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Fourth International, January 1946


George Clarke

Wall Street’s War Against Labor
The Meaning of the GM Strike


From Fourth International, January 1946, Vol.7 No.1, pp.7-9.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


American imperialism emerges from the war at the pinnacle of its power. Its rivals have either been physically eliminated from the scene or reduced to tributaries living on the handouts of Yankee generosity. Triumph of American arms is only half the victory, however. The task of capitalizing on its victories, opening the world market for its investments, garnering immense super-profits from exploitation of the colonial peoples – in short the reorganization of the entire world as a feeding trough for Wall Street – this work lies ahead. Its hegemony, no longer seriously challenged by competing capitalist nations, is called into question only by the slaves, i.e. by the millioned masses throughout the world out of whose sweat and toil “The American Century” is to be erected.

Stupendous as is the economic and military might of the United States, its task of world reorganization remains extremely formidable. Instead of the flourishing, expanding capitalist world over which Great Britain once enjoyed domination, American imperialism takes over the sceptre of world empire with capitalism in its death agony, with half the world in ruins and the peoples of Europe and the colonies in opposition or revolt. Where its British predecessor could cope with movements of opposition one at a time, American imperialism comes to world mastery amidst universal insurgence. It cannot isolate and crush rebellions one at a time. It must face them simultaneously.

Wall Street’s Dream of Empire

Just as US monopoly capitalism is learning that the world is no single unit to be handed down like an inheritance of gilt-edged bonds or stolen as loot, so it is learning that its power cannot be wielded on a world scale unless it is securely established at home. The nation has to be “united” and unresisting in accepting the costs of the war and Wall Street’s plans to dominate the world. Above all, the American working class cannot be permitted the luxury of a higher standard of living. The organized labor movement can be tolerated only on condition that it enter the same type of “partnership” internally that Great Britain has been obliged to accept on the world arena, i.e. acceptance of crumbs from the banquet table of the master which will signify an absolute decline in standards compared with the past. Refusal of the American proletariat to submit to this servile role in the world scheme of Wall Street is the ugliest nightmare disturbing its dream of empire.

From the first day after the surrender of Japan, it became clear that the Wall Street plutocracy had by no means completed its war. It had merely transferred the front of operations from Okinawa, Leyte and Saipan to Detroit, Pittsburgh and Akron. The main enemy has no navy or airforce at its disposal, it is unarmed and at home – the American working class. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then “peace” for American imperialism involves the continuation of its wartime measures and aims. Only the regimentation of the American working class, only the abjuring of the strike weapon and the curbing of the class struggle gained by the voluntary surrender of the trade union bureaucracy enabled the American bourgeoisie to throw the full weight of its immense productive capacity into the conflict, to provide the bulk of the equipment and materiel for several full-scale armies, to wage war on two gigantic fronts. The same type of restraints are equally vital for the organization of their “peace.”

In the very midst of the war, Wall Street was preparing for the offensive it has launched at home immediately after V-J Day. Fortified by the greatest profits in its history, US capitalism has piled up mountainous reserves to carry it through a long battle. Through free grants of government-built plants, tax rebates and special “reconversion” financing, public funds have been manipulated to cover any losses suffered during a lengthy siege against the labor movement.

General Motors was the indicated corporation to spearhead this offensive against organized labor. Of all the war profiteers, it is the most bloated. GM is the keystone of the Morgan-du Pent empire, a monster that bestrides American economy. Feeding on the most important durable goods and raw-material producing industries, GM stands likewise at the very hub of “reconversion.” At its signal peacetime production could get off to a flying start or the wheels of “revival” could be brought to a grinding halt.

It was obvious from the first day of the opening of negotiations between the union and the corporation that GM had no intention of listening to the fantasies of Henry Wallace echoed by union leaders about “60,000,000 jobs” or “planning for peace to take the place of planning for war.” The terms GM placed before the union could be summarized in two words: unconditional surrender. With the same calculated brutality and arrogance with which the State Department abruptly cut off its British rival from lend-lease, by cutting out overtime, scaling down production and shutting down the plants, GM and the other corporations abruptly terminated wartime wages and inaugurated a nation-wide wage cut. GM bluntly rejected the UAW’s demand for a rising wage to meet the rising costs of living and the cut in take-home pay. By this action it flung down the gauntlet before the entire nation. The machines would idle and rust before Wall Street would yield an inch to the union. Through its monopoly controls America’s 60 families are determined to dictate the most brutal and exacting terms to labor. Indeed, in the eyes of the Morgans and the du Ponts, the American workers are regarded as no less a subject people than the conquered Germans or Japanese.

