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Fourth International, July 1946


Review of the Month

President Truman and Second Phase
of the Strike Wave


From Fourth International, July 1946, Vol.7 No.7, pp.200-201.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


American Labor Since V-J Day

Since V-J Day the American working class has marched steadily forward. Victories and half-victories have crowned the strike battles involving millions of workers against the mightiest concentration of capital in the entire world. The lightning flashes of the coming storm were already clearly visible as steel workers followed auto workers on the picket lines and electrical, packing-house and mine workers filled in the ranks in quick succession.

In every strike the government intervened on the side of monopoly capitalism. Threats were implemented by government seizures designed to intimidate the unions. Helpless corporations passed the ball directly to the government which used its position to coerce timorous union leaders into accepting wage settlements one-third and more below their original demands. For a brief period the ruling class, grown arrogant and insolent from the feast of gold on which they had banqueted during the war, dreamed of a reversion to their robber-baron days when they had fought and defeated the workers in direct economic warfare. This time, however, there was no Pinkerton Agency big enough to supply strike-breakers to even make a dent in the strike front. Veterans remained generally sympathetic to the labor movement. And without a reserve army of unemployed there were not enough desperate men prepared for the role of scabbing. The use of local agencies of repression by City and State governments proved unavailing in the face of the knitted ranks of the workers who had weaved their forces together to an unprecedented degree of solidarity. General strikes in Stamford, Lancaster and Rochester forced the retirement of City and State police; the threat of a general strike in Philadelphia saved the Western Electric strike from defeat by police nightsticks.

Only one further major weapon remained at the immediate disposal of the capitalist class: The hurling of the Federal government itself against the strikers. The capitalists were fearful of using this weapon because they knew it would reveal in all its nakedness the long-existing but carefully concealed merger of the State and finance-capital. Effective as this weapon might be temporarily in smashing strikes, its unfailing consequence would be to drive the working class onto the political arena and accelerate the movement for an independent working-class party.

The class struggle, it was shown, cannot be fitted into a neat pattern like flowers in a Japanese print; the impact of large-scale battles often has the effect of destroying preconceived charts. The American ruling class, so confident of its power and its methods of exercising domination during “normal” times, was caught off-guard and proved unprepared to cope with the unfolding labor crisis. The railroad strike produced such a major crisis, or more accurately was one of the peaks of the crisis of class conflict which has rocked the country since last winter. Twice before the machinery of national economy was thrown out of gear through the walkouts in auto and steel. Their combined effect was a social crisis of the first magnitude. Reluctantly the bourgeoisie was forced to abandon its labor-crushing plans and acceded to a compromise with Murray and Reuther. But scarcely had the wheels begun to turn again than the strike of bituminous miners produced a creeping paralysis in the machinery of production again. At this point, the railroad workers pulled the switch.

Railroad Workers Not United

But the railroad strike, unfortunately, was not part of a general strike of all railroad workers. Only two craft unions were directly involved and they were led by fossilized, arch-conservative leaders. Without second thought the bourgeoisie seized the opportunity created by the exposed and isolated position of the two craft unions. If the railroad strike could be smashed, they calculated, the relationship of forces would be drastically altered, and a new offensive could be mounted against the labor movement. This strategy was immediately embraced by all sections of the ruling class with the unanimity and fervor such as comes from a supernatural revelation. The newspapers clamored for action; the president poured his venom on the railroad workers and mobilized the army to break the strike; Congress, whipped into a frenzy, applauded and howled for blood. Under the white-hot pressure, Whitney and Johnson wilted and ordered the trainmen and engineers back to work.

The first phase, the CIO phase of the strike wave, was concluded with the capitalists forced to retreat before the massive strength and solidarity of the unions and to grant partial concessions to the labor forces. The capitalists threw caution to the winds during the second phase of the strike wave in the case of the badly divided railroad workers. They thought they could recoup their losses and begin to move to clamp labor in an iron vise.

But when the trains began moving again, American politics began running on broader tracks. The proletariat was beginning to consolidate its dispersed trade union battalions into one army, facing the bourgeoisie as a class. This new factor was destroying the whole previous pattern of class relationships.

Truman succeeded in breaking the railroad strike and Congress sought immediately to capitalize on its first victory by passing the Case Bill. They were following, in broad outlines, the example of the British Tories who sealed the defeat of the 1926 British General Strike with the enactment of the vicious Trades Disputes Act. But the parallel was soon shown to be an illusory one; it was a case of wishful thinking. The proletariat was not defeated. Under the whip of government repression it quickly shook off the blow and returned to the fray in greater strength and unity than before. The ranks of the CIO, AFL and the Brotherhoods began to push down the dividing fences to find the protection of unity against the attacks of the class enemy. For the bourgeoisie to continue the offensive under these conditions could have led, step by step, to a military or semi-military dictatorship and to fierce and widespread actions against the state itself.

Frightened by the yawning chasm of class war that opened before it, the bourgeoisie retreated; their anti-labor offensive began to crumble before it had spent its initial momentum. A mood of uncertainty replaced the arrogant assurance which drove the Case Bill through the House in a few hours. The Senate quarrelled and cavilled for days, finally passing the bill without a very impressive majority. The grand anti-labor drama had been turned into a comedy with the President, who had only a few days before called for the most savage legislation, now compelled to write the veto message. Meanwhile Truman’s alternative Emergency Bill remains on the calendar. What is lacking is the generating power of an “emergency” to speed it through the legislative mill. The “emergency” could have been created by a strike in maritime, but the bourgeoisie, having witnessed the consequences of its first ventures into government organized strikebreaking, cancelled its elaborate strikebreaking plans and granted concessions to the maritime workers.

