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Fourth International, August 1940


Carl O’Shea

“National Defense” Hits Labor


From Fourth International, Vol. I No. 4, August 1940, pp. 96–99.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


IF THE GALLUP POLL has not already become one of the propaganda techniques of the federal government, it reveals a great paradox in the sentiments and present stage of political understanding of the masses. This poll has recently announced that 93 percent of the American people are opposed to sending the army and navy abroad to fight. During the ten months since the European war began, only one percent of the people have shifted their anti-war stand.

But other recent polls by the Gallup organization indicate that a majority of the people (though not such decisive majorities as oppose fighting capitalism’s wars) approve the President’s national defense program.

Assuming that the poll itself is not being used as a device to sway public opinion, there is revealed here a popular misunderstanding of the true nature of “national defense.”

National defense, for an imperialist nation, has never been anything but a slogan to prepare for war, to justify war, and to attack the workers and living standards of the masses at home.

It is always in the name of national defense and peace that the imperialists of all countries hurl their armies into the field. The war machines are always designated as instruments of national defense. No imperialist nation ever admitted that it started a war (note the conflicting claims of Germany and England in the present war). So the military forces are always called “defense” forces, even when they are used in efforts to conquer and enslave peoples thousands of miles from the home country.

The many trade unionists who today endorse the national defense program would pause if they but realized that to approve national defense is to approve the war for which the machinery of national defense will be used.

These unionists will soon see that the national defense program backed by Roosevelt and Willkie is being used as an excuse to direct all sorts of repressive measures against organized labor – such as the use of the Federal Bureau of Investigation against unions and strikers, the sending of union militants to penitentiaries, the denial of relief to courageous unemployed, the breaking and the outlawry of strikes, big slashes in wages, the lengthening of hours.

Unfortunately great numbers of workers still do not think of national defense in this light. When the worker or the farmer or the small person in the cities speaks about national defense, he is thinking about defense of his wife and children and relatives and friends, defense of his home, defense of his neighborhood and the corner store where he is accustomed to meet with his friends, defense of the fishing stream and the duck pass he frequents – defense of these things from invasion, bombs, parachutists and poisonous gas from some enemy, more or less vague.

The War Drive Against Labor

But when the capitalist and his general staff, his press, his ministers and educators, his newsreel and radio commentators, speak of national defense, they mean throwing huge subsidies to heavy industries, they mean installing the big bankers and industrialists at all the important switches and controls in Washington, they mean the seizure of colonies and markets abroad – and they mean diverting funds from the unemployed to war, they mean the opportunity to stage frame-ups like the Mooney-Billings affair at the Preparedness Parade in San Francisco in 1916, they mean using the War Department to train and equip “Home Guards” for use against the unions. They mean dealing smashing blows at labor, of the type that labor would not tolerate in peacetime.

A revelation as to what organized labor faces in the coming period is the opposition to the recent strike of the CIO Shipbuilding Workers Union against the Federal Shipbuilding Company (a subsidiary of Stettinius’ US Steel) at Kearny, New Jersey. No sooner had the 6,000 workers struck for a 10c hourly wage increase and a week’s vacation with pay, than Washington swooped down to drive the workers back into the yards with their demands unmet.

Roosevelt led off with the statement he expected cooperation between labor and capital to avoid strikes. The Labor Department rushed a conciliator to Kearny to lure the men off the picket line. The FBI mobilized and descended on the strike. The Secretary of the Navy cried, “We cannot afford to have trouble of this sort in these times.” Representative Hoffman introduced a bill in Congress to outlaw all strikes on “defense projects.” (Almost any job is a “defense project” in these times.) Hoffman proposed to throw any striker in jail for six months and fine him $1,000. Representative Barden judged, “This is no time for any union to grab off 10c an hour wage increases.” Representative Cox of Georgia branded the strike “treason.” And the strikers, own CIO leaders, together with top CIO officials, demanded the strikers go back to work empty-handed. Sidney Hillman had put through his first job as labor’s representative on the national defense commission.

