From Fourth International, July-August 1947, Vol.8 No.7, pp.195-198.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.
The monied plutocracy has succeeded in dealing labor a body blow with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Slave Labor Law. After almost two years of attacking, retreating, maneuvering, tacking, changes of pace, etc., the Big Boys over in Wall Street perfected their technique, mounted an offensive in the press, radio and legislative halls which had the trade union leaders groggy and terrified, maintained their offensive in the face of resistance, and finally, at the climactic moment, sank the knife into labor’s flesh. This legislative assault has hurled labor back on the defensive and has kept it in retreat for almost six months: Make no mistake about it: the industrialists have won an important engagement and labor has suffered an important setback. This towering fact should not be lost sight of because of the first-class agreement which Lewis has just recently been able to squeeze out of the mine operators, and the press campaign that it has inspired of pooh-poohing the Taft-Hartley Act.
The various provisions of this law and their meaning have been analyzed many times by the CIO and AFL legal staffs, and it is unnecessary to repeat them here. Su5ce it to say that the law is so draconian, that if the various provisions would be literally observed and scrupulously administered, the law could spell the death knell of free unionism in America.
Before attempting to assay the law’s various effects in the American scene, let us ask: How did the plutocracy get away with it? How could it put across, with such relative ease, a law so savage, so punitive, so menacing, not only to the rights of the working men but also to the privileges and careers of the labor bureaucrats? The United States, after all, is still operating under conditions of a free capitalist democracy. The trade union movement is very strong. It possesses a huge apparatus in the form of buildings, staffs, newspapers, money. It employs vast influence. It has not suffered any major defeat. Its fighting powers remain unimpaired. Why couldn’t it stop this legislative attack? But a year and a half ago 2 million workers manned the picket lines, shut down the country’s main industries, halted the union-busting efforts of the industrialists, forced through wage concessions, and had the plutocracy stunned by its exhibition of sheer power. Why is this same union movement so helpless today? What has changed?
Paradoxical though it may seem, the very victory of the 1945-46 strikes laid the groundwork for the present defeat. Despite its superb display of strength the labor movement did not go beyond the limits of pure-and-simple trade unionism in its strike aims. It is true that Walter Reuther, head of the General Motors strike in 1946, voiced several far-reaching social slogans in the course of the battle, but even these were conceived of as little more than incidental propagandistic devices to help win public support for the strike. Reuther later told reporters that these slogans were merely “stunts” to help put the GM corporation “over a barrel.” Murray denounced President Truman over the radio during the General Motors strike. But he, likewise, didn’t mean to have his denunciation taken too seriously. Murray wasn’t breaking with capitalist politics. He was merely bringing “pressure to bear.” Thus the gigantic post-war strike wave – matchless in its show of solidarity, dazzling in its capacities for large-scale offensive warfare – was never permitted by its leaders to move beyond the limits of the mine-run economic strike. Right in the midst of the strike wave, it was already obvious to us Marxists that the limited trade union aims and narrow economic program of the CIO were inadequate, not only to improve labor’s standard of living, but even to maintain it.
The American trade union movement has grown so big and strong, it is such a power, it commands such resources and mass backing, that it cannot venture on any large-scale undertaking or action without shaking the whole economic edifice to its foundation and inspiring the latent social revolt of the underprivileged and downtrodden. The attempt to limit this labor giant to the hit-and-run methods and narrow economic goals of the old craft unions striking against a corner grocery or a small building contractor-that is unrealistic and cannot be indefinitely maintained. The capitalists understand this very well. Unfortunately, this truth is not yet appreciated by the serried millions in the union ranks, and is resisted and denied, with a zeal bordering on the fanatical, by the trade union bureaucrats.
There is a reason for this lag in the thinking of the American workers, even the mass production workers of the CIO. For the first six years of the existence of the CIO, these workers registered uninterrupted gains: Wages were improved, the unorganized were organized, shop steward systems were established, and shop conditions were literally revolutionized. The CIO program of industrial unionism, organization of the basic industries, trade union democracy, shop steward representation, mass action, militant conduct of strikes, solidarity in strike struggles-this, the essential program of the CIO in its crusading days, produced resplendent victories that brought the haughty industrial magnates to their knees; and even later, assured continued progress and improvement. The war years – what with Roosevelt’s organizational concessions to the trade union leaders; and the sharp rise in weekly wages, due to over. time work and the shortage of labor – served to obscure the fact that the original program of the CIO was played out and no longer adequate to solve the tasks at hand.
