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David Coolidge

Steel Convention Leaves Basic Problems Unsolved

(1 June 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 22, 1 June 1942, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

CLEVELAND – The convention of the United Steel Workers of America is over and the delegates have returned to their locals to report on what went on while they were legislating for 600,000 organized steel workers. It would be interesting to hear what these 1,700 delegates will report: not only their formal report but what they’ll say “off the record.”

Furthermore, it would be interesting to discover what the rank and file steel workers think of the convention which made rules and regulations for governing them.

Perhaps the mass of the steel workers are not doing much thinking these days. There is reason to believe that the majority of the delegates did not do much serious thinking on the important issues before them. Quite often many of them demonstrated an alarming intolerance toward the bolder delegates who wanted to have a frank discussion on some of the things that press heavily on the steel workers.

Difficult for Worker to Dissent

It is difficult for the ordinary worker at the steel convention to get anywhere with a dissenting opinion. The leadership has its plans well organized. They come to the convention with commitments already made to Roosevelt, Donald Nelson and other high government officials. The no-strike agreement; the agreement to give up “premium pay” for Sundays, Saturdays and holidays; the establishment of the management-labor committees had already been agreed to by the top leadership long before the steel workers’ convention.

These commitments were made by Murray, Green and other labor leaders without consulting the workers in their respective organizations. The ranks of labor had no say about these agreements. Theirs was simply to gather in convention and clap their approval of what was really an accomplished fact.

This made the steel convention a dull and stereotyped affair. Aside from the necessity to come together to adopt the new constitution, the convention was a waste of time and money. It was important to get the constitution; it was important to go through the formality of setting up an international. But what happens in the future will depend largely on the rank and file membership.

Convention Worse Than That of UAW

The last UAW conference, where the automobile workers adopted the “ten-point program,” was bad enough, but this steel convention was worse. At least at the UAW conference there was spirited discussion on giving up overtime pay for Sundays and the question of labor sacrifice and the bosses’ profit-grabbing, but here most of the talking was done by Murray and the other officials on the platform.

I have never heard Murray make so many “speeches in the period of a short four-day convention. He was always faking the floor to “explain,” to “clear away confusion” and to “clarify the minds of the delegates.” The reason that the steel convention found itself in this dilemma should be clear to any worker who has followed the degeneration of the CIO since its convention last November.. A delegate to the UAW “Victory Through Equality of Sacrifice” conference in April hit the nail on the head when he said: “In Buffalo last August we elected our officers to negotiate for us, but they have been negotiating with oar enemies against us.” This is really what is going, on today throughout the CIO.

What Is Phil Murray’s Role

Does this mean that Murray and the other leaders in the CIO and its affiliated internationals are “betrayers” of labor in the sense that the Stalinists used to make this charge, before they climbed on the patriotic bandwagon at. the command of Stalin? No, it doesn’t mean this. It is not so simple as that. What it does mean is that Murray, Thomas and the other CIO leaders have ceased to have any independent position as labor leaders. Today the CIO leadership is indistinguishable from Green, Tobin and the AFL leaders.

It means that the pressing problems of the CIO workers are given second place to matters for which labor has no direct responsibility. For the duration of the war, at least, Murray has abdicated the leadership of labor and turned it over to Roosevelt, Nelson and the War Labor Board. This means that the leadership of labor has been turned over to the bosses; because it is the bosses who man the various government boards, who pull the strings in Congress and who control the government.

The Real Issues Before the Steel Workers

This becomes very clear when one considers concretely the deliberations of this convention. What were the important questions that came before the convention or that should have been before the convention? They were: The union shop, the Little Steel cases, the demand for a $1.00 a day increase in wages, completing the organization of the industry and putting the union on a better dues-paying basis, the so-called “premium pay” for Sundays, the adoption of a constitution and election of officers.

This was enough to occupy a convention of 1,700 delegates for two weeks if there was to be adequate discussion from the floor. This convention was in session only four and a half days. But a large part of this time was consumed in speech-making and other ceremonial frippery that one has become accustomed to associate with AFL conventions that usually go on for a minimum of two weeks. There was the usual address of welcome by the mayor and the reply by the chairman. These were speeches that were no more than window dressing.

What is more fundamental, however, is the deeper reasons that this convention could not tackle the main problems in a forthright manner. A channel had already been cut for the convention to operate in. That channel was blind, obedient, unqualified and unquestioning support of the war. Murray again and again impressed on the convention that it was the winning of the war that was put first and all-important. Murray and the CIO leaders, under the blandishments of Roosevelt, say to CIO labor that it is the workers who really have the main responsibility for winning the war. And so they talk about “victory through equality of sacrifice,” and the steel workers promoting winning the war “through the promotion of national unity.”

