Articles

DEATH OF A UNION

The Canadian Seamen’s Union — once strong and respected — had to die for the greater glory of the Communist Party. Here’s how it was killed — a frightening, firsthand expose of Red strategy in Labor by an ex-Communist who witnessed the betrayal of 10,000 Canadian workers from the inside

T. G. McMANUS December 1 1950
Articles

DEATH OF A UNION

The Canadian Seamen’s Union — once strong and respected — had to die for the greater glory of the Communist Party. Here’s how it was killed — a frightening, firsthand expose of Red strategy in Labor by an ex-Communist who witnessed the betrayal of 10,000 Canadian workers from the inside

T. G. McMANUS December 1 1950

DEATH OF A UNION

T. G. McMANUS

Former Secretory-Treasurer, C.S.U.

FIVE YEARS ago the Canadian Seamen’s Union had nearly 10,000 members. It held contracts on more than 300 ships sailing the Great Lakes, the salt-water coasts and the high seas. Its revenue was $30,000 a month. On the cold, bloodstained North Atlantic the men who carried its cards had finished fighting their share of a war in which no combatant won more honor than the merchant seaman. No union’s stock was ever higher.

Today the Canadian Seamen’s Union has no more than 600 members. Its crews are working on barely a dozen ships. The union has been expelled from the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada and from the International Transport Workers’ Federation. The respect in which it once was held by employers, governments and other unions has turned to hostility and contempt. In every way that matters to a labor union the Canadian Seamen’s Union is dead.

The primary cause of its death is already known or strongly suspected by most of the people who saw it happen or have read about it. Only a handful know the details and I am one of them. Until last July I was secretary-treasurer of the union, a position second in authority only to that of the president. I was also a member of the Canadian Communist Party which di t ted at every step

and in every particular— the events which led to the union’s bitter, inglorious ruin.

Obviously I could not, even if I wished to, evade my own full share of the responsibility. In every one of the series of strikes from 1946 through 1949 which culminated in the C.S.U.’s downfall I obeyed the Communist Party’s direct and specific orders, both in helping to call the strikes and in helping to run them. Even though I thought the last of these strikes (called in March, 1949, at the secret request of the British Communist Party to create an artificial strike issue for the dock workers of London) was tactically insane, it wasn’t because of this that I quit the party four months ago. I quit because, after 19 years as a dedicated and well-disciplined Communist, I found I could not stomach the pro-Russian and anti-Canadian party line on Korea.

I will not pretend that the allurements and visions which first led me into the party and kept me there in the face of many doubts have altogether lost their power. Politically I am still of the extreme Left. Spiritually I am still a union man. 1 l>elieve in trade unions as firmly as I have always believed in them. I believe that it is the job of trade unions to fight as hard and intelligently as they can to win the highest possible standards of living for the working man.

If I thought it would hurt the cause of unionism I would not be saying the things I shall have to say here. But it’s my earnest belief that not one Canadian union man in a hundred has a clear picture of how a “Communist-dominated” union is run and I think it is vital to their own interests that union men should have such a picture.

In strict accuracy there is no such thing as a Communist-dominated union. Once it falls under Communist domination a union ceases to be a union. It becomes a branch of the Communist Party. Often the party will lay down objectives for it and prescribe courses of action which are perfectly sound and valid from the point of view of the union’s rank and file. But where the interests of the party and the interests of the union diverge it must be the party’s interests that prevail, even though as in the case of the Canadian Seamen’s Union this means that the union must die.

The C.S.U. was founded in 1936 at H meeting in the Communist Party’s national headquarters. At its peak 90/,' of its members were non-Communists, but most were content to leave the union’s control in the hands of the Communist leaders. It was their belief that the union’s objectives were honest and legitimate, as I believe they were until they conflicted with the party’s objectives. When they did the union was wrecked.

The Canadian Seamen’s Union — once strong and respected — had to die for the greater glory of the Communist Party. Here’s how it was killed — a frightening, firsthand expose of Red strategy in Labor by an ex-Communist who witnessed the betrayal of 10,000 Canadian workers from the inside

I joined the Canadian Seamen’s Union in 1945.

Neither the union nor I had anything to do with my joining. When the war ended I was a medical sergeant in the Canadian Army. I had enlisted on the Communist Party’s instructions in 1942 and as I waited for my discharge in Montreal I took it for granted that my next job—like every job I’d held for nearly 15 years—would be on assignment from the party. (Now it’s called the LaborProgressive Party but the old name is the only accurate one.)

When my discharge came through I reported to the party’s Montreal headquarters. Fred Rose, the federal member of parliament who was later to go to jail as a leader of the Communist spy ring, instructed me to go to national headquarters in Toronto and gave me transportation and expense money.

In Toronto I reported to Sam Carr, then the party’s national organizing secretary, now also serving a prison term for conspiring to forge a passport for a Russian agent. Carr told me the

Political Bureau, the party’s 11-man inner cabinet, had already decided my future. A few members of the bureau had suggested that I return to political work in Saskatchewan where before the war I had been the provincial leader and had served as an alderman in Regina. The P.B. finally ruled that I’d be more useful in trade union work.