If the Kearny strike was not a perfect test case, it is only because the union militants were not well enough organized to put the ranks on guard against the government and the CIO leadership, and to fight for the men’s demands, defense program or no defense program. Then we should have seen just how far Roosevelt has moved from the days he was denouncing the “economic royalists.”

When the Kearny settlement was finally negotiated late in June, it didn’t contain the 10¢ hourly wage increase demanded – nor the one week vacations after one year, nor the closed shop, needless to say. Workers who have let themselves be talked off the picket line before a settlement don’t have much strength in the negotiations.

Now all navy shipyards have scrapped the 40-hour week and ordered the 48-hour week basis and the army plants have done the same. Today the workers receive time and one-half for Saturday work. Soon they will be told to work straight time, and the heads of the AFL and CIO will urge them to accept. Then the week will be lengthened to 54, to 60, to 70 hours, to a seven-day week. Commodity prices and commodity taxes will continue to rise. That is what happened in France and England.

What Happened to Six Strikes

The same pressure applied to the Kearny strikers has been directed against every other important union dispute since then: the Railway Express strike, the Cloakmakers “stoppage,” the Aluminum dispute, the Marine Cooks & Stewards conflict, the General Tire strike, and the proposed strike on the Minnesota iron range.

Roosevelt, the army, and the Hillmans and Greens are not going to have ANY more strikes, if they can avoid them.

On July 10th, Roosevelt personally intervened in the threatened strike of 30,000 members of the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks against the Railway Express agency for a shorter work week. The president tied the hands of the union for sixty days and appointed a three-man board to investigate. Roosevelt’s proclamation declared the dispute “threatens to interrupt inter-state commerce to a degree calculated to deprive the country of essential transportation service.”

When the Joint Board of Cloakmakers Unions timidly announced a “stoppage” of their 35,000 members July 11th, Governor Lehman of New York immediately summoned the ILGWU leaders and the employers to Albany, with the heavy-handed reminder that “labor strife in the coat and suit industry would be contrary to the public interest at this time when we are trying to conserve all of our human and material resources.” The workers were almost immediately directed back to the shops, with their demands left in the hands of an “impartial” body.

“We kept uppermost in our minds Governor Lehman’s admonition that in these perilous times when national defense is the paramount problem of our country, both labor and industry must cooperate for the general welfare,” stated David Dubinksy.

The Aluminum Workers Union, when its members demanded a wage increase in that most democratic of industries, the aluminum monopoly, saw its leaders summoned to Washington by the chief conciliator of the labor department and sternly warned that “under the circumstances no other alternative is available” save to withhold strike action. “Officers of the union gave quick assurance they would,” the press reports. When the settlement went through on July 13th, it provided for a 2c hourly increase instead of the 10c demanded by the 14,000 workers.

The Marine Cooks & Stewards “acceded to a federal request” to delay their strike against 175 ships on the Pacific Coast – and in the settlement lost their right to rotate the jobs of chief stewards among the union membership. Henceforth the shipowners will designate the stewards.

The General Tire strike in Akron was stopped by Father Haas of the Labor Department, who was able to talk the 1,200 strikers into going back to the plant with their demands compromised and with a new agreement that would bar all strikes in the future.

The threatened strike of the SWOC against two iron mines on the Minnesota iron range never did get under way. The state capitol said the strike was invested with “public interest,” and invoked the Stassen labor law to bar the men from striking for thirty days. A threatened strike of 8,000 members of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers in Utah was similarly blocked in July “by teamwork between Steelman’s conciliator, the Utah State Labor Department, and the National Defense Commission.”

The General Staff’s Labor Lieutenants

“While the magnates of monopoly capitalism stand above the official organs of state power, controlling them from their heights, the opportunist trade union leaders scurry around the footstool of state power, creating support for it among the working masses. It is impossible to perform this filthy chore so long as workers’ democracy within the trade unions is maintained. The regime in the unions, following the pattern of the regime of the bourgeois states, is becoming more and more authoritarian. In war time the trade union bureaucracy definitively becomes the military police of the Army’s General Staff in the working class ...”

