the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Apr 20, 2000
The rate of unionization in the United States is abysmally low today. In 1999, after declining for decades, the overall level of union membership was less than 14% of the work force. The rate of unionization in manufacturing, once the unions’ stronghold, continued to go down last year. In private industry as a whole, the rate of unionization now stands at only 9.4% of the total work force, lower than it was before the big movement of the 1930s which built the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) and resurrected the AFL (American Federation of Labor).
In some ways, today’s situation is reminiscent of the period that preceded that organizing drive. In the 1920s and early 30s, membership of the AFL unions continued to decline of course, much more precipitously after 1929. But even before 1929, the AFL unions had been losing numbers and influence in the working class, holding back from leading fights even in the defense of their own members’ immediate interests. By 1929, the AFL unions stood at less than three million members, down from over four million in 1920.
It is always assumed that the bad times of the 1930s pushed the working class into the explosive fight that reversed this decline. And, of course, a situation as desperate as that of the 1930s could only have an important impact, although in which direction is not so obvious. But there is also the subjective question: who led the fight which built the unions and how did they lead it? This fight did not just spring up out of nowhere, created by the decision of John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, David Dubinsky, Charles Howard & Co., when they broke with their fellow AFL bureaucrats in 1935.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the militants of the Communist Party (CP) were among the chief organizers not only of the fights in 1936 and 1937 which finally won most workers the right to organize but also of most of the earlier fights which opened the door to the mass upsurge of 1936-37.
Long before Lewis, Hillman and Dubinsky considered, in their worst nightmares, that they might have to propose to organize the mass of unskilled workers who remained outside of any union, the CP had been leading strikes among these workers. Its militants were on the front line in the most desperate situations. They were the ones framed up on murder charges, killed by deputies and company thugs, or driven out of town. But they were also the ones who gained, through daily experience, the ability to win the confidence of the workers that let them later on lead the big fights. The CP at the time was small counting less than 7,300 dues paying members in 1928, of whom only a small proportion worked in important industries. In the process of this work, it recruited. But it still counted only 19,000 dues-paying members in 1933 and 27,000 in 1935, not much when compared to the tens of millions of workers in that time period. But the CP had militants forged in the class struggle dedicated to their class. This is what let a relatively small Communist Party play a role which might seem out of all proportion to its numbers.
On the other hand, the CP had policies which, at the most critical moments, kept its own militants and, through them, the workers in check, ultimately channeling their struggles into the dead end of the CIO as the bureaucrats like Lewis conceived it. In so doing, the CP helped write "The End" to the massive mobilization of the 1930s, without ever letting the working class realize all the possibilities in that situation.
What made the struggle for the CIO so explosive was the long-standing and rock-firm refusal of the American bourgeoisie to accept unions.
Almost from the first appearance of the working class in this country, the bourgeoisie directed a very high level of violence against workers who attempted to organize, having recourse not only to its own state apparatus, but also to armed thugs and mobs in its employ. Statutes and court rulings made "combinations" of workers effectively illegal.
One attempt after another by the workers went down to defeat in the face of the bourgeoisie’s intransigence. It was not until the massive strike movement for the eight-hour day, in the mid-1880s, that the working class was able to make even a small break in the bourgeoisie’s solid wall. Companies began to come to terms with some of the AFL unions. But that opening was for the most part restricted to the skilled workers, above all those whose unions acted effectively as a kind of job trust, protecting only the narrow interests of their own members.
At the same time, the state apparatus carried out an attack with renewed vigor on unions which attempted to break out of the narrow corporatist framework that marked the AFL. Unions which tried to organize workers industrially or across skilled lines like the Knights of Labor, the American Railway Union or the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) came under vicious attack.
Nonetheless, workers continued to try to breach this barrier, most notably in the great post-World-War-I strike wave. The year 1919 was ushered in by the Seattle General strike led by IWW militants and AFL unionists; it was brought to a close by the organizing drive and the strike to unionize the steel industry, led by a committee inside the AFL headed by William Z. Foster. With the defeat in steel and the work done by a number of AFL bureaucrats to end other strikes by convincing workers to take their demands to the War Labor Board, the great post-war strike wave came to an end. After the defeat of the 1919 strikes, AFL officials withdrew from any further attempt to extend their organizations. Not only did the vast majority of unskilled workers remain unorganized, the AFL unions began to recede, not able even to defend their own members’ immediate interests, steadily declining in size.
