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Ben Hall

Books in Review

Evidence of the Challenge to Labor

(Spring 1958)

From The New International, Vol. XXIV No. 2–3, Spring–Summer 1958, pp. 140–141.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Social Responsibilities of Organized Labor
by James A. Fitch
1957. Harper. 237 pp. $3.50

This volume is part of a series published by the Federal Council of Churches, a project headed by F. Ernest Johnson who writes the introduction. As he sees it, the book attempts “an appraisal [of the labor movement] by the conscience of the community in accord with the requirements of social justice.” The author, John A. Fitch, who wrote The Steel Worker in 1910, was a sympathizer of early steel unionism, a rare thing in those days. He begins by defining social responsibility from the standpoint of religion; consequently, this work illustrates the state of mind of the liberal pro-labor churchman, revealing his attitude toward unionism at a time when it is no longer a feeble force fighting defensively for a precariously held position but a permanently established social power. As the text indicates, it is an attitude based in part upon an exaggeration of this power: “it is ... patent,” writes Mr. Johnson, “that the strength of organized labor in many key industries has now reached approximate equality with management in terms of bargaining power.”

Mr. Fitch has set himself a two-fold task, to present organized labor to the churchgoer and to confront labor with its social responsibilities. He portrays labor’s goals, its activities, its program in a light of unvarying sympathy, ever careful to prevent criticism from implying hostility or from stimulating it in his readers. Where he feels obliged to criticize, he goes out of his way to dissociate his views from labor’s enemies.

But now that unions are established and influential, he feels free to admonish them to face up to their responsibilities, as he sees them. And he is ready, in mild fashion, even to question some of their hotly held opinions.

He describes the extent of racketeering in some detail and is happy to record the labor movement’s drive to eradicate it; he criticizes restrictions upon democracy in many unions. In this, he finds supporters inside the labor movement.

He deplores the use of force on picket lines as undemocratic although he understands that strikers are subjected to terrible provocations. He thinks, too, that in the interest of democracy labor ought voluntarily to discard the union shop and other forms of compulsory union membership. But he opposes any restrictions by law on the union shop and has no sympathy for the motives of those who campaign for “right to work” laws, understanding their anti-union bias. Perhaps, he says too, it is time for the “community” to be represented at the bargaining table not, however, “in its political role, i.e., as the state” but “in their economic capacity as consumers.” These opinions are inseparably linked to another; he is convinced that we live now in an era of labor-management harmony in which the fears that motivate the unions (as in their insistence upon the union shop) are an obsolete relic of the outlived past when unions were broken by government intervention and employers violence.

In these respects, Mr. Fitch’s advice misses the point. The antagonisms between capital and labor have been restrained but not eliminated. Yet his book is evidence of the challenge to labor. By its friends and by its enemies unionism is viewed as a vast social power in national life. How does it intend to apply that power? Mr. Fitch is eager to underline that question. At one time the labor movement was content to pass from one minor task to the next oblivious of the great issues of the day. With power comes responsibilities; not those that Mr. Fitch would enumerate but great responsibilities nevertheless.

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