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Quarterly Notes

Labor Unity: A Momentous Event

(Winter 1955–56)

From The New International, Vol. XXI No. 4, Winter 1955–56, pp. 212–215.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

WHEN THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR and the Congress of Industrial Organizations opened their convention on December 7, 1955, just about two decades had elapsed since the Committee for Industrial Organization was expelled from the AF of L. For twenty years the American labor movement has been divided into two mutually hostile and warring factions. But far more important in the long run than the history of fratricidal struggle is the fact that during these two decades the trade union movement in this country has transformed itself from a relatively narrow organization of the building trades and a few other skilled workers into a mighty, broad, national organization of the American working class as a whole.

Looking back at it now, one can say that it is hard to see how this result could have been achieved without the split in the labor movement which has now come to an end. The old AFL was just too strongly dominated by the narrowest of craft outlooks to respond to the opportunity to organize the mass-production workers in the basic industries. Given the pioneering work and the competitive threat of the CIO unions, the AFL leaders were able to bestir themselves sufficiently to take in the hordes of workers who were practically breaking down their doors. The mass influx transformed many of these unions. It was only this transformation which made it possible for a George Meany to replace a William Green, and to lead the hard core conservatives of his own organization reluctantly to the unification ceremonies.

Even at that, the unity might not have been achieved, or at least not at this particular time, were it not for two essentially conservative pressures which have been bearing down on the labor movement with increasing weight for the past few years. By far the most important of these is the pressure the capitalist class has been able to put on the workers as a result of the former’s increasing political strength over the past decade.

The most dramatic expression of this pressure was the passage of the Taft-Hartley law, and the utter inability of the labor movement to muster any but token strength for its repeal or fundamental revision in all the years it has been on the law books. In this respect, victory with Truman meant no more to them than defeat with Stevenson. And the law bears down with greater and greater weight as its interpretation and administration continues in the hands of increasingly conservative officials and as capitalists learn to use all the booby-traps and time-bombs concealed in it. Having experienced what can be done to unions under the protection of this law even in good times, thoughtful workers and labor leaders shudder at the thought of what they will face if the country is once again subjected to a serious siege of depression and unemployment.

But Taft-Hartley is just the most dramatic symbol. In the South it has been combined with all the traditional union-busting measures of the pre-CIO era with devastating effect on the big post-war drive of both federations to organize that area. Significant sections of industry have seen the promised land of low-wages and unorganized workers below the Mason-Dixon line and in the smaller rural communities of the middle and south west, and have moved their operations to these areas leaving the organized workers at their old sites high and dry.

And in general, despite the long post war prosperity, despite the bulging treasuries and the imposing new headquarters, health and welfare funds and the like, the labor leaders feel that hostile elements have the upper hand politically and that sooner or later they are going to use their power for an all-out drive against the unions. This, more than anything else, helped the most politically sophisticated and sensitive of them to push over all the many and difficult barriers to unity at this time.

The other factor which made unity possible was the fact that both the AFL and CIO had been growing toward each other in many ways ever since the split, and particularly during the post-war era. On the one hand, this growth was healthy and progressive, as in the tendency of more and more AFL unions to take in unskilled workers on an industrial basis, to reduce the old racial barriers which had disgraced them for so long, etc. On the other hand, there has obviously been a thickening and hardening of the bureaucratic crust in the CIO unions over the seething rank and file democracy which won the great battles of the ’30s. Many of the top CIO leaders, now in high office for ten, fifteen or twenty years, began to think and feel much more like their opposite numbers in the AFL. Despite the understandable uneasiness of some of the latter at the prospect of sitting down at the same table as colleagues with the parvenue CIO leaders, even the first tentative contacts made it clear to them that these gentlemen were not really the wild-eyed agitators with whom the AFL moguls had sought to scare their members and prospective members for so many years.