The working class came under severe attack. Militants who had led the strikes, or even just actively played a role, were discharged and permanently blacklisted. The Palmer Raids named after the U.S. Attorney General who led them picked up thousands of foreign-born workers in order to expel them from the country. Under various criminal charges, many thousands more native-born workers were arrested and imprisoned. The IWW came under special attack in the Seattle area, with its offices destroyed, several of its militants killed, one of them lynched by American Legion forces, and many others driven away. The IWW’s Big Bill Haywood was forced to leave the country, under threat of murder charges. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchist militants known by textile and shoeworkers in Massachusetts, were tried as criminals on completely bogus charges and finally put to death in 1927.
It was in the middle of this difficult situation that the American CP came on the scene for the first time.
By the mid-1920s, workers were being hit by the first harbingers of the depression that was to come. Unemployment, which had gone down earlier, was again on the rise. With the crash in 1929, unemployment took on epic proportions. By 1932, work time in the coal fields was cut to a little over half of what it had been in 1928, and hourly wages had been cut by one quarter. Industries like auto and steel were particularly hard-hit: employment at Ford, for example, dropped from 128,000 in 1929 to 37,000 in 1931.
One of the CP’s major activities in the early years of the Great Depression was among the unemployed. By the beginning of 1930, five million workers were officially unemployed ten times the number without work just one year earlier. In 1930, the CP called for a single day of demonstrations across the country on March 6. The biggest took place in Detroit, followed by New York and Chicago, but there were also sizeable turnouts in Milwaukee, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Flint and Cleveland. Flint, with 15,000, was not the largest, but in one sense it was the most impressive in that Flint, much smaller than the other cities, was a company town in the real sense of the term, with GM in direct control of police and city government. Altogether, perhaps half a million people demonstrated on March 6. As did most demonstrations of the unemployed in this period, they faced bloody confrontations with the police.
The most significant unemployed demonstrations took place in 1932, including the Ford "Hunger March" which the CP called for in its own name, as well as in the name of the local Unemployed Council. When the demonstrators, perhaps 4,000 in number, crossed from Detroit into Dearborn, Dearborn police attacked with tear gas, only to see the demonstrators surge past them. At the Rouge, the demonstration was met by machine gun fire from inside Ford. Four demonstrators were killed immediately, a fifth died later on. Twenty-two were wounded, most taken to hospitals where they were chained to cots. The police drew up dozens of indictments, including against CP leader William Z. Foster, on a multitude of charges. The CP office was raided, as were those of various organizations tied to the CP. Within two days, the CP organized a funeral march for the first four victims. Between 25,000 and 40,000 people marched in downtown Detroit and then out to the cemetery where the four were being buried, an enormous demonstration for that period. The indictments were quietly dropped.
The CP was often successful locally in work among the unemployed with success being measured in terms of maintaining relief payments, stopping evictions, etc. At the end of 1932, for example, the Chicago Unemployed Councils organized city-wide demonstrations which forced the city government to roll back cuts in relief payments it made to families. And the number of people whose evictions were stopped was legion. The CP was never able to really build an organization with any permanence among the unemployed, but some of the unemployed workers it met in this work came around it later on when they returned to their jobs.
With AFL leaders counseling Do-Nothing-ism, CP militants became the leaders of strikes by workers who had been ignored or in some cases abandoned in the midst of a strike by AFL officials.
The CP had cut its teeth in the 1925-26 textile strike at Passaic, New Jersey, which undoubtedly was the most important strike of the 1920s.
"The Communists showed that they could conduct a big strike under difficult, virtually hopeless conditions, that they could operate effectively the complicated machinery of mass picket lines, soup kitchens, legal defense, national publicity and strike meetings and financial solicitation. In the straitened circumstances then prevailing, they were the ones both willing and able to step to the forefront to assume the responsibility and risk, as well as the glory."This description comes from Bert Cochran, who can hardly be called a friend of the Communists.
The Passaic strike, which lasted more than a year, came quickly under vicious attack, both through the courts and in the streets. The attacks were so overt and so violent that it led to a Congressional hearing under Senator LaFollette, as well as widespread support in liberal circles for the strikers.
Despite the eventual loss at Passaic, that strike gave the CP militants ties to textile workers in many areas of the country ties of which they made use in the following years. Eventually, they found themselves leading a number of textile strikes, including in the South, the region which historically was the most difficult for union organizers: New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1928; Gastonia, North Carolina, and other small Southern towns linked to the Gastonia mills in 1929; and in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Paterson, New Jersey, in 1931.
