Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 7, 2019

Was there anything “socialist” about CIO officialdom’s alliance with FDR?

Filed under: Jacobin,New Deal,socialism,trade unions,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

UAW President Walter Reuther conferring with President Harry S. Truman in the Oval Office, 1952

On October 2nd, Jacobin published an interview with Jake Altman titled “The Socialist Party in New Deal–Era America” that made an amalgam of Norman Thomas’s party and FDR. This is not the first such exercise in bad faith. On June 19th, Seth Ackerman wrote an article titled “Why Bernie Talks About the New Deal” that made identical points. It is understandable why these “democratic socialists” would try to shoehorn Norman Thomas’s SP into their neo-Kautskyist political agenda.

If the DSA is a continuation of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party as Thomas was a continuation of Eugene V. Debs, then everything is hunky-dory especially if you can convince people that Thomas “viewed Roosevelt’s program for reform of the economic system as far more reflective of the Socialist Party platform than of his own [Democratic] party’s platform”. The quote is from a Norman Thomas biography that Ackerman thought would bolster his SP/New Deal amalgam. Whatever credibility the biographer claimed, it seems unlikely that he ever thought much about the words of Norman Thomas himself who once said, “Emphatically, Mr. Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher.”

For Ackerman and Altman, one of the main proofs of the socialist character of the New Deal was its cheek-by-jowl connection to the CIO’s organizing drives. Ackerman writes, “By 1936, the newly formed industrial unions that grew out of those strikes had become the core of his political base, and most were led or had been organized by socialists and communists: Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, Sidney Hillman of the Clothing Workers, Harry Bridges of the Longshore Workers, John Brophy of the CIO. At the same time, thousands of socialist and communist experts flooded into the New Deal agencies, including the National Labor Relations Board and the Treasury, Agriculture, and Commerce departments.”

Altman says about the same thing. “You also have socialist leaders and organizers in a number of unions, and they achieve a lot in terms of building a robust labor movement in the United States. They didn’t do it on their own, but through coalitions they were able to build some really impressive institutions like the United Auto Workers (UAW). It helped that they had allies in unions that were already led by social democrats, including the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). The ACWA poached promising organizers from the Socialist Party for union work, and some of these socialists went on to hold important positions in the labor movement for decades. The most well known are the Reuther brothers. There was a robust middle rank, too.”

Missing from this analysis is any reference to the Little Steel Strike of 1937 when FDR allowed the bosses to smash the trade union organizing drive led by Gus Hall and other radicals. In FDR’s infamous words, he told capitalists and workers “a plague on both your houses”. Furthermore, there is little evidence that organizing drives to build industrial unions in and of themselves have that much to do with socialism. Both Ackerman and Altman view the Reuther brothers as symbols of the ties between the Socialist Party and the New Deal. However, Walter Reuther not only quit the SP in 1939; he led the purge of CP members from the CIO after becoming president of the UAW in 1947.

What neither Ackerman and Altman can seem to grasp is the dialectical relationship between FDR’s relatively tolerant attitude toward CIO type unionism and the co-optation of the working-class into the imperialist hegemonic aspirations of the USA from 1941 onwards. In order to rely upon working-class support for its colonial wars abroad, it was necessary to offer sufficient material gains to make co-optation feasible.

Just before his untimely death, Leon Trotsky wrote an article titled “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” that was discovered in a desk drawer. If you’ve never read it, I urge you to take a look. And, if you have read it, I urge you to take a fresh look since it shows Trotsky at his most prophetic. Of the CIO, he writes:

In the United States the trade union movement has passed through the most stormy history in recent years. The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses. Indicative and noteworthy in the highest degree, however, is the fact that the new “leftist” trade union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state. The struggle among the tops between the old federation and the new is reducible in large measure to the struggle for the sympathy and support of Roosevelt and his cabinet.

On December 13, 1942, Walter Reuther wrote an article for the N.Y. Times titled “Labor’s Place in the War Pattern” that illustrated exactly what Trotsky was warning about.

These tragic realities must compel American labor to an appreciation of its obligations as a major member of America’s war team. Labor’s place in the new pattern that war has forced on America is clear.

