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Ernest Lund

Five Labor Conventions:

Behind the Shipbuilders’ Fight

(October 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 10, October 1944, pp. 314–316.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The recent convention of the CIO shipyard workers (officially known as the Industrial Union of Marine & Shipbuilding Workers of America) opened a new chapter in the history of that organization. The convention marked (1) the appearance of a small but fighting progressive bloc as spokesmen for the widespread discontentment of the rank and file, and (2) the emergence of the Communists as the controlling factor in the national leadership of the union. In order to understand the significance of the recent developments, it is necessary to understand a little of the history of the union.

The IUMSWA has a history that is unique when compared to that of the average CIO union. Unlike the steel workers, the packinghouse workers or the textile workers, the IUMSWA never went through a period of CIO “organizing committee” control. As a matter of fact, the IUMSWA was organized as an industrial union in competition with the American Federation of Labor even before the Committee for Industrial Organization was set up.

The IUMSWA was organized in 1934 as the outgrowth of several years of intensive agitation and organization among Camden workers by the local branch of the Socialist Party. This branch was quite unlike the average SP branch and was usually referred to, by Old Guard and militants alike as the “Camden SLP crack-pots.” The contemptuous references sought to belittle the efforts of the Camden Socialists who were not only fanatically convinced industrial unionists, but were also convinced that the AFL was worse than useless. The Camden Socialists, however, took their views seriously and set to work to do something practical about them. The Camden branch was also quite unlike the average SP branch in that it was composed in the main of industrial workers and any number of experienced trade unionists. Without money, without connections, in the depths of the depression when the number of organized workers was shrinking to a new low, the Camden Socialists, driven by a firm faith in the gospel of industrial organization, started a feverish campaign to organize a “dual” industrial union with a socialist outlook. Despite their small numbers and meager resources, they paid scant attention to the “small potatoes” of Camden industry and went out to tackle such industrial giants as New York Shipbuilding Corporation, Campbell Soup Co., and RCA. Though most of their efforts brought little immediate results, their pioneering work was to bear real fruit in the period of 1935–37, when Camden rode high on the national wave of industrial organization.

However, their efforts did bear immediate fruit among the workers of the Camden shipyards. Here their “dual” industrial union took real root. In large measure the success was due to the indefatigable efforts of two members of the Camden branch of the Socialist Party – John Green, sheet metal worker and an old union fighter from the Clydeside, and Phillip Van Gelder, one of the thousands of depression-ridden college students who joined the Socialist Party. (Green had been one of the leaders of the apprentice boys’ strike on the Clyde in the First World War, along with William Gallacher, now Stalin’s personal spokesman in the British Parliament.)

After several hard-fought strike struggles, the New York Shipbuilding Corporation was unionized and the organization won its first great victory. Soon other locals were organized in the yards along the Delaware and in the New York area. The IUMSWA became one of the largest and most important of the independent unions. Its firm industrial union principles were written into the preamble of the union constitution and when read as a regular ritual at union meetings it serves as a reminder of the pioneer days of the union, when it really acted in accord with its preamble.

Its ability to survive as an isolated industrial union would have been in doubt had not John L. Lewis opened up the fight for industrial unionism at the 1935 convention of the AFL and given encouragement to the industrial union trend. Lewis did more for the IUMSWA than merely give encouragement. During one of its crucial strikes at New York Shipbuilding Corp. the United Mine Workers sent a check of some $20,000, which looked like a fortune to this struggling independent union locked in combat with one of the Wall Street mammoths. John Green was to repay the miners for their solidarity by joining with Murray and other CIO leaders in stabbing the miners in the back during their 1943 strikes.

Resources of the Union

When the Committee for Industrial Organization left the AFL and organized itself independently, the IUMSWA affiliated with it. This path to the CIO set it off from the run of new CIO unions and explains much in the course of its later development. On the one hand it enjoyed an exceptional independence from the CIO officialdom and the large dominating influence of the miners and clothing workers’ leaders in the early CIO. But on the other hand it also suffered from the lack of experienced local organizers and officers which these older unions supplied to most of the new CIO organizations. This was further accentuated by the lack of trade union traditions in the shipbuilding industry. Aside from a brief period of “back-door” AFL organization during the First World War, the shipbuilding industry was as open-shop as the steel industry, which, by and large, controls it. Other factors, such as irregular employment in peacetime and low wages for hard and dirty work, attracted many floaters and workers suffering seasonal unemployment in some other line. Aside from a few crafts, like ship-fitting, most of the work is similar enough to that in other industries to permit workers to come and go in the industry without learning a new trade (welders, machinists, pipefitters, electricians, boilermakers, riveters, painters, sheet metal men, etc.).

