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Irving Howe

Fight Strikebreakers with a Labor Party!

(10 June 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 23, 10 June 1946, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The bitter assault against American labor into which Harry Truman has catapulted his administration reached its peak this week. Gloves were abandoned, syrupy talk was at an end; seldom before in recent history had an administration so openly proclaimed its role as a strike-breaker in behalf of America’s Sixty Families who own and exploit this country’s wealth.

It looked like a finish fight – and the odds were high, very high. The war between the needs of the people and the greed of the capitalists which had recently broken out In a rash of strikes – this war, involving our future security and right to exercise the workingman’s greatest weapon, the strike, was now open. And everybody knew where the Little Man in the White House stood. Harry Truman stood revealed as a strike-breaker; he had broken the rail strike, was threatening to break the coming maritime strike and had proposed to Congress the most vicious piece of anti-labor legislation in American history. The Little Man in the White House could think only of cops’ billies, of soldiers’ bayonets as answers to the cry of America’s workers for a decent wage.

Here, in brief, were the main events of the week:

  1. Congress had passed the rotten Case anti-strike bill. At the moment this article is being written, it is not yet known if the Little Man in the White House will sign or veto it.
  2. Labor had at last rallied to condemn both the Case bill and the even more outrageous “strike-draft” proposal of the Little Man in the White House. Philip Murray, president of the CIO, wrote a stinging attack on the Case bill.
  3. In the meantime, America’s most progressive and aggressive union, the United Automobile Workers, announced that it was preparing to fight for new wage increases in order to meet ...
  4. The rising cost of living, which spiralled upward once more last week, with milk up a penny a quart and butter 11 cents a pound.
  5. The Little Man in the White House – “Hell hath no fury like a mediocre politician unable to cope with his problems” – threatened to break the strike of the maritime workers scheduled for a few days hence.
  6. Never before was there a more urgent need for labor to break from the two old capitalist parties and form its own Labor Party. The PAC policy of supporting “good” capitalist candidates had come to its bitter but logical conclusion when many of the men whom it had helped put in Congress voted for the Case bill.


And now to fill in the details of the picture:

1) The Anti-Strike Legislation

Two pieces of anti-labor legislation had passed through Congress. The first was Truman’s “labor-draft” bill which had been shoved through in two hours in the House of Representatives with only 13 opposing votes. (This was the House which the PAC had hailed after its election as a “progressive victory.”) In the Senate, the bill was passed by a vote of 61–20, though there one of the worst of its sections, which would have allowed the President to draft strikers “against the government,” was cut out. As it stands, however, it is still a rotten, vicious blow at labor’s rights. Some of its worst provisions:

  • Federal judges would have the power to issue injunctions in order to break strikes. Experienced veterans of the labor movement will recall that the injunction, until its limitation by legislation in 1932, was one of the most potent strike-breaking weapons of the bosses and their judges.
  • The President may proclaim a “national emergency” in case of a strike, “take over” the factory or plant or mine (while the bosses continue to clip their coupons of profit) and end the strike.
  • The President could then order the strikers back to work and arbitrarily set wages and working conditions.
  • Not only would unions be penalized if they refused to knuckle under, but even individual workers would lose their status as employees, their rights under the Wagner Labor Act and their seniority if they refused to return to work. In the words of Senator Pepper of Florida, “this is the first time Congress has made it unlawful for a lone individual worker to quit work.” Such a worker would be subject, he said, “not only to criminal prosecution,” but could “be tried by a single judge in contempt procedure without any limitation on the penalty.”
  • This bill, then, is the proposal of President Truman. Even with the omission of the “labor-draft” provision, it is vicious. Now it goes up for conference between members of the House and Senate to “iron out” the differences in their versions of the bill. If it passes, it will be a catastrophe for the trade unions.

    2) Labor Rallies Against Case Bill

    Let’s take a glance now at that other labor wrecking bill, the Case bill, which is waiting for Presidential signature. Here’s how this nifty cuts into our rights:

  • It prohibits a union from striking for 60 days after its request for collective bargaining conferences. This is known as “cooling off.” What it means is this: one of a trade union’s most effective strike weapons, SURPRISE, is lost to it. The union has to give the boss two months’ notice of its intention to strike, which gives him plenty of time to prepare for it. This provision also makes possible this situation: the boss, having received the notice of your union that a strike is to be called in two months, tries to provoke a strike before that time by making life miserable for his workers. If he succeeds, the workers are “guilty of having violated the law” and are no longer covered by the Wagner Labor Act. Either way, then, this main provision of the Case bill is a crippling blow to labor.
  • Section 6 of the Case bill provides that in a dispute in a public utility (which it defines very loosely), the President may create an emergency commission to investigate the situation and report back to the President. During this investigation and report, utility workers are prohibited from striking. This amounts, in the words of Philip Murray, to “an indefinite cooling off period at the will of the President.” It means, as the CIO head puts it, that “the government steps in to protect the employer in any position the employer wishes to take, however unreasonable, in the negotiations.”
  • Section 8 of the Case bill prohibits an employer from paying money to a union, except for a trust or health fund, which, the bill insists, must be jointly run by the boss and the union. This section is aimed at union health funds to which some employers have been contributing.
  • Section 9 eliminates from the protection of the National Labor Relations Act all foremen and “supervisory employees.” This section is aimed at creating dissension among various groups of workers.
  • Section 10 opens labor organizations to suits for alleged violations of collective bargaining agreements and makes unions legally liable for the acts of their agents even when those acts were not authorized by the unions. These provisions mean that unions would constantly be hailed into court in order to milk their treasuries and that all kinds of provocateurs would be able to commit acts “in the name of the union” for which the union would be held responsible.
  • So far, there is no definite news as to whether the Little Man in the White House will veto this bill. His political advisors, who know that he is finished as far as re-election goes unless he has labor support, have been urging a veto. But labor should stay on guard for one possibility: Truman might veto the Case bill, only a little later to sign the anti-labor bill he himself has sponsored.

