The Political Meaning of the AFL-CIO Merger
By Tom Kerry
This article, though written fifty years ago, is highly relevant to the current debate in the American labor movement. Tom Kerry’s article adds to our understanding of the historical background that has shaped the present situation faced by trade unions in the United States. The article, which has been edited slightly, first appeared in the spring 1955 issue of the magazine Fourth International.
Tom Kerry was the National Organizational Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party (U.S.).
If one thing can be said to be most characteristic of the modern American labor movement, it is that its major leaps ahead have been impelled by dire necessity. It was not until the concluding quarter of the [nineteenth] century that the American working class, driven by the stormy economic development of this country following the Civil War, surged tumultuously forward to overcome its previous limited, local, and isolated character, establishing a federation of unions on a national scale.
Scarcely 70 years old [in 1955], the American Federation of Labor [AFL] was born in 1886, the year of the Haymarket massacre in Chicago and a high point in the resistance of the capitalist class to the eight-hour day. After the AFL—the product of the most bitter class struggles—became dominant among workers organized along craft lines, its conservative leadership, concerned primarily with maintaining the position of a layer of relatively privileged workers, lagged behind economic developments and became a barrier to the organization of the millions of workers in the mass production industries.
It required the deepest economic crisis in American history, plus the irresistible pressure of the mass of unorganized workers in the giant mills and factories of the twentieth century, plus a split in the AFL to pave the way for the appearance of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) [in 1935].
Now, after 20 years of division, the leading bodies of the AFL and CIO have reached an agreement, subject to the formality of ratification by their respective conventions, to merge into one national federation. Does the merger, assuming it goes through, foreshadow another gigantic leap forward by the American working class? The answer to that question, as well as the related one of the direction and goal of such an advance, will not be found in the stated aims of the union leaders who agreed to the merger. But it can be found by analyzing the split, why it could not be healed before, and why merger now looms as a certainty.
A victory for the CIO?
The contention by some not-too-bright commentators that the merger agreement constitutes a “victory” for the CIO does not hold water. The CIO entered the negotiations under unfavorable conditions. It was smaller than its rival, with no prospect of overtaking it, was beset by factional strife and bedeviled by centrifugal tendencies following the no-raiding pact with the AFL. It comes into the combined organization as a subordinate industrial “department,” with the old-line, craft-union leaders—in some instances the same and in others little different from their counterparts of the 1930s—in a commanding position.
Couldn’t a comparable merger agreement have been gained years ago under more auspicious circumstances for the industrial union group? Matthew Josephson, in his biography of Sidney Hillman, discloses that in October 1937 a committee representing the AFL and CIO met to discuss reunification. “The principal demands of the CIO,” he pointed out, “were that the Federation declare its support hereafter of industrial unions for workers in certain specified industries; establish a CIO Department that was to be autonomous within the AFL; reinstate the CIO unions with full rights; and work out and ratify this program at a joint convention of affiliates of both labor bodies.” (See Matthew Josephson, Sidney Hillman: Statesman of American Labor, 1952.)
These demands of 1937 were included in essence in the agreement of 1955. But in 1937, when unity looked promising, the conference was blown up by John L. Lewis, who questioned the authority of the AFL committee to conclude an agreement. “The terms of affiliation tentatively agreed upon,” asserts Josephson, “at a time when the CIO claimed the larger membership, might well have resulted in the industrial-union faction becoming the preponderant force.” But John L. Lewis was not too much concerned about “unity” in the year 1937.
He was convinced that the CIO would absorb most of the AFL and elbow the remnant into a corner. Lewis spoke of a CIO movement of 20 to 30 million members. And it seemed, in 1937, that nothing could stop the phenomenal growth of the new unionism. At the time of the unity meeting with the AFL in October of that year the CIO claimed 3,700,000 members to 3,400,000 for the AFL. Since the original group of unions constituting the CIO in 1936 included less than one million members, Lewis’s optimism appeared more than justified.
A Beneficent Split
The split of the CIO from the AFL involved far more than an academic disagreement over the relative merits of industrial versus craft unions. The forms of organization that suited the needs of the American working class in 1886 were hopelessly inadequate 50 years later. The advance of technology had outmoded the craft union in the mass production industries. Since the turn of the century the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had preached and organized industrial unions.
The socialist and later the communist movement were vigorous advocates of the industrial form of organization. These efforts had great effect on the advanced elements in the mass production industries. But the leaders of the AFL remained unmoved. Neither argument nor experience convinced them. Preliminary skirmishes in the early 1930s demonstrated over and over again that only the industrial form of organization combined with militant methods of struggle could successfully topple the hitherto impregnable citadels of the open shop in auto, steel, rubber, etc.
