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An Issue Raised by UAW Price Program

Are National Buyers’ Strikes Effective?

(2 September 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 35, 2 September 1946, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DETROIT – How effective are “buyers’ strikes” in the fight to control prices? This question is of importance because the leaders of the CIO, including Walter Reuther of the UAW, have come to rely more and more upon this tactic until it has become the MAIN if not the only means proposed by them to keep prices down.

Reuther, like most of the other leaders of the labor movement, has spoken militantly and often brilliantly for a program of fighting for wage increases without price increases. This is fully possible, he pointed out, provided that we are willing to dip into the profits of the big manufacturers and bankers who have accumulated billions in the course of the war and who will accumulate more billions in the postwar period. In this way, the millions of people who have to work for a living will be able not only to hold their own and to defend their existing wage standards but they will be able to INCREASE their real wages and secure an ever rising standard of living.

The chief defect in all Reuther’s proclamations, however, has been this: he has never outlined an effective program of action to indicate HOW and BY WHOM prices can be controlled. Without such a program of action all talk of price control becomes ineffectual wishful thinking.

The leaders of the UAW, under the pressure of the rank and file, particularly at Ford and Chrysler, have slowly come to the conclusion that it is necessary to reopen contract negotiations in order to secure new wage increases to meet the rising costs of living. Of course, we must fight for such wage increases. In fact, the Workers Party proposes an even more effective demand. We propose that the labor movement fight for contractual provisions that would provide for a RISING SCALE OF WAGES. Let wages automatically rise every time that prices go up!

We must remember, however, that such proposals are mainly defensive. They are designed to MAINTAIN the purchasing power of wages in the face of rising prices. But as long as prices continue to go up, the workers are, in the words of Reuther, caught on an “economic treadmill.” The faster prices rise, the faster the workers must run in order to stand in the same place.

But Reuther began with a program to RAISES the standard of living of the workers; and such a program must have as one of its main pillars an effective program for price control.

How to control prices ... that is the problem we must solve.

On June 16, shortly after Congress had killed the OPA and Truman had vetoed the bill which he said “legalized inflation” hundreds of thousands of workers demonstrated at the call of the UAW demanding the restoration of price controls. It was at that time that Reuther put forward the idea of buyers’ strikes. We must, he said, refuse to buy all but the most essential needs of life, until Congress passes an OPA bill “with teeth in it.” Notice: these buyers strikes were intended at that time as mass demonstrations of protest that were to compel CONGRESS TO CONTROL PRICES. That is, their value was measured not so much in terms of how much these strikes themselves could control prices but in terms of the pressure that they would exert on a reluctant Congress which in the words of the labor leaders had “surrendered to the demands of the profiteers.”

But Congress acted. And Truman signed a new OPA bill. But instead of a price control bill “with teeth in it” we got an emasculated version of the OPA which in its best days never grew any “teeth.” A “decontrol board” was set up with the power to lift the ceilings off various commodities.

Must Go Beyond Buyers Strikes

“Continue the buyers’ strikes” said the CIO leaders. But now there was a new emphasis ... the buyers' strikes were to demonstrate the continued insistence of the people for price control and to put pressure on the decontrol-board to maintain price controls. Again ... the main objective of the buyers' strikes was to get action from the government, this time through the decontrol board.

But the decontrol board has begun its activities. More and more controls are lifted. Where controls remain, price ceilings are lifted. Prices continue to rise. No hope is in sight that existing agencies will ever bring prices back to where they were before OPA was originally scuttled ... aside from all considerations of bringing prices down to where they really belong.

Where do the buyers strikes fit in now? What we must weigh now is not so much what they can achieve by putting pressure upon the government but this: How effective are buyers strikes themselves in controlling prices?

When we examine this question we find that a real program of action for price control must go far beyond that tactic of “buyers-strikes.”

(To be continued)

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