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The Communists and the CIO

In the mass of replies and counter-attacks written to answer Benjamin Stolberg’s “Inside the CIO” there has been one significant omission. The pamphlet, as everyone knows, was serialized in the Scripps-Howard papers in January, in twelve installments. As its main point was that Communists were in control of many CIO unions and were disrupting others, and as it appeared while the CIO was being attacked as Communist in New Jersey and elsewhere, it has provoked answers out of proportion to its importance as a piece of labor journalism. Although it is far below the level of Stolberg’s writing in general, written in a flat dogmatic prose that shows nothing of his gift for invective, and filled with contradictions more apparent when it is studied as a whole than in its individual chapters, it is nevertheless the most thoroughgoing attack on the CIO that has appeared.

It has consequently been highly praised by The New York Herald Tribune, by George Sokolsky and others, and Tom Girdler has used its revelations to justify his stand on refusing to deal with the CIO in the Little Steel strike of last summer. On the other hand, the fact that reactionaries have praised it has been one of the main lines of the Communist Daily Worker’s answer to it. Another line has been to emphasize its factual inaccuracies, of which there were, apparently, many. Passages attacking Harry Bridges and describing developments in the CIO on the West Coast were omitted from The San Francisco News, which also paid its editorial respects to local opinion by observing that Stolberg had been less than fair to Bridges. The Cleveland News editorially corrected errors in Stolberg’s history of the Newspaper Guild; the Socialist Party of Michigan corrected his description of the position of leading Socialists in the Automobile Workers’ union; and almost every single section of the pamphlet has been challenged in important particulars by people who were in a position to know the facts. Although the errors reduce the authority of “Inside the CIO,” their effectiveness as answers to Stolberg’s charges is doubtful. For one thing, any account trying o cover the entire organization on its most controversial side would be likely to contain some mistakes. For another, the labor people who are aware of them are not likely to be the ones most impressed by Stolberg’s series, and the audience most influenced is not likely to be informed about his mistakes or the bias they reveal. Moreover, they will probably be corrected when the series is published as a whole by the Vanguard Press. 

The Daily Worker’s answer–so much of it as has appeared–has attacked Stolberg as a Trotskyite and has advanced an interesting theory that Stolberg is attempting to unite the Lovestonites with Trotsky’s followers. The Stolberg pamphlet contains a good deal of material to support this view–it gives friendly portraits of Jay Lovestone and Homer Martin in marked contrast with its scathing accounts of other trade union leaders such as Hillman and Bridges, exaggerates the quality of leadership in unions like the ILGWU, where the Lovestoneites have influence, and contains favorable accounts of trade unionists like Lundberg of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, who are advised by Trosky’s followers. But as is the case with most such polemics, The Daily Worker’s answer is too complex to reach the audience Stolberg addresses and it is moreover weakened by the assumption tat underlies so much Communist writing–that if criticism can be traced to a faction, or more particularly Trotsky, the arguments can be dismissed.

The extraordinary fact about “inside the CIO” is that it could be written and circulated at this stage of the CIO’s growth. The CIO, as Stolberg admits, has made the greatest record for practical achievement in the history of American labor. In the 800 days of its organized existence it has grown from a loose collection of ten unions with about a million members to a group of thirty-two unions with a membership of about four millions. The story is too well known to be repeated: in steel, in autos, in rubber, in timber, shoes, the maritime industry, textiles, the CIO’s record has been one of growth in fields that had resisted every other organizing agency and every other organizing technique.

The National Labor Union grew by some 500,000 members in six years in the late 60’s, the Knights of Labor by 300,000 in 1886, the AF of L by 800,000 in 1920, but these increases, sensational as they were in their period, cannot be compared to that of the CIO. The recent growth of the AF of L is likewise of a different order; it has largely come about, as Lewis said, because “we have been keeping the wind off them.” In crudest numerical terms–the least important side of the CIO’s growth, as will be pointed out–the CIO’s record stands as a major achievement of the American working class. In spite of its present halt before depression, and despite internal rivalries it is beginning to show, its history to date, if it should disappear as a historical force hereafter, would stand as a central fact of this period. 

