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Albert Gates

Taft-Hartley and Labor Politics

The New Urgency for a Labor Party

(August 1947)

From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 6, August 1947, p. 164–167.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The passage of the Taft-Hartley anti-labor bill presages a new period in class political relations in the United States. More than ten years after the beginning of the New Deal, Congress passed a bill which would:

  1. weaken or destroy the Wagner Act;
  2. undermine the right to strike;
  3. upset established collective bargaining methods;
  4. create again the possibility of “government by injunction”;
  5. create the basis for the revival of company unions;
  6. open the door for government intervention in the internal affairs of the unions;
  7. restrict the operation of welfare funds by taking them out of the hands and supervision of the unions;
  8. modify and cripple the Norris-LaGuardia Act and the National Labor Relations Act;
  9. bar unions from effective political action.

By its own lack of clarity, trick language and complexity, coupled with lack of agreement among its sponsors as to its intrinsic meanings, the bill will create, as Senator Morse has said, a veritable lawyer’s paradise. We can well imagine from the past experience of the New Deal era how gleeful the legal vultures must be at the prospects for clients offered up by the new legislation.

It would be an error, however, to regard the passage of the bill as an accidental or isolated event. No, this kind of repressive anti-labor legislation was prepared during the war, in the regimented and state”directed economy, which in turn emphasized a new relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. New Dealism, which had ceased to exist in fact during the war, was formally doomed when the Republicans won their sweeping electoral victory in 1946. This did not mean that all the social welfare legislation passed under the successive Roosevelt administrations was to be erased by the legislative acts of the new Republican majority. But it did mean, if the aims of the GOP leadership were carefully studied, that a new relationship to labor was to be established.

It is easy to see in retrospect why New Dealism could not survive the war. Its “philosophy” and practice were the products of economic crisis and incipient disintegration of the social order; it represented bourgeois reformism on an American scale, i.e., economic and social reform measures which, in one form or another, had existed for many years in the older European capitalist nations. Obviously, such a system of state” inspired reformist policies could arise only in a period of economic instability and increasing class conflict, and given the decay of world capitalism, in a comparatively rich country. Such measures would have been entirely superfluous, as indeed they were, in a period of expanding capitalism and economic prosperity such as characterized the United States in the decade following the First World War.

It should have been no surprise to any thinking or conscious person that Roosevelt, the father of the New Deal, began to rid himself of his New Deal colleagues when the war broke out. What good were these reformist experts now? They were no longer really needed. The demands of modern total war changed overnight the economic scene at home. The sick economy became suddenly a very prosperous and thriving order. To recount the achievements of the war economy now would, for the purposes of this article, be superfluous. It is only necessary to recall that beginning with 1940 a spectacular turn took place in domestic economic activity. With all the efforts of the New Deal, the national economy achieved a record peacetime production with a mass army of between nine and ten million unemployed. But the year 1941 marked a turning point. In that year, the War Deal began in earnest.

The Effect of the War Economy

The entire economy was “organized.” In conjunction with the War and Navy Departments, the Administration worked out a master plan for mobilizing all of the economic, political and material resources of the country to fight the greatest war in the history of mankind. The most important link in the vast mobilization for war was the establishment of national class unity. Roosevelt’s role in this achievement has not yet been fully explained nor extensively written about. But historians of the future will have to return to this subject in order to explain that the whole success of America’s war program depended on the acquiescence of American labor, already allied to the state administration through the New Deal.

The acquiescence of the labor officialdom to the demands of the war administration was accompanied by an abject surrender of some of the most important interests of the working class as a whole. Thus, the labor movement found itself in support of the “Equality of Sacrifice Program” and the “War Economic Stabilization Act” to the detriment of the interests of the people at large. Under these policies initiated by Roosevelt, American finance and industry were able to recoup the losses they took during the long years of crisis by means of enormous profits guaranteed by the government. Labor, on the other hand, accepted a “wage freeze” after agreeing to a “no” strike pledge.” The present lamentations of the labor leaders that the Taft-Hartley Bill is repayment in bad coin for the services of labor during the war, is a pathetic reminder that it is precisely the conduct of labor during the war, which makes possible the present political reaction. And if current anti-labor legislation is the product of a reactionary GOP, it is also the result of foolish and criminal policies of an ideologically backward labor leadership.

