Trotskyist Work in the Trade Unions (2/4)

Trotskyist Work in the Trade Unions

by C. Knox
Part 2 of 4

Minneapolis 1934 General Strike!

Throughout the 1930's the American Trotskyists had to work under an overwhelming organizational disadvantage compared to the Stalinists. Expelled in the late 1920's from a Communist Party which had already undergone years of political degeneration, the Trotskyist forces at first numbered no more than 100 as opposed to the CP's 7,000. Furthermore, after Stalin's abrupt shift into the "Third Period" in 1929, many elements in the CP who had been sympathetic to Trotsky were superficially impressed by the new ultra-leftism and apparent adoption of some of the slogans of the Left Opposition and were induced to remain in the CP. The main initial source of Trotskist recruitment was thus frozen off.

Despite the extreme sectarianism of the "Third Period," the CP reversed its decline and began to grow again during the early years of the Depression. CP-initiated unemployed leagues held militant demonstrations and attracted new forces. Despite the radical disproportion of forces, however, the CP could not tolerate the political threat represented by Trotsky's analysis and program. It immediately set out to destroy the American Trotskyists through physical gangsterism and cowardly exclusionism within the workers movement. Trotskyist meetings around the country were attacked by thugs and sometimes broken up.

"In those dog days of the movement we were shut off from all contact.... Whenever we tried to get into a workers organization we would be expelled as counter-revolutionary Trotskyists. We tried to send delegations to unemployed meetings. Our credentials would be rejected on the grounds that we were enemies of the working class. We were utterly isolated, forced in upon ourselves."
--James P. Cannon, History of American Trotskyism

Under such circumstances, the Trotskyists did little mass work. Their first duty was to save as many of the vanguard cadre as possible for the program of the revolution. A premature turn to mass work would have in fact meant meaningless, sterile isolation--an abandonment of the Trotskyist program. Opportunities for intervention such as the Progressive Miners of America in 1932 were the exception rather than the rule.

The victory of fascism in Germany in 1933 was a monumental defeat which went unopposed by the Communist International and caused only isolated defections in its ranks. The Left Opposition concluded that the Third International had definitively gone over to support of the bourgeois order, and pronounced it dead as a potentially revolutionary force. Instead of continuing to act as a bureaucratically-expelled faction of the CI, the Trotskyists announced their intention to build a new party and a new international. This coincided with a slight economic upturn which renewed confidence among employed workers and stimulated a dramatic upturn in the class struggle. Strikes increased, and the Trotskyists fought hard to break out of their isolation. They published special editions of the Militant for big events such as the Paterson silk strike, sent their leaders on tours, and even managed to speak at some of the larger unemployed conferences, despite continued hooliganism by the CP.

Into the AFL

The Depression heightened the crisis of proletarian leadership caused by the refusal of the bureaucratic, craft leadership of the American Federation of Labor to organize the unorganized in the 1920's. While millions were thrown out of work and millions more forced to accept wage cuts, the AFL continued its class-collaborationist, do-nothing policy, showing no more concern over the unemployment question than the capitalist government itself. After the 1929 stock market crash, AFL-head William Green had even offered the bosses a no-strike pledge, if only they would stop wage cuts (which, of course, they did not, prompting only more inaction by Green)! Most union leaders simply counseled passive acceptance of rampant wage-slashing by the bosses while the AFL campaigned against government unemployment insurance. John L. Lewis of the Mineworkers toured the country putting down strikes against wage cuts. By 1933, AFL membership, continuing its decline, hit a low of slightly over two million, which was about half what it had been in 1920.

The Rooseveltian "New Deal" economic program (under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933-NRA) was designed to improve business by encouraging "rationalization" (promoting government-backed trustification) and raise public confidence in the system through a massive propaganda campaign. However, the strike wave beginning in early 1933 included a high proportion of unorganized industrial workers, which caused Roosevelt to cave in to pressure from the AFL to include a "right to organize" clause (section 7-A of NRA). Actually representing no change in the realm of legal rights, the vague clause had the effect of both promoting company unions and building the authority of the AFL unions: in either case, it was designed to provide the bosses with an agency to contain the upsurge.