But the CIO has grown without creating a body of literature that would document its growth and make its struggles intelligible. American labor journalism–using the term in its broadest sense to include fiction, labor histories, labor papers, economic studies–has always been far behind American writing in general: its newspapers have been infrequent and partisan sheets; its fiction has been emotional and unrealistic, its histories have been academic. No field of journalism is so difficult as labor, and a lot of unfriendly writing that labor people believe arises from prejudice is simply the result of some reporter’s surrender before the confusion of a strike or the complexities of a union dispute.

The CIO changed almost every aspect of the American labor movement, but it has not changed this very much. Its papers are getting better, and in some of them–The Timber Worker, the NMU Pilot, to name only two–you can find passages of good writing, fresh and independent, that suggest the presence in the unions of talent able to write the kind of records that are needed. But they are isolated, and the papers in general are still doing business along the lines of the old trade-union weeklies, concerned with immediate issues and news notes from the locals. 

There is no popular history of the CIO. One I have seen in manuscript is characteristic of well meaning and ineffectual labor writing, consisting of dry factual passages alternating with emotional and impressionistic descriptions of incidents in strikes. There is no biography of Lewis that makes sense of his career, nor are there intelligent appraisals of the other leaders of the CIO who, unknown two years ago, have become leading figures in the American labor movement. There is no full and detailed account of the great longshoremen strikes, of the rubber strikes, of the auto strikes that stand out as the most dramatic and consequential in American labor history. Because there is none, it is possible for writing like Stolberg’s to flourish. Indeed, in one sense “Inside the CIO” can be described as a recoil from the sentimentality the evasion of so much labor writing. Its cynical and spiteful descriptions of labor leaders who are supposed to be motivated only by personal jealousies and the desire for power may be described generously as the result of an overdose of unrealistic portraits. Its black picture of intrigue, corruption and double dealing with in unions is made possible only because factional differences are so systematically evaded in union writing and the struggles and their bases are not intelligently described.

The conflict in the Auto Workers’ union is the foundation of Stolberg’s criticism of the CIO. He devotes only three of his twelve chapters to it, but he generalizes form it and it forms the basis for his criticism o the other unions. Aside from this, “Inside the CIO” is arid: there is a silly comparison of Dubinsky and Hillman making up on chapter, in which Dubinsky is praised and Hillman damned; three chapters on the Auto Workers; a misleading account of the differences between Lundberg and Bridges on the West Coast, a description of the National Maritime Union that contains ludicrous contradictions–after praising the union for its growth, its work in improving conditions on ships, its freedom from internal conflicts despite Communist influence in it, Stolberg finds it “even more the victim of policy having nothing to do with American labor.” The account of the Newspaper Guild contains the same contradictions, together with errors of fact, and the remainder of the pamphlet is a perfunctory survey of the organization drives in oil, aluminum and other industries, together with irrelevant judgments on the personalities of their leaders and creaking melodramatic interludes whenever the Communists appear.

In describing how the Amalgamated Clothing Workers set up employer associations in the chaotic, sweatshop-ridden needle-trades industry to protect union standards–a long established practice–Stolberg says, in prose surprisingly labored and confused, “His [Hillman’s] technique has always been to organize employers as well as employees in order to persuade the manufacturers that it is excellent business to deal with the union…But plain experience has shown that his broad view of things cannot psychologically represent labor as well as straight union protection can.” And sometimes Stolberg’s prose is so confusing that I would seem deliberate design could not make it more so, as when he compares the change from craft to industrial unionism to a social convulsion as sweeping as the Civil War–a confusion particularly unfortunate in this case because it is likely to alarm his middle-class audience and because it follows a passage in which Stolberg insists that only fascist violence can destroy the industrial unions.

