Trotskyist Work in the Trade Unions (3/4)

Trotskyist Work in the Trade Unions

by C. Knox
Part 3 of 4

The Primacy of Politics

After the formation of the Workers Party (WP) through the fusion of the Musteite American Workers Party with the Trotskyist Communist League of America (CLA) in 1934, the Trotskyists' organizational course took them into the leftward-moving Socialist Party in 1936. After winning a sizeable section of the SP youth they then split off from the Social Democrats to found the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1938. During this period of upsurge, the Trotskyists grew and continued to do trade-union work and other mass work, giving the lie to Stalinist assertions that the Minneapolis strikes of 1934 were the only mass work the Trotskyists ever did. The Trotskyists led mass unemployed leagues, conducted mass defense work and worked in the unions in mining, textiles, auto, food workers, maritime, steel and teamsters, among others. Less spectacular than the Minneapolis strikes perhaps, nevertheless this work was of lasting importance and vital to the building of the revolutionary vanguard in the U.S.

The Trotskyists' policy of broad united fronts continued to play a vital and useful role as long as the bulk of the reactionary AFL bureaucracy fought the establishment of industrial unions. The Workers Party declared its main goal to be the formation of a "national progressive movement" for militant industrial unionism (NewMilitant, January 1935), and the Trotskyists hoped, with good reason, to win the leadership of important sections of the working class by being the most consistent fighters for this minimum but key immediate need of the working class. At the same time they did not hide their socialist politics, in contrast to the Stalinists who attempted to masquerade as simple pro-Roosevelt militants. As much as possible, the Trotskyists operated as open revolutionists. Gerry Allard, CLA member and a leader of the Progressive Miners of America in southern Illinois, addressed the miners about an approaching strike in the following terms:

"Being a Marxist, a revolutionist, it is my opinion that we should militarize the strike, revamp the Women's Auxiliary along the original lines, augment our forces by seeking the organizational support of the powerful unemployed movement in Illinois, seek allies in the rank and file of the United Mine Workers of America, and go forward once again with the same determination that built this union. This is the road of struggle..."
--New Militant, 30 March 1935

Allard went on to appeal to the miners to see their struggle in the broadest possible context, as the impetus for the organization of auto, steel, rubber, etc.

Toledo, 1935: Conflagration in Auto

Following up on the work of the Musteites in the great Auto-Lite strike of 1934, the Workers Party played a key role in a strike at the Toledo Chevrolet transmission plant in 1935, being instrumental in getting GM workers in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Norwood and Atlanta to strike simultaneously. Two Trotskyists, Cochran and Beck, leaders of the Workers Party and Spartacus Youth respectively, were arrested while picketing the Flint, Michigan headquarters of Chevrolet in an attempt to spread the strike into the auto capital (New Militant, 11 May 1935).

The spreading of this strike throughout the GM empire was prevented only by the relative organizational weakness of the Trotskyists and the diligent, strike-breaking efforts of the AFL's appointed head of the auto union, Francis Dillon. Dillon personally headed off a sympathy strike of Buick workers in Detroit and sabotaged the strike at its base in Toledo by threatening to withdraw the local's charter and splitting the strike leadership at the key point, GM agreed to a wage increase and published a stipulation that it would meet with the union leadership, but because of Dillon's treachery there was no signed contract. The workers went back solidly organized and undefeated, however, since the company had the militant 1934 strike in mind and had made no attempt to operate the plant with scabs. It was the first GM strike the company had failed to smash, and was an inspiration for the later auto sit-down strikes which built the UAW and established the CIO.

After the strike, the Workers Party published a critical assessment of the strike leadership of which it had been a part, denouncing sloppiness, lack of attention to details (such as not calling sufficient strike committee meetings) and the "fundamental error" of allowing the daily strike paper, Strike Truth, to be suppressed (New Militant, 18 May 1935). This performance was in sharp constrast to the Minneapolis truckers' strikes the year previous, in which meticulous attention to tactical and organizational details and the hardhitting regular strike daily had been instrumental in achieving the ultimate victory of the strike. At the same time the Trotskyists were able to recruit the most conscious workers to their organization, with the Minneapolis branch of the CLA increasing from 40 to 100 members and close sympathizers during 1934 alone. Many years later, Cannon analyzed the main weakness of the work in Toledo as the failure to consolidate lasting organizational gains. He blamed this on Muste, who was a "good mass worker" but "tended to adapt himself" to the mass movement too much for a Leninist, at the expense of developing firm nuclei "on a programmatic basis for permanent functioning" (History of American Trotskyism).

