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Notes of the Month

The Roosevelt Edict

(April 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 4, April 1943, pp. 99–102.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

If there was any doubt where Roosevelt stood in relation to the all-important question which confronts all the workers in the country – their wage and living standards – this was completely dispelled by the President’s order freezing wages and prices, and halting the movement of workers from one job to another. The President’s order was brief enough. In his statement, he declared:

“To hold the line we cannot tolerate further increases in prices affecting the cost of living or further increases in general wage or salary rates except where clearly necessary to correct substandard living conditions. The only way to hold the line is to stop trying to find justifications for not holding it here or not holding it there ... There are to be no further increases in wage rates or salary scales beyond the Little Steel formula except where clearly necessary to correct substandards of living. Reclassifications and promotions must not be permitted to affect the general level of production costs or to justify price increases or to forestall price reductions ...”

Immediately upon signing this order, the President directed Food Administrator Chester C. Davis and Price Administrator Prentiss Brown to place ceilings on all commodities “affecting the cost of living and reduce those excessively high.” We shall return to this subject of price control and price ceilings for the purpose of showing that the President’s order will not materially alter present exorbitant price levels. It is supposed to sooth the feelings of the workers, for the real situation finds that there has been no real price control or ceilings. The National War Labor Board, the Bureau of Internal Revenue and similar agencies having to do with control over wages and salaries were instructed to permit no further increases. At the same time, the War Manpower Commission was charged with the task of preventing job transferences by workers seeking higher wages. These most important measures of the presidential edict, totalitarian in content and aim, were placed under the general supervision of James F. Byrnes, Economic Stabilization Director.

Profits, Prices and Wages

The President thereafter explained his order in an address in which he constructed a four-legged stool, insisting that every part of his order must be carried out lest the stool fall and the nation face a widening spiral of inflation. The most significant feature of the order, however, is the absence of a single reference to the question of the huge profits siphoned off by America’s industrial and financial ruling class. In his statement on the Debt Act, he did make reference to his attempt to set a ceiling on salaries at $85,000. Congress, in passing the Public Debt Act of 1943, permitting an increase of the national debt from 195 to 210 billion dollars, attached a rider to its resolution forbidding any salary limitation, especially as proposed by Roosevelt. Congress questioned the constitutional right of the President to set any limitations on salaries – it does not question his right to limit wages! On the question of workers’ wages, anything goes!

How did Roosevelt respond to this congressional action? He permitted the Act to become a law without his signature, for to veto the Act because it had attached to it the congressional rider on salary limitations, might have “seriously retarded” the Treasury’s “war financing plans.”

Why, one might ask, did the President go out of his way to attack Congress for the rider which cancelled out his plan for salary limitation of a net $25,000 a year? Since Roosevelt’s proposal on salary limitation had nothing to do with the fundamental question of the war profits earned by big business, his statement can have only a political and class significance. Salary limitation on America’s ruling class would not in the least affect its war profits, nor its class position, its existent riches and resources which sets it poles apart from the toiling people of the nation. Roosevelt had hoped that the passage of the $25,000 net salary limit would make it easier for the Administration to carry through its wage-cutting program against the American workers and thus effect the drastic reduction in the American standard of living with a minimum of “class disturbance.”

“Equality of Sacrifice”

Salary limitation on the bourgeoisie would no more create “equality of sacrifice in wartime” than it would at any other time. Nor would such a salary limit impair, in any way, the standard of living of the ruling class. As we have so often pointed out, equality of sacrifice is possible only under conditions of a common economic and class position. In a social order of economic, political and social inequality, no equality of any kind is possible, equality of sacrifice or equality of enrichment. We are certain that the President is as fully aware of this singular fact as we. But, we repeat, his object had a class political meaning and it was upset, for the time being, at least, by an obdurate, reactionary and revengeful Congress, which disputes Roosevelt’s “conciliatory” approach to the most important problems confronting the bourgeoisie in its class rule during the war. The bourgeoisie is in an offensive mood; a large section of this feels that it can utilize the war as a means of destroying a powerful American working class and it does not propose to permit the concepts and practices of New Dealism to intervene, especially when it believes that a decisive victory over the workers is immediately possible.