Government Partner of Big Business

Before the GM strike started, Washington had already intervened directly on the side of monopoly capital. Prior to V-J Day the close links between government and Big Business had been passed off as essential in “planning” for war. The fabulous profits the trusts accumulated from government orders were explained as a spur to “patriotism,” a ransom that had to be paid for victory. The present eruption of class conflict has quickly burned these fictions to cinders and revealed the naked essence of the partnership between the government and Big Business. At one blow the illusion of the impartiality of the state so carefully fostered by four Roosevelt administrations was shattered.

Truman’s first pronouncement in face of the strike was an open act of war, summoning Congress to enact anti-labor legislation that would disarm the unions before the Big Business offensive. The reason for the differing approaches of Roosevelt and Truman is to be sought not in the character of the men but in the character of the times. Roosevelt could shield the true nature of the government as the executive committee of the capitalist class only because under wartime compulsions the labor leaders were able to clamp the brakes on trade unions. So long as the labor leaders could persuade the working class to disarm voluntarily, it was superfluous for the state to disarm the workers by compulsion. Truman quickly revealed himself as the direct agent of Wall Street because ambiguity and deception, the essence of class collaboration, could no longer be so effective a policy. The demands of Big Business to fetter the trade unions could no longer count upon the ability of Murray, Thomas and Co. to keep the workers passive while they were being shackled. Truman’s role was, consequently, a foregone conclusion.

The growing impotence of the trade union bureaucracy in stemming the tide of mass struggles is an international phenomenon. Disillusionment with the war and the conditions arising in its aftermath produced the leftward swing which put the Labor Party in power in Great Britain and gave a majority to the Communist and Socialist parties in the recent French elections. In the US it has likewise terminated the class peace which existed for almost four years. The scope and militancy of the struggles which broke loose following the cessation of military hostilities indicate that wartime class peace was at best an uneasy truce.

It would be false to assume, however, that the object of the present strike movement is simply to complete the unfinished business left over from the war years. The accumulated grievances, the unanswered company provocations, the thwarted rebellions, local and sporadic in nature – all these served merely to prime the charge for the explosion which had been held in check by government regimentation, the no-strike pledge and the prevailing passive patrotism. If the abortive struggles of the war years were primarily defensive actions against the encroachments of the government and the corporations, the present strike movement takes the form of an offensive, although Big Business occupies the unquestioned role of aggressor.

The Nature of New Strike Wave

The present strike wave, which threatens at any moment to engulf all the basic industries, is unfolding upon a far higher level than the strikes following World War I. Powerfully organized mass unions in the basic industries stand in the place of the weak, unorganized forces of 1919. The CIO unions were prepared for the present struggle by the victories of the pre-war sit-down strikes and the growth of the unions even under adverse wartime conditions. The great self-confidence displayed by the workers today contrasts sharply with the desperate last ditch nature of the 1919-1921 strike movements in which the workers were overwhelmed by the colossal power of their foes, Whereas the industrial workers were then fighting for the elementary right to union organization, today the labor movement is firmly entrenched and demanding a greater share of the national income.

The issues between the unions and the corporations have acquired accordingly a more fundamental class expression and encompass far broader social questions. Under pressure from the workers, the union leaders are obliged to voice more radical proposals than in the past. For example, the UAW leaders refuse to base their demand for a 30 percent increase on the corporation “arithmetic” that higher wages must depend upon increased productivity. They are demanding that increases be paid to meet labor’s needs regardless of the effect on the rate of corporation profit. The great sacrifices of the war, called forth by even greater promises, impel the workers to insist with more and more vigor upon their own interests as against interest on investments.

Flat rejection by the corporation both of the union’s demand and of the premises for the demand led inexorably to the next logical step in the struggle: the proposal by the union that corporation secrets be divulged to the public. Here again the stakes are much higher than the ability of the corporations to afford wage increases. Once the books were opened, there would be revealed beneath the intricate subterfuges of corporation bookkeeping the anti-social and parasitic nature of monopoly capitalism. Suppression of inventions, price-fixing, capital reserves built up for high-interest foreign investment while home industry is sabotaged and kept at low capacity levels – all the reactionary monopolistic practises would emerge from the corporation books like the hideous creatures that came forth upon the opening of Pandora’s box. The present indignation against the huge profits of the trusts would be redoubled by the disclosure of their malpractice, or rather the common daily activity of so-called “free enterprise.” The battle would then surge forward relentlessly to its next logical positions: workers’ control of production and nationalization of the big monopolies.

