The Class Struggle and the Trade Unions

Submitted by AWL on 8 October, 2013 - 4:28

"There is no class struggle in America": This precept now belongs in the American catechism along with the little boy who chopped down the cherry tree but wouldn't lie.

And, as prescribed by the official Way of Life, unions obstinately refuse to "recognize" the class struggle and boast proudly that they remain aloof from it. But it "recognizes" the unions; in fact, it creates them. Despite the most sincere protestations of labor officials, unions practice the class struggle and a hundred times a day demonstrate its persistence.

In his recent quest for a smattering of respectability, Walter Reuther has lately cautioned against class strife, and the formation of a Labor Party. But he is a living refutation of himself:

He appeals to workers to form, loin, build, and be loyal to their own class organizations—unions. He insists that they conduct their affairs without outside interference and excludes not only the Communist Party but lawyers, bankers, storekeepers, and employers. Unless he were a worker under the jurisdiction of a labor union, even J. Edgar Hoover would be barred from membership. The union is a class institution.

He insists that unions concentrate on raising the living standards and rights of their membership, that they demand and fight for higher pay, shorter hours, better working conditions, security—even if this means cutting into employers' profits. These are class aims.

He crusades for pensions for wage-workers. After reaching the age of 60-65 ("too old to work but too young to die") and after putting in 20-25 years of service and sweat on the job, workers must retire in dignity and security. What is this demand but a dramatic confession that tens of millions of men and women are fated to live out their whole lives as hired wage hands—in America?

And through unions, workers fight for maternity benefits, hospitalization, life insurance and death benefits. From the hour of birth, through the long years of work, to pensions, to death—all under the surveillance of unionism. These demands and the unremitting struggle to achieve them are the unconscious recognition of the workers as a class, fixed within modern capitalist society.

Challenge Employer "Rights"

And far more through the unions: Reuther, and other labor leaders who publicly spurn the class struggle, challenge virtually every right of the employers: their right to hire and fire, to fix wages and hours, to regulate the speed of production and the intensity of labor, to discriminate, to promote, to transfer workers. The only right which they concede in theory is the general "right to own and manage" but they resist every effort to define this right concretely as a limitation on the range of unionism and the scope of its demands. It was such a refusal by the labor leadership that
helped to explode Truman's Labor-Management Conference in 1945.

And they, the labor officials, call upon workers to rally to their own class political organizations—not a labor party it is true, but to a labor Political Action Committee, or a Labor's League for Political Education. And through this class-dominated political institution, candidates for public office are judged, tested, rejected, and endorsed on the basis of union criteria: Will their candidancy advance or retard the cause of labor? The conclusion, they reach are usually wrong, for they persist in supporting Democrats and Republicans, but the question they ask is correct: Will their candidacy advance or retard the cause of labor?

And their political organization is not satisfied with vote-catching and ward-heeling. It tries to elaborate a program and a philosophy, concerning itself not only with wages and hours but with all the problems faced by the nation: war and peace, foreign policy, democracy, race relations, industry, education, health, government. It does not—not yet—propose that the power of government be placed in the hands of elected representatives of a labor party, but it does insist that all politics be guided by labor's outlook. And it appeals for support not only from union workingmen but from all the
poorer, ordinary people.

When he stepped into the UAW president's chair, Reuther summarized his aim in a slogan: "Make the UAW the vanguard in America and the architect of the future." Such is indeed the role of the working class, vaguely and formlessly hinted at in the words and actions of union leaders, foreshadowing its clear and conscious role tomorrow. On the big questions before the country, the majority of the working class tends toward a common point of view. And the class against whom it struggles, the capitalist class, which owns the machinery of production and which therefore is able to live off the labor of others, also tends toward a common point of view. In industry, in politics, in society the organized workers are pitted against the organized employers: there is your class struggle.

"First organize them, then unionize them". That is the slogan of the United Auto Workers. It is a succinct statement of the task of unions, not only to enroll workers as union members but to change their whole outlook, to make them think as union men. No class struggle, no class-consciousness in America? But a loyal, enduring union-consciousness is deeply rooted-in the organized working class. And this union-consciousness is class-consciousness at a lower level.

