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George Breitman

Labor’s Stake in Newark Election

War Boom Brings Trade Union Struggles;
Labor Must Also Fight Boss Parties

(8 March 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V. No. 10, 8 March 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(George Breitman is the Socialist Workers Party’s candidate for City Commission in the Newark, N.J. election.)

The war boom in northern New Jersey, which began just before the presidential election last November and has been growing stronger each month since then, has put tens of thousands of workers back to work and has just about exhausted the lists of skilled and semi-skilled labor in the area.

This boom has not only provided tremendous profits to the bosses, but it has also, despite the bosses’ desires, been a shot in the arm for the trade union movement, and has resulted in an intensified organization of the heavy industries in the area, which have received the bulk of the more than a billion dollars in government contracts so far awarded to the employers of what can no longer properly be called “the Garden State.”

Workers are signing up in one factory after another, several militant strikes led by the CIO have already taken place, and important struggles are just around the bend in several important union situations.

All this has shown that the workers are ready to fight for better conditions, in spite of the waves of propaganda for war and for a “national unity” that will leave the workers helpless in the grip of the bosses.

But the question is this: Will this revived spirit of workers’ militancy and confidence be confined to the purely trade union field in this next period before the declaration of war? Will the workers continue to fight their enemies on the economic field at the same time that they leave their power untouched on the political field? Or will they logically the electoral and political front, challenging the bosses’ power This question will be decided for the rich industrial area of north Jersey in the course of the current Newark City Commission campaign, the only important election scheduled here between now and, the official declaration of war.

* * *

The main functions of the City Commission are concerned with money – with raising it by taxes and expending it for things like WPA. schools, hospitals, health care, housing, etc. The method of taxation, the emphasis on where the money is spent, and the policies pursued in the various departments combine to determine the character of the regime at City Hall.

Two Boss Factions

There has never been complete unity among the big business interests of the city over these questions. This has been reflected in the formation of two main factions at City Hall and in the old party machines.

The elections in 1937, at a time when the labor movement was on the advance, gave a clear majority to the group headed by Mayor Ellenstein, who called himself head of Newark’s New Deal.

This group was composed of the re-elected members of the Commission: Ellenstein himself, a shrewd independent Democrat supported by many unions, Labor’s Non-Partisan League and (unofficially) by the Stalinists, mainly because of his ’37 slogan, “Keep Hague Out of Newark City Hall”; Pearce Franklin, Regular Republican and self-advertised “Champion of the Underprivileged” who made much of the fact that the relief and health administrations are included in his department; and Michael Duffy, a habitual drunken nonentity re-elected by his police and fire department supporters.

The other two elected, who united front against the predominant machine, were Vincent J. Murphy and Joseph Byrne. Murphy (who received the highest number of votes and dislikes the Ellenstein group because by precedent he should have become Mayor) is the secretary-treasurer of the State Federation of Labor, and was elected with the backing of trade unions, LNPL, and the Communist Party. The campaign literature put him forward as “trade unionist, veteran, banker.”

Byrne, wealthy insurance company head, was the only man on his slate of five candidates, called the “Citizens’ Ticket,” who managed to be elected. This ticket had been hand-picked by the County Democratic Committee and had the backing, of Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City.

Byrne’s Record

Although the Ellenstein group had a definite majority, Byrne began to build his bridges for the 1941 elections by picking as his central theme the ever-increasing tax rate (the $3.28 tax rate of 1933 had become $4.61 by 1938) and building himself up as the friend of “the taxpayer.”

Upon the death of Commissioner Duffy, Murphy refused to vote for any of Ellenstein’s nominees to fill the vacancy unless assured in advance that he would get Duffy’s department instead of his own unpopular finance department (really principled “labor” politics!). To this day, in. spite of hundreds of ballots, no fifth commissioner has been selected. The deadlock permitted Byrne to come to the front, because four votes are needed for appropriations. His course can be understood by an account of a few of his acts.

As soon as he was elected, he fired a large number of scrubwomen who had been employed to clean City Hall, and increased the burden on those whom he kept. Money had to be saved for the taxpayer, he said. For a long time he refused to vote for appropriations to finish the four swimming pools in the slum neighborhoods. He did not believe so much money should be “wasted.”

In 1938 he refused to vote for appropriations to continue the street repair projects which gave employment to about 10,000 WPA workers. He agreed with the reactionary Broad Street Association, of which he is a member, and the Chamber of Commerce, that it cost too much, and relief would be cheaper. He indulged in the worst kind of red-baiting in refusing to listen to the protests of the unemployed organizations against the mounting relief cuts.

To show his contempt for the labor movement, and his efficiency as a tax rate cutter, he overrode the decisions of his fellow Commissioners on two important city contracts a few week ago. Bids had been made for some city automobiles and for supplying milk for city institutions. The lowest bidders for each had been the Ford Motor Co. and the Newark Milk and Cream Co. The CIO protested the award of the contract to Ford because of Ford’s notorious anti-labor activities, and the AFL objected to the milk company because it had interfered with organization of its employees. The other three Commissioners, ears to the ground and aware of the nearness of elections, refused to award the contracts to them. Whereupon Byrne, claiming a law firm had told him he had the authority because the Department of Central Purchase was in his department, ignored the decision of the Commission and awarded the contracts on his own authority.

A bloc of the big business groups now being formed to win the elections in May has already selected Byrne as one of the two banner-bearers of an openly reactionary and anti-labor slate.

(Next week: The other old party candidates)

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