The labor movement exchanged its hard-won rights and fairly strong class position during the war for a worthless promissory note given by a rapidly disappearing New Deal administration, which was to be honored in the post-war period. For labor’s agreement not to strike and not to fight for higher wages, greater consumer goods, indispensable housing and a whole series of social measures, Roosevelt promised that all of these things and more would be “given” to the working class in the post”war period. Labor kept its promises. Indeed, it kept them too well, for during the five years of the war the c1ass peace which it underwrote succeeded in effectively under” mining labor’s powerful positions while the bourgeoisie gained a new confidence with its increasing economic strength. The attempt to explain the present position by Roosevelt’s death and the arrival of a new administration under the less capable Truman, is completely superficial. That would assign to the personality a power out of all proportion to reality and grant to an individual an independence of action which does not correspond to life.

One can explain the present situation largely upon the newly found economic strength of .the American bourgeoisie and the political factors produced by this rise in the fortunes of the bourgeoisie.

The Bourgeoisie Gain Confidence

The war economy and the military victory which placed the United States at the top of the heap of imperialist powers, provided. a new surge of life to the bewildered, unsure ruling class of the 1930s. The war restored its profits, renewed and expanded its industries, brought about total employment and a vast production without risk and without strain, and gave it sufficient resources to carry over into the post-war period when, instead of an immediate economic collapse, the country entered into a boom which has not yet ended.

Toward the end of the war the bourgeoisie as a class, thoroughly awake to the meaning of its new prosperity and the likelihood of a continued high level of economic activity in the post-war period, began to press for a diminution of government intervention in the economy, a repeal of economic and social measures which on a national scale were costly to the bourgeoisie, and a curb on the powerfully organized labor movement which, while still politically backward and in a class sense unconscious, was capable of transforming itself overnight.

The over-all strategy of the bourgeoisie today is to strengthen its own profit positions by reducing through legislative measures the offensive power of the labor movement. The Taft-Hartley Bill apparently was to be the culminating act of a concentrated offensive against labor. To carry out this legislative assault, the ruling class effectively organized its political wing, the Republican Party, together with its reliable reserve, the reactionary bloc of the Democratic Party. First, price control was killed. The capitalist class could thereby pick the population clean of its reserve savings accumulated during the war. Even more important, price increases nullified all wage increases won by labor in its short post-war struggle. The total effect of the continuous rise in prices: reduction of the over-all standard of living of the masses.

The real estate and landlord lobbies got their legislative subordinates to bar a nation-wide housing program which could only have been carried out at the expense of the profits of an antiquated industry. To date, no decent minimum wage law has been passed. Other measures, not directly economic, but promised and. unfulfilled by the government, include: legislation on health and insurance, anti-poll tax, anti-lynching and FEPC. All of these were sidetracked for consideration of a tax bill calculated to reduce the income tax payments of the mass of people by a few cents a week and that of the bourgeoisie by millions of dollars. The culminating point in the reactionary legislative drive of big business, the fruit of the GOP electoral victory, was the passage of the Taft-Hartley Bill. The GOP victory itself was a sign of the times. It coincided with the decomposition of the Democratic bloc. The sweep of the Republican Party gave evidence that the middle class was fed up with its “alliance” with the “liberal” Democratic Party and labor. It held the Democratic Party responsible for the chaos on the price front, the absence of consumer goods and housing, and regarded labor’s strike struggles as the impediment toward an improvement of its own middle class position. Ten years of the New Deal and five years of war brought the middle class face to face with an impending disaster. It characteristically sought to blame the Administration and labor for its ills, rather than monopoly capitalism, which won the middle class to support its panacea of “free enterprise,” the operation of which could only destroy the highest aspirations of the middle class. One of the reasons for this about-face on the part of the middle class is that it was offered no attractive independent leadership from labor, which continued blindly to follow the Democratic Party.