While the bosses busily set up company unions to control the workers, the AFL unions also began to expand-despite the fact that many of these unions had previously been reduced to discredited shells--because the AFL appeared to be the agency through which the benefits of the "New Deal" would filter down. The Trotskyists immediately recognized the vital implications of this trend for revolutionary work in the class struggle. "We must march with this instinctive movement and influence it from within," wrote Cannon in the Militant (2 September 1933).

The Stalinists, meanwhile, were still maintaining their ruinous "Third Period" policy of creating dual "red" unions everywhere. The supposition had been that the unorganized masses would be organized directly by the CP, over the heads of the AFL. A mere trifle had been lacking for the realization of this plan--the mass movement. Despite some party growth, sectarian isolation of the Communists had been the general result. The established unions were showing some new life, but the Stalinists had destroyed the basis for intervention with their absurd characterization of the AFL as "social fascist" and ordered their people out. The pure sectarianism of their line is illustrated by the fact that where real, industrial unions existed independently from the AFL, but not under Stalinist control--such as the Progressive Miners in the Southern Illinois coal fields and the Amalgamated Food Workers in New York City--the Stalinists maintained their paper "unions" anyway, "independent" of the independents!

The Trotskyist position was in no way a change in basic policy, despite the fact that they had earlier urged the formation of new unions, independent of the AFL, in some areas. The Trotskyists carried forth the Leninist policy of seeking to reach the masses as long as they remained in the reactionary unions, without placing any confidence in the reactionary bureaucracy. The surge into the AFL was a dramatic confirmation of Lenin's policy, and condemnation of Stalinist ultra-leftism, but, as Cannon continued:

"By this we do not at all commit ourselves to the fetishistic belief in the possibility of transforming the AF of L into a fighting instrument of the workers. We do not expect Green and Co. to organize the masses of unskilled workers.... The resurgent struggles of the masses... will probably break out of the formal bounds of the AF of L and seek expression in a new trade union movement."
--Militant, 2 September 1933

The course of the upsurge confirmed the Trotskyists' analysis. Massive strikes occurred, but the establishment of new mass unions along industrial lines was thwarted in strike after strike by AFL leaders. The craven betrayal of the nation-wide textile workers' strike in 1934, for instance, confirmed the South as an open-shop haven, which condition persists to this day.

In the entire period, there were only three real victories, all led by revolutionists or professed revolutionists: Stallnists led the San Francisco waterfront strike; the Musteite American Workers Party, later to fuse with the Trotskyists, led the Toledo Auto-Lite strike; and Trotskyists led the Minneapolis truck drivers' strikes. These strikes were successful because they established powerful new unions along industrial lines which spread throughout whole industries and regions. The organization of the bulk of the proletariat under revolutionary leadership, finally displacing the reactionary AFL leaders, clearly loomed. To head off this threat, a section of the AFL leaders later formed the CIO.

Hotel Strike Debacle: a Test of Principle

The turn to mass work did not change the sharp limitations on the Trotskyists' forces. They could only intervene directly in those unions in which they already had supporters. One such place was the Hotel and Restaurant section of the Amalgamated Food Workers of New York, an independent union, which began an organizing drive and called a general strike of hotel workers in early 1934, before the Minneapolis strikes. One Trotskyist particularly, B, J. Field, was propelled into the strike leadership, and the Trotskyists launched vigorously into the struggle. Putting the Militant on a special, three-times-a-week basis, they called on the Stalinists to merge their small "red" union into the AFW, urged a united-front policy aimed at the AFL, warned the workers against reliance on Roosevelt's "New Deal," and singled out recognition of the union as the key goal.

In the middle of the strike, however, Field began to pull away from the Trotskyists Communist League (CLA) and showed signs of opportunism. He collaborated too closely with trade-union bureaucrats and government mediators, caved in to red-baiting launched by the bosses, and ignored his party comrades. As Cannon put it, "He disregarded the fraction of his own party in the union--which is always the sign of a man who has lost his head" (History of American Trotskyism). With the national spotlight on the "Trotskyist" strike, the CLA expelled Field and denounced his turn to "respectability" in the middle of the struggle. While opportunists howled, the Trotskyists had demonstrated the strength of their principles to serious observers: no matter how temporarily important, mass leaders were always to be subordinated to the general will of the party and its guiding principles.

