Trade Unions and Politics: The Giant in Short Pants

Submitted by AWL on 8 October, 2013 - 12:51

The union movement is already deep in politics, and not because it is weak but because it is so strong. Basic industry is organized, and labor, by its sheer economic power, is able to win concessions from the employer. But what it wins on the industrial field is taken away in the legislative hall

If it wins a union shop, "right to work" laws are passed in the states and the Taft-Hartley Law in the nation. If it raises wages, income- tax laws shift the burden off the rich onto the poor. So it goes. The more powerful the unions become, the greater comes the pressure from Big Business to undermine by law what cannot be cut down in open fight.

The great paradox of political life is this: labor is at the peak of its economic power, enrolling the majority of industrial workers. Yet its political and legal position is at a low point. Not because it is inactive. There is more political activity in and by the 'labor movement today than ever. But most of the activity seems deliberately framed toward self-stultification and frustration.

The political arm of the united labor movement is the Committee on Political Education (COPE), replacing and combining; the CIO-PAC and the AFL's LLPE. Like its predecessors, it formulates programs and demands; it calls upon workers to vote; and, where legally permissible, it endorses candidates. For decades, this has continued.

For decades, labor's political committees have predicted and announced great victories at the polls; yet, a sobering few moments after each victory, labor discovers that the fruits of victory have eluded it. What are the mechanics of this disillusionment?


Periodically COPE will publish an accounting of the voting record of congressmen. It will point out that the politicians whom it supported, or whom it will support, voted “right” on 70 percent, 90 percent, or 100 percent of the questions that came before Congress. Most of them are, of course, Democrats. And those whom it opposed, voted “wrong” – most of these are Republicans and Southern reactionaries.

One gets the impression that a liberal bloc in Congress is clearly and militantly aligned against a reactionary bloc. But all this is self-delusion. The record shows only what was allowed to come before Congress for a vote. The two-party system stacks the cards. The key questions are seldom voted on. Or, if they are, the vote is a formal gesture.
What labor requires is a militant political fight in and out of Congress for its program. But it is satisfied with a simple raising of hands on a selected few issues.

The men who are elected to Congress are not crusaders chosen by labor to give encouragement to the fight; they are political time-servers of the old parties chosen by bosses and ward-heelers.


Take examples from only two fields: foreign policy and civil rights. The labor movement stands four- square for Negro rights in all its platforms, declarations, resolutions. Words are not enough but they are something. Before acting, it is necessary to decide that the cause is just.

And so labor solemnly declares that the Negro is entitled to full democracy and demands measures of all kinds to implement these rights: the right to vote in the South, the end of the Southern filibuster system, etc., etc., etc. In 1954, labor boasted of a great "victory" when the Democratic Party won control of Congress. Meanwhile Negroes in the South are shot to death in Democratic Mississippi for trying to vote.

The Supreme Court throws out segregation in the schools. 100 Southern Congressmen sign a manifesto calling for resistance to the Supreme Court decision and giving moral encouragement to those who would crush the rising movement of Negroes, for democracy. On the list of signers of this notorious call for human degradation are two men supported consistently by labor political committees: Lister Hill, chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, and John Sparkman, labor-backed candidate for vice-president in 1952.

How seriously con Negroes take labor's printed declarations, how significant can the platforms be treated, when the politicians actually endorsed by labor are not bound by it? Or, as in this case, are found on the side of its enemies?
But the apologists for these "liberal" allies of slave-dealers will retort: Hill and Sparkman are liberals on general questions, but they can resist the Southern "tradition" only at the risk of political defeat.

Let us put them aside, then. What about the Northern liberals? Where are they? 100 reactionaries in Congress signed a manifesto. Where are the liberals to sign their own manifesto to give encouragement and support to the Southern Negro fighters? We speak, now, of the hundreds of politicians who were supported by labor in 1954. Here, in the midst of the most critical struggle of American democracy in a generation, they cannot even rise to the heights of a simple declaration. What has happened to labor's platform? Where is it and who is fighting for it?

We go further: While courageous men are dying for democracy in the South, where Democrats rule, it is impossible to list a-half-dozen white statesmen, politicians, candidates, senators, representatives, in all the 48 states combined, who have spoken out clearly and completely on this issue as individuals. And we do not refer to vague declarations of sympathy for the plight of the Negro in general.

We want to know: which side are you on in this struggle? Who has spoken out in support of the Montgomery boy- cotters and said that they are right? Who has called upon the Negro to go ahead with his fight to vote and to attend school in equality? And who at the same time has denounced by name those in Congress and in the states who give moral support to those who shoot down Negroes and who encourage resistance to the simple demands for democracy?
Not Stevenson, not Truman. Who?

Up to yesterday, the labor-backed liberal wing of the Democratic Party was concerned only with party unity with the slave-dealers. And so they remain to this day. Labor's program, platform and demands are one matter: but what it gets and whom it supports are quite a different thing.


