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Emanuel Garrett

Truman and GOP Jockey on Anti-Labor Offensive

(13 January 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 2, 13 January 1947, pp. 1 & 7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

President Truman, in his State of the Union message, extended an offer of harmony to the Republican majority in Congress, proposing that Democrats and Republicans unite in fashioning an olive branch of peace that can be used as a whip against the labor movement. Though Truman disclaimed any bid for punitive measures against labor, and restricted his suggestions to a few “mild curbs,” his message makes it absolutely clear that the labor movement will have to be alerted against a legislative assault.

It is not without reason that virtually every single newspaper in the United States headlined Truman’s request for “curbs” on labor’s right to strike. For that was the real essence of his message, and the essential content of his peace offering to the Republicans. That Republican and Democratic leaders, for the most part, expressed high satisfaction with Truman’s proposals is, in the nature of things, to be taken for granted. That some labor leaders, however, also expressed themselves as satisfied indicates the clearest need of rousing the vigilance of the union movement.

Admittedly, the proposals were “mild.” They are nevertheless sufficiently vicious to open the gates to sterner anti-union measures. It is interesting to note that Truman is hardly as specific in .other sections of his message as in its labor section. Here he concretely proposes three measures: to ban strikes over the interpretation of a contract; to ban jurisdictional strikes; and to ban, within limitations, secondary boycotts.

Why So Cautious?

They are a far cry from the extremes of anti-labor legislation threatened by various Republican and Democratic Congressmen. And for good reason.

• In the first place, Truman, and for that matter the more astute Republican leaders, realize that they dare not venture too far afield, lest they be smitten by the strength of an aroused and powerful labor movement.

Regardless of how weak may be the spine of this or that labor leader, the fact remains that the labor movement is much too confident of its ability, and much too sensitive of its rights, to permit any legislative tampering with those rights. Hence the calculated attempt to present these proposals as mild, inoffensive and reasonable.

• In the second place, Truman is tossing the ball to the Republicans. The big elections come in 1948. Organized or unorganized, there is such a thing as the labor vote. Accordingly, the “responsible” Democratic and Republican Party leaders propose to proceed with more than a little caution, despite the wild-eyed threats of this or that individual.

It is one thing to make a bid for the middle class vote against labor. It is quite another thing to so antagonize the labor movement, and possibly broad layers, of the middle class as well, as to weaken party chances in 1948 ... and possibly encourage what has already been given concrete expression in many localities, namely, a Labor Party.

Thus we see, and will continue to see throughout this session of Congress, no small amount of jockeying. Truman is, in effect, saying: this is how far I propose to go, and I offer it as a working basis against labor; if you want to go further, I may be “compelled” to sign your bills, but the responsibility will be yours.

Let us examine these concrete propositions, these “mild” curbs:

• Truman, you see, is not asking that labor’s rights be invaded in any important sense, merely that small irritations be outlawed. After all, are not jurisdictional strikes injurious to labor as well as to management? They are.

But it will, be far more injurious to labor if they are outlawed in Truman’s way. Like bureaucratism and other evils that injure the best interests of the union movement, the cure lies not in the intervention of the capitalist government and its agencies, but within the labor movement itself.

All such matters are the business of labor itself, to be handled by encouraging the vigilance and interest of union rank and files. Otherwise they lend themselves to a pattern that could mean the ultimate strangulation of the union movement, as the capitalist government dictates to the unions today on jurisdictional strikes, tomorrow on compulsory arbitration, the next day on the basic right to strike.

• And having “put one over” on jurisdictional strikes, Truman gingerly advanced to a ban on secondary boycotts and strikes over contract interpretation.

Secondary boycotts are hardly on the same level as picket-line strike action. Perhaps they are a small thing to yield, not worth bothering with? Decidedly not! They are indeed secondary operations, but the labor movement must protect its right to their use. Even Truman recognized that, with a complicated industrial structure such as we have, secondary boycotts are sometimes necessary weapons of union operation.

And as for a ban on strikes over contract interpretation, little argument is necessary. Eliminate the right to strike, and the union is at the mercy of the employer in interpreting a contract – notwithstanding how many “impartial” government boards are assigned to investigate.