If the hotel strike had been a disappointment, the Trotskyists soon had another chance to demonstrate that they could lead mass struggle. In the Minneapolis Communist League of about 40 members and sympathizers, they had a core of experienced trade unionists from the CP--with backgrounds stretching back into the pre-CP left wing of the Socialist Party and Wobblies (IWW)--headed by Ray Dunne and Carl Skoglund. Both had been delegates to the Central Labor Union (local AFL council), and had been expelled from their unions in the red purges of the 1920's. In the CP, Dunne had been aligned with the Cannon group while Skoglund had been closer to Foster, but both (along with two of Dunne's three brothers) were summarily expelled simply for questioning the expulsion of the leading Trotskyists. Subsequently they did pioneer work organizing the CLA in Minneapolis, and by the turn to mass work in 1933, they were ready to begin a campaign to organize an industrial truck drivers' union which they had planned before their expulsion from the CP in 1928.

Three Strikes That Transformed the Northwest

They began by recognizing that even though the AFL had failed to win a strike in Minneapolis in decades (the city was a notorious citadel of the open shop), it was necessary to work through the established unions. Orienting toward General Drivers' Local 574, they made a bloc with a minority of the Local exec board, headed by President Bill Brown, which was willing to aid them in a militant organizing drive. Purposefully avoiding an immediate confrontation with the rest of the local bureaucracy, they planned to flood the local with newly-organized workers, cutting across craft divisions, and conduct a strike for recognition of the union by the trucking industry on an industrial basis. The question of leadership would be resolved in the process, through the test of the class struggle.

Since Dunne and Skoglund were working in the coal yards at the time, they began with a coal yard drivers' strike in February 1934, picking the middle of winter, when it would be most effective. Through meticulous attention to detail and advance planning, they took the bosses by surprise, shutting the yards down completely and involving masses of workers in picketing. The strike won union recognition in three days. This increased their base and authority within the union and laid the groundwork for a general strike of drivers and warehousemen throughout Minneapolis in May, which was equally well prepared, also took the bosses by surprise, and won fairly quickly. The Trotskyists insisted on the inclusion of the warehousemen ("inside workers"), since this made the union truly industrial in nature, including everyone in the companies concerned except office workers.

The bosses retaliated and provoked a third strike in July which lasted over a month. International Brotherhood of Teamsters' President Daniel Tobin, an arch-reactionary craft unionist, aided the bosses by starting a red-baiting campaign against the strike leadership. Despite the imposition of martial law by Farmer-Labor Governor Olson and the virtual exhaustion of the strikers in a war of attrition, the third strike solidly established the union and the legitimacy of the strike leadership. The bosses didn't dare try again to smash the former, and Tobin, though he kept trying, couldn't drive out the latter. It took a full scale war-crisis and government prosecution for "communism" to drive the Trotskyists from the leadership in the Minneapolis Teamsters in the 1940's. Before then, Minneapolis had become a highly-organized union town, and the Teamsters had spread throughout the Northwest. Farrell Dobbs' campaign to organize the over-the-road drivers provided the basis for transforming the Teamsters into an industrial union

Strong Words From the Fourth Marx Brother

The Stalinists immediately attempted to discredit the Trotskyists' role in the Minneapolis strikes. William F, Dunne, an old friend of Cannon and the one Dunne brother who had become a Stalinist, was selected by the Browder leadership of the CP to prove his loyalty by doing the "job" on the Trotskyists, including his brothers. This he did with a vengeance, even going to the point of likening his three brothers in Minneapolis to "the three Marx Bros." His articles reflected the ultra-left phase the Stalinists were only beginning to abandon. Calling the Trotskyists "a group of strikebreakers in the service of the bourgeoisie and the labor aristocracy," Dunne characterized the Minneapolis settlements as betrayals caused by cowardice, subservience to local AFL bureaucrats and Olson, and general covering up for the "fascist" "New Deal" on the part of the Trotskyists. Dunne claimed that the Trotskyists prevented the development of a full general strike, purposefully holding back the revolutionary thrust of the masses.

