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Fourth International, March-April 1951


Joseph Andrews

The Union Leaders’ Walkout


From Fourth International, Vol.12 No.2, March-April 1951, pp.40-44.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Hard on the heels of the political crisis precipitated by the “Great Debate” among the ruling circles over US foreign policy, comes the crisis over domestic policy, dramatized by the walkout on February 28 of all labor representatives from war mobilization posts.

Thus, at the very start of their all-out offensive for world domination, the American imperialists are confronted with social and political problems of the first magnitude both at home and abroad.

Both sides of this crisis of capitalist policy spring from the same source: the resistance of the peoples to the total war program of Washington.

Only strong pressures from the union membership could have produced a public statement so sharp as that issued by the United Labor Policy Committee (the ULPC) on the occasion of its break with the administration set-up. The bitter attack in their statement diverges completely in tone from their normal subservience. Here is the principal part of the text:

On February 16 we announced that we had become thoroughly disillusioned with the conduct of the defense mobilization program. We made the deliberate charge that big business was dominating the program ...

Since then we have spelled out our indictment in detail to the President of the United States and to the heads of agencies under him. We have talked and we have listened. After full and complete exchanges of information, our original convictions have been more than confirmed.

What does this mean but that after talking with Truman the labor officials were doubly convinced that Big Business was firmly in the saddle? The statement then enumerates the major grievances of the workers:

  1. We are today confronted with a price order (issued by price administrator Eric Johnston) which amounts to a legalized robbery of every American consumer, together with a wage order which denies justice and fair play to every American who works for wages ... Wages and salaries of all Americans are now bound under the most rigid controls in the history of our country.
  2. The door has been slammed in our faces on the vital problem of manpower, which directly affects the workers we represent ... So long as the control of manpower rests in the Office of Defense Mobilization (Charles E. Wilson) no wage or salary earner may feel safe that the Big Business clique in control of that agency may not seek to achieve a compulsory draft of the nation’s workers.
  3. There has been no affirmative action to meet our basic position that equality of sacrifice must be the guiding and indispensable principle in the defense program.
  4. We have also arrived at the inescapable conclusion that such representation which already has been accorded to labor ... and such further representation as is now offered are merely for the purpose of window dressing ... Mr. Wilson ... would now accept window dressing, supplied by labor, to cover the back-room activities of the leaders of industry who staff the ODM. He will get no such window dressing from the men and women of American labor.
  5. We have, however, publicly stated, and we now reiterate, that we are prepared to participate in a reconstituted tripartite Wage Stabilization and Disputes Board which would administer a fair and equitable policy.

The ULPC followed this action by announcing a national conference of 700 union representatives from local central bodies, to be held in Washington March 20. This conference, say its sponsors, will rally all American consumers against the attack on their living standards. Labor spokesmen state they will organize unionists, housewives, farmers and small businessmen against the Big Business steal.

It can be seen from their statement and subsequent steps, that although the labor officials carefully leave the door open for a compromise, the coalition with the Democratic administration is beginning to fall apart and threat-ents to be permanently ruptured.

The Democrat-labor coalition which began with Roosevelt’s NRA (“New Deal”) matured during and after the rise of the CIO. It was strengthened during World War II, although it required skillful skating on thin ice by Roosevelt and the labor fakers to skim over the cracks created by the four wartime strikes of the United Mine Workers and the great 1945 rubber strike.

The coalition began to crack with the nation-wide strike wave in 1945-46, which was met fby Truman’s open strike-breaking attacks. Seriously threatened in 1947, it was patched up during Truman’s demagogically radical presidential campaign on the “Fair Deal” platform of 1948. These postwar developments indicated that the old equilibrium between the classes in the US was being disrupted beyond easy repair.

The July 1946 issue of our magazine predicted that the American capitalists would seek to use the “same forceful and barbaric measures against the workers as were employed by its European counterparts to rescue their decayed rule.” The Taft-Hartley Law, the red-baiting drive and witch-hunt, and now threats to the living standards are part of this process, and a confirmation of our prediction.

