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Vol. 78/No. 2      January 20, 2014

New patterns of struggle developed
in partial recovery of ’30s
(Books of the Month column)

Below is an excerpt from Teamster Politics, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for January and the third of a four-part series by Farrell Dobbs on strikes, organizing drives and political campaigns of the 1930s that transformed the Teamsters into a fighting industrial union movement. Dobbs emerged from the ranks as a leader of these struggles and became a central leader of the Socialist Workers Party until his death in 1983. Copyright © 1975 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

Capitalists are notoriously loath to do anything that cuts significantly into their profits. Concessions may be coaxed from them on minor points, but it takes a fight to force their compliance with serious demands. As a result, strikes occur because of pressure from the workers, who don’t have it as easy as the bureaucrats.

Still another vicious side of capitalist policy comes to the fore when a walkout takes place. Efforts are made to continue operating the struck facility with scabs. Whatever employees can be sucked in — due to the uneven development of class consciousness — are used as scabs, along with imported strikebreakers and hired thugs. These private actions are backed up by the repressive arms of government — police, courts, military — while at the same time the strikers are being subjected to the trickery of government mediators.

All this deceit and pressure is accompanied by a barrage of lying propaganda laid down by the capitalist news media. …

In this manner all sections of the ruling class gang up on the embattled workers. Their primary aim is to crush the strike. Failing that, they concentrate on forcing a settlement favorable to the specific employers involved. Under such circumstances the union ranks, stuck with class collaborationist leaders, usually come out holding the short end of the stick. …

In this overall situation the workers find themselves frustrated by multiple obstacles — employer resistance, governmental opposition, and misleadership in their own organizations. Not knowing how to cope with such a complex of problems, many simply decide to let matters take their course, hoping for a break here and there. Their attention thus begins to center more and more exclusively on making the most of personal life under existing conditions. This, in turn, creates the superficial impression that virtually the entire working class has voluntarily become immersed in peaceful collaboration with the employers, and that what the capitalists call “normalcy” has been made a permanent condition within industry.

At given intervals, however, an entirely different situation arises. The change results from contradictions inherent in a system devised to enrich a small capitalist minority at the expense of a big worker majority. Due to these contradictions, economic dislocations accumulate. Problems related to housing, education, health care, and other social needs grow worse. Conditions in general become less and less tolerable, until a stage is finally reached when all the ingredients for a major explosion come together.

Mounting discontent leads the workers into a search for some way to defend themselves effectively as a class. Divisive walls — built of self-centeredness, prejudice, special interests, class collaboration, and lying capitalist propaganda — begin to crumble. New potential develops for strengthening labor solidarity, elevating class consciousness, and raising the anticapitalist struggle to a higher plane.

A dramatic change of that nature took place in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash, which heralded the onset of severe economic depression. As the slump deepened, millions lost their jobs. Earnings were slashed for those who still had employment. Working conditions went from bad to worse, as did living standards in general.

At first the workers accepted these blows in a more or less passive manner. They had been stunned by the economic debacle and it took time to recover from the shock effect. Then, when they did begin a quest for ways to defend themselves, only scant means were at hand. Less than three million were organized into the AFL, mainly workers in skilled trades. The great bulk of the working class, especially in basic industry, was not unionized at all. On top of that, the AFL bureaucrats showed no real concern about the plight of the unorganized, whether employed or unemployed. In short, labor was caught in a crisis of organization and leadership.

But limited patterns of struggle gradually began to emerge, characterized by ups and downs in scope and tempo. In the initial stage the actions centered mainly on protest demonstrations by the unemployed. Then, during 1933, strikes broke out here and there in industry, the biggest one being conducted by textile workers. These walkouts resulted from the interaction of two basic factors: the workers’ determination to regain ground they had lost in the depression and their rising confidence — stimulated by partial economic recovery under the New Deal — that their objective could be attained.

Developments of this kind were viewed by the AFL business unionists as a threat to their class-collaborationist line rather than as an opportunity to strengthen organized labor. So those worthies helped government mediators snooker rebellious workers into formal agreements with the bosses that brought precious few gains to the union rank and file.

But sellouts engineered in that way could not be made to stick very long. Combative moods among the workers continued to grow in intensity, and within the unions radicals were able to increase their leadership authority. As a result, miniature civil wars were fought in 1934 by Minneapolis truck drivers, San Francisco longshoremen, and Toledo auto workers. In each case, labor emerged victorious. Inspired by proof that strikes conducted militantly could be won, the main detachments of the working class in basic industry began to move toward action against the monopoly corporations.

Before the end of 1934 struggles erupted in auto, rubber, and steel.
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