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Why the Prosecution?

To Aid Tobin, Attack War Opposition,
Set Anti-Labor Precedent

Government Masks These Real Reasons
Behind ‘Seditious Conspiracy’ Charge

(1 November 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 44, 1 November 1941, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

According to the official federal indictment and recent statements by the prosecution, the Roosevelt administration is trying to convict and imprison the 28 defendants in the Minneapolis ‘sedition’ trial because they “did feloniously conspire ... to destroy by force the Government of the United States of America ...”

But all the evidence of the public record and the circumstances and statements leading up to the opening of the trial indicate that this was not the reason for this indictment being handed down at this time.

Rather, the evidence shows that the government was trying to achieve three ends by the indictment and the prosecution:

  1. To aid Daniel J. Tobin, AFL teamster chief, in his fight to prevent the members of Local 544 from exercising their democratic right to belong to the union of their own choice, and to strike a blow at the leaders of this union who were noted for their opposition to all moves to stifle the militancy of the labor movement in the name of “national defense”;
  2. To terrorize, isolate and, if possible, suppress the party which proclaimed its irreconcilable opposition to the war and the warmongers;
  3. And to establish a precedent which will be used against all working class opponents of the war in the future.

The government comes into this trial “with unclean hands” because in its haste to achieve these ends, and especially the first, its true intentions were made manifest by the statements issued by the prosecution and Tobin, statements which are a matter of public record.

Background of Trial

The immediate circumstance which inspired the administration to undertake this prosecution when it did was the conflict between the Minneapolis truck drivers union, Local 544, and Tobin, climaxed on June 9 when over 4,000 Local 544 members voted to disaffiliate from the AFL and join the CIO.

Tobin, a staunch supporter of the Roosevelt administration, had declared himself unconditionally pledged to the war aims and policies of the government. Furthermore, he had publicly declared that adherence to his pro-war policies were a condition for continued membership in the AFL Teamsters, and that the members of the union must be prepared to make “sacrifices” in the interests of the war program.

The leaders of Local 544, several of whom had been known for years to Tobin and the labor movement at large as members of the Socialist Workers Party or sympathetic to its ideas, had condemned the war as a war for bosses’ profits and had advocated that the unions maintain a militant policy in defense of the workers interests despite war.

When these leaders refused to abide by Tobin’s ultimatum that they renounce their anti-war convictions, and his further edict that they agree to the establishment of a Tobin receivership over their local, Tobin sought to dust them. This move was frustrated when the local’s members voted to join the CIO.

Roosevelt Intervenes

Four days later, Tobin addressed a direct telegraphic appeal to Roosevelt, urgently requesting his aid against the dissident local. He declared in part:

“The withdrawal from the International Union by the truckdrivers union, Local 544 and one other small union in Minneapolis, and their affiliation with the CIO is indeed a regrettable and dangerous condition. The officers of this local union ... were requested to disassociate themselves from the radical Trotsky organization ... we feel that while our country is in a dangerous position, those disturbers who believe in the policies of foreign, radical governments must be in some way prevented from pursuing this dangerous course ...” (New York Times, June 14, 1941)

On the very same day that he received Tobin’s appeal, Roosevelt acted. Through his secretary, Stephen Early, Roosevelt issued a statement to the White House press conference, which acknowledged Tobin’s telegram and recognized Tobin’s claim that the Teamsters’ international leadership was being fought “by all subversive organizations and all enemies of the government, including Bundists, Trotskyists and Stalinists” because Tobin and his colleagues “have been and will continue to stand squarely behind the government.”

Early then added:

“When I advised the President of Tobin’s representations this morning, he asked me to immediately have the Government departments and agencies interested in this matter notified, and to point out that this is no time, in his opinion, for labor unions, local and national, to begin raiding one another for the purpose of getting memberships or for similar reason.” (New York Times, June 14).

Three things are established by these statements:

  1. Tobin appealed to Roosevelt for aid on the basis that this was a “political favor” owed him for his support of the administration and its war program.
  2. Roosevelt acted promptly on behalf of Tobin at Tobin’s direct request.
  3. Roosevelt’s immediate specific actions were to condemn the CIO for “raiding”, without any further inquiry into the situation, and to instruct the “Government departments and agencies interested in this matter” to assist Tobin.

The FBI Acts

Within a few days these “departments and agencies” did act. On June 27, FBI agents raided the headquarters of the SWP in Minneapolis and St. Paul, seizing copies of works by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky and various publications of the party, all of which are on public sale everywhere.

Announcement was then made that these publicly available books and publications would be used as “evidence” in a federal prosecution against members of the Socialist Workers Party.

Attorney General Biddle, who was subsequently to brazenly deny that the prosecution had any connection with the fight between Tobin and Local 544, declared on the day of the FBI raids that “the principal Socialist Workers Party leaders against whom prosecution is being brought, are also leaders of Local 544-CIO in Minneapolis ... and have gained control of a legitimate labor union to use it for illegitimate purposes.” (Minneapolis Star-Journal, June 28)

The St. Paul Dispatch, a representative organ of the conservative business interests in the Twin Cities, announced that an indictment was being prepared against the Socialist Workers Party, with the revealing headline: “U.S. TO PROSECUTE 544.”

