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James Burnham

Their Government

(12 May 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 32, 12 May 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Civil and democratic rights are not at all a luxury for labor, nor valuable merely for their own sake. They are essential to labor’s very existence, to the workers’ ability even to get enough food to live on. Without them labor cannot fight; and, as things are, without fighting labor is reduced to the status of miserable slaves.

The key task of fascism is to abolish democratic rights, especially the rights of labor: the right to organize, to strike, to picket, to demonstrate, to speak and write freely. When these rights are gone, it is a child’s job for the bosses to drive down wages and to lift hours.

Every worker has, therefore, good cause for alarm at the concerted and growing attack on democratic rights which has been taking place in this country during the past six months. Far from receding in the days to come, there is every reason to believe that this attack will become more intense, growing bolder with every partial success.

Legal Straightjackets for Labor

Through a referendum vote in the November elections, a new labor law, backed by the Associated Farmers, passed in the State of Oregon; and a similar law was narrowly defeated in California. This law, which has not yet been firmly enforced, would make genuine unionism virtually impossible. A long list of prohibitions so restrict the right to strike, to organize, picket and boycott that the unions would be unable to get to first base.

A few weeks ago, Minnesota passed an elaborate law, incorporating many of the clauses of the Oregon statute. Special features of the Minnesota law, such as those forbidding “interference with transportation” are aimed directly at the Drivers’ Union, backbone of the Minnesota labor movement. A modified form of compulsory arbitration is introduced, and strikes cannot be called until after a whole series of notices and delays totalling at least a month. Mass picketing is illegalized.

A similar law has recently been put on the books in Wisconsin. Laws along the same lines, moreover, have been introduced this year into the legislatures of more than a dozen additional States. Others are scheduled, and many threaten to pass before the year is out.

The Courts Do Their Bit

As always, the courts, servile hirelings of the bosses, are well up in the front of the drive against the rights of labor. The year has been dotted with brazen decisions from one side of the country to another.

The Supreme Court itself set the fashion in the notorious Fansteel case. The illegality of sit-downs was made unambiguous. The doctrine was laid down that a worker who is framed up on any charge whatever – no matter how trivial – has no legal redress against his boss, however many crimes the boss may have committed against the worker.

In Philadelphia, the fantastic decision in the Apex Hosiery case, rendered under the anti-trust laws, attempts to find a means for wiping out unions financially whenever they conduct a militant strike.

In California, Illinois, New York and elsewhere, court decisions have struck at secondary picketing and boycotts, at the presence on the picket line of anyone not an employee of the shop being picketed, at mass picketing, at the closed shop.

Congress Joins the Parade

A number of remarkable bills directed against democratic rights have been introduced into this session of Congress, and several of them have already passed at least one House. Many are concerned with aliens – including among aliens all who have not been granted their final citizenship papers. One of these, which has been approved by the House of Representatives, makes any alien subject to immediate deportation who advocates “any change” in the present form of government. Not “overthrow” or “violent change” or “fundamental change” but any change whatever.

Another, now being debated, would establish concentration camps for aliens convicted of any criminal charge – and convicting an alien of a criminal charge is a cinch when you set your mind to it.

A third bill, with a good chance of being enacted at this session, makes a crime of any attempt to influence the army or navy. Under this bill all antiwar propaganda – since it might conceivably come to the attention of a soldier or sailor – would be technically illegal.

The President has already deprived all aliens of the right to W.P.A. jobs. A number of Congressmen wish to prohibit the granting of any kind of relief to anyone, citizen or alien, who belongs to an organization advocating a change in the form of government.

A strong bloc of Congressmen are pushing an amendment to the Wagner Act which would illegalize the closed shop, and others which would, under the name of “undue coercion”, prohibit militant union organization and action.

The Future of Democratic Rights

The attack which has started against democratic rights is in its first and mildest stage. Under the pressure of the ever-deepening economic crisis and the swiftly approaching war, it will advance more swiftly and brutally. This we know in advance, and it need not surprise us.

But what is in the highest degree alarming is the almost complete passivity of the labor movement in the face of the attack. If labor does not swing soon into action it will be an accomplice in its own destruction. And the time to act is now; tomorrow the infant may have grown to a giant too great to cope with.

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