A great American sociologist demonstrated many years ago that human thinking lags behind its experience. That is why the CIO workers – even the best, most experienced layers – are still sick with the illusion of trade union reformism. As for their leaders, the men who 10 years ago came out of the shops as militant trade unionists, aggressive picket captains, zealous fighters – they have for the most part settled down to the respectable and not unlucrative profession of “labor faking.” They have emerged as, a new bureaucracy parallel to its older counterpart of the AFL. Its individuals are younger, more aggressive, more socially minded – that is, they tend toward social democracy in their thinking rather than Syndicalism; but nonetheless, they are indubitable members of the “profession.” Ten years was sufficient for American imperialism to tame and corrupt the leaders of the new industrial union movement.
The very victory of the CIO unions in 1946 brought home with redoubled force the fact that the CIO no longer had a program, that trade unionism alone, even militant industrial unionism, could not cope with the tasks of this epoch, even in the United States; could not improve or maintain labor’s standard of living; could not gain economic security for the working class.
No sooner did the auto, steel, electrical unions, etc., win their 18½ cent hourly wage increases than their victory turned to ashes. Because the capitalists, using their monopoly of the levers of government, proceeded with the war’s end to smash all price controls. Given the desperate shortages both at home and abroad, and the monstrous expansion of money deriving from the $260 billion governmental debt, prices began zooming. The 18½ cent increase was quickly wiped out and soon the workers were taking one concealed wage cut after another.
At this point, had the union leaders been awake to their responsibilities and the facts of life, they could have mobilized the masses for a class attack against the plutocracy. The whole course of the class struggle cried aloud for a break with the two parties who had unloosed the plague of inflation upon the people. A climactic moment had arrived for the launching of a new party of the working people to halt the barefaced thievery, the conscienceless profiteering, the criminal misrule of the privileged few. If in addition, an extraordinary conference of labor had been convened in the face of this emergency, and had this conference declared all union contracts abrogated and demanded the insertion of an escalator clause in every new contract – then the battle would have been joined on new higher ground. The labor ranks, seeing the inescapable logic of the whole struggle, and the eficacy of this new program, would have plunged into the fight with fervor and determination. Labor’s forces were still fresh and unspent. But in the face of these new more complicated social and political tasks, Murray, Reuther, the Stalinists, were as pitiful, as bewildered, as helpless, as old Lady Green was a decade ago in the face of the brutal might of the steel and auto barons.
Meeting in the fall of 1946 in the midst of the worst inflationary spiral since the war, the CIO Executive Board could propose nothing better than “buyers’ strikes,” and plaintively called upon Truman to “hold the line” on prices. Even this “program” sounded a bit too radical to the mossbacks of the AFL Council. The AFL spokesmen decided to ignore the government. They addressed themselves directly to the workers to fight inflation – by “increasing production now!”
Isn’t this a most eloquent testimonial that simple trade unionism is helpless before the new tasks confronting the American working class?
The strategists of the American bourgeoisie were quick to seize upon this bewilderment and lack of counter-offensive in the labor ranks, and turn it to their own advantage. With diabolical ingenuity they connected up two completely separate things – the wage increases, and the inflationary spiral; and demagogically pretended that the former was the cause of the latter. Then presto! The campaign was unloosed on a helpless people, a campaign more terrifying than was ever a Hitler blitz. Learned economists came forward with yards of statistics; pious clerics quoted the Bible; eminent historians recalled the past; psychologists pointed to human nature. The newspapers poured it on. The radio blared away. And it all added up to the same thing: Wage increases were responsible for the inflation!
Any detective trained in the practice of the “third degree” upon his helpless victims can tell you: There is just so much punishment the human animal can take and no more. Besides, big masses cannot be educated by means of occasional editorials, but by their experience, by action. This is all the more true, as the capitalists have a monopoly of the press. The big trade unions do not own so much as one single daily paper; all they possess are tiny house organs. So, in the absence of a counter-program and a counter-campaign from labors’ side, the workingman grew increasingly depressed by his declining standard of living, and finally big labor sections even came to the conclusion that where there was so much smoke, maybe there was some fire; that possibly wage increases were not the answer, as they only set off new spirals of price increases! The fake capitalist propaganda had struck home.
In retrospect one can see that despite the union’s spectacular successes on the strike fronts in 1946, they were not able to even maintain labor’s living standards; that real wages continued dropping, while real profits continued going up. The division of the national income was altering – in favor of the rich! That is how the very victories of the unions became a source of demoralization. The workers became terrified at the thought of long, drawn-out, costly strikes – for what? They could not see that the sacrifices would be justified.