The CP carried out a series of campaigns among coal miners. Here, also, they found themselves at the head of strikes, starting with those carried out in 1929 by miners in Southern Illinois, culminating in a strike which spread throughout the coal fields of western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia in 1931. In that same year, they went into Harlan County, Kentucky, after the UMW deserted in the middle of a strike it had been forced, by the actions of the miners, to lead.
The CP also led a series of agricultural strikes in 1930, 31 and 32 among field and cannery workers in California some of which were memorialized in John Steinbeck’s novels and short stories. It set up sharecroppers’ unions in the South, which challenged the domination by the Klan in the Southern countryside. In auto, the CP played a minor role in a strike of skilled tool and die makers in Flint in 1931, and it led the strike which shut down four of Briggs’s plants in 1933. This was the first major action that really broke through the near military regime which ruled in the auto plants.
One common thread in most of these strikes is that the militants were not actively at work in the industry involved. In some cases, they were workers who had earlier been fired or laid off. In other cases, they were ex-students who, having come through the experience of the organizing among the unemployed, now turned to the employed working class. In still other cases, they were CP militants known as such, to whom the workers turned when they began a movement. But no matter what their background, they came on the scene in most cases after the battle had begun. That is another way of saying that these strikes were not well prepared for, nor had the workers built up their own organization in advance. This is not a surprise in the conditions of the time, when any expression of militancy inside a workplace meant summary expulsion.
The AFL bureaucrats criticized the CP during this time period, accusing its militants of leading adventurist actions, ones that could not possibly win.
Certainly, these strikes were defeated almost across the board, with the workers eventually succumbing under the pressure of their dwindling resources and in the face of constant and extremely violent attacks.
But if these strikes had little prospects, it was first of all because AFL officials did everything possible to stop workers from striking and, if they did, to prevent them from getting assistance from other workers. In some cases like Harlan County, where UMWA officials could not prevent the workers from striking, they literally deserted, riding out of town in the middle of the battle. In other cases, AFL leaders who had played no role in a strike were ready to play the broker’s role convincing the workers to go back before anything was agreed on.
The problem with the CP in this period is not that it sent its militants into situations that appeared enormously difficult if not even lost in advance; nor that they went where no one else would go. Its militants took their stand with workers who were ready to fight; strikes they led, carried out against impossible odds, laid the groundwork for the subsequent upsurge in the later 1930s.
The problem with the CP during this period is that it attempted to bypass the AFL by simply turning its back on the existing unions. In the late 1920s and early 30s, the CP had been trying to set up its own unions, after the 1928 change of line by the Comintern coming on the heels of the defeat suffered by the Chinese Communist Party in 1927. Whatever was involved in this turn elsewhere, Communists in the U.S. were told to stop "dancing around the AFL unions" and instead organize "red" unions without regard to what workers were then ready to do. The Trade Union Education League (TUEL), which the CP had once used as a focal point of its activity inside the AFL, was to be suppressed, replaced by a new formation, the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), which was to become a competitor to the AFL. CP militants who were already in the AFL unions were effectively pushed to leave the unions, in favor of establishing the new red unions.
This advice was accompanied by a great deal of revolutionary sounding verbiage about the "third period" of capitalism, which in other countries, especially Germany, led to disastrous results. In the U.S., the CP certainly fell into using a super-revolutionary rhetoric even in the midst of a simple fight for a few more cents an hour. And, in typical Stalinist fashion, the CP began to present every struggle as a "victory," regardless of the outcome. In a 1934 pamphlet put out, for example, about a strike of New Mexico miners which went down to a bitter defeat, the CP, calling the strike "a splendid victory," explained: "The New Mexico miners went through a school of revolutionary struggle. The many lessons and experiences learned from their strike have armed them for coming battles." In fact, it is exactly what this kind of posturing did NOT do: arm the workers.
But by far the worst damage done by the CP’s policy during this whole period from 1928 up through 1934 was that it cut its militants off from most of the workers when they did begin to look toward a union, leaving the field in the AFL unions wide open for the bureaucrats.
Within a few years, the CP had set up a number of "red" unions: in 1928, the National Miners Union, the National Textile Workers Union and the Food Workers Industrial Union; in 1929, the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union; in 1930, the Marine Workers Industrial Union, the Tobacco Workers Industrial Union, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, the Packinghouse Workers Industrial Union and the Shoe and Leather Workers Industrial Union. CP militants already were at the head of the Auto Workers Industrial Union, which they had taken over from the Socialist Party and renamed in 1927. The Steel and Metal Workers Industrial Union was not set up until 1932, marking the CP’s late arrival into the steel industry.