First Auto Union Caucus Formed

The Workers Party was still working under the disadvantage in Toledo that the revolutionary leadership of the 1934 strike had been brought in from outside the union, thereby lacking sufficiently deep roots to hold the militants together against Dillon's maneuvering in 1935. Today the Marcusite National Caucus of Labor Committees, a group which has not the faintest idea of what it means to organize the working class, lauds precisely this weakness as the hallmark of revolutionary strategy. Their hero Muste soon thereafter abandoned the WP to return to the church. The deficiencies of the Trotskyists' trade-union tactics were not to be found in "overrating the unions" as the NCLC crackpots would have us believe, but in the failure to organize firm class-struggle nuclei "on a programmatic basis for permanent functioning" within the unions. The struggles in Toledo gave birth to the first auto union caucus, the Progressives of UAW Local 18384, but its program was limited to the militant unionism of the broad united fronts the Trotskyists advocated: for industrial unions, reliance on the power of the ranks as opposed to arbitration or government boards, etc. As such, it had the episodic character of a united front and lacked the clear revolutionary political distinctiveness which became crucial after the establishment of industrial unions under reformist leadership in the late 1930's.

Another point made by Cannon in drawing the balance sheet of the Workers Party period should be made elementary reading for the Labor Committee, which fetishizes unemployed organizing. The mass unemployed organizations inherited by the Trotskyists in their fusion with the Musteites were highly unstable:

"We reached thousands of workers through these unemployed organizations. But further experience also taught us an instructive lesson in the field of mass work too. Unemployed organizations can be built and expanded rapidly and it is quite possible for one to get illusory ideas of their stability and revolutionary potentialities. At the very best they are loose and easily scattered formations; they slip through your fingers like sand. The minute the average unemployed worker gets a job, he wants to forget the unemployed organization...."
--History of American Trotskyism

The Making of the Modern Teamsters Union

The most lasting achievement of Trotskyist trade-union work in the 1930's was the transformation of the Teamsters from a localiized, federated, craft union into a large industrial union. In the 1930's, while long-distance trucking was becoming more and more important, the Teamsters union was still limited to local drivers, divided by crafts (ice drivers, milk drivers, etc.) and dependent on local conditions. Based in their stronghold in Minneapolis, the Trotskyists spread industrial unionism throughout the Northwest through the Teamsters. An 11-state campaign led by Farrell Dobbs to organize over-the-road drivers included conquest of the all-important hub of Chicago and established the principle of the uniform area-wide contract. The campaign's achievements were solidified through a major strike struggle centered in Omaha, Nebraska in 1938, which was won through the same skillful organization that had succeeded in Minneapolis. As in Minneapolis, the building of the party went hand-in-hand with the strike, resulting in an SWP branch in Omaha.

Especially in the mid-1930's, the mass work of the Trotskyists was far-reaching and significant out of proportion to their size. Yet the Trotskyists knew they were not yet a real party and could not become a party leading significant sections of the masses in struggle until the centrist and reformist forces blocking the path were removed. It was for this reason that the Trotskyists entered the SP in 1936: the SP was large, included a rapidly-growing left wing (particularly in the youth) and was attracting militant workers who could be won to Trotskyism. The Trotskyists had to defeat sectarians in their own ranks, led by Oehler, who assumed that the party could be built directly, through the orientation of a propaganda group to the masses. The Cannon-led majority of the WP hardly ignored mass work. It was, in fact, an important part of the entry maneuver. While in the Socialist Party the Trotskyists established new trade-union fractions, notably in maritime (principally the Sailors Union of the Pacific) and auto, meanwhile considerably embarrassing the reformist SP leaders by their class-struggle policies. When they emerged from the SP more than doubled in size in 1938, the Trotskyists, though still small, were in a better position than ever to conduct work in the unions.

