Saturday, September 20, 2014

From The Labor History Archives -In The 80th Anniversary Year Of The Great San Francisco, Minneapolis And Toledo General Strikes- Lessons In The History Of Class Struggle- 
1934 Strikes-Class-Struggle Leadership Made the Difference-Then and Now

Frank Jackman comment:

This month I have been highlighting the three great general strikes from 80 years ago, the great 1934 actions in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo for a number of reason not the least of which is that was probably the last serious “in your face” massive class struggle in this country (on both sides when both sides played for keeps) unlike these days when we have put up with a relentless one-sided class struggle and working people in their mass have bent sown on their knees. However if they ever do, and I believe that will happen, get off their knees they will need to know so of the lessons from previous struggles, the good and the bad. While we all know that like in military affairs the generals tend to fight from what they knew from the last war despite changes in time, place and technology that today’s massive class battles will look different from those in 1934 those events still are a beacon for today’s labor militants to follow. Read on.       

Workers Vanguard No. 1050
8 August 2014
1934 Strikes-Class-Struggle Leadership Made the Difference-Then and Now
(Part One)
In 1934, four years into the Great Depression, the victory of three citywide strikes—centered on the Teamsters in Minneapolis, auto parts workers in Toledo and longshoremen in San Francisco—would open the door to a mass upsurge of working-class struggle and the organization of powerful industrial unions. Today, six years after the onset of the biggest economic crisis since the Depression, what remains of organized labor in this country continues to be pummeled in a one-sided class war. While the bosses and their state relentlessly savage the working class and poor, strike action in the U.S. remains at a historic low.
What accounts for the difference between then and now? A crucial factor is that “reds” led the 1934 strikes. In Minneapolis, the Trotskyists of the Communist League of America (CLA) stood at the head of three strikes by workers in the city’s trucking industry that would help turn this Midwest bastion of the “open shop” into a union town. In the process, a tiny, craft-based Teamsters local was transformed into an industrial union of thousands of workers. In Toledo, the left-wing socialists of A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party (AWP) played a key role in a strike against the Electric Auto-Lite Company. This victory set the stage for the later organization of the United Auto Workers union. In San Francisco, supporters of the Stalinist Communist Party (CP) were leaders of an 83-day strike by longshoremen, together with seamen and other maritime and port workers, culminating in a four-day general strike. Out of this struggle, a coastwide, industrial union of longshore workers was forged.
Today, the trade-union bureaucrats who head the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations argue that such working-class battles are no longer possible—the economic conditions are too dire, the corporations too powerful, the arsenal of strikebreaking laws too vast: the unions will simply be busted and jobs shipped “offshore.” Yet the 1934 strikes took place amid the most devastating capitalist economic crisis in history. Following the October 1929 stock market crash, workers were paralyzed by fear of losing whatever meager livelihood they had and of being cast into the sea of millions who were unemployed, starving and homeless. By 1933, the membership of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had plummeted to half of what it had been in 1920.
The AFL unions were craft-based, reinforcing workplace divisions that made it easier for the forces of capital to prey on them, and in general represented better-paid, more-skilled workers, while leaving black people and most immigrants out in the cold. The vast majority of workers who labored in the giant auto, steel, rubber and other industries were unorganized and despised by the labor aristocracy that headed the AFL. So loyal were these labor statesmen to the preservation and profitability of American capitalism that in the early days of the Depression they agreed to a “no strike” pledge at the request of the hated Republican Herbert Hoover administration and joined it in opposing any government relief for the unemployed.
But the very conditions that had so devastated and demoralized the workers, setting them one against the other in a fight to survive, would begin to propel them into struggle. In 1933, there was a slight upturn in the economy. The working class had also been given hope, however false, by the 1932 election of Democratic Party president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his promise to provide “a new deal for the American people.” The following year, a strike wave broke out and the workers began to turn en masse to the very AFL unions that had disdained them, demanding organization.
As CLA leader James P. Cannon wrote in an article at the time:
“The workers are on the move. That is what is new, that is what is important in the situation. The trade union is the first and most elementary form of working class organization, for which no substitute has ever been invented. The workers have taken the first steps on the path of class development through that door.… No matter how conservative the unions may be, no matter how reactionary their present leadership, and regardless of what the real purposes of the Roosevelt administration were in giving a certain encouragement and impetus to this trade union revival—in spite of all of this, the movement itself represents an elemental force, a power which, properly influenced at the right time by the class conscious vanguard, can break through all the absolute forms and frustrate all the reactionary schemes.”
— “The AFL, the Strike Wave, and Trade Union Perspectives,” Militant, 14 October 1933
In the 1934 citywide strikes, the rising militancy of the working class would be fused with a leadership equal to the battle. All of these strikes were virtual civil wars pitting the workers against strikebreaking armies of company thugs, cops and National Guard troops. In each case, supposedly “labor friendly” agencies of the capitalist state appealed to the workers to end their strikes with the promise that government mediators would negotiate a “fair agreement.” From within the “house of labor,” the strike leaders had to take on the AFL bureaucrats who did the government’s bidding and had enforced all of the craft, ethnic and racial hostilities that divided the workers and undermined their struggles. What made the difference was that the workers were politically and organizationally armed by leaders who understood that the only possible road to victory lay in mobilizing their power as a class against the capitalist class enemy.
FDR Was No “Friend of Labor”
The AFL-CIO bureaucracy has long peddled the myth that it was Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) enacted by FDR’s Democratic Party administration in 1933 that led to the organization of industrial unions—inclusive unions that sought to represent all workers in a given industry. This is a convenient lie, used as an alibi for decades by the union misleaders who have sacrificed strikes and the unions themselves on the altar of class collaboration, from legislative lobbying to getting out the vote for the Democrats. In fact, as its name makes clear, the whole purpose of the NRA was the “recovery” of the profitability of American capitalism. Suspending antitrust laws, it established industrial associations for which the employers set production quotas, working conditions, minimum wages and maximum hours. The result was the consolidation of ever more powerful capitalist monopolies grinding out greater profits through the increasingly brutal exploitation of labor.
Section 7(a), which allowed that “all employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively,” was added mainly due to the prodding of John L. Lewis, the dictatorial and sometimes maverick head of the United Mine Workers (UMW) union. While AFL president William Green threw his support behind Section 7(a), he continued to fear any organizing drive that would rupture the “sanctity” of lily-white craft unionism. (Remarking on Green’s intelligence, Lewis once quipped: “Green doesn’t have a head. His neck just grew up and haired over.”)
Thrown in mainly as a sop to labor, Section 7(a) also reflected a growing concern, at least among the more farsighted of America’s capitalist rulers, that the workers were becoming increasingly restive. FDR was certainly the most farsighted among them. Moreover, as a patrician of the landowning elite in the U.S., Roosevelt had fewer reservations about curbing some of the excesses of the industrial and financial magnates of American capitalism—in order to save the system and head off social struggle.
Strike action had already begun to break out earlier in 1933. The millions of unorganized workers who toiled on the assembly lines and in the open hearths were starting to stir with a sense of their numbers and their strategic position as the vital element of U.S. industry. Concerned that the craft-based AFL would not be able to contain the growing antagonism between labor and capital, Section 7(a) was adopted in a bid to keep these workers under the thumb of the government’s loyal labor lieutenants in the AFL bureaucracy.
This seeming concession to labor was designed to lull the workers into the belief that the government would “protect” their interests. To this end, regional labor boards were set up to facilitate government arbitration of any potential conflict. The purpose was to prevent strikes by entangling workers in protracted hearings. The workers who began to pour into the existing AFL unions following the passage of the NRA soon discovered that joining a union was not the same as winning employer recognition or even raising the miserably low wages imposed in every industry by the terms of the NRA.
Throughout the 1933 strike wave, the biggest since the early 1920s, the workers fought with great heroism. But their strikes were betrayed by the AFL tops, who bowed to the dictates of FDR’s labor mediators, or broken by armed strikebreakers deployed by the bosses and the government. An ACLU report at the beginning of 1934 summarized the results of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” for labor: “At no time has there been such widespread violation of workers’ rights by injunctions, troops, private police, deputy sheriffs, labor spies and vigilantes” (New York Times, 11 February 1934; cited in Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step, 1964).
The resentment of the workers toward the union misleaders grew, while their illusions in FDR began to wane. The brutality of the police and military attacks, and the courage with which the strikers had resisted these offensives, also left its mark on workers’ consciousness. These factors were all important preconditions for the further awakening of labor struggle. The avowed socialists who led workers in the Minneapolis trucking industry, longshoremen in San Francisco and auto parts workers in Toledo to victory in 1934 would light the spark.
The Trotskyists, Stalinists and Musteites
Among the leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes were Carl Skoglund and Vincent Ray Dunne, both longtime labor militants. As a young lumberjack, harvest hand and itinerant laborer in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, Dunne had fought side by side with the early pioneers of industrial unionism in the Industrial Workers of the World. In his early years, Skoglund had led a strike for union recognition among pulp mill workers in his native Sweden, where he joined the Social Democratic Party. Blacklisted as a radical for his union and other political activities, Skoglund moved to the U.S. and became a leader of the left-wing of the Scandinavian section of the American Socialist Party. Inspired like many leftist radicals in the U.S. by the 1917 Russian Revolution—the first proletarian insurrection to successfully break the chains of capitalist exploitation—Skoglund became a founding member of the Communist Party in 1919 and Dunne joined the next year.
By the late 1920s, an ascendant bureaucracy headed by J.V. Stalin had usurped political power from the working class in the Soviet Union and repudiated the revolutionary internationalist program of Bolshevism. The effect on the American CP and other parties of the Communist International (or Comintern), set up under V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky as an organizing center for world revolution, was highly corrosive. In this context, Skoglund, Dunne and two of his brothers, Miles and Grant, were won to the CLA, the fledgling organization of American Trotskyism. Against the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the American CP, the Trotskyists maintained their commitment to the program and principles of Marxism.
Expelled from the CP, small in number and isolated—and with the mass of workers still paralyzed by fear of the ravages of the Great Depression—the Trotskyists understood that the central task at the time was to regroup, rearm politically, win over the most class-conscious workers and others and prepare for the future class battles they knew would come. As Cannon outlined in a 1932 article:
“The Communist workers are not the working class. They are only its conscious section, and at present in America they are a small and numerically insignificant section. The Communist workers alone cannot fight real class battles. Their function is to fight with the workers and in their front ranks. The task of the Communists at the moment is to prepare the workers for the coming struggles. The center of this task is the ‘patient work of explanation’; of agitation and propaganda to win the workers over to a course of struggle.”
— “The Threat of Illegality,” Militant, 19 March 1932
Working as coal drivers for a Minneapolis coal company during the early years of the Depression, Skoglund and the Dunne brothers engaged in the work of “patient explanation” with their coworkers. Over the course of three years, they won a core of workers to the idea of fighting for industrial union organization. Miles Dunne also convinced the president of the tiny Teamsters General Drivers Local 574, Bill Brown, to come on board as part of the voluntary organizing committee the Trotskyists were building. Not your typical AFL official, Brown had good class instincts and was fed up with the no-strike craft unionism enforced by the national leadership of the Teamsters union. Thus was assembled the central cadre of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes headed by supporters of the Communist League of America.
The Communist Party in the 1930s was a whole different kettle of fish. Founded under the impact of the Russian Revolution by the best of a generation of socialist and other labor radicals in the U.S., the party had lost its Marxist compass in the late 1920s. It was succumbing to the combined pressures of the then-booming prosperity of U.S. capitalism, which sapped the CP’s earlier revolutionary confidence, and the corrupting influence of the Kremlin Stalinists. This bureaucratic regime was itself the product of the combined weight on Soviet society of failed revolutionary opportunities in the more advanced countries of the capitalist West, particularly Germany, and years of war and privation.
The Kremlin Stalinists did not eradicate the gains of the October Revolution. Just as the trade unions remain working-class organizations despite their bureaucratic leadership, the Soviet Union remained a workers state. At the same time, just as the union misleaders’ collaboration with the bosses has undermined the very existence of organized labor, the rule of the Soviet bureaucracy endangered—and would in the end pave the way for the destruction of—the world’s first workers state.
Renouncing the struggle for working-class revolution in other countries, the Soviet bureaucracy pushed the anti-Marxist notion of building “socialism in one country.” The Communist parties internationally were transformed into little more than outposts for the policies of the Kremlin in its quest to “coexist” with world imperialism. Along the way, there were many gyrations in the political line of Stalin and his followers, both to the right and the left.
In the late 1920s, Stalin adopted a course of ultraleft adventurism in the face of the implacable hostility of the capitalist world and to cut the ground from under Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which fought against the bureaucracy’s betrayals. To justify this turn in policy, the Comintern declared that capitalism was entering a so-called “Third Period” of its existence in which the victory of proletarian revolution was supposedly imminent across the globe, a prognosis at odds with social and political reality. The reformist social-democratic workers parties, as well as trade unions internationally, were denounced as “social fascist.” In the U.S., the CP abandoned the AFL unions to form largely marginal “revolutionary unions.” As a result, the Communists all overwhelmingly found themselves on the sidelines of the labor battles of 1933-34.
On the West Coast, however, the CP’s district organizer, Sam Darcy, began to reject the ultraleft idiocies of the Third Period. When longshoremen flooded into the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), an AFL affiliate, following the NRA’s passage in 1933, CP supporters and other longshore militants whom Darcy had begun to cohere also joined the union. Known as the Albion Hall group after their meeting place, this circle of maritime workers would become the core leadership of the 1934 longshore strike. Among their number was the strike’s most well-known leader, Harry Bridges.
Although Darcy’s rejection of the Third Period would presage the CP’s coming embrace of the Roosevelt administration, at the time the Stalinists still spoke the language of working-class struggle. A mimeographed newsletter named the Waterfront Worker (WFW) that had been produced since 1932 hammered away at illusions in FDR and his NRA labor mediators. It also took on the craft unionism and class-collaboration of the AFL union tops, whose mutual scabbing deals with the employers had set waterfront and maritime workers against each other, contributing to the repeated defeat of strikes. Through the WFW and their leadership of job actions, the CP supporters politically armed and organized longshoremen for battle with the shipping bosses, the government and their agents in the labor movement.
