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Ben Hall

Labor Policy: New Deal and Fair Deal

Tracing the Trend Toward State Controls

(August 1949)

From The New International, Vol. XV No. 6, August 1949, pp. 163–167.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

By a margin of a mere two votes in the Senate, the administration lost the decisive battle on the Taft-Hartley law. A motion by Senator Lucas, majority leader, to strike out the injunction provisions of the new law was rejected, 46 to 44. Of the six senators who did not vote, four were evenly paired and so cancelled themselves out; the remaining two were administration supporters. Where were they?

One, Senator Ecton of Montana, was proudly watching his son get married. The other, Senator Wagner of New York, was ill. It was suggested, says Arthur Krock, that his physician decide if the sick senator could make one dramatic appearance on this momentous occasion. But in vain. With these two votes, the Senate would have been deadlocked; Vice President Barkley, as chairman, could have broken the tie in favor of the administration. Would have, could have; but an impatient groom and a cautious doctor decided otherwise.

Where and When Principles Prevail

In some places, little facts like these make big history. How narrowly the will of the people was thwarted. And so, hundreds of union employees sort out lists of registered voters and compile voting records of their elected representatives. Thousands of garment workers, auto workers, and steel workers are to climb stairways, ring doorbells to call millions of their brothers to the polls in 1950. Justice, The United Auto Worker, The Steelworker, appeal to their readers: Elect just a few more liberals and turn back the tide of reaction.

Matters of profound principle are decided by a few hands raised in Washington. Get out and vote. The lesson is simple. But is it? Fred A. Hartley, Jr. (of Taft-Hartley fame) has devised a simple formula for making one thing seem like something else; understand it and you have a handy guide for following the great “labor” debates in Congress. “If you have a particular measure you want approved in a particular fashion, it is sometimes a good practice to include among its provisions at least one that is obviously undesirable, unworkable, or unconstitutional. By doing so, you draw the opposition fire against the particular provision rather than against the measure as a whole.” We need only remember that the “particular measure” to be put over in this case is a general labor policy and the decoy is the “injunction” provision of the law.

Gavels pound: amendments and subamendments; substitutes and sub-substitutes; intricate procedural devices; committals and recommittals; threats of a veto; compromises and new compromises. One imagines something must be going on. Rules of order and parliamentary feinting fascinate our imagination until we snap back to reality. The honorable congressmen and the president are agitating themselves over one main question: shall the injunction provisions be enacted into law ? But law or no law, do you favor the use of injunctions against mass strikes? On this question, both sides are agreed. Yes! On this matter of principle, all tendencies unite.

“Although Senator Thomas’ bill, supported by the Administration, mentions neither injunctions nor seizure” reports the N.Y. Times, “Mr. Thomas told the Senate that it was ‘written in such a way’ as to permit the President to seize plants or ask for injunction in critical emergency disputes.” Senator Paul Douglas, another Fair Dealer, explained his own compromise bill to the Senate: “... there would be an implication, in ultimate emergencies of Presidential power to seek injunctions under this plan ...”, says the Times dispatch.

The Attorney General Casts His “Vote”

Truman goes them all one better; why all the fuss and bother about votes in Congress when all he needs is the one “vote” of his Attorney General who reinterprets the Constitution and legalizes the injunction without a law. A report of a Presidential news conference reads:

“When Mr. Truman was asked by a reporter whether he intended to reserve for the Administration the right to employ the injunction in labor disputes of a national character, he replied that he had been told the President’s powers were sufficient to meet such emergencies. A question was then raised as to why the power had not been inserted in the labor bill. This was not necessary, the Chief Executive said, since the Attorney General had advised him that the President had constitutional and implied powers” (Times, Feb. 4).