CIO Victories Pose Question of Politics

The rise of the CIO through the massive struggles of 1936-37 transformed the labor movement and altered the terms of class struggle in favor of the workers. The organized workers were in a better position to resist the onslaughts of capitalism; however, the new unions were controlled by a bureaucratic layer which shared the pro-capitalist, class-collaborationist politics of the old AFL bureaucracy. Having reluctantly presided over the militant struggles which established the CIO, these new bureaucrats desired nothing more than to establish "normal" trade-union relations with the capitalists, gain influence in capitalist politics, etc. As inter-imperialist war drew closer, the ruling class was gradually forced to temporarily lay aside its attempt to destroy the unions and accept the coalition which the bureaucracy readily offered. Thus the trade-union bureaucracy was qualitatively expanded and consolidated as the chief agency for disciplining the work force, replacing for the most part the Pinkertons and bloody strikebreaking as the principal means of capitalist rule in the hitherto unorganized mass production industries. This process was completed during the Second World War, when the ruling class allowed the completion of union organizing in key areas in exchange for full partnership of the trade-union bureaucracy in the imperialist war effort (the no-strike pledge, endorsement of the anti-labor wage controls, strikebreaking, etc.).

Besides displacing organization of the unorganized as the key immediate issue, this transformation placed the question of politics in the foreground. The industrial unions had been built, but they alone were clearly insufficient to deal with the outstanding social questions--unemployment, war, etc.--which determined the conditions under which they struggled. With the renewal of depression conditions in mid-1937-38, accompanied by increased employer resistance to union demands, opposition to Roosevelt burgeoned and mass sentiment for a labor party developed, expressed through such agencies as Labor's Non-Partisan Political League (LNPL), the CIO political arm and the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. In order to head off this movement, the bureaucracy invented the myth of Roosevelt as a "friend of labor" and used the Stalinist Communist Party, closely integrated into the CIO bureaucracy, to pass off this warmed-over Gompers policy as a "working-class" strategy--the popular front. The CP unceremoniously dropped its earlier calls for a labor party.

The Trotskyist Transitional Program

The primary task of revolutionists in the labor movement had shifted, therefore, from leading the struggle for industrial unions to providing a political pole of opposition to the class-collaborationist bureaucracy. The Transitional Program ("Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International"), adopted by the SWP in 1938, was written by Trotsky largely to provide the basis for such a struggle. It contained demands designed to meet the immediate felt needs and problems of the workers ("wages, unemployment, working conditions, approaching war and fascism) with alternatives leading directly to a struggle against the capitalist system itself: a sliding scale of wages and hours, workers control of industry, expropriation of industry without compensation, workers militias, etc. Most importantly, the program proposed transitional organizational forms and measures designed to advance the workers' ability to struggle for these demands and to provide the basis for the overthrow of capitalism: factory committees, Soviets, arming of the proletariat and workers and farmers government (as a popular designation of the dictatorship of the proletariat).

Also in 1938, Trotsky urged his American followers to enter formations such as the LNPL and fight for a labor party based on the trade unions, armed with the Transitional Program as the political alternative to the class collaborationism of the Stalinists and trade-union bureaucrats. This reversed the Trotskyists' earlier position of opposing the call for a labor party on the grounds that the utterly reactionary character of the Gompersite labor bureaucracy could allow the organizing of mass industrial unions directly under the leadership of the revolutionary party. This would have effectively bypassed the need for the transitional demand of a labor party. With the organization of the CIO on the basis of militant trade-union reformism, the balance of power between the revolutionaries and the labor bureaucrats was shifted in favor of the latter. But as the strike struggles achieved the original goal of union organization, and as Roosevelt's policies led to economic downturn, the newly organized and highly combative rank and file of the CIO unions began to come into direct political conflict with their pro-Roosevelt leaders. The call for a labor party became a crucial programmatic weapon to mobilize a class-struggle opposition to the Lewis bureaucracy.

Though politically armed to meet the new situation, the American Trotskyists nevertheless failed to find a consistent form of expression for their program within the unions. While they propagandized for the Transitional Program, in their press and conducted campaigns for specific demands such as workers defense guards, labor party, struggle against approaching war, etc., their day-to-day trade-union work continued on the old basis of united fronts around immediate issues. As the organization of the unions proceeded and the opposition of the bureaucracy to organizing industrial unions receded, this united-front policy turned into a bloc around simple trade-union militancy with "whole sections of the non-Stalinist, "progressive" trade-union bureaucracy. Criticism of these bureaucrats tended to take the form of pushing for consistent trade-union militancy rather than building a revolutionary political alternative, so that when the "progressive" bureaucracy lined up with Roosevelt for war in 1940, an embarrassing lack of political distinction between the Trotskyists in the trade unions and these "progressives" was revealed.

