From Fourth International, vol.3 No.7, July 1942, pp.359-363.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.
When the war broke out in Europe in the summer of 1939 there were 11 million unemployed in America, according to the conservative AFL figures. Thus Roosevelt in his first two terms in office had not succeeded in solving any of the basic problems of the American workers. Mass unemployment, insecurity and suffering continued to weigh upon the lives of the millions of toilers.
Though the NRA, the Wagner Act, relief and WPA had convinced most workers that the man in the White House was their friend, these stop-gaps had solved nothing. The era of internal attempts to stem the decay of capitalism by pump-priming and reforms was over. The New Deal was replaced by the War Deal. As a matter of fact, the new orientation was signalized on October 5, 1937, when Roosevelt made his “quarantine the aggressors” speech. By the time Roosevelt’s third term began, he was well on his way toward the war of world conquest which was the urgent necessity of the ruling class.
The orientation toward war meant that the administration had to initiate severe internal economic and political changes. Participation in the war meant:
While this was the basic perspective of Roosevelt as he campaigned for the presidency in 1940, he camouflaged it behind a series of fraudulent pledges to the workers. At the convention of the AFL Teamsters International on September 20, 1940, Roosevelt made two categorical promises to labor:
In his last speech of the campaign on November 2 he pictured the Utopia awaiting the workers under the third term: “I see an America where the workers are really free – through their great unions undominated by any outside force.”
The overwhelming majority of the working class believed in these pledges. That’s what they voted for.
We need only summarize the events of the third term so far to demonstrate how Roosevelt violated his election pledges.
Once the election was over Roosevelt launched a big propaganda campaign around the slogan “National Unity.” The final election returns were no sooner completed than a rally was organized at Carnegie Hall, where leading Roosevelt supporters, prominent Republicans like Landon, and Howard Coonley, chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers, joined together to make a plea for “National Unity” behind Roosevelt’s war machine.
At the same time a film short was shown at tens of thousands of theaters throughout the country, calling upon all Americans to “forget their political differences” and to unite behind the President in the interests of “National Defense.”
Behind this campaign was the determination to create a chauvinistic atmosphere in which labor could be forced to submit to regimentation and passive acceptance of the consequences of the war drive.
In his first interview following his re-election, Roosevelt served a demand for AFL-CIO unity, as part of the “national unity” campaign. This demand was designed to weaken and undermine the CIO movement for industrial unionism. Roosevelt “ignored” the issue of industrial unionism. On the contrary, the timing of the labor unity demand was deliberately designed to play into the hands of the AFL craft unionists against the CIO. During the 1938-39 recession, the balance of power had shifted temporarily from the CIO to the AFL.
Why did Roosevelt direct this blow against the CIO? Not because he thought Philip Murray and the other top CIO leaders were any less subservient to the government than William Green and John P. Frey. Both the CIO, and AFL top leadership would, Roosevelt knew, join the war camp. The difference was in the composition of the membership of the AFL and the CIO. The predominantly craft elements of the AFL are an aristocracy of labor, relatively easy to regiment for the war. But the new unions of the CIO are composed of the proletariat of the heavy industries, mass production workers, downtrodden and militant, conscious of union action as essential for their well-being. These CIO masses were pushing their leaders to fight for the workers, rights. AFL-CIO “unity” on terms which would make the AFL leadership dominant in the united organization would bring the weight of AFL craft conservatism to bear against the CIO ranks.
Fortunately, the CIO refused to be dragged into what Murray correctly called “shotgun unity.” Hillman’s attempt to carry Roosevelt’s line was decisively beaten at the Atlantic City convention of the CIO, which opened November 18, 1940. The millions of CIO members were in no mood for capitulation to the AFL, but were beginning a big drive for wage increases, union conditions and standards in the mass production citadels of the open shop.
War production was beginning to fill the mass production industries with workers ready for union action, and this was the field of the CIO. Hence the rabid attacks against the CIO in Congress, the press and radio, ostensibly because the CIO would not agree to “labor unity,” but in reality because of the CIO’s growing power in the war industries. This anti-CIO attack reached major proportions when the Vultee aircraft strike began in Downey, California, on November 17, 1940.
