From Fourth International, February 1947, Vol.8 No.2, pp.35-37.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.
A year ago American labor replied to wage slashes and soaring prices which cut deeply into their living standards by engaging in the most extensive and effective series of strike actions in its history. In January 1946 the total man-days on strike jumped to a record 19,400,000 and in February they attained a postwar peak of 23,000,000. During these two months workers in auto, meat-packing, steel, farm equipment, electrical equipment and textiles hit the picket lines. This mighty offensive of industrial labor set back the union-busting schemes of the corporations, placed them on the defensive, and secured significant wage gains for the unions.
The beginning of 1947 presents a somewhat different picture of capital-labor relations in the United States. The strike movement is at a low ebb for the postwar period. Capitalist reaction has succeeded for the time being in regaining the upper hand. The workers are under heavy attack while their enemies are poised to deal new blows at organized labor.
Two big developments toward the end of 1946 marked the shift in the situation. One was the victory of the Republican Party in the November elections which intensified and fortified the sharp swing to the right already manifested by the Truman administration. Then came the abrupt termination of the coal strike in December by John L. Lewis. The miners were subjected to ferocious attack by the entire plutocracy, the government, and the courts which used injunctions, $3,510,000 in fines, and threats of imprisonment to break the strike. Lewis ordered this retreat, although the miners stood firm and all sections of the labor movement appeared ready to back their fight.
These events emboldened Big Business and lowered the morale of the workers. Now the agents of the monopolists are preparing to follow up their advantage by imposing new restraints upon organized labor. The gigantic strike movements of 1946 gave the employers considerable respect for labor’s power on the industrial front. Direct strikebreaking by means of thugs, scabs and trumped-up “back-to-work” movements which proved effective in the past have now become outdated. To curb the struggles of the workers and whittle down their demands, the employers have recently had to rely in most cases upon government intervention and weak-kneed union leaders.
Unable to break up organized labor by frontal assault, Big Business is seeking to weaken and undermine the unions by legislative means. The main front of the war upon labor is now concentrated on the political field where the capitalist rulers are strongest and labor is so pitifully weak.
The opening of the 80th Congress at Washington early in January saw a whole sack of anti-labor measures poured into the legislative machinery. There is virtually no opposition within the government itself to this union-crippling drive. Although Truman in his message refrained from openly endorsing the most savage proposals of the Republicans, he invited Congress to enact restrictions upon nation-wide strikes in coal, railroads, and other big industries. In any event, the Republicans completely control Congress and have the power to override a White House veto.
How far the labor-haters intend to go is demonstrated by the viciousness of the bills they have introduced. The principal measure being promoted by the Republican leaders is the Ball-Taft-Smith bill, a remodeled version of the Case bill vetoed last year by President Truman. This bill outlaws strikes for union recognition; prohibits check-off of union dues; requires financial reports to the government by unions; denies the right of collective bargaining under the Wagner Act to foremen, plant guards or inspectors. Welfare funds controlled entirely by unions cannot be supported by employer contributions.
Unions that strike while agreements are in force can be penalized and workers who strike in defiance of contracts and without official union permission can be fired. Mediation and Arbitration Boards are to be established to render decisions binding on both sides. Jurisdictional strikes and secondary boycotts are forbidden. “Cooling-off periods” of 60 days after the Mediation Board’s intervention are provided for, and workers may be fired for striking during these periods. Provisions are also made for the use of injunctions.
Harsh penalties for violating these drastic provisions are included in the Ball-Taft-Smith bill. Individuals can get a year in jail, fines up to $5,000, or both; unions can be sued for triple damages by the bosses.
It would seem that the authors of this omnibus bill have left little undone to gratify the National Association of Manufacturers. But a host of other anti-labor measures have been listed in both the Senate and House to take care of anything Ball, Taft and Smith have neglected. There are proposals to amend and castrate the Wagner National Labor Relations Act, limit industry-wide bargaining and strikes, outlaw the closed shop, weaken the Norris-LaGuardia anti-injunction law, and swindle workers out of portal-to-portal pay.
One of the most vindictive of these bills has been offered by Senator Ball to prohibit unions from negotiating with corporations outside a 100-mile area. This would in effect bar national unions from collective bargaining. At the same time the big monopolies would be left free to concentrate their full force against local unions. Thus the industrialists aim to chop the unions into little pieces so as to destroy them more easily.
While the corporation representatives in Congress are contriving to rob the workers of billions owed them in portal-to-portal wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act, they are preparing to reduce tax payments by the rich. Representative Knutson of Minnesota, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has proposed a 20 per cent cut in personal income taxes up to $302,000 which would bring tremendous windfalls to the wealthy but no real relief to the low-income groups. Whereas an average steel worker might save $5.60 in 1947 taxes under this bill, Tom Girdler, Republic Steel president, would keep $42,417 more of his $275,000 salary.