The Marxist who failed to see the ebb and flow of the political struggle and interpreted the victory of the GOP and the reactionary political turn which followed it as an expression of a militant labor offensive would be a poor Marxist indeed. The victory of the GOP was a defeat for labor – not a defeat on a grand social scale, to be sure, but one of those defeats that occur in every country, in every long-drawn-out and normal class struggle. That is not to say that the American working class has been irretrievably set back. But to say that the GOP election victory reflected the new strength and confidence of the bourgeoisie, and that the ruling class is now on an offensive, is merely to analyze accurately the present situation – which is, of course, transitory.

Aim of Taft and Hartley

The passage of the Taft-Hartley Bill was not the bourgeois answer to a labor movement militantly engaged in a wide struggle. If the labor movement were so engaged we doubt very much that the bourgeoisie would attempt to pass such a measure at this time. The passage of the Taft-Hartley Bill was possible at this juncture of the class struggle because the initiative is in the hands of the bourgeoisie. This is true even though the aims of the bourgeoisie are themselves contradictory and they are unclear as to the bill’s total objectives. Does this mean that the labor movement is weak and unmilitant? To raise this question indicates that the answer to it cannot be yes or no. The answer to the question is complex because the weakness or strength of American labor today cannot be measured solely by numbers or militancy but by the economic and political policies and activity of the union movement. In this case, it is necessary to say that the actions of the GOP are as much a product of the ancient and ineffectual methods of struggle of the labor movement as of its own confidence and strength.

The truth is that the labor movement has reached a fork in the road. It cannot meet the problems of the worker in the present period of capitalist development with the economic and political policies of Gompersism or its many variants. The political backwardness of the American labor movement, more than anything else, is responsible for the present situation. So far, if we are to judge by the pronouncements of the labor leaders, the lessons of the immediate past have not yet been understood by them.

What did the bourgeoisie seek by the passage of the Taft-Hartley Bill? Does it want to smash the union movement? Or does it merely want to curb and control labor? As a general proposition, it is correct to say that the bourgeoisie would like to see no labor movement at all. But we are far beyond that early stage of capitalist development. The bourgeoisie has to reckon with an existing mass labor movement. If it tried to smash the union movement now by a frontal assault, it would produce a situation which it is uncertain of winning. Moreover, the chaos that would result from such a policy would make it impossible for the economy to function, and most important of all, would destroy any possibility of American imperialism carrying out its aim of dominating the world economy. Some sections of the bourgeoisie, more sensitive to the .new place of the United States in the world economy, were against the bill. Truman undoubtedly spoke the truth when he said that many leaders of finance and industry called upon him to veto the bill in order to prevent a certain chaos in class relations. The report that Secretary of State Marshall, in cabinet sessions, called upon the President to veto the bill makes sense, considering the task the former Chief of Staff has in furthering America’s imperialist interests abroad.

But it is true that the bourgeoisie as a whole welcomed the bill as a measure which would make possible some means of legal control over strike activities and union finances, and to blunt the economic and political weapons of labor. That is what the bill set out to accomplish. Given the complex nature of class relations and intra-class rivalries, it is understandable why the GOP mavericks had such a time of it in trying to get agreement on a bill between the House and the Senate.

How much will the bourgeoisie achieve in practice with this bill? That depends in large measure on the labor movement and its strategy in the coming period. It is true, as David Dubinsky has said, that the bill is “full of double-talk, tricky language and hidden traps.” Some of this is calculated; some is the result of the fact that its sponsors were themselves not sure of just exactly what they were doing. They, like so many labor leaders, are waiting to see how the bill works out in practice.

