J.R. Johnson

The Years of Decision for U.S. Labor

First Round of Post-War Social Crisis

(25 February 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 8, 25 February 1946, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Messrs. Capitalists have looked the American working class, 1946 edition, in the eye. What they have seen they have not liked. They have not liked it at all, and now they are beating a retreat, particularly on the ideological front:

When the strikes began, the journalists of the capitalist press made no bones about the fact that these were no ordinary strikes. The most expansive was Mr. Louis Stark of The New York Times. In a Sunday issue of the paper he said that the strikes were not strikes merely for wages, but for “universality.” It is a long word, but a good one. It is a philosophical term which we can roughly translate as follows: The worker does not want merely to be a worker who goes to the factory, produces profits, goes home to sleep, goes back to the factory, produces profits and so on, indefinitely. He wants to live a truly rounded life, to take advantage of the innumerable opportunities for educated, cultured living which are afforded by the vast discoveries and products of modern capitalism. The worker enslaved to capital lives a poor, narrow, limited life. For him to aim at universality (in the words of Mr. Stark) means to aim at a full, broad, complete existence, what Karl Marx called the existence of a truly social being. In seeing that the worker was asking for more than a mere 30% Mr. Stark in our opinion showed great perception.

Victor Riesel of The New York Post spent column after column day after day proving that the workers had all sorts of extreme social and political ideas which were imperfectly concealed behind the demand for increased wages.

Mr. Luce Sees a Point

Perhaps the most distinctive contribution to this analysis was made by the press of Mr. Henry Luce, millionaire owner of Life and Time and Fortune, friend of Chiang Kai Shek and his semi-fascist regime, agitator for America to become the dominant imperialism of the 20th century, and husband of Congresswoman Luce, that enemy of the working class. In his publication, Time, December 3, 1945, Luce’s journalists wrote as follows of the GM-UAW strike:

“It was not a strike for union recognition; it was not a strike of desperation. It was not a strike against outrageous working conditions or starvation pay; no one was starving.

“It was a new kind of strike ... what made it new was that Walter Reuther has based his arguments on the sweeping effect an increase in pay in the vast motor industry would have on the economy of the country ...”

But it was not only in the demand of Reuther that Luce saw the unprecedented quality of these strikes. In his other publication, Life, of November 26, 1945, he had already given some indication of what the workers thought:

“Neither selfishness nor strikes are anything new under the American sun. Yet it is hard to resist a feeling that there is something new about the current flavor of many familiar American phenomena. It is as though man’s motives had changed or clouded while their acts and words followed the same old pattern from habit.”

In our opinion an absolutely wonderful analysis. Men are repeating the old phrases, but they mean different things in the advanced social relations of American society. Luce’s editorial sounds almost like Marxism. Nor are we stretching a point. Listen to this:

“Labor does not seem so genuinely interested in wages, nor management in profits, as both do in something undefined. Power, perhaps ...”

Elsewhere in his publication, Mr. Luce says the same thing, but does not hesitate to add, as he does in this editorial, that the way to bring America out of the crisis is to work hard. “The zeal, sweat and collaboration of a lot of individuals ...” The workers of course will provide the sweat and collaboration on the assembly line and the capitalists will show the zeal in raking in the profits.

A Threatening Situation

No less than President Truman analyzed the conflict as a conflict for power. But it was left for General Motors to go to the American public with their case. The UAW, they said, means socialism. It is the end of the American way of life as we have known it. They implied, if they did not say, that if it had been a question of wages alone, they would have been more sympathetic. But they felt that their vital privileges as masters of the American economy were threatened. They complained bitterly to the union leaders and to the general public that the union papers continually vilified them. They resented being called fascist-minded, monopolistic cliques, enemies of democracy, and other unpleasant terms by which class-conscious workers usually express their detestation of capitalist society.