In following up these criticisms on the scene, the local Stalinists were severely handicapped by their total lack of any supporters directly involved in the strike, despite the fact that District 9 of the CP, covering Minneapolis, had been the third largest in the Party in 1928. The CP had completely isolated itself from the mass movement. As it attempted to present inflammatory criticism from the outside, the Trotskyists had to oppose physical assaults by angry workers on CP supporters on more than one occassion. Despite the fact that the union had an elected rank-and-file strike committee of 100, the Stalinists demanded "rank and file control" of the strike, and representation for their paper organizations on the strike committee. Only a short time later, when the CP dropped its characterization of the "New Deal" as fascist in favor of a popular-front alliance with Roosevelt and union bureaucrats, the Minneapolis CP lined up with the reactionary Tobin as the latter attempted to smash Local 574 by setting up a paper rival, "Local 500," and launching gangland thug attacks on 574 members.

NCLC Echoes "Third Period"

The CP's "Third Period" criticisms were eenoed recently, with a distinctly Marcusite crackpot twist, by the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC) in its review of Dobbs' Teamster Rebellion (New Solidarity, 3l July-4 August 1972). "Dobbs sees only the military aspects of the strikes," says the NCLC:

"... He fails to understand that it was the role of outside 'forces supporting the Teamsters which was decisive--the embryonic never-realized United Front....
"The failure of the Trotskyists to adequately conceptualize the process of organizing the class-for-itself led them to constantly blunt the revolutionary dynamic of the situation."
These proponents of substitutionalism through fraudulent "united fronts" criticize the SWP for being bogged down in "militant trade unionism," to the point that they "aborted" the "development of a genuine mass strike movement." Magically, the incorporation of "outsiders" (who? the CP's paper unemployed organizations? farmers?) in the strike leadership on an equal basis with union members would have changed all this. The NCLC claims that the American Trotskyists ignored the "class-for-itself" model provided by Trotsky in his writings on the German crisis, "citing (incredibly!) Trotsky's "What Next?" (1932).

Hardly intending to renounce the qualitatively leading role of the employed proletariat as does the Labor Committee, Trotsky (who never used the "class-for-itself" hocus-pocus schematisms of the NCLC) pointed out in "What Next?" that simple trade-union strikes could accomplish nothing in the presence of mass unemployment unless the workers addressed themselves to this question, "drawing the unemployed into the struggle hand in hand with the employed." But the American Trotskyists understood this very well. They raised the question of unemployment in the Militant, fought for a shorter work week, and counterposed the united-front tactic to the CP's sectarianism in the unemployed movement. In Minneapolis, before the strikes, Trotskyist intervention to this effect in an unemployed conference was followed by a CP walkout.

Furthermore, the Minneapolis strikes were one of the most dramatic examples of broad-based organizing in American history. The leadership took meticulous care at all stages of the struggle to keep tabs on and mobilize support from other unions as well as women, petty bourgeois, professionals, farmers. The unemployed got particular attention. The Trotskyists successfully drew them into the strike struggle and attempted to organize them and support their struggles for better benefits and against grievances. After the strikes, a special unemployed organization, affiliated to the union, was constituted, and part of the leadership assigned to help run it. Relief benefits in Minneapolis were soon the best in the country, and the chances of unemployed workers being mobilized to scab on strikes were slim.