Reaction of the Labor Leaders

The initial response of the labor leaders to the bill was a curious spectacle and illustrates what is wrong in the American labor movement. Naturally, the labor leaders understood the practical significance and consequences of the bill. No one can deny that instinctively, at least, the American labor leader can smell a legislative rat. In that sense he is extremely acute. His long years of experience have not been without their positive sides. But it is in the field of constructive action against bourgeois legislation and bourgeois politics in general that the average American labor leader reveals himself barren of elementary class instincts and class ideology. The labor officialdom as a whole, particularly in the AFL, is capitalist-minded; its class political understanding is at a low level. It is this ideological backwardness, in contrast to the acute consciousness of the bourgeoisie, which sometimes makes a spectacle of labor’s “political” struggles.

When the bill was passed Bill Green and Phil Murray both made statements charged with anger and invective. Against whom? The politicians and the impersonal National Association of Manufacturers. At the convention of the International Ladies Garment Workers, Green said:

And are we to be compensated for the great service we rendered during the war (!) by being now subjected, I say, truthfully, to a condition of involuntary servitude in a very large way, and to slavery in a comparative way? Is that our compensation? Are we to be treated in that manner? Well, they may say yes, but we answer with a loud and emphatic NO! And we say this to them. If you will not listen to our voices now, if you ignore our pleas, if our voices fall on deaf ears, let us tell you that you will listen to the election returns when the next election day comes.

What is this? Does Green threaten to do something on election day? No, nothing more follows on this point. Green concluded:

If they attempt force, if they penalize us, if they intend to make slaves of us and rob us of our freedom and our democracy, we will fight to the bitterend because the words “surrender” and “defeat” are not in the vocabulary for the American Federation of Labor.

Strong words! Challenging words! Threatening words! But, on what labor shall do, Green is silent. Let us turn to Phil Murray, head of the CIO. In his statement adopted by the CIO, Murray declared:

The purpose of this bill is to render unions powerless to resist wage cuts, speed-ups and restoration of sweat-shop conditions. It has been made completely unworkable so that workers will be robbed of even the meager protections which survive in the bill.

But, what shall labor do? Murray states:

Our responsibilities require us to work immediately for a repeal of the law and for the defeat of those forces in our political life which have sponsored it and worked for its passage. We shall not shirk those responsibilities ...

From this day forward we dedicate ourselves to the mission of obtaining a repudiation of this infamous legislation and of the reactionary program of which it is a part. We will expose to the entire American people the reactionary forces which have produced this legislation. We will bring our message not only to workers but to farmers, small businessmen and other groups whose economic welfare this legislation threatens ...

We hereby dedicate our organizations and the entire membership to work unceasingly in the political field in complete unity with all labor organizations, and other progressive groups to insure the political repudiation of those reactionaries who are responsible for the Taft-Hartley Bill and to preserve a free America.

Nothing more from Murray! We now hear from Jack Kroll, director of the CIO Political Action Committee:

This organization of ours is not going to lie down and die just because a Taft or Hartley or a Van Aken says we are going to die. The Taft-Hartley Bill and the Van Aken Bill in Ohio will provide the spark that will set off effective PAC activities for 1948.

The Important Political Lesson

And thus we have finished with three spokesmen for the labor movement. From each we have been given a fair share of rhetoric, but from none of them a single, important, practical, new proposal that can lead to a progressive solution of the problem that faces labor. That problem is how to defeat monopoly capitalism on the political, as well as the economic front. Labor’s reaction to the Taft-Hartley Bill is vigorous enough. It will undoubtedly carry on an effective legal struggle against it as well as against the numerous state bills that were enacted as safety measures just in case Congress failed big business. Unions have announced that they will not make their customary rush to the NLRB since under the new law it will be a body stacked against labor. We can understand that and agree with it. We have no doubt either that the labor movement will find ways in which to carry out effective economic action even under the bill, either by evading, or to use a Holmesian phrase, avoiding, the strictures of the bill, or else by fighting it head-on in a testing challenge of its legality. Murray and Green are both preparing now to test the political restrictions of the bill.

