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The New International, August 1946


Notes of the Month

The Railroad Strike:
Turning Point in Labor’s Politics


From New International, Vol. XII No. 6, August 1946, pp. 163–165.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The note of grim determination struck by the undistinguished-appearing little man who faced the battery of microphones to hurl threats and denunciation upon the nation’s “enemies,” the atmosphere of historic decision that pervaded the proceedings, the tenseness that bespoke suppressed hysteria on the part of the assembled lawmakers, all combined to make the joint session of Congress that heard Truman’s message dealing with the nation-wide rail tie-up strikingly reminiscent of the session that heard the late President Roosevelt read his war message two days after Pearl Harbor.

Though the surrender of the rail union chiefs, announced in the very midst of the President’s speech, made of the latter the climax rather than the prelude to hostilities, history will reveal that the dramatic setting in the House on that afternoon was fully warranted by the importance of the occasion. Truman’s message marked the irrevocable turning point in the relations between labor and government that have prevailed since 1933.

No matter what the course of Hillman’s PAC during the elections of this year, no matter how irresolute and apparently contradictory will be labor’s policy in relation to the administration, the railroad strike closed a chapter in the political history of the American working class which can be reread but not relived. The twelve-year-long spectacle of the total dependence of American labor upon the political fortunes of a government which has revealed itself to be the most calculating and far-seeing representative of monopoly capitalism in American history could not continue indefinitely. All the contradictions inherent in this relationship were driven to their ultimate degree by the rail strike.

But the rail strike did not burst upon happy administration-labor relations as from a clear sky. The careful observer was able to chart the steady deterioration of Roosevelt’s hold over the labor movement beginning in 1940. This process was slowed down and virtually dammed up by the pressure of the war upon the labor bureaucracy, but only to move at a swifter pace when the sluice-gates were opened with V-J Day. The replacement of the adroit Roosevelt, with his tremendous prestige, by the inept and incompetent Truman, with a record that added up to zero, only hastened the process. But had Roosevelt been once as skilled and had he survived to manipulate the labor relations pf the post-war period, the results would have been different only in tempo. For Truman has fallen heir to a vast, incongruous political coalition which was already in process of disintegration when headed by the master political opportunist himself, who in addition had the tremendous advantage of the unifying effect of war upon the nation.

What Truman Inherited

The mass base of the administration is greatly reduced from the imposing forces Roosevelt mobilized in 1936–38 when he united sections of monopoly capital, the AFL, the CIO, the unemployed, the urban petty bourgeoisie, the Middle Western farmers, the solid South and the northern Negroes. Truman has the unhappy task of steering a course in this crucial election year of 1946 that will prove satisfactory to what remains of this coalition. The basic contradiction, even more basic in its fundamentals than the attempt to gain the votes of both Bilbo-Rankin and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is, of course, the need of the administration to continue the Roosevelt myth of being a pro-labor administration while complying with the demands of capital that “labor be put in its place.”

Truman came near to foundering on this rock in the very beginning of the strike wave when he plunged into the General Motors strike with his infamous proposals for “fact-finding” and a thirty-day “cooling-off period.” The breach between the administration and labor that followed was not reconciled despite the efforts of Truman to retreat and placate the trade unions. If his conciliatory conduct created the illusion in the ranks of labor that perhaps he had made a bad error and would not repeat it, the rail crisis proved that both Truman and the labor bureaucracy were trying to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Had Truman been free to choose his spot for declaring war upon organized labor, he could hardly have chosen a less opportune one than the rail controversy. The obvious logic of the demands put forth by the rail unions, the tremendous good will toward railroad personnel on the part of the public, the “neutral” position of the independent brotherhoods in regard to the AFL-CIO controversy, the accepted conservatism of the rail union leadership, the inability to charge “Communist domination” to confuse the issues, the obvious fact that the rail union chiefs were under tremendous pressure from their ranks, all combined to secure for the unions the maximum of labor support and general public sympathy.

However, Truman was not free to choose his spot. The critical nature of the railroad industry as immediately revealed by the successful tie-up of the entire nation, required that the intervention be quick and decisive. The rail strike, furthermore, threw down the gauntlet to a bourgeoisie that had come to feel increasingly frustrated and impotent as it went from one strike crisis to the next – auto, steel, meat packing, electrical goods, coal and – the railroads. The legislators in Washington were subjected, in addition, to the tremendous pressure of the millions of middle class suburbanites, deprived of necessary transportation. It was also necessary to take up the challenge vigorously because it was a direct strike against the government, since the latter had “seized” the railroads in the previous week. One final reason adding to the urgency that dictated this as the test was that the whole complicated machinery set up in the Railway Labor Act in the Twenties and held up as the model for industrial relations was at stake, and precisely at a time when similar legislation was being proposed for industry as a whole.