But the workings of the Hartley formula hypnotizes the labor leaders who close their eyes and dream of pleasant things. The League Reporter, published by Labor’s League for Political Education (AF of L), explains, “Anti-labor Senators want the injunction provisions of Taft-Hartley continued. But senators interested in the welfare of the nation and fair labor legislation oppose the injunction strenuously.” How “strenuously,” we have seen. And PAC-CIO tells us, “The showdown fight came on provisions to deal with so-called national emergency strikes. T-H backers striving to insert injunction provisions in the Administration measure, pro-labor Senators fighting a desperate battle to keep them out.” As “desperate” as it was “strenuous.”

As the New Deal Emerged

Unanimous agreement on the use of the injunction by the government summarizes a turn in the labor policy of the bourgeoisie; just what the turn means becomes clearer when we examine the old labor policy, the policy of the New Deal, and the conditions that gave rise to it.

In 1928, 268,000 people voted for Norman Thomas, the socialist. In 1932, his supporters numbered a million. Roosevelt was elected on the promise of driving the money changers from the temple. Down with the economic royalists; remember the forgotten man. The agony compressed into these four years stretched from the car in every garage to the furniture piled on prosperity’s corner. The moribund American Federation of Labor, living off the dues of its employed highly skilled craftsmen, hoped for better times and prayed to muddle through somehow. It offered no promise, no hope, no future to the workers. Things are bad enough, why risk the useless venture of organizing the unorganizable, employed and unemployed? Beyond the AFL was nothing but radicals. Leaderless, the workers began to take what leadership there was.

In May 1931, spontaneous strikes involving up to 40,000 miners blazed up in the bituminous fields around Western Pennsylvania. Grim miners – scrip money, company stores, little work and little wages – accepted the leadership of the Communist Party and its National Miners Union. In March 1930, 200,000 men, desperate with joblessness, knowing nothing of the Comintern and caring less, somehow heard of the call for an International Day Against Unemployment. They stamped through the streets in Detroit and New York under the strange banner of the Communist Party.

The CP was in the throes of its third period lunacy ; there were Communists and all others were fascists; the revolution was already under way; won or lost, the movements they led were victories, for cops’ clubs, injunctions, jailings and killings would automatically pound the revolution into the heads of the masses. Strike placards for the “Defense of Soviet China” were placed in the hands of puzzled miners. Its suicidal adventurism made it impossible for the CP and its dual unions to create any substantial and sustained organizations, but such were the times that despite themselves they were able, temporarily at least, to lead real mass movements.

Socialists and radicals of all kinds organized the Conference for Progressive Labor Action to work inside the American Federation of Labor and independently where necessary, to “work untiringly to organize the masses of unskilled and semi-skilled in the basic industries into industrial unions.” In 1929, it reported “Progressives almost single-handed carried on the glorious struggle by the side of the workers in Marion (North Carolina) which focussed the eyes of labor and of the nation on the Southern textile field.” In the next years it played a prominent role in strike struggles and in internal factional struggles in the unions, finally organizing itself as the Workers Party of America, which merged with the Trotskyists.

In May 1933, at the call of Norman Thomas, Sidney Hillman, David Dubinsky and others like them, 4,000 delegates from unions, farm organizations, socialist branches and cooperative leagues assembled in Washington for a “Continental Congress of Workers and Farmers,” where they adopted resolutions for a radical economic program to meet the crisis. They took no stand on political action but decided to set up united front committees in every city for mass action in pursuit of their demands. It was on the eve of the New Deal; the new President had already been sworn into office. Under his magic, the movement was liquidated in the next months.

Which Class Was Best Served?

This was only one of Roosevelt’s many services to the bourgeoisie. Within the next four years, Hillman and Dubinsky formed another outfit, the American Labor Party, to switch the traditional socialist vote away from their old friend Thomas to their new idol Roosevelt, by making it possible for socialist voters to cast their ballots “independently” for FDR.

Retired Marxists divert themselves with speculations on the non-class character of the state or at least its non-capitalist class character. Reminiscences of the labor policy of the New Deal, bitterly attacked by large sections of the bourgeoisie, even its majority, serve as a somewhat belated proof of their new view. They not only minimize the future of the working class, they must efface its past from their memories.

