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The New International, March 1939


Norman Mini

The Struggle in California


From The New International, Vol.5 No.3, March 1939, pp.78-81.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


ANYONE ATTENTIVELY observing the antics of American labor leaders after the New Deal defeats in the November election cannot fail to remark a certain similarity to the conduct of confirmed drunks on the morning following a big spree. Certainly all the outward symptoms of a first class hangover appear plainly: one notes nausea, loss of morale and an extremely pessimistic frame of mind – all of which is quickly followed, by a desperate effort to find relief in ... more drinking.

In California the sentiments differ from those of their Eastern brethren only in this respect – that one emerges from an attack of delirium tremens with some slight sense of relief. For it must be admitted, that a six-year period has just finished in which so many of the elements of burlesque and violence were contained that the union leaders must have sincerely believed themselves the victims of hallucinations.

It began with the buoyant hopes of the New Deal and the Epic Deal and the Epic Plan and ended in the sour Republicanism of Governor Merriam. The unprecedented militancy of the maritime workers – which began by producing the San Francisco General Strike and creating a splendid new section of the labor movement – almost petered out in a nightmarish wrangling of jurisdictional war. The sporadic mass uprisings of the agricultural workers, carried through with so much human sacrifice, brought forth only a monster of agrarian reaction: Associated Farmers. And when this horror had devoured unionism in the agricultural valleys with open violence, it bore down upon the workers in the cities with an increasing pressure which finally produced, as the legal expression of its notorious aims, the reactionary Proposition No.1, This extreme measure, by the restriction it tried to place upon unions, openly sought to fasten a noose around labor’s throat. And the union leaders, belatedly imaging the death pangs, struck back in a frenzy of self-preservation.

However, when the convulsions of election activity had ceased, labor’s heads found themselves in possession of an unexpected but unquestionable victory. Proposition No.1 was beaten back. The reactionary Merriam was overturned and in his place, elected with labor support, stood Governor Olson, who was considered a “radical” because of his activity in the Epic movement. Still these events have brought to the labor leader only a transitory release from care. Already he feels the ranks under him strain forward. But to him this means the provoking of Associated Farmers’ wrath – and the return of DT’s again. Not to go forward, either in fact or in fantasy, implies a return to the lean, gaunt, salary-bare years of the First Depression. To these courses he finds only one other alternative – a pleasing and slightly befuddled state of inebriation. To produce this he begs- – from a New Deal gentleman who has no intention of giving up anything – a drink from a bottle that has long since been emptied.


If anyone were to confine himself to the milieu of California’s official “Democrats” in a hunt for the key to this political paradox, he would rapidly bury himself in a straw pile of confusion. For it was neither the genial personality of Governor Olson nor the confused generalship of his labor lieutenants nor even the frantic propaganda of People’s World that defeated Proposition No.1, but solid support from the middle classes. Thousands of unexpected votes came to labor’s aid from the army of “Thirty Thursday” Pension Plan supporters.

As a political force the “Thirty Thursday” organization exists as one of the last vital surges of the great middle-class movement of protest which swept over the country during the past eight years. In the early stages of the Roosevelt administration, while big Capital was gathering up the real benefits of NRA in the increased accumulation of profits and while labor was stirring in the first indications of the trade union revival, the dispossessed and bankrupt middle classes first realized that the New Deal offered no solution to their social problems. This led to an eruption of popular “left” variations of the New Deal which used up the whole lurid shelf of middle-class political patent-medicines. Yet in spite of superficial differences, the program of each successive stage of this movement was identical: a rather dubious leadership attempted to promote a platform of Utopian radicalism within the framework of the Democratic party. In this last point each of these organizations unconsciously confessed that its success depended solely upon the acceptance of its program by American capitalism, in this case represented by Roosevelt, and its impotence as a truly independent force. When Roosevelt firmly ignored the existence of these movements, each collapsed like a pricked balloon, and its following was swallowed up by the next oncoming popular wave.

These convulsions of protest attained their greatest intensity and widest scope in California. Upton Sinclair’s Epic, Utopians, Inc., the Townsend Plan – all these overnight achieved statewide organization and gained mass support. The “Thirty Thursday” movement is merely the latest of this series. In the meantime similar movements over the rest of the country dwindled away under the influence of Roosevelt “prosperity” and their followings have returned to pseudo-liberal Republicanism at the first touch of recession. But in California the pension movement shows little tendency to diminish. To Upton Sinclair’s 800,000 votes in 1934 the Pension Plan polled well over a million in the last election.