Aside from its account of the Auto Workers, “Inside the CIO” is negligible. And if there were a more widespread understanding of the background of the dispute in that union it would have been impossible for Stolberg to describe the conflict in the terms he employs. Supporting Martin, he says flatly that the opposition–the Unity group led by Wyndham Mortimer–is Communist, or Stalinist, with no program beyond destroying Martin and “imposing on the union a communist-guided leadership.” The fact that members of the Unity group, including the Reuther brothers, are Socialists, he dismisses as “just a smoke screen.” The Progressives under Martin, he says, want to strengthen to union, renew the General Motors contracts, and organize Ford. The opposition, unable to oppose these objectives, has resorted to slander, trickery and criminal activity, including the misuse of union funds.

The celebrated incident of September 30, 1937, in which Martin greeted union members with a gun in his hand, is described as the result of the Communist plot to embarrass him. The opposition is held responsible for “a great many” of the unauthorized sitdown strikes that followed the General Motors settlement. Mortimer, Stolberg says, was a member of the negotiating committee that agreed to evacuate the factories: “But immediately the word was sent down the line ordering an agitation among the sit-downers to continue the strike.” Lat November, when the agreement with General Motors was being discussed, according to Stolberg, a suitable contract had been worked out but was sabotaged by the opposition and Martin let himself be browbeaten into denouncing it. Now the attacks on Martin have stopped, but the change of heart means nothing because the opposition is following the Communist Party line “and the line changes with the internal situation and the foreign policy of the Soviet Union.”

The situation in the Auto Workers is too complex to be outlined as Stolberg does it, nor can it be adequately treated here. The sitdown strikes were among the greatest in history, the growth o the United Auto Workers in unequaled, and even a slight knowledge of it makes you wonder, not that disputes have followed it, but that so few leaders were unnerved by the power suddenly thrust into their hands. But a few aspects of it will suggest how, because of the lack both of histories of the strike and a general understanding of the issues, Stolberg is able to select incidents capriciously to prove his case.

The members of the Unity group are not, as Stolberg says, Communits or their creatures; they include organizers whose ability was proved in the sitdown strikes and who in some respects have shown a record for strike leadership that no other union in the country can match. That does not prove the Unity group is correct, but it is one of the things that establish its claim as a principled opposition. The importance of the gun incident was not hat Martin was embarrassed, but that it occurred a few days before the Detroit municipal election and is credited with having lost the CIO candidates 20,000 votes; and it was not the dismissal of organizers in a payroll purge, as Stolberg says, but their dismissal at that time (and after an agreement had been made that they would not be dismissed until after the election) that created the crisis. The issues between the two factions are not over organizing Ford, renewing the General Motors agreement and strengthening the union, but involve fundamental questions of tactics, of policy, of timing, of centralization of control, of economic theory. The opposition to the General motors agreement, for example, was not based only on personal hostility to Martin. It involved conflicting views of the severity and duration of the current recession and the position of the automobile industry (and the auto-parts industry) in it. These points are not brought up as defenses of the Unity group, but as evidence of the superficiality and bias of Stolberg’s account and to suggest what the absence of a general understanding of these matters may cost the CIO.

For that absence alone makes it possible for subjects as consequential as these to be discussed in terms of schoolboy conspiracies and boarding-school jealousies, as Stolberg discusses them. The CIO, I repeat, is one of the major achievements of the American working class, and in creating it every important working-class group except the old-line leads of the AF of L has cooperated. In terms of its leadership, the group that was once known as the progressives in the AF of L will be credited in history with establishing it, but both the Socialists and the Communists have supported it, and there is nothing in the record, despite Stolberg’s melodrama, to justify an assertion that either has betrayed it. The Communists have certainly gained influence since they dropped the dual unions organized in the Trade Union Unity League, but they have not gained proportionately with the general increase in working-class influence since the CIO came into being. And to write of the CIO in terms of their activities, and to present this mass of rumor and legend as the central fact about the CIO at this time is to reveal an insensitivity to history too gross to be called blind, a bias too distorting to be called prejudice.