It is necessary to bear in mind in this discussion, however important the differences between Roosevelt and the reactionary Congress may be, there is no conflict between them on the Fundamental question of wage control and the destruction of the living standards of the overwhelming majority of the American people. The important aspects of the Rooseveltian war program have been adopted without much dispute. On those issues which separated the President from Congress in recent months, the latter has usually won. The victory over the farm bloc is not a victory of the workers and poor farmers over the rich landlords and plantation owners, but a victory of industrial and financial capitalism over the protesting agricultural rulers. And this struggle is by no means over. There are strong ties between urban capitalism and the farm “bourgeoisie” and compromises to their mutual benefit and profit have occurred and are likely to occur often again to the detriment of the workers and the mass of poor farmers.

The Role of Organized Labor

The third element in the present situation is the organized labor movement. Its organizational division is a source of weakness in the struggle against the bosses’ offensive. It lacks political perspective and maturity. Unorganized politically, the labor movement has been the dupe of the capitalist political parties. Too many of its leaders are tied hand and glove with the politicians of the bourgeois parties. But more important than the above is the fact that the first-line leaders of the labor movement have surrendered everything to the Administration – their will to struggle, their independence of thought and action and, above all, the best interests of the workers they presumably represent.

Almost from the very beginning, the strike weapon of the workers was surrendered. This was to show good faith and a readiness to accept the burdens of the war on the basis of ... equality with the American bourgeoisie! For this gratuitous gift of the labor leaders to American capitalism, the workers were repaid with successive blows which have sharply reduced their living standards. The labor fakers cravenly accepted the Little Steel formula of the War Labor Board in an exchange for a promise that there would be a limitation on salaries. Murray and Green needed this concession in order to make more palatable to the workers an actual wage cut.

How have these gentlemen responded to the latest Roosevelt edict? In the same supinely craven manner! The CIO and AFL officialdoms at first rushed into print to declare that they accepted, albeit with reservations and dissatisfaction, the new order. Only a few weeks ago they were busily engaged denouncing the Little Steel formula. The AFL and CIO representatives on the WLB demanded a revision of the basic wage principle upon which the board operated. They demanded the reopening of the packinghouse and aircraft cases. They demanded speedy action and decision on the thousands of cases which were before the board. And now?

At a closed conference of delegates of the CIO of New York and New Jersey, Lee Pressman, Stalinist fellow-traveler and general counsel of the CIO, reported on the policy of the CIO’s leadership in the manner of the Daily Worker:

The executive order is in no way a step backward. It is a step forward. Let us not fall in with anyone who threatens the War Labor Board (WLB) and the national economic stabilization program. That is impeding the war effort. Only by putting our strength behind the WLB and our Commander-in-Chief are we taking concrete steps toward winning the war.

In his statement of the official position of the labor leaders, Pressman announced their abject acceptance of the latest decree. But all is not so simple in the camp of labor. The workers are thoroughly dissatisfied with their lot, with the position in which their leaders have placed them. The right to strike to enforce their demands was surrendered without their consultation or vote. They were bludgeoned into accepting, without alternative choices, the Little Steel formula, which resulted in a static wage level completely out of line with the cost of living. As a result of the position taken by Murray and Green, the workers have produced more under worsened conditions of labor and have toiled longer hours for less wages than they would ordinarily accept. They have taken blow after blow from big business without fighting back – because their leaders advised them Roosevelt would represent their interests.

Consequently, there have been sitdowns, walkouts and wildcat strikes. Such limited actions were usually unorganized and spontaneous, taken in spite of directives from the officialdoms. The workers find it impossible to live under present conditions. The problem is simple, it is one of food, clothing and shelter. The paradox is easy to see: while the war economy has virtually eliminated unemployment, increased payrolls and created “steady” work, the living condition of the working class have sharply worsened.

What Is Lewis Fighting For?

Of all the labor organizations and labor leaders, only the United Mine Workers and John L. Lewis understand, not merely the objective situation itself, but the need to fight for a general improvement of the position of the workers. Is Lewis more radical than the other labor leaders? Is he more devoted to the interests of the mine workers? In some respects, yes. Recalling the last war and the post-war period, he is fully aware that unless the labor movement fights for its rights, unless the conditions of the workers are improved now, in the midst of the war, the reactionary ruling class, with the aid of the government, will smash militant unions, especially industrial unionism.