In most cases, these were paper organizations. Coming into the 1934 maritime strike, Sam Darcy, a West Coast CP leader, wrote in the CP’s political journal: "Unfortunately, our Marine Workers union, after having as many as four and sometimes six full-time functionaries in San Francisco alone, had not a single worker on the docks."
In the situations where the new union started with something, it did so only because the CP pulled its members and sympathizers out of the AFL union. The most damaging of these situations was among the miners, where the CP had built up a real base even before 1924, when they ran one of their own militants, George Vozey, against John L. Lewis for the presidency of the UMWA. Lewis’s bureaucratic machine counted 66,000 votes for Vozey while Lewis had 136,000. Whatever the real numbers were, this election demonstrated that CP militants had a real base in the UMWA. When they left the UMWA, even though they took some workers with them, they left many more behind. Patrick Toohey, secretary-treasurer of the CP’s National Miners’ Union, unintentionally expressed the asininity of this position in the pages of the Daily Worker (May 24, 1929), when he proclaimed: "The many thousands of honest workers who are still in the AFL will quickly learn that they are being betrayed and will leave it to join with the unorganized workers of the entire country."
Not only did the workers not rush to un-organize themselves, but when the CP militants left the UMWA to set up their own union, they gave Lewis a free hand to solidify his control over the parts of the UMWA which had always stood in opposition to him. The 1931 strikes in Pennsylvania and Ohio provided a glaring example of the disaster thus created. These strikes were led by the CP’s new National Miners Union (NMU). When a combination of extreme violence and legal maneuvers could not throw the workers back, the mineowners’ solid front broke down. The largest among them signed an agreement giving the workers much of what they had been demanding but it signed that agreement with Lewis’s UMWA, which had not been involved in the strike. When the workers went back to work under this contract, the NMU began to fall to pieces, workers leaving it for the UMWA which administered the contract.
Quite obviously, given the large number of workers ignored by the AFL, the AFL was not the only place where militants should have been active. But the change demanded by the Comintern that Communists stop working altogether in the AFL unions gave no prospects to the workers who had followed the CP up to that moment in the AFL unions; nor did it give the CP militants a way to reach the unorganized workers who, as time would soon tell, were about to pour into the AFL unions in droves.
By 1933, the working class had begun to flex its muscles: almost one million workers went out on strike that year. A real movement was developing among the unorganized workers to form their own unions within the framework of the AFL despite the unwillingness of the AFL to carry on a struggle and despite its disavowal of the unskilled masses now rushing toward it. In August 1933, the AFL executive council finally did recognize this mobilization, setting up a way in which the mass of workers coming to it could be organized: in the so-called "federal locals," which were to become a kind of pond grouping workers who were first organized until the existing AFL unions could fish, taking out the categories they wanted, throwing back the rest. In fact, the agreement to charter federal locals was a compromise between those bureaucrats who did not want to be pushed aside by the growing mobilization and those who shrank back from this movement of the unskilled workers, calling them "good-for-nothings" and "riff-raff," as Teamsters President Daniel Tobin did during a debate within the AFL council.
The usual explanation for the AFL’s refusal to organize the workers now coming toward it was the unwillingness of the skilled workers’ unions to eliminate craft barriers so the unskilled could enter. That certainly was part of it. But on the more basic level, the AFL bureaucrats were not ready to engage workers in the kind of struggle required if the workers were to gain unions. In the same AFL debate, Tobin had declared: "We do not want the men today if they are going on strike tomorrow." The AFL unions’ precipitous decline during the 1920s was marked by the unwillingness of the AFL bureaucrats to lead strikes even of their own members.
Nonetheless, the workers were striking and they were trying to push into the existing AFL unions. Between 1933 and 1935, over half a million new workers joined an AFL union. The CP’s policy left it to the side of this growing movement.
The real turning point was 1934, marked as it was by four major strike movements in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco, as well as a national strike of almost 400,000 textile workers in the South and Northeast. With the exception of the textile strike, the big 1934 strikes gained some form of union recognition, de facto or explicit, from corporations which had always refused to grant it; all four of these strikes were carried out within the framework of AFL unions. In only one the San Francisco maritime strike did the CP play any role, and it did so there only because it had already sent its forces into the AFL longshoremen’s union, supporting Harry Bridges in his campaign to take over the head of the San Francisco local.
With the CP on the side, the Trotskyists played the leading role in the three Minneapolis strikes which opened the doors of the Teamsters’ union to unskilled workers throughout the Middle West. In Toledo, the Auto-Lite strike, supported by a movement of the unemployed, was headed by militants of A. J. Muste’s American Workers Party, which very quickly merged with the Trotskyists on the conclusion of the two strike movements. It is a tribute to the Trotskyists that despite their tiny forces, they were able to lead the very first strikes in which industrial workers won important victories.