The President has attempted to dismiss the action of the labor leaders in splitting with administration policy as a mere “disagreement.” However, even the fawning pro-administration New York Post observed that

“Mr. Truman can’t lightly brush it off or pretend that nothing has happened ... It climaxes a long chapter of history. The New Deal (under Roosevelt) was never a labor government. But it was a government in which labor’s voice was heard and respected.”

The labor leaders have echoed these complaints, indicating a desire to return to the “good old Roosevelt” days by calling for a Wage Board on the model of the War Labor Board of World War II.

There is, it is true, marked difference between Truman’s labor relations policy and that of Roosevelt. But the difference is not alone in the personalities of the two capitalist politicians. It goes much deeper and flows from the profoundly altered needs and circumstances of US capitalism today.

Roosevelt-Labor Coalition

In the years preparatory to and during World War II, it was possible for the union bureaucracy to maintain their coalition with Roosevelt without too much friction, for several reasons:

  1. The war mobilization and production program began with a big section of the industrial apparatus idle and with a large surplus of labor available (10 million unemployed). The addition of new members to the wage-earning group in many cases increased family income. Long hours of work and overtime pay enabled workers to maintain and in some cases even to increase take-home pay. The economy was not under as heavy a burden of public debt and price and credit inflation.
  2. The war itself had a quite different appearance to the eyes of the American workers. A genuine fear of Nazism engendered a willingness to accept militarism, to fight and even sacrifice.
  3. The US economy did not have to shoulder the task of propping up the rest of world capitalism.

These and other factors made it possible for Roosevelt to gain and keep labor support and, by this token to conduct the war with a minimum of resistance from organized labor.

The Truman regime prepares for all-out war under drastically changed conditions. The economy groans under the strains of the first attempts to superimpose military production upon already full-scale civilian production.

There is no large army of unemployed. On the contrary, there is a growing dearth of labor and man power. Prices are already inflated to the highest levels on record as a result of domestic and international conditions inherited from the Second World War. This inflation responds to the arms boom like a thermometer plunged into live steam.

The New Situation

Washington must finance the armament of all its “allies” as well as inject constant economic aid into their sick economies. Consequently, workers’ real wages have already been slashed since the outbreak of the Korean war.

There is strong opposition today to the counter-revolutionary military actions of US imperialism in Asia and to plans for further military actions in Europe. Instead of accepting militarism, there is a growing mass anti-war sentiment.

This mood is shared by the middle classes. The fixed income groups, especially the war and old-age pensioners, the ex-GIs and their families, are now suffering the severest economic blows. They have no organizations of their own for struggle. Little concern is shown in Washington to hold small business as an ally of the monopoly-controlled administration. When questioned about setting up a “small-business commission” to arrange military orders for small enterprise, Wilson dismissed the proposal with an impatient reference to the “lack of time” for such trivial matters. There is already a marked increase in bankruptcies among small businesses; they will grow as raw materials are choked off by priorities.

This distress among large sections of the middle class presents organized labor with an opportunity. Independent struggle led by labor would quickly be joined by all unorganized workers as well as those middle crass elements who correctly see the monopolists as their main enemy.

The labor leaders who castigated the war mobilization set-up as big business-controlled were thus voicing not only the discontent of the working class but of broad masses of the petty bourgeoisie.

One of the major difficulties confronting Truman and the Pentagon in preparing for all-out war is the freshness of the experience with the last war. The workers retain bitter memories of the fraudulent “equality of sacrifice” program, the wage freeze and the job freeze; they remember the broken promises to control prices and check profiteering. Even more important, the workers have been through an extended experience with the repressions and stalling tactics of government agencies. Added to this is the fact that a large section of the industrial proletariat is composed of World War II veterans who want no part of another war.

Not the least among Truman’s difficulties in mobilizing the American people for war is the growing crisis of confidence in his own ability to lead. There is not much faith in administration leadership and policies even among the ruling circles. In the ranks of the workers Truman and his government coterie are in low repute.