But the old mossbacks ruling the AFL remained unmoved. They feared the influx of millions of mass production workers organized along industrial lines and had no heart to lead the kind of battles required to bring the arrogant and powerful lords of industry to terms. The more astute labor leaders, who participated in forming the CIO, repeatedly warned that unless the conservative union leadership took the initiative in promoting the industrial organization of workers in factory, mine, and mill, it would be done under more radical auspices. They were more in tune with the times.
The industrial organization of the American mass production worker had been too long delayed. This invested the movement with an explosive character. The stock-market crash heralded the depression which plunged the country into the profound social crisis that generated the pressure soon to erupt with volcanic force. The split in the AFL eliminated a formidable obstacle to the successful organization of the industrial unions of the CIO and gave tremendous impetus to union organization in general.
In the true sense of the word, it was the most progressive union split in American labor history. In the relatively short period of 20 years the American labor movement took a great leap forward, adding some 12 million members to its ranks, tremendously increasing its social weight in the nation and creating a potential force of incalculable power. The split in the AFL was an inevitable prerequisite to this advance.
Another signal result of the split was the sharp break from AFL political policy which, following the line laid down by Samuel Gompers, had kept the American workers politically atomized and impotent. The deep-going social crisis of the 1930s was shaking the capitalist system to its foundation. Such labor leaders as Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Dubinsky of the Garment Workers, Zaritsky of the Cap and Millinery Workers, etc., looked upon the reform administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt as the only alternative to social revolution.
The ‘break’ from Gompers’s policy
Heading unions composed largely of foreign-born workers with a strong socialist tradition, [Sidney Hillman, et al.] were keenly sensitive to the radical mood of the workers. They set out deliberately to “contain” the turbulent militancy of the CIO within the capitalist two-party system. Hillman, the outstanding “labor statesman” of the period, had proclaimed the CIO as “the beginning of the real labor movement.” By that he meant that organized labor in this country for the first time on a national scale was to engage not only in economic but in political action.
But unlike the labor movement of Europe, which functioned through its own political parties, Hillman and his colleagues gave a peculiar American twist to their creation which they named Labor’s Non-Partisan League. Hillman’s biographer explains that “the name ‘Labor’s Non-Partisan League’ was chosen to indicate, as Hillman explained later, that it was ‘non-partisan’ only in that it sought the support of the two wings of labor, but not at all with regard to the re-election of the New Deal President.”
To bolster the “non-partisan” character of the League, George Berry of the AFL Printing Pressmen’s Union, was designated chairman. Hillman’s new approach to labor politics, his biographer points out, was motivated by the fact that “Many of the union members, especially in New York and Chicago, had grown up in the tradition of supporting the Socialist Party, and shunning our Tammany Halls. What Hillman advocated now was a distinctly opportunistic approach. The new League, unlike LaFollette’s Progressive Party of 1924, was to function mainly through one of the two major parties, and particularly the Democratic Party, in order to ensure Roosevelt’s re-election.”
The object of the LNPL was to mobilize the labor vote for Roosevelt. The tremendous prestige of the CIO was utilized by its leaders for this purpose. While doing so, the CIO leaders disclaimed any support to the Democratic Party as such, thus keeping up the pretense of “independent” political action. Where necessary to corral the labor vote for Roosevelt, Hillman and his cohorts did not hesitate to go a step further. Matthew Josephson tells about the “decision of the CIO leaders to launch the American Labor Party in pivotal New York State as a local affiliate of LNPL. The thought was to channel the ‘regular’ Socialists into the Roosevelt camp. This was done in hasty fashion on July 16, 1936, principally on the initiative of Hillman, David Dubinsky of the Ladies’ Garment Workers, and Alex Rose of the Millinery Workers.
Joseph P. Ryan, the conservative leader of the International Longshoremen’s Association, brought to the American Labor Party the support of the AFL’s Central Trades and Labor Council of New York City, which he then headed; while George Meany also helped the new party through the AFL’s state body. The new grouping included the right-wing faction of the Socialist Party in New York, but also enjoyed the support of Governor Herbert Lehman, A. A. Berle, and Mayor La Guardia—all in all a remarkable amalgam of AFL and CIO unionists, as well as Republican Fusionists, New Deal Democrats and Socialists.”
The “remarkable amalgam” that launched the ALP in New York City to garner the socialist vote for Roosevelt in 1936 was typical of the labor-liberal-Democratic coalition which, together with the Dixiecrat wing, kept the Democratic Party in power under Roosevelt and Truman until 1952.