All these factors hindered the development of an experienced and stable union membership which could produce from its ranks first-class union leaders. Though the leadership of Green and Van Gelder compared well with other progressive leaders in the early CIO, the IUMSWA stood in marked contrast to a union like the United Automobile Workers in the development of its rank and file. The IUMSWA had none of those attributes of a really progressive union like a broad educational program, well edited national and local papers, a research department, ladies auxiliaries, social and athletic activities on a large scale, and other activities that make the members union-conscious and aware that they belong to something more than a dues-collection agency. As a result the IUMSWA rank and file was perhaps one of the least union-educated in the CIO. The low level of its national convention discussions and their rowdy character have always attested to this.

With this the situation in the union, the war suddenly inflated the industry to more than ten times its size and with it the union grew from some 50,000 members to close to 500,000. Perhaps no other union experienced quite as large an influx of new members. But even worse, from the standpoint of assimilating these new thousands, was the fact that most of them were not only new to unionism, but they were members of new locals. In unions where the influx of a wartime membership expanded the existing locals, it meant that the new membership was being gathered around local groups of experienced unionists. In the IUMSWA this was not the case. The bulk of the shipyard workers were employed in yards that had been shut down since 1918 or in yards that were built since 1940.

This situation made the locals of the IUMSWA a happy hunting ground for all sorts of fakers and scoundrels. Locals were constantly plagued with dishonest officers who embezzled the funds or in some other manner abused their office to make personal gains. In one local an unknown suddenly appeared as a candidate for president on a program of one-half hour business meetings, free beer for everybody, and a reduction in dues. He was elected by a landslide.

Development of Bureaucracy

This situation required close supervision of locals by the national officers. However, instead of acting as advisers, Green and Van Gelder soon acquired the habit of acting as dictators. They lifted charters, they kicked out this group from the leadership and sent “administrators” to install some other group. They committed crimes against union democracy and local autonomy that rivalled those of the most hidebound AFL bureaucrats.

Meanwhile the national officers were having their hands full with “wildcat” strikes. Though the workers who had streamed into the yards with the outbreak of the war were unfamiliar with union procedure, they recognized injustice when they experienced it and were ready to react at the drop of a hat. Green rushed about frantically pleading and threatening amid boos from assembled strikers. (Green, the union president, was seeing things differently from Green, the apprentice boy on the Clyde.) But just as frequently as he rushed from strike situation to strike situation, he rushed to Washington to deal with Knox, Forrestal, Bard and Admiral Land. The sheet metal worker could now pick up the phone and say: “Give me the Secretary of the Navy.” He became anxious to please his new “connections.” Tea with the Roose-velts left a much greater impression upon him than the innumerable union discussions over open lunch boxes with his fellow workers of the sheet metal department at New York Shipbuilding Corp. His denunciations of loyal union men who had been driven into striking in the interests of the union were filled with fire and brimstone. Following his speech at the 1942 convention of the union, the New York World-Telegram, owned by the union-hating Scripps-Howard chain, praised him and held him forth as a model labor leader. (At the same convention, Green kept quiet while the Communists pushed through a resolution calling for the suppression of Labor Action.) Green, former left wing socialist, member of the Revolutionary Policy Committee, had come far in this world.

As an old union man and a socialist, Green had learned to distrust the communists long ago. He has never changed this attitude. But being a man who never took principles too seriously when opportunity beckoned, Green was not at all averse to “playing ball” with the Stalinist forces in the union whenever it suited his purpose. During the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, when the communists were opposing the Roosevelt Administration, Green had a clause added to the constitution of the union which barred communists from holding office. After the invasion of Russia, however, Green found much use for the communists. They proved the most reliable people in the union when it came to breaking strikes, ramming WLB decisions down the throats of workers, and rounding up votes for Democratic Party politicians. More than that, the communists in the union were, by and large, able organizers and local officers. With the great dearth of the latter during the big influx of new locals and new members, Green was more than willing to overlook the clause barring communists from office and appoint a number of them to jobs on the national union payroll, mostly as field organizers.

