Art Preis Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Art Preis

Steel Convention Upholds Union Democracy

(18 May 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 21, 25 May 1946, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J., May 18 – Striking a powerful blow for trade union democracy, the rank and file delegates at the Third International Convention of the CIO Steelworkers of America climaxed their five-day sessions here this week by successfully defying USA-CIO President Philip Murray for the first time in the union’s 10-year history.

This unprecedented defiance of Murray, who hitherto had been able to whip the steel workers into line for anything he proposed, came late in yesterday afternoon’s session, when the convention rose in tumultuous revolt against Murray’s proposal to drastically reduce rank and file representation at future conventions.

Dramatic Protest

This dramatic and uproarious protest against Murray’s attempt to cut the number of convention delegates reflected a far more profound issue than the immediate question in dispute. By their action in voting down this proposal, the steelworkers for the first time crashed their mighty fist through the bureaucratic crust of the Murray machine. They demonstrated the growing resistance of the steel militants to the iron rule which Murray has always exercised over the union in order to stifle any opposition to his conservative and timid policies.

At this convention, Murray was not confronted by the largely inexperienced workers he had been able to dominate and intimidate at prior conventions. The 2,626 delegates, although they included hundreds of staff members on Murray’s pay-roll, were nevertheless overwhelmingly composed of rank and filers who recently had gone through the test of a great national strike. They were more experienced and self-confident. They were imbued with the consciousness that they had fought and sacrificed for the union and that control over its policies was rightfully theirs.

Murray Fearful

Thus, the climactic outbreak on the fourth day of the convention was no accidental event. It had been brewing throughout the three and a half days preceding the major conflict. The question of convention representation merely crystallized the resentment against the top leadership’s bureaucratic methods.

Murray had himself indicated his fear of such a development when he unexpectedly eliminated at the start of the convention certain issues which he obviously feared might precipitate heated discussion and possibly strong opposition.

As the convention progressed, there was expressed bolder and sharper criticism of the conduct of Murray’s district directors and international staff members. A strong sentiment was openly voiced against the undemocratic manner in which Murray had jammed through contracts without ratification by the membership. Further protest was provoked by Murray’s obvious attempt to limit discussion and railroad through his proposals without proper consideration by the delegates.

Prior to the convention, the Murray machine had been preparing for a red-baiting witchhunt against “communists” and “reds” at the convention. On Murray’s instructions, his lieutenants had been touring the steel locals in a big campaign to line up resolutions for repressive actions against anyone in opposition to Murray. Nearly 300 resolutions were jammed through local unions calling for constitutional amendments providing for various forms of special restrictions on “communists and socialists.” Most of these resolutions called for prohibiting the right to hold any office by “communists and socialists” and some sought to bar radicals from union membership.

On the very eve of the convention, Murray had hastily called together his executive board, which at his order had been working diligently to build up a red-baiting drive, and instructed them to call the whole thing off. The highly-publicized campaign of red-baiting was for the time being shuffled off the stage on the first day of the convention, when Murray introduced a “Statement of Policy” on the question.

This “Statement of Policy,” which was adopted without discussion by the convention, proposed no constitutional restrictions on radicals. It merely asserted that “this union will not tolerate efforts by outsiders – individuals, organizations, or groups – whether they be Communist, Socialist, or any other group, to infiltrate, dictate or meddle in our affairs.”

At the same time, the statement insisted that “however, we will not permit any limitation on the free and democratic right of full discussion of trade union problems in our own ranks. We must not and do not seek interference with the free and democratic right of each member to ... harbor such views as he chooses, in his private life as a citizen. Our union has not been and will not be an instrument of repression ... As a democratic institution, we engage in no purges, no witch-hunts. We do not dictate a man’s thoughts or beliefs.”

Murray’s statement was not motivated by any genuine devotion to union democracy. He has carried through numerous bureaucratic expulsions of those who opposed him. His chief lieutenants Van Bittner and McDonald had personally helped put over a constitutional provision barring “communists” at the recent founding convention of the CIO Utilities Workers Union.

It was obvious that this statement was introduced to allay the fears of the steel workers that a purge of militants was being contemplated at this time. Although the original campaign of red-baiting resolutions had been designed as a weapon primarily against the Stalinists, there was all indications that the repression would be directed against the genuine militants as well. Murray’s retreat was dictated in large part by his desire to maintain the appearance of “peace and harmony” at the convention.

