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Emanuel Garrett

Mass Action: The Way
to Bring Prices Down!

(12 May 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 19, 12 May 1947, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

“Today’s abnormal conditions severely limit the reliance that, can be put on the semi-automatic regulation of prices by the market.”

So reads a statement issued through the National Planning Association by what the press calls “a cross-section of heavy industry fabricators and retail merchandisers,” totalling some 23 prominent business men. Included among the 23 is General Electric’s president, C.E. Wilson, whose reputation in business circles rests not only on his presidency of a huge company but on his opposition to decent wage increases.

Stripped of the mouthiness of the “professional economist,” what the statement means is that anybody who looks to prices coming down of their own weight is acting the fool.

We scarcely need the testimony of big business representatives to tell us that prices are out of line. But let us get their testimony on record, anyway, before we discuss their motives and our own program to meet the situation.

Prices Outstrip Income

“Price developments since last June,” says the statement, “strongly emphasize the need for increased vigilance on the part of business men. In the second half of 1946 consumer prices were carried up as much as they had risen during the preceding four years ... In this rise consumer-prices outran consumer income.”

Let us pause there a moment and examine the meaning of this statement. Price controls – the shoddy, inadequate, battered price control system of OPA – were dropped in July. Thus, prices left to the normal working of the “enterprise system” that the statement ecstatically and naturally upholds, rose in six uncontrolled months as much as they had in the previous four years.

At the same time, Chester Bowles, former OPA head, expressed his own views in an article written as Democratic Party campaign material. Bowles charged that “Republican irresponsibility” had cost the American public $8,000,000,000 in ten months, and reiterated much the same facts as are included in the statement of the “responsible” business men cited above.

There is the picture. It is well known. In fact, it is known to be worse than the “public minded” business men make it seem. After all, a few cents more in the price of butter means little to a C.E. Wilson with his six-figure “earnings,” but it means a great deal that cannot possibly be measured In statistics to the family whom the same Mr. Wilson has denied a genuine wage increase.

Anyhow, there we have the facts as admitted by a group of business men and by Mr. Bowles. For the present we will overlook the political angle the hypocrisy pf capitalist politicians who try to shove off on each other responsibility for a situation which they as mutual representatives of the capitalist system share in common. On another occasion we will look into the campaign propaganda of the tweedledee Democrats, (who gummed up the price situation in the first place) and the tweedledum Republicans. It is enough to say that it is THEIR system which has produced the problem.

But apart from electioneering aspects of the statement by these gentlemen, their motives are worth a little attention. Especially so as their statement is issued one day after one of the big representative bodies of American profiteering, the Chamber of Commerce, issued a statement warning against pressure to reduce prices. It would, on the surface, appear as though this “cross-section” of business was at variance with the Chamber of Commerce, is it though? Is their statement any real pressure to reduce prices?

Not by a long shot! Their statement is calculated to achieve the exact opposite: to forestall the development of a mass pressure on prices under. the pretense of leadership in the matter by big business itself. We have at the most a division of opinion between two sections of big business; one which feels that the best way to handle the situation is to keep mute; another which believes that the best results in milking the people dry and preventing their indignation from exploding is to otter them pap in the form of statements which pledge “responsibility.”

These 23 men are worried about what may come. They are afraid of a “serious price slump later.” They are afraid that the mass of people might actually force a genuine reduction jn prices. They are afraid that, at the very least, a mute buyers’ strike will leave their stocks idle on the shelves.

Propose Status Quo

It is, for example, significant that a prime mover in the statement is Beardsley Fuml of the fabulously rich R.H. Macy & Co. Recently Macy snatched a lot of publicity for itself with full-page ads supplemented by free news columns, calling for a reduction of prices. The fact of the matter was simply that “retail sales are lagging and inventories are beginning to cause some worries,”

In a sense, then, the present statement, as were the full-page Macy ads; is a come-on to buy. We haven’t cheeked Macy prices. It may well be that prices were knocked down a few bents. The fact remains that prices are so far out of, line that a few cents off is not enough, even if it does bull some people into the store.