Logical Goal of the Union Movement

Spurred by life and death necessity, matured by the experiences of two world wars, the consciousness of the American workers is climbing out of the valley of individualistic thinking onto the plane of social, i.e. class action. Irrespective of its lack of conscious, generalized expression, the direction of the American working class is clearly indicated. It is seeking instinctively to transform its mass unions from appendages of the monopoly capitalist government into revolutionary instruments challenging capitalist property and rule. This is the underlying logic of the present nation-wide class conflict. This is the direction in which the most advanced industrial workers are being compelled to move.

“The trade unions in our epoch,” Trotsky pointed out before his assassination in 1940, “cannot simply be the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class. They cannot any longer be anarchistic, i.e. ignore the decisive influence of the state on the life of peoples and classes. They can no longer be reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms. The trade unions of our times can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”

As the struggle unfolds it becomes more evident that the first condition of success is to shake loose from the unions the dead hand of the past – the trade union bureaucracy. For Murray, Hillman, Thomas and Co., trade unionism reached its zenith under the government regimentation of the war years. Strikes were forbidden in fact, if not by law. In return for maintenance of membership and a few miserable concessions, the union leaders played the role of police agents against the militants. But for the great upsurge of the mass production workers they would still be playing this role – and be very happy in it.

Catapulted to the head of the class movement they appear like palsied old men in the van of a vigorous, combative army. Each step forward has been taken by them under the prods and kicks of an insistent, aroused rank and file. Still they falter and seek for avenues of retreat. To limit the scope of the strikes, they contrived the “super-slick” strategy of hitting the automobile manufacturers one at a time. Scarcely had the GM picket line been formed than the union leaders offered to breach the front by allowing GM parts plants to operate and permitting office workers the right to go through the lines. While the union is sending shivers down the backs of the GM tycoons with its demands to “open the books,” a section of the leadership conducts secret negotiations with Ford and offers to put the union in a company straitjacket. They received in return ... a cynical rejection of their wage demands.

In face of the united offensive of capital, Murray restrains the steel workers for more than a month. This great general thinks to frighten the enemy in the very midst of war by shaking his fist! His voice rumbles with anger at the anti-labor actions of Truman and the capitalist parties. But the terrible protest remains no more than a complaint; the obvious conclusion for an independent labor party is unspoken. It is no tribute to the valor of Murray and Co. that they have not yet fled the field of struggle and capitulated. That road has been barred at both ends: by the intransigence of Big Business on the one side and the determined militancy of the workers on the other.

What are the prospects of the present strike movement? It would be folly to attempt specific predictions at a time when all the unions in the basic industries are poised for strike action. The consequences of such a gigantic class battle cannot be foreseen in all its ramifications. Nevertheless, two eventualities are already foreshadowed.

In the face of the united resistance displayed by the organized workers, it is unlikely that Big Business will at this time attempt to go through with its plan to smash the unions through direct frontal assault. Its representatives are already feeling out Murray and his associates for a rotten compromise. The employers have discovered that they are not dealing with the weak, ineffectual craft setups of 1919 but with the mightiest labor movement in the world, undefeated and swelling with the strength imparted by its maturing social consciousness. Only fascism could smash such a powerful working class. But the climate is unseasonably bad for fascism.

Big Business finds itself increasingly isolated in the population. Where it had counted on using the returning veterans against the labor movement, it finds them either being absorbed in employment produced by the spurt of consumer goods industries and the service trades or, worse yet, in the forefront of the unions and the strikes. Truman’s feeble request that the corporations open their books to government arbitration committees can only be interpreted as an attempt to consummate a truce until the contending forces are less evenly matched.

On the other hand, the left wing in the unions, fortified by the experiences of the struggle, will develop with greater rapidity and in greater strength than ever before. Despite the resistance of Murray, Hillman and Co., the movement for a labor party has already received a great impulsion. The demand of the Flint auto workers that the UAW initiate a labor party as a counter-weapon against the unconcealed Truman-Big Business partnership indicates coming developments. Each new stage of the struggle must accentuate and broaden the demand for a labor party. This demand is being thrust forward by the needs of the struggle itself and cannot now be so easily sabotaged or squashed by the top bureaucrats.

Out of the sit-downs of the ’30s was born the most dynamic class organization of the American workers, the CIO. Its further development along independent political lines, permitting it to challenge the entrenched state power of monopoly capitalism, was arrested by the war. The present strike wave marks the resumption and intensification of this significant development, thus confirming the prediction made by Leon Trotsky shortly before his assassination in 1940.

The second stage of radicalization in the United States will assume a more sharply expressive character. The problem of forming an independent labor party will be put on the order of the day. Our transitional demands will gain great popularity. … Ahead lies a favorable perspective, providing all the justification for revolutionary activism. It is necessary to utilize the opportunities which are opening up and to build the revolutionary party.

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