Truman’s demagogy in the 1948 presidential campaign, which rallied the workers’ support, was followed by betrayal of all his promises, a betrayal which arouses only further bitterness and distrust. This, coupled with Truman’s personal traits as an inept small-time political hack, lessen his chances of winning mass sympathy. Not since Harding has an occupant of the White House been so distrusted. This contrasts sharply with Roosevelt’s position as de facto leader of labor.

Contributing to the unsettlement of the Labor-Democratic coalition is the example given by the United Mine Workers led by John L. Lewis. Many commentators observed that the labor leaders were looking “over their shoulders” at Lewis when they broke with the government boards.

During the Second World War the workers responded with mixed emotions to Lewis’s break with Roosevelt and the defiant strikes of the miners. While the most militant workers admired the courage of the miners and their leaders, patriotic feelings interfered at the time with their own wishes to emulate the coal diggers.

But since the war one miners’ victory after another, despite Truman’s vicious injunction rule and use of the federal courts against Lewis and the mineworkers’ union, has piled up evidence that independence from government pays off. Collaboration with Truman did not. The American workers, especially in the CIO, cannot help but contrast the policies of their leaders with those of John L. Lewis. The balance sheet, weighed in the practical minds of the workers, puts the policy of dependence upon a coalition with Truman on the deficit side, while the militantly self-reliant dependence upon their own economic strength puts the miner’s policy heavily on the credit side. In this respect the workers are accurate accountants.

The CIO and AFL leaders, while calling upon Truman to help rescind Taft-Hartley, told the workers that they would meanwhile have to “live with it” and abide by the law. Defiance; they warned ,would break the union treasuries and eventually the unions themselves. But the UMW defied Taft-Hartley, won the welfare fund, made bigger wage gains than any section of organized labor, and has emerged with a solid organization and one of the biggest union treasuries.

Workers Generalize Experiences

The workers are now generalizing from the experience of the mine workers’ struggles since the captive mine strike of 1941 to the recent wage increase, of 20c. an hour.

The march by the labor movement toward independence from the capitalist government will tend to deepen and extend the miners’ experience. When the CIO workers break their bonds with the capitalist politicians, and begin to struggle over economic issues in the manner of the miners, they will inescapably come into sharp political collision with the capitalist state and its parties. However, what the miners were able to do as a restricted segment of the labor movement cannot be done by the whole labor movement without a fundamental break with it previous political ties.

The miners’ challenge could be met with concessions because the capitalist government felt that any other ‘ course would infect the rest of the union movement with their militancy. The labor leaders feared such a turn of events as much as the government, and the Democratic administrations could count on their subservience. A similar challenge by the entire labor movement, with the labor-Democrat coalition broken, means nothing less than a showdown.

When John L. Lewis commended the United Labor Policy Committee for “superb courage” in breaking with the wage board, he probably chuckled over the irony of his own remark. For, it was not so much courage as fear that prompted their action. In the face of mass resentment to Truman’s military and economic program, the labor leaders were forced to resist or risk losing their prestige and positions. And nothing is dearer to a bureaucrat than his job.

What the Labor Leaders Fear

Besides, the union representatives fear not only upheavals by their rank and file, but also the attacks of the big capitalists. The scorn and contempt shown by economic Czar Wilson in his sessions with them have been described in the press. The corporation chief who has so many times tried to break the CIO Electrical Workers Union, and has treated its leader, James B. Carey, as though he were a dangerous radical, now shows the same class hatred toward Carey and the rest of the union negotiators when they meet as government “collaborators” in Washington. Wilson’s approach is that of the arrogant Big Business negotiator: We meet because we must, we’ll give as little as possible, and we’ll break you if we can! There is no semblance in Washington of “labor-management cooperation” because the Wall Street representatives are not in a cooperating mood.