The labor lieutenants of American capitalism, mirroring this characterization of them in the Manifesto of the Fourth International on the war, join the war machine and gag and handcuff the workers whom they are supposed to represent. The heads of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have already been incorporated into the government’s military apparatus. Unquestionably, other trade union leaders will find their places beside Sidney Hillman, Daniel Tobin and Daniel Tracy as direct associates of the general staff, with one unspoken but implicit order to fulfil: keep your followers down.

Such union officials justify their entering the government service by explaining to their followers that labor must have its own representatives to guard its interests in the national defense program. Yet if the union leaders actually stood up for the rights of unionism, they would be immediately outvoted, if not thrown out of their precious government posts. Hillman is one of the eight members of the national defense advisory commission. On all labor issues, the commission will vote 7–1 against Hillman and 8–0 against organized labor.

Matthew Woll protested Hillman’s appointment. Woll did not protest on the grounds that Hillman was giving labor sanction to the war machine. Woll did not denounce Hillman for joining openly the camp of the enemy. Woll protested because Roosevelt didn’t name an AFL man to the defense commission. Woll has discovered that the war is being fought over “freedom and labor’s rights,” and has pledged Ernest Bevin, British labor minister, the “fullest moral and political support of American labor.”

The general secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Machinists writes in Liberty magazine to plead with the FBI to help his union combat “spies and saboteurs,” that is, militant workers. William Green has pledged the president that “in case of emergency, members of the American Federation of Labor will be glad to work sixteen hours a day.” The CIO executive board has called upon “all labor organizations fully to cooperate with Sidney Hillman as labor member of the National Defense Commission, and in this manner to make labor’s contribution to the national defense program effective, constructive and adequate to the requirement of the national emergency.”

William Green has even gone so far as to deliver the main address before the graduating class of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where he told the coppers that organized labor wants to be friendly with them, and that clashes between the police and strikers should be eliminated altogether.

“The FBI inspired new respect for law enforcement among our people by promptly and thoroughly stamping out kidnapers of children,” said Green. “I predict that with your aid the FBI will win an even more glorious place for itself in history by promptly and thoroughly stamping out the representatives of subversive forces who would kidnap our liberties.”

There you see revealed, in a few sentences, the soul of the labor lieutenant of capitalism.

William Green expresses the most contemptible of all forms of that contemptible middle class philosophy of pacifism, pacifism in the class struggle. Green does not want any “clashes between police and strikers.” This can only mean that he doesn’t want the workers to fight for their rights, or to resist the attacks of the employers. For if the workers DO struggle, they immediately confront the police. What Green really wants is peace in the class struggle, peace at any price to the workers, even if it means the workers have to capitulate to every demand of the employers.

The FBI the saviors of little children of the rich! Green has already forgotten, or he remembers approvingly, that the main job of the FBI these days is beating down strikers and the unemployed, and framing militant workers. It was Green’s friends of the FBI who functioned as agents provocateur and stool pigeons among the Minneapolis WPA strikers; who worked for a whole year to frame leaders of drivers’ unions in the Middle West; who were sent into the New York drivers’ strike and the Kearny strike; and who used thuggery and third-degree methods against members of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union. It is the FBI men who have a standing order to bust into EVERY important strike today.

We Don’t Fear This War

Between the intelligent union militants and the Hillmans and Greens stand the great mass of workers, who today will accept to a greater or lesser degree the idea of “national defense,” even of a new “war for democracy.” Let the social democrats and the anarchists and the liberals draw pessimistic conclusions about this fact. Marxists, who better understand the process by which the masses prepare themselves for revolutionary action, face the future confidently. The special virtue of the workers has never been that they, as a class, understand clearly the interests of themselves and of humanity and see the goal of a socialist society. The special virtue of the workers is that capitalism forces them to suffer the most, that capitalism disciplines them on the job and in the armies, and that when they are finally pushed into a place where they must resist, they will fight in a disciplined way under leaders who have earned their trust and confidence, for a goal that will free themselves and all humanity from the unending terror of capitalism.

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Last updated on 26 February 2016