The biggest strike of 1934 was the general strike of textile workers, led by the AFL’s United Textile Workers union (UTW).
James Cannon, one of the leaders of the Communist League of America [Trotskyist], had this to say about the textile strike:
"This was the greatest strike in American labor history in point of number, and the equal of any in militancy.... Within the framework of one of the most decrepit and reactionary unions, hundreds of thousands of textile workers waged a memorable battle. The new’ proletariat of the South, steeped in age-long backwardness and superstition, ame awake, prayed to God, and then went out to fight the scabs, the gunmen, and the militia. From North to South the battle line extended. The mills were shut down. The big push of the bosses to reopen the mills, a few days before the strike was called off, came to nothing except a demonstration of the strikers’ dominance of the situation."With their ranks unbroken, with the universal sympathy of the workers throughout the country, with victory in their grasp the textile workers saw the strike called off by their own officers without a single concession from the bosses, and without having a chance to express their own wishes on the matter. And most significant of all the key to the fatal weakness of the trade union movement today this monstrous betrayal could be perpetrated without a sign of organized resistance. There was no force in the textile workers’ ranks to organize such resistance."Despite the role that CP militants had played in major textile strikes during the preceding 8 years as well as in a series of smaller strikes in 1933, the CP played almost no role in the 1934 organizing drive, nor in the strike. It was not to its NTWU that workers looked when they felt ready to take on the whole textile industry: it was to the UTW, a union with not much more real existence than the CP’s NTWU, but with the imprimatur of the AFL behind it. The UTW increased six-fold in the year leading up to the textile strike. The fact that the CP dissolved the NTWU in the middle of the strike, calling on its members to join the UTW, availed it nothing. The CP had kept itself to the side when it counted.
In San Francisco, where the CP did play a role in the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) headed by Bridges, its militants carried out a campaign for the other unions to call a general strike of San Francisco labor a strike which the CP had no means to affect, cut off as it was from those unions. The heads of the San Francisco AFL, who of course opposed the general strike, eventually did call it ... in order to bury it, and along with it, the maritime strike.
Darcy, soon after the strike was over, explained the problem this way in an issue of The Communist:
"On the evening of July 13, at the Central Labor Council meeting, it was evident that the General Strike movement could no longer be stopped, and so they decided to become its leaders and defeat it."Here, again, was manifest our weakness in fighting against the AFL fakers. It was our failure at this point to prevent the fakers from taking over the leadership of the strike that cost us the eventual loss of the strike.... Thus, on Saturday morning we were faced with a general strike committee of about 800 members, the majority of whom were paid officials, appointed by other paid officials. Had we succeeded in preventing this maneuver of the Central Labor Council fakers the outcome of the General Strike would have been very much different. But we were paying for our neglect of AFL work for ten years previous...."By Sunday night, when we took stock of the entire situation, we came to the conclusion that we were not outnumbered amongst the rank and file insofar as sympathetic sentiment went, but that we were hopelessly weak in organizational contact to put the strike into militant hands. We realized what should become one of the outstanding lessons to the whole Party: that we were not able in the last weeks of the strike ... to overcome the years of neglect of our work in the American Federation of Labor."The CP paid in terms of a lost opportunity. The workers paid in the enormous effort they put in which was nonetheless blocked, in the attacks under which they suffered and in the false impression created that the workers could not make a generalized fight. If, given the determination in San Francisco, the workers were defeated, how could they generalize their struggles?
Darcy had this to say on the subject: "Because of the dramatics involved in the great terror which developed against the workers on the West Coast, workers throughout the country are of the opinion that the strike was broken by terror. That is very far from the truth. After the strike was already broken by the AFL fakers, the terror then became effective as auxiliary strike-breaking machinery. Every act committed by the General Strike Committee leadership was an act to liquidate the strike, to kill it."
But that comes back to the other point Darcy raised, about the impact of the CP’s previous disdain of the AFL unions. Or, as James Cannon wrote at the time: "It is necessary to conclude that the general strike is not to be played with carelessly or fired into the air to see what will happen.... Serious agitation for a general strike should presuppose the possibility of removing the reactionary leadership or, at least, of being able to deprive it of a free hand by means of a well-organized left wing. That was lacking in San Francisco. The general strike revealed in a glaring light the wide disparity between the readiness of the workers for radical and militant action and the organization of the left wing."