Thus was engendered the present mood of sulkiness and bewilderment. It was the inflation and the absence of a clear program to combat it that drained the energies of the workers, dampened their will to fight and prepared the ground for the present legislative assault upon labor. It was this instinctive feeling that the labor movement was without a perspective, that accounted for the workers’ fear of strikes and their readiness to accept the recent 11½ cent wage increases – which do not even begin to make up for the price rises of the past year. And that is why the capitalist masters felt that the workers were sufficiently softened up for the grand assault that is the Taft-Hartley Act. What they could not find the courage to push through a year ago after the railroad strike, they finally decided they could safely do now. Labor, they figured, had been sufficiently demoralized. The failure of the union leadership to fight the inflation produced, as we see, results no less disastrous than if they had failed to fight for the integrity of their organizations and their wage standards after V-J Day.
What lies ahead for labor now? How will the Taft-Hartley Law affect the relationship of capital and labor? Some labor writers think the new law will have an effect in the United States similar to the Taff Vale decision in England, when in 1901 the Railway Servants Union was fined over $200,000 for the cost of a strike. Soon afterwards 29 labor candidates and 14 miner MP’s were elected to the British Parliament, and the British labor movement began concentrating its efforts on legal reforms; so that by 1906 the Taff Vale judgment was reversed by Parliament and the Trade Union Disputes Act was passed.
Actually, there are so many telling differences between American conditions today and British conditions in 1901, that the analogy is a far from perfect one.
First, no man alive can tell precisely what the new law will mean in practice, how it will actually affect the functioning of the unions. The Slave Labor Law is such an exhaustive compendium of all the anti-labor techniques and union-busting methods of the last half century, that were it scrupulously observed and enforced, it would, without a peradventure of a doubt, cut the trade unions to ribbons. It is unthinkable, however, that this huge, self-confident, undefeated movement will permit that-without waging the most ferocious battles in its self-defense. This is all the more assured because the new law, breaking sharply with the guiding Rooseveltian policy of granting concessions to the trade union bureaucracy, strikes as savagely at the latter and its positions and privileges, as it does at the rights of the rank and file worker.
It is equally sure, however, that the crew of monied pirates who rule the destinies of this land, did not pass this law without meaning to use it. It would be the greatest error to imagine that Lewis’ victory establishes the pattern, and that the industrialists will collapse under the threat of a strike. On the contrary, a more correct impression of the industrialists’ designs can be gotten from a study of the tragic Allis-Chambers’ strike and the recent refusal of the East Coast shipyards to grant the 11_ cent pattern won in the other basic industries. The precise meaning of the new law and how it will be enforced will be decided, not by the interpretations of constitutional lawyers, but in the struggle.
Let us recall at this point the globe-encircling aspirations of the American plutocracy; the disintegration of the whole system of capitalism; the $260 billion internal US debt; the plans of the masters to drastically lower the American workers’ standard of living and to chop up their organizations to the point where they are weak, puny and ineffectual. Let us add to this the fact that the American workers are only temporarily stunned, but have not been defeated in any big engagement; that their organizations are intact; that their ability to wage warfare has not diminished; and that their morale can rise at a moment’s notice, given the leadership, or the issue, or sufficient provocation from the enemy quarters. Add all this up and it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the coming stage, especially if an economic depression intervenes, will witness a flurry of furiously-fought defensive battles, which, sooner or later can turn into a new major test of strength.
This is one important difference with the British situation of 1901.
Will the trade union bureaucracy take the road of independent labor political action, as did their British counterparts at the turn of the century? Here again the differences between the two situations are even more important than the similarities. It was possible and relatively easy for the British trade union bureaucrats to organize at the turn of the century an independent political party on the basis of modest advances and small concessions; without breaking with capitalism, and within the fold of respectability. The American trade union bureaucracy confronts enormous difficulties along this path.
We are not speaking here of the technical difficulties usually mentioned by the capitalist or trade union journalists, such as the difficulty in getting on the ballot in many of the states, the huge numbers of signatures required, etc., etc. The electoral laws in the United States are scandalously undemocratic and place every possible obstacle in the day of a new party. But these technical difficulties have been exaggerated out of all proportion, and employed as a bugaboo to scare off workers from thinking in terms of a new political party. A truly mass movement can hurdle all these obstacles without too much trouble.
The real difficulty, so far as the labor bureaucrats are concerned, is that the emergence today of a new labor-backed political party would have earth-shattering effects on the political and social scene in America. The bureaucrats fear – and with reason – that they could not effectively control such a mass movement and would be more its prisoners than its directors. Lacking all ambition of becoming rebels, but seeking rather to demonstrate their “statesmanship” and “broad gauge” attitude to the powers-that-be, the trade union bureaucrats are shying away in fright from launching a new political party. The whole venture appears to them as fraught with more risk and danger than the organization of the mass production workers did to Tobin, Green, Frey, Hutcheaon and Co. twelve years ago.