The 79th Congress which was under Democratic control did not pass a single bit of progressive legislation. The FEPC was filibustered to death. The proposal to raise unemployment compensation to $25 a week was knifed. The bill for a 65-cent an hour minimum wage was blocked.
Certainly the new Republican-dominated Congress with the labor-baiters running amok will not be less hostile toward the demands of the people or less subservient to Big Business. The Republican majority is not only trying to bottle up such progressive measures as anti-lynch and anti-poll tax bills, minimum wage legislation, and veterans’ housing appropriations. It is intent upon weakening and destroying many rights such as the National Labor Relations Act that the workers have won by their past struggles.
It is clear to every realistic observer of American politics that the prewar era of reforms is dead and buried. The political agents of Wall Street are today driving in the opposite direction. Their program, dictated by the needs of US monopoly capitalism to master the world and to degrade the living standards of American labor, must become increasingly reactionary and dictatorial. Instead of yielding new concessions to the masses, the capitalists have resolved to withdraw the old ones wherever they can. This postwar period is therefore an era of counter-reforms, of ever-deepening reaction which can be combatted and changed only by a coordinated political and economic offensive of the working class.
The official labor leaders least of all understand the real character of the present situation. Blind to the signs of the times, they continue to rely upon the old methods of class collaboration, of “business unionism,” of running to the White House for a few favors and lobbying in Congress to head off the worst anti-labor moves. Such rotten methods were never worth much, but they are hopelessly ineffectual today.
Now that all basic industry is organized, every important wage negotiation in steel, auto, coal, railroad, maritime, etc., becomes a crucial test of strength between monopoly capital and organized labor to determine what share of the national income each class will receive. Every big strike in industry and transportation tends inexorably to become transformed into a political issue of the first magnitude. That is the main reason why Truman turned upon Whitney of the Railroad Trainmen and John L. Lewis and proceeded ruthlessly to smash the rail and coal strikes. Under pressure from Big Business, Truman had to reassert the threatened supremacy of the capitalist class and its government over the insurgent labor movement.
Under these conditions only the full mobilization of labor’s forces and resources for all-out battle against the monopolists and their government agents can beat back the reactionary offensive and win new gains for the workers. The capitalist rulers are determined to punish labor for presuming to challenge its privileges and power. The Washington politicians are not disposed to make face-saving deals with the union leaders. It requires an aroused, united and fighting labor movement to force them to grant further concessions.
But the union chiefs fear to take the path of struggle either on the industrial or the political arenas. They no longer hope for measurable improvement in the conditions of the workers. They would be happy to hold on to what they have and, above all, retain their bureaucratic privileges.
Some have already indicated they are not at all averse to revisions in the labor statutes. With their class collaborationist outlook they are eager to resume their role in the days of the no-strike pledge when they policed the rank and file for the benefit of the corporations and their government. The pending restrictive legislation offers the reactionary union officialdom new weapons for bureaucratizing the unions and victimizing militants who resist the policy of capitulation and sell-out.
What a disgusting spectacle such leaders present! Fearing to break with an administration that has so often kicked them in the face, fearing to summon their forces for independent struggle against the Congressional anti-labor drive, they yield up one position after another to the class enemy without a fight. The AFL Metal Trades Department has shamefully declared that portal pay suits are a “dishonor” and condemned the CIO for trying to collect such payments from the employers. The heads of 15 million organized workers are down on their knees, begging the representatives of a handful of monopolists not to hit them too hard! This most militant working class has the most cowardly and short-sighted leadership!
During the coal strike not a single voice in the administration or Congress was raised in defense of the miners. Republicans and Democrats alike, including their “liberal” wings, acted in unison against the miners. The executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government worked together as a strikebreaking team. Now labor finds itself menaced by a fiercely hostile Congress dominated by the most direct and unabashed tools of Wall Street.
Despite this manifest bankruptcy of their policy of dependence upon the capitalist parties, the union bureaucrats show no signs of changing their course. One section of the bureaucracy headed by Murray evokes the ghost of Roosevelt, seeks to reform the Democratic Party, and revive the New Deal. But the New Deal is a stinking corpse which the prayers of Murray and the Stalinists cannot resurrect. With Wallace, the last survivor of the liberal wing has been unceremoniously kicked out of the administration. The disintegrating Democratic machine is securely in the hands of the Truman-Byrnes gang, who are cooperating closely with the Republicans.
