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Emanuel Garrett

CIO Price Program Lacks Bold Wage Plan

(26 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 34, 26 August 1946, pp. 1 & 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

We cannot accept a situation in which wages are frozen while the cost of living soars.” So reads the major resolution adopted at the emergency CIO conference, called by President Philip Murray in Washington last week.

It is a plain statement of fact that requires plenty of implementation, and little argumentation. The key question today, therefore, is how will this be implemented? That is, how will it be given practical reality in REJECTING “a situation in which wages are frozen”?

AFL and independent union leaders have used much the same language. Testifying at Decontrol Board hearings, Boris Shiskin, AFL economist, said: “The American worker will not sit idly by, watching the buying power of his weekly wage earnings dwindle before his eyes.” A.E. Lyons of the Railroad Labor Executives Association added: “If the government falls to control food prices, it is doubtful if anyone will be able to prevent wildcat strikes in protest.”

Again, this is nothing less than the absolute truth. Labor is fighting mad; it is determined that something be done. Here too, then, the key question remains: What are the union leaders planning? Will labor be forced to take the difficult road of wildcat strikes because its leaders do nothing beyond directing their economists to issue statements?

In the Auto Workers Union, the Executive Board approved a six-point wage-price program presented by Walter Reuther, president of the UAW-CIO, authorizing the Chrysler Local, and other locals that have renegotiation clauses in their contracts, to reopen the wage agreements. “If the Price Decontrol Board, the Office of Price Administration and the Secretary of Agriculture have not taken vigorous steps to restore effective price control on food, clothing and other basic necessities,” reads the UAW statement, “we shall demand adjustments in our wage structure to compensate for increases in the cost of living.”

This action of the UAW Board came as a result of mounting pressure for wage-price action in the union, especially in the two large Ford and Chrysler locals. Reuther, like Murray, is clearly unwilling to undertake a general wage offensive. “But we are compelled to take these preliminary steps. We have got to get ourselves in a position to act if the government fails us.” How far these preliminary steps will go beyond serving a 60-day notice on Chrysler remains to be seen.

IF the government fails us!”

Therein is the fatal flaw in the logic of the CIO, AFL and Brotherhoods spokesmen. It means, in effect, that energies that would more profitably be expended elsewhere, will be wasted eyeing the government. Murray, for example, is still chasing after the utterly useless and dangerous chimera of a labor-management conference. He has, up to now, been getting the cold shoulder from Truman and management; but even should it convene, there isn’t a thing labor could get from such a conference except disillusionment and disorientation.

“IF the government fails us!” What HAS it done? What CAN it do but “fail” us? It won’t fail the profiteers, for it is THEIR government. It will act in our favor only if we compel it to by the pressure of action, and the promise of more action.

“IF the government fails us!” Prices have gone up and up. Last week alone, prices on household commodities were raised three per cent. Coffee went up ten to thirteen cents a pound – “even higher than the best the industry was led to expect,” according to the Journal of Commerce. A neat little bonus for the coffee profiteers!

We go to press too early to comment on the expected decision of the Decontrol Board. Much is being made of the prediction that the Decontrol Board will most likely restore some ceilings. But it is equally predicted that these ceilings, while lower than current prices, will be higher than June 30 ceilings.

Four-Point Program

There is nothing uncertain about the facts. They prove that wage increases and a price roll-back are vital needs. Speaking at the CIO emergency conference, Murray presented the following facts: Despite the 18½ cent an hour increase won early in the year, real earnings of the average steel worker have dropped $11.04 a week, or about 20 per cent, in the year since May 1945. “About $5.62 of that amount is represented by a loss in actual cash, due to a shorter work week, and the balance comes from an estimated 12 per cent increase in the cost of living.” (CIO News) According to a statement presented at the same conference, gross weekly earnings for auto workers dropped by 15 per cent since April 1945.

To meet this situation, the CIO therefore drafted a four-point program:

  1. Consumer resistance. An excellent idea that has already proved that it can bring results UP TO A POINT. Consumer action as well as labor protest is credited with the contemplated action of the Decontrol Board in re-establishing ceilings on a few commodities. But tills consumer action has to be ORGANIZED, with union initiative, in a way that has not yet been attempted, and concretized in the form of POPULAR PRICE CONTROL COMMITTEES capable of acting.
  2. Enforcement of OPA laws. Again a necessary idea, but one that is exceedingly limited in its application. OPA laws are only a flimsy pretense at price control. We are for enforcing such controls as OPA has imposed, but they are inadequate, and, as Murray himself has said, price roll-backs are required in the situation. Further, the resolution of the CIO conference says:

The cold and unsympathetic treatment which labor received at the Wage Stabilization Board contrasts sharply with the enthusiastic price rises which were initiated by the OPA. It soon became apparent, when the ink of the wage-price regulations (of February 15, 1946) was scarcely dry, that the policy was to be extraordinarily liberal with respect to prices.”

We will return to this statement in a moment, for it contains a pointed lesson. For the moment we cite it merely to demonstrate that enforcing the elastic laws of the OPA is only a small, and a tiny part of the job, especially given the present OPA setup with its heavy emphasis on decontrol.

  1. Continued payment of government food subsidies. NOT a very good idea, except in so far as it is payment made to poor farmers, sharecroppers and such. Experience has demonstrated, however, that the poor farmer benefits least from subsidies, that those who profit the most are the big food combines which simply net that much more of a profit.
  2. A progressive tax policy to siphon off the super-profits of the rich. Certainly a good idea that could be concretized, for example, in a demand to limit profits to five per cent of invested capital.

Program Is Inadequate

There’s the program. Given Murray’s own statement on the urgency of the price situation, the squeeze “between rising prices and shrinking earnings,” it is not enough to fill the bill. The CIO’s program got considerable publicity, and with the true perspicacity of the capitalist press, they almost uniformly featured the idea that Murray intended to discourage strikes – at least until after the November elections, for sure.

Now, WE are in no position to know when and if strikes ought to be called. A strike is an action that is not to be entered into light-mindedly and without detailed knowledge. Union leaders like Murray ARE in a position to know what action can be taken, and when. But, though they are in a position to know, there is no indication that they are availing themselves of their knowledge. The point we are making is one of orientation, of direction, of spirit, of method.

Murray spoke about the necessity for wage increases, but when he got down to brass tacks ... he offered little of a program for getting these wage increases. If, as he said, “we cannot accept a situation in which wages are frozen,” what are we to,do to rectify this situation? It appears that the closest the CIO conference came to actually tackling the situation in the shops was to attack speedup. That is undoubtedly an important campaign and one that has a close bearing on wages as well as on general working conditions. But it is by no means the sum of a campaign on wages and prices.

The fact is that Murray bears a good deal of the responsibility for the situation. Refer back to the quotation above about the “cold and unsympathetic treatment received by labor.” It was apparent that labor was being gypped long before the ink was dry on the February 15 settlement. At that time, Murray did NOT take the elementary stand of resisting price increases; he approved a price increase in steel which was bound to have the effect of erasing any wage gains. At the very moment that Murray was conferring in the White House, steel workers were prepared to man picket lines in militant, struggle. At the same moment, auto workers were walking picket lines in a strike that had begun with the demand for WAGE INCREASES and PRICE INCREASES.

UAW Price Policy

We have to get back to those fundamentals. That is why we take Murray to task so severely. Truman? We expect nothing from him other than to do what the profiteers who put him where he is, want him to do. Truman is not our representative. Murray is! And, it seems, unless the situation and the demand of the rank and file compel him to act differently, that he will again by-pass the needs of the workers in fruitless appeals to the White House.

Going back to fundamentals takes us back to the situation in the UAW. Elsewhere in this issue you will find a report from Detroit. Reuther is under severe pressure in the union. The auto workers want wage increases. The UAW Board accordingly yielded to the pressure and reversed a decision it had made some weeks ago not to raise the wage question, which was itself a reversal of a previous declaration that the union would go out for wage increases generally. Hard to follow? The shifts in policy most certainly are.

This kind of vacillation does no good. The auto magnates take heart; they count on division in the union, and uncertainty of program. Even in the latest statement there is hesitancy: negotiations will be reopened where permissible, but there will not be a general wage offensive, etc. Either there is a wage offensive, or there isn’t. And a wage offensive is precisely what is Indicated – plus popular consumer action.

Quite properly, the UAW statement reiterates its opinion that “our task is to increase real wages by insisting that wage increases be paid out of the higher profits of industry made possible by the economies of full production and improved technology and not passed on to the consumer in higher prices.”

By itself that would deserve to be featured. But one gets the impression from the accounts of the Board’s deliberations in the daily press and in the union paper, that it lacks concreteness and meaning in terms of contemplated action. When the GM strikers hit the pavement last winter, no one was in doubt as to what they meant: Wage Increases Without Price Increases. The current UAW Board statement sounds like a pale repetition of a well established fact, something that is not intended to go beyond the printed page.

Reuther is obviously in a quandary. In the union he is under attack from the Thomas forces whom he displaced at the last convention. The Stalinists are making hay. United States relations with Russia being what they are, the Stalinists are playing the role of aggressive champions of labor militancy. It serves their general political purposes, and their particular union purpose of knifing Reuther, who is independent of them. However, we repeat the point we made last week: the dishonest intentions of the Stalinists can only be combatted by a militant union policy. The major issue today is the wage-price issue; and an aggressively bold wage policy will rout the Stalinists in the auto unions as it will promote the essential welfare of the auto workers.

No issue is of greater immediate importance today than wages-prices. Every week that goes by without a vigorous assault on the inflated price structure confronts us with so much more of a wage cut, so much more of a fight. We are waiting for our unions to give leadership, in action, for that is their function, in this situation, the Workers Party and Labor Action offer their program:

  2. Popular Price Control Committees.
  3. For a rising scale of wages, an escalator clause in every union contract.
  4. For a guaranteed annual wage at a level to provide a decent standard of living for every working class family in the country.

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