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Labor Action, 13 February 1950


Robert Lynd

Concluding Excerpts from Prof. Robert Lynd’s
Great Speech to the UAW-CIO on –

Labor and Politics –
Democracy and Classes


From Labor Action, Vol. 14 No. 7, 13 February 1950, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Now I am bearing down hard on this because you people in the UAW seem to be pretty confident that things are going on as before and that you can get what you want democratically by pressuring the going system.

You say you want to get an adequate pension and retirement program; a comprehensive social security program; a wage rise to restore your buying power to the June 1946 level. And, as Walter Reuther has announced, you’re going to “insist that management representatives face up to their responsibility both as employers and as citizens” and stop their “double standard of generous pensions for auto executives and none for workers.”

Well, I’m for those things. But I have been trying to suggest to you that it isn’t just a question of good old progress and good old democracy going up the road hand-in-hand and picking these things off the trees.

Suppose big industry, including the auto industry, has changed its signals? Suppose that, instead of playing the old game of competing with you at the plant level and in Washington lobbying, they are infiltrating all of the key posts at Washington; suppose they mean to see to it that you don’t get these things you want; and, meanwhile, they are scaring hell out of the country by propaganda about national security through a controlled press and radio? And suppose they’re disorganizing labor unity by setting each union red-hunting within its ranks, thus weakening the whole CIO push, and widening the gap between the CIO and the AFL?

Do you see what I’m worried about? Labor’s old strategy has been to assume that the old game would go on permanently and that the only thing to do is to keep pushing for more and more industrial take from profits. But if big business is moving to gain effective control of the democratic apparatus so that democracy will be effectively and permanently in business’ pocket, what you face is a new kind of a game, with the cards largely in business’ hands.

The thing that worries me is the tendency of labor, as the traditional underdog, not to size up the score and take the initiative, but to wait for business to set the conditions and then to come running after, trying to head off business after the latter has a head start. As the Nazis showed, labor can get disastrously rooked at that game.

It doesn’t make sense to me to go on hoping for more New Deals, either. Business is going to see to it that there aren’t any more new deals with free-wheeling populism of the sort that there was under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Not Fascism – Yet

I have suggested that business may be changing its strategy. I believe it is doing so, right under our noses. I don’t know what you know about the big business program called Plan for Action. This seems to me to be really dangerous to labor and to democracy, because it aims to go into American local communities and cut the ground from under all who dissent from big busi-’ness and its free enterprise system – including militant unionism – by using local community loyalty and the prestige of local big-shot industrialists to organize and control local life and thought.

If this Plan for Action works, it can capture democratic thinking and the whole democratic process by putting a tight leash on all thought, all organization, and all action at the grass roots that runs counter to the purposes of big business ...

[Professor Lynd here gives a detailed description of the Plan of Action, which “was thrown into gear on February 1, 1948.” He stresses that “The aim is to reawaken the general public so that they will be quick to defend capitalism from attack and to counteract subversive propaganda. I assume that your union will be part of the subversive propaganda that needs to be counteracted.” The plan, he sums up, is a “super-duper Mohawk Valley formula” for strikebreaking on the community level.]

What has organized labor got to put up against this? Mark you, these men who are doing this thing are not fascists – yet. They’re patriotic Americans, as the Nazis and the big German manufacturers were patriotic Germans.

William Allen White, the well-known Kansas editor who died five or six years ago, said of these same men as he watched them clawing and jockeying for war contracts in Washington in 1943:

“For the most part, these managerial magnates are decent, patriotic Americans ... If you touch them in nine relations of life out of ten, they are kindly, courteous, Christian gentlemen. But in the tenth relation, where it touches their own organization, they are stark mad, ruthless, unchecked by God or man; paranoiacs, in fact, as evil in their design as Hitler.”

And don’t forget that the people who are putting through this Plan for Action are in general, the same men who killed OPA, promising that prices would at once come down; and they are the men who made the Taft-Hartley Act, which even Business Week said in its December 18, 1948 issue aimed at wrecking the labor movement as soon as a surplus labor pool developed in the United States.

Now I may be wrong, but, as I read the score, what all this means is that, as big business declared three years ago, having learned that a policy of “mere opposition” is inadequate to prevent the New Deal type of legislation, business is now going to “stick its neck out” and provide the necessary “practical leadership” for America.

Ten years ago, a professor in the Harvard Business School sounded the call to this new big-business party line. Professor T.N. Whitehead, in a book called Leadership in a Free Society, said that business leaders don’t realize their power as leaders in their local communities; that they are, in fact, the natural community leaders, and they should, therefore, step in and organize and lead their communities in the interest of business.

Take a Stand on Capitalism!

Again, I say, this isn’t just marbles. If isn’t big-business fascism – yet. But it is – and here is the thing that seems to me really dangerous from the viewpoint of anyone who studies the nature of fascism as an alliance of big business and government behind big business purposes – it is the building of an organization with a frankly manipulative attitude toward democratic society; and the assuming of leadership over all our lives by businessmen, on the theory that the private enterprise system of big business must be saved, that everybody, including organized labor, must get into line, and that all opposition must be crushed.

As I size this up, it means the blanketing of all democratic freedoms at the grass roots in your communities and in the nation as a whole, so that we shall all march to the tune of big business and all keep our mouths shut about other things.