All of the speeches were concerned with telling labor that we must sacrifice and how much depends on the willingness of labor to sacrifice. There is no need for Murray continually to be saying that he supports the country in the war and he supports Roosevelt. No one can possibly have any doubt on this point. But Murray seems to be afraid that he will be looked upon as one not sufficiently patriotic. And so at one point in his discussion of the demanded wage increase he remarked:

“Now might I have you understand before I sit down and particularly the newspapers understand, that there is no griping, grasping selfish desire prompting the officers of this organization to seek this so-called wage increase. We are merely attempting to acquire for the people that we are privileged to represent a proper, equitable readjustment of their living conditions, having in mind that as we go down the road, the long, weary road of war, that of necessity each of us, all of us, will have to make sacrifices to bring about this expeditious, very speedy winning of the war.”

To Whom Is Murray Apologizing?

This is Murray’s round-about way of saying that the steel workers should have an increase in wage’s. He wants a “readjustment” in the living conditions of the workers but he doesn’t want anybody, especially the capitalist press, to get the idea that the officers of the CIO are “griping” or “grasping.”

This is the same fear that has been manifested by these leaders all along. It was evident at the UAW conference. There they wanted to do everything possible to prove to Congress and its bosses in Wall Street and the National Association of Manufacturers that labor will not be unreasonable, that the working class is prepared to take the first step in making sacrifices.

The report of the wage-scale committee was just as apologetic. “The dollar a day is not a wage increase but a wage adjustment,” says the committee. “It is a partial replenishment of the losses in real wages suffered by the steel workers through rising living costs during the last 14 months.” What hifalutin’ nonsense!

The steel workers are miserably underpaid. They have the lowest wages of any of the major groups in in the war industries. This is traditional in the steel industry. What the steel workers want is more money in their pay envelopes. Of course the cost of living has gone up and is still going up. Profits are going up and the salaries of the big shots in steel are being quietly boosted while Murray and the wage-scale committee are talking about “replenishment.”

This was the tone that the leaders set for the convention right at the start. This made it impossible for the convention to come to grips with the real situation, with the real problems of the steel workers. The leaders were afraid that they would be accused of “griping” and “grasping.” Afraid they would be accused of standing up like real labors and fighting for more of the billions in wealth that labor is producing today!

A Very Dangerous Resolution

Many of the resolutions could have been written in the White House or in the offices of the big steel companies. The resolution on Labor and the War declared, among other things, that “the United Steel Workers of America pledges itself to the continued drive to rout out of our national life defeatists, disrupters and fomenters of disunity ... and the United Steel Workers of America calls upon the government to take aggressive action against such elements.” There was no word as to whom they are going to “rout out” or just what people they want the government to take “aggressive action against.” Some day this section of this resolution will rise to crucify some steel workers who may try to get “a proper, equitable readjustment of their living conditions”!

There were resolutions on “economic policy,” “political action” and “victory in the peace.” All of these resolutions were weak in that they had almost nothing to say about the way the bosses are conducting themselves. There was no criticism of Roosevelt’s “seven-point program” and his demand for the “stabilization of wages.” There was no vigorous defense of labor and its rights. Everything was pushed into the pro-war, pro-Roosevelt mold that had been fabricated before the convention by the leadership.

It never seemed to occur to anybody that immense profits are being made by the bosses out of the war and that it would be only proper for labor to demand a larger share of this wealth. Every reference to the just demands of labor was couched in weasel words as though the workers were responsible for the “treason” of Standard Oil of New Jersey and the alliance of General Electric with the Hitler electric trust.

How They “Honored” Labor’s Martyrs

Grimly ironical was the passing of a resolution’ on “labor martyrs.” The convention was meeting 50 years after the murder of the steel workers by government troops and the connivance of government officials. It was ironical because this convention demonstrated none of the fighting spirit of the Homestead martyrs but complete capitulation: to the bosses and their government.

The convention was a gathering of steel workers but it was Roosevelt’s convention. Philip Murray appeared there as the chief labor lieutenant of Roosevelt. This means in very simple language that Murray was there as the negotiator for the boss class, working in its interests, doing its will, holding labor in check, chaining it to the Second World Imperialist War, piling burdens on the back of labor that the working class will only be able to remove by long, determined and uphill struggles.

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