Labor’s first obligation is to realize that we are not now producing solely to provide our population with their everyday needs, but that we are producing primarily to protect our freedom, our nation and our homes from destruction.

Labor must face the challenge of the war as it would a forest fire or a flood that menaced the home town. The promise of labor’s spokesmen that strikes will be abandoned for the duration of the war, a pledge which has been underwritten by labor’s organizations in conventions, must be honored.

That no-strike pledge would haunt the UAW and other CIO-type unions until this day. The “national interest” is just a cover-up for the right of the rich to enjoy their wealth without any concerns for the needs of working-people. It is exactly how GM managed to impose a two-tiered pay scale on the UAW and how it is trying to maintain its grip on “our nation’s” well-being.

For an alternative to Walter Reuther’s class-collaborationism, I recommend Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step”. Preis was a member of the SWP whose book diverges sharply from Ackerman and Altman’s gauzy portrayal of FDR’s partnership with CIO officialdom. This excerpt will show you how some workers defended their class interests during WWII despite the no-strike pledge:

There were many signs of the growing restiveness of the industrial workers as 1942 drew to a close and during the opening months of 1943.

The coal miners, for the most part isolated in small towns, were squeezed worst of all. When Pennsylvania anthracite miners started an unauthorized walkout on January 2, 1943, it was clear that they had reached a point of open revolt against economic conditions.

On March 10, the UMW opened negotiations with the Appalachian soft coal operators. Among the seven demands [union president John L.] Lewis and the UMW committee presented to the mine owners were: (1) retention of the existing 35-hour, five-day week in the coal mining industry; (2) inclusion of all time traveled from the pit entrance to the point of work and back to the surface as part of the paid work time; (3) a $2-per-day raise in base pay.

The UMW president cited the terrific accident rate in the mines due to lack of safety equipment: 64,000 men killed and injured in 1941; 75,000 in 1942; an estimated 100,000 in 1943, with the intensification of war production.

The mine owners brushed aside the UMW’s demands and the Roosevelt administration intensified pressure on the union to capitulate.

Roosevelt himself intervened as the April 1 mine strike deadline approached. He asked the operators on March 27 to agree to extend the existing contract beyond April 1 and make any subsequent wage adjustment retroactive to that date. At the same time he said that the dispute must be settled “under the national no-strike agreement of December 26, 1941” with “final determination, if necessary, by the National War Labor Board.”

The moral position of the miners was becoming stronger every day. The CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] and AFL [American Federation of Labor] leaders backed the miners’ demands and, for the time being, refrained from open attacks on the UMW’s threat to strike. Local bodies of the United Auto Workers and other CIO unions passed resolutions of unconditional support for the miners.

On April 22, the WLB announced it was assuming jurisdiction of the case. The UMW refused to appear before this “court packed against labor.” On April 24, WLB Chairman Davis announced that the board would consider the case only within the framework of the Little Steel Formula, which automatically ruled out any raises for the miners.

Miners in Western Pennsylvania and Alabama left the pits that same day, a week in advance of the truce deadline.

The United Press reported that 41,000 bituminous miners were already out.

 FDR as strikebreaker

The spreading coal strike forced Roosevelt to step forward personally to take public responsibility for leading the opposition to the miners. He telegraphed Lewis on April 29 that he would use “all the powers vested in me as President and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy” if the strikes were not ended by the morning of May 1. Roosevelt’s threat brought an immediate defiant reply from the mine workers. Nearly 10,000 Ohio miners left the pits. By the morning of Saturday, May 1, every union soft coal mine in the country was closed.

The national strike of the miners was not only the largest coal strike the country had seen up to this time. It was the largest single strike of any kind the land had ever known. It was carried out with a dispatch, discipline and single-minded determination that had never been surpassed in the American labor movement.

The press did surpass itself in the volume of vituperation, slanders and threats hurled at the miners and Lewis. Lewis was linked with Hitler in newsreels, on the radio, in countless newspaper cartoons. Union leaders joined the chorus of anti-labor forces who were screaming for nothing less than the destruction of the miners union under the guise of aiding the war for “democracy.”