The course of events in the Northwest Teamsters was a graphic example. For two years after the 1934 strikes in Minneapolis, the Tobin leadership of the Teamsters International continued to try to smash the Trotskyist leadership of Local 574, using red-baiting, gangsters and a rival local. Then a subtle shift began to occur. As the Trotskyists spread out, building support for the campaign to organize the over-the-road drivers, more and more bureaucrats became won over, including the key leader in Chicago, whose adherence went a long way toward ensuring the success of the campaign. Finally, by the time of the 1938 Omaha strike, Tobin himself began actively cooperating, even supporting the organizing drive against his old allies who still sought to preserve the local power of the Joint Councils at the expense of modernization, and appointing Farrell Dobbs International Organizer.

The 1936-37 strike struggles had finally rendered pure craft unionism obsolete even within the AFL, and old-line craft unionists began to tail the CIO both in order to enhance their organizational power and because the bourgeoisie itself was less resistant and more willing to accept organization of the workers in exchange for the use of the bureaucracy as its labor lieutenant. Throughout the entire area of Dobbs' 11-state campaign, the only serious challenge mounted by the bosses was in Omaha.

The united front to organize the over-the-road drivers was not wrong, but the Trotskyists lacked the means to distinguish themselves politically from the bureaucracy. This could have been done through a caucus based on the Transitional Program. The Northwest Organizer was founded in 1935 as the organ of a pan-union caucus formation, the Northwest Labor Unity Conference, but the NLUC's program was limited to militant, class-struggle union organizing, under the slogan, "All workers into the unions and all unions into the struggle." Eventually the Northwest Organizer became the organ of the Minneapolis Teamsters Joint Council and the NLUC lapsed, since its oppositional role was liquidated. When Tobin began to line up behind the war effort, the Trotskyists in Minneapolis opposed the war and won over the Central Labor Union, but they lacked the basis for a factional struggle in the union as a whole that a political caucus orientation might have provided. Dobbs simply submitted his resignation as organizer in 1940, without waging a political fight. A few years later, Tobin finally was able to crush the Trotskyist leadership in Minneapolis, with the aid of the government's first Smith Act anti-communist trial of the leading militants.

The Two-Class Party
The bloc with "progressive" trade-unionists was reflected politically in the Trotskyists' orientation to the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, with which most of the local trade unions were affiliated. Left-leaning FLP supporters were an important component of the Trotskyists' united front. In 1929, the excellent document, Platform of the Communist Opposition, had pointed out:

"The organization of two classes in one party, a Farmer-Labor Party, must be rejected in principle in favor of the separate organization of the workers, and the formation of a political alliance with the poor farmers under the leadership of the former. The opportunist errors of the [Communist] Party comrades in the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota and other states [in 1924] flowed inevitably from and were secondary to the basically false policy of a two-class party, in which the farmer and worker are ostensibly on an 'equal basis,' but where in reality the petty-bourgeois ideology of the former actually dominates."
--Militant, 15 February 1929

Written by the American Trotskyists, this statement thus carried forth in hard political terms the criticisms made by Trotsky of the Pepper leadership of the CP in 1924. Pepper had blithely made a fundamental revision of Marxism in order to tail the radical farmers of the FLP into the third capitalist party movement of LaFolette. The Minneapolis Trotskyists, however, failed to implement this policy in their orientation to the FLP. In 1935 they critically supported the FLP candidate for mayor of Minneapolis (despite the current Workers Party position against labor party formations), and in 1938 they supported FLP Governor Benson in the primaries as well as in the general election, without in either case mentioning the need for the "separate organization of the workers." The SWP's September 1938 program for the FLP endorses the adherence of both mass workers' and mass farmers' organizations to the FLP and complains only of the inordinate power of the ward clubs, through which the Stalinists eventually wielded the dominant influence in the FLP. This necessarily blurred the SWP's campaign for a working-class labor party based on the Transitional Program, since in their program for the FLP they were forced to emphasize demands for the petty-bourgeois farmers (loans, easing tax burdens, etc.) which watered down the working-class content of their program and was the inevitable result of the petty-bourgeois nature of the FLP as a two-class party. While not politically fatal in itself, this lack of clarity was a reflection of an accommodationist bloc with the left wing of the trade-union bureaucracy.