The defensive motives which compelled this unity as outlined above in no way change the fact that the united labor movement is a far more formidable and powerful force in the national life of the country than the old divided movement could possibly have been. Speaker after speaker arose at the unity convention, both from among the labor leaders and from among the “Friends of labor” and other dignitaries who had been invited to address the body, and counseled the new labor movement to use its strength sparingly, cautiously, soberly and with humility. Speaker after speaker got up to proclaim that the class struggle, thank God, has no place in this great country of ours. It was just a product of the hallucinations of a lonely refugee in a dark recess of the British Museum, and has no relevance to the American scene. Speaker after speaker proclaimed that no responsible labor leader is for a labor party, that it would be a disaster if such a party were to be formed, and the like.

This was all in the realm of historical, social and mythological theory. When Meany and others got down to talking about the practical problems which face the labor movement, they spoke about the need for labor to become “more political” than in the past; to participate more actively in national politics; to meet their adversaries on whatever ground the latter may choose, including that of politics. When Meany left the convention hall and went over to extend the hand of friendship to the 60th annual convention of the National Association of Manufacturers, he was met with a snarling attack from the top leader of that organization and the proposal of a “code of conduct” to be signed by industry and labor the terms of which read like instructions handed an enemy who has agreed to surrender, unconditionally.

Meany, who had just come from presiding over a convention whose delegates represent about 15,000,000 American workers from every state, city and town in the country replied to the NAM’s leader in the presence of reporters:

“If the NAM philosophy to disfranchise unions is to prevail, then the answer is clear. If we can’t act as unions to defend our rights, then there is no answer but to start a labor party.”

Meany repeated this again at much greater length over a national TV network when prodded by reporters. He is a deliberate and thoughtful man. He made it clear that he hopes the labor movement in this country will never be forced to form a labor party; that he does not believe that its enemies will get their way to the point where this will be the only alternative left to the workers; that he certainly does not think any such situation is imminent. But the fact remains that the most solid, most representative leader of the American labor bureaucrats turns again and again to this among all the possible solutions to labor’s political dilemma in this country.

The united labor movement faces all kinds of internal problems, and it is quite likely that much will happen before this unity settles down into its permanent mold. Racism, racketeering and raiding will all give rise to struggles of varying scopes and intensities in the months and years ahead. There may be split-offs from the united organization, and even big ones, before some of the most cancerous growths which have afflicted the organized workers in this country have been eliminated. There may also be considerable periods of apparent calm when far too little seems to be happening.

But the handwriting is on the wall for the racketeers and racists who have dominated such sizeable sections of the movement for so long. And the neanderthal type employer, who decides he is going to spearhead the return of class relations to what they were before the CIO was formed is also going to find it much harder going. After all, even those of the CIO’s leaders who have been getting to think and act more and more like AFL bureaucrats come from the tradition of a labor movement which is neither a racket nor a labor-management mutual admiration society, and they are bound to join forces with their similars who have existed in the AFL throughout its history against the section of the leadership whose whole outlook is essentially alien to trade unionism.

THE FIRST REAL TEST of the united labor movement on the industrial front came in the bitterly-fought Westinghouse strike of the International Union of Electrical Workers-CIO. The second was and is, as we go to press, the Miami hotel strike. In both cases the united labor movement appears to have shown the increased strength and self-confidence of its unity.

The next test will come in the national elections of 1956. It would hardly be reasonable to expect the new giant to feel his strength so clearly in so short a time as to enter the political arena on his own behalf and under his own banner. Only the rapid development of some extreme attack on the movement, or of an irreconcilable struggle in the Democratic Party could lead to that.

But American politics being what they are, there is much short of forming its own party that the labor movement can and will do which can at least have the effect of increasing its political experience and self-confidence, which can test the mettle of itself, its friends and its enemies. Most generally it will probably test the increased effectiveness it has gained by unity in the very limited field of getting out the votes for the Democratic Party. Here and there it may be emboldened to run its own candidates against those of the party machine, or to engage in other forms of independent or quasi-independent political activity under the transparent camouflage of the Democratic Party label.

Despite itself, or anything its leaders may do, there can be no doubt that in this election all other class forces and groupings will feel the effect of the labor unity and will seek one or another method of adapting themselves to or dealing with the fact that a new political force is now in the field. Nothing could more clearly bring home to the American working class and the whole American people that the unification of the labor movement is an event of almost incalculable significance in their history.

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Last updated: 24 October 2019