Thus squeezed between a restless, discontented rank and file, and government-Big Business representatives who give them no leeway or protective cover, the labor leaders had to act. The pressure from below can best be seen at work among the rail workers. The “sick report” Walkout of the operating Brotherhoods was a rebellion which swept over the heads of its conservative leaders. They could not restrain the workers who in 20 years had dropped from third highest paid to thirtieth. Repeated run-arounds by the government mediation board under the Railway Labor Act transformed the railroad ranks from the most conservative to among the most militant.

Reports have already come of a new independent industrial union movement among the rails which began in the West and shows signs of spreading nationally. It is no exaggeration to say that the jobs of the craft-union railroad bureaucrats are in jeopardy.

The actions of the rail workers were followed by the Textile Workers strike, and strike threats by the packinghouse and auto workers. Clearly, the union officials must either go along with these battles or be swept aside. That the UAW, immediately after resigning from government posts, won a temporary order loosening the wage freeze, making possible 5c cost-of-living adjustments under the terms of their escalator clause contracts, strengthens the independent mood of the union membership.

Thus, the example of the miners was followed by the railroad revolt, in which the workers were trying to emulate the militant struggles and gains of the UMW. The rebellious railroad walkouts were followed by a textile strike, and a general angry demand from the CIO workers for wage increases. The labor officials see the process, and ask themselves, “If the formerly staid enginemen and trainmen revolt, what will happen when the same repercussions hit the CIO?” They could not afford to take responsibility for the Truman-Wilson policies which were so manifestly unjust.

Big Business Offensive

The leaders have reason also to fear the US plutocracy. Big Business launched in 1945 a determined offensive to undermine unionism through a strikebreaking campaign. Failure of this campaign was followed by passage of T-H Law, the police-state measures abrogating civil liberties and the fierce red-baiting barrage. Truman’s use of federal injunctions in his strike-breaking forays against the mine workers and rail workers fit into this Big Business offensive. The union heads went along with some of these anti-labor actions, like the “red purges,” and only mildly protested against others. But the policies of Truman’s Wage Stabilization Board could not be tolerated because they menaced the special interests of the union bureaucrats, and struck at the foundations of the union structure.

One of the most revealing disputes between the union heads and Truman involves the security of the union organizations as such – a point which illustrates the crux of the difference between the Roosevelt-labor coalition and the present situation.

The press has commented very little about the sharp cleavage in the WSB over a key demand by the labor representatives: namely, that the board be empowered to handle not only economic matters, but also contractual relations. Truman’s decree setting up the board limited its jurisdiction to questions involving wages, pensions, welfare funds and similar matters.

During the Roosevelt administration, the War Labor Board, empowered to handle all basic questions in labor-management contracts, guaranteed the stability of the unions by authorizing the maintenance of membership and dues check-off. This was the pay-off to the labor officials in World War II for the no-strike pledge. The existence of the unions was guaranteed; big union treasuries were assured; opportunities for union growth were left open.

Today, the industry members of the WSB have flatly announced that if Truman authorizes the Board to handle matters other than income, they will resign in a bloc. On this point they are absolutely firm. They want to be free, completely unrestrained by board rulings or jurisdictions, to conduct their warfare against the unions.

For their part, the union officials correctly see in this limited jurisdiction of the WSB a threat to their own basis.

The AFL has a special axe to grind in this respect. The fact that Wilson has taken over manpower controls and plans to decree universal labor conscription is a direct threat to their own incomes and privileges, as well as to the freedom of the workers from whom their strength is derived.

If the AFL craft unions were deprived of their hiring halls – their lucrative dues-take would be sharply reduced. AFL control of a large part of the skilled labor market during World War II made it possible to increase their membership appreciably, with big initiation fees swelling their treasuries. As a side-line, many a lush private deal with contractors was made by individual bureaucrats to supply labor.

This feeding trough of the AFL bureaucracy is now threatened by the projected conscription of labor. What the old hands of the AFL do not understand is that US capitalism feels it can no longer afford the luxury of free unions, independent hiring halls, nor the bureaucrats who thrive on them.

The central contradiction in the situation of US capitalism is this: As they strain to meet the demands of their world program, the American imperialists face the roadblock of a still untamed labor movement. Unlike Germany where the ruling class embarked upon its campaign of conquest under Hitler, the workers’ organizations in the US have not been destroyed, nor for that matter, even substantially weakened.