A thousand frightened businessmen, stupefied by concentration on their own red profit ledgers, couldn’t see as clearly as a few far-sighted bourgeois politicians. It was impossible to piece together an intelligent bourgeois platform from the separate, disconnected aims of individual employers. Each capitalist dealt only with his own workers; he saw simply the effects of unionization on his own enterprise, which in most cases would put him at a disadvantage in the competitive struggle; it seemed reasonable and simple to fight the drive to organize by direct and even brutal methods, methods which had always been successful. But if extended into a social policy applicable to all of industry, to the whole working class, what seemed so reasonable from the point of view of each employer could only have catastrophic effects on the stability of the whole capitalist system. Far from showing how the state acts against the interests of the bourgeoisie, the labor policy of the New Deal showed it in action as the executive committee of the ruling class. It was only the bourgeois state which could initiate and execute the necessary general labor policy.

The Alternatives Before Capitalism

The alternative in the early ’30s was not the simple choice between unions or no unions, between organization of the working class or no organization. Four years of pent-up misery made the drive toward some sort of organization irrepressible. But how were the workers to organize, under what leadership and under what social philosophy? This was the choice that the bourgeoisie had to make. Either the workers would organize under a “responsible” leadership or they would find an “irresponsible” one. Police measures and repression would club them to the left. Even in 1928, when peace and prosperity seemed the permanent normality, Senator Wagner saw it quite clearly when he told the New York State Federation of Labor:

In the long run, the injunction cannot stop the organization of labor. Organization springs from the most profound needs of human nature. You can’t destroy the desire to organize; you can only balk it for a time ... What is the effect of the injunction? I am still looking at it from the point of view of the employer. Its effect is just to postpone the formation of an adequate labor organization. It is keeping the labor movement in its fighting period; it is preventing the labor movement from coming to full maturity and assuming the tasks and responsibilities for which it is pre-eminently fitted.

Dr. A.H. Millis, a member of the National Labor Relations Board, said in 1935:

“If and when collective bargaining is freed from undue militancy, as it can be when wise management and good labor leadership are brought into cooperation, special problems connected with collective bargaining clear up and there are opportunities for gain to all parties.”

To avoid “undue militancy” and stifle the “fighting period” summarize the aims of the Wagner Act. The workers had to be led through the placid channels of class collaboration by compelling the employers to deal with the unions. The legalization of collective bargaining aimed at the liquidation of radical and socialist tendencies. Take the workers off the picket lines; settle all questions around the table; and a wiser, more responsible officialdom will naturally, without compulsion, rise to the fore.

“The inability of employees to unite in larger groups,” Senator Wagner argued against company unionism, “has hampered the efforts of labor to preserve order within its own ranks or to restrain the untimely and wayward acts of irresponsible groups ... Men versed in the tenets of freedom become restive when not allowed to be free ... Industrial strife is most violent when company unionism enters into the situation ... The company union is least likely to bring forth the restraint of irresponsible employees by others of their own group. The implications of what I have just said are clear. If the employer-dominated union is not checked, there are only two likely results. One is that the employer will have to maintain his dominance by force, and thus swing us directly into industrial fascism and the destruction of our most cherished American ideals; the other is that employees will revolt, with widespread violence and unpredictable conclusions.”

And so the complicated system of NLRB procedures and elections. It didn’t work perfectly, mass strikes couldn’t be avoided, but in the long run the objectives were realized. Labor leaders who once thought they were socialists, even extra-left-wing socialists, became idolizers of Roosevelt, then Democrats, and finally worshippers of a liberalized capitalism.

