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Susan Green

What Kearny Union Got from
“Membership Maintenance”

(18 May 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 20, 18 May 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The great United States Steel Corp., grown much greater by dint of war expansion and war profits, has – not too graciously – bowed to the ruling of the War Labor Board on the matter of maintenance of union membership at the Kearny, N.J., shipyards, owned by its subsidiary Federal Shipbuilding & Drydock Co.

To claim this “settlement” gives “union security” to the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers is to call a spade a steam-shovel. Rather does this “settlement” indicate to what an alarming extent the union leadership is on the run.

Heretofore a union has been able to sell its own wares, so to speak. It appealed to workers on the basis of actual benefits to be attained through the union. Union membership was “maintained” and increased by virtue of union militancy in fighting the battle of wage earners against profit fleecers.

Now, however, union officials are willing to rely for what they term “union security” on an NWLB ruling and the unwilling consent of the bosses. This is the natural result of their weak-kneed policy of yielding ground.

They have surrendered the right of workers to strike. They have lowered overtime standards. They have joined labor-management committees to speed up the workers. Now they are allowing themselves to be persuaded – by the flimsy promise of stopping inflation – to put wages in the icebox.

“Union security” cannot be had on this basis. An NWLB ruling balkingly accepted by the boss is no substitute for improving wages and conditions of labor. For this is the cement that binds workers to their union.

The “Maintenance” Clause

The “maintenance of membership” clause in the contract to be signed by the Federal Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. and the IUM&SW provides that workers in the union at the time of signing the contract or joining the union afterward, must remain members in good standing during the contract period. If a worker drops out of the union before June 1943, the end of the contract period, he will lose his job unless he continues to pay his union dues and fines anyway. Such a provision cannot effectively spike the open shop drive of the boss.

In the Kearny yards there are 23,000 workers. Only half of them are organized in Local 16 IUM&SW. Unless the militancy of the IUM&SW makes the advantages of union membership felt by all the workers, what chance is there for the union to hold its own, let alone grow?

United States Steel has used the dirtiest possible methods against labor in the past. It will do so again. What is to prevent it from inducing workers to leave the union by offering to pay their dues as required by the above provision? Money has never been an obstacle in the bosses’ attempts to break unions. The only hurdle the bosses have not been able to clear is unswerving union militancy adding up to real gains for the rank and file.

The order of business before the leaders of the IUM&SW today is to get for the shipyard workers the adjustments of wages to the higher cost of living to which they are entitled under agreement. President Roosevelt is opposed to the workers’ demanding their rights. He wants them to take a cut in real wages by foregoing the adjustment to the higher cost of living. If the leaders hold out for what is due the shipyard workers, the IUM&SW will be strengthened. Its membership will not merely be maintained – it will grow. If, however, the leaders capitulate, the union will be weakened. No fancy “maintenance of membership” clause will alter this fundamental fact.

What About New Workers?

There is also the all-important problem of new workers entering the shipyards to carry out the expanded shipbuilding program. “Maintenance of membership” clauses will not get these workers to join the union. But an organization drive based on demands in their interest will bring new workers into the IUM&SW in hordes.

The ruling of the NWLB in the Kearny case and its acceptance by both labor and capital set the pattern to be followed throughout industry in signing new contracts. But will “maintenance of membership” clauses be enough to carry forward the hard-won advances of the CIO in “Little Steel,” for instance? Or will such clauses solve the problem of bringing the mass of new war production workers into the unions? Unless the unorganized are organized, present union membership – even if “maintained” – will fall in comparison with the increased labor force of the country.

The Kearny case should put squarely before the rank and file of the IUM&SW and of all unions the pressing problem of “union security.” It cannot be had by NWLB rulings and by the “cooperation” of the bosses. “Union security” comes from union strength. That is not acquired by handing labor’s gains back to the bosses – nor by running away from the need for organization drives based on militant demands.

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Last updated: 16 February 2014