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Albert Gates

Shadow Boxing Over Mont’y Ward Dispute

(February 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 6, 5 February 1945, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Judge Philip Sullivan, sitting in the: Federal District Court in Chicago, handed down a decision in the case of the government’s seizure of the Montgomery Ward plants, which denied the President’s right to seize the company’s properties.

The judge contended that Congress gave no such authority to the President and for the President to act legally in this instance would require a special law by the legislature.

A Victory For Property

He was acting, ths judge stated in effect, in defense of the Bill of Rights, protecting life, liberty and property.

Sewell Avery, union-busting head of Ward’s, bailed the decision as a “victory for labor.” He meant, of course, a victory for such high-priced “laborers” as himself.

The labor leaders are stunned by this decision. They defiantly denounce the judge’s ruling, quite confident that the Supreme Court will overrule the District Court, since the government has already announced its intention to appeal the decision.

This may well be true, because the Supreme Court has a substantial corps of presidential supporters. Precedent is what the court makes it. In general, the court has been in accord with the President’s views and may rule in favor of the government under the precept that there is a war going on, that an emergency situation exists and that the President has the general powers to act the way he did in the Ward case.

History of the Ward Dispute

Just exactly what happened in the Ward dispute? The United Retail Clerks won election after election in the Ward plants. Despite these victories, Avery and his gang refused, to recognize the union. The WLB made several long-postponed decisions on wages to the extremely low-paid Ward workers. The company refused to accept these decisions. It claimed that the WLB had no authority to enforce its decisions that Montgomery Ward was engaged in war production and therefore was not liable under the emergency war powers of President Roosevelt. For over two years Ward has been kicking the union around, while the latter patiently waited for Roosevelt, the WLB and the Directors of Economic Stabilization to do something.

While the govvernment piddled around for the same period, the over-patient union called a nation-wide strike at the Montgomery Ward plants, climaxed by the great struggle in Detroit, which was supported by the United Automobile Workers, including many of their officials. Faced with this mass strike, the militancy of the workers, and the rising tide of opposition to the no-strike pledge, which makes unions the easy prey of the union-busting corporations, the President ordered the seizure of the Montgomery Ward plants and directed the Army to operate them.

What did the owners of the company lose? Their business went on; their profits were guaranteed (this, of course, is most important). Attorney General Biddle made it clear that he intended no “punitive” measures against Avery and other company officials. They were to be treated as hard-headed business who who just happened to have a quarrel with the government.

Quite a difference between his action against Avery and his treatment of the coal miners, who were prosecuted and jailed under the Smith-Connally Act. This important difference in the conduct of the government is entirely lost sight of by the labor leaders. Yet here is the key to the government’s real attitude toward capital and labor. On the one hand it operates a company, guaranteeing the profits, dividends and salaries to its owners; on the other hand it prosecutes and jails striking miners fighting for their lives.


As the case is developed, the legal arguments on both sides will be long, technical and involved, evading the real problem of the rights of labor as against the rights of capitalist property. Everything else, whether Ward’s is a “producer” or “distributor,” whether it is engaged in “vital war work” or not, is beside the point.

What is puzzling and what confuses many workers is why Roosevelt, who is admittedly a capitalist in thought and action, ordered the seizure of the Ward property and thus precipitated the decision of the lower court. The answer is to be sought in the whole domestic situation.

Roosevelt organized his war program on the basis of winning the support of labor to the war or, at least, keeping it from opposing the war. He knew, as every capitalist knew, that without labor nothing can be produced – there would have been no war production. There would have been idle machines with a lot of bloated big business men sitting around not knowing what to do.

Under this program, capital gave up the lock-out, for which it received from the government a guarantee of profits – the highest in the history of American business. A fair trade – all to the advantage of the Capitalist owners of industry! They have enriched themselves from the war. Labor is not even holding its own.

Why FDR Ordered Seizure

But labor is restless. It is fighting back. It wants to break the crippling no-strike pledge, it wants to thaw out the wage freeze. It wants to battle the union-busting corporations. The President knows this. But he will not change his program; he will not interfere with the profit system or the profits of his class.

His seizure of the Ward properties can only be explained by the fact that it is a sop thrown to labor to make it seem as though the President is truly “impartial.” It was a step taken to draw fire away from his demand for a National Service Act to enslave labor through a draft in the interests of private profit. It was a step to draw attention away from the fact that he will do nothing substantial to change the Little Steel formula or the wage freeze.

The law and the courts under capitalism exist for the purpose of maintaining inviolate capitalist property and the profit system. These were not touched at all in the Ward case. The whole fight was ah inter-capitalist dispute between a capitalist administration and one of its opponents. The labor movement would be making a serious mistake if it staked everything on the courts. Labor needs to rely upon its own strength, its own power, the vast forces of the organized union movement. Therein lies the surest road to success.

Labor’s Course

Even if the Ward case is eventually won by the government, it will not be a labor victory, especially in face of the many losses labor has already suffered at the hands of the Roosevelt Administration, which is acting on the basis of “law.”

There is another aspect of the judge’s ruling to which attention must be directed. It is the rising dictatorial powers of the President. It emphasized the true meaning of the labor draft as exhibiting the growing trend toward totalitarianism under “labor’s friend” Roosevelt.

The clearest lesson of the whole case is that labor is being taken for a ride in supporting capitalist politicians and capitalist administrations. Labor’s surest road to success is through the independent political organization of the working class into a Labor Party to fight for governmental power. To do this, it must have a program which would defeat the anti-unionism of big business, the no-strike pledge, the wage freeze, sub-standard wages, war profits and bloated millionaires living on the backs of millions of workers.

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