The strike leaders had a good sense of the mood of the workers and the relationship of class forces. If there were some aspects in which they erred slightly on the side of tactical conservatism, this was certainly not a major characteristic of their leadership. Far from "holding back" the struggle or consciousness of the workers, they advanced both to an entirely new level. Shachtman and Cannon came to Minneapolis to help put out a daily strike bulletin, the Organizer, which explained everything in terms of the basic conflict between worker and capitalist. Settlement terms were never overrated, but recognized clearly as temporary stopping points, involving necessary compromises, in the ongoing class struggle. Propaganda struggles were waged against backward attitudes, e.g., male chauvinism. The following point, written by Cannon, appeared in the Organizer for 18 August:

"We see the issue between capital and labor as an unceasing struggle between the class of exploited workers and the class of exploiting parasites. It is a war. What decides in this war, as in all others, is power. The exploiters are organized to grind us down into the dust. We must organize our class to fight back. And the women are half of the working class. Their interests are the same as ours and they are ready to fight for them. Therefore: organize them to take part in the class battle. This is the idea behind the wonderful organization of the Ladies Auxiliary, and its effective cooperation with the union in the struggle.
"Of course, Local 574 cannot claim to be the pioneer in grasping this idea and carrying it into practice. There have been numerous examples of attempts along this that did much to inspire us--belongs to the Progressive Miners of Illinois." [emphasis in original]
--Notebook of an Agitator

The General Strike Question

At the end of the May strike, the CP claimed that the Trotskyists reneged on their call for a city-wide general strike by accepting a settlement, thereby holding back the struggle. What the Stalinists ignored was that the main goal of the struggle up to that point--recognition of the union--was achieved. To press forward arbitrarily would have left the objectives unclear and been an adventurous risk of everything that had been gained. The Stalinists wanted a general strike against Olson. But in their ultra-left haste to denounce the Farmer-Labor governor as a "fascist," they forgot one small detail: the workers, who had voted him into power, had the illusion that he was on their side. Furthermore, he controlled the bulk of the AFL leadership through F-LP affiliation. An adventurous move at the wrong time could have isolated 574 and led to its destruction. As Trotsky pointed out in "What Next?" (merely one of many, many points the NCLC forgot to read):

"Even though Rosa Luxemburg overestimated the independent importance of the general strike in the question of power, she understood quite well that a general strike could not be declared arbitrarily, that it must be prepared for by the whole preceding course of the workers' movement, by the policies of the party and the trade unions." [emphasis in original]
The Trotskyists worked to expose Olson's real role, but they knew it would take events in the class struggle to do it. When Olson moved in troops in July, the workers thought he was protecting their interests and began cooperating with the troops. The leadership knew better, and at the risk of some initial unpopularity, the Organizer worked to expel these illusions. This was necessarily a slow process of education, but Olson himself speeded it up considerably by raiding the union headquarters and throwing the strike leaders in the stockade. The Organizer could then call for a "general protest strike" without the fear of isolation of the leadership at the hands of Olson and his AFL friends. The mere call for a general strike was sufficient to get the headquarters back and the leaders out of jail.

The worst the Trotskyists can be accused of with regard to Olson in the strike events is lack of prior warning, as to the role he would play, i.e., an over-adaptation at first to the backward consciousness of the workers. In their organizing drive before the May strike, the leadership built a mass meeting at which they demanded that Olson address the workers. This was correct, but building the meeting without simultaneous warnings as to Olson's real nature as the head of a section of the capitalist state was an opportunist tactical error.

"The organizing committee also started a pressure campaign to line up Governor Olson as a speaker at the meeting. This was done for two reasons: advance publicity listing the governor as a speaker would help in getting a big turnout for the meeting; and if Olson addressed the workers, he would have to go on record in support of the union campaign."
--Farrell Dobbs, Teamster Rebellion

Thus the organizers used Olson's name without, at the same time, attempting to expose him as a faker; thereby they helped create some of the illusions that plagued them. This error flowed in part from a theoretical misunderstanding of the Farmer-Labor Party--a bloc of two classes--as a working-class party (this will be taken up further in Part 3). That this error was subordinate within the general thrust of the Trotskyists' practice is indicated by the fact that they didn't hesitate to attack Olson in the heat of the crisis, even though it went against the stream to do so.

Hardly "holding back" the struggle, the leadership held out to the point of exhaustion of the ranks. At the end, the strike had become a war of "attrition, and there was a small but dangerous back-to-work trickle. Nevertheless, the main objectives were won. As Cannon pointed out to the Stalinists after the May strike, these "quack doctors whose patients always die," (referring to the record of disastrous, Stalinist-led ultra-left "strikes") could not point to a single example of newly-organized workers having achieved so much (Militant, 16 June 1934).