A.J. Muste’s organization was a different political animal from either the Trotskyists or the Stalinists. A preacher and a pacifist, Muste first became a partisan of working-class struggle in 1919, when he served as a leader of a strike by overwhelmingly immigrant textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. A director of the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York, Muste in 1929 was a key founder of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), whose aim was to pressure the AFL into undertaking “progressive” labor action. Under the impact of the Great Depression, the CPLA moved to the left, reflecting the growing militancy of the workers, and became the core of the American Workers Party, which was founded in 1933.
In the early 1930s, the main work of the CPLA was organizing the unemployed. In Toledo’s Lucas County, its Unemployed League led militant mass actions that won cash relief for jobless workers. The CPLA’s fight to unite the unemployed behind workers’ struggles—as opposed to abandoning the jobless to the bosses, to be recruited as strikebreakers—would be key in turning the tide against the scabs, cops and National Guard troops who were mobilized to smash the Toledo Auto-Lite strike in 1934.
Of the leaderships of the three 1934 citywide strikes, the Trotskyists were the only genuine Marxists. They carried forward the vital task of forging a revolutionary party of the most advanced and class-conscious workers, understanding that only such a party is capable of arming the proletariat with the political consciousness and organization necessary to bury the rule of capitalist exploitation and oppression. As such, the leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes were the most conscious and farsighted.
Nonetheless, however episodic or transitional, at the time both the Stalinists who led the longshore strike and the Musteites in Toledo were committed to a program of class struggle. Unlike other strikes at the time, the militancy of the workers was not restrained by leaders who promoted the lie of a “partnership” between labor and capital. Instead, the mass strength and solidarity of the workers was organized and politically directed by leaders who rejected any notion that the bosses are “reasonable” or their state “neutral.” Understanding the forces of the class enemy that would be arrayed against any union struggle, the leaders of these strikes were prepared for class war. And it was no easy fight.
The “Battle of Toledo”
Toledo was a small, low-wage city ravaged by unemployment and dominated by parts manufacturers for Detroit’s giant automobile industry. After the passage of the NRA, the AFL tops had begrudgingly chartered temporary cross-trade “federal” unions of assembly line workers. In February, Federal Local 18384 in Toledo struck several parts companies, including Auto-Lite, for a wage increase. Agreeing to submit the dispute to mediation by the local NRA labor board, the AFL bureaucrats called the strike off after six days. Fed up with waiting for the company to negotiate, roughly 500 Auto-Lite workers went on strike again in April.
Slammed with a court injunction that limited pickets even as some 1,800 scabs poured into the plant, the strikers appealed for help to the CPLA’s Lucas County Unemployed League. Two young League leaders sent a letter to the judge announcing that they would continue to bolster the Auto-Lite picket lines in defiance of the injunction. Arrested, tried and forbidden to resume picketing, the League members and strikers who had packed the courtroom walked straight out and got back on the picket lines. By the end of May, the pickets had swelled to more than 10,000 people.
On May 23, an army of company goons and cops who had been mobilized to escort scabs in and out of the plant let loose with a fusillade of tear gas. The picketers, armed with only bricks and stones, built barricades. Holding their ground, the strikers laid siege to the scabs inside the plant. The police retreated, and 900 National Guardsmen were sent in to provide passage out for the scabs. Firing point blank into the picket lines, the troops killed two workers and wounded 25 more. The six-day “Battle of Toledo” had begun, as the workers fought from rooftops and through alleyways against these troops. By May 31, the company had agreed to release the scabs and shut down production at the plant until strike terms were settled. The demoralized National Guard troops, who had taken many casualties of their own, were also withdrawn.
By that time, all but one of the local AFL unions had voted for a general strike despite the efforts of their leaders to sell union members on turning to Roosevelt for redress. On June 1, 40,000 workers and other strike supporters massed in front of the county courthouse. Three days later, the Auto-Lite bosses capitulated, signing a six-month agreement that included wage increases above the NRA minimum. Most importantly, the union was recognized as the exclusive bargaining agent in the plant, contrary to an earlier ruling by FDR’s Automobile Labor Board mandating proportional representation for company unions in union elections. By the end of the year, 19 more auto plants had been organized in Lucas County.
One of the participants in the Toledo battles was Art Preis, a member of the Unemployed League who went on to become a lifelong member of the Socialist Workers Party, a successor of the CLA. As he described in his book Labor’s Giant Step (1964):
“It was at this stage, when strike after strike was being crushed, that the Toledo Electric Auto-Lite Company struggle blazed forth to illuminate the whole horizon of the American class struggle. The American workers were to be given an unforgettable lesson in how to confront all the agencies of the capitalist government—courts, labor boards and armed troops—and win.”
Among the most enduring lessons from this strike was the role that can be played in workers’ struggles by the unemployed when organized and led by class-struggle militants.
The Minneapolis Teamsters Strikes
Many books have been written documenting the events and leadership of the three 1934 strikes that established an industrial union in the Minneapolis trucking industry. These include Teamster Rebellion (1972) by Farrell Dobbs, a young leader of all three strikes who was won to Trotskyism through his experience in the very first of these battles; American City: A Rank and File History of Minneapolis (1937) by Charles Walker; and most recently, Revolutionary Teamsters (2014) by Bryan Palmer.
In his speech on “The Great Minneapolis Strikes” given some years later, American Trotskyist leader Cannon summed up the central lessons:
“There was no essential difference, in fact I don’t think there was any serious difference at all between the strikers in Minneapolis and the workers involved in a hundred other strikes throughout the land in that period. Nearly all the strikes were fought with the greatest militancy by the workers. The difference was in the leadership and the policy. In practically all the other strikes the militancy of the rank-and-file workers was restrained from the top. The leaders were overawed by the government, the newspapers, the clergy, and one thing or another. They tried to shift the conflict from the streets and the picket lines to the conference chambers. In Minneapolis the militancy of the rank and file was not restrained but organized and directed from the top.…
“The modern labor movement must be politically directed because it is confronted by the government at every turn. Our people were prepared for that since they were political people, inspired by political conceptions. The policy of the class struggle guided our comrades; they couldn’t be deceived and outmaneuvered, as so many strike leaders of that period were, by this mechanism of sabotage and destruction known as the National Labor Board and all its auxiliary setups. They put no reliance whatever in Roosevelt’s Labor Board; they weren’t fooled by any idea that Roosevelt, the liberal ‘friend of labor’ president, was going to help the truck drivers in Minneapolis win a few cents more an hour. They weren’t deluded even by the fact that there was at that time in Minnesota a Farmer-Labor Governor, presumed to be on the side of the workers.
“Our people didn’t believe in anybody or anything but the policy of the class struggle and the ability of the workers to prevail by their mass strength and solidarity.”
The History of American Trotskyism, 1944
All three of the strikes by workers in the city’s trucking industry were carefully organized, as the leadership understood that winning even so modest a demand as union recognition would hinge on the balance of forces brought to bear by the contending sides. The first test of strength came with a three-day strike of coal haulers in February. It was strategically planned to hit the companies during sub-zero winter weather when their deliveries, and profits, were highest. Well-orchestrated pickets shut down coal deliveries in the first three hours of the strike. Imbued with a sense of their power as a class, young workers newly won to the union came up with their own innovation, the cruising picket, whereby strikers in a car or truck cruised the streets to stop scab trucks. Such “flying pickets” would become a critical weapon of working-class struggle in the forging of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
Caught off guard, the bosses quickly capitulated, with an agreement to recognize Local 574 as the bargaining agent of the strikers. Workers throughout the city were electrified by this victory, providing a springboard for organizing throughout the trucking industry, including not just drivers but also loading dock, warehouse and other inside workers. The Trotskyists were viewed by the ranks as the real leadership of the local and the voluntary organizing committee was voted official union status. Knowing that the February strike was but an opening skirmish, the CLA supporters began to prepare the workers and their allies for the upcoming battles.
For two decades, a cabal of the city’s wealthiest and most powerful capitalists, known as the Citizen’s Alliance, had been the central force in smashing strikes and keeping unions out. It hired spies and strikebreakers and had the local police force at its command. On the union side, the Trotskyists organized for what they knew would be an all-out war. A city garage was converted into strike headquarters. Arrangements were made for a machine shop to service and repair the trucks and cars deployed as cruising pickets. These vehicles would be dispatched with military precision as strike leaders stayed in contact with picket captains and constantly monitored police radios. Food was served daily at a commissary in the strike headquarters. There was an auditorium for mass meetings. The headquarters also included a field hospital staffed around the clock by doctors and nurses so that injured workers would not have to risk arrest at city hospitals.
Recognizing, as Cannon put it, “that the women have a vital interest in the struggle, no less than the men,” the strikers’ wives were organized in a women’s auxiliary, which became an important part of the strike machinery. The women not only ran many of the operations in strike headquarters but also conducted effective pickets against City Hall and the bourgeois press. Following the example of Toledo, the strike leaders and CLA members appealed to unemployed workers to join the picket lines, while simultaneously organizing for labor to mobilize in defense of the jobless.
All of these measures were taken in a local that was part of one of the most conservative craft unions in the AFL. Teamsters president Daniel Tobin was a bitter and implacable opponent of industrial unionism. But rather than spewing radical rhetoric from outside the AFL, as the Stalinists overwhelmingly did at the time, the Trotskyists had correctly projected that when the workers began to organize they would likely turn to the already established AFL unions. Thus, they were in a position to break the shackles of craft unionism from the inside. As part of the AFL, Local 574 had ready access to other federation affiliates to mobilize solidarity. Inspired by the militancy and determination of the Local 574 strike committee, thousands of workers throughout the city would join the striking workers in action.
The most significant joint action occurred in the early days of the second strike in May. After beating unarmed picketers, including women, to a bloody pulp, the cops and “special deputies” organized by the Citizen’s Alliance made a move to open up the city’s central marketplace to scab trucks. They were met by an army of workers and other strike supporters equipped with baseball bats, clubs and rubber hoses. A two-day battle ensued. At its height, some 20-30,000 stood on Local 574’s side. Scenes of the deputies and then the cops fleeing in terror, in what became known as the “Battle of Deputies Run,” made headline news and were played in newsreels at movie theaters across the country. Audiences of workers cheered; finally, labor was winning one for a change.
In the end, the May strike settlement that was agreed to by the strike leadership and voted up by the membership accorded the union official recognition, not only for the truckers but also for other workers in the industry. Like any other contract agreement, it was a compromise, a truce in the ongoing war between labor and capital. The difference was that the Trotskyists on the Local 574 strike committee knew it. Prepared to continue the fight until victory, they seized on each lull in the struggle to bolster the strength of the pro-union side.
Local 574 was up against not only the forces of the capitalist class enemy but also their agents inside the labor movement in the AFL bureaucracy. Tobin was enraged by the Minneapolis strikes. He first tried to stop the February strike, but his letter forbidding it only arrived after the strike was successfully concluded. Then, he declared that the May strike was a violation of all of the union’s “laws” and issued a red-baiting tirade against the radical “serpents” in the strike leadership. Such rants were grist for the bosses’ strikebreaking propaganda mills, which went into high gear as the union prepared for its third strike.
Reneging on the May strike settlement, the trucking companies, backed by the Citizen’s Alliance, geared up to crush the union. While the press screamed that the “Communist-led” Teamsters Local 574 was preparing a revolutionary take over of the city, 400 more cops were hired and armed with machine guns and rifles fitted with bayonets. Now over 7,000-strong, Local 574 voted to strike again on July 16.
For the first time in the history of the American labor movement, the workers were guided by their own daily strike newspaper, the Organizer. Countering the confusion and demoralization sown by the red-baiting, union-busting barrage that issued from the bosses’ hired media pens, the Organizer gave workers the real story and prepared them for struggle. This development was, as James P. Cannon put it, a “crowning contribution” of Trotskyism to the Minneapolis strikes. And Cannon, Max Shachtman and other CLA leaders were on site to help put it out, as well as to give their comrades in the strike leadership vital political backup and guidance.
In the opening days of the July strike, the cops opened fire on a truck loaded with union pickets. Over 67 were injured, and two later died—striker Henry Ness and unemployed league member John Belor. The city’s workers erupted in outrage, with some 40,000 people turning out for the funeral for Ness. The cops wisely agreed to stay off the streets that day, as the workers themselves provided security for the silent procession to the cemetery.
Federal mediators had been parachuted in from Washington to negotiate an end to the strike. How these and other mediators who were sent in during the May strike were handled by the strike leadership was decisive. Unlike other strike leaders, the Trotskyists were not taken in by the ruse that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt government and its agents were “friends of labor.” As Marxists, they understood that the capitalist state and all its institutions were not neutral but represented and would enforce the interests of the bosses. While the strike leaders met with the mediators, they didn’t give an inch, refusing the concessionary horse-trading deals made behind the backs of the ranks that doomed so many strikes, then and now.
Local 574 leaders also confronted a slick operator in the person of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor governor, Floyd B. Olson, who commanded the allegiance of the state’s AFL officials. Especially since the governor was adept at posturing as a radical firebrand who supported the workers’ cause, illusions in Olson were widespread among working people. On the eve of the May strike, he sent a written message to a mass meeting of Local 574 and its supporters urging the workers to “band together for your own protection and welfare.” The Trotskyists wanted to get Olson on record in support of the union’s campaign and used his professed solidarity to win broader support for Local 574’s fight. At the same time, they knew that the Farmer-Labor governor was the executive commander of the capitalist armed forces in Minnesota.
The union leadership had backed Olson off from deploying the National Guard against the May strike, playing on his fear of losing the political support of the labor movement in upcoming elections. But his job as governor of the state was to defend the interests of the bosses. As the July strike unfolded, Olson played his strikebreaking hand.
When the trucking companies rejected a settlement worked out by federal mediators, Olson declared martial law and ordered National Guard troops onto the streets. While the local AFL Labor Council misleaders worried about the potential damage to the governor’s political career, Local 574 rallied thousands of workers behind the call to defy the troops and resume mass pickets. Cannon and Shachtman, who had been arrested by the cops, were among the first turned over to the National Guard. Soon after, the troops invaded strike headquarters, arresting many top strike leaders. Some escaped the dragnet, while other Local 574 members who had been steeled in previous battles took the place of those arrested.
Olson’s aim had been to behead the Trotskyist leadership of the union and force the ranks to elect new leaders who would end the strike. Instead, as Charles Walker wrote in American City: “The strike’s conduct had been such that a thousand lesser leaders had come out of the ranks and the pickets themselves by this time had learned their own jobs. The arrest of the leaders, instead of beheading the movement, infused it, at least temporarily, with a demoniac fury.” As mass picketing again resumed, Olson released the imprisoned union leaders and returned the captured strike headquarters to the union. But he did not pull back the National Guard troops.
After five weeks of hard struggle, the employers’ association finally broke and agreed to a settlement. Local 574 became the bargaining agent for 60 percent of the workforce in the city’s trucking industry. In subsequent years, the Trotskyist union militants would organize the remaining truckers in Minneapolis and then embark on a successful organizing drive throughout the Midwest that laid the basis for forging the Teamsters as one of the most powerful industrial unions in the U.S.

