J.R. Johnson

News and Views from the Labor Front

Post-War Strike Wave Demonstrated
Working Class Power

(1 July 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 26, 1 July 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The great wave of strikes seems for the moment to be over. Only in time can we evaluate their full significance. Just as it took the steel strike and the coal strike to give full meaning to the UAW strike and Reuther’s proposals, so only the events of the next two or three years will enable us to draw the fullest lessons from this upheaval.

Any worker knows that what distinguished these strikes above all others was the role of the government.

In 1941, Roosevelt, faced with the recurrent clash between capital and labor, attempted to evade responsibility. “A plague on both your houses,” he said, and stood on the sidelines. Workers and capitalists fought it out.

In 1943 the miners challenged the capitalist war machine. It was impossible for Roosevelt to say “a plague on both of you.” This was not a question of miners and coal owners. The bourgeois state had to have coal for its war. Roosevelt had to intervene and, faced with the uncompromising attitude of the miners, he capitulated.

The post-war wave of strikes found Truman in Roosevelt’s position. In one sense it is a pity that “the indispensable man” is not here himself. The workers could no longer be bluffed with talk about “war and the national emergency.” Furthermore, the American economy has become so much of a unit, the different parts are so knit together, that a strike of a few weeks in steel, coal or transport imperilled the functioning of the whole structure.

Moreover, the public as a whole had seen what the economy could do for war. It was in no mood to stand any prolonged inconvenience. Truman had to intervene. What he did can be divided into three stages.

The Three Stages

Stage 1. He kept out of the dispute as long as he could. He even pretended neutrality – declared that capital and labor each had too much power. In this period he was feeling his way. Defender of capitalism as he is, he had, if possible, to suppress the workers. But he could do this first of all, only if the labor leaders could keep the workers in check. In 1943 Murray, Reuther and the Stalinists had done that job for Roosevelt. But it became clear last winter that the labor leadership could not in 1946 repeat for Truman what they had done for Roosevelt in 1943.

Truman had to have the support of the middle classes. But the middle classes were supporting labor. Therefore began Stage 2.

Stage 2. Truman retreated from neutrality. The workers were clamoring for the books to be opened. Truman did not say that the demand was the death of the free enterprise system, that it was an intolerable interference with the rights of management, etc. Not a word of that. He said something very different. He said that he himself would open the books. That was the significance of the fact- finding committees. He decided on 18½ cents as a working figure for a rise. At the same time he promised the capitalists to raise their prices. In other words Truman marked time.

Stage 3. The strikes unrolled. The workers showed that in pursuit of their demands they were quite ready to bring the economy to a stand-still. The capitalists brought a remorseless pressure to bear upon Truman. He bided his time. The railway strike seemed to give him the opportunity that he wanted. The public, the great middle classes in particular, would feel the consequences of this strike more immediately than any other. This would bring home to them in a more personal sense the disruption of normal life which was being caused by the “selfishness” and the “irresponsibility” of labor.

Truman struck. He proposed to put rebellious strikers into the army and to arrest their leaders. The official leader of the capitalist class was revealed in his true colors as the deadly enemy of labor.

Congress Retreats

The outcome was only less significant than the attempt. The country as a whole recoiled. Congress drew back. Congressmen had been clamoring for curbs on labor, but they had their constituents to reckon with. The people as a whole were shocked at this drastic attack on the most elementary democratic rights. Many of the middle class no doubt were ready to sanction some regulation of labor’s apparently unbounded power. But to put strikers into the army! The great body of the people felt that this was uncomfortably near to Fascism. The working class from one end of the country to the other denounced Truman. Truman retreated. To save his face he vetoed the Case Bill.

But we have now a situation in which labor will have to think and to think hard.

Capitalism in the United States faces a serious problem. It has been demonstrated that the workers in any major industry can bring the whole economy to a standstill by a strike of a few weeks. It has been demonstrated further that the workers when they feel justice is on their side, are quite ready to do this.

This is an absolutely intolerable situation for capitalism. The proof of this is the desperate measure Truman was prepared to take in order once more to give capital complete control of the system. Only a sense of the most extreme urgency could have prompted Truman to propose so ferocious a measure.

What next?

Prices continue to rise. Wages lag behind. Not only are the workers restless and dissatisfied but they know their power. The strikes taught them. There is widespread talk of another wave of strikes when the new contracts are to be signed. Bridges of the West Coast Longshoremen threatens another crippling maritime strike in September. Reuther of the UAW proposes a buyers’ strike. For the moment there is a lull. But one thing we may rest assured. The capitalists are busy working out their main problem – how to control labor. Their struggle over price control, their concern over markets, their fears of inflation or deflation, all these are essentially subordinate to their fundamental problem – how to discipline the working class.

So far Congress and the President have failed. Far from being on the defensive labor has opened up another front – “Operation Dixie” whereby it proposes to attack reaction in one of its great strongholds.

Labor Must Move

But all this is not enough. We state categorically that the country cannot remain indefinitely in a situation where the opposing forces of capital and labor at any moment can paralyze each other, while the rest of the country waits impatiently and fearfully for the outcome. Labor must move forward. Truman’s readiness to draft strikers into the army shows how fiercely capitalism will strike when it sees an opportunity. Note also Truman did not only propose to arrest the labor leaders and draft strikers. He did more. To break the railway strike he mobilized detachments of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. To break the maritime strike he threatened to mobilize the Navy.

It is clear that the capitalist class, through its official chief, is ready to use the full power of the state to break the power of the working class. If it drew back it is because it felt that the country was not ready for such drastic measures. But another wave of strikes, another paralysis of the economy, can create a very different mood among sufficient millions to give capital just the opportunity it wants. If labor merely strikes and stops there, it will inevitably lose the confidence of the middle classes. They will feel that it has no solution to the perpetual crisis. Worse still, they will listen to the capitalist propaganda that labor is irresponsible and therefore must be drastically curbed.

Both history and common sense dictate labor’s future course. Labor must come before the country with a program, to reconstruct the whole economy from top to bottom. It must organize a political party to carry out this program. Labor Action and the Workers Party have advocated this step for years. Now the capitalist class, through Truman’s draft bill, has shown its teeth and its claws. It has sheathed them but that one glimpse was sufficient for labor to recognize the deadly class enmity which is concealed behind the grins of its so- called friends. History may appear to move slowly, but the basic laws of our period are established beyond doubt. In a situation such as the present either labor hesitates, vacillates, remains perpetually on the defensive and is in the end crushed. Or it recognizes its own strength, pulls the intermediate classes behind it, and boldly assuming leadership of the nation, crushes the monopolists and establishes the socialist society.

Last updated on 8 July 2019