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E.R. Frank

John L. Lewis and Roosevelt’s Labor Policy

(April 1943)

From Fourth International, Vol.4 No.4, April 1943, pp.102-106.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The current negotiations between the United Mine Workers and the coal operators have served to lay bare the mechanics as well as the purpose of the Roosevelt labor policy. The events have demonstrated again the impossibility of the Roosevelt war government conducting its affairs without the unqualified support of the official leadership of the trade union movement.

Analyze the facts: John L. Lewis, ONE leader of ONE independent union, albeit a large and important one, denounces the government’s labor policy and threatens that the coal miners will strike unless they receive wage increases of $2 a day. And what happens? The whole seemingly imposing edifice of the Rooseveltian labor structure begins to tremble and totter and large cracks appear all over its surface.

The leadership of the AFL and CIO, so uncritically committed to support of Roosevelt the day before, suddenly begin to complain and balk and by their actions threaten to blow up the War Labor Board, the main labor agency of the Roosevelt administration. Even the all-out offensive against the labor movement is halted for one brief moment, while the Congressional jackals and time-servers of the million-dollar corporations apprehensively scan the fast darkening horizon. And this full blown crisis is precipitated without the firing of a shot. One important union leader has simply issued a denunciation and a warning. No more. It would seem that super-wealthy American capitalism is not as all-powerful in its internal structure as some of its idolaters imagine.

The coal controversy is the most significant single event that has taken place in the American labor movement since Pearl Harbor, because, in truly merciless style, it has ripped the veil of hypocrisy off the Rooseveltian labor policy and exposed to the pitiless glare of working class public opinion the sham and fraud of its “Equality of Sacrifice.” The “Steel formula” has been dragged out of the province of statisticians’ charts and graphs and exposed as nothing but the freezing of wages under conditions of soaring war inflation. The War Labor Board has been revealed as an agency designed to throttle the labor movement and keep it subservient to the war machine. “A court packed against labor.” Its chairman will be known henceforth as a “rapacious, predatory Park Avenue lawyer on the loose in Washington against the American worker.” For the first time the labor members of the War Labor Board, the “labor zombies,” are understood to be simply hostages of that corporation-dominated body. “Price control” is being recognized as a fraud to dupe the people with the idea that everything possible is being done to keep down the cost of living, while in reality prices are skyrocketing and the black market is beginning to flourish.

Of course, these conclusions have been stated and restated many times on the pages of the Fourth International. But that is the difference between propaganda and the experience of life. Propaganda instructs dozens and hundreds of individuals. The experience of life teaches thousands and hundreds of thousands and later will teach millions. When theory unites with the mass, it becomes a power, said Karl Marx.

Capitalism today can conduct its war in no other manner but by turning over the public treasury to a small and increasingly smaller clique of millionaire bankers and industrialists – the true owners, the true rulers of modern society; by ruining the lower middle classes and by imposing the major burden of the war on the working class.

The conduct of the Second World War on the part of the Roosevelt government is no exception to this rule.

When the workers, like beasts of burden, docilely accept the “sacrifices” of war and sweat and bleed for the greater glory of their capitalist “masters,” we have what is called “national unity” and the capitalist system is able to maintain some semblance of stability. When the working class balks and tries to rid itself of the slave burden, we have “disunity” as the columnists call it, or the “class struggle” as Marxists define it. When the fires of this class struggle begin to rage, especially in the midst of modern war, no government can escape a full blown crisis of the system itself.

As the Second World War continues, with no end in sight, and devours more and more every day, constantly greater demands are made on the economy of the country and upon its human material. The structure of American economy is basically the same as that of Nazi Germany. That is why Roosevelt can discover no new schemes, can contrive no new devices in the running of the Second World War other than the schemes and devices employed by Hitler and his Nazi regime. A study of the German measures for financing the war, the doling out of war contracts, the organization of war production, would astonish many by their striking similarity to Roosevelt’s methods and decrees in the organization of America’s participation in the war.