    3) UAW Asks for Higher Wages

    The United Automobile Workers Union wasn’t asleep at the switch. Stating that its recent 18½¢ raise had already been eaten up by price jumps, it has served notice on the Chrysler Corporation that wages would have to be hiked if prices keep going up. The UAW executive board meeting was expected to raise similar demands for the entire industry.

    Once again the UAW, with its advanced program during the GM strike – which we have called the GM program – which had urged that wages be tied to profits and prices, has pointed the way. That program made clear that wage raises were next to worthless if price jumps continued, and that it was the job of the union movement to fight to raise wages and keep prices down. Now, however, that prices have gone up, the UAW is planning a fight for additional wage increases, a demand which points the way to the whole labor movement. Only by unceasing struggle can the vicious wage-price circle be broken; a struggle which involves more than mere picket line victories.

    4) Prices Keep Rising

    It was no accident the UAW chose this week to ask for reopening of wage negotiations. For when the workers of America came home from their benches this week, they were told by their wives that the price of milk had gone up a penny a quart and the price of butter had gone up 11 cents a pound. The pay envelope was worth less and less.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics released figures which showed that the rise in the cost of living had gone up 50 per cent since August 1939. But, as Sylvia Porter, economist for the New York Post, wrote in its June 3, 1946, issue, “even that rise fails to tell the full story ... It fails because the barometer of the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not reflect the disappearance from the stores of hundreds of low-cost products; it fails because the official index cannot and does not mirror the terrific deterioration in the quality of goods ... The impact of these and other ‘invisible’ items upon the average family’s cost of living has been immense.”

    When these wage-consuming price jumps are compared with profit figures for 1945, then you have a true picture of the situation. For in 1945 wholesale and retail corporations had profit percentages double those of the boom year 1929, while manufacturing corporations had a profit take equal to that of 1929.

    Was it any wonder that America’s workers stared with anger and amazement at the attempt in Washington to deprive them of their one great weapon, the strike, by which they could try to remedy this situation?

    5) Maritime Labor May Strike

    The next big crisis was expected to come in the maritime industry, where the CIO unions had raised demands of from 22 to 35 cent increases per hour – and where the Little Man in the White House, sizzling with anti-labor venom, had threatened to call out the Marines, Navy and Army to break the strike. But just as coal can’t be mined with bayonets, so ships can’t be sailed with rifles. And the men who work the ships, from boiler room to top deck, were determined to stick it out for better wages.

    Truman sizzled, Truman spluttered, Truman threatened – but against the might of labor, the might of thousands of workers determined to fight for a better life, how ridiculous seemed this mediocre haberdashery salesman whom accident had catapulted to power.

    6) Need for Labor Party

    And now in the last section of this article, let’s try to tie the knots together. In this crisis, which had brought to a head all of the conflicts of the post-war period, labor needed a lot of things. It needed an aggressive, fighting policy. It needed a militant, united leadership. It needed to make its own the GM Program by which the auto workers had plunged into the lead of the American labor movement.

    But it needed one thing especially, one thing which could give added power to all the others: it needed a political party of its own. This was put quite well in the words of John Christensen, head of the AFL lumbers workers in the Northwest, who wrote:

    “The fact that only 13 Congressmen dared to support labor’s rights by voting against the President’s bill certainly proves that the working people can no longer trust the old-line politicians and their political parties. I believe this brazen attack on American democracy may force organized labor to discontinue its present political policies and launch its own independent political action. I see no ether way in which the working people can guarantee their right to strike, their right to bargain collectively and all other fundamental human rights which are jeopardized by the existence of a political set-up that operates solely in the interests of big business. Unless the workers organize politically under the banner of organized labor, this nation may soon become a fascist police state.”

    Yes, that was putting it pretty well. The blatherskites of both old parties which had been elected with the aid of the CIO-PAC had shown their true colors. The overwhelming vote for the anti-labor bills showed that most of them voted against labor. And what else could you expect? When the PAC supported these birds it was supporting capitalist candidates of capitalist parties. And when a fundamental crisis, such as the present one, arose, it was to be expected that they would vote against labor.

    That was to be expected. But how much longer will labor continue its fatal policy of supporting “good” capitalist candidates? Many sections of the labor movement have turned against Truman; that’s fine. Whitney has said that his union will spend 2½ million dollars and that the Railroad Brotherhoods have 47 million dollars to lick the Little Man in the White House; that’s fine, too. But whom are they going to support? Some mildewed politician in the Republican Party? A so-called liberal with a collapsible spine?

    No; it’s about time we stopped that sort of thing. We need our own party, an independent Labor Party representing the masses of American workers, firmly based on the trade union movement. Such a party would be on the political field what the trade unions are on the economic field.

    We are facing grave days of crisis. Never before has labor faced such a hopped-up administration whose inept leader is out to “get” the unions. Never before has labor so needed a policy of struggle and aggressiveness to halt the price spiral and jack up wages.

    But above all, labor must begin to move in the political arena. We need a clean break. Our own independent Labor Party aiming at the establishment of a workers’ government which can begin to solve some of these problems!

    That, in the first week of June – when the little-minded Little Man in the White House vented his anti-labor spleen – was the burning need.

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