No Mention of FEPC

At least fifteen of Truman’s forty minutes were devoted to labor. That is why we have examined that section of his address in detail. Reading or listening to Truman is at best a thankless task. However, the rest of his address is worth examining if only to study its emptiness and to discover what is missing.


Many other things are missing, including an anti-poll-tax bill. But we single out FEPC for mention because this was part of the 21-point program Truman presented to the last Congress. As with the Republicans, who through Joe Martin have warned Negro Republican leaders that they had. best forget’ about FEPC, so the Democrats have shelved FEPC now that the vote-getting season is temporarily over. It may be resuscitated in time for the next election. Between times, they will do nothing to enact FEPC into law.

Wage-Price Zero

Most of what Truman did say, apart from his labor proposals, constituted little more than a great big zero. However, the very ambiguity of his other proposals speaks volumes. So, for example, on wages and prices, Truman offered the wisdom that prices must be held in line. How? By advising industry to hold prices down, and to cut them where profits allow. That is exactly what Truman proposed when he abolished price ceilings on almost all commodities. We all know how it has worked out.

He also advised: labor not to seek wage rises that Would lead to price rises. In the concrete, since Truman is definitely not going to uphold the CTO’s crucial contention that wage increases can be granted without price increases, that will mean a continuation of Truman’s strikebreaking.

Last year, having publicly taken the position that labor was entitled to wage increases, Truman thereupon launched into a vicious display of strike-breaking. Starting more “moderately” this year, proposing no wage increases, Truman will at least have the benefit of greater consistency. It must be remembered that Truman’s declaration ending hostilities did not declare the duration ended. He therefore still has, and may seek to use various wartime emergency powers against the labor movement in the event of a national strike wave.

Empty Talk

• In an effort to balance his labor program, Which, however “mild,” is sure to provoke Widespread protest, Truman recommended to Congress that it “considers the extension and broadening of our Social Security program, better housing, a comprehensive national health program and provision for a fair minimum wage.” There is an obvious need for all of this, but Truman did not so much as by a phrase indicate how any of this was to be done. It was clearly added for impressive padding.

Reduced to its essentials, all Truman could offer on housing was an appeal to private enterprise. Plus the specific advice to veterans that the “primary responsibility to deliver housing at reasonable prices that veterans can afford rests with private industry and labor.” Plenty of ventilation here, but no housing!

• As his “second major policy” next to labor, Truman offered a disquisition on restricting monopoly. But it is so vapid, so utterly vain, as to require no comment.

• Though he did not say so in so many words, Truman implied that he would not ask for any tax cuts. Proceeding on our own, by implication too, we can expect that any major tax revisions will be designed to help the wealthy and leave the poor with the same scandalous and disproportionate burden they have been carrying.

Last week, in ending hostilities, Truman announced that various excise taxes would be lifted by July 1.

Interestingly enough, they were all on luxury items. Excise taxes that drain the pockets of the poor remain.

• Much else was crowded into the 25 minutes that remained of Truman’s address after he had finished with his labor program. He made it clear that he would oppose a veterans’ bonus, saying that no revisions are needed in present veterans’ laws. He took a clear and unambiguous position – yes, we’ll say that for him – on merging the armed forces into a single department, and on universal military training (which has more than a fleeting connection with his strike-breaking inclinations). He mumbled something about extending civil rights in a manner which he will explain later. He told the farmer that he was entitled to a fair income. He suggested that immigration be revised to permit more displaced persons to enter – an excellent suggestion – but steered clear of concrete proposals. He advised the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to “foster the development of atomic energy for industrial use and scientific research.” Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Do Not Be Deceived!

There may be a few points we have overlooked. If so, they aren’t important. For, we repeat, the core of the address concerned itself with his labor program. Given his record, Truman may very well reverse himself on everything he said – as he has reversed himself time and time again since he took office. If however, he reverses himself on labor, it will most likely be to shed the sweetness of his “moderation” for government by injunction or the like.

We must not be deceived by this “moderation,” either in the meaning of the specific proposals or in what can follow. While AFL President William Green has already rushed into print with a halting approval of Truman’s address, CIO President Philip Murray, other AFL and CIO leaders and railroad brotherhood spokesmen have not commented. We hope they will advise Congress that any move in the direction of legislating Truman’s proposals will be met with a storm of labor protest and action! And that they will then turn to the business of leading an aggressive national wage drive, this time keeping clear of the White House corridors!

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