Seeks to Appease

This was revealed in connection with other issues. There had been protest, for instance, against the failure of the union’s policy to provide for district conferences of the steel locals for mutual discussion of policies and the refusal in some instances of district directors to permit such conferences. Murray sought to appease the locals on this question with a special resolution introduced by his resolution committee providing for regular annual district conferences.

Also, there had been a move on foot before the convention to extend the terms of officers and district directors from two to four years. The opposition to this proposal to entrench the bureaucracy more firmly was obviously so great among the ranks that Murray wisely chose not to press it at the convention. To the surprise of everyone, when the Committee on Constitution came to the section of its report dealing with terms of office, it recommended no change in the present two- year terms.

But these concessions to alleviate the discontent with the top leadership’s methods did not alter in any real essentials the undemocratic policies pursued by the Murray machine.

These were revealed in his conduct of the convention itself. Murray kept pressing the convention for “speed” and urging that discussion be cut short. His pay-roll stooges on the convention floor, tried to block discussion by howling “Question!” almost as soon as any resolution or motion was presented. This brought sharp protest at several points from rank and file delegates.

At the same time, Murray consumed an enormous portion of the convention’s available time with long-winded speeches on every possible occasion by himself, his chosen lieutenants and guest speakers. Not a single issue hit the floor without Murray quickly intervening with lengthy orations from the chair to “clarify” the question. In this manner, Murray personally consumed not less than 50 per cent of the convention’s time – while he repeatedly urged the delegates to “expedite the proceedings.”

Underlying Discontent

The first open expression of the underlying discontent existing among the steel workers and the fact they are no longer meek “hand-raisers” for everything Murray says, came on Wednesday afternoon, the second day of the convention. A heated debate developed over the issue of arbitration of grievances.

Resolutions had been introduced by several locals, asking that the International Union share the heavy expenses connected with the arbitration procedure under the contract. These expenses are borne entirely by the local treasuries. Piled-up grievances, most of them accumulated during the war under the no-strike policy, confronted many locals with the danger of bankruptcy.

When a voice vote was taken after Murray had spoken lengthily on the question, there was a very close division. Murray was forced to call for a show of hands, and the resolutions committee’s report to reject the local resolutions on the question was finally carried, but with hundreds of hands raised in opposition. Up to that moment, it was the largest opposition ever displayed toward anything Murray had ever supported.

The next serious expression of opposition occurred at the beginning of the Friday morning session, when the resolutions committee introduced a resolution referring to the International Executive Board proposals by local unions for securing more rank and file representation on the Wage and Policy Committee and for ratification of contracts by the membership. A large section of the union, particularly from the smaller fabricating plants, was very dissatisfied with the provisions of the contracts foisted on them after their prolonged strike, which lasted many weeks after the settlement in basic steel.

Delegate Harvey, Local Union 1206, got a big hand when he opened the discussion by opposing the committee’s resolution and called for wider representation of the local unions on the Wage and Policy Committee, advocating that this committee be composed of local union presidents. Murray immediately delivered a long speech “to correct the delegate.”

“Correct Murray”

Several other delegates then took the floor “to correct Brother Murray.” Delegate Kelly, Local Union 1833, introduced a new note which got a big hand from the convention when he demanded that the rank and file have a voice in approving all contracts. “You take the United Auto Workers, for instance,” he stated. “They have the rank and file OK the contract. We should have that too. I appeal to the delegates that what the auto workers have, we should have.”

This sentiment was a serious challenge to Murray’s undemocratic policy on contracts. Assistant to the President Clinton Golden, then Murray, gave long speeches designed to beat down the opposition. In the course of Murray’s talk, he took occasion to indirectly denigrate the leading role of the General Motors workers in spearheading the wage fight and claimed for his own policies the chief responsibility for “setting the wage pattern” won by the CIO in its strikes. What Murray did was to give away 40 per cent of the union’s original wage demands even before the steel strike, while the GM workers were battling for a 30 per cent increase. He finally settled for an 18½ cent an hour increase while the GM workers were still battling to secure a government recommendation of 19 cents.

Murray sought to halt further debate by reminding the delegates that “you have occupied exactly one hour in the discussion on this resolution” – although he himself had used most of the time. So strong was the voice vote opposition to the resolution committee’s recommendation against changes in the Wage and Policy Committee setup that a hand vote was called for. The vote was about three to two in favor of the recommendation. The opposition was even larger than on the previously disputed arbitration issue.

