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Political Activity in the Trade Unions
THE lack of a working class politi cal viewpoint apparent in the American trade union movement, to say nothing of revolutionary political vision and tactics, is a source of great concern to everyone who realizes the important part the trade unions must play in the tremendous changesi that are taking place in the capitalist world. Disgusted with the reactionary char acter of official trade union policies, the belief has gained ground among the revolutionary elements that the American trade union movement is generally anti-political, and that where it is not, its activities serve only to strengthen the hold of the capitalist class on industry and gov ernment. Two Points In this article, I want to prove two thin»s. the American trade un ion movement, as represented by the American Federation of Labor, in stead of being anti-political, or even non-political, conducts intensive and very complicated political activities. Second, that, while judged by revo lutionary standards, these activities are cither of a mild reformist or pos itively reactionary nature, they are not entirely the result of the conspira torial machinations of evil geniuses in the form of trade union bureau crats, but are also conditioned by the social, economic and political milieu, in which the trade unions have de veloped. Early Political Thinking The earliest protest movements of which American history advises us, conducted by the feeble trade unions of that day, wer,e against executive and judicial tyranny, and took on a political form. The right, first to combine for protection and then to strike, was gained by the early un ions only thru political agitation and action, as McMaster clearly shows. The campaign for free and compul sory education resulting in the estab lishment .of our public school system was an early movement in which the trade unions of that time formed the most active section. The Owenite agitation again at tracted the support of the trade un ions and it was these organizations that furnished the nucleus of the movement. The Knights of Labor was more a political than an indus trial organization and in every wave of protest that has swept the nation tince that time the trade unions have taken a leading part No Anti-Political Tradition There is, therefore, no anti-political tradition so far as tlte trade unions of the United States are concerned. There is a plentitude of confusion of thought and a disposition to follow what appears to be the line of least resistance, such as the 4 support of liberal candidates on the capitalist party tickets, but this is no evidence of any anti-political bias. Reasons for Present Methods It seems to me that one of the principal reasons for the ineffective and non-working class character of the present political activity of the trade unions is to be found in the fact that in the United States, owing to conditions which can not be detailed in an article of this length, the trade unions never \have . been ab’e to convince the ruling class that they have a right to exist; that ] they are a permanent part of our so cial structure, and must be recog nized as such; this fact is made clear , during every period of stagnation in industry bringing widespread unem- « ployment. The national associations : of employers no sooner see an over- , stocked labor market than the cry of “wipe out the unions’’ is raised. In no other great capitalist nation is . this condition found. The recent open , shop drive is only the most recent evidence of this attitude. It is a little too much to expect that such an extremely feeble trade union movement should develop a powerful i political movement. , American Ideology Altho a very large percentage of ' th.e union membership is of foreign birth and extraction, not citizens of the United States, the ideological < basis of trades union organization is i American citizenship. The right of i franchise is considered the guarantee I of political and economic equality and, 1 in practice, this becomes for the trade unions, a hostility to any form of po litical activity based on the class I struggle. I Effect of Weakness < The weakness of the trade union ] movement and the constant and bit- l ter struggle that even the most con - servative unions are forced to con > duct, combined with this typical i American viewpoint, makes the lead i ership hesitate to place in the hands t of the employers what they, the lead i ers, believe to be an effective weapon ; —ability to charge and prove radical ; tendencies. Demanding, as American citizens, a mythical, but, to them, very real ■ thing known as the American stand ard of living, these officials view with a holy horror, absolutely incompre hensible to the average revolutionist, any act or utterance that would make it difficult to defend their loyalty to American institutions. Concrete Rewards In many sections of the trade un ion movement favorable working con ditions, high wages and job control are obtained quite as often by politi cal deals and trades as they are by the economic strength of the unions. To the building trades in many cit ies the appointment of building, plumbing, electrical and health in spectors favorable to the unions is a matter of vital importance. In mu nicipal elections such issues as these will arouse the greatest interest in the unions and any form of political activity that would alienate the un ion’s friends in either the democrat ~ u u uiiivus, itutco vi tew or republican parties is frowned upon, tral bodies and dozens of state fede- The labor union government of San rations of labor, found themselves A GOMPERS’ DREAM e Wait Until He Wakee Up. Francisco, under Abe Rues and P. IL McCarthy, is a case in point. Defensive Activity There is again the necessity for se curing neutrality from the police force during strikes, the ability to “spring” arrested strikers, immunity from prosecution from various neces sary activities a hostile administra tion could make much of, etc. Much of the political activity that secures the privileges mentioned is altogether valueless, much of it posi tively harmful, but political activity it is, none the less. Organs of Political Expression The state federations of labor and the central labor bodies—city central councils—are the political organs of the American Federation of Labor. They have no executive power under the jaws of the A. F. of L., but in political matters they are allowed considerable latitude. They are the only bodies thru which the labor unions, as such, find organized polit ical expression and are