or more exactly, renewed a campaign that has been one of his major life ambitions: to unify, the entire labor movement under the domination of John L. Lewis.

Apparently he has given up hope of achieving this ambition through maneuvers on the top level. His blistering attack on AFL and CIO top leadership policies, the sarcastic references to Walter Reuther and Lewis’ bid for labor’s leadership, which are expressed in the current issue of the United Mine Workers Journal, are open declarations of this aim.

A Strong Case

Lewis makes a strong case against the other labor leaders. “The miners’ militancy should awaken a sense of responsibility in the weak-kneed labor leaders who are linked with and subservient to political parties.” Of course he is referring primarily to the CIO bureaucracy and its strings to the Truman administration. It will be a long time before many of the ranks of labor forget that the CIO leaders were more concerned with saving Truman’s reputation when he invoked the Taft-Hartley law against the coal miners than they were in joining openly and aggressively the coal miners’ union in a united front against the Taft-Hartley Act and the Truman administration.

What Lewis accomplished in the face of seemingly, insurmountable obstacles made his reputation as a labor baron grow, while that of other leaders like Walter Reuther diminished. Lewis took on the coal operators, the Truman administration, the Taft-Hartley law and he won. Backed by the unmatched militancy of the coal miners’ ranks, he accomplished what most labor leaders, if not all, thought was impossible. Louis Stark’s recent story in the N.Y. Times about Lewis’ preparing to lose the 13 million dollar treasury of the coal miners’ union and yet continuing to struggle. reflects guts which unfortunately seem lacking in most other labor leaders.

Challenge to Reuther

The offer to aid the Chrysler strikers with a $1,000,000 loan was calculated to put Walter Reuther on a spot, and it did. For it was not so much the matter of the money involved as the suggestion that Lewis was prepared personally to aid the Chrysler strikers that created a stir in Detroit labor circles. The result of the eight-week-old Chrysler strike now becomes very important to the reputation of the Reuther leadership on a national scale, for comparisons between the coal miners’ contract and any Chrysler contract are inevitable,

For years Walter Reuther has been talking about a national emergency conference of the AFL, CIO and independent unions to unite the labor movement into one powerful body. It was part of his program which won him overwhelming support in the UAW and helped him gain undisputed control of the auto workers’ union.

Now that Lewis suggests a mutual aid pact and maneuvers to assist the UAW, Walter Reuther is more embarrassed than any other individual in the top CIO leadership. Lewis knows as well as the next man that Reuther’s fear of antagonizing Philip Murray has forced him to retreat on point after point in his overall program. Likewise Lewis knows that the contempt of the steel workers’ union officialdom for the “Redhead” is the factor which he might well utilize, and thus the sarcastic references to Walter Reuther in the United Mine Workers Journal are calculated to inflame antagonisms within the CIO bureaucracy.

The UMW Journal stated that Walter Reuther, “when not beating his breast over the air waves in behalf of some utopian scheme or other, functioned as president of the UAW.” It adds in referring to Reuther’s letter rejecting the million dollar loan, “The Reuther epistle contains some fancy phrases about mass solidarity and working unity in labor ranks which he had evidently picked up while idling away a few hours in the public library.”

What The Journal Says

Another part of the UMW Journal attack refers more to the Reuther program than to that of any other labor leader. “In fact, it is our considered opinion that the preponderance of thought among labor union members is rapidly developing a clear-cut dislike and distrust of the abundant gestures of expressed international goodwill of their leaders who at the same time indulge in a self-glorified siesta on the domestic front.”

It is very unlikely, in our opinion, that anyone in the AFL or the CIO, with the exception of Walter Reuther, can begin to take up the challenge presented by Lewis’ bid for overall labor leadership. It is in this context that both the Chrysler strike and the coming negotiations with General Motors assume great significance not only in terms of elementary interests of the auto workers’ ranks, but also in relation to the problem of labor leadership in America. Although the rivalry in the sense of jockeying for position in the top labor bureaucracy deserves the contempt and criticism of the ranks because it is exclusively a concern with jobs, the competition between two men like Lewis and Walter Reuther based on the question “Who can service the rank and file best?” has potentialities of good for the men and women who pay the dues.

A Matter of Policy

It becomes increasingly difficult for the CIO top leadership, for example, to justify its subservience to the Democratic Party when another labor leader like Lewis, who plays the role of a political maverick, can achieve better results. It becomes increasingly difficult for a man like Walter Reuther to sell modest pension plans and routine contracts with the argument “This is the best that we could do under the circumstances,” when the rank and file has the idea in the back of its mind: “Well, maybe John L. could do better.”

Conversely, Lewis’ plea for labor unity must raise among the coal miners the question “If labor unity is so good, why are we independent of both the AFL and the CIO?” and the assistance that the CIO unions gave to the coal miners surely raises the question among the coal miners, “Why the hell aren’t we in the CIO, where we belong and which we founded?”

All in all, the clash of ideas in terms of policies and programs among the top labor leaders must reflect itself in the thinking of the ranks below and this signifies a period of reorientation and the beginnings of new directions for the American labor movement.

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