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Tom Kerry

Labor Leaders and the ‘White Backlash’

(Fall 1964)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.4, Fall 1964, pp.100-104.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The so-called “white backlash” was a prime subject of discussion at the recent AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Chicago following the Republican Party convention which nominated Barry Gold-water as its presidential candidate. Gold water’s bid for the racist vote in northern industrial areas, as well as in the Dixiecrat South, stirred the top labor brass into consideration of ways and means of combatting the “backlash” among white union members. Their major concern was to ensure the election of their “friend” Lyndon Baines Johnson, Democratic nominee. The interests of the workers, white or black, was a secondary consideration.

The “backlash” among white workers, as the union tops saw it, was all the result of a misunderstanding. It seems they had been deceived into voting for the unspeakable racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, in his Democratic Party presidential primary campaign, by being deliberately misled into believing that the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would result in replacing white workers with Negroes.

The union heads hastened to reassure the white workers that it just wasn’t so: That the Civil Rights Act would involve no fundamental alteration in the pattern of hiring, firing and upgrading under which the black worker is the last hired and first fired; under which labor with a black skin will still do the hardest, dirtiest and lowest paying work – if and when they can get it. That there would be no preferential consideration given black workers to compensate for centuries of discriminatory employment practices. That the two-to-one unemployment ratio would continue to prevail – with twice as many Negroes unemployed as against whites. Outside of a few paltry crumbs the Civil Rights Act would involve no real change in the employment pattern. This, in essence, is the sum total of the campaign envisioned by the labor bureaucrats to appease the “white backlash.” [1]

Rally for the Democrats

In furtherance of their campaign the union heads have called a civil rights conference immediately following the Democratic Party convention – in which some 250 union functionaries will sit as delegates – to discuss the “implementation” of the Civil Rights Act. In reality the conference will serve as a sounding-board and rally for the Johnson-Humphrey ticket. The union leaders hope, reports the New York Times of August 4, “that the meeting will also serve as a forum in which white backlash sentiment can be counteracted. For example,” the article adds, “the federation will show that the Civil Rights Act does not require white workers to be laid off to make room for Negroes – an erroneous interpretation of the law that has gained currency among white workers.”

A “showing” by the AFL-CIO heads that the Civil Rights Act “does not require white workers to be laid off to make room for Negroes,” might mollify some whites – but what about the black workers? This approach is an evasion of the fundamental responsibility of the union leadership. If the problem is viewed simply as a matter of determining how the existing number of jobs shall be shared among the component sectors of the working population, no amount of “education” can mitigate the conflict. Despite three years of economic boom there are not enough jobs to go around. With the acceleration of automation the total number of jobs will diminish. Increased competition between workers for an ever diminishing number of jobs can only exacerbate the clash, not only between white and black worker, but between employed and unemployed, young and old, male and female, etc., etc. Along this road the labor movement is doomed!

Real Program for Labor

The Transition Program of the Fourth International, drafted by Leon Trotsky and adopted by the Founding Conference of the Fourth International in 1938, taking cognizance of this tendency, warned against its dangers and offered a solution. It reads:

“Under the menace of its own disintegration, the proletariat cannot permit the transformation of an increasing section of the workers into chronically unemployed paupers, living off the slops of a crumbling society. The right to employment is the only serious right left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation. This right today is being shorn from him at every step. Against unemployment, ‘structural’ as well as ‘conjunctural,’ the time is ripe to advance, along with the slogan of public works, the slogan of a sliding scale of hours. Trade union and other mass organizations should bind the workers and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual responsibility. On this basis all the work on hand would then be divided among all existing workers in accordance with how the extent of the working week is defined. The average wage of every worker remains the same as it was under the old working week. Wages, under a strictly guaranteed minimum, would follow the movement of prices. It is impossible to accept any other program for the present catastrophic period ...” (Emphasis in original.)

If in 1938 “the time was ripe” to advance the demand for a sliding scale of wages and hours it is rotten ripe today. The sliding scale of wages was popularized in this country as the “escalator clause” providing an automatic increase in wages in line with the rising cost of living. The popular version of the sliding scale of hours is the demand of 30 for 40, i.e., a thirty-hour week at forty hours pay.