The Vultee workers were fighting for a 75 cent minimum wage, and a ten cent general wage increase. It was the first strike in an aircraft plant working on military orders. Taking up Roosevelt’s slogan during the WPA strikes that “you can’t strike against the government,” Congressmen claimed that any strike in a military plant was a strike against the state. Sumners of Texas, poll tax chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, demanded: “Give the strikers a double dose of the kind of violence they understand,” Attorney General Jackson, Roosevelt’s appointee, vied with the Dies Committee in redbaiting the Vultee strikers, claiming the FBI had discovered that the strike was “provoked and prolonged by Communists.”
In spite of the attacks, the Vultee strike was victorious, and a 62½ cent minimum wage was established to replace the 40 and 50 cent minimum previously prevailing. This victory was the forerunner of the coming strike wave in the war industries.
What was the most effective method for smashing these strikes? The New York Times in an editorial on November 20, 1940, sounded the programmatic keynote for the administration policy in the coming period. The editorial proposed “to avoid government coercion or elaborate machinery as much as possible. The problem of public policy is to eliminate such strikes or reduce them to a minimum with the least possible coercion.” This formula accurately describes Roosevelt’s method. As little coercion as possible – but as much as necessary.
On the morrow of the Vultee strike, Roosevelt appointed Dr. Millis to the NLRB, to replace former Chairman Madden. Millis was a known conservative, with a pro-AFL bias. The CIO recognized this as a hostile move against the mass production workers and cautioned the CIO unions against resorting too often to the NLRB.
The CIO was the butt of another open attack from Roosevelt in the last week of 1940. For many months the CIO had demanded that the government refuse military contracts to the big corporations – Ford, duPont, Bethlehem Steel – which had violated NLRB decisions. Roosevelt’s definitive reply came on December 27, when the War Department announced that “after careful consideration of the protest” against contracts awarded to Ford, “the award would be allowed to stand.”
In December of 1940 the administration made another attack on the union movement. Assistant Attorney General Thurman Arnold, appointed by Roosevelt ostensibly as a fighter against the trusts, made a speech attacking the closed shop in American industry. Claiming that it “destroyed competition between workers for jobs” Arnold demanded the freezing of open shop conditions because it was essential to “free enterprise.”
On December 29, 1940, Roosevelt delivered one of his “fireside chats.” In the same unctuous tones in which he had promised two months earlier that “we need not swap the gain of better living for the gain of better defense” he now warned that “the lowering of the standard of living is necessitated by the arms drive.” Should any militant worker or labor leader consider fighting against attacks on living standards, Roosevelt threatened that the administration would use “the sovereignty of the government against trouble makers.”
As 1941 got under way, the underlying reason for Roosevelt’s moves against the CIO in favor of the AFL became clear. On January 4, the AFL Metal Trades Department adopted a “Defense Plan” stating that there must be no stoppage of work during the “national emergency,” and the AFL officials moved into the lap of the administration. This declaration was not only a blow at the hopes of the AFL rank and file, but a direct attack on the CIO which was still defending the right to strike.
Philip Murray and other CIO leaders were in a contradictory position. They were giving full political support to Roosevelt and his war aims, but they also wanted to build the strength of the CIO to a position of greater bargaining power and were under the pressure of the mass production workers. The ensuing period was one in which these opposed policies repeatedly clashed, and in which the CIO leaders more and more yielded to the pressure of the government.
The pressure for organization from the masses of industrial workers gained momentum and reached tremendous proportions in the first months of 1941. The rapid expansion of industry under the impulse of war production created an inevitable upsurge among the workers.
A new stage of government coercion came on January 15th when the workers at the Eaton Manufacturing plant in Detroit went out on strike. Roosevelt dispatched Federal Conciliator James F. Dewey to the scene, and he immediately served the union a 24-hour ultimatum to return to work and negotiate afterward. The workers in Michigan were confused and dismayed by the move. The strike was called off. The ultimatum served as a signal to the employers to stand fast in strikes and await governmental pressure to force the workers back into the plants.
