Chapter 17 : Travail in Atlantk City
Bread upon the Waters
Travail in Atlantic City
ATLANTIC CITY WAS SURCHARGED with expectation of strife when I arrived on October 11. Most of the other members of our General Executive Board were there for its quarterly meeting, and we discussed what was brewing.
The affairs of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, however important to us, would be overshadowed by a larger issue coming up at the American Federation of Labor convention÷the question of organizing mass-production workers into industrial unions. This had caused a six-day battle at the Federation's 1934 convention in San Francisco. A compromise had sidetracked the issue for a year. Now, in 1935, it was coming up again, and would have to be faced.
Hot debate also was looked for on a resolution to form a Labor Party. The progressive delegates sponsoring it chose Francis J. Gorman, vise-president of the United Textile Workers, as spokesman. Immediately he began preparing his speech. Short statured, Gorman had an air of self-importance, perhaps a hang-over from the buildup he got in the press when he led the ill-prepared 1934 textile workers' strike.
The British Trade Union Congress had sent two fraternal delegates÷Andrew Conley, national secretary of the Tailors and Garment Workers' Union and Andrew Naesmith, who held the same office in the Amalgamated Weavers' Association. With them was a guest, Anne Loughlin, a general organizer for Conley's organization. She had made a stirring extemporaneous address the day before my arrival, and my fellow board members were still talking about it.
Introduced to Miss Loughlin, I invited her to tea next afternoon. Lingering on the Hotel Chelsea veranda, I got illuminating information about Great Britain's labor situation, and economic, political, and social conditions there.
It was stimulating to listen to this woman. Splendidly alive and energetic about 5 feet 3, and in her early forties, she had sparkling blue eyes, and a lovely complexion, and was unmistakably British. One could have no doubt about her great devotion to the cause which she served, nor of her love for her country. To her the labor movement was a means to an end, and not an end in itself. It must gain for the wage-earners a better life, both physically and spiritually.
Anne Loughlin's father was a shop steward in the Boot and Shoe Workers' Union. As a young girl she went to work on "raincoats and heavy lines" in Leeds, Yorkshire, chief clothing center in the United Kingdom. In 1916 she was appointed as "temporary" war-time organizer for the Tailors' and Garment Workers' Union, and had held that job ever since. The TGWU had 80,000 members, of whom 60,000 were women. Miss Loughlin was a member of the executive board of the British Trade Union Congress. King George V, at a special ceremony that year, had made her an Officer of The British Empire--a title formerly given only to members of high society÷thus making her the first woman in the labor movement to receive this coveted honor.
As a field organizer Miss Loughlin had had much the same trouble, when organizing new areas, as we in the United States. Employers in her industry used to run out of town when the union began an organization drive. But in 1920 the TGWU devised a scheme to keep the employers bound by a national agreement specifying wages and hours for all sections of the country, and the industry became more stabilized. Union agreements were signed for 12 months, and then could be renewed through negotiations. I asked Miss Loughlin what impressed her most at the A F of L convention.
"The great waste of time in useless detail," she said. "We manage to avoid that in the British Trade Union Congress."
More than six weeks ahead of conventions, she told me, the executive council proposed a tentative agenda and local unions were asked to send in their resolutions and proposals. Resolutions on a given subject were woven into a composite resolution by a special committee and offered to the conclave with a definite recommendation.
In April, 1944, Anne Loughlin was one of the British Labor ad- visors to the historic International Labor Organization conference in Philadelphia. Thus we met again. Her hair now silvery gray, the shadows of more than four years of war had left an indelible mark on her vivacious face, but she constantly radiated energy.
Afterwards she came to my home in New York for dinner, with Miss Florence Hancock, of the General Workers' Union, also a titled Officer of the British Empire. Several friends who joined us got an intimate picture of life in war-time England. Before leaving England, Miss Hancock had asked a young nephew what he would like her to bring him from the United States. He wanted just one thing: a banana. English children, who loved bananas, had had none for three years.
In June, 1943, King George VI knighted Anne Loughlin, giving her the title of Dame Anne. Again she was the first woman in labor's ranks to be given a royal honor. When one of my other guests asked her: "Were you thrilled when you received that title?" her reply was characteristic: "No, but I was thrilled when they elected me chairman of the British Trade Union Congress."
Akin to our American Federation of Labor, the BTUC has a chairman who is elected for one year at the annual convention, instead of a president.
The first woman elected to that office, Anne Loughlin headed the British Trade Union Congress through 1943. In that capacity she presided over its sessions, led delegations to the Prime Minister, and adjusted serious problems submitted by its affiliated trade unions.
On October 15 (1935) John L. Lewis, leonine-maned head of the United Mine Workers, electrified the convention by introducing two resolutions. One provided that "no officer of the A F of L shall act as an of ficer of the National Civic Federation or be a member thereof." The other was to bar the American Federationist, the A F of L of ficial organ, from accepting advertisements from any concern which did not recognize and practice collective bargaining with its workers.