But after the UAW strike was well on the way and the capitalist journalists had expressed themselves thus freely, the situation began to assume more threatening proportions. Truck drivers, meat packers, steel workers, electrical workers, telephone operators, oil workers – Messrs. Capitalists realized that the great masses of workers in the nation had similar ideas to the UAW workers.

Now imagine if two or three million workers were made to understand by the capitalist press that they were striking for universality, that it was, a question of power, that they wished to change the American way of life, etc. If even the workers thought so, it was not the business of capitalism to encourage them in these subversive notions and to set them thinking in concrete, precise terms about matters that they would feel more as an instinct or an aspiration than as a set program.

Somebody may have sounded the alarm. Or, on the other hand, the capitalistic instinct of keeping the workers dumb may have reasserted itself. That is as it may be. At any rate during the last week or two a noticeable change has come over the press.

Sing a Different Tune

Victor Riesel now writes a bookkeeper’s column. It is all a question of wages. Workers are interested in nothing more than dollars and cents. C.F. Hughes of the New York Times, giving The Merchant’s Point of View, proves that it is a mere question of wages and prices. Some months ago this same Hughes was writing bitter sentences about the extremists on the side of capital and the extremists on the side of labor who were itching to have a showdown as to the future of American society.

But, best of all, is our friend, Mr. Luce. Life magazine of February 4 heads its editorial:

Mr. Fairless Should Pay 18½¢

Note the first three words in the subhead:

Right or Wrong, the President Picked It and We Have Got to Get On with the Job

“Mr. Fairless has a case, but it is not good enough.” Thus says Mr. Luce in his editorial. But, as for labor, “labor must work hard.”

Luce declares that “right or wrong” Fairless must pay up. Luce actually writes that when Fairless says that he can pay 15¢ but not 18½¢, it “smells fishy.” That is a capitalist way of saying that it stinks. Fairless himself beat a public retreat in asking the President to save his face by calling a conference. The Daily News, every page of which smells of fascism, denounced Fairless openly, told him that he could not continue to buck public opinion, in this way, and even predicted that if he continued to be obstinate he would lose his job.

What has happened? Merely this: The determination, the confidence, the refusal to be scared which labor has shown, have made all these gentlemen realize that they had better bring this business to a close as quickly as possible and above all play down labor’s desire for universality, and power, and all the other indefinable demands. Philip Murray, who had begun by throwing some fierce words at Truman, showed soon that he at any rate had no sympathy with universality. He let everybody know that as far as he was concerned, he wanted a little money for the workers, and that was all. He denounced sympathy strikes.

The capitalists are bringing pressure to bear on Truman to raise prices, that is to say, to take away with the right hand what they give to the workers with the left. But one thing is certain. They have all had a glimpse that, to put it very mildly, by an increase in wages, labor means far more than the difference between 15¢ and 18½¢. They have looked the post-war American worker in the eye, and they do not like what they see.

Larger Question Posed

Labor should ponder well over this development. The capitalists have shouted socialism, universality, struggle for power – and they have frightened nobody. An aspect of great importance is that large numbers of the middle classes have stood firmly by labor. History has shown us that when the two fundamental classes, capitalists and workers, meet in head-on collision, the intermediate classes are, by and large, ready to go with labor just so long as labor shows clearly that it means business and is not afraid.

We are now seeing the first round of the post-war social crisis. The later stages will pose question even more fundamentally. As Philip Murray said before the war was ended: These years are “the years of decision.” They are. They will decide whether the United States will be socialist or fascist.

That decision will depend to a large degree on who can win the middle classes, capital or labor. And labor will win them, not by hesitation, vacillation or retreat, but by saying boldly:

“Yes, people of the United States, we mean socialism. We mean to control production for the interests of the whole nation and not for the interests of the fascistic, monopolistic cliques. We mean universality. We mean everything the capitalists say and more. For we are convinced that only by the abolition of this system will we be able to have a genuine democracy and a truly social existence for the vast majority of the American people.”

Last updated on 6 August 2018