Nothing seemed more pitiful than the union movement in the late 1920s. It had been decimated by an open-shop drive after the First "World War. In the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis had crushed union democracy, expelled progressives who wanted to fight for industrial unionism everywhere, and carried the union into decline. The craft unions which dominated the AFL were hostile or indifferent to the organization of the unorganized mass-production industries. Racketeering flourished. The AFL remained aloof from politics, and when, the depression hit, fought every demand for government, aid to the unemployed. In the crisis of 1929, industrial unions were almost obliterated. The Miners Union and the needle-trades unions were reduced to a small fragment of a still-organized minority holding on with desperation. Unions a result of the class struggle? It seemed ludicrous.

CIO—The Great Revival

Yet it was out of this union movement that the great revival emerged. John L. Lewis for the United Miners, David Dubinsky for the Ladies Garment Workers, and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union formed the CIO and opened the great strike struggles that broke open-shoppism in the mass-production industries. It was class struggle on a giant scale as auto workers and rubber workers seized the factories in mass sit-in strikes and defied all the threats of courts, police, militia, and vigilantes.

In February 1937, 2000 sit-in strikers in GM plants in Flint, Michigan, were directed by court order to quit the plants, Governor Murphy was toying with the idea of ousting them with militia. They sent him a letter: "We, the workers in the plant are completely unarmed, and to send in the military, armed thugs, and armed deputies will mean a bloody massacre. . . . We have carried on a stay-in strike over a month in order to make General Motors Corporation obey the law and engage in collective bargaining. We have decided to stay in the plant. Wre have no illusions about the sacrifices this decision will entail. We fully expect that if a violent effort is made to oust us many of us will be killed and we take this means to make it known that if this result follows from the attempt to eject us, you are the one who must be held responsible for our deaths."

Their courage won. It was such a spirit that brought unionism to mass-production industry. The CIO was born in a wave of intense class struggle.

It brought a measure of democracy into industry. For the first time, the giant monopolies were forced to recognize the class organizations of their workers in auto, steel, rubber, oil. Industrial unionism was founded. It struck a blow against racial discrimination in industry. Negroes poured into the new unions with equal rights and they won security on the job, the right to promotions, to seniority. Thousands of Negroes became trained workers' leaders in the course of strike struggles and union-building.

It revived political democracy. It enrolled millions into industrial unions and quickly brought them into politics. It entered into election campaigns which became the forum for airing opposing social programs and demands and not simply a contest between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. During the Second World War, union officials made an all-out effort at class peace. Virtually every important union with the exception of the United Mine Workers gave a "no-strike pledge," promising under no conditions to strike for the duration of the war. They were ready to surrender their weapons in the interests of uninterrupted production of munitions to defeat Japan and Hitler’s Germany. But although they were ready to give up the class struggle and freeze the unions in a state of suspended animation, they were not ready to give up the unions, or let them be destroyed. The no-strike pledge, which was presumably an "unconditional" pledge, was actually founded on an unstated but decisive condition: democracy must remain and unions must be protected. Only
the Stalinists, for their own pro-Russian anti-labor motives, were ready to enforce the pledge to the point of destroying unions. The no-strike pledge proved impossible to enforce because the class struggle is impossible to eradicate in
capitalist society. Wherever a free labor movement exists, the class struggle tends to spring to life within it. Even the most conservative unions (yes, even gangster and racket-ridden unions) contain the potential for regeneration as fighting institutions of the working class. Those who would wipe out the class struggle, or at least the possibility for an aimed working-class struggle, would have to destroy root and branch every vestige of unionism. The class struggle is not created by the quirk of individuals nor can it be set aside at their whim. It is "provoked" by the very nature of capitalist society and cannot be shrugged off as inconvenient even during wartime. If the labor leaders were quite eager to live in peace and harmony, the employers and their political representatives were not. In fact, the more the unions
stressed their peaceful intentions, the more provocative became the employers; Once the unions announced that they would not tolerate strikes, the bosses had a free hand to fire union activists, to chisel on wages and piecework, to speed up production by squeezing workers, to violate contracts in a thousand small ways, while controls made real wages drop behind prices. The class struggle erupted, unofficial but real. Despite government pressure, harangues from the capitalist-owned press, and appeals from labor officials, strikes began—so-called "wild cats," unplanned and
spontaneous. Only in the United Mine Workers Union were the top officials courageous enough to organize and lead strikes to defend working standards. But in other unions the strike movement went on as "wild-cat" stoppages opposed from above but led by rank-and-file union militants from below in defiance of official policy. Literally hundreds, if not thousands, of unauthorized strikes sprinkled the country during the war, reaching every industrial city and every industry. The rubber industry was shut down by a general strike in the Akron rubber plants, unauthorized but solid. In Detroit, two or three new walkouts began every day. The movement began as a series of semi-spontaneous, isolated, disconnected incidents but grew in scope. The no-strike pledge and resistance to it invaded the internal life of the unions as movements to rescind the pledge mounted. In the Rubber Workers Union, in the shipbuilding unions, and even in the solidly Stalinist controlled United Electrical Workers, caucuses were founded to fight to rescind the pledge. But it was in the United Auto Workers that the movement reached its height. In local unions, the pledge became an election issue and by 1944 a nation-wide rank-and-file caucus was formed in advance of the union's convention, and gained one-third of the votes for rescinding. Union officials who resisted the movement against the pledge too firmly or who sought to crush and expel unauthorized strike leaders found themselves in trouble. The downfall of the Communist Party in the labor movement, the most vicious and unrelenting enemy of striking militants, dates from this period. It was in the
struggle against the no-strike pledge that progressive unionists began to learn that Stalinism is a reactionary anti-working-class force.