On foreign policy: the same gulf between lofty thoughts and sordid reality. Some five years ago, Walter Reuther promulgated a vast program for material aid to the peoples of Asia, predicated on encouraging their revolutionary aspirations to democracy, against colonialism, for peace and economic progress. That was his program, and properly interpreted, it could have been a rallying call to oppressed peoples the world over. But once these words were put on paper, the labor movement proceeded as usual to elect its usual candidates to office.

During the Indochina crisis, while the nation seemed on the brink of a new war, Paul Douglas, labor-backed senator from Illinois, was asked by reporters at a UAW educational conference: What is the Democratic program in this crisis? His reply was astounding and almost unbelievable. He said that he did not know what the party's program could be because the small band of liberals in the Senate were not consulted on policy by the party's leaders! If Douglas, a duly elected senator, is kept out of the party's most crucial decisions, the labor movement must be locked out completely.


But let us consider current events. Last month Chester Bowles, speaking before the 7th annual UAW conference, outlined a program for foreign policy which generally expresses the view of the most advanced sections of the labor movement. He spoke with sympathy for the aspirations of Asians and Africans for freedom. "Many people, perhaps a good share of people, feel the time has come for America to have a new and different foreign policy," he said, adding; "peoples throughout the world are asking, what is our national purpose?" He spoke of China and how a small band of Communists were able to win control of the country. "While we backed Chiang Kai-shek, he was living in the past and trying to build his future on corruption and feudalism and all of the things that the people of China were prepared to reject."

He decried the fact that America had backed colonialism in Indochina while "we allowed Communism ... to capture the leadership of a nationalist movement." And he might have spoken of Spain where "we" allied ourselves with the Franco regime, and of Korea where "we" helped to install dictator Rhee. And he could have told how Eastern Europe was carved up after the fall of Germany. He could have spoken of many more such things, and the UAW and its leadership would have nodded in approval.

For our labor movement, at least its most progressive sections, would like to find a democratic foreign policy; they want to appeal to the peoples of the world and give support to their struggles. But they cannot. They vitiate their own good intentions because their platform remains on paper while they continue to support the Democratic Party.


"My party is going to be tested on all these issues," said Chester Bowles, "and I believe the Democratic Party is going to stand up to that test. I believe it is going to prove itself before the American people." With these few words he wipes out everything that he said. And with the same thought labor wipes out its own platforms.

The Republican Party administration has been in control of the White House for only four years. Politics, say the leading Democrats and Republicans, stops at the water's edge. The fundamental line of U. S. foreign policy has continued without serious challenge from either party for decades. It has banked upon and backed not the world peoples' struggle for freedom and justice but their exploiters and oppressors.

For a new democratic foreign policy? Of course. But if it is to come through the election of the Democratic Party, we ask: Where was your progressive policy in the 20 years of your administration?

Eisenhower was elected president in 1952 and the Republicans won control of Congress. What did the majority who put them in office want? Obviously, they did not want to repeal the great gains won under the New Deal; no one would dare to suggest such a step for it would mean political suicide. They wanted lower prices; they wanted an end to the Korean War; they wanted lower taxes for the people; they wanted to root out corruption in government. But think: This was the program of the labor movement! It is precisely to such aims that COPE will dedicate itself.

Why, then, were millions duped into voting Republican? Obviously because they saw no alternative. Could they take labor's political platform seriously? The unions devised excellent planks but an administration which they had supported had been in power for decades. And the evils and discontents remained. But above all, no one had an opportunity to vote for labor's platform; they could only elect candidates endorsed by labor, and that is quite another thing.

We could summarize the dilemma: labor had its political committees to write down its desires but the voter has no-chance to support these desires; this voter may support candidates backed by labor's committees but they are not pledged to labor's programs! That was the dead-end in 1952. So it is in 1956.

How, for example, shall the Negro vote in 1956? Labor's committees are for democratic rights; but they do not run for office; the Negro can vote for candidates backed by labor, but they are deliberately evasive at best. What is he to do?


And so it will remain until the union goes forward from a Committee on Political Education to an independent Labor Party. We face this fact and say: there must be a realignment of forces; there must be a labor party. But there are those who find this fact somehow unpalatable; they do not like "class" terminology. But while the name "labor party" is an honest expression of what is and would present the issue without deceit to the people, a name is still just a name.

The old parties and the class alliances they represent are not fitted to modern times. Let the realignment take place democratically; in any new progressive people's party, let those who bring; a majority of the popular support enjoy a majority control. With this simple democratic precept, the working-class- character of the new movement would be guar- anteed. The old parties ore founded on a quite different principle: those who bring the most money get the most power in its affairs.

Another objection: a labor party would provoke "class conflict." We warn the reader to be particularly careful here.
Note: if the Democratic Party is controlled by a tiny minority of bosses and Southern landlords while 17 million organized workers rally support to it; that presumably does not stir up "class antagonisms," although it would be hard to find a more provocative set-up. But if the vast majority who put the party in power should have a correspondingly large share in its actual affairs; that would create distasteful class antagonism!

Actually, all this is only a round-about means of announcing that the minority of bosses would not permit the majority to rule in "their" party.

A democratic and progressive, third party would be the party of labor and its allies; it would be based on labor's strength, labor's program, labor's social weight. It would be the natural complement to labor's struggle for industrial democracy.

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