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2,000 Steel Worker Delegates Face Key Issues at Convention

(18 May 1946)


From The Militant, Vol. X No. 20, 18 May 1946, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


Some 2,000 delegates, representing approximately 800,000 organized steel workers, will begin deliberations on May 14 in Atlantic City at the Third International Convention of the CIO United Steelworkers of America.

This convention of the union in America’s most basic industry meets against a background unique in the experience of the steelworkers.

After 50 years of struggles and many bitter defeats, the steel workers will be able to record at this convention the most successful struggle and the greatest achievements of their history.

The rank and file delegates who will participate in the convention have gone through the fire of a titanic battle, the largest industrial strike this country has ever known. They have become tested union combat veterans.

In the course of their unprecedented strike, the steel workers of all races, creeds and national origins, attained a unity in action, a singleness of purpose and endeavor never before known in the industry.

The greatest single sector of the union, Big Steel, had previously gone through the whole past decade of mighty labor battles without a direct test of strength. They had not been pitted in militant combat against the powerful U.S. Steel trust since the terrible defeat of the Great Steel Strike of 1919.

In the recent strike, however, they matched blow for blow and came out not only with their forces intact and further consolidated, but for the first time brought the mighty corporation to terms by picket-line action. This must be recorded as a tremendous gain for the whole union and labor movement.

Nor should there be any minimizing of the significant gains in terms of wage increases and other concessions which the steel workers won by their determined fighting action.

The whole experience of their recent historic struggle has left deepest reflections in the thinking and understanding of the steel militants. It has taught them initiative, raised their self-confidence, and, above all, inspired them to view their problems in broader terms.

And in the event of the strike they could observe not only their strength and their power to win gains, but the existing weaknesses which must be corrected and the grave issues which that combat left unresolved.

This convention, if it is to fulfill its real duty to the steel workers and the labor movement generally, has the obligation to examine carefully the lessons of the recent struggle, analyze the decisive issues that confront the union and prepare for the inevitable and greater struggles that lie ahead.

It is little more than three months since the conclusion of the strike that won the largest single wage increase ever achieved in steel. Yet it is apparent to all, that these wage gains are already seriously threatened by price inflation.

American Big Business is determined to thrust upon the workers the colossal debt of the Second Imperialist World War out of which the Wall Street rulers emerged with the highest pile of blood-profits in their history. The corporations are seeking to protect their profits by a form of hidden wage cut – price increases. In this way they intend to rob labor of its recent wage gains.

It is clear that the only effective way the workers can protect their limited wage gains and halt the steady decline in living standards is by fighting to keep their wages abreast of steadily rising prices. The capitalist government, which is concerned first and always with safeguarding profit interests, can not be depended upon in the slightest to “control prices.” The record of the OPA is one of consistent concessions to the extortionate price demands of the corporations.

More and more, the most far-seeing militants in the labor movement have come to appreciate the need to fight for a program which will really defend labor against the consequences of inflation and that this program is best expressed in the slogan: For a sliding scale of wages to meet price rises.

The steel union convention can make a great contribution to the labor movement by adopting as a major plank of its program the demand that there be incorporated into its contracts a clause for a sliding scale of wages that will rise automatically with every rise in the cost of living.
 

Political Tasks

What was most clearly revealed during the course of the strike wave is the weakness of the labor movement in the political arena. The mighty strength of the industrial unions on the economic field is repeatedly negated on the political field.

We have witnessed the spectacle of a Congress representing the tiny class of ruling rich able to contemptuously defy the overwhelming working section of the population. While the CIO leaders, headed by USA-CIO President Philip Murray, complained about the tax rebates and other methods whereby the government has helped to finance corporation strike-breaking, their voices found little echo in the halls of Congress. Not a single labor voice is being raised in Congress on behalf of 15,000,000 organized workers and their families.

In direct contravention of the strong opposition of the entire union movement, President Truman during the strike wave, not only called for the establishment of semi-compulsory arbitration “fact-finding” boards, but succeeded in imposing such boards on the workers and used them to whittle down the just wage demands of the steel and other unions.

So long as labor follows the policy of “company unionism” in the political field, so long as it looks to the capitalist government, the capitalist “friends of labor” and the Big-Business controlled Democratic and Republican parties to protect the workers’ political interests, labor will suffer unending victimization.