What do these men propose? “Prices ... must be brought down as rapidly as orderly readjustment allows.” That is the sum and substance of what these “responsible,” “public spirited” profiteers offer. They admit that reliance on the “semi-automatic regulation of prices” .won’t bring prices down, that the promise- of low prices and full production that accompanied the scuttling of price control was so much dust in the people’s eyes. They are worried, we repeat, that the people might get the idea of doing something. And so, you see, they go half-way to meet the people, admit that something is wrong, and then propose* that it be left ... to them!

To them! They are the very people who forced the rise in prices so that they could amass greater profits. They are the very people who live by and prosper under this system of “free-enterprise” which occasions want in the midst of plenty. They want it left in their hands! But in the column adjoining the story of their statement in the New York Times is another story headlined “Price Cut Drives Seen as Failure.” The story refers to the experiments in price cutting that followed Truman’s speech on prices, the “Newburyport Plan,” the “Jackson Heights Plan;” etc. The less said about these plans the better!

What was Truman’s program? Make a big to-do about cutting prices to take the heat off the capitalist politicians, and leave it to business. We already know what that means. At best, note that: at best!, it means a slight reduction in prices that need to come down drastically, and then only to the extent that there is mass vigilance against the exceptional robbery of current prices.

Something Can Be Done

Can, then, nothing be done about prices? We of the Workers Party and of Labor Action believe there is much that can be done. In our last week’s issue we outlined a plan of attack. Here we shall repeat it only briefly:

The first thing to establish is that organized labor, and the people as a whole, must actively intervene. That means organization, the kind of orgariization that already exists here and there on a small scale, but elevated to a much higher scale and plan of activity. Concretely:

Such committees can exert organized pressure on price chisellers from the big manufacturer down to the neighborhood retailer. Such committees can organize, among other things, the much talked of buyers’ strike. Buyers’ strikes are a limited form of action; they can achieve so much and no more. Within their limits; however, and if they are joined with other forms of. protest and activity, they can contribute to a general campaign against high prices.

Wage Increases Without Price Increases

Mr. Wilson, in contributing his few bucks to the production of the statement we have discussed above, is particularly concerned that wages do not go up. The man who now pretends to be so concerned about the effects on consumer income of rising prices, some months ago issued a statement calling for a moratorium on wage increases. That is his real opinion, as witnessed in his negotiations with General Electric workers for„wage increases.

That is his opinion arid his interest. Ours is different. Wages must be brought into line with prices and, in addition, provide a basis for a BETTER STANDARD of living. The slogan first used by the (General Motors strikers last year, implemented as it was by a program calling for opening the books of the corporation and asserting labor’s rights to. interfere in the prerogatives of “free enterprise,” is as valid today as it was a year ago.

Important sections of the labor movement have already signed new wage agreements, some (as the steel workers) for as, long as two years. But there are great sections of the labor movement which have not yet signed a new agreement. And, in any case, the agreement signed in steel and auto cannot stand for long: the price and wage situation will not permit it. The issue must necessarily rise again even in these industries before the year is out.

A Plan of Action

It would “be the worst kind of folly for labor to submit to the artificially contrived formula of a 15-cent wage increase. It is not enough. It is unwarranted. It is strangulating, as other wage patterns have been. (In passing, we note that the industrial lords of this nation who howled that wage demands cannot be dealt with on a national basis when the CIO, in the famous Nathan Report, proposed a 30-cent wage increase, because it presumably did not take into consideration the ability of different industries to pay, are now mighty anxious to establish a general wage pattern.)

Much else enters into a comprehensive program on prices. We have, for example, omitted one essential part of any real price-program; A RISING SCALE OF WAGES, OR ESCALATOR CLAUSE, so that wages can keep pace with prices. It is our purpose here to outline only the nature of the approach: mass action as against reliance on the profiteers and their agents in government. We wish, however, to end with a proposal that we have raised in connection with various of the problems that confront labor, notably the anti-labor drive.

With a labor movement conscious of the need for action and of its own strength, and speaking plainly its intention to throw its organized forces into the fight on every front, one action, however limited in immediate scope, can serve for many purposes. We are confident that a forthright declaration of labor militancy on one issue will spell victory on other issues, and that it will rally to the side of labor the great mass of people whose interests on prices and other matters are essentially the same as labor’s.

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