By Stolberg’s own account, if his figures are dissociated from his conclusions, the radicals in the CIO constitute an insignificant fraction of the total membership. Of this fraction, that part which is most bitter in assailing “the Stalinists”–the group known commonly as “the Trotskyites”–is itself but a minute part. Of the men at the top of the organization or any of its constituent unions, hardly one is a radical of any tripe. The public gets an exaggerated idea of the influence of radical elements because they are very vocal and make themselves seem more important than they are, at the same time doing a similar service for members of other and opposing radical groups.

When you inquire what the radical minorities are doing in the unions you find them fighting, like any other union man, for better wages and working conditions and fair treatment from their employers. When they quarrel with other individuals inside their own unions–as union members have always quarreled and doubtless always will–it is over the wisdom or unwisdom of specific policies in terms of wages and hours and responsibilities. I am aware of no evidence whatever, and I am unable to find anything specific in Stolberg’s 20,000-word indictment, to prove that any important figure in the CIO, whatever his theoretical ideas in the political field, is working for anything else than to make his union and its fellows stronger and more responsible. Conflicts arise over questions of how this is to be accomplished, and the positions of opposing groups within the unions are, whether they wish it or not, related to the theories of rival political parties and factions. But the effort to solve every such argument in your own favor by declaring that your opponent is taking his orders from Moscow and is out to wreck the union, is not only too simple and easy to be true. It plays directly into the hands of those who prefer weak unions to strong ones, and would like still better none at all, and it makes impossible any intelligent discussion of the issues, of the theories on which opposing views are based, of the quality of leadership charged with carrying out policies that lead to failure or success.

The record of the CIO is the greatest in American labor history, and not merely in terms of its numerical growth. If it should be destroyed tomorrow, or if it should disintegrate as a result of the disputes Stolerg finds within it, its brief career would still necessarily be studied by historians as a central fact of this period–for its part in inspiring labor legislation, in shattering entrenched political groups like the Republican machine in Pennsylvania or Tammany in New York, for the social consequences involved in its transformation of anti-union strongholds like Detroit and Pittsburgh into relatively strong union cities, for its role as a stabilizing force in labor disputes that had been, before its emergence, sporadic and convulsive. If it should disappear overnight, historians would still be justified in ranking its leaders with the dominant political figures of its years, its policies with those of the major political parties, its strikes, it victories and defeats, its collisions with the AF of L as events comparable importance with acts of the Roosevelt administration and the swings of the economic cycle. 

The CIO has made its gains without creating a nationwide panic, without creating fears of an imminent revolution–a fear that, however unjustified, arose when the Knights of Labor and the AF of L grew far less rapidly. It has grown with no scandals on its record comparable to the seriousness of the charges of dynamiting brought against the Western Federation of Miners–with no scandals, indeed, except Harry Bridges’ Australian birth, the impoliteness of some seamen on a freighter, and the gossip Stolberg has collected. It has grown peacefully. You have only to think back on the violent strikes in the summer of 1934, in Toledo, Minneapolis, San Francisco and in the textile industry, to realize how the mod of labor has changed since the CIO appeared, and to see how completely those desperate lunges on the part of the working class have given way to confidence in a relatively orderly advance.

But it has grown without stimulating the historians or the journalists whose function it should be to make its struggles intelligible to the general public. In its rise it has created a kind of cultural vacuum, producing a need for volumes of analysis, of history, of legends, and defeats. This is one of its mistakes that Stolberg does not list: its failure to encourage a working-class literature–candid and realistic accounts of every strike, the set-up in every industrial town, matters of policy and strategy and disputes within and without–that by its very existence would make writing like Stolberg’s impossible.