The CP was able, as the result of the San Francisco strike, to establish itself in West Coast maritime. By the end of the strike, the CP reported that it had recruited 25 longshoremen and 50 seamen in San Francisco; 40 seamen and 40 longshoremen in San Pedro; and several dozens more in the Northwest Pacific ports. But won by the CP’s opposition to the AFL bureaucrats, these militants were soon to be handed back to those same bureaucrats, with the next twist and turn of CP policy.
The increasing mobilization during 1933-34 led a number of AFL officials including Lewis, Hillman, Dubinsky and Howard to push within the AFL for the means to organize the unskilled workers in heavy industry. As Howard put it in one meeting of the AFL Council:
"Now, let us say to you that the workers of this country are going to organize, and if they are not permitted to organize under the banner of the American Federation of Labor they are going to organize under some other leadership.... I submit to you that this would be a far more serious problem for our government, for the people of this country and for the American Federation of Labor itself than if our organization policies should be so molded that we can organize them and bring them under the leadership of this organization." It was this same strike movement of 1934 which gave urgency to Roosevelt’s pleas to Congress to pass new legislation resurrecting Section 7A of the National Recovery Act, which the courts had struck down, and setting up prescribed means by which unions could be recognized (what has come to be known as the Wagner Act). While the majority of the bourgeoisie continued to be adamantly opposed to all union recognition, its more class conscious sections had come to understand that some form of union organization of the unskilled was inevitable. The question for them was not whether unions should be allowed, but under what form they should come into existence and, above all, who should lead them. In the situation of the mid-1930s it was clear, as Howard was indirectly threatening, that if the AFL did not step forward, revolutionaries would.
The October 1935 defeat of the advocates of industrial organization inside the AFL led to their decision to create a Committee for Industrial Organization inside the AFL (what eventually became the Congress of Industrial Organizations after the participating unions were expelled from the AFL).
This new CIO enjoyed at least a superficial neutrality from the Roosevelt Administration. It had a certain amount of money coming from the treasuries of the unions which had moved to make it up. It had staff men loaned to it from the UMWA: sycophants and yes-men whose main training had been in keeping Lewis satisfied. What it did not have were many dedicated organizers. The Communist Party was soon to provide Lewis, the man they had seen destroy one fight after another in the minefields, with the troops he needed.
Just as the CIO bureaucrats were making their move, the CP itself made another turn: to jump into the very arms of those bureaucrats seeking to push themselves to the head of the burgeoning movement. As Darcy’s remarks show, by 1934 the American CP had already begun to raise the problem of its neglect of the AFL. But the CP’s policy drastically shifted at the beginning of 1935, when Earl Browder, the CP’s general secretary, returned from a meeting in Moscow to inform the party that all TUUL unions were to be liquidated, either by merging with an AFL union, where possible, or by dissolving themselves and asking their militants to go into the AFL unions individually. In fact, a number of CP militants had already begun to join AFL unions, including in San Francisco and in textile during those two strikes. But the latest twist in Comintern policy sparked by the debacle in Germany when fascism came to power changed the whole way the CP raided the problem. According to the Comintern, revolution was no longer on the agenda: the main problem had now become the necessity to make alliances with any forces ready to oppose fascism, including the supposedly more progressive elements of the bourgeoisie.
Inside the U.S., this took the form of soft-pedaling any attacks on Roosevelt. This required a very sharp 180-degree turn. In 1934, for example, in a pamphlet about a strike of New Mexican miners, the CP had described Roosevelt and the New Deal this way: "The strike unmasked the liberal’ pretensions of the Roosevelt administration, revealing it to be one of terror and armed force which threw off all pretensions of democracy’ and rule of the people’ when the interests of the capitalists were endangered. The strike established the New Deal’ to be rule by troops, military tribunals, wholesale jailing of innocent strikers and keeping them on bread and water for weeks. The swindle and sham of the New Deal’ became clear as being a gigantic program attacking the workers’ living standards and organizations."
It is this same Roosevelt and this same New Deal which the CP effectively supported in the 1936 elections, calling his nomination by the Democrats as a "success for the labor and progressive elements in the Democratic Party." Browder, who formally was the CP’s candidate in the 1936 election, told the CP convention in June of that year that workers had a vital interest in "which of the two bourgeois parties shall hold power, when one of them is reactionary, desires to wipe out democratic rights and social legislation, while the other in some degree defends these progressive measures achieved under capitalism."
In statement after statement like this, the CP sowed illusions in Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, helping tie the workers to their mortal political enemy.
