Correspondence on the Union Question

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Dear Internationalism,

I've read your series on how decadence affects capitalism in the International Review. Even though the union movement is portrayed as being progressive in the 1920's and 30's, it had moved away from being a worker's movement and became a hindrance on the working class. In the US, the situation was different in that the industrial unions sprang up in the 1920's and 30's and were quite militant causing wildcat strikes and sit-ins in the plants -- especially in the 30's. Large gains were won in wages, work hours and medical care. Only after the middle 30's did the unions move away from militancy and become supporters of FDR's New Deal and, then, support for the coming imperialist war. The unions after WWII never moved back to militancy. Instead they backed reformist bourgeois liberals who granted concessions while the Soviet Union existed. The workers themselves didn't show militancy but followed the unions' betraying leadership. No significant sector of the union movement emerged to challenge union officialdom and this speaks of a deep moral chasm in the union's middle strata...

SH, Jan. 08

Our reply

Dear SH

We have discussed your recent message concerning decadence and its impact on the class struggle. We want to salute your seriousness and willingness to share your reflections. In this communication, we would like to expand a bit on why we think unions were integrated into American state capitalism at the time of the First World War, with global capitalism's entry into its decadent phase. Capitalism is a global economic system, and the qualitative change in the capitalist system from its ascendant to its decadent period occurs on a global, international level, not a country by country basis. Certainly, there may be specificities in how global tendencies and processes play themselves out in particular countries, but this in no way should imply that there was any significant difference in the situation in the US compared to other countries.

In this context, the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and industrial unions in the US was NOT an expression of working class militancy, but on the contrary a response by state capitalism to counteract that militancy. Despite the mythology of the CIO's creation propagated by Stalinist and Trotskyist propaganda, the successful organization of industrial unions in the 1930's in the mass production industries was imposed by American capitalism as a means to control, discipline, and eventually mobilize the working class for imperialist slaughter in World War II.

We published a lengthy article in Internationalism No. 12 in 1977, "The Formation of the CIO : Triumph of the Bourgeoisie," which refuted Art Preis' "Labor's Giant Step," which painted a glowing picture of the CIO from a Trotskyist perspective. We think the analysis and evidence developed in that article is pertinent to your further reflection on the unions and decadence. To highlight some central points:

1).- As in other industrialized countries, World War I marked the integration of the unions into the state apparatus, with their participation in the War Industries Board, which was charged with mobilizing American industry for the war. Then serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, during WW I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt worked closely with and appreciated the effectiveness of the WIB, with the unions as full partners and participants, in exerting centralized state control over the economy. In addition a number of other prominent capitalists who participated in the statification of the economy during the war, recognized the benefits that industrial unions could render to American capital, especially in industrial mobilization for war.

2).- While the state capitalist measures introduced during WW I were largely dismantled after the war during the 1920's, not to be reintroduced until the after the onset of the Great Depression and the New Deal program introduced by FDR in 1933, the rise of Fordism and mass production industries during the 1920's increasingly demonstrated the anachronistic nature of the traditional AFL craft unions, as a means for effectively controlling the working class. Gerard Swope, president of General Electric, who had been involved in the work of the WIB during WW I, "vainly tried to convince William Green, the president of the AFL, to form a nation-wide industrial union of electrical workers. For Swope, industrial efficiency would be ‘intolerably handicapped if the bulk of our employees were organized into different and often competing craft unions'" (Internationalism No.12, p3). From the union side, Sidney Hillman, head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, one of the only industrial unions within the AFL, criticized narrow craft unionism because "it permits of no responsibility between labor and management," and undercut the ability to provide for stable and responsible management of large scale industry. In essence, both Swope and Hillman saw that big capital and the state needed to deal with one bargaining agent in each industry to guarantee efficiency and labor discipline. Industrial unionism in decadence was no threat to capitalism, but a necessary tool.

3) -The impotence of organized labor, as personified by the AFL, to control and discipline the American working class was demonstrated during the 1920's and early 30's, where the number of strikes by non-unionized workers as compared to union-called strikes, grew continuously until by the early 30's the majority of strikes in the US were wildcats outside union control - hence, outside state control.

4).- As early as 1933, the incoming FDR administration recognized the necessity to prepare for eventual war with German imperialism and understood that the coming inter-imperialist war required the creation of industrial unions to control and mobilize the masses of unorganized unskilled and semi-skilled workers. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933, a key element in FDR's New Deal, granted workers "the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing," laying the framework for the organization of industrial unions. The National Recovery Administration, which presided over state centralization of the depression-ridden economy openly encouraged unionization. The newly created National Labor Board (NLB) decreed that the union receiving a majority of votes in a plant would have exclusive bargaining rights for all employees in the plant, a practice that differs from many European nations, where a single plant may have workers belong to different unions affiliated with the CP, the SP or and centrist political party. US capitalism was committed to centralized control over its workforce in key industries. While unionization of mass production industries had the support of the state, and "enlightened" members of the industrial and financial bourgeoisie, it was opposed by small and medium sized industrialists organized in the American Manufacturers, as well as recalcitrant big capitalists like Henry Ford (Ford) and Tom Girdler (Republic Steel). . In any case, the AFL proved indifferent and unwilling to undertake organization of unskilled workers.

5).- The strike wave of 1934, as increasing numbers of workers rebelled against the conditions of hardship, convinced the FDR administration that it couldn't rely on the AFL to organize the working class. The Wagner Act gave strong enforcement powers to the newly created National Labor Relations Board to override the resistance of backward members of the bourgeoisie and to accelerate the efforts of the Congress of Industrial Organizations to organize the mass production industries. The CIO and state leadership was crystal clear on its role in service of capitalism. CIO President John L. Lewis, from the Miners, in reference to the spontaneous eruption of class struggle and strikes, said, "it is conceivable that if this dangerous state of affairs is allowed to continue there will not only be ‘class-consciousness' but revolution as well. But it can be avoided. The employers aren't doing much to avoid it. The United Mine Workers are doing everything in their power to make the system work and thereby avoid it." The head of the NLRB, Lloyd K. Garrison, said "I regard organized labor in this country as our chief bulwark against communism and other revolutionary movements." Len De Caux, editor of the CIO Union News Service, said, "When collective bargaining is fully accepted, union recognition accorded and an agreement reached, CIO unionists accept full responsibility for carrying out their side of it in a disciplined fashion, and oppose sit-downs or any other strike action while it is in force."

6).- Reflecting the anger and discontent of the workers, it is true that militant strikes erupted in many industries during the CIO unionizing drives, including the sit-downs at General Motors in 1936-37, which involved 136,000 workers in 17 plants, where strikers demanded abolition of piece work payment schemes, a thirty hour week/six hour work day, premium pay for overtime, reinstatement of fired workers, and worker control of production line speed. However the militancy of the workers should not be confused with the attitude of the CIO unions. For instance, while the plants remained under worker control, the union bureaucracy paid lip service to the workers' demands and concentrated on union recognition as their central concern. Forced by the government pressure to end the strike, GM agreed to bargain with the United Auto Workers for the next six months in exchange for an end to the factory occupations. In the end, the union surrendered on the central workers' demands but won union recognition, which was the pattern throughout the CIO's organizing campaigns. --Internationalism 02/1/2008