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Notes of the Month

Another Presidential Order

(February 1943)

From New International, Vol. IX No. 2, February 1943, pp. 35–36.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Roosevelt’s proclamation ordering selected areas of the nation on a forty-eight-hour work week, and the prominence given it, makes little sense unless it is related to the national clamor for higher wages – and, especially, the miners’ demand for a $2.00-a-day wage increase.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the executive order is to increase production – particularly the production of war materials, although all industries are affected. The facts, however, show that the national average for machinery workers – i.e., for war production workers – is forty-nine hours a week. Many of these actually work sixty or more hours a week. In general, there are few war industries or plants of any size or consequence that operate on less than a forty-eight-hour week basis.

Further, there was nothing in law or fact to prevent any industry’s operation on a forty-eight-hour schedule – provided overtime rates were paid for hours worked in excess of forty hours. Thus, where a given industry or plant did operate on a work week under forty-eight hours – and these, for the most part, are in the consumers’ industries – the reasons had absolutely no connection with the absence of an administrative decree. Either materials were lacking, or manpower was excessive in the circumstances of restricted production or the health hazard was such as to make a longer work-week impossible. And the shifting of manpower from the consumers’ industries to war production had already been provided for in other decrees, threats or the simple absence of work.

We have not seen a single editorial or column which claimed that the President’s proclamation would materially raise production. Why, then, the order?

Its real significance can only be understood in the light of the WLB decision, issued on the same day as the work-week order. In this decision the WLB denied a general wage increase to 180,000 employees of the “Big Four” packing companies, and thus reaffirmed its Little Steel formula.

There is every indication that the timing of the forty-eight-hour order and the WLB decision was more than a coincidence. Rather, the one was unmistakably a cover-up for the other. That is to say, Roosevelt issued his order in such a way as to reaffirm the WLB’s Little Steel wage formula with a maximum of camouflage, and at such a time as to intimidate the movement for higher wages. Thus, Economic Stabilizer Byrnes, through whom the executive order was issued, very explicitly stated that “There must be no further increases in wages beyond the Little Steel formula.”

And that is precisely the issue. Labor has damned the Little Steel formula as a repressive, wage-cutting imposition. With prices having risen far beyond the 15 per cent wage increase allowed by the Little Steel formula, and with prices continuing to rise, every section of the labor movement has joined in a unanimous cry for the revision or complete elimination of the WLB formula. Murray, Green, the railroad brotherhoods – they are all vigorously (for them) demanding wage increases commensurate with the rise in the cost of living. Above all, however, the United Mine Workers have announced their position on a new contract: a $2.00-a-day wage increase.

Roosevelt’s order, and the publicity attending it, was, in effect, a statement of policy on the mine workers’ demands. The reputation of the miners’ union among workers in other industries is high. Regardless of what workers in auto or steel may think of Lewis, they respect him and his union as men who get what they are after. It is known that the miners will refuse to work, when the old contract expires on April 1. without a union contract, or an agreement making any pay rises retroactive to the date of expiration of the old contract. It is further known that Lewis intends to ask for and get the $2.00 increase, just as a year ago the anthracite miners forced a $1.00-a-day increase. And where other union leaders, under the impact of irrepressible upsurge in the ranks, merely ask for a revision of the formula upward, Lewis has declared himself against any kind of restrictive formula.

Now, it is plain that should the miners break through the restrictions of the WLB wage policies, there would be no stopping the rest of the labor movement. It would, in effect, be a green light for militant wage demands that could not possibly be halted, especially with the labor movement already in turmoil, and the union leaderships responding to the pressure from below. And, under the momentum of success, this upsurge might quite conceivably go beyond mere wage demands to include broader issues, notably, the right to strike. The sentiment in labor’s ranks for rescinding the no-strike pledge has already assumed organizational expression in the UAW. In the context of the struggle for wage increases, with class lines drawn sharply as labor is pitted against government and employer, on a clear-cut issue of class division, the movement might easily get out of “control.”

That is why the Roosevelt order, and the Byrnes explanation, laid particular stress on the overtime rate provision. Where the capitalist press hailed the order, in general, it wailed in anguish against the punishment of decent, law-abiding employers who would gladly operate their plants on a forty-eight or ninety-six-hour schedule if they didn’t have to cut too deeply into their pay-triotic profit reserves. But, as usual, Roosevelt showed greater perspicacity than his class – even if in this case it may backfire. (Sometime later, with the immediate issue “solved” and the wage movement crushed, it will be much easier to legislate or decree overtime pay out of existence.)

What was Roosevelt trying to do? He was calling attention to a “bulkier pay envelope,” seeking that way to head off the mass demand for higher wage rates. That is, he was trying to confuse and “demobilize” the wage movement, scare the more servile union leaderships, and map his position for the impending battle with the mine workers.

But the fact remains that labor, at least in the mass production industries, is already receiving that “bulkier pay envelope” based on time and a half for all work over forty hours. And the fact equally remains that this “bulkier pay envelope” is demonstrably skinny when it comes to purchasing power. So skinny, that with new price rises anticipated and with taxes digging deeply into the worker’s pay check, a serious cut in the standard of living of the workers is unmistakably threatened. Consequently, whatever Roosevelt may do to head off the movement, his efforts are likely to have been in vain. Already, after a day or two of silence in which tney seemed to have been routed by the executive order and the packing house decision, the labor leaders have returned to the attack on the Little Steel formula.

Whether the executive order proves to be a dud, or succeeds in its purpose of vanquishing the wage movement, rests largely now in the hands of the miners. Roosevelt has hurled his challenge. It is now labor’s turn to reply. And the miners hold the key to the answer!

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