Big business’ war chest is fat. It is spending a lot of money and it is prepared to spend a lot more. The American Management Association said in its Management News for September 30, 1947, that “probably more millions are being spent on public relations on behalf of the free enterprise system than management and stockholders realize. Virtually every industry in the United States – even the smallest companies – is involved in some effort to sell ’economic truths’ to the public.”

Maybe I am just seeing spooks, but I don’t think so. I spend a great deal of time both as a teacher and as a research man on this problem of the organization of power and its strategy and tactics in the United States. As I size things up, organized labor needs to ask itself such questions as the following:

  1. Do we accept big business’ so-called “free enterprise” system as democracy, as business claims it is, or as fit for democracy? I think the answer to that one has got to be “yes” or “no” – not “maybe,” not “perhaps.”
  2. Do we, as organized labor, trust big business’ promises and leadership in the light of its record?
  3. Do we believe private business can, or is willing to, plan for a thing like full employment? Do we really believe that the so-called “free enterprise” system, dominated increasingly by monopoly, can give us a depression-proof economy and the social security that labor in a modern democracy wants – and has a right to get? I don’t believe it can, or will.
  4. With all industrial societies, the world over, moving into the workable twentieth-century device of national planning, do we accept big business’ claim that national planning won’t work, is inevitably undemocratic, and leads only to a totalitarian dictatorship? My own strong belief is that only through democratic national planning can we now save democracy.
  5. With big business taking over more and more leadership in American government and community life, can we as organized labor afford to be content with being industry’s junior partner, rather than taking the initiative and calling the signals ourselves?
  6. Is it smart strategy in a democracy for big industry and big labor in industry after industry to join up and gang on the consumer? I am uneasy, for instance, as I look at the way the garment unions play ball with the fashion racket against consumers. How do you people feel about the annual-model racket in the auto industry? Is that something that the UAW ever considers?

The consuming public is one of labor’s biggest potential democratic assets. And my judgment would be that you should tell the consumer that, and work and fight with and for him every step of the way. Remember that the Consumer Advisory Board of NRA refused to exploit wages for the benefit of consumers, but insisted on putting a floor under wages.

It has been said that labor monopolies don’t break industry monopolies, but that they tend to join them. And, with industry playing its present smart game, that kind of danger is real. The gravy can be slopped over somewhat to labor; big management can afford to say to big labor, “Why should we boys fight? The people we both make our money from are the consumers.”

This leads to my last point. From where I stand, democracy as a weapon can be overwhelmingly on labor’s side, if you will pick it up and use it. And the current business propaganda identifying democracy with capitalism as two sides of the same coin is a sheer “phony,” and can be shown to be so.

For Democracy: a Labor Party!

If labor is to seize the initiative, I am convinced that it has got to go political. And I don’t mean reward your friends and punish your enemies! I mean go political all out and through and through. I mean a labor party.

And I don’t believe that a labor party will be worth a damn if it simply tries to take over the Democratic Party and go on within our present set-up. Your policies all the way through the union and in your labor education would have to be politically oriented. You would have to talk about class and what class power as we have it today does to all of us people, and how it blocks efforts to get through decent, badly needed democratic legislation. I don’t hear capitalism being talked about much through all the parts of this conference that I have heard.

A labor party would have to make up its mind about capitalism. And a labor party would have to make up its mind about democratic national planning. National planning is a powerful democratic weapon lying open to your hands. Business won’t touch democratic planning, for that is the thing it is fighting and the last thing it wants. But don’t fool yourselves about this: business can and will eventually capture the planning movement and use it for fascist ends, if you don’t beat them to the draw.

So, come on, labor, and get rolling! Take hold of democracy and democratic national planning as the only way to meet the needs of our people, and go to the people with a concrete program for the United States.

You won’t have to persuade people about their needs. We know we have them and we all know what they are – steady jobs, security, health, and a chance to have a real say about where the United States is going and to live and act like free citizens of a democracy.

You may say, “What about the middle-class voters who will be frightened by such a thing?”

My answer to that one is that the middle class are human beings, too.

Every American with growing kids and an income of, let’s say, under $7,000 if he lives in a big city and of under $5,000 if he lives in a smaller place, is, I can assure you – and I needn’t rub it in because you know about it already – sweating blood these days under this crazy combination of half-democracy and half-exploitation by which we’re trying to live and bring up our children and make both ends meet.

If labor will really plan for and talk democracy to the United States, and mean it, and not let ambitious leaders and labor union bureaucracies get in the way, then I believe labor can draw the backing of the best of the chunk of middle-class voters.

Now, what I’ve been talking about isn’t easy. But what we’ve got isn’t easy, either. And what seems to be coming looks really dangerous – dangerous to everything that democracy stands for. For I don’t think this era is just a temporary rough stretch in the road.

That’s the great American optimistic illusion, that when you get a desperate depression and two wars in one generation and a third war coming up, well, it’s all just temporary; and pretty soon the old bus will be back on the asphalt “put-putting” along and there won’t be any problems any more. I don’t think this is just a temporary rough bit in the road.

I believe this period we’re living through will be looked back upon by history as one of the great eras in which men’s institutions changed fundamentally and radically, like the shift from feudalism to capitalism five hundred years ago and like the coming of machine industry and political democracy a hundred and fifty years ago.

I believe liberal democracy, the nineteenth-century straddle between political democracy and capitalism, is finished, and that from here on we are either going to have a lot more democracy, or a great deal less. And labor looks to me like the only force in contemporary society big enough and strong enough to save democracy for us Americans.

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