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The Trade Unions in Politics

Arne Swabeck


From New International, March 1938, from Tamiment Library microfilm archives
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DURING THE LAST few years the trade union movement has experienced changes of the most deep-going nature which have affected vitally its whole structure and altered its outlook in many important respects. Its objective position in relation to other social forces within present-day capitalist society has been strengthened immensely by these recent changes. It is possible to say that these last few years represent a special and a very significant chapter in American labor history. Of first-rate importance are the facts that the superiority of industrial unionism has been verified, outstanding mass production industries have been organized, and the union membership has emerged more than doubly re-enforced. Of equal if not of greater importance is the corresponding transformation of quantity into quality. Simultaneously, however, these changes have also laid the basis for a new course of no less significance.

Of course, the trade union movement is conditioned in its development by the economic and political framework within which it exists. Even its own internal dynamics do not operate independently of these conditions. Proceeding from this point it is important to note, in the first place, that the unions now embrace a much larger and a much more decisive section of the working class. Therefore they can no longer confine themselves purely and simply to the economic struggles. By virtue of their strengthened position they have become a much more potent political factor. Already they have been drawn much more into the vortex of the political life of the nation. Primarily, this is the case so far with the C.I.O. unions, but the A.F.of L. must of necessity follow suit. It is therefore not unnatural that the trade union movement, as a result of this, is now turning its attention much more actively and much more decisively in a political direction.

There are no indications as yet that this will assume the character of independent working class activity. On the contrary, for in this respect also the conditioning factors of the general national economic and political framework are in operation. And the actual indications are, unfortunately, that this new development will assume dangerously negative features. For instance, the first steps that have so far been taken into the political arena bear the unmistakable earmarks of People’s Frontism, expressed in a special American form of collaboration between the unions and the so-called liberal political representatives of the bourgeoisie. In some cases it has taken on the form of common political movements, either including within its ranks or having the support of the Stalinists and the social reformists. The unions have already become a part of the several tendencies toward a political realignment that are now apparent on every hand. What we witness in actuality is the early beginnings of a People’s Front movement in the United States, for which the trade unions (the C.I.O. alone or a united federation) will furnish the basis. Probably it will not function formally under this general title. It may not take on final shape as a result of a pact formally entered into by all of its participants; but it is sure nevertheless to assume all its fundamental characteristics of class collaboration.

Today this particular aspect of the trade union movement overshadows all others. From the long range perspective it is more important in its consequence than the immediate question of the conflict between the A.F.of L. and the C.I.O., because of the fact that any extensive and positive class collaboration in the political field will inevitably put its own indelible imprint upon the movement. The ensuing political considerations will influence decisively its whole course in the next period.

There need be no doubt that we shall witness from higher official trade union quarters much more determined efforts to clamp down the lid on any militant economic struggle, accompanied with illusory promises that greater gains can be accomplished more effectively in politics through this political movement. Incidentally this particular political aspect will itself have a rather direct bearing upon the solution of the A.F. of L. and C.I.O. conflict. Paradoxical as it may seem, while its immediate effect might very likely be a sharpening of the conflict, it must in the end serve as a compelling factor for unification. For example, the A.F. of L. local unions have been ordered to withdraw from Labor’s Non-Partisan League because it is a C.I.O. instrument. This is the formal reason given. But it is a well-known fact that the hard-boiled reactionary A.F. of L. bureaucrats have no use for politics except in its strictly bourgeois sense. They look upon Labor’s Non-Partisan League as the beginning of a political movement separate and apart from the old parties; to them this means partisan politics which they resist. So while the C.I.O. leadership can very well utilize the more direct entry into political parliamentary activities as a strategic manoeuvre against the A.F. of L., the widespread support that it is bound to receive from the masses of organized workers in both camps must necessarily also become added pressure for unification.

It is perfectly true that in methods as well as in motivating considerations these developments of the trade union movement represent something different in nature from the traditional A.F. of L. political policy. The formal objective of that policy was political neutrality. The direction of the new development is formally partisan politics. In both instances class collaboration constitutes the basis. But while formal political neutrality is essentially negative in nature inasmuch as the existing bourgeois parties remain the sole political expression, the new development becomes positive in the sense that it will bring the unions into active and direct participation in the struggles on the political arena. To this extent it is progressive. However, the whole question involves the old problem of American capitalism and its lieutenants of labor, the problem of maintaining a balanced equilibrium of capital and labor relations that will ensure the continuity of capitalist property relations.