Workers Vanguard No. 1051
5 September 2014
1934 Strikes
Class-Struggle Leadership Made the Difference
Then and Now
(Part Two)
Part One of this article appeared in WV No. 1050 (8 August).
The 83-day West Coast maritime strike was launched on May 9. It was the eve of the second Minneapolis Teamsters strike, and the second Toledo strike was on. The largest and longest of the 1934 citywide strikes (Minneapolis and Toledo were discussed in Part One of this article), the West Coast labor action involved ports from Los Angeles to Seattle. But the decisive events, first and foremost a four-day general strike, unfolded in San Francisco. A battle that would transform SF into a union town for decades to come, the strike has been the subject of countless labor histories, academic studies and other works. Mike Quin’s The Big Strike (1949) provides probably the most thorough account. It is also addressed at some length in such books as Art Preis’s Labor’s Giant Step (1964), Jeremy Brecher’s Strike! (1972) and Bruce Nelson’s Workers on the Waterfront (1990), which is also a superb study of the history of “seamen, longshoremen, and unionism” up to and including the 1930s.
Regarding the 1934 West Coast maritime strike, Nelson argues:
“Among the many threads that were part of the Big Strike’s dynamism, four stand out as crucial: first, the strikers’ militancy, steadfastness, and discipline in the face of an adversary who wielded an arsenal of weapons ranging from private security forces and vigilantes to the bayonets and machine guns of the National Guard; second, a solidarity that swept aside old craft antagonisms and culminated in a general strike; third, a rank-and-file independence and initiative that came to mean frequent defiance of AFL norms and officials; and finally, in the face of an increasingly hysterical and violent wave of anti-Communist propaganda, a willingness to assess the Red presence in the strike independently, from the workers’ own standpoint, and a growing tendency to view Red-baiting as an instrument of the employers.”
There is no gainsaying the determination, combativity and courage of the ranks of the union. But it was critical that the workers had a leadership that was animated at the time by a program of class struggle. The workers were aware of the importance of this leadership, which is why they didn’t buy into the bosses’ anti-Communist hysteria.
Prior to the strike, San Francisco was known as one of the most open shop cities in the U.S., the product of the crushing defeat of a 1919 longshore strike. Dock workers labored as little more than slaves under the whip of the “Blue Book” company union. This “union” enforced the rule of corrupt gang bosses who called the shots in handing out work to men made to assemble for the daily “shape up.” Up until 1933, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in SF had been little more than a paper union. Nationally, the union was ruled with an iron fist by ILA president Joseph Ryan. In the pocket of shipping bosses and capitalist politicians who handsomely rewarded him for his services, Ryan was notorious for hiring thugs and murderers to literally dispose of union militants and keep the New York port strike-free.
After joining the ILA, together with thousands of other West Coast longshoremen, in the summer of 1933, the Communist Party (CP) supporters in the Albion Hall group emerged as a caucus that would successfully challenge Ryan and his stooges on the West Coast for leadership. The group’s Waterfront Worker (WFW) newsletter had run articles preparing the membership to take on the employers and the government. Voicing the growing anger and fighting spirit of the longshoremen, it put forward a strategy for victory. It stressed not only the need to smash the hated “Blue Book” company union, but also to break through the AFL bureaucracy’s lily-white craft unionism, which had led to the repeated defeat of strikes by longshoremen and seamen as well as other maritime and port workers.
The WFW frontally took on the historic racism of the West Coast longshore union, especially its refusal to allow black workers to join. This racist exclusion made black workers ready fodder for the employers’ strikebreaking wars. In 1934, black longshoremen in San Francisco were few. Isolated in segregated gangs on two docks, they were widely distrusted, if not openly hated, for their role as scabs in previous longshore strikes. Addressing the deadly danger of this racial animosity to the union’s fight, the WFW called for integrated gangs on the docks and demanded a fight to bring black workers into the union.
Gaining authority through its leadership of several job actions on the SF docks, the Albion Hall group put forward a series of demands. The chief one was the call for a union hiring hall to break the employer’s total control over hiring in the slave-market “shape up.” In addition, the group sought to end the pitting of port against port, and worker against worker, by securing a coastwide agreement and cementing the fighting unity of all organized and unorganized maritime and port workers. At a February-March 1934 convention of rank-and-file delegates representing 14,000 longshoremen on the West Coast, the Albion Hall group’s demands were adopted. Following the convention, the union ranks overwhelmingly voted in favor of a strike. Members of the Albion Hall group were elected to the strike committee in San Francisco, with Harry Bridges as its leader.
After repeated efforts by the Federal government of Franklin Roosevelt and the ILA misleaders to head off a strike through an arbitrated settlement, on May 9 longshoremen up and down the West Coast walked off the job. Seamen’s unions, which had their own contract demands, quickly joined them. By the end of May, at least 25,000 maritime workers were out. In the first few days of the strike, the employers had recruited nearly 1,000 scabs in San Francisco, including a sizable contingent from the UC Berkeley football team. Critical to stopping the movement of scab cargo off the docks were the Teamsters. Defying the longtime head of the SF Teamsters local, Mike Casey—a trusted ally of the employers and the city’s rulers who had ordered his members to scab on previous longshore strikes—the Teamsters membership decided to honor the strike.
On the first day of the strike, Albion Hall member and strike leader Henry Schmidt, together with one of the few black members of the SF ILA local, went to the pier where most of the black longshoremen were still working and called on them to join the strike and the union. Some 75 black longshoremen were signed up, many returning to their neighborhoods to convince others not to get taken in by employer appeals for scab labor. Breaking through the racist color bar—which was and is a central weapon of America’s capitalist rulers in their bid to divide and conquer workers in struggle—the strike leaders wrote an important page in U.S. labor history, one that would prove vital to the upcoming Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union organizing battles. The growing ranks of black longshoremen in the Bay Area longshore local became a militant backbone of the union as a whole.
The San Francisco General Strike
Given the importance of shipping to the U.S. economy, the West Coast maritime strike had to counter even greater government intervention than the strikes in Minneapolis and Toledo. Roosevelt personally intervened to postpone the first strike deadline, to which the ILA bureaucrats agreed. After the strike erupted, the Assistant Secretary of Labor, Edward McGrady, was sent in to try to end it. Ryan and other AFL leaders worked in cahoots with the shipping bosses and the government, both nationally and locally, providing a graphic example of the treachery of the union officialdom. Early American socialist Daniel De Leon popularized the apt description of the AFL tops as “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.”
Ryan flew to the West Coast in order to foist deals on the membership that he had cooked up in backroom negotiations. He was roundly repudiated by the ranks amid catcalls and cries of “fink” and “faker.” Teamsters leader Mike Casey, who was also part of those negotiations, had vowed to get members of his union back on the job moving scab cargo. After witnessing the reception given to Ryan by longshoremen, Casey quickly backed off his promise.
As the economy reeled under the impact of the strike, San Francisco’s Industrial Association—a conglomerate of the city’s most powerful financial and other capitalist interests—moved in to take charge of the strikebreaking and open the port. A torrent of red-baiting attacks on the strike leadership was unleashed in an effort to prepare “public opinion” for a bloody onslaught against the workers. The Hearst press blasted the strike as “COMMUNISM VS. AMERICAN LABOR,” while California’s Republican governor, Frank Merriam, raved against the “horde of irresponsible, professional agitators” leading “sabotage strikes.” Such rants were echoed by the leadership of the SF Central Labor Council (CLC) which passed a motion on June 22 “strongly advis[ing] the International Longshoremen’s Association, its members and representatives, to disavow all connections with the communistic element on the waterfront.”
The main battle took place on July 5. With the city’s rulers promising to open the port that day, more than 2,000 strikers massed at the docks to stop the movement of scab cargo. An army of cops and deputies unleashed tear and “vomit” gas on the crowd. Driven back, the picketers retreated up Rincon Hill. Armed with only sticks and stones, they built barricades, fought off the police and retreated to higher ground. After hours of fighting, the strikers made their way to the ILA union hall. Here they were ambushed by hundreds of cops who opened fire on those outside the hall and hurled tear gas canisters inside, to drive other workers out into the line of gun fire. Over 70 workers were shot, most in the back. ILA member Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise, a CP supporter and member of the Cooks Union, lay dead on the blood-drenched street.
At the end of the day, Governor Merriam ordered in the National Guard to occupy the waterfront. Some 2,000 troops were supplied with bayoneted rifles and machine guns and issued orders to “shoot to kill.” The balance of forces had dramatically shifted to the disadvantage of the strikers. As Harry Bridges said, “We cannot stand up against police, machine guns, and National Guard bayonets.”
But that equation would soon change. With support already building for a general strike of union members around the Bay Area, a signal event set it off. On July 9, tens of thousands of workers marched silently and solemnly up Market Street in San Francisco in a funeral procession for the two slain picketers. Even the official record of the Industrial Association spoke to the impact of this powerful display of proletarian discipline: “As the last marcher broke ranks, the certainty of a general strike, which up to this time had appeared to many to be a visionary dream of a small group of the most radical workers, became for the first time a practical and realizable objective” (quoted in The Big Strike).
The Teamsters, once again defying Casey, went on strike on July 12. By then over 60 unions had voted in favor of a general strike. Amid an avalanche of working-class anger and a determination to strike, the local AFL officials on the CLC moved to contain it by designating themselves the leaders of the “strike strategy” committee. The general strike began on July 16 and ended four days later. Strikers manned picket lines on highways leading into the city. Nothing was supposed to move without permission of the strike committee, and the workers maintained proletarian order and discipline. San Francisco was crippled, with at least 100,000 workers out. But the employers and the government had an ace in the hole, the treacherous AFL bureaucrats.
Throughout the general strike, CLC head Edward Vandeleur maintained direct contact with SF city officials and with the head of Roosevelt’s NRA agency, General Hugh Johnson. Just two days into the general strike, the CLC strike committee put forward a resolution calling for government arbitration of all issues in the waterfront strike. Despite the bitter opposition of longshoremen and seamen, the measure narrowly passed in a disputed vote.
The same day, the police, National Guard troops and strikebreaking vigilantes launched an anti-Communist reign of terror. A series of raids began on the CP’s Marine Workers’ Industrial Union, the offices of the party’s newspaper, the Western Worker, and many other radical organizations and meeting places. Offices, furniture and equipment were smashed and those inside beaten bloody, leaving a trail of victims who were then rounded up and arrested.
Raising the prospect that martial law would be declared and union delegates arrested, on July 19 the CLC bureaucrats put forward a motion to end the general strike. Narrowly passing by a vote of 191 to 174, with most delegates abstaining, the strike was ended after four days. California governor Merriam gave thanks that “the sane, intelligent, right-thinking leadership in the labor organizations has prevailed over the rash counsel of communistic and radical agitators.” Mayor Angelo Rossi joined in celebrating “the real leaders of organized labor” and was, in turn, congratulated by ILA president Joseph Ryan.
With their backs against the wall, longshoremen voted to accept arbitration on July 21. Honoring their commitment to stay out until all the maritime unions had voted, the longshoremen delayed going back to work for ten days. Returning to work on July 31, maritime and dock workers marched together across the Embarcadero, a disciplined and unbroken proletarian corps.