But Biddle hastened to lie: “The prosecution is not in any sense an attack on organized labor, nor is it an effort to interfere in a dispute between labor organizations.”

However, in reporting this very statement of Biddle’s, the Minneapolis Star-Journal, June 28, added that the federal officials themselves had admitted that “the criminal proceedings were stimulated by the bolt of former leaders of General Drivers’ Union 544 from AFL to CIO.”

First Main Reason for the Prosecution

The facts are iron-clad. The initial purpose of the prosecution was to aid in the crushing of an influential and powerful sector of the trade union movement because of its opposition to the Tobin dictatorship on the question of labor’s policies in the war.

There was, it is then apparent, no question of “seditious conspiracy” involved in the events leading up to the opening of the prosecution by the Roosevelt administration. That came later when the prosecution saw that it would have to cover up its real motives.

Second Main Reason

The second reason for the prosecution was purely political and stemmed from the administration’s decision to use this case for an attack on the Socialist Workers Party because of its outspoken opposition to the imperialist war.

This was explicitly admitted by Biddle who stated: “The principal basis for the prosecution is found in the Declaration of Principles adopted by the Socialist Workers Party in January 1938.” (Minneapolis Tribune, June 28)

Biddle then made specific reference to those sections of the Declaration which read:

“If, in spite of the efforts of the revolutionists and the militant workers, the U.S. government enters a new war, the SWP will not, under any circumstances, support that war but will, on the contrary, fight against it.”

There was nothing secret or “conspiratorial” about this Declaration. It was made public three and a half years before the indictment was drawn. It is the expression of political opinions and, as such, the SWP and the defendants had, and have, the constitutional right to express them.

But the indictment itself, handed down two weeks later, had nothing whatever to say about “the principal basis for the prosecution.” As a matter of fact it does not even contain the word war.

The prosecution acted hastily in its eagerness to help Tobin before it was too late to help him effectively, and it blurted out some truths. Afterwards, they realized that it would not be very easy under the circumstances to get convictions on the basis of the defendants’ anti-war policies, for millions of others share their opposition to the war and would rally to their defense on this basis.

Unable to tell the truth about why he was prosecuting the Socialist Workers Party and trying to divert attention away from the obvious fact that the fight between Tobin and 544 had been the initial impulse for the action by the FBI and the Department of Justice, Biddle had to cook up the “seditious conspiracy” charge.

To find a legal basis for such a charge, the Department of Justice had to disinter two federal statutes which had never previously been used and which are in clear violation of the guarantees of free speech and free press contained in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

One of these statutes is the Smith Act of 1940, which makes the mere expression of revolutionary ideas a felony; and the other is a similar statute enacted in 1861 for use against the Southern Confederacy during an actual armed rebellion.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is actively supporting the defendants in this ease, addressed a letter on August 20 to Biddle, which said:

“In our judgment both these statutes violate the First Amendment. of the Constitution; and even if upheld could not be applied to this set of facts under the ‘clear and present’ danger rule.”

Third Reason for the Prosecutions

But the government wants to get a conviction precisely on the basis of these unconstitutional statutes, because it wants a legal precedent for the future prosecution of any individuals or groups whose opinions the administration deems hostile to its war program.

That this was one of the major reasons for the prosecution was indicated by Biddle himself, who was quoted in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. June 28, as stating that this prosecution was to be the first step in a nationwide drive against “dangerous radicals.” “It is a fair inference,” said Department of Justice officials, according to the Pioneer Press, “that the St. Paul prosecutions may be followed by others in other parts of the country.”

And Assistant Attorney General Schweinhaut, one of the government prosecutors who signed the indictment, said: “We cracked down here first. Mr. Biddle has said this is only a start. So you can expect other actions to follow shortly.” (St. Paul Dispatch, June 28)

There are those in “liberal” circles who say that the Minneapolis case is not important, that the government is not “serious” in its prosecution, that little or nothing will come of it.

But they are refuting the facts leading up to the indictment, by the desperate lengths to which Biddle and the prosecution have gone in attempting to hide their real reactionary motives, by the obvious contradictions in the statements explaining the reasons for the trial, by the glaring inconsistencies between these statements and the indictment.

No administration would go to such lengths or place itself in such a compromising position unless it was in deadly seriousness. determined to go through with the case and secure convictions, if only to take the curse off what it has already done and “justify” its course up to now.

Most decisive of all is the fact that the Roosevelt administration is serious about the war, and it is serious, therefore, about getting a conviction in this case as an important part of its war preparations.

Let there be no mistake about it. The government is in deadly earnest about railroading the 28 defendants to prison. Progressive workers must mobilize all their forces to help the fight against a conviction in this case, a conviction which will jeopardize their rights and liberties in the war days ahead.

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