Lewis’ fighting instincts and his courageous struggle against the Administration in the face of a concentrated barrage of abuse from it, the Congress, the venal press and the other labor leaders, have done much to strengthen the hand of the labor movement in general. His demand for a two-dollars-a-day increase for the coal miners has galvanized the fighting spirit not only of the mine mine workers, but it has also stiffened the attitude of the workers in other union organizations and industries. We have no doubt that Lewis’ struggle has brought fear to the hearts of Murray and Green – fear that his conduct may win him the support of the overwhelming mar jority of the workers in the CIO and AFL. They look to the Administration to defend them against Lewis. In what way? By defeating Lewis’ efforts to win a two-dollar-a-day guaranteed increase for the coal miners!

Thus it is correct to say that, in at least one way, Roosevelt’s order was an aid to these labor fakers. There is no doubt that Roosevelt took this occasion, the miners’ struggle, to issue his “hold-the-line” order. Let no one be fooled, however, into thinking that this was the only, or the main, reason for Roosevelt’s action. On the contrary, the order was in the making for some time. Roosevelt had intended its issuance long ago and he was being pushed to make this statement by the bourgeoisie and its press for many weeks. Only in the sense of timing can it be said that Roosevelt intended this as a blow against Lewis. To believe otherwise would reduce analysis of the economic and political policy of the administration to an absurdity.

Naturally, the Roosevelt action has compelled Lewis to alter his course and to prepare for a variety of compromises. He is prepared to forego his wage demand for a six-day week guarantee which would result in a $2.25 daily increase for the miners. This proposal, made by Secretary of Labor Perkins, was swiftly rejected by the mine operators. Lewis’ demand for a portal-to-portal pay was likewise rejected by them. Then Lewis proposed a government subsidy to the mine operators in order to help them meet the miners’ demands. More recently, Lewis has made overtures to the reactionary farm bloc for a joint struggle against the Roosevelt order. In all of this he exhibits a fundamentally conservative political outlook, a lack of class and political consciousness. He has a bourgeois mentality. For this reason all of Lewis’ struggles are confused, contradictory and misleading. His “guts” and manner of posing labor problems, however, have the effect of concentrating the attention of all the classes on the burning needs of the labor movement. And that is to the good!

CIO Is for Incentive Pay

Getting back to the CIO, we find confusion worse confounded. In the aforementioned conference, the Resolutions Committee, which endorsed the Pressman statement, found it necessary to incorporate “reservations.” These are not positive reservations, threatening labor action unless they were met. They are “advisory” reservations which declare that the Roosevelt program will work only if: existing prices on food and other commodities are rolled back to prices in effect on September 15, 1942; if a tax program is adopted “that will take the profits out of war and which is based on the principles of ability to pay and equality of sacrifice,” and there is limitation of high salaries.

But the President’s order, “one of the greatest contributions which could be made to the war effort” (Pressman), strikes directly at the heart of the workers. The workers know this; so do the labor leaders. And so the sycophantic leadership of the CIO proposes that the workers seek wage increases through job reclassification and incentive payments. The first method is a long, tedious, unavailing avenue to seek wage increases. It is filled with deception and delay; it has meaning only under the conditions of an active and militant union leadership. The second method, incentive pay, is a time-honored weapon of the bosses to intensify the exploitation of the workers, to get more out of them for less pay. The trade union movement for years has fought incentive pay because it is a substitute for the living wage, because it creates competition among the workers, because it has the main purpose of increasing the profits of the bosses at the expense of a more intensely exploited working class. This bosses’ weapon has now been adopted by the labor fakers with the aid of the reactionary Stalinist machine in the labor movement.