At the level of the trade unions, not only did the CP send its militants back into the unions it had once ignored which it needed to do; but the CP now began to support the very bureaucrats whom it knew only so well were ready to betray the workers’ struggles.
By 1936, the CP, in a pamphlet written to be used by its organizers in steel, "Get Wise, Organize" was describing Lewis this way: "Who are the men pushing the organization of the unorganized? It is John L. Lewis representing 500,000 miners in the UMWA; Dubinsky, representing 250,000 Ladies Garment Workers and Hillman representing 100,000 clothing workers. Whenever there was a big job for the labor movement to accomplish, Green and the executive council of the AFL fizzled. The National Convention of the AFL held in 1934 decided to organize the steel workers. Yet not a finger was raised to carry out this task. Nothing was done until John L. Lewis and the C.I.O. went to bat. Now you see the drive in the steel industry."
In other words, the very people who for years had sat back and opposed the organization and the struggles of the workers, who had only jumped on the bandwagon after the big fights of 1934 showed that the working class was on the move, were now being held up by the CP as the "men pushing the organization of the unorganized."
Not only was the CP now to use whatever credit it had earned among the most militant workers to reinforce Lewis, its militants were even to use the slogan which Lewis had employed in the minefields: "The president [Roosevelt] wants you to organize."
No wonder Lewis had such a confident answer when questioned by David Dubinsky, the head of the Ladies Garment Workers Union, about the sudden influx of CP militants into the staff of the CIO. Lewis’s comment has become famous: "Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?"
The year 1937 witnessed over 4,700 strikes, higher than in any year since 1919, with almost 1,000 of them taking the form of a sit-down. Over half a million workers occupied their factories and other workplaces in that crucial year.
Lewis had set his sights on the steel industry because so much of the coal industry was owned by big steel. The bulk of his organizers, 200 strong, 60 of them from the CP, were sent into the steel areas. Their goal was not to prepare a strike, but to get the workers to petition the government to hold an election validating the union.
With Lewis concentrating his attention on steel, the strikes which were to win the CIO broke out in rubber and automobile, leading eventually to the Flint sit-down strike of 1936-37. The Flint strike marked by the occupation of GM’s factories, by the masses of workers who came into Flint from all around the Mid-West, and by the mobilization of the women of Flint to do battle with the deputies brought GM to its knees. And GM’s agreement to accept the union marked the real decision made by the big bourgeoisie to search for a way to accommodate the unions it was being forced to accept.
Many of the most important strikes of this period were prepared for and led by Communist militants: including the rubber workers’ sit-downs of 1935-36, the Akron rubber strike of 1936, and the GM and Chrysler strikes of 1936 and 37. It was the daring of those strikes, as well as their broad following among other workers, that tipped the balance. Without the CP militants, it is unlikely the strikes could have succeeded. But those militants gave the credit for the strikes right back to the bureaucrats, and they reinforced the idea which the CIO officials were pushing that the workers’ ability to get a union depended on keeping Roosevelt neutral in the struggle going on between capital and labor.
In 1936, just a few short weeks after the workers at Goodyear forced through recognition of their union by a five-week long militant strike, the CIO issued a pamphlet describing the strike, its conquests and the immediate problems workers would face once organized:
"A series of sit-down’ strikes took place both in Goodyear’s and other rubber plants. The workers were aroused by their new-found power and did not at first make full use of the newly established grievance machinery. They acted on their own when they found a non-union man was promoted in their department or when they felt that the foreman had done them a grave injustice."These sit-down’ strikes were not unnatural in the face of the company’s provoking actions. The union officials, while explaining this to the public, at the same time pointed out to the members that wildcat strikes are not in keeping with the rules of collective bargaining; that they must build up an effective machinery for handling grievances according to union practice."As the pamphlet makes only too clear, the policy of CIO officialdom from the beginning was to substitute the "rules of collective bargaining" and the "machinery of handling grievances" for the independent activity of the workers.
Not only did the CP, which headed the union at Akron in that period, not oppose these attempts to put the brakes on the workers mobilization, it used this pamphlet as a way to consolidate the union.
At Flint, the strike reached its decisive point when GM’s attempts to retake the plants had been foiled by the workers’ capture of still another plant. It was then, with the strike effectively won, that the CP called on Lewis to negotiate the final agreement. Workers were given to understand that their fate hung in the hands of Lewis’s discussions with Michigan’s Democratic Governor Murphy and President Roosevelt who could be convinced to bring pressure on GM.
