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Present and Future of U.S. Labor

Walter Jason

Present and Future of U.S. Labor

(September 1953)

From The New International, Vol. XIX No. 5, September–October 1953, pp. 244–249.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Among the more significant traits of the modern American labor movement has been the persistency of its unexpected developments that often confounded its critics, confused its friends, and, if the truth be known, dazzled and baffled its own leadership. The overall result of this turbulent history, since the great depression of the Thirties, has been the growth of a vast union movement quite unlike anything forecast or foreseen, or for that matter, anything previously seen in world labor.

In 1953, labor’s status in America is not what its leadership desired, expected, or was prepared for. Its enormous size and puny political role are an embarrassing paradox. It is plagued by a growing cancer of racketeering; it is disturbed by the impending recession, after living in the frenzy of an inflationary period. Its tremendous economic strength is reduced to half-size by the pernicious Taft-Hartley law. Nevertheless, labor’s leaders find solace and sources of optimism in the experiences of the past decade.

Surely no union leadership in the world was less prepared for events than the AFL of 1929, living in the fool’s dream of American prosperity unlimited, and concerning itself almost exclusively with the affairs of the “aristocracy of labor,” the skilled workers. When the split in the AFL took place in 1935, and the dynamic growth of the CIO startled the nation, even the AFL hierarchy was inclined to accept the general opinion of that day; namely, that the future of the labor movement rests on the ascendancy of the CIO. Its leadership moved with lightning speed compared to the slow motion of AFL leaders.

How surprising, then, and reassuring for the AFL leadership, meeting this fall in annual convention at St. Louis, to take notice of its membership of over 8,600,000 (with perhaps another million not reported since International unions of the AFL like to keep their per-capita tax payments down.) This is at least twice the figure of the junior CIO. It creates a relationship of forces on the unity question that assures the AFL of decisive voice, and eliminates for all time the notion that the CIO would dominate American labor.

Nor was the prevailing situation in 1953 any more startling than the twists and turns along the way. The very success of the early CIO gave organizational impetus to the AFL (many employers preferred it by far) and it quickly doubled its membership in the late Thirties. It benefited also from the splits in the CIO; Dubinsky’s return to the AFL; the walk-out of John L. Lewis and the coal miners union; and the purge of the Stalinist-dominated unions from the CIO.

Another unexpected and largely gratifying experience of the American labor movement came in World War II. The transformation of the New Deal into the War Deal caused understandable alarm in union circles, and the acceptance of the theory that war meant the strangulation of the unions, their complete domination by the state, and the reduction of labor leaders’ status to flunkey roles. This did occur, to one degree or another, but a new factor emerged which changed the overall picture in a positive sense. Unions hit an organizational bonanza, and unionism found itself larger, wealthier and more powerful in 1945 than in 1941!

Likewise, the gloomy forecasts of quick post-war depression turned out to be erroneous, and a restless rank and file was quite prepared for major strike struggles to achieve some of the war-postponed Brave New World. While the political vacuum in Europe was filled largely by a resurgent Stalinist movement, the American Stalinists lost ground and became less than a decisive problem. The triumph of labor in the 1945 elections in Britain aroused certain dreams and ambitions in American union leaders, but, by and large, the peak of social consciousness was reached in the General Motors strike with Walter Reuther’s bold program, including the “Open the Books” slogan.

From that point on, there has been a marked retrogression in the real power, influence and role of labor in America. Even before the Korean war served to domesticate the union leadership, the passage of the Taft-Hartley law signified the turning point: the unions were and remain basically on the defense. The capitulation to the Truman administration’s action in breaking the coal miners strike with an injunction and a $3,000,000 fine stimulated the reactionary forces in America. Servility brought only intensified attack.

Labor’s failure to defeat the late Senator Robert Taft of Ohio in 1950 spelled out the lowering of influence and prestige of the top union leaders. It was the harbinger of the 1952 national election, in which the union movement received the shock of losing behind a candidate considered ideal by most union officials. The first reaction of the union hierarchy to these adverse times and events, including the triumph of an avowed pro-business administration, was to seek quiet adjustment to the new realities. It furnished a reasonable answer to impatient ranks and critics: “Now is not the time for ...” Having made the theory of the lesser evil the modus operandi in all political affairs the labor leaders quickly adopted the strategy of working with the White House against the reactionary Republican wing of Congress.

The painful reality for labor is that the season for the kind of relations existing during the Roosevelt regime is long past. The Eisenhower regime is a war-conscious administration. Herein lies the crux of the dilemma of labor. Its support to foreign policy chains it in domestic politics. Its vigorous protests against armaments reduction – in which it merely echoes Democratic party spokesmen – makes ludicrous its claims for social gains.