In the interval between these two elections another and far more significant change was taking place. As the movement evolved through successive programs and with changing leadership, its demands tended to become increasingly more simple and effective. While grandiose schemes of Epic demanded no less than the complete revolutionizing of society within the boundaries of California, today the Pension supporters confine themselves to the extremely justifiable demand for thirty dollars a week. At the same time, along with the narrowing of program, the struggles of this movement have given to many of its supporters some slight political schooling. In spite of the firm resolutions of its leaders to keep their flocks thoroughly respectable, sectarian and classless, the movement has moved gradually closer to the trade unions. Support of the Olson campaign became a common meeting ground in the last election, and in the heat of the battle both labor and pension movements – in a confused and not too effective fashion, to be sure – appealed to each other for support.

Already, although the Plan was defeated by a small margin in the election, its supporters are renewing the attack. Naturally the Plan’s cynical and none too moral brain trust confines itself to corridor intrigues at the State Capitol. But the rank and file, believing a close sympathizer has been elected Governor, is stepping on the Democratic heels, confident that a victory in the long drawn out pension fight is near.

As for Governor Olson, having given left-handed support to the Plan in his campaign, he now tries to wiggle out of a tight corner by passing the buck to Washington. But he does this at the exact time when Roosevelt, putting the informal New Deal togs back into mothballs, is laying out his military uniform. Under these circumstances no one (including Olson) seriously anticipates Federal enactment of satisfactory Pension legislation, and the Plan’s supporters must continue to clamor for action from the California legislature. But – leaving aside the political fact that Olson does not control the legislature and is the captive of the reactionary State Senate – only a huge increase in the State budget could make the smallest concessions possible. This would require an increase in taxable incomes based upon an overwhelming revival of agricultural prosperity and an exceptional expansion of the perishable fruit and vegetable industry which has been chronically depressed since 1930. With foreign markets for these products being steadily closed off and new productive regions being opened in the Southwest, this market seems destined for more drastic decline.

Already Olson has admitted that these fundamental factors bar any great increase of State income. Coming into the inheritance only of a huge, almost bankrupt state bureaucracy, his financial policies must necessarily confine themselves to the bleak road marked by the carcass of Merriam’s late “economy” régime. For the expectant Pension enthusiasts this course holds an abrupt and brutal destruction of their fondest hopes.


While it cannot be said that labor is very acutely aware of this state of affairs, some sections of the workers have been sobered and reanimated by the victorious fight against Proposition No.1. “Unity” movements of both AFL and CIO unionists have sprung up from below. The two-headed dragon of legal suppression and illegal violence has come within sight of the whole movement within the past months. Everyone understands that if a return of the danger is to be prevented, the trade union movement must not only be united but widened and strengthened as well. That means above all a drive to organize the masses of agricultural workers. But this problem is now so hedged in by the bayonets of political, legal and vigilante forces that any major attempt to solve it on a purely trade union plane seems doomed to failure. Besides, the failure of simple unionism to provide more than an incomplete and precarious solution to their problems has repressed the enthusiasm of the advanced workers for further trade union activity.

As a result the unity movements have shown signs of becoming more deeply involved in political activity. Having beaten off legal strangulation at the bosses’ hands only by an energetic political counter-attack they now wish to push forward. The logical, progressive end of such a movement can only result in the formation of a Labor Party, and the progressive workers, generally, favor this as a distant goal. But they do not yet understand that upon a fairly rapid arrival at this goal depends not only a great part of the political future of California labor but the further progress of its trade unions as well.

Only a militant Labor Party could promise and produce real protection against vigilantism, not in the form of reliance upon the platonic promises of the Democrats but by organized defense forces based on a united union movement. Only with such protection and encouragement could the agricultural workers’ organization be attempted. Upon the success of this drive depends the ability of labor to strike a crippling blow at the schemes of Associated Farmers, to lay the basis for the complete control of California’s economic life, and to add a hundred thousand of the most militant and devoted fighters to Labor’s ranks.