On May 1 Roosevelt himself ordered government seizure of the struck coal mines under Solid Fuels Administrator Harold L. Ickes. Ickes “seized” the mines by promptly ordering the American flag to be flown over all mine properties and directing all mine owners and managers to run the mines as government agents in the name of the government—all profits to continue as usual. Ickes then declared the miners were working “for the Government” and ordered them back to work.

The miners didn’t budge.

It was during the first of the series of wartime coal mine strikes that the Communist Party revealed to what depths of treachery it could really sink in order to demonstrate to the United States capitalists how useful the CP could be to them if American capitalism would make some kind of permanent deal with the Kremlin.

The May 1-4 national coal strike brought the anti-labor, strikebreaking activities of the Communist Party to a peak of ferocity that the vilest capitalist enemies of the unions did not surpass. On April 29 the Daily Worker carried a front-page appeal by CP National Chairman William Z. Foster, urging the miners not to respond to their union’s strike call.

On the morning of June 1, some 530,000 miners refrained from entering the pits “without any special strike call being issued and with casual matter-of-factness,” as George Breitman, the Militant’s correspondent, wrote from the mining area around Pittsburgh.

 ‘Can’t dig coal with bayonets’

Roosevelt, on June 3, threatened to call out the troops unless the miners returned to work by June 7.… The miners merely shrugged and repeated their classic phrase: “You can’t dig coal with bayonets.”

By the time the official strike deadline, November 1, had arrived, all 530,000 coal miners were out, for their fourth official national wartime strike within one year.

Roosevelt was at the end of his rope. He could not arrest 530,000 miners. He could not force them to go down into the pits at bayonet point, and even if he could, they need not mine an ounce of coal. He could not jail Lewis and the UMW leaders, for the miners swore they would strike “till Hell freezes over” if Lewis were victimized in any way. The President again seized the struck mines and authorized Ickes to negotiate a contract.

The WLB on November 20 finally agreed to a contract acceptable to the union and contractors. This fixed the mine wage at $57.07 a week and provided $40 to each miner for retroactive payment for travel time.

The UMW Policy Committee ratified the new contract on November 3 and instructed the miners to return to work. They had cracked the wage freeze.

If the miners had not fought and won, if they had been defeated, it would have meant not only the crippling and possibly the crushing of one of the most powerful industrial unions—the UMW—but a demoralizing blow of shattering proportions for the auto, rubber, steel, electrical equipment, and other CIO workers. The government would have introduced new “formulas” to slash wages, increase hours of work and intensify the exploitation of labor in the name of patriotism and the “needs of the war.”

Instead, the miners’ victory opened a whole new wave of labor struggle, mounting steadily through 1943, 1944 and 1945, reaching a titanic climax in the winter of 1945-46.

The miners themselves were able to go on from victory to victory in the war and immediate postwar period, winning many new gains, such as health and welfare funds, retirement pensions and other conditions, which then became objectives of the CIO unions as well.

 

4 Comments »

  1. superb

    Comment by ralph levitt — October 7, 2019 @ 9:27 pm

  2. Great read. Well done!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 7, 2019 @ 9:44 pm

  3. Critical review of Walter Reuther’s career by Bea Hansen.

    (Transcript of a speech she gave to a Socialist Forum in Detroit in 1955
    The manuscript was found in her belongings after her death in 1969)

    Online at the MIA
    https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/misc-1/hanonreuth.htm
    A printed version is available from Pathfinder books.

    Beatrice Hansen was the sister of Genora(Johnson)Dollinger, who played a leading role the Flint sit down strike of 1936-7.
    She was also Joseph Hansen’s sister in law.

    Comment by prianikoff — October 8, 2019 @ 9:22 am

  4. A very interesting historical look back at a very different period in time in this country. Though I wonder what might have been if the Wallace wing of progressives had been stronger, and if the anti-Communist, Cold Warmongers had been brought to heal…Novelist Harry Turtledove comes to mind…

    Comment by Kurt Hill — October 8, 2019 @ 2:20 pm


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