From Fourth International, June 1947, Vol.8 No.6, pp.163-165.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.
Neither the class struggle in the United States nor the political maturing of the American working class takes place smoothly, evenly and along a straight line. On the contrary, these processes unfold in a spasmodic, irregular manner, now leaping forward, now lapsing backward, now halting as if suspended in mid-air. Having attained trade union consciousness and organization in the Thirties, the workers are only now really beginning to move toward political consciousness. In preparation for this giant leap, they must first pass through certain experiences. Among the chief lessons to be learned is their recognition of the limitations of pure trade union action.
For ten years the mass of industrial workers have relied almost exclusively upon the economic power of their newly created trade union organizations to safeguard their rights and promote their welfare. This was most graphically expressed in the grandiose tidal wave of strike struggles after V-J Day.
Starting with the fall of 1945 the strike curve shot sharply upward, reaching by January 1946 the unprecedented total of nearly 19 million man-days lost through strikes. Before expending its momentum, the record strike wave swept over virtually every key industry from auto and steel to coal and railroads. The limitations which this mode of struggle encountered has been no less graphically expressed by the extraordinary fluctuations in the number of strikes since then. The massive wave which mounted so spectacularly has seemed to evaporate and die down to a minimum.
In the wake of the explosive outburst, throughout the latter part of 1946, the strike curve kept dropping. By April 1947 it had dropped to the low point of 1,200,000 man-days lost through strikes. In the course of the current year, except for the telephone workers and the miners, the basic sectors of American industry witnessed no strikes when contract renewals came up And in the case of the telephone workers it was an isolated development, which took place outside of both the AFL and the CIO, and only served to accentuate the general absence of strike action.
Thus by the Spring of 1947 the class struggle on the industrial front dwindled to its lowest peacetime ebb since the formation of the CIO. What a tremendous swing in a year and a half!
The major industrial unions which headed the great strike movement of 1945-1946, auto and steel, concluded in 1947 agreements without resort to the strike weapon. In view of the steep rise in living costs and the bonanza profits of Big Business the workers had urgent need of far higher wage boosts than they were offered-and accepted. How explain this seeming passivity?
Were they intimidated by the anti-labor barrage from the federal and state legislative bodies? or were they weakened by their spineless leaders who, bowing before the pressure of the corporations and their political agents in Washington and in the localities, refused to weld the workers in a united front of struggle before and during the contract negotiations? Both these factors, and especially the week-kneed policy of their leaders, indubitably contributed to the situation. Lewis’ capitulation to Truman’s strikebreaking use of federal courts likewise undoubtedly had a dampening effect. But it would nevertheless be wrong to conclude that the official union leadership simply imposed these settlements upon their memberships in defiance of mass demands for head-on conflicts with the corporations.
The workers were instinctively sensing the inadequacy of strike struggles to solve even their economic problems if they were conducted under the old policies of the incumbent leadership. They followed these leaders not because they had retained their former confidence in them or their policies, but because they did not as yet have a new leadership and new policies to rely upon. Groping towards a solution, they hesitated to enter into major battles with Big Business and its government.
By and large it appears that among the workers in the plants there was no strong sentiment for strike action to bring the employers to better terms. The auto workers in Detroit and Flint were not pressing hard for strike action. Even in Akron, the center of the rubber industry, where the workers won wage increases last year without striking, the union arrived at a peaceful settlement. To strengthen their hand in negotiations the rubber union leadership correctly mobilized the ranks in preparation for a general strike against the Big Four. This was not a bluff; and the membership responded in full force to this call to action. But the workers were ready to hit the picket lines not so much because they believed that a strike would solve their economic problems. They were ready to fight, if the tight-fisted rubber barons forced a showdown. Besides, they understood the need of demonstrating their power in order to wrest a few more concessions from the profiteers.
Generally speaking, the signing of contracts with the companies was in most cases greeted with relief, if not satisfaction. This is confirmed by the absence of widespread protests against the wage settlements. The workers in auto, steel, rubber and elsewhere seemed to feel that under the given circumstances it was advisable to get what they could without a strike. This attitude stands in sharp contrast with their mood a year or so ago. But this shift in mood does not signify any decline in militancy or vitality. They had good reasons for their reluctance to quit work.
The strikes of 1945-46 were long drawn-out and very costly. The General Motors strike lasted 111 days. These exhausting struggles placed a heavy strain upon the workers. Many working class families did not recover from their effects for almost a year.
In the interim the workers – unarmed politically – have seen their wage gains washed out by soaring prices, which they were helpless to combat without a sliding scale of wages. Even at the peak of the boom they were haunted by fears of the unavoidable depression, with its cutbacks, layoffs and shutdowns. They have little confidence in the security of capitalist production; but they have not as yet grasped either the Socialist alternative to it or the necessity for independent political action.