But in spite of these considerable similarities, there is one profound difference. Hitler and the German imperialists embarked upon their adventure to dominate the world only after they had successfully concluded a preventive civil war, only after the Nazi praetorian guard had crushed the labor movement with fire and sword and extirpated all of its organizations. Hitler has not, of course, and could not eliminate the class struggle from Germany, but he did succeed, for a decade at least, in reducing the German labor movement to impotency.

Roosevelt, on the contrary has had to thrust the United States into the Second World War in the face of a strong, well organized, superbly self-confident and militant labor movement. This labor movement had suffered no serious defeats. It had gone through eight years of unprecedented growth, achieved in militant class struggle. It is right now, in the midst of war, reaching out for a greater place in American public life.

Roosevelt’s Coalition Government

Hence for Roosevelt, as for Churchill in England, there was no other way of achieving the necessary “national unity” in the conduct of the war and maintaining a political equilibrium except by the establishment of a coalition government. And that is exactly what we have in the United States today. Of course, it is a strange kind of coalition. It is not formally legalized or recognized. It has none of the formal features of the prewar European coalition governments or the present one in Britain. We do not have a de jure coalition. But we do have, nevertheless, all the essentials of a de facto coalition government.

In England, the political relationship is relatively simple and clear. Everyone understands and admits that Churchill and the Tories rule by virtue of a coalition with the English labor movement and, were the British Labor Party tomorrow to withdraw from the government, a great crisis would be immediately precipitated and the Churchill government would unquestionably fall. In the United States the relationship is more obscure, less formally established, less well understood even by many of its direct participants.

For one thing, the American labor bureaucracy is not recognized by the capitalist masters as an equal in matters of government. The American labor bureaucracy has no cabinet posts and no important governmental jobs. The American labor bureaucracy has still not learned to enter the White House except, by way of the kitchen entrance. This giant of a labor movement, thirteen million strong, as a matter of fact, does not even possess its own political party, but remains an appendage of Roosevelt’s Democratic Party.

All this attests, of course, to the backwardness of the American labor movement and, from another vantage point, demonstrates the stiff-necked, outright tory character of the American ruling class. But despite all the backwardness, bewilderment and timidity on the one side and all the tory arrogance on the other, the fact remains that this mighty giant lives, breathes and cannot be conjured away. He remains a dominant factor in the whole sphere of internal politics, if for no other reason, by the sheer weight of mass alone. And while the labor movement remains on the scene, retaining its present stature, it is impossible for any government to rule except by agreement with its official leadership. Only on the theory of a de facto coalition is it possible to understand the internal policy of the Roosevelt war government and to analyze the role, function, purpose and place of the myriad governmental bureaus, agencies, rulings and decrees.

Examined in this light, the Rooseveltian labor policy takes on new meaning. The War Labor Board, the main administrative agency of labor policy, has the function, as we all know, of housebreaking the labor movement and destroying its wage standards; for capitalism today will and can conduct its affairs on no other terms. As the class struggle enters a new phase, the more outspoken reactionaries have ceased pretending otherwise. Senator George frankly declared to the US Senate, in denouncing the $25,000 salary limitation, that when a government ceases to protect the rights of the privileged oligarchy, “it degenerates into a mob.”

Hence the introduction of the “Little Steel” formula, that clever little devise that was to keep wages frozen under conditions of war inflation. Such a policy, however, designed to “fatten industry and starve labor” can be engineered in the United States today only with the consent and support of the trade union officialdom. That is the function of the four places on the War Labor Board allocated to the representatives of labor.