Another part of the union bureaucracy is turning away from the Democrats and trying to come to terms with the Republican majority who hold the power. Their price is not high. They would be content if the Republicans would consent to divert or soften the blows in store for them.
This submissive attitude of the labor leaders makes the capitalists more arrogant and contemptuous and all the more determined to crush the unions. And it helps sow confusion and demoralization in the ranks of the workers.
The mass production workers are today in a state of suspended animation, of watchful waiting. They are somewhat baffled and perplexed by the obstacles in their way. The most critical-minded are thoughtfully reviewing the experiences of the past year and trying to find answers to such fundamental questions as these: Why, after a year of intense struggles, do we find ourselves in retreat before the attacks by Big Business? How were the wage gains won on the picket lines so quickly wiped out by the price-gougers and profiteers? Why do we, who are so strong in industry, count for so little in the political life of the country? What must be done to change this situation, to halt the labor-baiters, and get out of the present stalemate?
Throughout the past year the Socialist Workers Party has been energetically advancing a program designed to solve these pressing problems. One of the principal points in this program is the sliding scale of wages as the best means of defense against the constantly rising cost of living. With the jump in prices following the scrapping of price regulations, this proposal put forward by our party alone has been gaining support. The demand for a sliding wage scale has been approved by numerous auto, steel, rubber, packinghouse and other unions. In the form of a “cost-of-living” bonus, it has been included in the contract recently signed by the CIO Oil Workers with the Sinclair Oil Company.
The refusal of the majority of union leaders to fight for the sliding scale of wages has cost the workers dearly. The increases gained through strike action have been quickly cancelled out by price rises. The workers are now confronted with the need to engage in new struggles under less favorable conditions to retain what they previously won. Instead of regaining prewar levels, their real wages are driven ever lower.
Early in 1946 during the first great strike wave urged a United National Conference of Labor, with representation from all parts of the union movement, to achieve a common strategy and launch a unified struggle in defense of labor’s rights and living standards. Later the UAW-CIO and many other unions from coast to coast endorsed this proposal. Finally, on Dec. 6, CIO President Philip Murray proclaimed: “It has become self-evident that there is a deliberate and monstrous movement under way to cripple, if not destroy, the labor movement of this country.” To counteract this Big Business conspiracy, Murray called for a joint meeting of the leaders of the three national labor organizations, the CIO, AFL, and Railroad Brotherhoods.
So far the leadership has done nothing to implement this proposal. It is clear that unity of action, which is so imperative, can and will be achieved only through the insistent pressure of the ranks upon the reluctant top leadership. By initiating joint conferences on a local and state basis the ranks can forge a solid fighting front and muster their maximum strength on a national scale for a successful repulse to Wall Street’s war on labor.
The third main point in the Socialist Workers Party’s program is the Labor party. The swing toward reaction in Washington, the disillusionment with the Democratic Party, the revulsion against Truman’s strikebreaking, the rout of the PAC-endorsed candidates in November and the fiasco of the PAC-CIO’S policies, the obvious helplessness of organized labor on the political field have prepared the advanced workers for a complete break with the capitalist parties and the creation of a party of their own. From Green and Murray to Reuther and the Stalinists, the top union leaders are conniving to block the road to independent political action.
But fresh forces are surging up in the states and in the localities in support of the immediate launching of a Labor Party. The auto workers of Flint, Michigan, heart of the General Motors empire, have taken concrete steps in this direction. The Big Four GM locals there, Chevrolet, Buick, Fisher Body and A.C. Spark Plug, have set up committees to organize a Labor Party in the, Sixth Congressional District. Their slogan is: “Fight Reaction with Independent Political Action! Build a Labor Party Now.” Similar developments are taking place in Chicago and other industrial centers.
Wherever the labor party movement is strongest and its supporters best-organized, wherever opposition to the disastrous political course of the bureaucracy is most principled and effective, the influence of our ideas is unmistakable. The events of the past year have demonstrated what vast power is lodged in our clear-cut program and how attractive it is to the best militants in the unions. By persistent agitation and active intervention the slogans of a small party can spread rapidly through the mass movement and help lead it forward. Our ideas have gained influence because they supply realistic answers to the problems confronting the American workers.
The fight to maintain and advance living standards, the task of forging unity of action against the offensive of the monopolists and their government, the unpostponable need of building labor’s own political party – this program of struggle can be promoted and realized only by the trade union militants. To break the grip of the officialdom upon the unions and thus release the gigantic power of organized labor, the militants must organize their dispersed forces into a cohesive left wing. This is the prerequisite for the struggle to smash the anti-labor assault.
This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.
Last updated on 12.2.2009