Although forced to submit to the very arbitration process they had repeatedly rejected, the longshoremen and seamen went back armed with confidence in the power of their class. Through repeated job actions over the months to come, they drove all the scabs off the waterfront and established work rules and conditions in defiance of the conditions of the settlement.
The arbitrated settlement had granted hiring halls run jointly by the employers and the unions. Under this arrangement, the ILA was put in control of job dispatch but employers were still allowed to choose among the available workforce. With the union in charge of dispatch and the longshoremen ready to take on any employer who refused to hire candidates from the hall, the union would solidify its control of hiring. However, the very strike leaders who had politically armed the workers to take on the bosses and their government would soon come to embrace Roosevelt’s Democratic Party administration and subordinate the workers’ struggles to it.
The 1934 Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco strikes opened the road to the class battles later in the decade that finally organized workers in the mass production industries into the CIO. Originally set up as a committee inside the AFL by John L. Lewis and other union officials, unions associated with the drive to organize industrial workers were expelled from the AFL in 1936, reflecting the commitment of the craft-union bureaucrats to only allowing skilled workers into the “house of labor.” The AFL and CIO would remain separate federations for close to two decades.
In his book John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography (1949), Saul Alinsky described what led Lewis to spearhead the CIO organizing:
“Lewis watched the unrest and flare-ups of violence through the summer of 1934. He saw the Dunne Brothers in Minneapolis lead a general strike of truck drivers into a virtual civil war. Blood ran in Minneapolis.
“In San Francisco a general strike spearheaded by Harry Bridges’ Longshoremen’s Union paralyzed the great Western city for four days.
“Before that year was out, seven hundred thousand workers had struck. Lewis could read the revolutionary handwriting on the walls of American industry. He knew the workers were seething and aching to be organized.”
The fact that the three 1934 citywide strikes had been led by leftists alarmed Lewis, who was determined to cut off Communists and Socialists from gaining leadership of the radicalized workers. Despite his political conservatism and contempt for union democracy, Lewis was at the same time a more farsighted bureaucrat who perceived the need to organize industrial unions in the mass production industries.
Lewis—who had driven reds out of the UMW and exterminated every vestige of opposition to his dictatorial rule of the union—now saw the usefulness of the talented and experienced CP unionists in the fight to build the CIO. The political precondition for Lewis bringing CP members and supporters on board as organizers was the party’s 1935 turn to supporting Roosevelt as the representative of a so-called “progressive wing” of the American bourgeoisie. The impetus for this turn was the coming to power of Hitler’s Nazis in Germany in 1933, a monstrous defeat for which the policies of Stalin’s “Third Period” bore no small responsibility.
The Stalinists and Social Democrats in Germany, who commanded the allegiance of millions of workers, did nothing to mobilize them in united action to smash Hitler’s brownshirts. The leaders of the Social Democratic Party had long ago gone over to the side of their “own” bourgeoisie in opposition to the fight for workers power. For its part, the CP criminally equated the Social Democrats with the capitalists’ fascist shock troops. After the resulting disaster in Germany, Stalin dumped the ultra-radical rhetoric of the “Third Period.” By 1935, in the name of the “popular front against fascism,” the Communist Parties around the world were ordered to ally with the “democratic” bourgeoisie against Nazi Germany.
Having many years earlier abandoned Marxist class principles in the service of the policies of the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy, few Communists in the U.S., or for that matter anywhere else, objected. They were all too accustomed to changing their political positions on a dime. In many ways, Darcy, Bridges et al., who broke with the CP’s “Third Period” denunciations of the AFL unions as “social fascist” and went into the ILA, were simply premature popular frontists.
CP supporters would be among the leaders of the gigantic working-class struggles that forged the CIO in the late 1930s. Carrying the American trade-union movement to unprecedented heights, these strikes set the stage for the further development of class consciousness in the working class, the most advanced elements of which were receptive to the idea of forming a workers party in opposition to the two capitalist parties. But the Stalinists and other strike leaders channeled these workers into support for FDR’s Democratic Party. As Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky succinctly wrote in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940):
“The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses. Indicative and noteworthy in the highest degree, however, is the fact that the new ‘leftist’ trade union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state. 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.”
Only the Trotskyists of the CLA, whose supporters led the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strikes, remained true to the principles and program of revolutionary Marxism. The A.J. Muste-led American Workers Party (AWP) had merged with the Communist League of America following the Toledo and Minneapolis strikes to found the Workers Party of the United States in December 1934. But Muste soon returned to the pulpit of religious pacifism and later preached the strategy of nonviolence to future liberal leaders of the civil rights movement and, in his final years, to Vietnam antiwar protesters. Other leaders of his organization made their own kind of peace with capitalist society. Nonetheless, a number of the AWP veterans of “The Battle of Toledo” remained adherents of Trotskyism, that is, to the ideals and goals that had inspired the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Spreading out from their base in Minneapolis, the Trotskyists were at the forefront of organizing truckers throughout the Midwest, transforming the weak, craft-divided Teamsters into a powerful industrial union. This course was obstructed when the Roosevelt administration, aided and abetted by Teamster president Daniel Tobin, brought sedition charges under the Smith Act against the Trotskyists for their opposition to the interimperialist slaughter of World War II. The central union leaders in Minneapolis as well as national Trotskyist leaders—29 in all—were convicted and jailed. Criminally, the CP supported the government’s persecution of the Trotskyists.
While the Stalinists have long portrayed WWII as a great democratic war against fascism, the Trotskyists recognized that, like World War I, it was a conflict between the imperialist powers to redivide the world. Calling for the defeat of all the imperialist combatants, the Trotskyists took no side between the competing Allied and Axis powers. At the same time, they fought steadfastly for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet bureaucratically degenerated workers state.
In contrast, the Stalinists were among the most rabid supporters of U.S. imperialism during the war, portraying it as a supposed “anti-fascist” ally of the Soviet workers state against Hitler’s Germany. In the West Coast longshore union, Bridges enforced a no-strike pledge and massive speedup on the docks as part of the war effort. He also played a major role in smashing a 1944 strike by Montgomery Ward workers in the Midwest. Ordering the now CIO-affiliated International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the West Coast to ship scab cargo, Bridges went on to urge all of labor to make a permanent no-strike pledge, not only during the war but “indefinitely thereafter.”
For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
Crime, as they say, does not pay. A few years after the end of the war, leaders of the Communist Party were themselves prosecuted under the Smith Act as purported advocates of the “violent overthrow” of the U.S. government. Bridges himself was repeatedly hauled into the courts and threatened with deportation on charges of being a CP member. We take no satisfaction in the bitter irony that the Stalinists were themselves prosecuted under the very laws that they had urged the capitalist state to bring down on the Trotskyists. These trials were opening shots in the first Cold War against the Soviet Union, U.S. imperialism’s “ally” in WWII.
Communists and other militants who had led the CIO organizing battles were driven from the unions. This witchhunt was codified in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which demanded a “loyalty oath” from union officials and outlawed sympathy strikes, hot cargoing and other class-struggle weapons that had built the unions. In 1949-50, eleven unions associated with the CP, including the ILWU, were expelled from the CIO. The red purges cemented the leadership of a hardened pro-capitalist, anti-Communist bureaucracy whose first loyalty was to U.S. imperialism.
The bureaucrats condemned, and continue to condemn, Taft-Hartley as a “slave-labor act.” But the union misleaders themselves helped put on the shackles and have bowed before the government’s strikebreaking laws ever since, sapping the fighting strength of the unions. A watershed was when the labor tops let Reagan get away with smashing the PATCO air traffic controllers strike in 1981. While mouthing impotent words of “solidarity,” the AFL-CIO leadership did nothing to mobilize the powerful airline unions in strike action to shut down the airports. The aftermath has been a three-decade tsunami of union-busting that has devastated the ranks of organized labor.
The AFL leaders of old abhorred the class struggle. Today, the union tops argue that it is simply not possible for labor to struggle. Instead, to preserve their diminishing dues base, they engage in dog-eat-dog jurisdictional disputes with other unions, a throwback to the backstabbing of the craft unions that had to be surmounted to organize industrial unions. Rather than mobilizing for battle against the capitalist rulers, the bureaucrats peddle the lie that the workers have a stake in maintaining capitalist profitability. This class collaboration is codified in the subordination of labor to the parties of the capitalist class enemy, particularly the Democrats.
To be sure, it is not easy for the workers to win in the face of the forces arrayed against them. The situation is all the more daunting given the ebb of class and social struggle, a condition reinforced by the decades of betrayals by the trade-union bureaucracy. But the rulers, aided by their labor lieutenants, cannot extinguish the class struggle that is born of the irreconcilable conflict of interests between workers and their exploiters. The very conditions that grind down workers today can and will propel them into battle, together with their allies, against the class enemy. Winning these battles is, at bottom, a question of leadership.
The 1934 strikes showed what militant unions could accomplish in a period of growing class and social discontent. Under a leadership that grasped the class nature of American capitalist society and the social power of those whose labor makes it run, the workers fought against improbable odds and won. These are the kind of battles that will need to be waged today to organize the growing masses of unorganized workers. For the workers to prevail over their exploiters, it is essential to win them to a Marxist political program that links labor’s fight to the building of a multiracial revolutionary workers party capable of leading the struggle to do away with this whole system of wage slavery through socialist revolution. Although our forces are currently small, it is the purpose of the Spartacist League, as it was of our Trotskyist forebears, to win the workers through patient education and in the course of struggle to the program and perspective of forging the party of international working-class revolution.
Fri, Sep 19, 2014 09:00 AM
Massachusetts Peace Action
Dear Al,
Humanity is at a crossroads. Either we watch in a stupor as climate change accelerates, nuclear weapons are "improved", and wars spiral out of control—tempting the use of nuclear weapons, OR, "We the People of the World" take action to change things. These growing threats to a healthy planet and to human well-being urge us to mobilize and take action.
Join Massachusetts Peace Action at the People’s Climate March, this Sunday, September 21 in New York City.  Peace Action will meet at 10am at 77th and Central Park West, where the Peace & Justice pre-rally will feature powerful speakers like Bill McKibben, Jim Hightower, Medea Benjamin, Tom Hayden, George Gresham and many others.  Take the 1 train to 79th St.
The signs of climate change are all around us. If we pursue business as usual we face a world of famine, increasing disease and deaths, displacement from vast areas of flooded and uninhabitable terrain. We must do all in our power to stop greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate global warming.
But the developing climate emergency does not exist in isolation. We can’t effectively address climate change without ending war and militarism and the massive carbon pollution which they directly and indirectly generate.