That such a stormy renascence of the labor movement would have a tremendously magnetic influence upon the middle classes is beyond question. With Democratic betrayal of the Pension Plan already almost an accomplished fact its followers openly appeal for labor support. If the unions ignore this appeal – preferring instead the doubtful privilege of continuing to act as ballast in the Olson ship-of-state – the pension movement will wither away, and reaction will gather up its members within a short interval. On the other hand, a Labor party which would boldly incorporate the progressive essence of the “Thirty Thursday” Plan into its program could rally the million followers of the Plan to its banner.

Moreover, many Pension supporters are farmers of the poorest classes. In no other state is the farmer so directly and brutally dominated by capitalism as in California. In the past period federal crop destruction policies in the fruit and vegetable industries have produced some astounding monstrosities. Carried through directly by a state organization, the Pro-Rate Commission, these policies have consistently operated to the benefit of large producers and the ruination of small ones. But there is no illogic in this, for the Pro-Rate is directly dominated by huge corporation farms, which

in turn are owned directly by banks, canning interests and wealthy produce brokers. Its aims serve the ends of the land policies of this capitalist group, tending constantly to force the small producer onto less fertile lands and into farm tenancy. Besides, the ruined farmer is ground on the other side by the suppressed but persistent demands of the agricultural worker. Caught between these two forces he has vacillated between extreme vigilantism and a sullen rebellion against Pro-Rate.

The discovery of means whereby this embryo agrarian revolt against financial domination can be turned against capitalism itself is one of the primary tasks of the workers’ movement. Aid by defense squads from the urban unions might enable agricultural labor to stand firm against the corporation farms, thus putting a quick finish to vigilante outrages and splitting the smaller farmers away from control by the corporations. A Labor party, in this situation, would have only to make Pro-Rate the subject of partisan politics to draw this oppressed class towards its influence.

Thus the labor movement in California is faced with an objective possibility of taking a tremendous step forward. On the national scene labor was much too preoccupied settling its internal accounts with William Green to take advantage of the initial upsurge of the middle classes. But now in California a well organized labor movement stands face to face with a political crisis which could be used to break the political hold of capitalism over the middle classes. Taking advantage of the renewed ferment in its own ranks Labor could move forward and assume leadership of a decisive majority of the State’s population.

To do this a Labor party need not create any new programs or involved schemes: it has only to adopt the progressive content of the struggles of the past eight years. Just as the pension movement has revealed the road to the urban middle classes and the agricultural workers’ struggles have opened the way to the small fanner, so history, in the person of Upton Sinclair, has revealed how the unemployed can be rallied around the banner of Production For Use. These issues, the vital strands which connect the people with politics, are ready for labor to grasp. To weave these strands into a hangman’s rope for capitalism is the great task of the Labor party. And in the near future, guided by a little dear thinking and with a little independence and audacity, labor can, and must, do this for California.

Unfortunately, a superficial glance at the internal condition of the state’s trade union movement seems to reduce all these great possibilities to the level of fantastic day-dreams. For the unions are so upset by factional conflict and internal division that even the most elementary struggle against the boss has become almost impossible. The AFL-CIO division has existed in its most virulent and repulsive form. Recently within the AFL a suppressed but bitter struggle for supremacy has begun between Teamsters’ and Building Trades’ unions. Into this mess the CIO – already punch-drunk from Stalinist manhandling – has attempted to’ poke’ a clumsy finger.

Of much greater importance, the Stalinists – in the person of the outstanding trade union figure, Harry Bridges – have made their supreme attempt to achieve the smug respectability of the trade union bureaucracy. Long ago this effort had become so impassioned that even the AFL leaders were frightened and for the past two years CIO and AFL have fallen all over one another in a race to determine which shall be considered the most loyal servant of the bosses. But this disgusting byplay, so flagrantly violating the militant traditions of the CIO, has produced discontent and flareups of revolt of which the Los Angeles Trade Union Conference was one of the first outbreaks.

Adding to the confusion, the powerful Sailors’ and Firemen’s Unions stand apart from this. For five years they have carried on a militant and largely successful struggle against the shipowners, Stalinist violence and government meddling. On the basis of the class consciousness and intransigent nature of their record one would expect to find these seamen in the front rank of those battling for a Labor party. But in the course of this inter-union fight, Stalinist factionalism has succeeded in cutting them off almost entirely from the main progressive stream of American labor. As a result, even while it has strengthened and sharpened their trade union program, the development of these unions has generated anti-political forces which try to push them into a sterile, isolated syndicalism.

But beneath all these apparently divergent groupings, two absolutely opposite tendencies constantly reassert themselves. Under the slogan of “Industrial Peace” the movement of Harry Bridges and his allies in the AFL seeks to perform, by means of internal poisoning, what Proposition No.1 failed to do legally – the smothering of the initiative and independence of the trade unions. By fighting to reassert the militant union traditions of California, the opposing forces, which have collided with Bridges at every step, grope almost blindly toward some program of liberation. The struggle of the seamen’s unions and the Los Angeles Conference were stages in the formation of this program. The unity of these two forces, combined with the decisive aid of the revolutionary workers, could provide an immediate and impelling force for the formation of the Labor party.

Politically, the reactionary intriguing of Harry Bridges has attempted to bind the unions more securely with the rotting threads of New Dealism. In this he has received a helping hand from the Democratic bosses, who hope by this to secure their own insecure positions. In the past, California was a traditional Republican state, with the two-party system alternating between “regular” Republicans and “Progressives” led by Senator Hiram Johnson. At the outset these two groups reflected opposing sides in a great battle of the 1890’s between the railroad trust and the farmers. But even though the banks had long since gobbled up both the Octopus and the farmer, thus erasing all possible political differences between them, two political machines existed which might have continued to squabble forever over patronage and control of the State’s vote had not the growing Democratic party forced upon them the necessity of unity. The open support given by Hiram Johnson to the senatorial candidate of Associated Farmers, Phil Bancroft (himself a backslidden Bull Mooser!), symbolized the final healing of this breach.

Thus when Roosevelt’s victory thrust the Democrats into national prominence in 1932, the California Bourbons found themselves without a suitable vote-catching machine. In 1934 their attempts to launch one on the fast running tides of middle-class discontent ended in failure; and even their humiliating acceptance of Sinclair’s Epic Plan could not prevent the Republican machine from electing the unpopular Merriam. Approaching the last campaign, with Roosevelt losing ground, the Democrats would have again faced defeat had not the Stalinists gleefully joined hands with them. Stepping with brazen pride into their new rôle these latterday Judases turned a machine of considerable proportions, which had already been admirably trained for its new work, into the army of cigar-passing, back-slapping, hand-shaking, baby-kissing ward heelers that pushed Olson to victory.

With Olson in office the Stalinist party has received the fitting reward of becoming a well-oiled gear in the new Democratic machine. This is an event of considerable political importance and Earl Browder has already rhapsodized over it. The CP is able to enter a mad scramble for the political spoils of victory on an equal footing with other participants in American capitalism’s political sideshow. The filling of important political posts by Stalinists and their labor bureaucrat allies, the opening of the State apparatus to hordes of Party functionaries and the complete identification of the CP with the Olson government – these are events at which an aspiring politician does not sneer. But even though these things guarantee their further and complete degeneration as a separate political force in the State, it would be idiotic to deny that the increase of fat under the Stalinist waistlines will become the greatest obstacle to the development of a Labor Party.

But in California labor cannot afford to wait! ... Like the State’s perishable crops, political situations develop advantageously, but with some dangers. Today ripeness demands a quick harvest, tomorrow everything will be over-ripe, and the next day, rotten. In this there is more than a figurative truth. Capitalism today advances in the Eastern states behind a smiling mask of “liberal” criticism; but in California, although it has paused for the briefest possible instant, reaction wears no false face. In its day the Merriam régime produced an unparalleled record of police repression, labor frameups and vigilante terrorism. In the last election the bleak and reactionary figure of Phil Bancroft, who campaigned openly against the unions and the unemployed, polled the surprising total of 800,000 votes. To all who use their eyes for seeing these are the warning shadows of advancing fascism.

A solid determination to fight off what stands so plainly before them can yet lead California’s workers to clear away the obstacles to a Labor party. Time is pressing! Already tremendous forces are moving on the battlefield and the objective prerequisites of a victory exist – only the will is lacking. But through the catalytic power of an intelligent, energetic Marxist cadre everything is possible.

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