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A Labor Party

Jack Ranger

Chapters from a New Pamphlet

A Labor Party –
A “Must” for American Workers

Chapter 5
Union Leadership and Politics

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 35, 30 August 1948, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

FOR generations, the union leaders of the United States have accepted the monopoly of political life by big business. They have accepted the perpetuation of the Republican-Democratic system, and have rejected the theory that labor must organize independently on the political field as it has on the economic field. Trade-union politics has been summarized in Gompers’ old political slogan, “Reward your friends and punish your enemies.”

In effect, the carrying out of this policy has meant that union leaders have sought to encourage the workers to vote for those candidates of either of the old parties designated by the leadership as “progressive,” and have sought to discourage the workers from forming a labor party which would run labor’s own candidates.

American trade-union officials, alone among the trade-union leaders of the world, have taught for generations that the economic struggles of the workers can be divorced from their political struggles.

Since the days of Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, right down to 1948, the big majority of union leaders have united on the following proposition:

That it is 100 per cent right for workers to organize into labor unions on the economic field, and 100 per cent wrong for workers to organize into a labor party on the political field.

Political Company-Unionism on Way Out

All the leaders agree on this today, no matter what other questions divide them – Green and the AFL Council, Murray and the CIO Executive Board, John L. Lewis, A.F. Whitney, the Stalinists, all of them.

In no other nation in the world is such a backward and ignorant and treacherous union political policy permitted. For generations the workers of England, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand have had their own labor parties, which from time to time have taken over political leadership of their respective nations.

Whether these labor parties of our fellow workers in foreign lands have pursued policies that were wise or unwise, bold or timid, consistent or inconsistent, is not our subject now. That such labor parties have been successfully organized and have intervened forcefully in politics in the name of the unions is undeniable.

We would be the last to deny and the first to proclaim that there are special reasons for this unusual delay (what the professors call this “cultural lag”) on the part of the American trade-union movement to arm itself with a labor party. Among the unique forces in U.S. history which have tended to postpone such a development are the following:

The granting of male suffrage on a broad basis in the United States at a comparatively early stage in the nation’s history; unparalleled tides of immigration which brought workers of many diverse nationalities to these shores and which, while they enriched the nation and eventually the union movement, at first made it more difficult for labor to achieve unity in action; the existence of a frontier of cheap or free land right up to the turn of this century, to which the dissatisfied city worker could move, relieving class discontent; the anti-political prejudices of important figures in the American labor movement, such as Gompers (founder of the AFL), Bill Haywood and other IWW leaders; the Jim Crow policies of many trade unions, which prevented unity between the white workers and the remaining one seventh of our nation; the greater mobility of the American worker, his willingness when impoverished in one community to try his luck in another; the size of the nation, which has made the building of a nationwide labor party a formidable task; the narrow craft jealousies of American workers, encouraged by the old union leadership; above all, the ability of the two old capitalist parties to find tools within the union movement willing to serve the Republican-Democratic machine and to perpetuate political company-unionism.

The probability is great that the end of the road for such a politically backward labor policy is fast approaching. The attempt, in our time, to separate the economic struggle from the political is less feasible than ever before.

This is indicated by the fact that administrative decrees or legislative acts are brought into play to cut workers’ wages, to raise prices, to open union finances and membership lists to the inspection of the employers, to send the police or the military against labor, to place the weapon of injunction in the hands of the employers, to shift burdensome tax loads from business to labor. So do the progressively deeper depressions, the increasingly destructive wars. Not only will the pressure from labor’s ranks for more aggressive action on the political field mount, but the very trade-union leadership which plays bill with the old parties will find its own position increasingly threatened – from these old parties.

The political company-unionism of Green, Murray, Whitney & Co. is failing utterly to defend the interests of the workers. It isn’t paying off in adequate wage levels – nor in security – nor in freedom from war – nor in freedom from oppressive taxation – nor in enhanced civil liberties – nor in freedom from the necessity to strike – nor in a fair break for the Negroes. It hasn’t even protected the union movement against a smashing blow like the Taft-Hartley Law – passed, let it always be recalled, by a majority of both Democratic and Republican congressmen.

Three Assumptions of Pressure Politics

Labor’s position has greatly worsened since the war’s end. Everyone acknowledges this. Something must be radically wrong with the theory of “pressure politics,” the theory that labor should continue to “reward its friends and punish its enemies” in the old parties. Let’s give this theory the once-over.

Pressure politics as practiced from Gompers’ time to today is based upon three major assumptions:

  1. That labor itself is too weak, poorly organized, and outnumbered to launch its own political party.
  2. That the old parties are not the political tools of the capitalists, but are non-class vehicles which are impartially receptive to anyone who wishes to ride them.
  3. That capitalism not only can continue to give the working class what it has given in the past, but can even increase the ante. Or, if it cannot give a decent living to all the workers, at least it can “take care” of the aristocrats of labor.

The first assumption may have had some point prior to 1900. Today it is ludicrous. Today labor is far and away the largest class in the population. The American workers are better organized economically than any other working class in the history of the world.

At its 1947 convention the AFL claimed 7,600,000 members, represented by approximately 100 international unions, 48 state federations of labor, more than 800 city central labor bodies. The CIO convention in 1947 represented 41 international unions, 36 state and 231 city industrial union councils. President Murray reported the total CIO membership to be in excess of six million. There are in addition more that a half million workers organized in the independent railroad unions and a couple of millions organized in other independent unions such as the machinists, brewery workers, telephone workers, etc.

With an apparatus like this, given the will to build a labor party, almost overnight the working class could confront its enemies on the political field with a formidable party that would force respect.

We have shown that the second of the assumptions mentioned above is false. The Republican and Democratic Parties belong to big business, which owns them and directs their policies. Labor leaders are permitted to solicit votes for these parties. But they are not permitted to determine party policy.

If it is to the interests of big business to throw this nation into war, both old parties embrace pro-war policies. If the fundamental interests of American capitalism are best served by granting a measure of relief to the unemployed or the aged, such relief is given. If it serves the current needs of American capitalism to cripple the trade unions, a Taft-Hartley Law is passed. Labor has no voice in such decisions.

Capitalism Running Dry

The last assumption, that American capitalism can continue to give the working class what it has given in the past, is equally false. Throughout the world, the capitalist world is on the skids. What the First World War and the 1929-39 depression started, the Second World War pretty well finished. Capitalism with its depressions and wars has brought all of Europe to ruin, and has sapped the system in the United States, as will become shockingly clear at the very start of the next depression.

In Europe and Asia the old economic and political machines of the capitalists can go through the motions of functioning still, fed as they are by billions of dollars which the Republican-Democratic machine syphons out to them. The system is through, all over the world. Only in the United States is capitalism still able to look alive and prosperous, and then only because of the ruination of the rest of the world.

From now on out, American capitalism will be able to give less and less to the American people – less security, fewer of the good things of life, less freedom for the unions, fewer civil liberties. In store for us are higher taxes, increasing militarization, increasing repression, and ultimately – unless the labor party is formed to launch a workers’ government in Washington – fascism, the final scourge which capitalism visits upon its victims.

This is the course of politics under capitalism, in all countries: from liberal capitalism, to monopoly capitalism, to fascism. The poorer the country, the more rapidly the cycle is completed.

The cycle can be broken only by labor’s active, aggressive, radical intervention in the political life of the nation.

(To be continued)

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