Furthermore, the Trotskyists compounded their inflexible united-front trade-union tactics with an over-reaction to Stalinism. The 1938 SWP trade-union resolution stated categorically:

"While always expanding our program independently and maintaining our right of criticism, our Party in a certain sense supports the 'lesser evil' within the unions. The Stalinists are the main enemy.... We unite with all serious elements to exclude the Stalinists from control of the unions."
--Socialist Appeal, 26 November 1938

The Stalinist CP, many times larger than the Trotskyists, was indeed a key political enemy in the unions. Having shifted to the right from a destructive policy of self-isolation during the "Third Period" (1929-35), the CP had become intimate advisers to the CIO bureaucracy and hard right-wingers in the unions, doing whatever possible to crush and expel the Trotskyists. Its main aim was to preserve links to the liberals and the collaboration of the labor movement with Roosevelt and U.S. imperialism. The CP participated directly in the bourgeoisie's attempt to militarize the labor movement for the war. Thus in maritime, while, the CP and its allies were busy weakening the 1936 West Coast longshore strike, wrecking the militant Maritime Federation of the Pacific and giving backhanded support to the government's' effort to break the seamen's union hiring halls through the Copeland Act, the Trotskyists made a correct united-front bloc with the militant but "anti-political" Lundberg leadership of the SUP.

Nevertheless, the determination of the SWP to unite with the politically undefined "all serious elements" against the Stalinists in all cases reflected trade-union adaptationism. The SWP's reasoning was that, unlike standard trade-union reformists, the Stalinists were the agency of an alien force outside the unions--the bureaucratic ruling elite of the Soviet Union--and therefore willing to destroy the unions to achieve their ends. This was an implicit "third campist" denial of Stalinism as a tendency within the labor movement. That the Trotskyists never drew this logical conclusion from their position and pulled back from it later did not prevent them from falling into errors as a result of it even while the CP was at its worst during the popular-front period (1935-39).

The worst such error was the SWP's "auto crisis" which peaked in January 1939. The UAW was a key battleground between Trotskyists, Stalinists and social democrats in the CIO. Wielding power with a bureaucratic heavy hand, UAW President Homer Martin, a left-leaning trade-union reformist, went so far in his battle against the Stalinists that he eventually lost all authority. To the left of the Stalinists on some issues, he was at base reactionary and made a concerted effort to smash wildcat strikes. The SWP, however, extended critical support to Martin to stop the Stalinists. The crisis came while Cannon was in Europe following the founding conference of the Fourth International in Fall 1938. The SWP Political Committee was being run by Shachtman and Burnham, who were soon to draw the full conclusions from their Stalinophobia and lead a faction out of the SWP (in 1940) denying that the Soviet Union was any kind of workers state and refusing to defend it, and likewise denying that the Stalinists were a tendency within the workers movement. With their own measure of bureaucratic highhandedness, Shachtman and Burnham tried to ram a pro-Martin policy down the throats of the auto fraction in 1938 just as Martin was leading a rump convention of the UAW out of the CIO, back into the AFL and eventually to oblivion. The bulk of the auto union dumped Martin and held its own pro-CIO convention. The SWP had to do an abrupt and embarrassing about-face entailing two issues of Socialist Appeal which contradicted each other, for which Shachtman and Burnham refused to acknowledge responsibility.