Absolutely can't make it to New York?

Boston area events
Helen Caldicott on “Facing our Nuclear Responsibilities”, Saturday, 2pm, Newton City Hall
Boston International Day of Peace, Sunday, 2pm, Boston Common - Music, Dancing, Art & Peace Education
Watch the Peoples Climate March - Livestream hosted by Democracy Now! starting Sunday 10:30 am
And we can’t end war without ending the fossil fuel energy system which war protects. One of the reasons the U.S. has just started a new war in Iraq and Syria is to ensure that its friends control the oil supply.
Read and sign the Appeal to the Peace and Climate Movements, initiated by Massachusetts Peace Action and signed by dozens of organizations and hundreds of individuals.
Need transportation?  Over 60 chartered buses from Massachusetts are filled up, but commercial services like Megabus, Bolt Bus and Amtrak still have seats available this weekend.   Are you driving and need passengers to make up a carpool, or do you need a ride? – Call our office at 617-354-2169 or email The pre-rally starts at 10am, and our contingent may step off at about noon. 
Join members of peace, labor, faith, Indigenous, environmental, agricultural, campus, and over 1,100 different groups on the streets of New York.  As the UN Climate Summit convenes, demand action now to reverse climate change and stop wars! (Bring noise makers!)
Why are we doing this? Just look at some enthusiastic three-year-olds and think of their tomorrows.
Cole Harrison
For peace, justice and sustainability,
Cole Harrison
Executive Director

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“Workers of The World Unite, You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Chains”-The Struggle For Trotsky's Fourth (Communist) International-From The Archives-Founding Conference of the Fourth International-1938


Markin comment (repost from September 2010 slightly edited):

Several years ago, when the question of an international, a new workers international, a fifth international, was broached by the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), faintly echoing the call issued during the presidency of the late Venezuelan caudillo, Hugo Chavez, I got to thinking a little bit more on the subject. Moreover, it must have been something in the air at the time (maybe caused by these global climatic changes that are hazarding our collective future) because I had  also seen a spade of then recent commentary on the need to go back to something that looked very much like Karl Marx’s one-size-fits-all First International. Of course in the 21st century, after over one hundred and fifty years of attempts to create adequate international working-class organizations, just what the doctor by all means, be my guest, but only if the shades of Proudhon and Bakunin can join. Boys and girls that First International was disbanded in the wake of the demise of the Paris Commune for a reason, okay. Mixing political banners (Marxism and fifty-seven varieties of anarchism) was appropriate to a united front, not a hell-bent revolutionary International fighting, and fighting hard, for our communist future. Forward

The Second International, for those six, no seven, people who might care, is still alive and well (at least for periodic international conferences) as a mail-drop for homeless social democrats who want to maintain a fig leaf of internationalism without having to do much about it. Needless to say, one Joseph Stalin and his cohorts liquidated the Communist (Third) International in 1943, long after it turned from a revolutionary headquarters into an outpost of Soviet foreign policy. By then no revolutionary missed its demise, nor shed a tear goodbye. And of course there are always a million commentaries by groups, cults, leagues, tendencies, etc. claiming to stand in the tradition (although, rarely, the program) of the Leon Trotsky-inspired Fourth International that, logically and programmatically, is the starting point of any discussion of the modern struggle for a new communist international.

With that caveat in mind this month, the September American Labor Day month, but more importantly the month in 1938 that the ill-fated Fourth International was founded I am posting some documents around the history of that formation, and its program, the program known by the shorthand, Transitional Program. If you want to call for a fifth, sixth, seventh, what have you, revolutionary international, and you are serious about it beyond the "mail-drop" potential, then you have to look seriously into that organization's origins, and the world-class Bolshevik revolutionary who inspired it. Forward. 

Trotsky's Struggle for the Fourth International

by John G. Wright

First published in Fourth International, August 1946.

[John G. Wright (1902-1956—legal name Joseph Vanzler) joined the Communist League of America in 1933 and was elected to the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party/U.S. in 1939. Wright translated many of Trotsky's writings and served as an SWP staff writer in New York until he died. This document proofread by Scott Wilson]

All of Leon Trotsky's basic teachings are concentrated in the major task of his lifetime's activity—the building of the Fourth International.
For an entire decade—1923-1933—he struggled to reform the Third International, which he had founded together with Lenin. When Stalinism paved the way for Hitler's assumption of power in Germany; when this betrayal passed over the heads of the completely degenerated Stalinized parties, history itself proved irrefutably that the Third International was beyond reform. It died ignominiously as had the Second International before it. What died with these old Internationals was not revolutionary Marxism, but two virtually duplicate sets of false ideas and practices—nationalism, opportunism, reformism. In brief, petty-bourgeois adaptation to capitalism and capitulation to it. A new International became necessary. As Trotsky tirelessly repeated, this was—and is—the basic task of our epoch. It was to this task that he devoted his best energies and the last years of his life.
For Trotsky, the building of the Fourth International was least of all a question of abstract theory or of an "organizational form." He heaped scorn upon all those who posed the issue in this manner, because such an approach stands everything on its head. Trotsky saw that the world party of the working class is first of all a closely knit system of ideas, that is to say, a program. On no other basis is it possible to train, temper and fuse the proletarian vanguard internationally and nationally. From the given system of ideas—or program—flows a corresponding system of strategic, tactical and organizational methods. The latter have no independent meaning or existence of their own and are subordinate to the former.
One of Trotsky's favorite sayings was: "It is not the party that makes the program; it is the program that makes the party."
Precisely because of this primary stress on program, Trotsky's decade of struggle to reform the Third International became in the most direct sense the preparation for the Fourth International.
This approach—and it is the only correct one—obviously invests ideas with extraordinary importance. Indeed we can say without any fear of exaggeration than none attach greater significance or power to ideas than do the revolutionary Marxists. Like Marx, Engels and Lenin, Trotsky regarded ideas as the greatest power in the world.
Lenin's Bolshevik Party valued its ideas as its most potent weapon. Bolshevism demonstrated in action, in 1917, that such ideas, once embraced by the masses, become convened into an insuperable material force.
Here is how Trotsky formulated this approach in a personal letter to James P. Cannon:
"We work with the most correct and powerful ideas in the world, with inadequate numerical forces and material means. But correct ideas, is the long run, always conquer and make available for themselves the necessary material means and forces."
Trotsky's ideas derive their power from the same source as Lenin's: both are the correct expression of the struggle of living forces, first and foremost of the liberationist struggle of the proletariat. They represent not only the product of profound theoretical analysis (without which it is impossible to understand reality) but also the unassailable deductions from the march of history for the last hundred years (that is to say, from 1848 when Marx and Engels first expounded the laws governing the movement of capitalist society).
There are ideas and ideas. As against the correct ideas of Marxism, there is also the power of the false ideas. The former serve the interests of progress, of the world working class; the latter only play into the hands of reaction and deal untold injury to workers all the oppressed and to society as a whole. False ideas, like correct ones, do not fall from the sky. They, too, express one of the living forces engaged in struggle, namely: the camp of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.
Like Lenin, Trotsky rejected the notion that the policies of opportunist tendencies represented merely mistakes in "theory." Theory is scarcely involved in the policy of the treacherous "Socialists," who each time base themselves on the current needs of propping up the rule of decaying capitalism. Theory has even less to do with the Kremlin's policy, which is each time determined by practical needs of safeguarding the privileges and power of the ruling clique. Fear of the proletarian revolution has long ago converted both the moribund Second and Third Internationals into agencies of world imperialism. Hence flows the necessity of an irreconcilable attitude towards them. For the first condition for unifying the workers is a complete break with all the agencies, direct or indirect, of the bourgeoisie.
The basic plank of a revolutionary program is—internationalism. Mere acceptance of "internationalism" is hollow mockery unless accompanied in practice by complete rejection of nationalist policies, in whatever guise they may manifest themselves. It was precisely against the nationalist deviations of the Soviet bureaucracy, most crassly expressed by Stalin's theory of "socialism in one country," that Trotsky launched his life-and-death struggle against Stalinism. He warned that the adoption of Stalin's theory would imperceptibly but inescapably shunt the Third International onto the tracks of opportunism.
This warning was swiftly verified by events. In England during the critical period of the labor movement in 1925-27, the Stalinists followed a false and opportunist policy (the policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee). In China the Stalinists betrayed the revolution of 1925-27 by pursuing a typical Menshevik policy of collaborating with the native bourgeoisie (Stalin's bloc of "four classes"), in the name of establishing not workers' rule but the "democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants." In the Soviet Union, Stalin's false policies manifested themselves at the time in an opportunist economic policy (slow tempo of industrialization, fostering of neo-capitalist elements: "kulak grow rich," etc.) and subsequently in the adventuristic economic policy in connection with the First Five-Year Plan.
The great lessons of these experiences in China, the USSR and England were the axis of the struggle inside the Russian party, and they later became the basis for the education and unification of the original world Trotskyist movement.
Internationalism became the very hall-mark of Trotskyism. Writing in 1938, on the Ninetieth Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, Trotsky said:
"The international development of capitalism has predetermined the international character of the proletarian revolution. 'United action, of the leading civilized countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat,' [wrote Marx and Engels in 1848]. The subsequent development of capitalism has so closely knit all sections of our planet, both "civilized" and "uncivilized," that the problem of the socialist revolution has completely and decisively assumed a world character. The Soviet bureaucracy attempted to liquidate the Manifesto with respect to this fundamental question. The Bonapartist degeneration of the Soviet state is an overwhelming illustration of the falseness of the theory of socialism in one country."

The Elaboration of an International Program

Trotsky's primary objective from the outset was to elaborate an internationalist program, and to select groups and individuals on this programmatic foundation. No sooner were his hands untied for work on a world scale (by his exile to Turkey in February 1929), than he began hammering home the cardinal consideration that whoever assigns a secondary importance to the international factor is traveling on the road to national opportunism. "National programs can be built only on international ground." "Our international orientation and our national policy are indissolubly bound together."
"It is undeniable," he explained, "that each country possesses the greatest peculiarities of its own. But in our epoch their true value can be estimated, and revolutionary use can be made of them only from an internationalist point of view. Only an international organization can be the bearer of an international ideology."
Trotsky's touchstone for evaluating "tendencies in world communism"—and therefore his touchstone for political collaboration—was: the position taken by any given group on the above-listed three questions which he designated as "classic" (Anglo-Russian Committee, Chinese revolution of 1925-27, Soviet economic policy in conjunction with the theory of socialism in one country). In his opinion only an organization which demarcated itself ideologically from all others on these issues, could prove viable, capable of action, capable of withstanding the test of events, and finally able to unite the proletariat under its banner.
Why? Because in each case fundamental principles of revolutionary policy were involved. Agreement meant the possibility for joint work within a common organization; disagreement either excluded such a possibility or rendered it extremely remote.
While attaching paramount importance to questions of principle, Trotsky invariably subordinated questions of tactic, organization and the like. In March 31, 1929, in the same letter in which he lists the "three classic questions" as the decisive criteria, he adds the following highly illuminating comment:
"Some comrades may he astonished that I omit reference here to the question of the party regime. I do so not out of oversight, but deliberately. A party regime has no independent, self-sufficient meaning. In relation to party policy it is a derivative magnitude. The most heterogeneous elements sympathize with the struggle against Stalinist bureaucratism.... For a Marxist, democracy within a party or within a country is not an abstraction. Democracy is always conditioned by the struggle of living forces. By bureaucratism, the opportunist elements in part and as a whole understand revolutionary centralism. Obviously, they cannot be our co-thinkers."
Of no less significance is Trotsky's refusal not only to unite but even to effect blocs with the Right wing, even though at the time it was a tendency within the Communist movement. This is an important lesson in principled politics. Only unprincipled politicians enter into political collaboration with those with whom they disagree fundamentally, but with whom they happen to have temporary agreement on secondary issues. Trotsky was unyielding on this score.
In March 1929 he wrote:
"Two irreconcilably opposed tendencies are usually listed under the label of opposition: the revolutionary tendency [the Trotskyists] and the opportunist tendency [Bukharin-Brandler-Lovestone wing]. A hostile attitude toward centrism [the reference here is to Stalinism] and toward the "regime" is the only thing they have in common. But this is a purely negative bond. Our struggle against centrism derives from the fact that centrism is semi-opportunist and covers up full-blown opportunism, despite temporary and sharp disagreements with the latter. For this reason there cannot even be talk of a bloc between the Left Opposition and the Right Opposition. This requires no commentary."
Trotsky safeguarded the movement from being converted into a melting pot of divergent ideological tendencies not only by a principled and serious attitude toward unifications but also by a similar attitude toward splits.
During the same period he wrote:
"It is not always, nor under all circumstances, that unity within an organization must remain inviolate. In cases where the differences assume a fundamental character, a split at times appears to be the only solution possible. But care must be taken that this be a genuine split, that is, that the split should not depart from the line of principled differences, and that this line be brought clear-cut before the eyes of all the members of the organization."
In the first seven years of its existence the Left Opposition experienced approximately a score of splits. The political opponents seized upon this with glee as proof of an intolerable "internal regime."
Trotsky dismissed this contention with contempt, pointing out that "it is necessary to take not the bald statistics of splits, but the dialectics of development." A movement irreconcilably defending its program against opportunism, against centrism, against ultra-leftism could not have possibly avoided splits under the most favorable conditions, and all the less so in the period of catastrophic defeats and universal disorientation of the labor movement.
Beginning with 1930 a whole series of splits occurred over the constantly recurring differences relating to the class nature of the Soviet Union. If in 1939-40 this issue precipitated the struggle inside the Socialist Workers Party, then in 1930, at the very inception of the European movement, it led to a break with Urbahns in Germany, Louzon in France, Overstraaten in Belgium, etc.
When the turn from propaganda groups to mass work was launched in 1934-36, another series of splits occurred in France, England, the U.S. and elsewhere over the tactic of entry into the Socialist parties where left wing tendencies were crystallizing (the famous "French Turn").
But precisely because the movement had a banner and a program from which it refused to swerve, it was able to overcome each internal crisis and to forge steadily, even if slowly, forward.