Wallace’s semi-break with the Democratic Party leadership highlights how hopelessly entangled is the labor bureaucracy in the web of the capitalist status quo. Wallace’s recent national tour was a sensationally successful one. Huge crowds came to listen to him and purchased high-priced tickets for this dubious privilege. The tour’s success exceeded all previous expectations and frightened out of their wits the top Democratic leaders. The response to Wallace, taken in conjunction with other recent developments, unquestionably demonstrates that the time is rotten ripe for the launching of a new political party; that such a movement can revolutionize politics and transform the face of America more profoundly than did the crusade for industrial unionism in 1936-37. Yet the bulk of the trade union bureaucracy – outside of the Stalinists and those who cooperate with them – has fled from Wallace. Why? These bureaucrats agree with Wallace 100 per cent on his domestic program. His windy, fuzzy, gutless philosophy of mild social reform is the same as theirs. He was the darling of all CIO leaders during Roosevelt’s lifetime. Why is there such a lack of sympathy between them today? In 1935, at least a section of the old AFL bureaucracy broke with the parent organization and went over to head and capture the industrial union movement. Why no similar development today on the political front?
The factor which has split down the middle the trade union movement, as well as the ranks of the liberals, is also responsible for the labor bureaucrats’ break with Wallace and the consequent stymying of Wallace’s third Party movement. That factor is the government’s foreign policy: its offensive against Russia; and the corollary of this – the drive at home to wipe out the Communist Party. The sharp split inside the CIO and the liberal organizations has nothing to do with trade union matters or polities at home. It is based exclusively on one proposition: are you for the Truman Doctrine? And if you are, will you refuse to work, cooperate or have any truck with the members, sympathizers or fellow travelers of the Communist Party? Murray, Reuther and the other “responsible leaders” of the CIO, not to mention the whole AFL hierarchy, have all passed this examination of the US State Department. They have given satisfactory affirmative replies. Wallace has flunked this examination. Hence the break between the two. That is why the Wallace third party movement remains in a state of suspended animation. That is why its immediate future is highly doubtful. And that is also the reason why Reuther and some of the other of the most vigorous and energetic of the CIO bureaucrats have grown so thoroughly soured on the question of a new political party. As a matter of fact one would not be far wrong in saying that the present third party movement has foundered on the rock of the Truman Doctrine.
It is difficult to see how the present split in the ranks of the liberals and the CIO can be healed in the face of the sharpening relations between the United States and Russia and the ever more bellicose line of the State Department. Does this signify that no labor party will emerge in the United States? No. But it does mean that the fate of the labor party movement is very intimately tied up with the growth of a sturdy left wing inside the trade unions. The building of a left wing-in other words, the creation of a new leadership basing itself on a left wing program, whose foremost plank will be the labor party – that involves a drawn-out, complicated, difficult process. Even the best militants in the leading union shops and the militant local union officers have not yet bridged the gap in their thinking between the present bankrupt policies and the tasks imposed by the historical circumstances. Even where individual militants and local union officers have learned the necessity for a new left wing program and approach, their actions still do not go beyond the passage of good resolutions or the adoption of strong protests. But a real left wing can emerge and grow strong only as it aggressively puts forward its own left wing program in opposition to the official program, and as it challenges for leadership the present encrusted bureaucracy.
The American workers had to go through the horrors of the 1929 economic crisis, and then the repeated sell-outs of the AFL bureaucrats in textiles, auto, steel, rubber, etc. during the NRA period, before they could harden, train and thrust out of their midst a new leadership capable of challenging not only America’s industrial barons, but also the AFL bureaucracy, which labored with might and main to obstruct, sabotage and destroy the nascent industrial union movement. It is therefore not surprising that it is taking time and painful effort, and entails much trial and error, to organize a new left wing that can overcome the inertia and conservatism of the CIO bureaucracy and challenge the capitalist masters on the decisive political front.
But the process has obviously begun. We see it in innumerable signs: the staging of local political demonstrations; the local labor electoral campaigns (Oakland, California, etc.); the passage by the unions of many left wing resolutions; general strikes in localities against police brutality and strike-breaking, etc., etc. The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, and the new higher struggles that it is sure to engender, will provide the American workers with a liberal college education in class struggle politics. Often before deciding to leap over a wide chasm, a man will step back in hesitation and fear, seeking to find the internal fortitude to make the jump. That is the picture of American labor today. It is building up its strength and courage and training its cadres for the big leap ahead.
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Last updated on 16.2.2009