The old political truth that it is policy in the end and not the color of a man’s necktie that counts, was once more verified. When Green’s chief, Roosevelt, became an ally of Velson’s chief, Stalin, political logic compelled Green and Velson to play ball. However, Green was still somewhat illogical. Memories of Stalinist treachery caused him to hold them at arm’s length. Not so his partner Van Gelder. After being secretary-treasurer of the IUMSWA for nearly ten years, the one-time socialist college student was being consumed with ambitions for bigger things in life. Green’s job as president was one of them. Van Gelder was willing to go whole hog with the communists – above all if it landed him in a better berth.

Danger of Stalinism

The 1943 convention of the union was preceded by months of underground maneuvering, knifing, and double-crossing. The communists were greasing the skids for Green and grooming Van Gelder. Green was taking counter-measures. Whether by design or accident, the fight began to center around the fate of Irving Velson, member of the General Executive Board accused of membership in the Communist Party. A group of anti-communists on the GEB were out for Velson’s skin on the basis of the union constitution forbidding communists to hold office. Green was willing to remain in the background while they “did a job” on Velson. Van Gelder saw the importance of the case and became Velson’s defender. The convention upheld the GEB majority in removing Velson. As a result of this, Van Gelder received a setback. Green, having achieved his purpose of stopping Van Gelder’s campaign, now made a deal with Van Gelder and secured his reelection to his old post. In doing this he broke with those who had led the fight against Velson. As a result, Green helped decimate the very forces he had relied upon to stop Van Gelder. From now on Green became to play a delicate game of maneuvering between the Van Gelder-Velson bloc on one side and the anti-communist forces on the other.

In the midst of all this back-stabbing, throat-slitting, double-crossing, Stalinist intriguing, red-baiting and witch-hunting, nowhere was there to be found the voice of a progressive group, standing upon principles and fighting for a restoration of the union to its early pioneer spirit of militant industrial unionism. However, between the 1943 and the 1944 conventions, such voices were being raised ever louder in the locals. As the ranks became fed up with Green’s dictatorial lifting of charters his appeasing the Washington politicians and admirals, and his vicious denunciations of members who went on strike, the opposition movement began to grow. In his old Local 1 of Camden, in Local 42 of Philadelphia, in Local 9 of San Pedro, in Local 16 of Kearny and elsewhere, progressive groups were either elected to local administrations or were threatening election. The old anti-communist group in the union bestirred itself and seeing the rising tide of rank and file opposition quickly fell in line on a program of repealing the no-strike pledge and other progressive demands.

Green became thoroughly alarmed. Rather than “lose face” in Washington by having his union be the first to repeal the no-strike pledge, Green was willing to lift the bars to the communists and give them a free hand to round up a convention majority guaranteed to give a majority for Roosevelt, the no-strike pledge and the War Labor Board. The communists did better than Green expected. They could have controlled the convention even without the Local 16 delegation which the communists secured by violating the union constitution and appointing the delegation without a regular convention election. That Green agreed to this was indication that his fears had carried away his common sense. He became not only a partner in policy with them, but also a partner in crime.

Growth of Progressive Movement

The communists were not yet ready to “take over” the union this year. They used their convention majority to grease the skids for next year. Innocent-appearing changes in the constitution, resolutions on red-baiting, etc., plus the election of’a GEB that they can handle were considered sufficient as the first step. Toward the close of the convention Green became fully alarmed over his peril. In his closing speech he lashed out at the “intolerance” displayed by the “majority.”

If he chooses to fight, he can more than hold his own. Most of the communist stooges on the GEB would cave in under a real fight, if Green chooses to make it. However, finding himself tied to Washington, which is tied to Moscow, which is tied to his union opponents, Green has few issues upon which to fight. He is experienced enough to know that red-baiting more often than not acts as a boomerang.

The only local to send a delegation pledged to a fighting program was Local 42. It found scattered support among several other delegations. However, the fight waged by the progressives opened a new chapter in the history of IUMSWA conventions. It was the first really principled fight over issues and policies instead of personalities and intrigues. It went far to educate the union activists both those at the convention and those who had to consider the question in their locals. As the opening gun it did all that was to be expected of it.

The coming year will see the cards beginning to fall for the progressives. Their uphill fight in the locals and at the convention will begin to bear fruit. Disappointment with Roosevelt policies after the election, continued wage controls, cutbacks, declining hours, increasing strikes, growing militancy among the rank and file will all drive home the lessons that the progressives have been preaching. If the communists think they can put the IUMSWA “in the bag” along with the UERMWA the NMU and other of their hog-tied outfits without a real fight, they will be sadly disillusioned. The progressive winds are blowing these days – and the old IUMSWA spirit of 1934 is bestirring itself.

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