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A.J. Muste

Achievements and Lessons
of Cleveland Conference

(15 September 1933)

From Labor Action, Vol. 1 No. 10, 15 September 1933, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE Cleveland Trade Union Conference for United Action brought together over 500 delegates. A small number were from A.F. of L. and Railroad Brotherhood locals and independent unions. Some were from unions and unemployed organizations in which the Conference for Progressive Labor Action has been active. The overwhelming majority of the delegates were from Trade Union Unity League organizations. The Socialists were conspicuous by their absence. They will consort with conservative and reactionary trade unionists, although claiming to differ from them, but they shun the company of radicals and militants from whom they may differ.

The principal achievement of the conference was to bring together those elements in the unions and other economic organizations who do not believe that NIRA is “a step in the right direction” but that it is a false, capitalistic attempt out of the crisis against which the workers must be warned and armed, it was made clear by reports from various industries and sections of the country that while many workers still pin their hopes on the NIRA, there are also a great many who not only have derived no benefits from it but whose condition has been worsened These workers are by no means “sold” on the Roosevelt program. The delegates went on record unanimously against a policy of “pussy-footing” with regard to NIRA Unions which are built up solely or chiefly because Roosevelt tells workers to organize will Just as swiftly collapse when government support is withdrawn, or will meekly yield to government pressure when it desires to move in a Fascist direction. This does not mean hysterical screaming against the Blue Eagle. The workers can be given careful, reasoned arguments why the attempt to “save capitalism” cannot succeed. Above all. the plain everyday facts of what NIRA is failing to do for the workers now can be persistently set forth.

Reports About A.F. of L. Gains Exaggerated

Some people are under the impression that under NIRA the workers in practically all industries are being swept into the A.F. of L., that soon there will be no independent unionism whatever and that all energies of militants must now be concentrated on developing opposition within the A.F. of L. Reports to the Cleveland conference made it clear that this is not the case and that it would be a serious error for militants to herd workers indiscriminately into A.F. of L. unions. The A.F. of L. has considerably increased its membership in those industries where there was already a tradition of A.F. of L. unionism, as in the needle trades and mining. It still remains to be seen whether the A.F. of L. can gain a hold on such basic industries as steel, automobiles and public utilities. Many workers in these industries doubt, and with good reason, whether the A.F. of L. will give them genuine industrial unions if they join it.

These are not pre-war days when any unions, even if conservative in philosophy, were sure to represent a step in the right direction, an agency for struggle against the employer. Today tremendous forces are at work to make Fascist agencies out of A.F of L. unions. Many of the leaders of the A.F. of L. are so strongly committed to cooperation with the government and employers that they cannot be depended upon effectively to resist these forces The work in the A.F. of L. unions must go on but there are also still cases where workers must be supported in their effort to build independent, fighting, industrial unions.

A.F. of L. unions are not yet Fascist organizations. however. Many workers are seeking to use them as weapons of struggle. They are in a state of transition. Militants must work within them more intensively and intelligently than ever. They must keep before the workers at all times the need of working toward a single, powerful, fighting Industrial union movement.

Sectarianism Still a Handicap to United Action

While there was agreement at Cleveland on the fundamental attitude toward NIRA and on the general approach to the problem of economic organization, much less progress was made toward united action in specific instances than is necessary in view of the seriousness of the present crisis.

This was due chiefly to the fact that the Communist party and the TUUL, though professing a desire to make a new approach toward the building of mass organizations, have not yet been able to overcome their deeply rooted sectarian habits.

It was brought out in the Cleveland conference, for example, that during the recent unemployed strike in Toledo where leagues and councils were supposed to be working together, the Toledo office of the C.P. sent out a letter to its members instructing them to work In the strike In order to bring the unemployed “into our unemployed councils and our party.” This occurred despite the fact that there Is a specific agreement for united action between councils and leagues which, among other things, provides that the organizations are not to engage in the futile business of trying to win members away from each other.

In effect, the TUUL representatives proposed in practically every industry that their own Industrial union should be accepted as the one which has already demonstrated its fitness to organize and lead the workers. The CPLA contends that both because of past mistakes and certain present tendencies in the TUUL unions, there are many instances where the workers cannot be made to accept the TUUL union as it stands and where a genuinely fresh approach to the problem of organization must be made.

In this connection, a word is in order regarding the charge made at the Cleveland conference by some of the CPLA representatives that in the Paterson strike of 1931, for example, TUUL elements scabbed on A.F. of L. workers. We contend that there is ample evidence to back that charge, which has never been successfully refuted. It was published in Labor Age at the time and it is not necessary to rehearse it here. The statement was made at Cleveland, however, not in order to create the impression that we regard the TUUL unions as scab agencies. We have repeatedly pointed out their militancy and courage, have supported their strikes and hrve refrained from attacking these organizations before the workers. We point out the facts in this case because it is precisely such incidents as these that make it impossible at the present time to persuade some of the most militant elements in Paterson to engage in united action with the National Textile Workers Union, and because there is no hope of united action on a fighting basis until the facts are frankly and fearlessly faced.

Frank Criticisms and Not Pious Resolutions

The fact that at Cleveland these difficulties were discussed and criticisms freely made and listened to was a gain rather than a loss. It is better to approach problems in this way than to pass vague, pious resolutions about united action which come to nothing in practice. Certain specific steps toward united action in various industries were, moreover, taken.

The CPLA will continue to stand for the united front, in concrete situations, of all labor elements, and especially of the militant left-wing forces. We point out, however, that while criticism a sort is essential and healthy, if the left-wing forces engage primarily in tearing each other down before the workers, the result will simply be playing into the hands of reactionaries and Fascists, and not the building of fighting unions

Secondly, the sectarian habits to which we have referred must be definitely and completely abandoned.

Thirdly, now, as in the past, the CPLA recognizes that there is a need for independent unionism and will continue its attack upon the A.F. of L. leadership and its dominant policies, but it will not engage in dual unionist adventures. It will hold before the workers constantly the goal of a single militant industrial union center.

Finally, the actual process of effecting unity among left-wing fighting elements will have to proceed In a realistic manner. The CPLA will not arbitrarily force unity on any group of workers. Unity must grow from the bottom on the basis of action and not of words. CPLA will continue to advocate united action by al) the means in its power.

The need for united action is greater than ever. We will continue to help and lead the workers in building effective fighting organizations wherever we have the opportunity. We will not artificially impose unity on any group of workers since that only means that organization is retarded and broken up rather than advanced. This is adventurism which leads to destruction.

More and more conditions will force the workers to band together against all open enemies and false friends. Disunity will mean destruction of the left-wing forces. If they achieve unity on a realistic basis the crisis will open up vast opportunities and the workers will follow such leadership. More than ever, therefore, those who in any way retard or oppose the process of unification are enemies of the workers.

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