But a labor leadership is a leadership only by virtue of the existence of a strong labor movement. It can betray and sell out its membership only if it is “not dependent on them, only if it is sure of its privileges and position. The Roosevelt war government needs a labor bureaucracy that stands above its membership and is disdainful of its interests. It is therefore obligatory for Roosevelt to create such a hardened caste, a bureaucracy that can hold the ranks in check and keep them safely tied in the strait-jacket of the war machine. Roosevelt could do so only by assuring the union leaders that there will be no attempts to destroy their unions; that, in return for their cooperation, the war government would guarantee them continued recognition as the national labor leadership. Out of this need of Roosevelt developed the WLB policy of granting “maintenance of membership” to unions, a bastard form of the closed shop. This guarantee to the labor officialdom of its careers, its privileges, its prestige, represents not so much a concession to labor as a necessary, nay indispensable, feature of the Rooseveltian labor policy.

Even during Roosevelt’s second term, however, it took plenty of maneuvers, compromises, small concessions, etc., to preserve the coalition government. But throughout that whole period, labor was registering impressive gains. The coalition with Roosevelt took credit for the beneficial social legislation, modest in character though it was. And through gigantic strike victories, the unions raised wages in all the important industries. This twofold achievement provided a certain realistic basis for the stabilization of the coalition. The success of the coalition during that period, however, was not crowned with the formation of a stable bureaucracy with assured domination of the trade unions – one of Roosevelt’s main aims. His peacetime reign as president was too short a period in which to foist such a hardened caste on the great unions in the mass-production industries. And even those eight honeymoon years were characterized by mass unemployment and the threat of insecurity – conditions unfavorable for the creation of a stable bureaucracy. But this becomes a far more difficult task in the period when furious assaults are in progress against all wage standards and even against the pitiful social legislation that was secured in the previous period.

And now Roosevelt’s difficulty is beginning to assume the proportions of an impasse when we consider that a large and possibly major section of the American capitalist class has committed itself to all-out headlong opposition to the policy of coalition and is daily seeking to upset it.

The American capitalist class is unregenerate. In savagery and arrogance, it is, the world over, second to none. From the days of the American “Liberty League” and the “Grass Roots” conventions of the Middle West to the present alliance of poll-tax congressmen, the “Farm Bloc” and the Republican Party, it simply refuses to reconcile itself to the existence of a powerful labor movement. This opposition is intent upon crucifying Roosevelt, the one man in American public life who has become an expert in how to maneuver with the labor movement, how to cheat it, deceive it and throttle it under pretense of friendship. The American capitalists do not want to maneuver with a strong labor movement. They want to crush it and reestablish the old relationship of masters and slaves.

Now grown fat again on “cost-plus” war contracts, the American capitalists are power drunk. Insulated by their ignorance and self confident again to the point of rashness, they are currently engaged in a virulent anti-labor campaign in Congress and a shrieking rampage in all the legislatures of the states.

But it is a far cry from desires to accomplishment. For the time being, the industrialists and their Congressional lackeys must content themselves with their field day of unrestrained labor baiting in the halls of Congress and with organizing national tours for the Rickenbackers. For the time being, they have no alternative program of action to the Rooseveltian coalition policy. This labor movement, this 13 million-man giant may be without adequate program and leadership, he may be in retreat, but nevertheless he is still a giant. And it will take more than the screaming and the diatribes of vicious Congressmen or Rickenbacker tours to lay him low.

The campaign of the anti-Roosevelt opposition has one positive accomplishment to its credit. It rendered impossible any stabilization of the already highly unstable Roosevelt coalition government. The administration now can only live by moving from crisis to crisis. By their imprecations, by their brutality, the opposition has scared the whole labor officialdom out of its wits and aroused its fears for its very life. How can the labor officials disdain their own members, when they are in a constant terror that their unions may be wiped out and with it their official careers? The labor officialdom in the United States is not allowed to enjoy any feeling of stability and security in its situation. Thus the anti-Rooseveltians have hurled the labor officials back into communion with their own rank and file membership and thus the Roosevelt policy of building up a hardened bureaucracy on the British model has been thoroughly and effectively torpedoed out of existence.