The first demand put Matthew Woll, vise-president of the A F of L, on the defensive. He made no fight against it, and did not explain why he was serving as acting president of the National Civic Federation, an organization largely composed of anti-union business men.
In that office, Woll had got into the newspapers by repeated attacks on the "reds." . . . Before the day ended, he resigned from the Civic Federation.
Lewis's second resolution struck at the A F of L executive council's practice of selling advertising space in its monthly magazine to U.S. Steel, certain anti-union textile firms, General Motors, and other implacable enemies of organized labor. The delegates passed it unanimously.
Then the convention began its momentous debate on the issue of industrial versus craft unionism. Charles P. Howard, president of the International Typographical Union, read, as a member of the resolutions committee, a minority report favoring the industrial form.
The case for the mass-production workers was championed by spokesmen for the miners and for the garment, textile, typographical, and other workers. Lewis, Philip Murray, and Van A. Bittner represented the United Mine Workers of America, which claimed a membership of 600,000, but which paid per capita dues to the A F of L for only 400,000 miners, so that it had precisely 4,000 votes in the convention. My own opinion was that it was doing well if it actually had 300,000 dues-paying members, with most of the union miners working only part time in the depression years.
Lewis had a pressing reason for his concern with the unskilled in the basic industries. The coal miners, who had always had the industrial form of organization, were confronted by a critical problem. Through the lean years since the war, with countless mines shut down, large numbers of coal diggers naturally had drifted into other fields, especially steel, automotive, rubber, metal mining, cement, radio, oil, and lumber÷industries with either no unions or company unions.
By establishing company unions, often through the use of industrial under-cover men known as "diplomats," many employers had been able to circumvent New Deal laws aimed to safeguard labor. The company unions also were organized along industrial lines, each taking in all those employed in a given plant. When workers in these set-ups attempted in the NRA period to form legitimate labor unions, and sought entry into the A F of L, they bumped their heads against so many craft unions that they became confused and often disgusted. Furthermore, the mass-production companies could bring in tens of thousands of farm hands and other unskilled workers, largely young people, to replace those demanding better conditions. So job tenure was always uncertain.
Wrought up, workers in steel, auto, rubber, and other basic industries who had been coal miners came back to their old union for help. The delegates who spoke in their behalf at the A F of L convention demanded a clear-cut decision. They wanted the unskilled and mass-production workers to be able to organize along industrial lines without interference by the craft unions. No longer could the issue be sidetracked.
Others also insisted on a hearing younger men, born in a period when mass-production had spread boundlessly beyond the reach of skilled craftsmanship; when machines could turn out vastly more and better products than men's hands, the streamlined belt conveyor making human skill only an incidental part of the production process.
On the platform of the convention hall, above which was emblazoned the A F of L watch-word, Labor Omnia Vincit, Labor Conquers All, a poignant cry was uttered, echoed, and amplified÷a cry sent up for years in the wilderness by humans who followed a will-o'-the-wisp, a cry sounded by the IWW in lumber and construction camps, by lean men on the water-fronts, by sweating furnace workers in the steel mills. It was the old plea of millions of unskilled and semi-skilled toilers who for decades had clamored for admission into the house of labor only to find the door slammed in their faces because they were considered "trash",÷working in basic industries, they could not be properly classified into the existing "legitimate" unions of horse-and-buggy days.
Heads of craft internationals likewise spoke, heatedly, as they resisted the assault upon their supremacy. George F. Baer, Pennsylvania coal magnate, had declared that the coal barons held the destiny of labor in their hands by "divine right." Likewise the dictators of these internationals defended their "right to keep and to hold whatever comes under their constitutional jurisdiction."
Various "federal locals," born since the NRA, were represented at the convention, their delegates having in the aggregate the smallest number of votes. I thought of the millions of workers, and potential members, they represented of industries that were consistently kept outside, and their votes: auto, 86 votes; cement, 7; aluminum, 1; rubber, 28; radio, refrigeration, and television, 75; steel, 86; lumber, with no representation÷and I felt a pang in my heart.
Their cause was championed by spokesmen for the United Mine Workers, to which, according to Van A. Bittner, "even haircutters in the coal towns belonged." Some of the these new unionists mounted the platform. One of them was 26-year-old James B. Carey of Federal Local 19774, Chicago, having a lone vote. Carey looked like a high school boy who had just donned long pants, but he spoke too seriously for some of the delegates, whose big cigars in the corners of their mouths and large diamond rings on their fingers did not bespeak any deep wisdom as they sneered at speeches like his.
Sitting with our delegation, I had opportunity to observe the gathering dispassionately. It was easy to tell from their facial expressions who were vitally concerned with the problem before the assemblage and who were indifferent or hostile.