It is in the tradition of the American union movement to seek a reduction of the work week as a means of combatting unemployment. The militant struggle for the eight-hour day in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century comprises one of the glorious chapters in American labor history. During the labor upsurge of the 1930’s a number of unions fought for and won the 30-hour week. A number of unions today have succeeded in reducing hours below the standard 40-hour work week, mostly in the skilled trades. But these exceptions constitute only a very small minority of the working class.

Bureaucratic Subservience

What now cripples the struggle for the shorter work week is the slavish subservience of the union bureaucrats to the capitalist politicians of the Democratic Party. Shortly after the election of “their” candidate, John F. Kennedy, the AFL-CIO tops sponsored a bill in Congress calling for the reduction of the work week to 35 hours. No one took them seriously. Kennedy had come out against the proposal for a reduction in hours with no reduction in pay even before he was elected.

When Johnson took office after the assassination of Kennedy he seized upon the occasion of his State of the Union Message, Jan. 8, to repudiate publicly the demand for the 35-hour week. “I believe the enactment of a 35-hour week,” he declared, “would invite inflation, would impair our ability to compete and merely share instead of creating employment.” Instead he proposed the establishment of a committee – a typical Johnson device for sweeping such problems under the rug – to “determine on an industry-by-industry basis as to where a higher penalty rate for overtime would increase job openings without unduly increasing costs, and authorizing the establishment of such higher rates.” (Emphasis added)

George Meany

George Meany

The 35-hour bill got short shrift in Congress – it was not even considered. This did not deter AFL-CIO president George Meany from going through the motions of submitting the proposal to recent Republican and Democratic convention platform drafting committees for consideration by the delegates. Both platforms studiously ignored the proposal. It did not even occur to the 250 union functionaries sitting as Democratic Party delegates to question the omission. However, they were thrown a bone in the form of a platform plank providing that:

“Overtime payment requirements must be increased to assure maximum employment consistent with business efficiency.” (Emphasis added.)

Even this meaningless gesture had previously provoked the New York Times into voicing editorial alarm.

“This proposal,” a July 27 editorial declares, “is no more realistic than organized labor’s demand for reducing the work week, which the Administration has rightly rejected. Increasing overtime pay from one and a half to double time would greatly increase costs, leading to a shrinkage in profit margins and cutbacks in production.” Then comes the clincher: “It would accelerate the introduction of automation ...”

Effect of Shorter Work Week

The view that the demand for a shorter work week with no reduction in take-home pay would be self-defeating because it would accelerate automation and increase unemployment is not confined to such obvious spokesmen for Big Business as the New York Times. It has been echoed by a variety of pundits ranging from economic commentators specializing in analytical studies of the social effects of automation to the Social Democrats and liberals. In the past period the advance of technology through the acceleration of automation and cybernation has resulted in a significant rise in labor productivity. The main beneficiaries have been the capitalist owning class whose “profit margins” have soared to stratospheric heights.

But the legal work week has remained relatively stable under the Wages and Hours Act adopted in 1938. Wage increases in the past few years, during a period when automated processes have been introduced on a wide scale and at a rapid pace, have been lower than in any postwar period. Unemployment has remained frozen at an (official) average of five percent throughout the boom period. Fewer and fewer workers are turning out ever greater quantities of commodities. Yet, even the hint that workers are entitled to share in the increased productivity of labor through a reduction in the work week, calls forth a stern rebuke and ominous warning: desist or you will be automated out of your job!

The implication is that if workers would exercise restraint they can somehow escape the massive replacement of men by machines which the advent of automation has brought in its wake. But that is precisely what has been happening under the present legal work week of forty hours. These admonitions and warnings calling upon the workers to refrain from pressing their demand for shorter hours and better pay are really nothing new. Since the dawn of the capitalist mode of production and exchange, employers have always raised the specter of dire catastrophe if hours of labor were reduced and wages raised. Yet, something new has been advanced.

Cybernation Utopia

To the clamor of the profit hogs and their pen prostitutes has been added the siren song of the prophets of the future cybernated social order. As against the demand for a shorter work week they advance the vision of a cybernated economic system in which only a relatively small handful of workers will be required to operate an automated machinery capable of producing a superabundance of all requisite commodities. Under this order, they argue, the wages system would become obsolete. Work would of necessity, have to be separated from income, for there would otherwise not be enough purchasers for the ever increasing product of the cybernated machine. To avoid total collapse, they contend, it will be necessary to provide a guaranteed income for all without regard to who actually performs the little work involved.

Most of these experts do a useful service in criticising and exposing the utter insanity of the present “free enterprise system.” Their analysis of the possibilities of abundance for all under a rational system of distribution of the product of modern technology serves to buttress the socialist critique of the capitalist system – that under capitalism, goods and services are produced, not to meet the needs of the people, but for profit. There can be no argument against the proposition that given time and an uninterrupted development of the tendencies inherent in the “cybernation revolution,” the amount of labor required to produce an economy of abundance could be reduced to a minimal quantity.

But the development does not take place in a vacuum. Nor can the question of time be dismissed as an unimportant factor. In addition to economics there is politics. And in politics time is of the essence. Even if it is presumed that the development takes place under ideal conditions, abstracting from the contradictions inherent in the private ownership of the means of production and distribution, a considerable span of time would be required to reach the stage envisioned. Meanwhile, millions of workers are unemployed and the number must continue to grow granted the fact that automation is displacing more and more workers. However, the problem of jobs is crucial to the struggle for Negro equality now! One-fifth of the nation does exist below the poverty level now. The mounting number of youth entering the labor force each year are not and cannot be content with the vision of a cybernated Utopia sometime in the distant future – they demand jobs now! These are the facts of social life that impinge upon the consciousness of the workers now employed. For among them, even the relatively privileged enjoying the protection of seniority rights, are haunted by the feeling of insecurity; of the constant fear of being automated out of their jobs. This is the real source of the “backlash” that pits one section of the workers against another and for which the American labor bureaucrats bear a direct responsibility.

Against Shorter Work Week

While it is readily apparent why the employers oppose the shorter work week it is difficult to understand the opposition of the liberal cybernation experts, among whom Robert Theobald ranks as one of the more advanced thinkers on the subject. Writing one of his major contributions in a special issue of The Nation, (May 11, 1963) Theobald observes that:

“Since World War II, the unions have ritualistically demanded a shorter workweek, but there has been little real drive behind the demand.”

He then goes on to add:

“In 1962, however, the AFL-CIO decided that one of their primary goals must be the achievement of a thirty-five hour week with no decrease in take-home pay. They argued that this reduction in hours was necessary to spread the available work.

“Unfortunately,” he argues in rebuttal, “such a change in hours would set up secondary effects which could largely prevent the increase in employment it was designed to achieve. There appears to be some evidence that the employer may be able to reschedule work to accomplish the same amount of production, in spite of a reduction in total work hours, without additions to the labor force; and that even if he cannot conveniently reschedule, he will often prefer to pay for overtime than hire more workers. In addition, some of those whose hours are reduced may ‘moonlight,’ that is to say, take a second job. The most important negative effect, however, would result from the fact that each employee who worked shorter hours for the same total pay would receive an effective increase in the amount paid per hour. Higher payments to labor, whatever the method by which they are achieved, tilt the balance further in favor of investment in machinery – thus leading to more emphasis on cybernation and the more rapid elimination of the labor force.” (Emphasis added)

This is an amazing conclusion for a man who insists that it is neither possible nor desirable to place any obstacles in the path of the “cybernation revolution,” which, as he points out in his article “is only beginning.” He is not only against shorter hours but any “higher payments to labor” which would “tilt the balance” by accelerating automation unemployment. The same argument could just as validly be advanced against the present forty-hour week – including the wholly reactionary “moonlight” argument against increased leisure for workers so reminiscent of the attitude of the parasitic exploiting class.

It is not the question of “leisure” which concerns us here, important as it is, but of advancing such demands as would serve to unify the working class against the disintegrating effects of capitalist exploitation. Although he should know better, Theobald proceeds on the assumption that the demand for a 35-hour week is a static demand, incapable of meeting the problem of a dynamic technological process – cybernation. The number 35 is no more final and fixed than the number 40 now generally in effect, nor the number 48 that preceded it, or the number 56 that had earlier been fixed as the standard work week.

Program for Labor Unity

The slogan of the sliding scale of hours as quoted above from the Transition Program of the Fourth International, is a dynamic demand. It means that for every increase in the productivity of labor which results in the displacement of workers by automated machine production there is a corresponding reduction of hours.

It is estimated that today with a 30-hour week long term unemployment would be eliminated. If this leads to an acceleration of automation, so be it. So long as the workers could find employment at reduced hours automation would not be viewed as a curse but welcomed as a boon. By incorporating the concept of the sliding scale of hours in the union contract – just as today a number of unions have incorporated in their contracts the sliding scale of wages (escalator clause) to protect the workers standard of living against the constantly rising cost of living – hours of work would be adjusted to the increased productivity of labor with no reduction in pay.

To those who advance the argument that the reduction of hours will be self-defeating because it would increase unemployment by accelerating automation we answer: the advance of technology will continue at an accelerated pace whether or not hours of work are reduced. Experience has already confirmed this fact. Without the protection of the sliding scale of hours, however, unemployment will mount, poverty will become more widespread, competition for a dwindling number of jobs will become more frenzied and fratricidal, the divisions among the working class will deepen, disunity and disintegration of the only progressive class in society will hasten the descent into barbarism.

That is the ineluctable end-product of the present policy of the labor bureaucrats whose whole course was summed up in one succinct phrase by John L. Lewis: Better pay for fewer workers. Ironically, the United Mine Workers union is among the first to experience a menacing “backlash” of unemployed miners against the union, many of them being former union members automated out of their jobs.

Role of Labor Fakers

Theobald is eminently correct in contemptuously dismissing the legislative demand for a 35-hour week of the AFL-CIO brass as a meaningless “ritualistic” exercise in futility. The labor statesmen knew in advance that the Kennedy-Johnson administrations were opposed and said so publicly. The labor fakers made no serious attempt to mobilize the unions for effective struggle around the demand. With rare exceptions the demand has been dropped from union contract negotiations. Subordination to the Democratic Party has rendered the labor statesmen impotent to lead the kind of economic-political struggle required to break the resistance of the employers and their political agents in Washington to the demands for a shorter work week.

When an economic demand becomes generalized and is directed at the government it becomes a political demand. The demand for a shorter work week is fundamental to interests of the working class. Such a demand can be won only by struggle – on both the economic and political arena. On the economic field by the mobilization of the organized power of the unions against the individual employers. On the political arena by the class organization of their own independent labor party. But the current crop of labor statesmen, concerned solely with the preservation of their privileged bureaucratic positions and the pelf and power that come with it, are physically, morally and intellectually incapable of leading such a struggle.

In the struggle for survival the question of leadership is decisive. The so-called “white backlash” is but one of the manifestations of reactionary capitalism in its period of decay. The Negro struggle for Freedom Now is shaking up the whole social structure. While it brings to the surface everything that is vile and reactionary in capitalist society it is planting the seed of a renascent militancy in labor’s ranks fertilized by the threat of automated disemployment. Rising consciousness will give organizational expression to the mood of discontent even now manifested in embryonic form in a number of unions in which dissatisfaction with the policies of the labor brass is mounting. A genuine left wing movement in the unions will place at the top of its list of demands the unifying slogan: a sliding scale of hours to provide jobs for all. Reinforced with the call for an independent labor party and committed to fraternal collaboration with the Negro Freedom Now movement the so-called “white backlash” among workers will become transformed into a united black and white lash to scourge racism, poverty, unemployment and insecurity out of existence along with the social system that breeds these infamies.



1. In a sense, it parallels the line taken by the Dixiecrat supporters of Texas cousin Johnson, who seek to reassure their more benighted compatriots that the Civil Rights measure is no Reconstruction Act and that the occupant of the White House is no foraging Carpetbagger; that it is more shadow than substance, and all it seeks to do is paper over the more ugly manifestations of the Jim Crow system while leaving the white supremacist structure intact.

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