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James Burnham

Their Government

(21 July 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 52, 21 July 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The attempt to abolish the prevailing wage system on the W.P.A. projects, and to substitute for it what the administration so sweetly calls the “security wage,” is neither the beginning nor the end of the drive against the unemployed.

This drive began on the day following last November’s elections. It was initiated directly and exclusively by Franklin D. Roosevelt, at a time when Congress was not even in session. Its first stage was carried through during November and December, when, at Roosevelt’s orders, 300,000 men were dropped from the W.P.A. rolls.

The second stage consisted in the reorganization of the administrative personnel of the W.P.A. Harry Hopkins, who was associated with the New Deal epoch, which was being buried, was shifted to the Department of Commerce. At the head of W.P.A. was placed F.C. Harrington. Harrington was and is a Colonel in the regular Army. He neither resigned nor took a leave of absence from the Army when he entered the W.P.A. He continues on the Army payroll. His W.P.A. job is a military assignment ordered by his commander-in-chief.

The shift from Hopkins to Harrington is thus an open symbol of the transformation of the New Deal into the War Deal.

Links in the Chain

The next step in the drive against the unemployed was the dropping, again at Roosevelt’s exclusive orders, of 50,000 non-citizens from the W.P.A. rolls. The fourth, undertaken jointly by Roosevelt and Congress, was the cutting of the rolls by an additional 400,000, to 500,000 during April, May and June.

The fifth great step was the W.P.A. appropriation proposed for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The figure of $1,477,000,000 was again set on the sole and exclusive responsibility of Franklin D. Roosevelt. No Congressman proposed less; indeed, no Congressman would have dared to propose so little.

The total money appropriated is far and away the major factor in the relief situation. Roosevelt’s figure, $800,000,000 lower than last year, compels the adoption of harsh new regulations whether these are invented by himself or by Congress.

The sixth step was the substitution of the security wage for the prevailing wage. Who is responsible for this phase of the savage attack on the wage and living standard of the American workers? Once more, the record gives the unmistakable answer.

As far back as 1935, in one of his press conferences, Roosevelt declared his opposition to the prevailing wage and his perspective of eliminating it from relief projects. He has never swerved in his intention.

During the hearings on the current relief bill, the demand for the abolition of the prevailing wage did not come in the first instance from Congressmen. It was put forward from the witness stand by Roosevelt’s appointee and military subordinate, Colonel Harrington. Like all military men, Harrington acts under the orders and discipline of his commander.

Any doubts about the origin have been removed during the past week by Roosevelt himself, who has backed Harrington to the limit, and taken the public and avowed lead in the effort to smash the strike.

Preparations for Things to Come

The seventh step was the announcement that those away from jobs for five days would be dropped from the rolls; the eighth, that striking W.P.A. workers are not eligible for home relief; the ninth, Roosevelt’s proclamation that “You can’t strike against the government.”

These three steps – all of them taken by decree and not by parliamentary law – are closely bound together. On the one side, they amount in effect to the institution of forced labor at the government’s terms.

On the other side, they are a forecast of the method of organization not merely for relief work but for all industry in wartime. Since, during war, all industry will be part of the government’s war machine, the principles now being enunciated will compel all persons to work at the tasks, wages and conditions assigned to them, and will prohibit all protests and strikes against these tasks, wages and conditions.

Not for nothing is a military officer now running W.P.A.

The tenth and eleventh and twelfth steps are now nearly ready to be taken. Under the “eighteen months provisions,” all W.P.A. employees who have been on the rolls for a continuous period of eighteen months or longer must be dropped. This means concretely that on July 31 and August 31, Harrington plans to cut off a minimum of 650,000.

In theory, these 650,000 will be eligible for re-employment after a month of patriotic starvation. However, the eleventh step demands that the total on the rolls be cut to a maximum of 2,000,000 – around 600,000 less than on July 1.

The twelfth step is ingenious. It is called a readjustment of geographical wage differentials. At present, W.P.A. wage rates in the South are comparable to India or China – in many instances about $3.50 per week. Under the hypocritical pretense of making wage differentials equal no more than variations in the cost of living, Roosevelt plans to slash WPA wages in the North and all industrial areas. He hopes that a minute rise in the Southern wage will buy off Southern workers from solidarity with their northern brothers, just as, in the case of the prevailing wage, he adjusts his blow to try to divide the skilled from the unskilled workers.

* * *

And I have been criticized, even by Marxists, for noting that the New Deal is dead ...

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