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The daily worker. [volume] (Chicago, Ill.) 1924-1958, February 02, 1924, Magazine Supplement, Image 6

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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
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
Two Points
In this article, I want to prove two
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
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
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.
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
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-
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
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.

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