Their wartime savings are largely spent and the huge volume of installment sales shows that they are already sinking into debt. In steel mills many men nowadays are working doubles, and workers elsewhere are taking on extra jobs to eke out inadequate wages. As unemployment looms, apprehension grows among the younger men with lack of seniority, while older men are afraid they will soon be relegated to the industrial junkpile.
The mass of workers could see no advantage in repeating such disheartening experiences as seeing dearly won gains snatched literally overnight by high prices. They could not afford to lose weeks of pay, without good cause or without some assurance that their struggles would bring them and their unions positive results. And above all, they were beginning to either question or lose confidence in the official leaders and their tactics.
The strike of the telephone workers ran counter to this general trend; but in reality it supplemented it. Here was a new layer of workers passing for the first time through a stage already traversed by others. The telephone operators, installers and repair men represented an entirely fresh layer of workers who were taking their place for the first time among the battalions of organized labor. Their magnificent fight in face of overwhelming odds, against the AT&T monopoly and against government strikebreaking activities, testifies to the growing radicalization of the American working class as a whole in the face of the worst anti-labor offensive in decades.
In the space of a few years these women and men, long dominated by an intricate system of paternalism, favoritism and terrorism, had cast off their submissiveness to the great monopoly. They transformed weak, company-controlled unions into instruments of struggle and managed to bring hundreds of scattered organizations, divided along craft and regional lines, into nationwide joint action. Although the union leaders were young, inexperienced, naive, they were genuinely representative of the ranks. On the picket lines these new recruits displayed a heroism, determination and maturity worthy of the most tested unionists. The telephone girls of New Jersey braved without flinching strike-breaking state legislation, heavy fines and possible jail sentences – and forced the state administration to retreat.
The phone workers had to face single-handed and fight it out alone with the wealthiest corporation in the world. Aided by government mediators, the AT&T succeeded in splitting the national strike front, cutting down wage demands, and forcing separate settlements. The telephone workers have passed through an unforgettable experience. They are now veterans of the class war. They have acquired a sense of their independent power and will never revert to their former status. Instead, they will go forward to forge a stronger union in closer association with the rest of organized labor.
Similarly, we repeat, the present passivity of the other organized workers does not flow from any lack of confidence in their own powers. It is primarily an outgrowth of their lack of confidence in the program and perspective offered by the union leadership. The workers have become cautious and more calculating. They are absorbing their first lessons to the effect that economic action alone cannot solve their problems and that other and higher forms of action are required.
Despite their present disposition to avoid strikes, the industrial workers have invariably manifested a will to struggle wherever the objective was clear and important issues were at stake. The enormous reserves of militancy in the ranks of labor were dramatically exhibited in the one-week stoppage of the soft coal miners in April as a protest against the criminal neglect of safety precautions which caused the murder of 111 Centralia miners. Undaunted by the injunction and the monstrous fine which crushed their strike last December, 350,000 miners walked out of the pits in direct challenge to these same government agencies and successfully insisted upon their enforcement of the Federal Mine Safety Code.
No less significant have been the widespread demonstrations against anti-labor legislation. The most important took place in Detroit on April 24 when 500,000 workers quit the plants in massive protest against the Big Business-Congressional attacks on labor’s rights. This was the greatest outpouring of 1abor’s power ever seen in this industrial stronghold.
In Iowa one hundred thousand AFL and CIO members engaged in a 24-hour strike against union-wrecking bills which were being rushed through the state legislature. From Boston to San Francisco the union ranks have come out in large-scale parades and demonstrations against Wall Street’s anti-labor drive.
The demand for a nationwide 24-hour strike to force a veto of the Taft-Hartley bill has spread rapidly among the unions. While Green and Murray remained on their knees praying that Truman would not approve the slave-labor legislation, one International after another, as well as dozens of city central bodies and scores of locals, were calling for a one-day work stoppage to put maximum pressure on the White House. Among them were the CIO Packinghouse Workers, the five CIO maritime unions, and the AFL Seafarers International.
This protest movement directed against the capitalist government at Washington expresses the deep desire of the workers for bold measures in defense of their interests. But the union bureaucrats are doing their utmost to suppress this combativeness and restrain the ranks from action.
The CIO no less than the AFL leaders are afraid of confront. ing either the corporations or their government. Immediately after signing the steel contract, CIO President Murray warned the steel workers that for the next two years they must observe a “no-strike pledge,” regardless of employer provocations. When General Motors fired and disciplined a number of union presidents and militants for participating in the Cadillac Square demonstration, the UAW officials behaved like scared rabbits before this arrogant assault upon their organization.
At the same time, hand in hand with Wall Street and its government. sections of the union bureaucracy have been vigorously pursuing their own red-baiting campaign. By this means they hope to curry favor with Washington and Wall Street, protect their soft jobs against the genuine militants, and oust the Stalinists from the unions they mechanically control. In the CIO the reactionary red-baiting cliques have already picked up strength in the UE and have gone so far as to engineer a split among the Connecticut brass workers in the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers International. The spearhead of this drive is the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. The Roman Church’s Foreign Legion in the American labor movement has become so bold that in Buffalo priests openly organized a May Day parade as a counter-demonstration against the “Reds.” The Vatican understands where the workers are heading and it seeks to divert them in advance.
The incessant barrage of red-baiting has undoubtedly made inroads among the workers and caused some injurious effects. But it is far from enjoying irresistible popularity and guaranteeing success to its practitioners. The rebuke administered by Ford Local 600 of the UAW to those who expected to ride into office on an orgy of anti-red propaganda indicates that the workers are not permitting themselves to be hooked by the red-baiting line without regard to consequences in their unions. They do not swallow red-baiting as a substitute for an answer to their pressing economic problems. They have learned from past struggles how red-baiting plays into the hands of their mortal enemies.
Although the anti-red drive has deprived the Stalinists of some union posts, it has at the same time refurbished to a certain extent their damaged reputations in the eyes of the workers. Thanks to its persecution by the agents of Wall Street, the Communist Party is able to rally its forces and gain a new lease on life. The advanced workers are confronted by the difficult problem of learning how to fight Stalinism without falling into the camp of the capitalist reaction. The struggle against Stalinist influence within the NMU and the victories over the Stalinist slates in a number of important local elections prove that with a correct policy the militants can organize their independent forces and defeat both the Stalinists and the reactionaries.
All these facts show that, beneath their surface passivity, a great deal of critical thinking and assimilation of ideas is going on in the depths of the working masses. They are submitting to judgment, not only the policies of the union bureaucracy, but above all the conduct of the government at Washington.
Since the Republican victory in the November 1946 elections fortified the swing toward reaction, the workers have seen price-controls scuttled and price-gouging and profiteering gone wild. They have seen every branch of the Federal government, the White House, the Supreme Court and Congress, gang up against the unions. They have watched the Democrats work hand in glove with the Republicans in passing the Taft-Hartley bill, sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers and designed to wipe out labor’s gains of the past fifty years. This anti-labor drive in Washington is being supplemented by a no less vicious offensive in the states. Already 13 states have enacted legislation forbidding the closed shop.
Under the impact of these blows which threaten the very existence of their organizations, the workers are being impelled to intensify their political thinking and look for new forms of political organization and action. In answer to the Big Business offensive, virile new tendencies toward independent labor political activity are springing into life.
A clear example of this as yet molecular transformation of working class consciousness through the elevation of economic to political struggle has occurred in Oakland, California. Here the struggle began over the Kahns and Hastings department store strike. This strike was directed by the Central Labor Council and opposed by the powerful Retail Merchants Association, which dominated the municipal administration. When this administration provided police protection for professional strikebreakers last December, the unions called a general strike. The administration backed down under this show of labor’s strength.
The solidarity welded by this general strike spurred the formation of the Joint Labor Committee to Combat Anti-Labor Legislation composed of AFL, CIO and railroad unions. This Committee was the motive force in the Oakland Voters League which was set up to dislodge the incumbent political machine and gain control of the city council. The class lines were sharply drawn in this electoral contest. The labor movement threw its full weight into the campaign which aroused great enthusiasm in the ranks. The Hearst and Knowland paid press shrieked that “Communists” were getting set to take over the city.
Nearly a hundred thousand voters turned out and the labor ticket scored a brilliant victory. Four out of five of the Oakland Voters League candidates were elected. The repercussions of this joint political action by organized labor which have been felt throughout the state will help pave the way for the formation of a Labor Party.
In South St. Paul, Minnesota, the CIO packinghouse workers put forward their own candidates in the city elections and succeeded in replacing company foremen with union members on the city council. Independent labor candidates have also participated in elections in Flint, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The delegates to the national convention of the CIO Packinghouse Workers and the CIO Marine Cooks and Stewards both held in May called for a break with the Democratic and Republican Parties and the formation of a new political party.
There is much unclarity in these first uncertain steps taken by the unions along the road to independent political action. But the trend is unmistakable – and it will find reinforcement and gain in tempo in the period ahead. As yet, these developments are limited to scattered localities. The further unfolding of the Labor Party movement on a broader scale depends in large degree upon the rate of growth of the left-wing in the unions.
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Last updated on 13.2.2009