Stalinist Role Exposed

President Dalrymple of the United Rubber Workers Union dreamed of emerging as the strong man who would at last make the no-strike pledge stick; he suspended locals; he fined strikers; he expelled union members. But when the dust settled, he found it wise to retire without running for re-election.

In the United Auto Workers, President R. J. Thomas, Secretary-Treasurer George Addes and the Stalinists, who formed one united bloc, were stern advocates of the no-strike pledge and sought to restore piecework to the auto industry where unionists had struggled for years for its removal. Militants who had fought against the pledge and against piecework rallied behind Walter Reuther in 1946, elected him in place of Thomas, and in a bitter caucus fight in the next years, crushed the Addes-Thomas-Stalinist bloc. When the CIO was founded, we saw that a united labor officialdom could split in two, with one section leading mass struggles, even violent ones, to establish unionism in the basic industries. The war years were even more instructive. We saw that American unionists, if need be, were ready to cast aside their old leaders and take up the class struggle in new ways.

When the First World War ended, union-busting began. Unions which had enrolled millions of new members were forced back by a successful employers' open-shop drive. But unionism was finally established in the class struggle after the Second World War.

When the war ended in 1945, the union movement was freed of the shackles of the no-strike pledge. The official union leadership called mass strikes in every industry. Instead of going backward, unionism moved
forward as millions went on the picket lines in auto, steel, oil, rubber. In these strikes, the leaders sought to make up for the passive war years and it was into these mass movements that the rank-and-file movements of the war years disappeared. These were the days when unionists showed how little respect they felt for some of the sacrosanct privileges of their employers. "Open the Books," "Wage Increases Without Price Increases" - these slogans of the GM strike of 1945-6 inspired unionists everywhere. The right of employers to the inviolate secrecy of their financial manipulations was challenged; their unilateral right to set prices was called into question.

Although these rallying slogans have been shelved, they will be revived. Now the unions are strong, self-reliant and entrenched. But it is impossible for them to relax in the comfortable enjoyment of class peace.

Employer Offensive

The employing class tolerates unionism because it can do nothing else; but for the last decade, ever since the powerful post-war strike wave, it pushes for government curbs on union power. And it has been successful: The Taft-Hartley Law holds the threat of government injunction over every mass strike; it imposes political curbs and qualifications on union leaders; it makes it illegal for strikers to vote in NLRB elections, a provision successfully used to smash unions in local
cases. An employers nation-wide "right-to-work" campaign is in full swing, putting over state laws outlawing the union shop. New laws are before Congress to curb the right of unions to participate in election campaigns. What employers cannot achieve in open class struggle on the industrial front they win on the political front.

The class struggle by the employers against the unions continues. The unions are forced to defend themselves: it is the pressure of its class enemies that impels the AFL and CIO to unite. No class struggle in America? The unity of AFL and CIO tells a different story, as does all of American labor history.