Some of them, "born to be delegates," and attending a convention for perhaps the 55th consecutive time, were a tradition. To be seen there was enough for them: Some were elected year after year by their membership as recognition of services at home. Most were top officials heading the delegations from their organizations. Only a few delegates had the definite aim of accomplishing something concrete for the rank-and-file, the unskilled, the unorganized.
Certain delegates represented paper unions, or only themselves, rather than a membership like the spokesman for the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, which had lost a strike at Carnegie Steel in 1892, and two others in 1901 and 1909, and had never made another organizing attempt. Its delegate, a timid looking individual, didn't strike me as one who could induce a modern industrial worker to join his union. Controversial issues were numerous, and naturally were decided by roll-call vote, so these delegates could not leave the hall as frequently as usual. Some were irritated at being thus penalized, for they would have preferred a good time. They came to life only when the election of officers took place.
Julius Hochman of the ILGWU delegation read a report describ ing how the industrial spy racket had fastened its claws upon virtually every industry in the country, and urging the convention to take steps to counteract this menace to all unionization efforts.
Close by our table sat the aged president of the International Seamen's Union, Andrew Furuseth, who seemed an anachronism here. A tired old man, a bundle of dry bones covered with parchment-like skin, his long legs were stretched out on the next chair, his hands lay lifeless on his lap. Often his eyes were closed, but his jaws kept moving, as if he were chewing his own gums.
Once a hardy warrior who had fought a brave fight for the men of the merchant marine, he had taken up the cudgels for industrial unionism at the A F of L convention in San Francisco a year earlier. Now he appeared all through.
In his speech at the 1934 convention he had declared that "it is not the work that one does in one hour or another that counts here; it is the work that accomplishes a specific purpose . . . New things will come into the world . . . men will have to learn how to make them."
He roused himself twice in Atlantic City, speaking at some length ÷on the question of anti-labor injunctions, when the report of the Committee on State Organizations was being considered, and on the matter of governmental subsidies to ship owners.
"Our anti-injunction bill, as it is piously called," he averred, in a dry, crackling voice, "is an authorization and instruction to the courts to issue injunctions. The American Federation of Labor has evidently given up the fight on the question of injunctions." He assailed the paying of $30,000,000 a year in government ship sub= sidies as a racket enjoyed by vessel owners, while the ships ran by breaking all the laws covering inspection service and safety.
Looking at Furuseth as he was, old and tired, it seemed incredible that he was the person who had won for the seafarers their protective legislation. I could think of the many such old and sick labor leaders, who in their zeal and devotion to the cause never took cognizance of the fact that some day they might be too decrepit to render any useful service and would become a burden to themselves and a liability to the movement. During recent years, however, many a labor organization, including my own International, has established insurance and retirement funds for their officers, and plans are to continue along this line. If the government does not develop a cradle-to-the-grave formula the unions will at least provide for those who are no longer able to carry on, so they will not be thrown on the scrap heap.
Andrew Furuseth died at the age of 83 in 1938 in Washington, where he had spent many years in the interests of the seamen. His body lay in state in the Labor Department Auditorium. Senator Bob LaFollette the younger delivered a eulogy at his funeral and Andy's ashes were scattered in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Saturday, the closing day, brought a climax.
Delegate Thompson of Rubber Workers Union 18321 spoke on a resolution demanding jurisdiction over all rubber workers through the granting of an international charter. Those he represented, he declared, flatly refused to let themselves or their fellow-workers be scattered among the craft unions. A barrage of points of order and questions tended to confuse this inexperienced delegate. Then came the now famous verbal and physical encounter between William Hutcheson, carpenters' leader, and his friend, John L. Lewis. Lewis was acclaimed the hero of the day, but actually the credit for that victory should go to the United Mine Workers' delegation as a whole.
The popular story is that John L. Lewis struck Hutcheson. Maybe he did÷but there is more to the story than that. I was one of the many eye-witnesses to the fast-moving melee.
As the commotion started, I hastened toward that part of the hall, as I was used to doing when there was a clash on our picket lines. Distinctly I saw one of the miners land a heavy wallop on Hutcheson's jaw when he grabbed Lewis by the collar. A free-for-all ensued, a table being overturned with several delegates under it. When the contendants were finally untangled Lewis was standing defiant, hair disheveled, his collar torn from his shirt÷while Hutcheson was nursing a badly swollen face.
Lewis emerged from the convention the reputed savior of labor. To me he was nothing of the kind. Looking at him realistically, I saw the man as a consistent conservative Republican, who might at any time support the Democrats if it meant gain for his organization or fame for himself. I could not accept his vocal concern for the mass-production workers as altruistic; the economic condition of the miners' union was an ample motive for his demand for the broad spreading of industrial unionism.