Summing up, we have analyzed the Roosevelt war government as a coalition government, but a coalition government of a doubly peculiar character. The government rests on a labor movement so backward in character that it does not possess its own political party. The government does not acknowledge that it is a coalition government and refuses to grant the labor leadership legal recognition in the form of cabinet posts and important governmental positions. And finally, a great section of the capitalist class is opposed to the coalition and is daily attempting to destroy it. Is it any wonder, then, that the Roosevelt war government is characterized by the greatest instability in its internal structure and affairs? The government obviously represents no more than a transition phase of American politics. Roosevelt’s inability to establish a stable coalition is further illumined by a comparison of his administration with the Churchill cabinet. The Churchill coalition enjoys full support of the British capitalist class. Roosevelt, even in his halcyon days, was forced to impose his program on a skeptical and sullen capitalist class. Today that class has vengefully turned on him and his entire domestic program.

Secondly, Churchill is able to lean on a case-hardened labor bureaucracy built over a long period of time, when super-wealthy British imperialism was still able to grant concessions and material privileges to a select labor aristocracy. Roosevelt, on the contrary, must lean on a labor bureaucracy whose decisive section comes from new mass production unions and who remain far more dependent upon their membership and more sensitive to its pressure.

The Case of John L. Lewis

The Administration’s inability to establish a stable coalition government is highlighted most graphically by the defection of John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers. Why was Roosevelt unable to hold the loyalty of Lewis? For the same general reasons which made it impossible for him to create a hardened labor bureaucracy.

Who is Lewis and what does he want? He is not a principled or consistent opponent of the government. Lewis is no socialist or near socialist. He is no opponent of the capitalist system. Even in his famous 1937 Labor Day speech, where for the first time he lashed out at Roosevelt, he made it clear that he based himself on the capitalist system. “Unionization, opposed to communism,” he said, “presupposes the relation of employment; it is based upon the wage system and it recognizes fully and unreservedly the institution of private property and the right to investment profit.”

Even in his sarcastic and bitter address to the Joint Conference in New York at the current coal negotiations, he was at pains to emphasize, while describing the exorbitant profits of the railroads and other industries: “We don’t envy them their prosperity. We think the investors in that road are entitled to a return.” And again: “It is good for the stockholders of the Southern Railroad. We think it is good for the country ...”

Neither is Lewis some enthusiastic rank and filer, just emerged from the shops, eager to tilt his lance with the powers that be. On the contrary, for years Lewis was a wheel-horse of Gompers’ AFL machine of pure-and-simple unionism. After the death of John Mitchell, he emerged as the czar of the miners union and for a decade ruled it in the complete spirit of the old-line AFL unionism. Even today the miners union does not possess the democracy that is enjoyed in such a union as the United Automobile Workers.

The philosophy of Lewis, therefore, insofar as he has one, is thoroughly capitalist. That is why he is no opponent of the basic idea of a coalition government – the subservience of the labor movement to the capitalist class and its aims. As a matter of fact, Lewis was not even opposed to labor representatives accepting posts on the various war boards and agencies. Thomas Kennedy, secretary-treasurer of the miners, joined the War Labor Board at the time of its formation and remains a member of that body. Lewis himself was a member of the conference of labor leaders that unanimously voted to give up the right to strike. As far as basic philosophy of government goes, it is quite clear that Lewis has, no fundamental quarrels with Murray, Thomas, Reuther, or for that matter, even Hillman and Dubinsky. He does differ very sharply, however with the whole CIO and AFL officialdom on the tactical orientation of the labor movement today.