The strike wave has made it clear that the old equilibrium between the classes has been disrupted. Because of the continuing upswing in the economic cycle and because of the absence of revolutionary consciousness among the masses, the crisis has assumed primarily the form of economic struggle. The proletariat does not yet strive for state power; it has not yet broken politically with the two capitalist parties. But the workers’ economic struggles have unfolded on such a gigantic scale, rocking the whole structure of the productive system and jeopardizing the world imperialist plans of American capitalism, that the ruling plutocracy has been forced to seek new means to regulate the class struggle. The old laws have become scraps of paper because the old class relationships have disappeared.

Last Chapter Of An Era

When the Railway Labor Act received the coup de grace in the strike of the engineers and trainmen the last chapter of an entire era of political development was written. The Railway Labor Act was considered the ultimate in class collaboration legislation. In return for concessions, the railroad workers, one of the most privileged sections of labor, virtually surrendered in 1926 the right to strike by accepting an intricate network of conciliation, mediation and arbitration legislation. While such legislation was never extended beyond the railroad industry, other unions were induced to incorporate this class collaboration machinery in their agreements during the ’Twenties. It must be remembered that the union movement at this time was largely restricted to the skilled workers organized in the AFL. Strikes and organization drives among the unorganized mass production workers were put down primarily by the laws of the jungle; the industrialists maintained large private armies, extensive company unions and ramified systems of espionage to counteract any threat of organization. The constant introduction of new machinery and new methods of specialization slowly undermined the privileged position of the skilled workers. When the depression knocked the props from under American capitalism, it likewise undermined the AFL trade union movement. The stormy struggles of the ’Thirties, the great sit-down strikes, the organization of the mass production workers into the CIO shattered the labor relations system of the previous period. All that remained was the Railway Labor Act. Since that time the bourgeoisie has often looked back nostalgically to that simple “peaceful” past. While they could never again hope to persuade the unions to voluntarily accept the shackles of compulsory arbitration, they dreamed of a law that would extend the provisions of the railroad act to all industry. A strike under the railroad act had been considered inconceivable. When the inconceivable came to pass, the field of labor legislation became an uncharted wilderness.

Roosevelt’s contribution to the labor code consisted, on the one hand of a recognition of the new relationship of forces created in the class struggle and on the other hand an attempt to enmesh the union bureaucracy in the governmental machinery in return for preserving and standardizing concessions already won on the picket lines. Mass picket lines made injunction laws inoperative; they could only be enforced by such large bodies of armed men as to create the conditions of civil war. Industrial unions broke the power of company intimidation, thereby breaking the backbone of company unionism. A new and widespread militancy among the workers smashed the private armies of thugs, stool-pigeons and spies set up by the corporations. The Wagner Act incorporated these victories into law. But it must be remembered that under conditions of bitter class warfare, the Wagner Act served not only as a spur but also as a restraint on the workers’ struggles. The machinery of the NLRB created many illusions and became an obstacle once union organization was attained. Most of all, the illusions created by the Wagner Act helped immeasurably to regulate the scope and intensity of the class struggle.

It was with the outbreak of the war, however, that Roosevelt began to exact really heavy payment for the concessions given in the previous period. By presidential decree, rubber-stamped by Congress, a system of semi-compulsory arbitration was established under the War Labor Board. This system was made possible only by the voluntary surrender of the right to strike by the trade union bureaucracy. The coal miners’ strike in the third year of the war threatened to blow up Roosevelt’s labor decrees and their partial victory threatened to set afoot a general movement to overthrow the no-strike pledge. Faced with the possibility that the trade union bureaucrats would lose control over the workers, Roosevelt urged Congress to institute forced labor legislation for “the duration.” Congress rejected his proposal but in its place enacted the Smith-Connally Act over Roosevelt’s veto. Roosevelt predicted that the measure would prove ineffectual against unions determined to strike. This prediction was confirmed when he invoked the law against the coal miners in 1944.

Thin Armor For Strike Struggles

It was with this thin legal armor that the bourgeoisie entered the great post-war strike struggles. The War Labor Board collapsed with the ending of the war. The Smith-Connally Act encumbered the unions with legal technicalities but it could neither prevent strikes nor break them by government seizures. When Congress awakened to the fact that steel, auto, electrical and packinghouses workers had struck despite the Smith-Connally law, it began to howl for new laws. The Case Bill, first proposed last January, was not a new law but a compendium of the old jungle laws which had either been stricken from the statute books or had been invalidated by other legislation. Just two examples suffice:

  1. the revival of injunction proceedings and
  2. the right to bring suit against the unions for damages.

Why was this law, shelved under pressure of a stormy reaction by the labor movement last January, passed in June on the basis of a setback to one segment of the labor movement? Truman understands why. In essence, his veto message proceeds from the reality that the proletariat as a whole is undefeated and more strongly organized than ever before. As a matter of fact, the setback for the railroad unions acted like a cathartic in purging the working class of many dangerous illusions.

The labor crisis makes plain that American capitalism is still without a fundamental policy with regard to the labor movement. It attempted to tame the unions and drive down the workingman’s standard of living by economic warfare and it has failed. It then attempted to throttle this powerful, undefeated labor giant by means of savage legislation and government strike-breaking. That attempt, too, must be put down as a failure. The capitalist class now at last is beginning to understand that its methods of the past have outlived their usefulness; that, despite its great power and wealth, its rule rests on none too sturdy foundations. The American capitalist class will be driven to use the same forceful and barbaric measures against the workers, as were employed by its European counterparts to rescue their decayed rule.

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