The CIO leaders, all established bureaucrats of long standing in their own unions, were determined to steer the new union movement into the channel of political class collaboration. None were prepared to carry through the logic of the class struggle from the economic to the political field.
Instead of preaching reliance of the workers on their own organized strength, the new “labor statesmen” advocated increased reliance on the New Deal administration in Washington. They assiduously fostered the myth of Roosevelt as the great “friend” of labor in general and the CIO in particular. They built him up until he became the most influential leader in the labor movement; and Sidney Hillman became his right-hand man. All paid homage to Roosevelt, including the Stalinist lickspittles, who were then in their People’s Front period.
All, that is, except the political maverick John L. Lewis after he had demanded payment from Roosevelt for labor’s support, especially in the bloody Little Steel strike of 1937 and was rebuffed by Roosevelt’s callous “plague on both your houses” statement. The rift between Lewis and Roosevelt continued to widen thereafter until it led to an open break in 1939 and Lewis endorsed the Republican candidate Wendell Willkie in 1940.
Vying for Roosevelt’s Favor
The defeat suffered by the CIO in the Little Steel strike was due primarily to the policy of depending on Roosevelt instead of on the militant methods of struggle devised by the workers in the course of their successful battles in auto, rubber, etc. Although a severe setback, it did not halt the forward momentum of the CIO. In the two years from its first conference in October 1935 to the unity conference of October 1937, it grew from the 900,000 members claimed by the original founding unions to 3,700,000. In the following two years only 400,000 members were added. The CIO lost its crusading spirit.
The limited aims of its leaders had been largely accomplished. Both federations settled down to intensive competition, relying primarily on NLRB collective bargaining elections for new members, fighting and raiding each other’s jurisdictions, and competing for the favor of the New Deal administration. As Leon Trotsky pointed out in his penetrating study, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (see Fourth International, Feb. 1941), “The struggle among the tops between the old federation and the new is reducible in large measure to the struggle for the sympathy and support of Roosevelt and his cabinet.”
This contest between the labor leaders for the favor of the administration in Washington continued throughout the Roosevelt and Truman regimes and was even extended into the Eisenhower administration. It was this rivalry and the uncertainty over which would emerge as the dominant group that undoubtedly proved a great obstacle to the earlier unity negotiations. The odds seemed to favor the CIO. It was the more dynamic movement; it had greater attractive power; it had developed a more effective medium for political organization and action; it had a more progressive policy on social questions and greater appeal to minority workers; it appeared to have the inside track with the Roosevelt administration.
The AFL Buries Gompers
Another barrier to unification between the AFL and CIO, and not the least, was the prevailing difference over political policy. The CIO’s decisive break from the Gompers policy of the AFL, which the establishment of LNPL signified, was no passing phase. The CIO leaders were irrevocably committed to the new policy. They were quick to see the advantage of maintaining the political fiction of “independence” in garnering the labor vote for Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. They were also astute enough to discern the advantage of dealing with the regular Democratic Party machines which their organizational independence gave them.
The AFL, on the other hand, persisted in maintaining the old policy. Where the CIO lined up solidly behind Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, the AFL continued to declare its “neutrality” as between the two capitalist parties. Their policy of “no politics” in the union applied, of course, only to the rank and file. The leaders were in politics up to their ears. In national elections Hutcheson of the Carpenters regularly appeared as head of the Republican “labor” committee and Tobin of the Teamsters as head of the Democratic “labor” committee.
The LNPL, on the other hand, as Hillman so carefully explained, was “non-partisan” only in the sense that it sought to rally both wings of labor in support of Roosevelt and the Democratic Party and not at all in the sense of being neutral in relation to the two capitalist parties. There could be no compromise on that score. It was not until [1948,] the year after adoption of the Taft-Hartley Act that the AFL broke decisively with the Gompers policy by setting up their own version of the CIO Political Action Committee, which they dubbed Labor’s League for Political Education.
It was only in 1952 that the AFL for the first time officially endorsed by convention action a candidate for the presidency. That was the Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Even after that they went through one more experiment in “non-partisan” politics by sanctioning the entry of Plumbers chief Martin Durkin into Eisenhower’s millionaire cabinet as Secretary of Labor. The experiment turned out badly, as was inevitable.
The AFL break with the Republican Party was signalized by Durkin’s demonstrative resignation over the dispute on amending the Taft-Hartley Act. The Republican Party took power as the unabashed representative of Big Business after 20 years of the labor-Democratic coalition. The Eisenhower administration could not make even those piddling concessions the top AFL bureaucrats asked as the price of their support, or at least neutrality. The experience destroyed any hope the AFL “labor statesmen” might have had of weaning Eisenhower from his dependence on Big Business.