Personally, Lewis, is built on a different scale than the grey nonentities and mediocrities that go to make up the national officialdom of the AFL and CIO. He is imperious, egotistic, proud, ambitious on a bigger scale and far bolder, far more able, far more colorful, and far more imaginative than any one or dozen top labor officials. In 1935, it was he above all other established union officials who had the vision and qualifications to become the leader of the industrial union movement. After the CIO had established itself in the key industries and had, in savage battles, brought the leading financial and industrial giants to their knees, Lewis became keenly aware of the inexhaustible power that reposed in this movement. In the 1936 elections he saw how completely the mighty Roosevelt was dependent on labor’s support. It then became clear to him that Roosevelt could not maintain political stability without the support of the labor movement and that the government rested on a de facto coalition. He was quite prepared to help maintain the political stability of capitalist America and to enter its coalition government. But if it was worth doing, it was worth doing on an ample scale.

Apparently Lewis thought that the whole problem was little more complicated than the purchasing of a voting bloc in a corporation. Lewis was certainly eager to become a stockholder. After pouring one-quarter million dollars out of the miners’ treasury into the Democratic Party campaign trough, Lewis expected results. He appears to have believed that he and the miners were now full-fledged stockholders in the concern.

Lewis thereupon demanded a price for labor’s support which he considered commensurate with the importance of the services rendered. If there is a coalition, why an unofficial backdoor coalition? Lewis wanted the relationship made formal and official. And an official coalition presupposes the entrance of labor representatives into the cabinet and representation in other government posts. Why not? Was the price too high? In a word, he demanded for the American labor bureaucracy the same honors and position enjoyed by the British trade union and labor party bureaucracy.

But as everyone knows, the British trade union movement possesses a large political party which at different times has commanded the largest bloc of seats in Parliament. Hence the British capitalists cannot rule in Parliamentary fashion especially in time of war except through the agency of a full-dress coalition. The American capitalists did not believe they were under any such necessity. The American capitalists were by no means reconciled even to Roosevelt’s backdoor coalition. So Roosevelt had no alternative but to reject Lewis’ grandiose demands. Probably Roosevelt was anxious to rid himself of this too importunate and too ambitious ally. In any case, the American capitalist class, being what it is and American political relations being what they are, Roosevelt was in no position to accede to the Lewis demands. In the words of an old popular song, he “couldn’t if he would.”

The first important payment Lewis received on his quarter million dollar investment was the smashing of the steel strike during the summer of 1937 – a body blow to the CIO. Every governor that sent out the National Guard on strike-breaking duty was a pro-Roosevelt Democrat, and in all cases had been elected to office with the active support of Labor’s Non-Partisan League and the CIO. The Memorial Day massacre in Chicago was under the direction of Roosevelt’s mid-western lieutenant, Democratic Mayor Kelly, also elected to office with full labor support. When the CIO officialdom, bewildered and stunned, called upon their “election partner,” President Roosevelt, to halt the employers’ lawlessness and violence and the strikebreaking activities of his fellow governors, the Great White Father proceeded to rub salt into the CIO wounds, declaring: “A plague on both your houses.”

Lewis, believing himself betrayed by his business partner, went on the air on Labor Day 1937 to deliver his first public challenge to Roosevelt. Labor would not continue to support Roosevelt unless he sharply changed his course and lived up to his campaign pledges. “It ill behooves one,” he said, “who has supped at labor’s table and who has been sheltered in labor’s house to curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality both labor and its adversaries when they become locked in deadly embrace.”

But Roosevelt was about to embark on the policy of “quarantining the aggressors” and his gaze was turned more and more on Europe and the coming struggle for world hegemony. As the second term of Roosevelt drew to a close, Lewis drank the cup of humiliation to its very dregs. He felt himself completely cheated and tricked. He was convinced that under the existing line-up and relationships, labor could expect no further concessions from Roosevelt and the Democratic Party.

The Defeat of Lewis

In January 1940, he mounted the rostrum of the “Cross Roads of Destiny” Golden Jubilee convention of the United Mine Workers, thundered his denunciation of Roosevelt and all his works and openly announced his public break with the Administration. Reviewing the history of the previous four years, Lewis stated:

“In 1936, a coalition was effected between the Democratic Party and organized labor. The resources of both interests were pooled, the objective being the return of the party to power in the election of the same year. Organized labor furnished money, speakers, party workers in. every political subdivision, and many millions of votes.