He was particularly interested in organizing steel to liberate and unionize the so-called "captive" mines, owned by the steel magnates and dominated by company unions. The United States Steel Corporation owned more than 100,000 acres of coal lands in Kentucky and West Virginia, and United States Steel and Coke also had large coal holdings. Miners going to union meetings often had to walk nine miles before they were clear of company ground. Captive mines spelled unequal competition for owners and unionized mines, and they clamored for the UMW chiefs to line up the others and establish union conditions in them. The Miners' Policy Committee must have discussed this problem time after time and demanded that the UMW leaders bring pressure on the A F of L to work out a solution.
Lewis was upholding the progressive side in Atlantic City and the Communists were chanting hosannas to his name, but I recalled that in his own union he was supreme dictator, Communists being barred from membership, and that those who disagreed with John L. were expelled and had to shift elsewhere. The Lewis dynasty had long demanded unqualified obedience.
Yet I noted curiously that Lewis was now flirting behind his shaggy brows with John Brophy and Powers Hapgood, hitherto anathema to him. As members of the miners' union they had challenged his policies, even daring to oppose his reelection at UMW conventions.
Despite the fistcuffs, I felt that John L. was much closer to reactionary Hutcheson, both being members of the Republican party, than to the radical wing in the labor movement.
One incident at the closing session on Saturday afternoon was a classic.
A resolution not to form a Labor Party was read. Delegate Francis J. Gorman of the United Textile Workers mounted the platform.
His secretary distributed mimeographed copies of his prepared address at the press table, which was close to ours. I borrowed a copy from a reporter eleven pages, single-spaced, on legal size paper. "He's crazy," I remarked. "They'll never sit through this."
Gorman read for a few minutes in a monotonous voice, to a rapidly dwindling audience. Then Delegate Anderson of the plumbers stood up.
"Mr. Chairman, a question of privilege. Don't you think it would be the right thing for the gentleman to turn over his report to the secretary and have it become a part of the record of this convention ?The time is getting late and he is just reciting something we can all read at home."
President Green: "Delegate Gorman has the floor. He has a paper here that he has submitted to the convention, and of course he has the right to submit it unless the convention desires otherwise."
Delegate Anderson: "Then I move' Mr. Chairman, that Delegate Gorman submit his paper to the secretary and that it become a part of the record instead of taking up the time of the convention."
Another delegate pointed out that many chairs already were empty, and that the delegates wanted to leave so they could get back to their jobs Monday morning.
In the face of the prevailing sentiment, Gorman had no alternative but to hand in his address for the record.
Thus another expected "hot" debate came to naught. The vote on the Labor Party resolution again proved that the old political alignments stood firm, the champions of industrial unionism voting regular, with either the Republican or Democratic bloc, and against forming a labor party.
I doubt whether Delegate Anderson or any of the others ever found time to read Gorman's speech. Any one interested can find it, set in fine type, on pages 762-773 of the report of the 1935 A F of L proceedings. Whatever merits it may have had were lost.
Throughout the sessions I noticed that whenever some important question was up the steam-roller managed somehow to squash it; by reporting it too early, when those who wished to press the issue were either absent or not prepared, or by leaving it till the last day, when most of the delegates, after two strenuous weeks, were sitting on their suitcases.
As soon as the convention adjourned, the delegates who had drawn up the minority report on industrial unionism met and decided to form a committee to aid the mass-production workers in self-organfzation and to promote the cause of industrial democracy. Prominent among this group of trail-breakers, beside John L. Lewis, were the presidents of other outstanding internationals: David Dubinsky, our president; Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, Charles P. Howard of the Typographical Union, H. C. Fremming of the Oil Field, Gas Well, and Refinery Workers, Thomas F. McMahon of the United Textile Workers, Max Zaritzky of the Hatters, Cap, and Millinery Workers, and Paul M. Peterson of the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers.
The new Committee for Industrial Organization had been formed, it stated publicly, "to encourage and promote the organization of the unorganized workers in mass production and other industries upon an industrial basis. Its aim is to foster recognition and acceptance of collective bargaining in such basic industries; to counsel and advise unorganized and newly organized groups of workers; to bring them under the banner of and in affiliation with the American Federation of Labor as industrial organizations."
At once the committee began active work, serving as a clearing house for information and advice, and sending organizers to work with various groups that sought organization. A public action subcommittee of national scope was established. Tens of thousands of workers in the basic industries swarmed into the industrial unions now being set up. Many who had pleaded for such organization volunteered their services, and hundreds of labor organizers already on the payrolls of old unions caught the fever and asked their officers to place them at the disposal of the new movement.
While this far-reaching enrollment of workers in unions of their own choosing proceeded, the national committee which guided ii knew it was vital also to bring the major industries under union contracts. Opportunity, and the acid test for the committee, came in a few months with a sit-down of workers in the gigantic Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Akron, Ohio.
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