While the A.F. of L. craft unions of skilled trades existed practically exclusively this problem was relatively simple. Economic concessions given to these crafts and to their corrupted leaders served to keep the large masses unorganized and to keep them on a lower wage level. The concessions given returned a certain compensation. But from the point of the last crisis things began to change and capitalism was compelled to accept organization of its large plants; it had to accept the labor reforms of the Roosevelt administration. This itself set new forces into motion. The organized labor movement advanced in amazing strides due to its new-found militancy. It is beginning now to feel itself a separate entity in society, conscious that a minimum of economic security belongs to it by right, and making its own demands accordingly which cannot simply be ignored. Thus the problem of maintaining the much wanted equilibrium and preventing the working masses from entering the road of independent class activity is now a much more complex one. It can no longer be solved by the old and primitive methods. New methods are necessary.

In this lies the real reason for the fact that the bourgeoisie finds itself divided in the face of this problem. Its progressive section wants capitalism reformed, and promotes deliberately and demagogically a political realignment as its way of heading off the much feared independent class development. But in the period of capitalist decline and deep-going crises, these empirical intentions are one thing; the objective consequences in so far as the mass movement is concerned is something else. Direct participation in political activity, through the unions, even in a vaguely defined political movement, and regardless of the alliance with a section of the bourgeoisie, will tend inevitably to affect the masses in a further progressive direction by the development of their political consciousness.

Such a perspective naturally carries the implication that the American working class will pass through a social reformist stage, even though this is also most likely to occur in a special American form and at a truly American rate of speed. As a matter of fact the reformist stage has already begun, only in its initial appearance it is called the New Deal. Nevertheless the whole period of the Roosevelt regime, of governmental intervention in industry and in finance, and of special labor reform measures, represent a departure from the past and the beginning of a reformist stage—a unique departure, accomplished in a unique fashion in order to repair the dislocated capitalist system and make it endure. This, however, is not what makes it unique or exceptional. Its particular distinguishing feature lies in its appearance without the existence of a well developed, influential, social reformist party. The birth of a reformist stage took place without the assistance of a social-democratic midwife. The Stalinists later aspired to become the hired nursemaid and raised the cry: Defeat Landon at all costs! But the aspiring nursemaid was not considered worthy of her hire. In the absence of the midwife, the burden of this performance had to rest on the old party system, and this has already taxed the Democratic party to the breaking point.

The trade union movement today must be viewed essentially as a part of and as influenced by these special conditions. The American working class as a whole is not yet politically conscious. It does not yet act as an independent class. While in recent economic struggles it would literally storm the fortresses of capitalist production and demolish, without restraint and without compunction, the time-honored barriers against the unions, the movement thus organized is itself endeavoring to catch up politically with the social reformist stage. It started out from the low point of unblemished faith in Roosevelt’s reform program and supported his reelection almost to the last man.

It goes without saying that reformist illusions among the masses have been developed very assiduously, and not least of all by the trade union leaders. In regard to this a very good example is furnished by the recent strike in Little Steel. One of the big reasons for its misfortune was undoubtedly the fact that the leaders, who were seconded by the Stalinists, spent most of their time in building up faith in the alleged benevolent attitude of the public officials and in the support that they expected to come from this direction right up to the rude awakening and the resentment over the strikebreaking done by the Ohio militia and the massacre by the Chicago police. But it would be rash to conclude from experiences such as these—and there have been many of the same nature—that the reformist illusions have disappeared. In political life the trade union movement has not yet succeeded in establishing any real independence. The leadership always maintained a firm but informal alliance with the bourgeoisie; the C.I.O. contingent makes it specifically, but more directly, with its “liberal” section. That the Stalinists aspire to become recognized partners of this alliance does not make the immediate outlook any more promising. They only attempt to give the theoretical justification for the fatal illusion that this section of the bourgeoisie can be utilized as genuine allies of the working class against the openly reactionary section. And when Lewis makes open declarations, as he has done, favoring a political realignment, on when the miners’ union and the S.W.O.C. criticize publicly the Roosevelt administration, as they have done, this does not mean that the Lewis camp is working toward an open break with the Rooseveltians. Matters stand more likely the other way around. This criticism represents rather an effort to put pressure upon the genuine New Dealers in an attempt to drive the wedge deeper between them and the openly reactionary Democrats.