One month after the end of the Flint sit-down, Wyndham Mortimer, the CP’s leading militant in auto, negotiated a new agreement with GM which did little but codify a very torturous and delay- filled grievance procedure that had to be completely exhausted before any strikes could be undertaken. In other words, as the CIO said at Akron, "wildcat strikes are not in keeping with the rules of collective bargaining."
Almost as soon as the strike at Flint was settled, U.S. Steel, reading the handwriting on the wall, signed a contract with Lewis, establishing the Steel Workers Union supposedly without a fight. Lewis, of course, was given the credit and Murray and the other UMWA bureaucrats whom Lewis had put at the head of the steelworkers union began to talk about a new era of "peaceful and orderly labor relations." The CP said nothing to disabuse the workers of this idea it would have disturbed their relationship with the Lewis & Co. When "Little Steel" did not follow along, Steelworkers officials called on workers to demonstrate in Chicago in what they had been led to believe would be a peaceful demonstration on Memorial Day. Standing in the streets, many with their children, they were shot down by Chicago police. The new period of "peaceful and orderly labor relations" did not extend everywhere.
Perhaps the clearest mark of the CIO’s policy and the CP support for it was shown at Ford, one of the last hold-outs and the auto company where the CP was most implanted. By 1941, with Ford as unyielding as ever, CP militants had directed the building of a real organization in the plants and in the workers’ neighborhoods. When Ford fired many of the union militants, that provoked a strike which for the first time ever shut down the whole Rouge complex. UAW officials had not called the strike; they, in fact, had strongly opposed any idea of a strike, calling on workers to work for an NLRB election establishing their right to have a union. Nonetheless, it was this strike which brought Ford to cede what he would not give up during all the previous years: union recognition. BUT, he insisted, and UAW officials concurred, that the workers must return to work and go through the farce of an NLRB conducted election before he would recognize the union.
The workers had won the union through their own activity, but the union leaders insisted that they must validate their victory with the government’s stamp of approval.
This was not just a formality, a legal requirement. In fact, even the law which established the right of unions to exist did not require such an election for union recognition. But what happened at Ford established the idea that the government can serve as a neutral arbiter with the right man in the presidency, of course; it established the precedent that the workers cannot have a union unless the government concurs.
This was a big step in imposing a bureaucratic apparatus over the workers, an apparatus that was tied from the beginning to the state.
Ford then reinforced this apparatus by offering to make it a junior partner. He proposed to make the union mandatory for every worker in his enterprise the so-called "union shop." And he offered to collect the dues from the workers’ paychecks, handing them over to the union apparatus. Unable to stop the union, he moved to tie it to him as closely as possible, and to make its apparatus dependent on him. Harry Bennett, Ford’s long-time lieutenant, recalled him saying: "That will make us their bankers, won’t it? They can’t get along without us. They’ll need us just as bad as we need them." That could be an epitaph for the militant CIO, newly born and already tied to the corporations it had set out to combat.
While none of these proposals were made by the CP, they were accepted and in most cases presented as conquests by the CP militants.
It took a massive mobilization of the workers to gain the CIO, but the very bureaucrats moving to the heads of the new unions were moving to channel the movement into a direction where it was losing its militancy. And nothing that the CP did or said offered a different perspective to the workers.
Almost certainly, the CIO could not have come into existence as it did without the CP. Whatever the CP’s policies were, the eventual aim of its militants was the socialist revolution. They were not defenders of the existing system; they were not afraid to see it shaken by the struggles of the working class. Nor were they afraid to throw themselves into those struggles.
Katherine Hyndman, a CP militant who was active in the Southern Illinois minefields in 1935, much later explained:
"They weren’t there from their own self-interest. They weren’t a bunch of fourflushers.... They got out and they did the organizing and they did the job. Lewis knew that. And that’s why Lewis had so many Communists in the early days of the CIO.... But once they got them all organized and everything else, then, of course, then they got rid of the Left. For one thing, he established himself. But in the early days when it really took guts to organize the mass production industries, they used the Communists." It is a kind of epitaph not only for the CP militants who were used in this fashion, but for the workers’ movement which the CP helped put into the hands of Lewis and, after him, Murray and all the others.
The working class of this country still faces the problem of organizing itself. Whatever form this may take, it will require another generation of militants who are not out for personal self-interest and who want the socialist revolution and for whom it will be said they "got out and they did the organizing and they did the job."
But it will also take a new generation of communist militants who are armed with the right policy, one which does not end up harnessing the workers to the very bureaucrats who are trying to bring an end to their struggles. It will require a party whose aim is to permit the working class to carry out its fights under its own banner.