important because of this fact. Constant Activity In many cities the political activi ties of these two bodies are of an in tensive nature. The state federation of labor watches all legislation pro posed at the state capitals, keeps the union membership informed of favor- < - able or hostile measures, and many ■ times finds it necessary to secure the I passage of resolutions for or against - certain measures and even to organize i demonstrations against them. Last ■ year in New York the labor unions i sent a veritable army of representa- I tives to Albany to protest against the enactment of bil'a menacing labor or i ganizations. Ease of Betrayal The officials entrusted with the re sponsibility of passing on laws or candidates for labor to oppose or sup port develop a high degree of skill in political maneuvering; they often be tray the interests of the labor move-' ment and certainly nothing could be easier with the present level of po litical consciousness among the rank and file; the wonder is that it does not occur more often. Progress To one familiar with the lack of cohesion and common program, in trade union political activities, the or ganization of the Conference for Pro gressive Political Action, was an ad vance step for the trade union move ment. It has no class character —quite the reverse—its program is hopelessly inadequate, but for the first time thou sands of local unions, scores of cen- uniting on a program that gave them a national political viewpoint and a common program, mild and ineffec tive as it was and is. Effects Apparent The burden of carrying out this program falls upon tha most ad vanced groups in the American Fede ration of Labor—delegates to the cen tral bodies and state federations of labor—who are always the most ac tive and the best informed of the un ion membership. Because of the dis illusionment brought by the war, the bankruptcy of the farmers, with whom most state federations are in close touch, the evident failure of the lo cal “reward and punish” policy in na tional politics, the idea of divorce from the capitalist parties is sympa thetically entertained by central bod ies and state federations, nor has the Gompers’ machine been signally suc cessful in sabotaging this new de velopment. Political consciousness is i growing in the tradf unions and the idea of their non-political .character— never entirely true—must be revised. Important Development For Communists this is an Interest ing and important development. No working class movement without clear political vision and understanding ever can become a menace to the cap- By WILLIAM F. DUNNE italist class, and there is no more im portant task for the Communists in ' the trade unions than to assist this development by activity based on knowledge of the strength and weak nesses, the ignorances and prejudices of the membership of the American labor movement. Os Strategic Importance There is no better starting point than propaganda for a wholesale de sertion of the parties of the employ ers, based on a wealth of concrete instances of betrayal, both by candi dates and labor officials, for a farmer labor party controlled by the unions and-farmer organizations. With this idea of a class party every honest unionist is in sympathy, altho he may be held from work for it and participation in it by fear of losing some immediate advantage. In addition to these fears he must reckon with the bureaucracy which now has abandoned all pretense of ruling by consent of the rank and file. Control of the unions today is a ma chine-like process comparable only to the manner in which the capitalist state maintains power. The bureau cracy in' no way expresses the desire of the membership for expansion of political activity, but opposes it. Great Opportunities With this as a beginning, however, and with the growth of the move ment itse r s, the bars are down for po litical agitation of a far more funda mental character—for Communist propaganda—impossible when the only political issue discussed is the extent of the friendship of republi can or democrat candidates Extension of Party Activity Party activity in the trade unions from now on must take on more of a Communist character—it must be more political. We have won the sympathy of the left wing with our slogan of amalgamation and the work /or this objective now is largely of an organizational character—the mob ilization of our sympathizers in the fights against the sabotage and ter ror of the bureaucracy. Our Task The defeats of the railway men in particular, on the industrial field, has given impetus to political thinking. The shopmen know that it was the capitalist government that beat them. To drive this lesson home with all its corollaries is the task of the Com munists, and a task that our previous campaigns have made not easy but possible. Lenin and American Films ‘‘The art of the cinema is the most important of all arts for the Russian people,” wrote Premier Lenin not long before his death. So great was the vailue he placed on the film as a direct appeal and an education for Russia’s backward masses that at one end of his work room was given up to a white screen flanked on both sides by big long book shelves, with the projecting ap paratus in the opposite corner. In a box beside the machine were three of the latest films, in the showing of which he delighted. It is interesting to note that two of the films were American. The first was a detailed picture of Henry Ford’s Detroit factory, showing the most modern time and labor sav-« ing methods. The second was en titled “Ivan in America,” and pic tured an ignorant Russian immigrant gazing from between the decks at the Statue of Liberty and New York’s towering battlements of steel and stone. Then Ivan goes to Ni agara, which introduces scenes from the electric power houses, such as Lenin wished to install in Russia and on thru the Pittsburgh steel mills and the Pennsylvania coal mines to Washington, where Ivan stands awestruck before the capi tal and White House. Then he goes West to Montana's copper and on to California, with all its oil fields and water power plants. There are scenes too of Minnesota’s’ grain fields with the very latest agricul tural machinery, and grain ele vators and scenes of fruit growing in Washington and Oregon and of cattle raising and horse ranches and sheep, poultry and cotton. The latter series Lenin liked especially, saying “Russia is still a land of peasants; it is from the land we must live; mining and electrifica tion and factories must come later.” The third film was a historical presentation of the chief events of the Bolshevist revolution.