When, on January 19, a few days after the Eaton strike, the Ryan Aeronautical workers took a strike vote and prepared for a walkout, the employers immediately asked for government intervention. The California draft headquarters responded with a “work or fight” order. The national CIO rose up in fury against this move, and the administration found it necessary to retreat. Selective Service Administrator General Hershey repudiated the California draft headquarters, stating that such use of the Selective Service Act was in violation of its original intent. This was but a temporary retreat, as later events showed.
We can mention but a few of the strikes of these months, most of which were successful: the San Francisco shipyard workers; the Phelps Dodge plant at Elizabeth, New Jersey; the Babcock and Wilcox plant in Bayonne; Youngstown Sheet and Tube; International Harvester; the New York bus workers; Midland Steel; the Federal Truck plants in Detroit, and the Vanadium Corporation plant in Bridgeville, Pa.
A two-day stoppage (January 24-25) at the great Bethlehem, Pa., steel plant and another two-day strike (February 28-29) at the big Lackawanna plant of Bethlehem Steel showed the rising strength of the SWOC.
Great organizing drives were meanwhile developing. The Ford workers were pouring into the UAW by the thousands during January, February and March. The CIO initiated a big organizing drive, in Chicago, among the parts plants and farm implement workers. On February 20, 1941, the North American workers voted for the UAW-CIO in an NLRB poll. The CIO was gathering omentum.
On February 1st, poll tax Vinson, chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, proposed a bill to enforce a 90-day waiting period before a strike could be called, and providing for the compulsory open shop. This attack on the unions in Congress was used by Roosevelt to press for voluntary agreement from the CIO to abandon the strike weapon. The effect of this and other anti-labor bills was to create a certain confusion and fear among the workers and to increase the timidity of the top union officials. But these effects were far outweighed in this period by the propulsion of the industrial boom, which moved the workers inexorably toward the struggle for wages and union conditions.
The first week in March the Bethlehem workers capped their previous two-day battles at Lackawanna and Bethlehem with successful strikes at Bethlehem and Johnstown, Pa. This brought on a new wave of anti-labor agitation. OPM head Knudsen, who on March 1st had made a statement opposing anti-strike legislation as “unnecessary,” on March 7th demanded a law to provide a waiting period and secret ballot of all workers in a plant before a strike could be called.
Far more skillful than the Knudsens, Roosevelt understood the need for more flexible instruments than legislation. Above all it was necessary to secure the cooperation of the top labor leaders, who could not possibly endorse open anti-labor legislation. The necessary flexible instrument was an authoritative government-labor-business board to curb strikes. Roosevelt pressed the CIO leaders to agree.
At first Philip Murray refused. On March 10 he correctly analyzed the proposed National Defense Mediation Board:
“1. Such a board will necessarily find its attention directed against labor in order to maintain the status quo as much as possible, and will strive to stop wage increases or improvement of working conditions for labor.
“2. Compulsory arbitration will result from the board activities, since it would ... bring terrific pressure to bear on labor to agree to arbitration in practically all situations.
“3. The set-up of the proposed board carries strong anti-labor possibilities in the three members supposed to represent the public. It has been the experience of labor that representatives from the public are usually taken from the ranks of retired business men.” (CIO News, March 10, 1941)
But a week after making this irrefutable analysis, Murray yielded to the pressure of Roosevelt on March 17th. Murray and UMW Secretary-Treasurer Kennedy became members of the board. As an excuse to the workers, Murray claimed that this was the only way he could avoid compulsory arbitration laws threatened in Congress.
This set the pattern for future surrenders by the CIO officials. It became the formula for capitulation to Roosevelt.
Another government experiment with strike-breaking methods came during the Allis-Chalmers strike which had begun January 22nd at West Allis, Wisconsin. After four weeks of the strike the OPM ordered the union leaders to call off the strike and to come to Washington to settle the issues. This was accompanied by an OPM threat to take over the plant under control of the Army and Navy, and to hire a new working force of scabs from the civil service lists. When the strike still held firm, OPM Knudsen and Secretary of the Navy Knox on March 26th issued a joint telegram commanding the strikers to go back to work. Murray repudiated the wire as illegal. With the entire CIO backing the strike, the government went no further.
