From The Militant, Vol. V No. 16 (Whole No. 112), 16 April 1932, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
NEW YORK, N.Y. Sign Writers’ Local 230 in New York of the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators, and Paperhangers of America is a typical A.F. of L. craft union. Its administration is a graft-ridden, business agent-executive board regime. The business agent receives about $120 a week; the executive board members also receive salaries. A former business agent was expelled because of his open collusion with the bosses; he took money from them and winked at violations of union conditions like an owl which cannot see in the daytime. Such people have no interest in maintaining union wage scales and conditions. Their sole interest is in their weekly checks and in the graft they collect. The workers were aware of this but remained indifferent as long as work was steady. Now they are resentful but helpless and they do not as yet know what to do.
The local has about five hundred members. They are first, second, third, fourth and fifth year apprentices, helpers, mechanics and designers. For the privilege of being an apprentice a worker had to pay the union bureaucrats an initiation fee of from $5 to $50; a mechanic $150; a helper $500. The union controls about sixty small shops. The other four hundred shops are non-union. Many of the bosses of the union shops are members of the union.
The wage scale was as follows: for apprentices, from the first to fifth year: $3.15 to $11.50 a day; for helpers: $10.50; designers: $20.00 The helpers constitute a large majority of the workers in the trade.
Through one pretext or another this scale was undercut by the bosses without protest from the workers or the Union. The workers did not protest the undercutting of the wage scale because sixty per cent of them were unemployed and those at work were working part time. They were afraid to say [illegible]
This was the situation when the wage agreement with the bosses expired on March 30th. The union proposed to the bosses a renewal of the wage scale. This was nothing but a gesture as the scale was not being enforced. To allay the unrest of the rank and file the union bureaucrats proposed in addition to the renewal of the wage scale that helpers be permitted to do part of the apprentices’ work. This would enable the bosses to lay off some or all of their apprentices and increase the work of the helpers. It is the old A.F. of L. trick of playing off one section of workers against another. The union further proposed the introduction of split time at the “discretion of the union” and under the control of the union. The time cards of the workers were to be sent weekly to the union headquarters.
To this the bosses replied with proposals of their own. Of the sixty unionized shops some ten or fifteen do work for the moving picture chains: Loew, R.K.O.; Warner Bros., etc. These outfits would like to either employ non-union labor or union labor at open shop rates. Best of all they would like to smash the union. In the present situation they see their opportunity. They have taken the first step.
Upon their instigation the bosses rejected the terms of the union; they want the right to hire and lay-off and fire at will; they want to strike out from the agreement the clause requiring them to get the union’s permission for overtime work.
This is important to the shops doing theatrical work. The chains always shoot only by overtime work. The chains propose a 25% wage cut. These terms would reduce the union to a meaningless shell.
The union bureaucrats would have accepted these terms were it not for the dissatisfaction of the rank and file which forced a strike. The strike is now taking place. Picketing is being organized. Acid was thrown on a sign at the Astor Theatre. Twenty shops have settled on the union’s terms. But not the shops which get the moving picture chains’ orders. They are holding out.
The attempt of the chains to smash the union is reflected in the struggle inside the union. The workers in the shops which get the chains’ orders, who are a numerical minority in the union, are more steadily employed than the workers in the other union shops. With sixty per cent of the membership unemployed, this numerical minority almost alone carries the financial burden of the union on its hack. It is more outspoken and hostile to the bureaucracy. But the bureaucracy always manages to outvote it.
The rift between this minority and the bureaucrats supported by a majority of the membership came to a head with the expiration of the wage agreement and the exchange of terms. This theatrical show card minority anxious to continue working was opposed to the strike. It was and is willing to arbitrate with the idea of settling for a ten per cent wage cut. It has no interest in the strike.
It has called a secret meeting to discuss plans for the formation of a separate organization independent of local 230, and for a setlement on the basis of a ten per cent wage cut. This extremely short sighted policy will get these workers nowhere. If realized it will break the union, accomplish the aim of the chains and their own isolation, leaving them to the mercies of the powerful chains who will, of course, proceed to lower their living and working conditions even further through additional wage cuts, speed up and lay-offs.
In the ranks of the theatrical show card writers and in the union generally are several Left wing workers. These workers should immediately work out a program and present it to the union membership.
They must explain to the theatrical show card writers that they have embarked on a suicidal course both for themselves and the union as a whole. They must show their fellow workers that this is playing the game of the chains who alone will benefit from it. Against the split they must propose a fighting unity of the whole union against the chains and the bosses for concrete demands to be worked out by the membership.
To the union membership as a whole they must propose as an indispensable prerequisite for the fight against chains a fight against the bureaucracy in the union and its scheme of setting off one section of the workers against another. Instead of split time they must propose the wholly practicable slogan of the six hour day without reduction in pay. And to this they must add unemployment insurance at the expense of the bosses. They must also propose the elimination of the five categories of apprentices since the introduction of machinery and mechanical methods of production have largely eliminated the necessity for skilled use of the brush. Finally they must propose organization of the unorganized shops. As a prerequisite for this they must abolish the initiation fees.
Last updated: 31.5.2013