What is the net class effect of the present conduct of the labor officialdom? It strengthens the power of big business; it strengthens the power of the bosses’ offensive! All other matters, important as they may be, are secondary when related to the foregoing. In supinely accepting the Roosevelt order, as they have accepted every Administration action relating to labor, in retreating before every blow delivered against it, the labor officialdom does not merely signify its friendship for the Administration, does not merely attempt to strengthen the Administration’s position but, above all, it fortifies the hand of the reactionaries engaged in a campaign of destroying trade unionism. The more abject is the conduct of the labor leaders, the more they surrender, the weaker become their organizations and their fighting power, and the easier becomes the task of big business and its allies. We are not interested in the possibility that these labor leaders may lose their positions, their sinecures as labor leaders. We are concerned only with the fact that their conduct has an adverse effect upon the position of the American working class.

We have said that all is not so simple in the camp of labor. Torn by the contradiction of supporting the Administration in its main endeavors and placating a restless and militant rank and file, the labor leaders themselves engage in contradictory actions. At the time of this writing there appears to be a sharp division of opinion among the labor bureaucrats. The closing sentence of the President’s order was no sooner uttered than the WLB announced that no wage increases would be granted other than permitted by the Little Steel formula and, without defining its meaning, for substandard wages. It has held firmly to this position in relation to the thousands of cases now before it.

The AFL members of the WLB, in concurring in one wage award, denounced the President’s order as a violation of the no-strike agreement, and as being fundamentally “unsound.” The CIO members of the board, separately from the AFL members, have made their disagreement known to Economic Stabilization Director Byrnes. Sharp protests have come from the UAW, and many other unions have protested the Roosevelt edict to their international boards.

The dissatisfactions and the protests at the top and bottom of the labor movement are not unified. They occur against the background of the labor officialdom’s indicated subservience to the Administration and with a promise, based on past experience, that in the end they will seek out some rotten compromise in order first, to control the ranks of the unions and second, to maintain their “alliance” with Roosevelt.

The picture, at this moment, is neither finished nor clear – almost everything depends on the ranks of the labor movement. But to date the international executives of the AFL and CIO have remained silent.

Summarizing Roosevelt’s Order

The Roosevelt wage order is a blow against labor; it is a blow strengthened by the position held by the labor officialdom. One-third of the nation lives under substandard conditions and substandard wages. The wages of the overwhelming majority of the workers are far below the minimum requirements established by the Department of Labor ($2,500 a year). The economic conditions of the workers, their housing conditions, their ability to buy food and clothing have all suffered during the past two years of the war economy; this deterioration of their living standards is made more conclusive by the Roosevelt edict.

But will not this situation be remedied by price control and the rolling back of prices? Utter nonsense. There will be no satisfactory (for the workers) adjustment of prices. Prices have exceeded all ceilings. An economist for the Labor Department discloses that prices have increased by thirty-one per cent more than the official figures of that same department. The cost of living has risen anywhere between twenty-one and thirty-six per cent. Yet the President demands adherence to the Little Steel formula which grants increases up to fifteen per cent!

Does the Administration intend to roll back prices by fifteen to twenty per cent? There is hardly a person who does not know that the thought of it alone is ludicrous. It is not even the aim of the Administration. Prentiss Brown, OPA director, has already admitted that prices actually cannot be controlled. The experiences of the past year are sufficient proof that the OPA director knew whereof he spoke!

It is not merely enough to say that prices must be controlled. The more important question is how they shall be controlled and who shall control them. And so long as price control remains in the hands of the Administration and big business, price control will remain the joke that it is. The labor officials first demand, and then plead, with the President that they be given rights and authority to help keep prices down. But they are as blithely ignored by the President on this as they have been on all other questions of authority and control.

There will be no substantial improvement in the price level. Negotiations to lower prices will go on for months. The administrative bodies of the government will be negotiating for a long, long time. In the meantime, the position of the workers will have been materially worsened from the present low levels. Congress disputes the President’s legal right to set a limitation on the salaries of big business. It gives him the right to put a ceiling on wages. The President makes his holiday attack on Congress, but the provision on wages stands. Leon Henderson’s forecast that the living standards of the American masses will be reduced to the level of 1932 is becoming a reality more swiftly than most people believed possible. Unless the workers fight back, unless they succeed in shifting the burden of this war on the backs of the American capitalist class, where it rightfully belongs, it will take a long time in reviving. One of the first steps in this direction is a struggle against the misleaders who stand at the head of the great labor organizations.

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