I ran an election campaign for Buck and then Carr sent me to Ottawa where I saw Pat Sullivan, then president of the Canadian Seamen’s Union and secretary of the

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Trades and Labor Congress. Sullivan, who broke with the party three years ago, was then a member and had been instructed to give me a job.

I worked for a few months on the Montreal docks as a patrolman, equivalent in a shore-side union to a union steward. I worked hard both for the party and for the union. I was appointed a delegate to the 1946 convention of the union in Montreal.

This meeting followed the exact pattern of every C.S.U. meeting I have attended. Since the C.S.U. was founded by the party and has been a party captive throughout its career I believe it’s safe to assume the C.S.U. has never held a meeting that followed any other pattern.

Officially, the officers for the next year were elected at a meeting of some 80 C.S.U. delegates and officials. Actually they were appointed at a party caucus held the night before. The only C.S.U. members who attended this preliminary meeting were the 18 or 20 union delegates and officials who were members of the Communist Party. The meeting was run by J. B. Salsberg, a well-known Ontario Communist politician who is a member of the party’s Political Bureau and its trade union director.

Salsberg went over the slate of officers in the C.S.U., commenting on the work of each man. Then with the offhand assurance of a baseball manager naming his starting lineup he announced the new slate.

“Sullivan will continue in office as president,” he said. “Davis (Harry Davis, now C.S.U. president and the man who 18 months ago dealt the C.S.U. its coup de grâce) will be first vice-president. Cyril Lenton will be treasurer. Gerry McManus will be secretary.”

All we keymen, of course, were party members. A few members of the C.S.U. executive—men like Theodore Roy and Eddie Reid—who were not party members but who had not opposed the party in the C.S.U., were approved by Salsberg for re-election.

“Party Is Always Right”

The next day, although we were outnumbered nearly four to one by the non-Communist delegates, those who had attended the party caucus got Salsberg’s slate through the C.S.LJ. convention withouta casualty. Salsberg naturally didn’t attend the meeting for he is not and never has been a member of the C.S.U.

At the next convention or rather at the party caucus Salsberg called the night before the convention I was “elected” secretary-treasurer. From then until July of this year I shared with Harry Davis the job of running the C.S.U. to Salsberg’s and the party’s satisfactions.

In each of the three years from 1946 through 1948 the C.S.U. went on strike.

I don’t propos«! to go into the issues or the details. It’s not that I wish to hiile anything. 1 simply think the position laid down for the union by the party in each of those strikes was a goofl position a fair and reasonable position for a trade union to follow.

Contrary to general belief it was not at the party’s instigation that a wave of violence anil lawlessness accompanied the 1948 strike on the Great Lakes. Even now with the advantage of the sia-ond guess an«l freed of the blinding necessity of telling myself over and over again that "the party is always right” I cannot remember that the party asked me to do anything which a

conscientious trade union leader could not have done.

I see now that the 1948 strike was a tactical mistake. It played straight into the hands of Pat Sullivan, who had quit the party and the C.S.U. to form the rival Canadian Lake Seamen’s Union. It strengthened the hand of the large shipowners who had invited the strike by locking out C.S.U. crews. And, although the union still had so much support in the trade union movement that Frank Hall suffered a total defeat in his first attempt to have it read out of the Trades and Labor Congress, even the most easygoing non-Communist labor leaders were beginning to wonder if vve weren’t getting “strike-happy.”

Bruised But Not Beaten

All these points could be argued interminably. The reason I’d rather not argue them here is that I want to make this a statement not of opinion but of fact. The fact is that the party ordered and ran the strike. As secretary-treasurer I reported daily to Joe Salsberg on the progress of the strike and took my orders from him. In the early stages of the strike I mov«d my headquarters from Montreal to Toronto so that I could be in constant personal contact with Salsberg.

The C.S.U. came out of that 1948 strike badly bruised but by no means beaten. It was the 1949 strike which sealed its doom—completed the dispersal of m«)st of its members to the Seafarers’ International Union and brought the C.S.U.’s expulsion from the Trades and Labor Congress.

I want to tell what I know about this strike in some detail for it was the first strike in which even I— still a staunch toe-the-party-linerhad difficulty in persuading myself that the party had the nation’s interests at

In the fall of 1948 we began negotiating for a new contract with the shipping companies that control Canada’s deepsea merchant fleet. A three-man conciliation board brought down a report in April, 1949. The report suggested concessions on both sides. I personally considered it as good a settlement as we could reasonably hope to get in the prevailing atmosphere. 1 was in favor of accepting its basic recommendations on wages and working conditions and trying to bargain further on a question involving union hiring halls.

Davis, the president, was in England when the conciliation boar«! brought down its report. I called a meeting of the executive in Montri'al and wired Davis to come back right away. The meeting follow«1«! the customary blueprint. Joe Salsberg didn’t attend the C.S.U. sessions but he took a room in the hotel in which they were being held. The night before the C.S.U. executive met the Communist executive members reported to Salsberg’s room.

To Strike the World!