The New Deal sought industrial stability and class peace by extending the rights of the unions and limiting the rights of the employers to destroy them. The new labor policy turns the wheel in the opposite direction. It no longer relies primarily upon the voluntary, self-imposed discipline of the union and its leadership ; it seeks the limitation of the rights of the union and its leadership by state controls. The turn in policy was not originated under Truman; it was begun by Roosevelt.

Shift in Policy – Under FDR

The labor officialdom did well during the war. It handed over the equality of sacrifice and submitted to wage and job freeze. It made the no-strike pledge the official state religion of the labor movement. But a rash of wildcat strikes broke out, unofficial, unauthorized, “illegal” from the standpoint of the official leadership.

Threats and pleas, the stars and stripes of patriotism, the banner of union “loyalty”; rank and file soldiers with battle stars; officers and labor board officials with wounded pride all helped to send the undisciplined wildcatters back to their jobs. But the class peace was an uneasy one, interrupted by more wildcats, more trouble. Loyal and responsible as it was, no one could guarantee that the top officials could control the rank and file. Besides, who could guarantee that they would remain officials? If the leaders could not control the unions, the state had to intervene to control the unions and the leaders.

A series of anti-strike measures culminating in the Smith-Connally Act were introduced in Congress. The latter was vetoed by Roosevelt and passed over his

head. The labor leaders, who had fought the measure tooth and nail, were so grateful for the veto that they ignored Roosevelt’s publicly stated message: the law was inadequate because it gave legal sanction to strikes under certain conditions. Clearest evidence of all of the shift in policy was the President’s advocacy of a “work or fight” law.

Pieces in a Developing Pattern

But war is war. Perhaps, some may say, it was necessary to submit to state controls over labor in the interests of a war for democracy which would protect us from the state controls of fascism. The war, however, has been over for some time, but the trend toward a new labor policy has not been reversed. It has been speeded up. It is not a question of a temporary, accidental wartime device but of a changed platform of the bourgeoisie and all its main political representatives. Truman’s fines and injunctions against the miners, his threat to draft the railroad strikers are pieces of one pattern with the Tart-Hartley law. The old policy met labor “emergencies” in one way, new concessions. The new policy in another, new limitations.

Government injunctions against strikes are only a succinct summary of the modern labor philosophy of the capitalist state. These are injunctions not against violence, the destruction of property, “illegal coercion,” or anything of the sort, but injunctions against strikes as such, however legal, peaceful and orderly. “The so-called national emergency provision is typical of the whole tenor of the Taft-Hartley Act,” remarks co-author Hartley. And this is what is accepted by all. Government controls over the unions extends to control over the officials of unions. Anti-Communist affidavits clearly express this aim; for they are not simply directed against Stalinists. They are pointed at the existing leadership, responsible and pro-capitalist as it tries to be.

The Fair Deal Democrats, who are eminently fair and impartial, bemoan the “partiality” of the T-H affidavits. It casts a slur on the labor movement by singling its leaders out for loyalty oaths. In all fairness, they insist that employers also should be compelled to sign affidavits. Unbiased “liberalism” accepts the principle of government control over the labor leadership. This gives added significance to the remark of our well known Hartley:

“The Taft-Hartley law,” he tells us, “is designed to improve the lot of the good labor leader. It is also designed to drive from the trade union movement in America those labor leaders who are not sincere in their service to their unions, those who use the trade union movement to promote every conceivable idea under the sun, other than sound labor principles.”

Sound principles, it should be added, simply means the “business unionism” of the AFL. He gives a few hints to the employers.

Under the new labor law it is now the duty of the employer to determine for himself which type of union leader he has in his own unions. If he has a good union leader, he should work with him and thank his lucky stars his business will not be subjected to the pulling and tugging demands of an ambitious labor leader, anxious to make his way in the world at the expense of both management and the workers he represents. Such a leader can and will work to improve the lot of his members in making them happy and contented with their employment and in helping management improve its business for the ultimate good of the workers, the investors, and the public. If an employer has a bad labor leader, he how has access to the law to protect his business and his workers.