In the Allis Chalmers strike, as well as in the Harvester strike in February, the AFL intervened as a recruiter of scabs, discrediting itself in the eyes of millions of workers.
The strike wave reached its peak the first week in April when the Ford workers climaxed a series of sporadic sitdowns with the closing down of the great River Rouge plant. Ford, who had sworn never to deal with the union, granted the UAW-CIO a closed shop, check-off agreement. The unionization of Ford added over 100,000 workers to the rolls of the CIO.
In April the soft coal operators had to yield to a strike of the United Mine Workers and granted a dollar-a-day wage increase. The Bethlehem Steel Corporation, after a series of strikes, granted a ten-cent general wage increase. The General Motors workers, after a one-day strike in Flint, Michigan, won a ten-cent general wage increase.
Following this series of conquests, the CIO workers of every major corporation, and many AFL workers as well, made demands for wage increases, and unorganized workers joined the unions by tens of thousands, bringing the labor movement to the peak of its power.
Reactionaries in Congress foamed at the mouth. The Vinson Bill was brought on the floor of Congress, this time in form to authorize Roosevelt to invoke compulsory arbitration by decree. With this held as a club over the heads of the union officialdom, Roosevelt played the “Hard-cop, soft-cop” game: Give up the right to strike, he warned, or Congress will take it away from you.
But the foregoing methods had failed to stop the CIO. They had to be combined with an open show of force. Roosevelt picked the North American Aviation strike which began on June 6th at Inglewood, California. He was aided by the fact that Philip Murray condemned the strike as a “wildcat” walkout and had sent Richard T. Frankensteen, CIO aircraft director, to oust the local union officers and call off the strike. When the workers refused to return to work without a contract, Roosevelt, with Hillman at his elbow, sent troops to break the strike and take over the plant. The strikers had as their slogan “75 & 10” a 75-cent minimum wage to replace the 40- and 50-cent minimums prevailing, and a 10-cent general wage increase. North American, a subsidiary of General Motors, earning tens of millions of dollars of profits, had refused to grant the increase.
In addition to the use of troops, General Hershey issued a “work or fight” order to further intimidate the strikers. Hershey on January 19th, during the dispute at Ryan Aeronautical, had said: “We are always opposed to use of the selective service system for purposes for which it was not intended. This is an industrial dispute and we are not policemen.” Now, at the command of Roosevelt, he reversed his position.
The employers of course endorsed the “taking over” of the plant. An editorial in the June 10 Wall Street Journal stated: “The Company will receive compensation, so it will not be without income for the period.” The New York Daily News on the same day wrote: “Of course forcible suppression of these disorders means a step toward totalitarianism in this country. Necessarily civil liberties will take it on the chin ... but that’s just too bad.”
The use of troops at North American put an end to the strike wave. The cowardly tactics of the top union officials had contributed to the workers’ dismay. Murray had paved the way for the troops by denouncing the strikers and sending Frankensteen, who openly welcomed the use of troops.
The militant auto locals of Flint and Detroit and many steel and mine locals passed resolutions condemning Frankensteen for his strikebreaking. Only after three days of this rising protest did Murray issue a statement. The three-day interval after the troops had been called in, during which the CIO leadership kept silent, cast a gloomy pall over all the CIO workers. Nor was Murray’s statement calculated to renew their militancy. The statement first criticised anti-labor bills in Congress, secondly deplored the “work or fight” order of General Hershey and as third point merely stated: “The injection of armed forces into a private industrial dispute must also be condemned.” That “also” indicated Murray’s pusillanimity. Murray did not mention by name the North American strike. He did not name Roosevelt at whose order the troops had been called out. It was obvious that he was not providing the workers with a fighting lead against Roosevelt’s forcible smashing of the strike. The workers were left staggered by the event.