The Toledo Auto-Lite strike, which peaked after the May strike in Minneapolis, is held up as an "alternative" to Minneapolis by the NCLC on the absurd grounds that the revolutionary leaders were the heads of unemployed leagues, and had to be brought in from "outside" (New Solidarity, 16-20 October 1972). In fact, the only difference this made was that the Minneapolis strikes had better and more conscious advance planning, and afterwards the leadership, having worked inside the union from the beginning, was in a better position to thoroughly displace the craft-minded reactionaries. Both strikes used essentially the same revolutionary methods of mass struggle and achieved similar goals. The same can be said of the San Francisco waterfront strike, in which the Stalinists were involved. This strike was successful because the Stalinists opportunistically worked with leaders like Bridges who were inside the AFL longshoremen's union, which was technically "social-fascist" at the time! The Stalinists did have a dual union on the scene, but it was essentially a useless hindrance and a potentially dangerous divisive factor. When the police raided it along with the Wobblies, arresting hundreds, the workers on strike were not moved to defend it as their own.

Workers Party Formed, NCLC Notwithstanding

The NCLC complains that the Trotskyists spent too much time being militant trade unionists and thus failed to build "a significant revolutionary force in the Thirties." Holding up ex-preacher Muste's American Workers Party as conscious followers of Trotsky's German writings, the NCLC "forgets" that shortly after the Minneapolis and Toledo strikes, the AWP and the CLA fused to form the Workers Party! This fusion came about because the Trotskyfsts correctly saw the AWP as a leftward-moving centrist force and aggressively approached it, seeking to separate the sound, proletarian elements from the rootless petty-bourgeois dilettantes and other Marcus-like garbage which the AWP had picked up in its long history of unpolitical unemployed work. It was the American Trotskyists that supplied the better Musteites with a program, not the other way around. The work of the two groups in similar strikes hastened this process. Afterwards, the fused organization worked jointly to consolidate the earlier Toledo victory in the Chevrolet transmission strike in Toledo in 1935, which they almost succeeded in spreading throughout the GM empire. (This was the first successful GM strike, and was a vital precursor to the later organization of auto.)

The period of the 1933-1934 upsurge required exactly the kind of trade-union tactics Cannon advocated: a broad but principled united-front bloc around the key burning issues. In 1934, organization of the unorganized was such an issue. It clearly separated those willing to follow revolutionary leadership from the vast bulk of the trade-union bureaucracy of the time, and the Trotskyists were correct to bloc on this issue and struggle to lead successful organizing campaigns. Precisely this kind of activity in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco threatened to solve the crisis of leadership in favor of the revolutionists, but the Trotskyists were too small to carry it through. The betrayals of the much larger Communist Party were responsible for the fact that when industrial workers were fully organized, reactionaries controlled their unions. The later blocs of the Stalinists with these CIO reactionaries--for the popular front with Roosevelt--has nothing at all in common with the Trotskyist united front in Minneapolis to achieve union recognition.

The Trotskyists' mistake (besides the theoretical misconception on the nature of the F-LP two-class party) was that they lacked different tactical weapons in their arsenal for different conditions and periods. An independent, Trotskyist-led caucus, expressing a full program of transitional demands for the unions, wasn't so important in 1934 as later, since in 1934 the Trotskyists were in a position to implement their most important demands in practice (although consciousness of the need for political caucuses might have gone hand-in-hand with greater consciousness of the need to make political warnings and criticisms in advance of the crisis, as in the case of Olson at the mass meeting). Later, however, when they weren't in a position to provide direct leadership of the class, the Trotskyists showed inflexibility. They never betrayed the workers as did the Stalinists, but they did miss opportunities and commit some opportunist errors through a policy of blocking too frequently and almost always working through united fronts many of which lacked the clarity of the blocs to organize the unorganized of 1934. Instead of emphasizing their program, they used organizational weakness as an excuse to over-concentrate on alliances around minimum demands.