Trotsky's Struggle for the International

Parallel with Trotsky's irreconcilability in defending the internationalist principles of the movement was his adamant insistence upon the necessity and primacy of the international organization. "Only an international organization can be the bearer of an international ideology." The organization form flows from and must correspond to the party's platform.
From the outset, he insisted on the speediest possible consolidation of all his genuine co-thinkers into an international body. "From its first steps," he wrote in February 1930, "the Opposition must therefore clearly declare itself as an international faction—as did the Communists in the period of the Communist Manifesto, or of the First International, or of the Left Zimmerwald at the beginning of the war (1914-18)....In the epoch of imperialism, a similar attitude imposes itself a hundred times more categorically than in the times of Marx."
This conception of party building was hotly disputed and opposed by all the varieties of centrism who favored a "broader," more "all-inclusive" organization. In practically every country in Europe, especially France, voices were raised in favor of the more accommodating perspective. Their fundamental criterion for political collaboration was as simple as it was false: opposition to Stalinism. These people sought to operate in politics much after the manner of those who, strike up close personal friendships solely on the basis of mutual and pet dislikes. Trotsky fought the centrist trends implacably. For example, in answer to Paz and Treint, the French champions of an "all-inclusive" organization, be wrote:
"They dream of creating an international association which will be open to everybody: those who support Chiang Kai-shek and those who support the Soviet Republic [in the 1930 conflict over the Manchurian railway]; those who endeavor to save the 'autonomy' of the industrial unions from Communism as well as those who struggle for the influence of Communism in the trade unions; those who are for a united front with the Right wing groups [the Bukharin wing in Russia; the Brandlerites in Germany; the Lovestoneites in the U.S., etc.] against the official party as well as those who are for a united front with the official party against the Right wing groups. This program for a melting-pot is being advanced under the slogan of 'party democracy.' Could any one invent a more malicious mockery of party democracy?"
Trotsky's criteria for the building of the International, it will be observed, were not at all based on purely negative bonds. What he invariably sought was not unity for unity's sake, but unity based on community of ideas. No selection was worthwhile in his opinion unless it was a selection of co-thinkers animated by common basic views, by the same fundamental principles.
This was Trotsky's position during the years when the movement functioned as a faction of the Third International; this remained his position after 1933 when the movement turned to the task of building the Fourth International. The English ILP, the German SAP and others then came to the fore with proposals for a new melting pot. Trotsky rejected an "all-inclusive" International just as he had previously rejected an "all-inclusive" international faction. In the five years that elapsed between the issuance of the call for the Fourth International and its Founding Congress in 1938, the centrists played out to the fullest measure their experiment of creating a "broad," "non-sectarian," "non-dogmatic" International organization. Their catchall International, the London Bureau, otherwise known as the "International Bureau of Revolutionary Socialist Unity"—a pretentious body, without a banner, without a program, was a conglomeration of parties and groups moving simultaneously in all directions. As Trotsky predicted, it fell apart without leaving a trace.
The Norwegian Labor Party of Tranmael broke with the London Bureau and entered the capitalist government of Norway. The Swedish Socialist Party, one of the original mainstays, had found its way back into the embraces of the Social Democracy; the German SAP traveled in the same direction. The Brandler-Lovestone "international" that adhered to the Bureau in its heyday simply dissolved. The splinter exile groups (the Italian Maximalists and the Austrian Red Front "lefts") gave up the ghost. The ILP, the lone survivor of this galaxy, continued to vegetate.
* * *
The early splits in the Trotskyist movement which we have already recounted were in reality only anticipations of the two subsequent struggles upon the outcome of which the very fate of the International depended.
The first of these came in connection with the Spanish Civil War which erupted in 1936; the second coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War.
The internal crisis in connection with the Spanish Civil War was precipitated by the following developments:
Under the leadership of Andres Nin the majority of Spanish Trotskyist section merged with the semi-nationalist Catalan Federation of Maurin. The product of this fusion was the POUM (Party of Marxist Unity) with a typically centrist program. This sacrifice of principles for the sake of "unity" led unavoidably to disastrous results. The POUM was not a revolutionary party at all, but like its prototypes merely gave the appearance of being one. It began its career by engaging in electoral maneuvers with the Spanish People's Front and ended by the entry of Nin into the bourgeois government, that is to say, by the commission of the greatest crime of all in a period of the socialist revolution.
The policies of the POUM were supported not only by the London Bureau, to which it was affiliated, but met with widespread sympathy among revolutionary workers throughout the world. As a matter of fact, there were illusions about the POUM within the ranks of the Trotskyists.
A break with the POUM implied swimming against the stream, including broad sections of class-conscious workers. Trotsky did not hesitate. He did not change his course.
In January 1936, after the POUM entered into an electoral bloc with the Spanish People's Front, Trotsky branded its course as treachery, and added in conclusion:
"As far as we are concerned we prefer clarity. In Spain, genuine revolutionists will no doubt be found who will mercilessly expose the betrayal of Maurin, Nin, Andrade and Co., and lay the foundation for the Spanish section of the Fourth International."
Franco's assault came in July 1936. The POUM did not effect a change in its policy, but slid further and further on its false and perfidious course. Trotsky continued to criticise and oppose. The subsequent fate of the POUM bore out his position to the hilt. It is hardly necessary to point out that had a different policy been followed, the Fourth International would have assumed responsibility for the terrible defeat in Spain and could have been, in consequence, badly compromised.

Trotsky's Break With Sneevliet

Among the organizations that sided with the POUM was the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party of Holland (RSAP) which under the leadership of Sneevliet and Schmidt was one of the signatories to the August 1935 call for the Fourth International. Trotsky remained firm, even though this meant a break with one of the largest mass parties affiliated to the Trotskyist movement at the time.
Despite this grave internal crisis, and without the RSAP, it became nevertheless possible by September 1938 to convene the Founding Conference of the Fourth International.
Less than a year later, in July 1939, Trotsky was able to declare:
"The international organization of Brandler, Lovestone, etc., which appeared to be many times more powerful than our organizations has crumbled to dust. The alliance between Walcher and the Norwegian Labor Party and Pivert himself (leader of PSOP, a French counterpart of the Spanish POUM) burst into fragments. The London Bureau has given up the ghost. But the Fourth International, despite all the difficulties and crises, has grown uninterruptedly, has its own organizations in more than a score of countries, and was able to convene its World Congress under the most difficult circumstances."
The movement could derive this inner drive and power from one source, and one source only—its unassailable ideas, its correct and tested program. This is how Trotsky explained it in July 1939:
"The Fourth International is developing as a grouping of new and fresh elements on the basis of a common program growing out of the entire past experience, incessantly checked and rendered more precise. In the selection of its cadres the Fourth International has great advantages over the Third. These advantages flow precisely from the difficult conditions of struggle in the epoch of reaction. The Third International took shape swiftly because many 'Lefts' easily and readily adhered to the victorious revolution. The Fourth International takes form under the blows of defeats and persecutions. The ideological bond created under such conditions is extraordinarily firm."
Within a few months after writing these lines, Trotsky was to engage in and lead, for the last time in his lifetime, another decisive struggle for the program and tradition of the Fourth International. This was the 1939-40 struggle against the petty-bourgeois opposition within the SWP. Involved here was still another attempt to revise and overthrow the colossal conquest of the revolutionary vanguard—its theory, its political principles, its organizational ideas and practices. Precisely because of its scope, the 1939-40 struggle recapitulated the essential features of all the preceding struggles.
The extraordinary firmness of the ideological bond that binds the movement created by Trotsky has been decisively confirmed by the emergence of a stronger and more homogeneous Fourth International out of the fiery test of World War II. What safeguards its future is the very same thing that has safeguarded its past, namely: it is being built in the same way and with the same ideas and methods that Trotsky taught all his co-thinkers.

[first published in Fourth International, August 1946]
Special thanks to the web site of the International Bolshevik Tendency which transcribed this work for the Internet.