The Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) was a left wing American political organization established in May 1929 by A. J. Muste, director of Brookwood Labor College. The organization was established to promote industrial unionism and to work for reform of the American Federation of Labor. The CPLA dissolved itself in December 1933 to form the American Workers Party.
The Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) was established by a group of activists in the trade union movement at a convention held in New York City on May 25–26, 1929. Those uniting into a common organization at this founding conference included the professional staff and activists of Brookwood Labor College, a workers' education society; the editorial staff of Labor Age magazine, a radical monthly; and an array of independent trade unionists.
The primary force behind this new organization was A. J. Muste, a radical clergyman and committed pacifist. Muste had become active in the American trade union movement through belief in the social gospel and its call for the application of Christian ethics to social problems so as to ameliorate poverty and suffering in the world. Muste had come to believe that the American Federation of Labor (AF of L), an umbrella organization consisting of more than 100 independent craft and industrial unions, was "hostile to genuine workers' education" and a fetter upon the growth of the power and scope of the American labor movement.
Muste outlined a program for militant progressive union activists in the pages of Labor Age, a New York monthly with which he was closely associated. In its February issue that magazine opined that "honest, militant, progressive elements" in the American labor movement had no worthy option to the conservatism of the AF of L and the extreme radicalism of the Communist Party USA and its trade union auxiliary, the Trade Union Unity League.
A new organization was sought to advance a radical agenda for the trade union movement including the organization of the unorganized into industrial unions; exposure of the conservative, pro-business National Civic Federation, with which conservative AF of L leaders collaborated; an end to racial discrimination in the union movement; active work for unemployment insurance, health insurance, and old age pensions; and the development of "a labor party based on the mass organization of industrial workers," among other goals.
A convention call was issued for a gathering to be held over the weekend of May 25–26, 1929 in New York City. This gathering was attended by 151 delegates, representing 33 unions in 18 states.
The constitution adopted by the founding conference, referred to as the CPLA's "Organizational Plan," specified that the purpose of the new group was "to carry on research, educational work, and agitation among the workers, both organized and unorganized in industry and agriculture, in order to stimulate in the existing and potential labor organizations a progressive, realistic, militant labor spirit and activity..." Membership was open to any individual belonging to a labor or farm organization who was "in agreement with the aims of the association and desirous of actively forwarding its purposes," or members of fully affiliated unions.
Headquarters for the CPLA were established at 104 Fifth Avenue in New York City on June 15, 1929.
Although the CPLA was made up of individual members of the AF of L, it had no direct membership status in that organization. Its criticism of William Green and the AF of L leadership cut both ways, as the Executive Council of that trade union body was quick in denouncing the CPLA as a dual union. This criticism drew an official response from Muste in a July 23, 1929, statement which declared the CPLA was "not a dual union or federation of labor" and which criticized the Communist Party for its attempt to form a "disruptive" communist trade union center, which he deemed "totally out of accord with the needs of the workers in America today."
The official magazine of the CPLA, Labor Age, reiterated its bitter disappointment with the Communist Party's performance in a June 1929 article, which declared:
"The Communists, presented with a golden opportunity for service to the workers [by the lethargic performance of the official AF of L] have miserably muffed the ball. They have aroused the unorganized in Passaic and Gastonia; but they have given no promise of leaving anything permanent to them, and they have resorted to a campaign of vituperation and strikebreaking that is not helpful to progress, to say the least. It is only a matter of time until they pass out of the picture, torn asunder by naive doctrinaire differences."
At the time of its launch, the CPLA was governed by a 26-member National Executive Committee, which elected A.J. Muste its chairman and James H. Maurer and Carl Holderman its vice-chairmen. Day-to-day operations were conducted by a pair of Executive Secretaries — Louis F. Budenz and Israel Mufson.
The local unit of the CLPA was known as a "branch."  During 1929 branches were formed in 13 cities clustered in the Northeastern United States, including New York City, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Bridgeport, and New Haven.
The CPLA held periodic conferences and educational seminars, including a gathering over Labor Day, 1930 in Katonah, New York. These gatherings concentrated discussion on practical matters of labor organization, such as the situation facing organizers in the South, developments in the United Mine Workers Union and among the steelworkers, studies of the development and effects of the Great Depression, problems facing black and female workers, and so forth.
The group published a flurry of pamphlets publicizing the organization and its perspectives and circulated 50,000 copies of a single leaflet in 1930, entitled Insure Your Pay. The CPLA also sent speakers into the field, speaking to various union gatherings, workers groups, college classes, and public forums. The group also attempted to mobilize unemployed workers by speaking before thousands at New York City's Free Municipal Employment Bureau.