Nor is this Gordian knot likely to be cut by any sharp move in the direction of independence in foreign policy or the creation of labor’s own party. Here, the past successes of the union movement imprison its leaders, no matter what important setbacks remain in mind. For the union movement has become far too deeply integrated as a social institution on the American scene to allow it the kind of freedom of action desired. Its stake in the status quo has become too large. In world terms, the American union movement has reached the once privileged position of British labor of the early Twenties. It is the world aristocracy of labor. Behind all complaints, demands and dissatisfaction stands the knowledge that compared to other countries, this is paradise – a TV and auto paradise, to be sure, but then that is the accepted standard. Of course, the impact of a recession is bound to change this mood among the ranks.

How about the leadership? Its new status in society makes it far more difficult to influence than the formative CIO, or the expanding AFL. Unionism is now an institution with 15,000,000 members. The total wealth of the union movement is between three quarters and one billion dollars. Its annual income averages over 700,000,000 dollars. Its staff and administrative machinery number over 150,000 persons. And this stratum lives with an income equal to that of the average Yale or Harvard graduate ten years out of school! The big army of ex-radicals who found a haven in the paying jobs of the union movement has achieved “socialism in their time.” Parenthetically, the impatience of union officials with critics is easy to grasp when this overwhelming fact of growth and wealth is recognized. Does not this successful officialdom deserve the paeans of praise it gives itself at conventions and conferences?

The middle-age spread has also been accompanied by a hardening of the arteries. Various critical sociological studies have probed somewhat into the bureaucratic trends. Questions posed by these critics have been answered negatively by events. The 15-year period of relative growth and prosperity for the union movement has left its mark in the ascendancy of business unionism. Democracy in the union movement does not consist in the intervention of the ranks in their own destiny. Less than 5 per cent of the ranks are active in any way in the life of the union. It consists rather in the freedom of various International union leaders or leaderships to maneuver, without domination from the parent organization. The CIO had an election for president after Phil Murray’s death not because it was considered democratic and desirable, but because it was necessary in the power clash between the Reuther and Macdonald factions. The autonomy of the AFL unions also rests on relationship of forces within the council.

Perhaps the best commentary on the state of democracy in the AFL is provided not by the longshoremen’s union – it was allowed its disgraceful misconduct for 15 years until exposed by outside opinion – but the recent defection of the Carpenters’ Union. Ordinarily, William Hutcheson acts as czar of that 800,000-man organization. He hand-picked his son for president. But when he arbitrarily withdrew the Carpenters Union from the AFL he was forced to reverse himself, not because his decision was undemocratic (his own executive board wasn’t informed until after the announcement of withdrawal) but because that maneuver threatened to upset the lesser empires that his associates had built within the AFL building trades. George Meany, and old building-trades men, knew this and acted accordingly, with expected results.

At the present time, the overwhelming bulk of American labor leaders are motivated by power-consciousness, important considerations of prestige, and a determined drive to achieve respectability as befitting their economic station in society. The cruder types like Dave Beck acknowledge this openly. The more sophisticated prefer to dress in statesman togs. To identify this kind of urge with class-consciousness is to make the wish the father of the thought. George Meany, rather than the early Walter Reuther, is the prototype of the American labor leader.

The philosophy of business unionism finds its expression also in the political activity of the union movement. It operates under the guise of “practical politics.” Its thought process includes the deceptive formula, “something is better than nothing.” It is another variant of the theory of the lesser evil. Loss of a “friend” in the White House and on Capitol Hill brings more fear of “isolation” – which is how labor leaders view independence. Thus, the labor leaders cling ever more desperately to whatever is left in Congress of “friends of labor,” and the importance of these allies is doubly exaggerated precisely because they are impotent as a moving political force. In national politics it gives rise to a fervent hope that Adlai Stevenson will be available in 1956. The parvenu bureaucracy is far more interested in finding the right coat-tail to hang to, than asserting its own will.

The futility of this approach has been amply demonstrated in previous Don Quixote excursions by the CIO in politics. The latest illustration concerns the ignoble state of affairs in Michigan, home of the UAW-CIO and of CIO President Walter P. Reuther. Just a few years ago, the CIO entered the defunct Democratic party in Michigan, gave it flesh, blood and bones, and even produced a winner for governor, G. Mennen Williams. Now, such being the times, the UAW spends its energies parading as responsible Democrats, wooing recalcitrant Democrats, and, if it must be admitted, urging Governor Williams to treat it as having something better than second class citizenship. The crowning touch in this spectacle – and this reverts back to the point of integration into society – is added by the conduct of many CIO officials who found a comfortable home in the Democratic party. Increasingly, the attraction and prestige of being on the “Governor’s team,” is far more satisfying than mere union accolades.

(And the increasingly routine character of most union jobs, which take on an errand boy status intensify this byplay.)

The Michigan example has been duplicated, with slight variations, a thousand arid one times on the national scene. It forces the general observation that the intertwining of the union bureaucracy with the Democratic party machinery, and the privileged status of the union bureaucracy operate to keep the participation of labor in politics within the framework of the Democratic party in the next foreseeable period. This general outlook, which admittedly excludes any labor party development in America in any old expected form, is reinforced by making an examination of the increasing gap between the union officialdom and the ranks.

The changing character of the union movement is not to be found only in the emergence of a full-blown bureaucracy, with a privileged status in America, and the great wealth of the organizations, but also in the composition of its ranks. Large, new untapped layers of unorganized workers joined the CIO and the AFL during the recent period of boom and expansion of American industry. They did not share the vital mass upsurge kind of unionization that was literally a social crusade in the late 30’s. They are organized but by no means unionized, as Walter Reuther has pointedly remarked on more than one recent occasion.

The socially-conscious depression generation is not a distinct, basic current in the union movement anywhere. Its leaders are in the bureaucracy, or in private business. After 15 years of steady employment it owns homes, and has reached the point in life where pensions become increasingly attractive. The vast bulk of the union ranks are either young workers, war veterans who absorbed far too much cynicism about unionism during military life, and the recruits from the hinterlands, bringing all their prejudices and notions along with them.

The potential danger of a backward organized mass movement was foreseen, of course, by many union leaders, and was to be overcome by genuine educational programs. “We’ve got to unionize the organized,” Reuther insists. But how timid and pathetic any gestures in this direction have been was told recently by Kermit Eby, former CIO educational director, in his articles in the Antioch Review. In the frequent choice of either educating new and fresh leaders, who might turn out to be rivals, or simply adding to the staff to furnish “leadership” and incidentally retain control, the CIO leaders inevitably took the prudent course. The hamstringing of the once ambitious UAW educational program by confining it to the teaching of techniques rather than ideas and a philosophy of labor speaks for the power of bureaucratic pressures. The rude attack by Sol Barkin of the Textile Workers Union against a sound critique of union education by Eby, which was printed in Labor and Nation, indicates how sensitive and blind the union leaders are to this vital issue.

Thus, there is a mood of no-confidence between large layers of the ranks and the top leaders. Ironically, the very backwardness of the newly organized workers, and the disappearance of the old cadres, creates a relationship in terms of ideas and programs that contradicts the old saw about the bureaucrats being behind the masses. Since many of the leaders were unionized before they became bureaucratized, and they have developed a sense of social outlook through many experiences, they act far in advance of the thinking of the bulk of the delegates at many union conventions. While this has not been always true, it does apply to a period like this where secondary leaders, closer to the ranks, succumb to all pressures, good or bad, from the people in the shops.

It hardly seems reasonable or likely that the distrust, and in some cases fear, that the top leaders have of the ranks will embolden the union movement to take a major step of breaking from within its confines and setting up its own political party. An additional reason remains to be added.

This period of American labor history is unlike any previous epoch in that, for the first time in its broad life, the union movement lacks any kind of radical compulsion. There is no serious political force challenging the status quo and the leadership personified by the status quo. The AFL historically was challenged by everything from the Socialist Labor Party to the Wobblies and the post-World War I radical movement. And, although it has been erased from all official union history in recent decades, neither the CIO nor the AFL would have achieved anything like their status without the eager participation of thousands of young radicals, Socialist, Communist, Trotskyist, or others, in the hectic and hard days. Ideas, criticisms, programs, new leaders; the whole gamut of internal union life and organizational growth owes itself to this milieu, most of which today is in the upper strata of the union movement, living with faint recollections of the good old days, and kidding itself with the pleasant thought that once a depression hits, they’ll revert back to their youth.

Labor lacks an internal motive force, as a result of this condition. It lacks a conscious stratum concerned with creating and expanding a labor ideology, a philosophy of unionism, with some of the grand nobility of ideals of socialism. The union pay-check has become the reward and work-drive rather than the profound conviction and satisfaction of being part of man’s great struggle for emancipation. This is the basic crisis of labor leadership in America today. The growing intolerance of union leaders to any form of dissidence, the pressure against any sign of independence, and the comfortable middle-class mode of existence enjoyed by the new bureaucracy suggest that, as far as they are concerned, the crisis simply doesn’t exist, or, in any event, the problem is not an important one.

The fate of the once powerful German social-democracy before the impact of events and the challenge of fascism should serve, however, as a warning. Neither unionism as usual, nor politics as usual, serve the cause of labor in time of great crisis. And surely, the converts to capitalism among the labor leaders do not have quite the confidence they boldly expressed a few years ago. 1929 was a fool’s paradise also.

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