But beyond that the labor officialdom gives not the slightest indication that it has learned the most obvious political lessons of the struggle around the Taft-Hartley Bill: that the government is a capitalist government, that Congress is composed of two capitalist political parties and that at all decisive moments the government and Congress act openly in the name and interests of capitalism. If labor continues to compete with big business in its own arena of the Republican and Democratic parties it will do so to its own detriment. Any victory labor might gain in that arena can only be, as it has been in the past, of the most tenuous kind in which organized labor and the whole working class will be the final loser.

The fusion of economics and politics in present-day capitalist society makes it evident that labor cannot fight a merely economic battle, defensive or offensive, for its rights. The increasing intervention of the capitalist state in the economic life of the country has releaved how archaic is a purely “bread and butter” struggle, since the economic gains of a generation of workers can be wiped out overnight by a single legislative act. For example, the wage increases won by labor in the post-war period were wiped out in reality by the absence of price control. That is why the action of the UAW in the General Motors strike which sought to link its wage demand with price control was of such tremendous significance. The UAW demand, “Open the Books” was likewise, on an American scale, a revolutionary demand, for it challenged in effect the property rights of the bourgeoisie and introduced, in its elementary form, the idea of workers’ control. Whether wholly conscious or not, the action of the UAW in the General Motor’s strike was a recognition of the fact that in present-day American society, “bread and butter” struggles are insufficient; they have to be linked with broader social and political concepts.

The path that labor should follow was clearly indicated when Congress outlawed portal-to-portal pay. In this case, labor won an economic demand by struggle and legal action. Overnight, this gain was lost by a political act of Congress.

How then is labor to avoid a political defeat of its economic victories? The very simplicity of the idea advanced in this question is obscured by the action of the labor leaders who continue to think politically in the terms of “reward your friends and punish your enemies,” even in its most refined variations to suit present times.

Labor needs to declare its political independence. It needs to organize a party of its own and to break, once and for all, with capitalist politics. If it is to assume the leadership of the nation, if it is to win the support of the middle class, the poor farmers, the disillusioned white collar workers, and such social categories, it will have to strike out on its own to challenge the economic and political power of monopoly capitalism and to provide the nation with an economic, political and social program which truly represents the interests of the people against the bourgeoisie.

But it can only do this by the organization of an independent labor party. Lacking this kind of perspective, the labor officialdom can only talk in bold and empty words. They can shout from now until doomsday about “we’ll meet you on election day,” and “we will never surrender.” So long as this means, as apparently the labor leaders mean it, to support one or another of the so-called liberal or progressive candidates of the Republican or Democratic parties, it will ever mean that the “liberal” and “progressive” candidate of today will be the “reactionary” who betrayed labor on the morrow. Just think, William Green endorsed Mr. Hartley as a candidate for Representative from New Jersey! In this act alone, he epitomized what is wrong with labor politics today! And now Green, and Murray, again threaten to take “political action” against the enemies of labor, but it is political action limited by a bourgeois horizon.

The labor movement engages in class politics, but it is the class politics of the bourgeoisie, not independent labor politics. It is merely “independent” labor politics in behalf of one or the other of the capitalist parties.

Before any lasting progress of the American working class can be made, it must break decisively and conclusively with the bourgeoisie on the political field, as it has done on the economic. Without that step, the labor movement will suffer economic and political defeats which will begin to undermine its very powerful foundations. We believe the present situation has created enormous possibilities for a labor party. The disillusionment of the masses will increase as it passes out of its present state of bewilderment. The only thing that holds them back now is the labor leadership which has learned only to threaten and to howl, but not to take effective action. But that too will come, and soon, we believe. If the labor officialdom will not arrive at the understanding for the necessity for this indispensable next step for labor, it may well be driven into it by an emboldened bourgeoisie which may overestimate its present political victories over labor and an enraged rank and file. When labor takes that necessary political step, a new period in class relations will have arrived in the United States. The class-conscious development of the American working class will then begin. The national and world implications of such a development cannot be overestimated. That can well be the reason why the Taft-Hartley Bill will become an important chapter in American labor history.

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