Although the CPLA was extremely close to the Socialist Party of America during its first two years of existence, including such prominent party leaders and Norman Thomas, Jim Mauer, and James Oneal among its ranks, in 1931 the National Executive Committee declared that its dissatisfaction with both the Socialist and Communist parties. The Socialist Party was singled out for particular criticism for not having "a clear working class orientation":
"[The Socialist Party] has not, as a matter of fact, succeeded in winning the confidence of American workers. Some of its exponents have publicly abandoned Marxism as a labor philosophy, and have no philosophy to offer in its place. Others profess to retain Marxism but exhibit no militancy in carrying on the class struggle. It pursues a policy of 'neutrality' toward the trade unions which in practice amounts to leaving them in the hands of the bureaucrats and corruptionists... It has lacked vigor and aggressiveness in supporting, inspiring, and leading efforts to organize the masses of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the basic industries.... It is confused and at times distinctly antagonistic in its attitude toward Soviet Russia. It is not aggressive and militant in the struggle against militarism. It is not out and out Socialist, neither has it yet demonstrated that it can be an effective left-progressive American party."
This signalized a left turn of the organization, despite continued distrust and ideological distance from the Communist Party USA and its trade union auxiliary. With regards to the latter, in April 1931 CPLA chairman A.J. Muste declared the Communists' Third Period obsession with forming exclusively Communist independent unions and "exercising a minute party dictatorship" over these organizations as "utterly unsuited to such periods as the present and obviously suicidal."
Despite its political aspirations, the CPLA remained focused on the labor movement in 1931, working hand in glove with Alexander Howat in support of a dissident Reorganized United Mine Workers Union. When Illinois officials of this union decided to return to the old organization, headed by John L. Lewis, the CPLA intensified its effort, assisting Howat and his associates with the organization of its own convention in St. Louis, an event which began on April 15, 1931. This effort did not succeed in building a lasting "rank and file union," however.
The CPLA was also active from January to March 1931 assisting in the organization of coal miners in West Virginia's Kanawha Valley mine fields. CPLA organizers sent to the region included A.J. Muste, Tom Tippett, Katherine Pollack, and others. The organization continued to cooperate with the West Virginia Mine Workers Union following conclusion of the strike.
In the summer of 1931 the organization also worked with silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey, who were members of independent unions to amalgamate with the United Textile Workers of the AF of L. The organization also maintained a permanent organizer in the field attempting to organize textile workers in the Southeastern region.
The call for a new political party by the CPLA leadership began to grow in 1931, with A.J. Muste authoring a lengthy April 1931 article calling for formation of a new political party. Six necessary characteristics were enumerated by Muste: that the new organization must be organized "on a class basis" and be "out to do away with the present capitalist economy" and upon the "organization of the workers upon the economic field into industrial unions." Furthermore, Muste declared, the new organization needed to offer a "sound view of Soviet Russia," including in particular a demand for diplomatic recognition, to recognize the limitations of parliamentary action, and to "be realistic" and "grow out of the American soil."
Gradually the CPLA came to see itself less as a cheerleader for a new independent labor party and more as the kernel of a political party itself. While averring that the CPLA did not contemplate "putting up candidates, etc.", Muste nonetheless announced in 1932 that the group sought "a more closely knit and disciplined membership than was formerly the case." According to Muste, the CPLA sought to forge cooperative partnerships with other organizations in establishing "a genuinely militant left-wing political group in the United States."
Despite having had at least 7 educational and political conferences over the first three years of its existence, the CPLA did not hold its "1st Official Convention" until Labor Day weekend of September 1932. The convention call specified:
"The convention will adopt a permanent name and a constitution for this organization of militants. It will determine policies and map out programs for industrial organization in the basic industries, progressive activities in the unions, work among the unemployed, the building of a mass labor party, agitation for unity in the American labor movement, and for building up the CPLA itself as a rallying center for militants who desire to serve in an effective vanguard for American labor."
No procedure for the systematic selection of delegates was specified, but rather "existing political or propagandist groups which are in agreement with CPLA aims and methods are invited to correspond with the NEC in regard to attendance and representation at the convention."
Delegates attending the convention represented 20 CPLA branches in 8 states as well as representatives of trade unions purporting to represent 40,000 workers. The gathering voted to replace the CPLA's monthly magazine, Labor Age, with a new weekly newspaper to be called Labor Action. A new set of officers was elected, including A.J. Muste as Chairman and a 22-member National Executive Committee.
The organization was forthright in its objectives, with A.J. Muste declaring that "the CPLA aims to abolish capitalism, not to reform it, and to build a workers' republic and a planned economic system operated by and for the workers." The group remained unwilling to declare itself a political party, however, with Muste maintaining a union-oriented perspective, asserting that "members will work within existing economic organizations."
|Organizational Conference||New York City||May 25–29, 1929||Attended by 151 delegates from 18 states.|
|Educational Conference||Katonah, New York||Aug. 30-Sept. 2, 1929||Attended by 150 participants, another 40 turned away.|
|First 1930 Conference||New York City||March 16–17, 1930|
|Second 1930 Conference||New York City||December 6–7, 1930|
|1931 Conference||Katonah, New York||September 5–7, 1931||Attended by "over 100 CPLA members and sympathizers."|
|Active Workers' Conference||New York City||March 19–20, 1932|
|Textile Workers' Conference||(date?) 1932|
|"1st Official Convention"||New York City||September 3–5, 1932|
The official organ of the CPLA was the monthly magazine Labor Age. This was succeeded in January 1933 by a newspaper called Labor Action, which continued forward as official organ of the successor American Workers Party.
A number of pamphlets were also published by the CPLA, including: