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C. Thomas

The Campaign to Conscript Labor

(February 1945)

From Fourth International, Vol.6 No.2, February 1945, pp.49-53.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The demand for a National Service Act, conscripting labor for work in private industry, has been raised periodically since the United States entered the war. From the beginning the question has been enveloped in a fog of duplicity. The arguments advanced by the proponents of labor conscription have varied from time to time, have often been contradictory, and have tended to conceal rather than reveal the true aims of such legislation. Those supporters of Wall Street’s war who “oppose” labor conscription have contributed their share toward obscuring the issue. One group of contenders extols the advantages of “voluntary” labor as a means of “furthering the war effort,” the other insists that “compulsory” labor is necessary. “Voluntary versus compulsory labor.” Thus is the question put. An examination of the status of labor since the outbreak of war will reveal that “voluntary” labor under wartime capitalism is a myth.

Immediately following Pearl Harbor, the labor bureaucrats “voluntarily” surrendered the right to strike in exchange for compulsory arbitration of labor disputes by the tripartite War Labor Board. Composed of an equal number of representatives of the unions, employers and the “public,” i.e. the government, the WLB functions as an administration agency to police the unions. Compulsory arbitration deprived the unions of their independence of action. The no-strike pledge deprived the unions of their most effective weapon of defense.

With the union thus shackled, Roosevelt proceeded to freeze wages by executive decree, establishing the Little Steel formula ceiling on wage increases. The union bureaucrats now “voluntarily” accepted the wage freeze in exchange for Roosevelt’s fraudulent promise to take the profits out of war and “stabilize” the cost of living. The WLB was converted into an instrument to enforce the wage freeze. While profits soared to the highest levels in history, the wage freeze effectively reduced labor’s share of the national income. Rising prices, constantly forcing the cost of living upward, resulted in a gradual reduction of real wages and a lowered standard of living for the workers.

In “normal” times, the employers depend upon a large reservoir of unemployed workers to keep wages down. During periods of war, the army of unemployed is absorbed in the military forces and expanded war production. The employing class then utilizes political means – its control over government – to prevent competition between individual employers which would increase wages and thus reduce profits. The capitalist government, functioning as the executive arm of the employing class, begins to regulate hours, wages and conditions of employment. The government aims to eliminate competition between individual employers in the interests of the employing class as a whole.

Although the Little Steel formula established an arbitrary limit on wage increases, it did not eliminate geographical wage differentials, nor existing differentials between industries. The natural movement of labor is to industries paying higher wages and providing better working conditions. This movement, if permitted to follow its natural course, would inevitably undermine the government’s wage-freezing policy. That is why Roosevelt was soon forced to issue a number of decrees aimed at controlling the movement of labor, in order to bolster the wage freeze.

Manpower Priorities

A category of manpower priorities was devised to channel labor into the most strategic war industries. Industry was classified as: (1) essential; (2) necessary; (3) non-essential. The system of occupational deferments for men employed in “essential” industry was an effective goad for those subject to the provisions of the Selective Service Act. The “work-in-essential-industry-or-be-drafted” principle assured an adequate supply of labor to “essential” industry as a whole. It provided no solution, however, to the problem of wage differentials between different industries and different localities. Within the confines of the “work-or-fight” rule, labor could continue to seek the best employment. To plug this gap, the War Manpower Commission was established to tighten the government’s control over the movement of labor. Under the broad powers granted the WMC by Roosevelt and with the aid of subsequent executive decrees, workers were frozen to their jobs at frozen wages.

The first steps in this direction were taken for certain “critical” industries. In September 1942, Paul V. McNutt, WMC chairman, issued a decree freezing the workers in the lumber and non-ferrous metals industries in 12 western states. Later the order was extended to cover a number of geographical areas. In December 1942, it was applied to over 700,000 workers in the heavily industrialized Detroit area. In January 1943 a similar order covered 175,000 workers in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. Finally, the job freeze was made national in scope in April 1943, applicable to all workers in “essential” industries covering approximately 27,000,000 farm, industrial and government workers. Selective Service officials ordered those who quit without “permission” to be reclassified and inducted into the army.

For those not subject to the “work-or-fight” penalty – women, men disqualified for military service, over-age, etc., – the compulsion is economic. The power to grant or withhold employment is the power over life and death. In a sweeping decree issued by Roosevelt on December 5, 1943, the War Manpower Commission was given control over the US Employment Service. The executive order declared that the USES was to become the clearing house for “all hiring, re-hiring, solicitation and recruitment of workers.” This decree also provided that:

“No employer shall retain in his employ any worker whose services are more urgently needed in any plant, facility, occupation or area designated by the WMC Chairman.”

To reinforce the December 5 decree, an executive order was issued which went into effect July 1, 1944, placing all male workers over the age of 17 under the control of the US Employment Service. Entitled the Roosevelt-Mc-Nutt “controlled referral” plan, the executive order compels workers to take jobs in industries and areas designated by the USES. Those who balked, declared McNutt, would be refused a certificate of availability without which they would be denied a job and in addition, would be “deprived of unemployment compensation.” This “work-where-you’re-told-or-starve” decree together with Roosevelt’s December 5 decree empowering the War Manpower Commission to shift workers from one “plant, facility, occupation or area,” to another, provided the basis for the “Allentown Plan” recently inaugurated by the WMC.

In Allentown, Pa., the WMC recently compelled employers engaged in “non-essential” production to discharge hundreds of workers, some of them holding years of seniority. These workers were forced to apply to the US Employment Service and were directed to jobs in war plants at lower wages. The penalty for refusal to take such jobs was denial of employment “for the duration of the war.” Officials of the WMC announce that the “Allentown Plan” is to be extended to other “critical” areas.

Thus we see that the legend about this being a war between “free labor” and “slave labor” is a piece of monstrous deception. Roosevelt has abolished “voluntary” labor, at least for an important section of the working population, by executive decree. The process of regimenting labor in the interest of the exploiting class began with the outbreak of war. It was accelerated under the pretext of wartime necessity. The demand for a National Service Act is part of this process.

The Austin-Wadsworth Bill

The campaign to conscript labor has been under way for a number of years. The first National Service Act was drawn up by Grenville Clark, Wall Street lawyer and behind-the-scenes lobbyist for the Big Business interests. It was submitted to Congress in 1943 under the sponsorship of Senator Austin and Representative Wadsworth. The Austin-Wadsworth bill provided for the conscription of all males between the ages of 18 to 65, and women between 18 to 50 for work in private industry. The penalty for violators was imprisonment. The bill died in the 1943 Congress but was revived after Roosevelt incorporated the demand for a national service law in his January 1944 message to Congress. “I have received a joint recommendation for this law,” declared Roosevelt, “from the heads of the War Department, the Navy department and the Maritime Commission.” From then on, the brass hats, under the direct inspiration of Wall Street bankers, spearheaded the drive for a national service law.

The ballyhoo to conscript labor continued throughout 1944. With the approach of the national presidential election campaign however, the Roosevelt administration began to soft-pedal its labor conscription agitation. The issue was kept simmering in the pages of the NY Times which continued to devote space to periodical statements by War and Navy Department spokesmen. The “Citizens Committee for a National War Service Act,” organized by Grenville Clark, with himself as chairman, maintained a legislative lobby.

Neither of the two capitalist parties included the demand for a national service law in their political platforms. Nowhere in all of their campaign oratory, did the Democratic and Republican candidates even dare raise the issue.

The votes had hardly been counted, however, when “labor’s friend” in the White House, elected by labor’s votes, let loose a blast that: “Workers who quit critical war jobs were costing American lives on the battlefronts because it was necessary to ration shells hurled at the enemy.” This was the cue the forced labor advocates were waiting for. A full-fledged munitions “shortage” developed overnight. It seemed that the munitions “shortage” was due to a suddenly discovered manpower “shortage.” The manpower “shortage” was due, of course, to “workers who quit critical war jobs.” The rabid labor-hating head of the Army Service Forces, General Somervell, opined: “They have taken a furlough ...” It wasn’t long before the whole pack was in full cry for a compulsory labor draft to eliminate the deplorable state of affairs which made it necessary “to ration shells hurled at the enemy.”

In commenting on the alleged “munitions shortage” the weekly magazine, Business Week, circulated primarily among corporation executives who demand factual reporting and not inspired propaganda, revealed:

“There have been no munitions shortages at the front, for all the talk, other than those caused by bogged roads and enemy action. Supreme headquarters would not have started this all-out drive if it had not been altogether confident on supply.”

The much-ballyhooed munitions and manpower shortage was simply part of the psychological warfare designed to facilitate the enactment of additional repressive labor legislation.

A Major Offensive

A week later the German counter-offensive caught the American command napping and smashed through for sizable gains. This was a heaven-sent opportunity for the chair-borne command at home to launch a major offensive against the American working class. In his fourth term message to Congress, Roosevelt called again for passage of a National Service Act. Included in the message was a joint letter from Secretary of War Stimson and Secretary of the Navy Forrestal, stating that Roosevelt’s Chiefs of Staff, General Marshall and Admiral King, joined them in urging “the passage of a national war-service law.”

In response to administration pressure, Chairman May of the House Military Affairs Committee, introduced a “work-or-fight” bill providing for the creation of army labor battalions. Spokesmen for the Army and Navy objected in the preliminary hearings to a conscripted “works corps” stating they preferred “the penalties against those who refused to obtain or remain in essential war jobs to be civil ones (fines and imprisonment) rather than inductions into special Army or Navy service units.” In an unprecedented move to speed enactment of the law, Roosevelt dispatched a message to the House Military Affairs Committee urging immediate, favorable action on the May-Bailey bill.

“While there may be some differences on the details of the bill,” wrote Roosevelt, “prompt action now is much more important in the war effort than the perfecting of details.” Upon receipt of the message, Chairman May abruptly terminated the hearings saying: “We’ve discussed this matter long enough. It’s now time to act.” The bill was altered to meet the objections of the brass hats and submitted to the House with a recommendation for its adoption. The Bill provided that men between the ages of 18-45 who left their jobs “without permission” of their draft boards would be subject to a fine of $10,000 or 5 years imprisonment, or both. The same penalties would apply to workers who refused to accept jobs when ordered by their draft boards. The administration of the act was placed in the hands of Selective Service. Thus it was proposed to give the brass hats direct control over a substantial section of the working population. In essence, the bill “legalizes” and extends the compulsory controls established by the previous executive decrees.

The May-Bailey Bill

The provisions of the May-Bailey bill are so purposefully vague and ambiguous that a wide latitude of “interpretation” can be applied by the agency administering the measure. In the House debate, members of the committee who approved the bill were unable to explain its provisions. Representative Brown of Ohio, declared:

“The bill is filled with inconsistencies. Very frankly, I am not certain what it contains. I do not know what many of its provisions mean, and I am not alone in this position, because the members of the Committee on Military Affairs who reported this bill seemingly could not agree among themselves as to what many of the sections of the measure really mean.”

One of the questions on which the members “seemingly” disagreed was whether or not it was an anti-strike bill.

Representative Brown pointed out that:

“Section 2 prohibits any voluntary stoppage of work by any individual. That could be taken to apply to strikes. But, when the question was asked whether or not this would prevent a man from striking, some on the committee said ‘Yes,’ some said ‘No.’ Before our committee some said, ‘We will let the local draft board pass upon the question as to whether or not it is a legal strike’.” (Congressional Record, January 29, 1945)

The “local draft board,” that is, the brass hats who control Selective Service will decide whether or not a strike is “legal.” But to a brass hat there is no such thing as a “legal” strike.

Unable to justify or explain its provisions the supporters of the May-Bailey bill resorted to the following “clinching” argument: “Our military leaders want it, and if they want it who are we to object.” The pages of the Congressional Record are sprinkled with that type of “logic.” Representative Howard Smith of Virginia, author of the Smith “Gag” Act and co-author of the Smith-Connally “anti-strike” law orated that the only question involved was whether,

“notwithstanding our objections, you can give a vote of no confidence to the Chiefs of Staff of the American armed forces. That is the question involved here and no other question.”

Representative Kilday of Texas:

“I say to you I take my stand with General Marshall and Admiral King. Those who prefer to accept the vague insinuations of Philip Murray and the AFL may take their stand where they please.”

Representative Sikes of Florida:

“Regardless of all the objections which can be raised, there remains one fact which outweighs them all. The Commander in Chief and the Chiefs of Staff have stated that the United States must have a manpower draft – now.”

Representative Arends of Illinois:

“Who am I to loudly voice my opinions from a military angle against those of General Marshall.”

And so on, and so forth.

The political deputies of Wall Street cloak their reactionary program with the military prestige of the general staff.

“One of the consequences of the war is the emergence of the Military Staff as the spearhead of reaction. The ruling capitalist circles demand unquestioning subservience to the military caste. The intervention of the brass hats in various spheres of civilian life is an integral part of the growing regimentation of the American people. It is part of the enormous strengthening of reactionary tendencies in American life and politics and the unmistakeable trend toward totalitarianism.” (Resolution of the Socialist Workers Party on The US and the Second World War.)

Under constant prodding by the administration, which utilized all the pressure tactics at its disposal, the May-Bailey “limited” service bill was railroaded through the House of Representatives by a vote of 256 to 165. Administration spokesmen demanded immediate action to speed the bill through the Senate. Meanwhile, the military situation in Europe had undergone a radical change. The Russian offensive broke through on the eastern front and was rolling toward Berlin. Allied counter-attacks on the western front pushed the Nazis back into Germany. The pretext of military necessity advanced by the supporters of the May-Bailey bill lost its plausibility. It became obvious that the much-touted “win-the-war” measure could have no effect on the outcome of the war in Europe.

Turn in the Military Situation

The sharp turn in the military situation undoubtedly strengthened the opposition to granting the brass hats direct military control over labor. Administration stalwarts on the Senate Military Affairs Committee attempted to work out a compromise which would turn the administration of the act over to the War Manpower Commission. But the brass hats refused to compromise. They insisted on retaining the provision empowering Selective Service to administer the act. Whereupon the Senate committee announced it would hold “closed hearings” on the bill. Appearing as witnesses before the Senate committee the brass hats again altered their tactics. They dropped the pretense of a “munitions” and “manpower” shortage, which had been thoroughly exposed as a fiction, and insisted that the May-Bailey bill was needed to “boost the morale of the men in the armed forces.” To prove that the soldiers were demanding the adoption of the bill, an inspired editorial appeared in the Paris edition of the army newspaper, The Stars and Stripes, endorsing the measure. However, this too-clever scheme was quickly exposed. The board of the paper kicked up a fuss against the editorial during the course of which it was disclosed that the editorial was prompted by high officials of the War Department. The incident shows to what lengths the brass hats are ready to go to forward their plans for dictatorial control.

Dropped also was the pretense that the May-Bailey bill was needed as a “win-the-war” measure. It suddenly developed that a national service law was required primarily for the period AFTER the defeat of Germany. The January 27, 1945 issue of Business Week reported to its clients that:

“The main purpose for which the Army wants a national service law is to give it a firm hold on workers after Germany goes under.”

The same magazine had reported in a previous issue that:

“Another virtue of manpower legislation from the point of view of planners in the Army, Navy, and Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion is that it would serve to check worker migration during the period after the end of the war in Europe and before the end of the war in Japan.”

Coming at a time when the war in Europe is entering its final stages, the insistent demand for additional instruments of labor repression has ominous significance for the American working class.

When the war in Europe ends there will be little justification for maintaining the present high rate of inductions into the armed forces. The “work-or-fight” penalty which uses the threat of induction as its compulsion will be weakened. In addition, the cutback in war production will close many plants and will result in a lower income for wage earners by reducing hours, shortening the work week and eliminating overtime pay. The pressure for wage increases will grow. As the “moral” pressure of “full-production-for-the-war-effort” is dulled, class conflicts will sharpen. The “voluntary” no-strike pledge will prove inadequate to keep wages frozen. Nor can Roosevelt and his brass hats count too much on their labor lieutenants to “hold the line” against the workers. That is why they want a national service law as an additional weapon to prevent the labor movement from regaining its independence of action.

Division Among the Capitalists

The division among the capitalists over the May-Bailey bill reflects a conflict of interest between different sections of the employing class. Conflicts of interest exist between agriculture and industry, commercial and industrial capital, between “essential” and “non-essential” industry, etc. This clash was revealed some time ago in the dispute over reconversion policies which was resolved by the removal of Donald Nelson as head of the War Production Board and the consolidation of military control over production. Many employers, zealous of their prerogatives, fear the too great concentration of power in the hands of a military caste. Business Week (January 20, 1945) reports:

“Civilian officials admit privately that the generals are having things all their own way. Byrnes (Director of War Mobilization and Reconversion) taking on operating responsibilities for the first time has thrown his weight on the side of the military. His deputy for war production is not a civilian but an army officer – Maj. Gen. Lucius Clay, formerly director of procurement for the Army Service Forces, one of the strongest and most impassioned advocates of the military viewpoint.”

The military bureaucracy, on the other hand, are determined to retain control over “reconversion” policies.

“With materials destined to be more plentiful after V-E Day, WPB priority control would lose its potency. At that point, it would be an easier job to control the economy through manpower.” (Business Week, January 13, 1945)

It is significant that the greatest employer opposition was directed against the provision giving the brass hats direct control over manpower. These capitalists insisted that the existing instruments of compulsion were adequate to control labor and asked “only” that these instruments be sharpened and made more effective.

The attitude of the capitalist opposition to the May-Bailey bill was summed up in a letter to the NY Times, written by Ira Mosher, President of the National Association of Manufacturers.

“The NAM program requires more effective functioning of the existing WMC machinery and regulations. It requires adequate statutory authority for the MWC respecting the establishment of employment ceilings in all industries, the use of controlled referrals and compulsory releases. It calls for immediate application of the work-or-fight principle, within the present framework of the Selective Service authority and machinery.”

The NAM program thus calls for tightening the drastic job freeze decrees issued by Roosevelt and their rigid enforcement. It asks that the War Manpower Commission be granted statutory authority by Congress to strengthen its power to apply “legal” compulsion. Under the hypocritical guise of defending “voluntary” labor, this employers’ association presents a plan for perpetuating and extending the system of forced-labor-by-executive-decree which Roosevelt has put into effect over the past three years.

The labor bureaucrats of the AFL and CIO have endorsed the NAM program. These treacherous skates have step by step paved the way for reaction by voluntarily agreeing to the surrender of labor’s rights. Functioning as labor lieutenants of the capitalist class, they have joined the conspiracy against their own rank and file.

“From the outset the labor bureaucrats proceeded to prove by word and deed, how indispensable they are in harnessing the workers to the chariot of war. They declared a moratorium on labor’s right to strike. They espoused the policy of compulsory arbitration. They installed labor representatives on the employer-dominated War Labor Board – thereby lending their prestige to the anti-labor actions of the WLB. They accepted and circulated Roosevelt’s counterfeit ‘stabilization’ promises as good coin; they acquiesced in the freezing of wages; and as part of the War Manpower Commission’s ‘labor-management’ committee they shared the responsibility for the job freeze.” (Resolution of Socialist Workers Party on The US and the Second World War.)

The Labor Bureaucrats

After rendering yeoman’s service in helping to strait-jacket the unions, the labor fakers now join with the employers in urging a “compromise” manpower bill which would extend the job freeze after “V-E Day.” If this “compromise” measure is adopted, the labor skates can be counted on to make the welkin ring with shouts of “victory.” Every time the bureaucrats win one of their “victories” the labor movement loses part of its shirt. While these trade union officials seek to cover their treachery by effecting a rotten compromise on the question of forced labor, the Stalinists openly avow their support of every union-smashing, strike-breaking, slave labor measure advanced by the political and military agents of Wall Street. The Stalinist traitors function as the very spearhead of reaction inside labor’s ranks.

The drive for additional measures of labor repression to be applied after Germany is defeated completely exposes the fraud of Roosevelt’s “peace, security and jobs-for-all” program in the “post-war” period. If capitalism could guarantee a decent standard of living for the masses on the basis of “peacetime” production it would have no need of strengthening its machinery of repression. But decaying capitalism, it is clear, cannot mitigate the class antagonisms; it can only sharpen them. It cannot raise, or even maintain, the present

standard of living but must drive the living standards of the workers to ever lower levels.

The resolution of the SWP on The US and the Second World War points out this precise tendency:

“The colossal war expenditures will raise the national debt of the United States above the astronomical figure of $300-billion. This unprecedented debt is accelerating the process of inflation. The cost of living continues to rise, additional and more burdensome taxes are imposed on the masses, the workers’ standard of living is depressed to ever lower levels. Despite the favored position of the United States the war will have a ruinous effect on American economic life. Unemployment, that capitalist-bred social plague, will scourge the land. The arch-reactionary measures of repression against the labor movement adopted under the pretext of war necessity will be extended to the ‘post-war’ period. The drive toward totalitarian rule will continue under the demand for a ‘strong’ government in Washington.”

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