It is interesting to note for the record what the Stalinists, who had participated in the leadership of the North American strike, then said. On June 17, 1941 – it was just five days before the Nazi-Soviet war! – William Z. Foster wrote in a front-page editorial in the Daily Worker:
“When President Roosevelt sent Federal troops against the aviation workers and broke the strike it was a taste of the Hitleristic terrorism that Wall Street capitalists have in mind for the working class. These war mongering imperialists who dominate the Roosevelt administration are determined to compel the workers to accept lowered living standards and restricted civil liberties. Roosevelt’s use of troops at Inglewood was not an isolated act of impatience with these strikers but a considered phase of a developing anti-labor policy. Labor, therefore, on pain of disaster, needs to break its alliance with the Roosevelt administration in the so-called ‘National Unity.’”
It was in the atmosphere of the subsiding labor movement after the North American Aviation defeat that, on July 15th, came the federal indictments against the leaders of Teamsters Local 544-CIO and the Socialist Workers Party. The Minneapolis truck drivers had disaffiliated from the AFL and joined the CIO. Upon the request of AFL Teamsters President Tobin, one of his chief labor lieutenants, Roosevelt injected the Department of Justice into the conflict between Tobin and Local 544-CIO. It was a government move against the right of workers to join the union of their choice. The prosecution aimed at beheading the anti-war Socialist Workers Party. The American Civil Liberties Union in a letter of protest to Attorney General Biddle, stated:
“It seems reasonable to conclude that the government injected itself into an inter-union controversy in order to promote the interests of the one side (Tobin) which supported the administration’s foreign and domestic policies.”
As the use of troops had shown Roosevelt’s readiness to use force, the Minneapolis case showed his readiness to use the criminal code and jails against militant labor. Eighteen of the 28 defendants were convicted, sentenced to 16-month and 12-month prison terms, and are now out on bail pending appeal.
On August 8th, with the strike wave broken, Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau introduced his new tax program. The new proposals lowered the income tax levels to include $750 annual incomes for single persons and $1200 for married couples. The CIO attacked the new tax program as “relief for the rich at the expense of the poor.”
Later in August Roosevelt addressed Congress on the question of wages. “Labor has far more to gain”, he said, “from price stabilization than from abnormal wage increases.”
The general retreat of labor was interrupted by one exception which showed what could be done. On September 14th the captive mine workers, after months of negotiations, went out on strike for wage increases and the closed shop. After five days, John L. Lewis agreed to a 30-day truce. During October and part of November the issue – now boiled down to the closed shop – remained in the mediation board. Lewis set a deadline for November 15th, which coincided with the opening of the 1941 CIO convention on November 17th. As the convention was about to convene, the NDMB rejected the miners’ demand for the closed shop, after the AFL members of the board had broken their word to the CIO and voted with the employers. The first days of the convention were preoccupied with the captive mine strike.
The convention went on record to back the miners to the limit. Enthusiasm for the miners’ cause pervaded the delegates. That enthusiasm was decidedly unwelcome to CIO President Murray and his associates. As head of the SWOC, Murray blocked all attempts to swing the steel workers into action behind the miners, despite the fact that the captive mines were owned by the steel industry and the closed shop for the UMW would pave the way for the SWOC. But formally Murray had to support the miners in the convention, and he and Kennedy had to resign from the Mediation Board.
Roosevelt had threatened to break the strike with troops as in North American, and announced that 50,000 troops were mobilized to maintain “order.” But he had to back down when the CIO convention voted full support for the miners. Only the Stalinists, now in Roosevelt’s camp, broke the solid front of the CIO and denounced the miners’ strike.
All Roosevelt could salvage was a face-saving device. Lewis called off the pickets and agreed to settle the issue by arbitration, but with the decision obviously agreed to in advance. It gave the UMW the closed shop in the captive mines.
The strike appeared at first to be a major blow at Roosevelt’s plans. The resignation of CIO officials had put an end to the NDMB. But it was only a temporary defeat for Roosevelt. While supporting the miners the CIO convention in its last days was given over largely to expressing full political support for Roosevelt. The miners’ strike proved to be only a momentary interruption in the process of surrender of the CIO officials.