During the Hitler-Stalin Pact period (1939-41), the beginning of World War II, a general reversal of positions took place. Reflecting Stalin's deal with Hitler and turn away from the earlier alliance with France, Britain and the U.S., the CP conducted a grudging but definite turn to the left, denouncing the "imperialist" war, alienating its liberal allies and reinvigorating its working-class base. The "progressive" trade unionists with whom the Trotskyists had been blocking on trade-union issues meanwhile became central in the pro-war, patriotic lineup. As a result of this switch, in discussions between the SWP leadership and Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, all the inadequacies of the Trotskyists' trade-union work then became manifest (see "Discussions with Trotsky," in his Writing 1939-40). "The Stalinists are the problem," pointed out Cannon: "By their change in line they dealt us a heavy blow. We were forging ahead when they made the switch, paralyzing our work." Despite this damaging admission, the SWP leaders were opposed to a policy of maneuver to take advantage of the new situation. Trotsky proposed critical support to the CP candidates in the 1940 elections. He had to reiterate that this was theoretically possible, since the Stalinists had made a sharp, though temporary, left turn and were just as much part of the labor movement as the equally reactionary forces in the unions with whom the Trotskyists had until then been blocking. The SWP leaders objected, saying that it would disrupt the work in the trade unions, in which what were admittedly blocs at the top with "progressives" had been necessary in order for a small force of revolutionists to come forward and begin political work in the unions. Criticizing his followers for lack of initiative, Trotsky went to the core of the problem:

"I believe we have the critical point very clear. We are in a block with the so-called progressives--not only fakers but honest rank and file. Yes, they are honest and progressive but from time to time they vote for Roosevelt--once in four years. This is decisive. You propose a trade union policy, not a Bolshevik policy. Bolshevik policies begin outside the unions....You are afraid to become compromised in the eyes of the Rooseveltian trade-unionists."
To the American leaders' protestations that their forces were too small to preserve an independent course, Trotsky said, "Our real role is that of third competitor," distinct from both Stalinists and "progressives," stating that his proposal for maneuver "presupposes that we are an independent party." Thus the discussions uncovered the fact that the Trotskyists' lack of an independent political pole in the unions, distinct from episodic blocs and united fronts around immediate issues, had compromised their general ability to maneuver and their independence as a party. They had become over-identified with their bloc partners.

In his report of these discussion to the party, Cannon agreed with most of Trotsky's points in some revealing passages, while continuing to oppose the proposal for critical support to the CP in the elections:

"...our work in the trade unions up till now has been largely a day-to-day affair based upon the daily problems and has lacked a general political orientation and perspective. This has tended to blur the distinction between us and pure and simple trade unionists. In many cases, at times, they appeared to be one with us. It was fair weather and good fellows were together....
"Then all of a sudden, this whole peaceful routine Of the trade union movement is disrupted by overpowering issues of war, patriotism, the national elections, etc. And these trade unionists, who looked so good in ordinary times, are all turning up as patriots and Rooseveltians."
--Socialist Appeal, 10 October 1940

Thus the primacy of politics in trade-union work had snuck up on the SWP and clubbed it over the head. The problem had not been caused by lack of a principled struggle for the program, nor primarily by blocs which were unprincipled in character. Criticism of bureaucratic allies in the public press had sometimes been weak, but the SWP had vigorously struggled in the public domain for its program, while raising key agitational demands in the unions. The main lack had been a consistent pole, in the unions, for the struggle for the Transitional Program and against the bureaucracy in all its manifestations, i.e., a struggle for revolutionary leadership of and in the unions. Instead of developing such caucus formations as the Progressives of the UAW and the Northwest Labor Unity Conference into political formations in opposition to the bureaucracy, as the early Communists' Trade Union Educational League had been, the Trotskyists allowed these formations to be limited politically to the character of united fronts: episodic alliances based on immediate issues. As such, not only did they not last, but the Trotskyists themselves, in the unions, became politically identified almost exclusively through these united fronts, rather than through the struggle to build the vanguard party.

Size was not a factor, since in some, ways the problem was at its worst where the Trotskyists were strongest, in the Northwest Teamsters. Rather, the SWP demonstrated a lack of flexibility of tactics and an unwillingness to upset its policy of continual blocs with "progressive" trade unionists on day-today issues by a hard, political drive for power based on revolutionary answers to the larger issues. But the larger issues dominated the day-to-day issues, and as imperialist world war drew closer the Trotskyists had to pay the price of isolation for their earlier failure to appear as an independent force in the unions. Unfortunately, they were unable to absorb the lessons of this period sufficiently to prevent the repetition of these characteristic errors. The Trotskyists continued, especially after World War II, to rely on a policy of united fronts on trade-union issues, rather than the construction of political formations within the unions-caucuses to mount a comprehensive fight for a full revolutionary program.