Under these conditions it would be difficult to anticipate a Labor Party development of the chemically pure type which miscellaneous sentimental radicals wish for so fervently and await so patiently, without ever succeeding in making clear to themselves or to others what this imaginary purity really means. It is far more logical to assume that the trade unions, which in any case would have to be the basis for a Labor Party, will enter actively into the political field still tied to the liberal section of the bourgeoisie.

Examples from actual life will bear this out. We need only recall the most outstanding cases of labor participation in last year’s elections. In Detroit, where the organized auto workers had good grounds for resentment against actions of city public officials, Labor’s Non-Partisan League initiated a so-called labor ticket. It was headed by a Democratic politician and it had sufficient symptoms to mark it out as a People’s Front endeavor. More typical yet, in this sense, were the New York City elections. LaGuardia owed his success at the polls to the supporting combination of the “liberal” Republicans and Democrats, the Labor Party and the trade unions, together with the no less “liberal” Stalinists and so-called socialists from Waldman to Thomas and Altman. Both of these instances represent the new trends, and that is why they deserve special attention. But even in much less cosmopolitan Wisconsin, a People’s Front movement wins elections cheerfully under the parental tutelage of the LaFollette Republicans and Milwaukee’s “socialist” Mayor, Dan Hoan.

Of course a People’s Front movement can come into existence and assume significant proportions only at a certain political conjuncture of capitalist development. Only under certain conditions can it have a service to perform for capitalism, for it can, in the final analysis, serve no other interests. Under the conditions of capitalist decline, class antagonisms naturally increase more swiftly; it becomes ever more difficult to hold the masses in subjection by the methods of the past. The middle classes are affected by these conditions. The traditional bourgeois parties alone appear no longer sufficient as the means of operation in politics to keep the rising class antagonisms within safe bounds. The workers, who have suffered their disappointments from these parties begin themselves quite naturally to press for other means of political expression: means which they believe to be their own. The ruling bourgeoisie has no intention of relinquishing its rule, or any part thereof. This is not yet in danger, and before it needs to resort to the desperate means of fascism, it will find a far more pleasant perspective in permitting a People’s Front movement—at least for a time—to maintain the reformist illusions among the masses.

This explains why the New York banking fraternity could well afford to look benevolently upon the LaGuardia People’s Front combination. Thousands of organized workers were captivated by it. Their reformist illusions were momentarily strengthened. Profits, with interest, would continue to roll safely into the coffers of the banking fraternity. It is true that this New York combination included also the Stalinists together with an assortment of social-democratic tripe—still a cause for suspicion to respectable bankers. Neither carried great mass influence, but even if they did it would be far more safe to have them just there, for respectable bankers could not fail to see in this the great assistance given toward disorganizing and paralyzing actual revolutionary potentialities.

It is precisely this point which is of the very greatest significance to the bourgeois rulers of America. For some time they have viewed with alarm the growing unionization of the mighty corporation plants. Large scale sit-down strikes threw fear into their hearts and foreshadowed dangers of insurrectionary methods. In a more immediate sense they fear, as do the trade union bureaucrats, that the rank and file may get out of control of its present leadership and advance on the road to independent class activity. With elements of capitalist crisis increasing, and with production and profits dropping to lower levels, they feel it to be an imperative need to seek compensation by beating down the working class standard of living. If, under such conditions, a People’s Front movement actually develops seriously on a national scale, accompanied, inevitably, by its disorienting and paralyzing effect on the masses, the powerful capitalist corporations will have their hands more free, expect less resistance to wage cuts, and not hesitate for a moment to utilize further the advantage. Neither the working class nor the trade unions can possibly gain genuine strength from such a development. Objectively it must mean new illusions and new betrayals.

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