“Psychologically and politically, organized labor created the atmosphere of success that returned the Democratic Party to power with an ample margin of safety ...

“A political coalition, at least, presupposes a post election good faith between the coalescent interests. The Democratic Party and its leadership have not preserved this faith. In the last three years, labor has not been given representation in the Cabinet, nor in the administration or policy-making agencies of government ...

“The current Administration has not sought nor seriously entertained the advice or views of labor upon the question of national unemployment or lesser questions affecting domestic economy, internal taxation, foreign trade, military and naval expansion, relations with foreign nations or the issues of war or peace ...

“Labor today has no point of contact with the Democratic Administration in power, except for casual and occasional interviews which are granted its individual leaders. In the Congress, the unrestrained baiting and defaming of labor by the Democratic majority has become a pastime, never subject to rebuke by the titular or actual leaders of the Party ...

“It is true that at the present time the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York are trending toward the Republican column in the campaign year of 1940. This trend can be corrected, and the Republican Party prevented from winning, only by an accord between the Democratic Party and organized labor, and the adoption of an intelligent and rational program to be written into the platform of the Democratic Party and placed before the American people as the issues of the election. Even then, guarantees of good faith and fulfillment of party promises would have to be made to labor and the people by responsible Democratic leaders ...”

It is history that neither Roosevelt nor the Democratic Party offered such an accord to Lewis.

In truth, it was not Lewis but Roosevelt who was the first leader of the American trade union movement and it was Lewis and his associates who had made him so.

It was Lewis who issued the declaration of war but in the battle that ensued it was Roosevelt who emerged victorious. The day after Lewis issued his ultimatum, Hillman, Rieve and other CIO leaders rushed forward declaring for the third term without any conditions, or demands. The rubber convention came out for the third term. His own miners’ machine split in half on the issue. And William Green, heading a delegation of confectionery workers, rushed to the White House to present Roosevelt with a birthday cake. Thus Lewis, to his chagrin was taught that bluff, bluster and even arrogance are no substitute for an independent working class policy and for an independent party of labor. Even so, not until Roosevelt forced Lewis out of the CIO leadership, isolated the miners from the rest of the labor movement and threatened to wreck his labor career, did Lewis acknowledge, as it were, his mistaken policy. With the outbreak of the war Lewis played his cards far more skilfully.

Lewis Since Pearl Harbor

To the average trade unionist, Lewis has conveyed the impression that he remains aloof and in opposition to the various agencies and boards of the war government. And today, as the AFL and CIO officialdom is becoming compromised and smeared with its support of these agencies, they are losing moral leadership to Lewis. His progressive, militant stand in the current coal negotiations, his resourcefulness and talent in manipulating the coal operators and the government labor officials, is contrasted by all workers to the pitiful exhibition of treachery and ineptitude of the AFL and CIO representatives on the War Labor Board. Today Lewis commands the national spotlight once again and workers from coast to coast are eagerly watching the developments in the coal negotiations, and looking to him for leadership.

Every day that this mad war continues, it reveals ever more glaringly the chasm between the masters of society and its industrial slaves. Every new crisis, and there will be many of them, remorselessly tears away the government’s pretense to impartiality. Widespread sympathy greeted Lewis’ ferocious attack on the War Labor Board; the AFL and CIO officials had to rush to associate themselves with opposition to the WLB’s “Steel Formula.” These are lightning flashes that give grim warning that, regardless of all preconceived notions or ingrained prejudices of the labor officialdom, this American working class will never content itself with the role of handmaiden to the industrialists and bankers. The drunken anti-labor orgy of Congress and its threat to choke the labor movement by repressive legislation, far from frightening the American workers, is providing the necessary irritant to rouse the ranks of labor and is forcing its leadership, under penalty of destruction, toward the road of independent political action.

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