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News and Views from the Labor Front

Is Submission “Labor Statesmanship”?

(28 April 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 17, 28 April 1947, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Labor commentators of course want to influence events, and Victor Riesel, labor columnist for the New York Post, is no mean contestant in this field. Recently he made an appeal for “labor statesmanship,” meaning that labor leaders should accept what big business is offering, Reisel having had it on good authority that big business secretly decided to allow labor about a 12-cent-an-hour increase for 1947.

Apparently Riesel was right. The rubber companies were willing to give 11½ cents; the electrical companies offered the same hourly increase; Big Steel met the union demands to the extent of 12½ cents an hour; GH has wrapped up a 15-cent “package,” 15 cents to include hourly increases and other adjustments.

It seems also that the labor leaders are exercising the kind of “labor statesmanship” that Riesel advised, though Reuther still holds off.

But the question is whether these settlements at this time are really labor statesmanship. Do they really strengthen labor’s long-term position?

Advocates Submission

Let us analyze Riesel’s reasoning to get at the core of this question.

Pointing to the strikes of 1945–46, Riesel rote: “If any of these paralyzing stoppages flare, Congress will hit labor with about as much warning as Frankie Sinatra gave the Mortimer fellow in the Hollywood bistro.”

This is another way of advocating submission to the squeeze tactics that big business and Congress are practising upon labor. How wise is it for labor to retreat before this attack? If labor submits now, moderates its demands, dances to the tune of big business, does not strike, there is still no guarantee that Congress will kill the labor - crushing legislation. But even if Congress decides to be lenient because labor leaders have been good boys, where does that get labor? Does not that set a mighty bad precedent? At any time when labor becomes restive and ready to struggle for a greater share of the wealth it produces, the threat of antilabor legislation can be used by big business on labor leaders, and by labor leaders on the rank and file, to stop the workers in their tracks. Is this labor statesmanship?

Another argument garnered by Riesel ran like this. Any strike will be a long one; the telephone strike proves this. Big business was ready for a knock-down fight. If the GM battle of 1945–46 cost the union a fortune, what would a walkout cost this year – and some union treasuries are not what they used to be. And more along this line.

To be sure, there are times when labor cannot undertake a knockdown finish fight. Those times are when labor is weak. But today labor is not weak in organized numbers and in joint finances.

The weakness lies in provincialism, in separatism. It is no time for single finger tactics, but for clenched fist maneuvering. Any group of workers who get out in front to challenge big business and Congress must have the force and finances of all labor behind it. To retreat from a knock-down finish fight when labor is strong as it is today, is to vitiate that strength. Labor needs no counsel of retreat from the Riesels, but rather lessons in united strategy – not from Riesel.

Public Sentiment

Further arguing for the “labor statesmanship” that buckles down to big business and Congress, Riesel asked whether it is worth while to bring the public down on labor by striking and thus producing shortages once more and scarcity prices. There is indeed such a thing as public opinion. That small part of public opinion that is anti-labor come what may, is none of our concern. But a great section of the public should be, by social interest, pro-labor. That section includes white collar and professional people, farmers, small business people, housewives, etc. These people are naturally pro-labor when shown the facts, and where their own interests lie. Certainly this kind of needed public education is not to be found in so-called pro-labor newspaper columns that imply that strikes cause shortages and higher prices.

It goes without saying that a struggle by labor for an adequate wage boost would have to be accompanied by the widest possible educational campaign to gain public support. But the facts of the case speak so loudly for themselves that other propaganda is hardly necessary. Let us get into every city home and farm house such facts as these:

In 1946 the loss of workdays from sickness and disability was 35 times the loss through work stoppages of all kinds.

During the war wages were frozen but profits rose above all expectations.

After the war it was estimated by labor that to catch up to the cost of living that had been moving up while wages stood still, a 30 per cent wage increase was needed. Labor got only an 18-cent-an-hour boost, thus leaving it still far behind.

Since the end of price control the purchasing power of wages has fallen so that the reduction about equals a 10 per cent wage cut, on top of the lag already existing.

All this time profits continue to mount so that in 1946 returns on investments were eight to ten times pre-war returns.

The share of labor in national income payments sank since pre-war years 1936–39 from 63.5 per cent of the total to 62.6 per cent in 1946.

Between January 1945 and October 1946 the actual monthly payrolls in manufacturing industries dropped 22 per cent, while in purchasing power the drop was 42 per cent.

Sitting on Volcano

In 1946, 70 per cent of American families earned less than $3,000 annually, and 47 per cent lived on less than $2,000 for the year.

Of those fabulous wartime savings, 20 per cent of the families had none at all and also no war bonds; 30 per cent of the families had a mere 3 per cent of all the savings; and 50 per cent of the families had 97 per cent of the savings including government bonds.

A CIO survey showed that 71 per cent of the families whose wages came from the basic manufacturing industries had less than $300 in savings – and that was before the stupendous price rise since June 1946.

What is the handwriting on the wall from all these authentic statistics taken together? Not only the workers involved, but professional people, farmers, small business people, indeed everyone but the rich, sit on a volcano. Unless the working masses get more of; the wealth they produce, unless they can buy what they can consume for use, comfort, education, health, entertainment, there will be an eruption of business crisis and unemployment that will engulf everybody. Where does Riesel get the gall to imply that the interests of labor and of the public are not identical!

Who would counsel labor in correct labor statesmanship must know which side he’s on, first of all.

It is true that big business and Congress were set for a show-down. By the CIO, AFL, railroad brotherhoods and independent organizations planning a united strategy for the use of joint forces and resources, by campaigning for the active support of the great public, labor could engage in its struggle for the share of the national wealth to which it is entitled – and win. The granting of 11% cents or 12% cents an hour by big business is itself more than a polite bow to labor’s ability to fight. But that 11% cents or 12% cents additional hourly wage is not sufficient to set labor ahead in the game.

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