An incidental consequence of the dispute was the disclosure that it was Sinclair Weeks, Secretary of Commerce and former head of two large corporations, who was making labor policy for Eisenhower’s millionaire club. In an interview published in U.S. News and World Report, April 9, 1954, Weeks summed up the administration’s labor policy in a one-sentence reply to the question: “What are you really trying to do with all these (Taft-Hartley) amendments?” Answer by Weeks: “To make the labor unions safe for democracy.”
“To make the labor unions safe for democracy!” That was the slogan under which the labor-hating cabal was pushing its union-smashing “right to work” laws through the legislatures of the various states. The lesson was not lost on the union leaders. In 1954 they went all out for the Democratic Party candidates. Collaboration between AFL and CIO political units was closer than ever before. Despite a few exceptions like the split in the California AFL, where the majority supported the Republican candidate for governor, this was an indication that the unity negotiations then in progress had the best chance of completion since the split 20 years ago.
The Taft-Hartley Act
There can be little doubt that the most compelling motive driving the two federations toward merger was politics. The tremendous growth of the unions following the split continued throughout the war. With the end of the world conflict, Big Business decided to test the mettle of the unions. In the strike movement of 1945–46, it became convinced that the organized employers could not stem the growing power of organized labor without the direct aid of the government. They seized the first opportunity after the 1946 elections to mobilize their friends in Washington for adoption of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act which was jammed through Congress by a majority vote of Democrats as well as Republicans.
The Taft-Hartley Act effectively halted the expansion of the trade unions. This was admitted by George Meany in an interview in U.S. News and World Report, Nov. 6, 1953:
(Q) “Have your organizing efforts the last few years been as successful as they used to be?”
(A) “Oh, no!”
(Q) “What has impeded that?”
(A) “The Taft-Hartley Act.”
(Q) “Could you tell us just how that has happened?”
(A) “Well, because any employer who wants to resist organization and is willing to make his plant a battleground for that resistance can very effectively prevent organization of his employees. There’s no question about that at all. Any employer who is willing to spend the money and the time and the effort can, under Taft-Hartley, resist organization indefinitely.”
Meany neglected to add that the same can be said about any employer wishing to rid himself of an established union. The labor leaders have expressed over and over again the fear that the employers will utilize the union-busting provisions of Taft-Hartley during an economic depression or at any time they consider favorable. Fear of Taft-Hartley was especially noticeable in the union press and at union conventions during the 1954 recession. It undoubtedly contributed greatly to the pressure for merger. Taft-Hartley practically froze union membership. It settled the question that was implicit from the beginning in the split:
Which would prevail?
A labor commentator writing in Fortune magazine (April 1953) observed, “U.S. labor has lost the greatest dynamic any movement can have—a confidence that it is going to get bigger. Organized labor has probably passed its peak strength.... Since 1946 the working population has expanded but union membership has remained stationary.”
In a report published a few years ago, the union leaders disclosed that an enormous amount of money and energy had been expended in raiding each other but at the end the gains were balanced by the losses. It was their most effective argument for the AFL-CIO no-raiding pact that proved to be the prelude to the merger agreement.
Under Eisenhower the Taft-Hartley Act has become even tougher—not through amendment but through administrative interpretation of its onerous provisions. In addition, under Taft-Hartley the various states responded to the go-ahead sign for adoption of restrictive labor legislation under the misnamed “right to work” laws. These measures have proved to be particularly harsh on the conservative AFL building trades unions. Seventeen states have already adopted such legislation, the latest being Utah where a “right to work” law has been pushed through the state legislature and is now before the Republican governor for signature.
The several attempts made recently on a state level to repeal such union-wrecking laws have failed. At its recent meeting in Miami the AFL Executive Council admitted that there “is little likelihood of getting these states to repeal their laws.” They announced that they would concentrate on the national level to change the provision in the Taft-Hartley Act giving state “right to work” laws precedence over the federal statute. Twelve of the 17 states having such laws are in the South.
The labor reporter of the New York Times, writing from Miami on Feb. 6, said there was not too much optimism about getting such a change through Congress, as “AFL officials recognize that they can count on scant help from the dominant Southern Democratic bloc in getting rid of the ‘right to work’ laws.” The leading labor spokesmen agree that the unions are on the defensive; that the anti-labor legislative offensive of the employers has the unions backed up against the wall; that organized labor will have to fight on the political field if it is to survive.