Following the captive mine victory the Congressional anti-labor barrage took on the frenzy of desperation. Roosevelt supporters joined in sponsoring a series of anti-union bills. Poll tax Smith introduced a bill to freeze the open shop in all war industry; a new Vinson bill, supported by the administration, proposed NDMB authority to invoke compulsory arbitration; one bill would have made “fomenting” strikes a treasonable crime punishable by the death penalty. The press attacks were equally violent.
In the midst of this pounding at the CIO, Roosevelt called a conference of Murray and AFL President Green, in an attempt to rehabilitate the NDMB and enforce a voluntary no-strike agreement. Nevertheless, Roosevelt remained without a mediation board supported by the CIO from November 17th until December 18th.
It was not until formal entry into the war that the CIO leaders went back into the mediation machinery. Following Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt called a conference of business, labor and government on December 18th. His program contained three points:
- The surrender of the right to strike.
- All demands to be arbitrated.
- Acceptance by labor of a War Labor Board.
The CIO entered the conference with a program of its own. It demanded jobs for the priorities unemployed, the Industry Council Plan, and a defense housing plan in military production areas. Not one point proposed by the CIO was accepted by Roosevelt; nevertheless the CIO accepted the set-up.
The employers accepted Roosevelt’s program but made the reservation that the War Labor Board should not have the right to hear demands for the closed shop.
The conference which made these decisions met with a strong club held over labor’s head. The Smith “Slave Labor” Bill had been passed in the House and was being held in abeyance in the Senate. Should the CIO not agree to Roosevelt’s demand, it was threatened, the Smith bill would go through the Senate.
With the strike weapon surrendered, the labor movement now was completely on the defensive. The employers systematically refused to grant any demands, and all major disputes were channelized into the mire of mediation.
The Little Steel workers demanded a dollar a day raise. The General Motors workers demanded the same, as the cost of living spiralled upward. The shipyard workers also demanded a dollar a day increase. All these demands were referred to the War Labor Board. Made up of four representatives from labor, four from industry, and four from the “public,” it was obviously a pro-employer board. All the CIO demands were delayed for many months in this mediation labyrinth.
The surrender of the right to strike soon took a heavy toll from the workers. These results followed in quick succession:
“If men were machines, the War Manpower Commission could simply list the specifications and capacities of each, fix a price for its use, and allot them to mines, factories, farms and offices on a priority basis. And ultimately, if the labor force is to be utilized at optimum, manpower will be handled essentially that way, whatever soft words we use to describe the system.”
This is the record. This is what the workers have been given during the third term thus far, instead of Roosevelt’s pledge of an “America where the workers are really free.” The opponent of “sweatshop conditions” became the promoter of the speed-up. The defender of overtime pay himself commanded its surrender.
Already we have proof that the American workers will not submit passively to the surrender of their living standards and democratic rights. So far pay envelopes, due to working longer hours, still approximate yesterday’s standard of living; the real pinch is only beginning now. It is of great significance that the CIO workers, who accepted the sacrifice of the right to strike with hardly a public murmur, voiced strong protests against giving up overtime pay. The 150 delegates who voted against surrendering overtime pay at the UAW conference in Detroit in April 1942 gave notice of future battles. A similar revolt took place at the Steel Workers convention recently. The speed-up campaign is meeting with even more resistance, not only at the conferences but every day in the shops.
As the war takes its inevitable toll of their standard of living the American workers, steeled in great class battles, will rise in an ever increasing wave of struggle. These coming battles will at first be fought for the most elementary economic demands. But they will be met by the full power of the capitalist state apparatus. With the full political solidarity of the ruling class arrayed against them, the workers will necessarily have to forge the instruments to express their own political interests. They will be forced by events to build an independent labor party, and to begin their struggle on the higher plane of politics. Thus will the new epoch of a politically maturing working class be initiated. The formation of the CIO and the launching of the historic battles for industrial unionism marked a great forward step in the development of the American workers; the next stage of struggle will be at least as great an advance beyond the stage of 1935-38. The characteristic militancy and courage which built the CIO will assure the triumph of the workers in the coming political tests.
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Last updated on 13.9.2008