Truman’s Dilemma

Truman’s message to Congress was a tactical victory. He gained his objective. The trains began to run. But he won at the price of a death-blow to his strategic aim: viz., maintaining the support of labor for the administration and the Democratic Party generally. Truman and certainly his political strategist, Hannegan, know that the support they will get from labor in 1946 will be given avowedly on the basis that “there is no alternative.” Such support cannot but presage an apathetic and lackadaisical participation of labor’s rank and file in Hillman’s efforts to mobilize again the workers’ votes for the Democratic Party. Meanwhile the very applause that arose throughout the nation for Truman’s forthright strike-breaking presages the growing spirit and militancy of the Republican ranks, composed mainly of the small town middle class and the farmers.

Truman’s efforts to undo the effects of his “draft labor” proposal by vetoing the Case bill, which proposed a milder form of anti-labor curbs, only added a grotesque touch to the tortured maneuvers of the heir to Roosevelt’s house of cards. The winds of class struggle threaten to destroy it despite Truman’s wild clutching to left and right in an effort to hold it together.

Truman’s anti-strike proposals have been compared to the Trades Disputes Act passed by the British Parliament after the defeat of the General Strike of 1926. Aside from the fact that Truman’s proposals were a much harsher method of dealing with strikes, the comparison fails to take into account the fact that the British anti-strike laws came at the conclusion of the decisive defeat of the trade unions in a major test of power on the industrial field. The Trades Disputes Act was a means of placing a seal upon a defeat already administered. The Truman proposals, on the contrary, were the result of the very impotence of the government in the face of the strike. This impotence is an outgrowth of what the bourgeois commentators have come to refer to disingenuously as the “unbalance of power” that has developed between capital and labor. With fifteen million organized members and the demand for labor pressing hard upon the supply, the specific weight of the working class and its relative weight as against capital has increased several fold over the pre-war situation. In addition, each strike is born of the same causes: the wage freeze during the war in the midst of mounting prices and the post-war inflationary spiral of wages and prices. As a result, the most widespread sympathy and understanding pervades the entire working class in behalf of each specific strike, whether AFL, CIO, miners or railroad brotherhoods. In the face of the numerical strength of organized labor and its splendid solidarity (in the ranks, if not on top) and in the absence of a large industrial reserve army of potential scabs, all hitherto effective methods of strike-breaking prove ineffective.

Government “Seizures” Ineffective

Significant in this connection is the fact that the workers have come to see through the government “seizures.” When Roosevelt first initiated this form of strike-breaking during the war, the workers in their naïveté would consider a “seizure” by the government as a victory and would often demand that this action be taken. In order to reinforce this procedure further in breaking strikes, the Smith-Connally Act made it a crime to strike, or even advocate strikes, in government-seized industry. The many disillusioning experiences of the workers with government seizures have rendered this tactic so ineffective that in the mine and rail disputes the government seizure orders were heeded only sufficiently to take certain legal steps to avoid implication of the union leadership under the Smith-Connally Act. The government itself has perpetrated the utmost in stupidities to make a farce of “seizures.” What more could be done to disillusion the workers than the spectacle in the meat packing industry where the plants have been “seized” some eight months ago to break a strike and placed under the direction of the Department of Agriculture but continue to operate the biggest black markets in the country and are the subject of raids and arrests by Office of Price Control inspectors? The ineffectiveness to which the “seizure” method of strike-breaking has been reduced leaves the government little recourse except a “slave-labor law” which permits the militarization of labor and their employment at the point of a bayonet, as Truman proposed.

It is interesting to note that in the latter part of the strike wave, involving miners, railroad workers and seamen, non-wage issues played a crucial role in the disputes. With the uncertainty of wage-price relations from month to month, workers have come to attach a relatively greater importance to questions of working conditions than in the past. In the mine dispute the one contention was the union’s demand for a health fund controlled by the union but financed by the employers. In the rail dispute, the issue upon which the corporations would not yield was the union’s demand for changes in the working rules, unaltered for decades. In the maritime dispute, the important question was that of hours and size of crews. Workers are coming to feel that if a wage increase is an uncertain gain which prices may cancel out within a few months, then changes in working conditions are something which, once attained, they can maintain through organization and militancy. But this growing importance of the non-wage issues also bespeaks the growing social consciousness of American labor. Workers are beginning to understand that a trade union is not simply a business proposition in which one pays so much dues and receives so much in wage increases. What they are beginning to demand with increasing insistence is that the unions do something about the problem that lurks over their lives like an ever-present shadow, regardless of what wage increases they obtain. This is the question of security. The worker is growing away from the philosophy that dictated that he “make his little pile” in the shortest possible time in order to escape his existence as a wage worker and open a filling station or buy a chicken farm. He is beginning to feel that he will remain a worker and that his children, even with an education, will also work for a living. With this realization comes the demand to improve working conditions and gain the greatest security against unemployment, illness, old age, etc. This growing social consciousness will increasingly translate itself into a growing political consciousness. The experience of the railroad strike and Truman’s intervention has contributed mightily to this process.

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