The report of the Constitution Committee was not presented until late Friday, with the convention scheduled for but one more day. This served as a pretext for a “speed-up” drive by Murray, in the chair, and Committee Secretary Doherty. The delegates had received no copies of proposed amendments in advance, despite Murray’s assurances to the contrary on the previous day.

Heated Outburst

So rapidly were proposed amendments read, that it was impossible for delegates to grasp what was proposed. Time and again, delegates shouted out, “Slow down, slow down.” At one point, a delegate in uniform secured the floor and heatedly denounced the fact that hundreds of paid staff members were sitting on the convention floor who were trying to prevent rank and file delegates from speaking by continuously shouting “Question!”

It was immediately following this outburst that the convention representation question was introduced. The Constitution Committee first reported its non-concurrence in a number of resolutions to reduce the votes of officers and staff members at conventions. It proposed instead that the existing basis of representation, one vote for every 100 members, be changed to one vote for every 500 members.

As soon as this proposal to drastically reduce the number of rank and file delegates was read, there were groans and shouts of “No!” from all over the hall. Scores of delegates were on their feet, frantically waving their hands for recognition and crowding around the “mike” in the middle of the center aisle. Such a scene was without precedent in the history of CIO Steelworker conventions.

Fiery Denunciation

The first delegate to get the floor was Higgins of Local 3159. Indignantly he asserted, “It seems to me that the committee must have been out last night, when it brought up this propostion.” A big shout of “Yeah!” came from the delegates.

The next speaker, a Negro delegate from Youngstown, Dillard of Local Union 1462, brought the convention to its feet with a fiery denunciation of this obvious move to curb the voice of the rank and file by curtailing the number of rank and file delegates. “Talk about democracy!” he said sarcastically, “I’m speaking against this resolution and call on the convention to vote it down.” His concluding words were met with a tremendous ovation and thunderous cheers.

Murray, red faced and visibly shaken by this revolt, hastened to try to put it down. He first tried to assure the delegates that “it makes no difference to me how you vote on this question.” But he then proceeded to talk at length on why smaller conventions would be a good thing, that big conventions cost a lot of money, that they wouldn’t be able to find big enough convention halls, that anyway conventions should be “compact bodies.” He received only a flurry of applause.

Immediately the floor was flooded with arm-waving delegates. Delegates Hahn, Local Union 227, and Czelen, Local Union 1229, secured the “mike.” Just after Murray had spoken, there had been a lull. Every delegate was wondering if the others had again wilted under Murray’s oratory and prestige. But the succeeding remarks of delegates brought such cheers that the ranks became fully confident. Hahn charged the proposal was designed “to concentrate the control of the conventions by a small minority.” Czelen declared that the proposal would mean “we would have the same amount of staff members as delegates, but the rank and file will not be here.”

After this speech, there was such a clamor for the question – this time by the rank and file majority – that Murray put the vote. A feeble “aye” sounded for the proposed change. Then the loudest “No!” ever heard in the convention hall – where the CIO auto workers had met recently too – shook the rafters. The steel workers had come of age. They had decisively asserted themselves for the first time against Murray and his machine.

The struggle over organizational policies and democratic practices was the dominant theme of the convention. It was primarily in this form that the dissatisfaction with Murray’s general policies was expressed. On the broader questions of economic and political program, the convention went along generally with the major resolutions put forward by Murray.

At the same time, there were talks by various individual delegates on a number of resolutions that clearly demonstrated the spread of progressive and militant ideas among the steel workers. Many of the policy resolutions put forward by Murray revealed the pressure of these advanced ideas.

“Political Action”

Obviously couched in terms intended to appease the growing sentiment for genuine independent labor political action, the important resolution on “Political Action” called for support of the CIO Political Action Committee by stressing its “independent political activity” and its character as “an independent force, without commitment to any major party.”

The resolution wound up, however by repeating the bankrupt formula about giving “our support to the progressives of either major political party.” In short. Murray proposed to repeat the previous fiascos of backing capitalist “friends of labor,” rather than fighting to build an independent labor party which could provide an effective political instrument that could really combat Big Business reaction.

