Fascism And The Trade Union Movement

By Francis J. Gorman

First of all, in analyzing the special fate of trade unions under a fascist dictatorship, we should know what the meaning of fascism is. Fascism is a form of government, and is not the same as a democratic government, or a republic. Fascism is not a system, though, nor is it an economic theory. For the same economic theory operates under fascism that operates in our so-called democracies—that is, in countries like America, Great Britain, Canada and so forth.

Fascism, then, has certain special political features which differentiate it from other governments. Fascism is, first, the complete disfranchisement of the people, and the complete abolition of constitutional government. The second characteristic is the supremacy of the military. Fascism is, in short, a military dictatorship. Under fascism there can be no opposition at the polls to the dictatorship, even though mock elections are held. Concentration camps lie in wait for those who dare protest the loss of their liberties and their constitutional guarantees. It makes no difference to the fascist war-lords whether you be a Democrat, a Republican, a Socialist or a Communist. If you dare protest—even though you be a fascist—you are promptly put in jail and subjected to what are reported to be incredible tortures.

Why is this? Why is it necessary to use this brute force in order to run a government and control a people? What is it that fascism is trying to protect that it must crush the people under an iron military heel? It must, of course, be protecting something the people do not approve of, otherwise force would not be necessary.

We think it is a tottering, decaying economic system that fascism is trying to protect. We think that when those who hold the purse strings of a nation (and therefore control the flow of everyday necessities, through their control of the means of producing these necessities) discover that the system which makes their continued control possible is about to fall away from them, they seize any means in their power to hold on. We think that when a whole nation is plunged into starvation, unemployment and degradation, and the people see no hope of real prosperity again, then these people begin to rise in protest. This is when the lords of industry and finance get frightened, and seek a puppet politician, such as Hitler, to be the hero-dictator, and impose on a whole nation the forced dictatorship of a very few individuals.

The fascist form of government, then, has its roots in the economic system. It is for this reason that the danger of fascism is so important to the workers and to the trade union movement.

The most obvious threat to the continued exploitation of labor is, of course, the trade union movement. When the wheels of industry get hopelessly clogged, and wages become lower and lower, and productivity per worker rises higher and higher, the workers, where they are organized, protest in a body and demand redress.

It is against the trade union movement, then, that the first blow is leveled under fascism. The means by which the workers can protest in a whole mass must be removed first, otherwise it will be impossible for the ruling few to force their will on the people. So, the trade union movement is declared illegal, and a gigantic system of company unionism is installed. This is not fancy; it is fact. In both Nazi Germany and fascist Italy the free trade unions have been wiped out, and organizations under the direct control of the government have been put in their place. Needless to say, the government representative sees to it that no effective economic action is possible for the workers.

When the workers’ means of mass protest is removed, the fascists then feel free to do anything they like with working conditions. Since the reason for a fascist dictatorship lies in the fact that industry aims at maintaining and increasing its profits by further lowering the standards of living of the working people, the first thing which happens is that wages are either directly cut, or they are indirectly cut through speed-up and stretchout. Sometimes, indeed many times, both things happen. The growing challenge of the unemployed as a result of fascist dictatorship is throttled by placing the unemployed in labor camps that take on the character of a reserve army, because the fascists need all the man-power they can lay their hands on to continue to force their fascist dictatorship on the people. They need it, also, to carry on their foreign wars for colonial possessions.

Wars for colonial possessions are necessary to fascism. Why? Because at home industry has become so crippled that it cannot support the people, and it is necessary for the fascists to expand into other countries in order to find material for exploitation. Here, again, this is not fancy theory, for all the events of the past few years have proved this to be true. Take Italy, for instance. When Mussolini had reached the end of his rope in his own country, and when, despite the terror of protest, groups of workers were going on strike for enough money to buy bread for their children, Il Duce had to seek farther and find new territory and a war to take the people’s minds off their poverty and misery. He chose Ethiopia as a likely field for aggression.

Who fought this war for Mussolini and for the industrialists who support and control Mussolini? Young men who had never had a chance to earn their living. Boys who could not go to school because their parents didn’t even have enough money for food, let alone the enormous tax burden imposed by the fascist government. The unemployed fought the war—boys who had never been gainfully employed, and men who had been shoved out of industry because it could no longer function properly and maintain them. In other words, the workers fought the war. What will they get our of it—those who were lucky enough to come back? More taxes, more unemployment, more starvation in order that the military exploits in Ethiopia may be paid for.

Germany is doing the same thing. Germany is taking her young men and forcing them to bear arms in defense of a government they cannot believe in. Germany is forcing unemployed workers into the army on pain of starvation and concentration camps if they do not fight. Why? Germany, like Italy, cannot stand up under the strain at home. Her industry cannot absorb the nation’s available man-power any more than Italy’s could. Therefore, Germany is playing for high stakes in Spain, hoping to get some colonial concessions out of Franco if the rebels win, and hoping to defeat the loyalist government which will constitute a threat to fascism if it is allowed to survive. Who are forced to fight these foreign wars for Hitler? The workers. And the German workers will get no more out of Hitler’s exploits than the Italian workers, because there is nothing for them to gain!

In the United States the workers still have a chance to save themselves from the barbarous horrors of fascism. The trade union movement still has a chance to survive, and grow stronger and stronger. We do not have fascism here yet. But we have the elements of fascism here. Remember, its roots are in the economic system, and we ourselves can see that our economic system is not much different from that of Germany or Italy. Do we not have millions of unemployed? Do we not have terrible speed-up and stretchout? Has the workers’ income risen with the enormous upward leap of profits? No. We are headed for the same thing if we don’t watch out.

In the textile industry, for instance, hundreds of manufacturers recently announced “wage increases.” Upon investigation, we discovered that these “increases” were decreases because simultaneously the workload was increased, and workers were laid off. Actually, the mill-owners saved money by their “wage increases.” Why did they do this? Because the threat of organization is becoming more pressing. Because the workers are becoming aroused at their continued exploitation in the face of exorbitant profits, and are beginning again to want the union for protection.

The same thing occurred in the steel and automobile industries.

These manufacturers, in addition to trying to fool the workers into thinking they got increases when actually they got decreases and men were laid off, are preparing for days to come when these workers will rise up and demand real increases through their union. They are laying in stocks of tear gas, machine guns. billies and other weapons of modern warfare to use against the workers when they strike for their rights. They are hiring spies and stool-pigeons to tell them what the workers are saying, and what the plans of the union are. In these ominous facts we can see the forerunner of fascism in the United States. There is, however, one important difference. The workers still have recourse to the courts; they still have the constitutional right to fight for higher wages, shorter hours and less workload. Trade unions are still legal in the United States.

It is this fundamental, democratic right which we must all protect and extend. If we wait until our unions are smashed we will have a fascist dictatorship before we can do anything to stop it. We must, therefore, not only protect what membership we now have, but extend that membership to the millions now unorganized.

In France and in Spain the workers realized before it was too late that they must take steps to safeguard their constitutional guarantees. They realized that their unions alone were not enough to protect their economic interests. They formed a People’s Front. In the United States we will call it a Labor Party, probably. But it is essentially the same thing.

In Spain the reactionaries, desperately struggling against the inevitable collapse of their complete control over the political and economic processes of the country, rose up in insurrection against the legal government. They made war on the government which the Spanish people had voted for at the polls. This shows us that we are in no mean struggle in this fight to preserve democracy. Those who want to destroy it will stop at nothing.

Another terrible thing comes out in the Spanish conflict which is of vital importance to American workers. This is the fact that it is no longer just a fight between Spanish liberals and Spanish reactionaries. It is a fight between democracy and fascism. It is an international fight for supremacy. This means that we, too, are involved, even though our country may be formally out of it, because we, too, are believers in democracy and are against the forces of fascist reaction.

The only course for American trade unionists to follow, we feel, is the immediate building of a broad, all-inclusive anti-fascist People’s Front movement, the building, in other words, of the Labor Party. We may have to fight for this Labor Party, as the Spanish workers are doing. We may not, on the other hand. But if we are determined enough, it is not the fascists but ourselves who will decide whether or not progress is allowed a free course.

It will do us no good to say: “Maybe if we don’t form a People’s Front, or a Labor Party, we can hold off fascism.” The German and Italian workers had no People’s Front and no Labor Party, and they got fascism just the same. The Spanish workers at least have a good fighting chance of winning. Without a People’s Front or a Labor Party, we will not even have a fighting chance.

We know the terrible consequences to the working class of a fascist dictatorship. We know, also, the means by which we can fight and defeat reaction if we begin soon enough. We have two courses, then, to pursue: first, building and strengthening our trade union movement until the millions of workers in mass production industries are organized; and second, building and strengthening our Labor Party until we have a solid People’s Front against the power of industry and wealth which would keep us in subjugation at the point of a bayonet and make us starve without a word of protest.