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David Coolidge

WLB Steel Decree Is Slap at Labor!

Rejects $1-Day Pay Boost – Would ‘Stabilize’ Labor’s Living Standard at Low Level

(27 July 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 30, 27 July 1942, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Philip Murray and other CIO leaders were given a slap in the face last week by the War Labor Board when the employer and “public” members refused to grant the demands of the steel union for a dollar a day increase in pay. This was the reward Murray, Thomas, the Stalinists and others received for their willingness to give up Saturday and Sunday “premium” pay, the strike and other gains that labor had wrested from the bosses over a period of years.

In place of the dollar a day increase the WLB granted the steelworkers 44 cents a day or 5½ cents an hour. They also granted the check-off and a maintenance of membership provision. Bethlehem Steel was instructed to terminate its piecework wage trickery and to institute a minimum hourly wage of 78 cents. It has been the custom of Bethlehem in the past to have an hourly rate and a piece rate which was known as “tonnage.” This system was so complicated and crazy that no one could understand it except the corporation’s accountants and payroll “experts.”

As is usual in such decisions the WLB took a lot of space to give its analysis of the situation and to explain its reasons, motives and ideas. (It is better to say that the eight non-labor members of the board made the decision. The four labor members dissented unanimously.)

The vice-chairman, Dr. George W. Taylor, representing “the public,” rendered the decision. He laid down what he called “principles.” In brief they were:

1. From January 1941 to May 1942 the cost of living increased about 15 per cent. If any workers have received less than a 15 per cent increase in hourly rate of pay for this period “their peacetime standards have been broken.” That is, they can’t eat as much now as they could before January, 1941. But if they have received an average 15 per cent increase then their “established peacetime standards have been preserved.” That is, they can live in the same shack they lived in before, wear the same old clothes and buy the same amount of food, even though it wasn’t enough.

The word “established,” as used by the board, is very interesting. By the use of this word the board attempts to dodge the question of the workers’ peacetime standard of living. No matter how low the wages of the steel workers were in peacetime, this is to be taken as the standard in deciding on an increase. The workers lived in shacks and hovels before January 1941. The board therefore is only concerned that they hold on to these shacks and do not have to move into the streets or into the trees.

2. Any workers “whose peacetime standards have been preserved” can only get an increase from the board if they can prove that there are “inequalities” and sub-standard conditions “specifically referred to in the President’s message of April 21, 1942.”

This of course is extremely vague. What are these “inequalities” and “sub-standard conditions?” The board pointed out one such inequality which it says served as a guide, namely, that the cost of living in steel towns had risen faster than in the country as a whole. That is, if pork chops increased ten cents a pound in New York and twelve cents a pound in Buffalo-Lackawanna, then says the board, it is clear that the workers in Buffalo-Lackawanna should have a greater increase in wages than the workers in New York.

Peacetime Standards!

This doesn’t prove of course that the workers in New York or Buffalo will be able to buy pork chops. As far as the WLB is concerned, there is to be no real increase in the standard of living, no increase in REAL wages. The point that guides the board is that the incomes must be about the same in purchasing power. It isn’t fair, says the board, for the workers in New York to be able to buy five pounds of meat a week while the workers in Buffalo-Lackawanna have money only for four and a half pounds. The fact that five pounds may not be enough for the New York worker’s family is beside the point: the aim of the WLB, following Roosevelt, is to stabilize (freeze) wages; to equalize misery and want among the workers.

3. “Those groups whose peacetime standards have been broken are en-titled to have these standards reestablished as a stabilizing factor.” That is, if a Bethlehem or Republic Steel worker is about to be evicted from one of the hovels they occupy in South Buffalo or Lackawanna, the board wants to make it possible for the workers to keep these shacks. They are absolutely against the workers setting up housekeeping in the alleys, the public parks, the relief stations or in the homes of the rich. But on the little matter of getting enough wages to move into a BETTER house, to buy MORE and BETTER food or to get some NEW clothing for the wife and kids, the board is as silent as a graveyard after dark. That is, the board is silent on the “five principles.” Dr. Taylor, however, does have something to say on this question in explaining the “reasons” for the decision.

“Equality of Sacrifice”

Dr. Taylor (who, we remind workers, represents something called “the public”) explains that “labor’s sacrifice, necessary for stabilizing our domestic economy, has been clearly set forth. For the duration of the war organized labor is expected to forego its quest for an increasing share of the national income.”

By whom has it been “clearly set forth” that labor should make sacrifices “necessary for the stabilizing of our domestic economy?” This demand on the working class has only been made by the bosses, Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, Willkie and the Republican Party, and a few $20,000 a year labor leaders who are closer to Roosevelt-Willkie and the bosses than they are to the ranks of labor. Why should labor want to stabilize “our domestic economy”? Yes, we are for a “stabilized economy,” but NOT an economy stabilized on the basis of capitalist injustice. To agree to the stabilization of “our domestic economy,” in Taylor’s sense, means to agree to the continuation of capitalism, imperialism and imperialist war. In the words of a Bethlehem Steel worker, any worker who agrees to this “needs to have his head examined.”

To agree to any such stabilization is to agree to low wages, long hours, undernourishment, poverty, disease, ignorance and a tumble-down shack as a permanent dwelling place.

Who expects labor to “forego its quest for an increasing share of the national income” for the “duration of the war”? Roosevelt and Willkie? Naturally; that’s understandable. The bosses? Of course: the more the workers “forego,” the less the bosses will have to “forego.” Murray and Green? Green is difficult to discuss. We agree with John L. Lewis, who said that he explored Bill Green’s mind for ten years and didn’t find anything there. But Murray and Thomas and other CIO leaders want “equality of sacrifice.” The War Labor Board has just given the steel workers a good big dose of the board’s conception of “equality of sacrifice.” Of course that wasn’t what Murray and Thomas meant. They want the bosses to be limited to incomes of not over $25,000 a year. That’s their idea of “equality of sacrifice.”

Tom Girdler got $3,384 a week from Republic Steel last year and Eugene Grace got $7,211 from Bethlehem Steel. The CIO leaders say that Grace, Girdler and the other big bosses should be cut to $480 a week. Then you raise the steel workers’ pay to around $42 a week (which the WLB didn’t do), keep it there, and behold: “equality of sacrifice!”

On far less than $480 a week Grace and Girdler can buy enough steak and potatoes for a family of fifty. They will have a sizable sum left for whiskey, furs and golf. But the steel family of five on $42 a week will have nothing left and will find itself with an increasing burden of debt.

The “stabilization” program of Roosevelt, the bosses and the War Labor Board and the “equality of sacrifice” of Murray and Thomas will produce only equality of misery and poverty among the workers, and higher salaries and dividends for the bosses.

In an article next week we will discuss how this decision affects the workers and the unions and some things that we can do.

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