An important resolution was passed unanimously expressing opposition to peace-time military conscription. This brought forth several excellent statements from the floor. Tom Hood of Local 1330, a Youngstown delegate, who had spent 12 years in the Marines and been an aerial gunner in World War II, received big applause when he condemned peacetime conscription and asserted that building a big army was “like giving a man a machine, he will want to try it out and see how fast it will go, no matter who he knocks down. There are always generals who want to try out their machine.”

He stated that conscription was intended to give the children of steel workers “training in a system that only breeds wars.” He told how while he was in the air corps “we were forced to take part in the suppression of the people of Italy who were fighting for a little more bread.”

Another delegate, Hirsh of Local Union 1206, still a member of the armed forces and in uniform, declared his opposition to peacetime conscription and charged that the army was based on a bureaucratic caste system that degraded the enlisted men and gave the officers outrageous privileges.

Foreign Policy

One of the most spontaneous ovations was accorded Delegate Trbovich, of Local 1010 in East Chicago, Indiana, when he spoke on one section of the foreign policy resolution. Emphasizing that he was speaking only on the last section of the resolution calling for “encouragement and assistance to the people of the liberated countries and colonial peoples to exercise the right for self determination and to build their own democracy,” Trbovich stated:

“It is the duty of the trade unions to see that our own country is brought into line on this question. In Indonesia, for instance, British troops with American weapons are shooting down the people fighting for their own government.”

A sharp volley of applause greeted his statement:

“We did not work to produce weapons of war to be used for shooting down other peoples fighting for their rights. If we are really sincere about fighting for oppressed people, we must see that our boys are not used for imperialistic purposes to put down people fighting for liberty in the colonies.”

On the key issue of the mounting inflation which is robbing the steel and other workers of their recent wage gains, Murray offered no program other than begging the government to “save OPA” and dependence on the capitalist political agencies to “control prices.” There was no proposal to combat inflation by fighting for higher wages.

On the contrary, the day before the convention opened, Murray issued a public statement that the union would “observe its wage commitments” in the present contracts even if the OPA was smashed and regardless of inflation.

But, there can be no doubt that the steel workers along with the more advanced industrial workers generally, will come to realize that the most effective method to fight the consequences of price rises is by demanding in their contracts a sliding scale of wages, under a fixed minimum, that provides for the automatic increase of wages to keep pace with every rise in the cost of living.

In this spirit, a Youngstown delegate, Ted Dostal of Local 1330, voiced the sentiment of many militants during his well-received talk on the resolution calling for unemployment compensation to strikers. After pointing out that the unemployment insurance funds come out of the “unpaid wages of the workers,” he asserted that the “OPA is full of loopholes and prices are bound to rise. We will have to fight for higher wages. We must prepare for real struggles in the coming days ahead. That is why we must see to it that the laws are amended to provide for compensation when workers are again forced out on strike.”

Among the most gratifying features of the convention, was the large number of Negro delegates. They were among the most articulate and militant participants in all debates. They played a truly significant role in the deliberations and repeatedly evoked enthusiastic response from the overwhelmingly white audience. However, the Negro steel workers, a large section of the union, still have no representation on the union’s leading bodies.

Stalinist Role

The Stalinists played a miserable role at the convention. On every possible occasion they cottoned up to Murray – who shortly before the convention had been prepared to open a red-baiting drive against them.

This morning, shortly before the closing of the convention, the Stalinists precipitated a scandalous brawl on the convention floor that nearly broke up the convention in a riot. In an effort to capture undisputed control of a section of the union, they brought forth a proposal to divide the largest district of the union, the Chicago-Calumet District 31, into two districts, one of which they hoped to seize.

In the midst of the controversy that followed, the Stalinists and Districts 31 representatives got into a physical scrap that threw the convention into an uproar for 15 minutes, and was only quelled with difficulty.

This convention will be recorded as an historic one. It has marked a great advance for the steel workers. While they have a long way to go yet in fully asserting democratic control over their union and in elaborating a militant, progressive program, the steel workers showed in this convention that they are on the road to big contributions to the future progress of American labor.

Having once demonstrated their determination to fight for democratic unionism, they will continue to hammer away for membership control over the steel union’s policies. Their first victory over the Murray machine will encourage them to continue the struggle against the bureaucrats. With the increased militancy and self-confidence born of their recent great strike struggles and confronted with the continued attacks from the bosses and government, they will press forward for a fighting policy.

Preis Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 23 December 2018