What Lies Ahead

This contradiction will not diminish as the military program unfolds. To carry through their drive for world domination requires heavy attacks against the living and working standards and traditional freedoms of the American workers. Walter Lippmann, in a recent column, discussed the consequences of the administration plans for militarization as follows:

It would require the prolonged conscription of our young men and the levying of a terrible toll upon their education and hopes. It would require an austerity of life by our people which they have never approached in this century. It would require an iron regimentation of all their affairs and a harsh intolerance of dissent.

The New York Times editorial column put the situation bluntly, “If defense is to become our major industry, \ve need less butter and more guns.” This authoritative capitalist organ sees no alternative except to grasp Hitler’s central slogan. But Hitler had no independent unions to contend with.

What is more, this perspective of guns as against butter cioes not take into consideration the revolutionary potential contained in the high standard of living in the United States. Far from being a conservatizing force under present conditions, this privileged position of US labor will prove to be a highly radicalizing factor.

Workers will fight hard to maintain what they’ve already got. Labor history in this country shows that while depressed conditions often discourage militant actions, full employment generates confidence. The inevitable attempts to reduce the standards of American labor will not be met with passivity.

Moreover, there is not so much leeway as commonly believed, for reduction of American living standards. The Bureau of the Census reports that two-thirds of the American people have incomes of less than $4,000 a year. The Department of Labor insists that $4,000 is the minimum required for a decent living standard. Most of the American people do not have this. Therefore should real wages he substantially slashed, mass reactions would be not long delayed.

The truth of this can be seen from the fact that the labor crisis has been precipitated by the very first impact of inflation and the THREAT of a further reduction in living standards, before the arms program has made its full effects felt.

However, the ruling class cannot avoid trying to make further inroads upon workers’ real incomes, not if they intend, as they do, to carry out their world program. That is what makes columnists like Lippmann so pessimistic. Britain maintained its world empire on the basis of a working class at home which had a privileged world position based upon its domination of the world market and its exploitation of a world colonial empire. But when these conditions began to be undermined, the British working Class broke with capitalist politics – and brought the Labor Party to power.

In America, there is no chance to maintain the living standards of the working class by means of more intensive exploitation of the rest of the world at this stage. US imperialism must load the whole burden of an attempt to stabilize the world system upon the back of its workers.

The walkout of the labor leaders, tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in the administration, is essentially a political act. But it is a political act without labor’s having a political organization of its own.

The labor crisis is a sign of the underlying instability of labor-capital relations in this country. It portends a maturing social crisis in the stronghold of capitalism.

How can this crisis be resolved? No doubt both the labor leadership and the Truman administration will seek a compromise on the domestic disputes. Labor officials still see eye-to-eye with the administration on foreign policy and retain their posts on the State Department agencies operating abroad. But even if they succeed in patching up their split, conditions will provoke new and deeper crises.

The only progressive solution to the antagonism between the interests of labor and the needs of US imperialism is a complete break by all labor organizations with the Truman administration. That is the first necessary step, toward the full independence of the workers from capitalist politics.

Anything else, any compromise, will only continue the union “window dressing” of US Big Business offensive against labo’r at home and abroad.

If the labor leaders do not break with the administration, the workers will seek a new leadership, and sweep aside those who stand in their way. American labor is fast coming of age.

The crisis now unfolding was predicted by the Socialist Workers Party in 1946.

“In this crisis,” declared the Theses on the Coming American Revolution adopted by the Twelfth National Convention of the party, “it is realistic to expect that the American workers, who attained trade union consciousness and organization within a single decade, will pass through another great transformation in their mentality, attaining political consciousness and organization. If in the course of this dynamic development a mass labor party based on the trade unions is formed, it will not represent a detour into reformist stagnation and futility, as happened in England and elsewhere in the period of capitalist ascent. From all indications, it will rather represent a preliminary stage in the political radicalization of the American workers ...”

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