“We are never going to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act until we put into Congress men and women friendly to the ideals and principles of this great labor movement,” George Meany declared in 1951. Similar declarations have been made on innumerable occasions by the top leaders of the AFL and CIO. Small wonder then that the first question reporters put to Meany and Reuther when they announced the merger agreement was, “Does the merger herald the formation of a national independent labor party sponsored by the united organization representing over 15 million members?” Both “labor statesmen” hastily and emphatically disclaimed any intention of sponsoring such a political party of labor.
Their Real Political Aims
But what then were the aims of the leaders who concluded the merger agreement? The diplomatic statement of aims issued over the signatures of Meany and Reuther is a compendium of meaningless generalities about “service to the public,” “democratic ideals,” building “a better nation and a better world,” etc., etc. What of the Taft-Hartley Act and the “right to work” laws which threaten the very existence of the unions? Both agreed that action on the political field was the only effective remedy. But what kind of political action?
Meany answered the question in an article written for Fortune (March 1955) just before the merger agreement: “I do not think the membership of the AFL is thinking now in terms of a national political party sponsored by labor. Yet if the action of the two major parties leaves us no alternative in our efforts to safeguard and raise the living standards of the workers, labor will go as far as it must down that political road.” If Meany in this way makes a concession to history, Reuther on the other hand maintained at the CIO convention last December that a party of labor was distinctly un-American. In this he stands to the right of such arch-conservative labor leaders as Dave Beck of the Teamsters, who, in a speech at a National Press Club luncheon, reported in the Oct. 21, 1953, New York Times, declared: “Those who seek to put the chain of the Taft-Hartley Act and other antiunion legislation around labor, will live to see the day when American labor will follow England’s and tie progress to political action.”
Whatever lip service this or that top labor bureaucrat may occasionally pay to the idea of building a labor party in order to frighten the Democrats or to soothe the feelings of union militants fed up with the capitalist parties, it is plain enough that the real political objective of the Meany-Reuther combination is a triple one: (1) to shape the labor vote into a more cohesive and active block, capable of putting the Democratic Party back into the White House in 1956, (2) to win a voice in Democratic machine politics, (3) to gain as a payoff at least some concessions of New Deal coloration.
Clearly, insofar as the top bureaucracy wields political control over the rank and file, the labor movement is in for another experience of coalition politics with the Democrats.
What fruits can be expected in the event of victory can be gauged pretty well from 1948. The Truman election was proclaimed as the greatest of all labor victories. The CIO leaders even split the organization by expelling the so-called “communist-controlled unions” so as not to embarrass the Truman administration, then deep in its cold war adventure. Yet they got neither repeal of Taft-Hartley nor amendment of its worst provisions. All they succeeded in doing was to pave the way for the Eisenhower victory in 1952.
The political course of Meany and Reuther has even more ominous implications when fitted into the drive of American imperialism toward a third world war. They have already signified their willingness, even eagerness, to act as traveling representatives of the State Department in meeting criticisms and objections abroad to Wall Street’s global moves and aims, especially objections that take the form of working-class revolutions and colonial uprisings. That means, of course, a similar perfidious role at home.
The top AFL and CIO bureaucrats hope to make big political gains through the Democratic Party. Their own illusions play a role in this, but more important is their function as labor lieutenants of the capitalist class. This impels them again and again to try to prevent the American working class from taking the road to independent political action. The need to form a cohesive labor bloc, organized for electioneering on a precinct level, in order to wield greater influence in the Democratic machine, is, however, not without its political dangers to the AFL-CIO top bureaucrats. The logic of their own course can take them much farther than they expect.
In addition a united labor movement can bring to the rank and file a new realization of the strength of the American labor movement and a new growth of self-confidence. The consequences of this can shake the whole structure of American politics. The narrow, limited aims and objectives of those who support, defend, or engage in apologetics for an outlived social system do not determine the course of history. When objective necessity required more effective forms of organization, the American working class smashed all barriers and the CIO appeared.
Today the American working class has gone about as far as it can within the limits of the policy, leadership, and organizational forms so far developed. Objective necessity has now posed before the American workers the need to organize their own political party. How soon this need will find organized expression on a mass scale cannot be foretold; but one thing is certain, when the American workers lose patience with the timid, conservative, class-collaborationist, coalition politics of the Meanys and the Reuthers—as they surely will under the impact of a crisis like the one that gave birth to the AFL 70 years ago or the one that gave us the CIO 20 years ago—the result will be a major political explosion.
Fifteen million organized workers represent a potential power of irresistible magnitude. Armed with a correct program and able leadership, nothing can stop them from fulfilling their historic destiny.
Transcribed by Andy Pollack.
—Marxist Internet Archive