It is time for organized labor to discard its antique, bankrupt political policy and to build its own party, a labor party. If a mighty organization like the CIO Steelworkers were to take the lead along with other big unions in forming a labor party, millions of workers and lower middle class people would quickly rally behind such a labor party in the fight against the reactionary monopolists who today rule America.
 

Organize South!

One of the truly great and progressive tasks which the CIO, including the steel union, has set itself is the organization of the Southern workers. The fact that the CIO is now in a position to undertake this crusade with justified hopes of success is one of the true measures of the strength it has gained in the recent strike wave.

But it must be recognized that this organizing drive is no ordinary one. It is not, as leading CIO officers have stated, a “simple trade-union campaign.” Effectively conducted, this campaign is bound to conflict with the whole rotten social, economic and political system maintained by the white Southern ruling class.

The chief bulwark of that system is organized and legalized Jim Crow, the complete subjugation of the Negro people who form a main source of “cheap labor” in the South, and the rigid division of the workers along racial lines.

Only by the most uncompromising struggle against the Jim- Crow system can the CIO achieve its splendid aims in the South.
 

Against Witch-Hunts

In the Southern campaign, the basic task of uniting the Negro and white workers can be accomplished only if the CIO refuses to adapt itself in any way to the prejudices fostered by the Southern ruling class social system and if the great mass of Negro people are firmly convinced that the CIO is truly their fighting champion for first-class citizenship all up and down the line.

In connection with the Southern drive, the steel workers must be on guard against the sinister and divisive methods of red-baiting. Already the Southern industrialists and their fascist-minded agents of all stamps are raising the hue and cry against the “red communistic” CIO.

It would be self-defeating for the steel workers to give any aid and encouragement to this anti-labor campaign by supporting red-baiting policies within their union. Any witch-hunt within the union against “reds” could only jeopardize the Southern organizing campaign and give comfort to the bosses, both North and South.

All progressive elements in the labor movement should be uncompromising enemies of Stalinism. But Stalinist influence can be destroyed in the unions only by exposure of their reactionary influence and by counter-posing a genuinely militant program. Any attempt to fight Stalinism by means of red-baiting and bureaucratic expulsions is directed in reality not only against the Stalinists but against the genuine union militants.

Past conventions of the CIO Steelworkers have always raised in one form or another the basic issue of trade union democracy. No union can remain, in the long run, an effective fighting instrument of the workers if the control over policy and the carrying out of policy does not rest firmly in the hands of the membership.

A democratic union provides the means for the membership to freely elect its officers and to exercise control over them. It provides the means for expression by the members, for their initiative, constructive suggestions and criticisms.

The CIO Steelworkers, it must be recognized, has not achieved to any genuine extent the degree of trade union democracy of some CIO unions, and notably the most dynamic and progressive union in the country, the United Automobile Workers.

It was only in 1942, that the steel workers were permitted to establish their own international. For many years, they were under the control of a hand-picked organizing committee.

Today, district officers and organizers are still imposed from the top, not selected by the ranks themselves. They are therefore not infrequently more responsive to the top leaders who handed them the posts than to the will of the members in their districts. At the same time, they serve as convenient whipping-boys on whom the top leadership can throw responsibility for its own faulty policies or improper conduct.

The lack of genuine trade union democracy is also reflected in the fact that the top leadership can make agreements and sign contracts without the final approval of the membership. This was true in the last great strike.

There are indications of a considerable and growing sentiment among the steel union militants for greater union democracy. They would like to be able to elect their own district representatives. They would like to be able to hold district conventions and maintain district organizations where they might have the opportunity to discuss their common problems and work out proposals for improvement of the union in between the International conventions.

Another concern of the steel workers is the report that an effort may be made at this convention to lengthen the terms of office of top officers as well as district appointees. Such a move, a prelude to extending the time between conventions, is correctly feared as an encouragement to the firmer entrenchment of a top bureaucracy over which the membership would have less and less control.

No officer of a union need fear frequent elections if he is carrying out the policies the members desire and is doing a good job. Nor can it hurt the interests of the union if the duly elected rank and file representatives meet frequently in convention to examine past policies, make new constructive decisions and keep a close check on the officers.

If the delegates at the steel convention have the opportunity to discuss the basic issues freely and fully, their deliberations will bring forth decisions which will help guide the whole labor movement for its great progressive tasks ahead.


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