For on«!e SalabiTg wasn’t prepared to lay down a final directive. That wasn’t altogether surprising. Deep-sea sailing is an international activity. A deep-sea strike by the C.S.U. would have ramifications in m«iny countries outside Canada. The Canadian party wasn’t anxious to take a stand without having the views of the party in other parts jf the world. It was to get thos! views that Harry Davis left Canada. Salsberg told us to go ahead with th! union meeting as scheduled but not to allow any decision t« lie made until David returned.

We were in sr’ssion when Davis arrived II«was jubilant. He had attended two major meetings in Europe

—one a meeting of the executive members of the Communist controlled World Federation of Trade Unions; the other a special meeting of the dock workers’ faction of the British Communist Party. He had been assured that if we struck we would get fighting support in virtually every deep-sea port in Europe.

“We can strike the world!” Davis said exultantly.

I got up. “Wait a minute,” I said. “What about Canada? If we strike again I don’t think we’ll get support from any important section of the Canadian trade union movement.” Without the support of Canadian labor I felt any support we might get in foreign ports would be meaningless.

We adjourned and took our disagreement to Joe Salsberg. Salsberg asked Tim Buck to come down from Toronto. The next day the Communist members of the C.S.U. executive dumped the question in the lap of the party’s top

I was still holding out for peace. Davis was very persuasive. He repeated his assurances of support from the party and from party unions all over the world. He said he found in Britain not merely support for a strike but an urgent demand for a strike. Ever since the Labor Party had come to power in Britain, Davis reminded us, British labor had lacked “militant leadership” — in simpler terms, the British Communist Party had difficulty in promoting strikes on

domestic issues. A strike on the waterfronts of Great Britain might arouse the whole British trade union movement. Davis made it clear that the cost to Canadian seamen was irrelevant in the eyes of the British Communist Party.

Buck finally ordered a saw-off. The Canadian National Steamships’ Lady Rodney and Lady Nelson were in or bound for Halifax. Buck told us to tie up those two ships, and those two ships only, as a sign to the Government (their owner) that we meant business.

Davis ordered the ships struck and at the same time wrote a letter in the union’s name flatly rejecting the conciliation board’s report. This was farther than the party had authorized him to go and Buck and Salsberg were plainly worried. They were afraid a strike would hurt the party’s position in Canada and they were afraid if there was no strike it would hurt the Canadian party’s position abroad. They ordered Davis to go to Ottawa and try to work for a settlement with Arthur McNamara, deputy minister of labor, and Percy Bengough, president

of the Trades and Labor Congress. I went with him.

On the chief issue of hiring halls we began making progress. We worked out a complicated formula that looked satisfactory. Some features of the formula required government assent. McNamara, an able negotiator who will try to work with anybody if he thinks it’s in the public interest, agreed to lay it before his superiors. When he came back his face was grave. “It’s too late, boys,” he said. “The owners have just signed with the Seafarers’ International Union.”

We broke up. Davis was beside himself with elation. “I told you there had to be a strike,” he said. “The strike is

Davis telephoned the Ottawa Press Gallery and announced the C.S.U. was striking. Then he telephoned C.S.U. representatives at the Canadian ports and ordered them to call all men out. He wired the men he had met at the Paris meeting of the World Federation. He had already appointed his brother, Jack Pope (the family’s real name is Popovich!, a member of the British C.P., as a walking delegate for the C.S.U. in London. He wired Pope to report the situation to the London dock workers.

What happened from then on is a matter of public record. When the CPR ships Beaverbrae and Agramont arrived in London, Pope called the crews out. True to its promise to Davis the dockers’ fraction of the British C.P. induced thousands of British dock workers—both Communists and non-Communists—to go on strike as a demonstration against the “black” ships from Canada. Strikes and disorders flared briefly but violently across half the world.

Davis’ star soared. He had called the strike without even going through the empty formality of consulting the union executive or asking for a vote from the members. He had not even waited for an official go-ahead from Salsberg and Buck. This could have been an unforgivable offense. In fact it became a triumph when the official journal of the Cominform and Bible of Canadian Communists, Democracy and Lasting Peace, applauded the strike as an example of “international^ working-class solidarity.” But that strike broke the C.S.U.

Today the C.S.U. stands ruined and repudiated in the eyes of everyone except the party. And even the party knows the C.S.U. is dead. But the party does not mourn its corpses.

Labor has made a start in the fight against Communism. But it’s only a start. At the level where it really counts, down in the locals, the party is still strong.

During my last few months as a party member one of my assignments was to get signatures for the Stockholm Peace Petition demanding the banning of the atom bomb. One of the locals I worked on is affiliated with the international railway brotherhoods who have spearheaded the fight to kick the Reds out of labor. This local has more than 150 members but not more than eight card-holding Communists.

I called in two of the Communist members, gave them copies of the petition and told them the party wanted a 100% response. That’s exactly what they got. This, remember, was in a union whose top leaders are implacable anti-Communists.

Within that union Communism was receiving direct and powerful aid from many members who are not Communists but who are still listening to their Communist stewards. That’s what I mean when I say that labor’s ultimate fight against Communism—the fight in the union locals—is still to be won. if