And just who are these bad labor leaders? Not merely the Communists, in fact not primarily the Communists. John L. Lewis is one, of course; another ...?

To me, Van Bittner typifies the bull-headed official running the American labor movement today. He showed ... that he respected only force in his dealings with others. If I happened to be an employer faced with Bittner or others like him representing my workers, I would close my business ... Presumably disrespect for government, unless it bows to your wishes, and contempt for Congress, unless it offers tribute, pay off in the labor movement today ... The labor movement in this nation has become sick when it produces as its top representatives men of this type.

And who is this monster frightening Mr. Hartley into print? The late Van A. Bittner was director of the CIO’s Operation Dixie, vice-president of the Steel Workers Union, member of the CIO Executive Board, assistant to Philip Murray, a member of the War Labor Board in 1942. A typical CIO official whose social philosophy was molded by the New Deal and whose road to power was smoothed by it.

Shaped to Meet Labor’s Power

The New Deal labor policy was adequate to handle the labor movement in the infant stages of the organization of the mass production industries; it gave it a pro-capitalist slant; it shaped its general ideology; it assimilated and transformed labor officials. Now that the basic industries of the nation are powerfully organized, enrolling the decisive sections of the working class into unions, the old line is no longer adequate for the bourgeoisie. The new policy of state controls over the unions and their leadership grapples with the working class in its present advanced stage of organization.

Hartley, for example, yearns for the good old days of 1929, when

“The cause of labor was being advanced by what I always regarded as the sound organizational principles of the American Federation of Labor. These principles, to refresh our memory, were based on the binding together of men engaged in closely allied activities requiring relatively similar skills. Some of these AFL craft unions are still typical off what are right and proper activities for labor.”

The AFL could conduct its business unionism without strain, negotiating its contracts, winning higher pay and shorter hours oblivious to the big social and political developments of the day. A printers’ strike, a carpenters’ strike, they caused inconveniences here and there, but life went on normally. An occasional mass industrial strike as in the mining industry was an exceptional disaster which, in the relatively weak condition of the labor movement, could be broken by ordinary police violence and the slow starvation of the strikers.

But when steel mills, mines or auto plants are shut down by strikes today the whole economy is swiftly thrown out of balance. The threat of such a calamity is no longer an exceptional possibility but an annual or bi-annual threat hanging over the country each time contracts come up for renewal. The labor leadership, moreover, has such vast powers in its hands that it is compelled to go beyond the simple questions of wages and hours; it must take up the general defense of democracy and “civil rights”; it is compelled to intervene in the political life of the country; it has to go down into the South to try to break the power of the Southern reactionaries. This leadership, embarrassed by its own power, may dream of peaceful collaboration between workers and employers, of the intervention of enlightened government on the side of justice and humanity which would make strife and turmoil a thing of the barbarian past. But what formed the labor officialdom by creating labor unions – the class struggle – upsets such Utopian calculations.

As the arsenal and warehouse of world capitalism, capitalist United States must be strong and united. In its delicate jockeying on the world social arena, its strength and its unity must be obvious as a warning to all rivals. The government cannot permit mass strikes to plunge it into “chaos” at unpredictable moments. Dependent upon the workers who elected them and who can throw them out, union officials are no longer suitable as the main controlling and restraining influence over a powerfully organized working class.

Compel New Policy for Labor

Such was the lesson of the first wave of post-war strikes. The capitalist class and all its political representatives effect a change in attitude toward the unions and the labor bureaucracy.

Under its present officialdom, the labor movement continues as of old as though nothing had changed, as though the New Deal, rebaptized as the Fair Deal, were still in effect, as though the cold war and preparations for a new war left everything in order. But as the bourgeoisie presses against the unions and squeezes the labor bureaucracy, the labor movement too will be compelled to change its policies to avoid regimentation. The first big step toward that change must be the formation of a new independent political party basing itself upon the unions.

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