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David Coolidge

Mass Action

(17 September 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 38, 17 September1945, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The hearings of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee on the Wagner-Murray “Full Employment Bill” have called out all of the top labor leaders as well as the representatives of the big employer groups. Probably the most direct and pertinent testimony was presented by John L. Lewis of the UMWA. As is his custom, Lewis really only nibbled at the root of the problem. Lewis told the committee that Congress should and must regulate the hours of work if there is to be full employment in the midst of immense technological development and a “glutted market.”

The problem of unemployment “is indubitably associated with the question of the number of hours and number of days that we operate our production and fabricating plants ...” Should capitalist enterprise go ahead with production on the basis of its increased capacity “the warehouses and shelves will become full and the market will be glutted, because buying power on the part of the population and their ability to consume the products that they buy will not keep pace with the constant increase of productivity. Inconsequence we will be faced with a reaction.”

There is something wrong in the statement quoted above. It incorrect to say that with a great increase in the tempo of capitalist production and with an accompanying lower wage the “population”will not be able to buy, but what does Lewis mean when he says that the “population will not be able to consume the products that they buy” because of the “constant increase of productivity.”

“Glutted Market”?

Does he mean that the orgy of capitalist production will go on so blindly that the people who do buy will have so much on hand that they will not be able to consume their supplies? His use of the expression “glutted market” would give this impression. This is fantastic, and of course not in line with Lewis’ main argument about the reduction of hours. The main problem in connection with increased production is not whether people will be oversupplied but whether or not they will be supplied at all.

Whether or not they are supplied at all depends on the level of wages. If wages are low and there is mass unemployment, production will not go on for long. The rate of production will not increase, .but the rate of unemployment will. This condition cannot be correctly be described as a “glutted market” but rather a condition of no market. Bursting warehouses and bursting banks –that is “glutted” warehouses and banks – do not produce a market. In practice this is determined by full employment, the level of wages and the standard of living.

Lewis calls on the Federal Government to provide for a “reasonable minimum standard of living” through the “adjustment and shortening of the hours of labor ...” This is very vague. Capitalism has its own notions about what is a “reasonable minimum standard of living.” Right now this seems to flutter somewhere between 50 and 75 cents an hour. Lewis wants Congress to fix the minimum wages only. The rest is to be taken care of through collective bargaining, But to leave it this way will get us into difficulties.

Hours and Pay

Lewis is convinced that hours must be reduced. The employers are willing to reduce hours. With a demand for the reduction of hours must go a demand for no reduction in wages. The workers organizations must first describe what the minimum wage should be in order to maintain a genuinely decent standard of living. They should demand that hours be reduced so as to keep the “population” in a job without any reduction in wages or standard of living. To have any meaning this must be done concretely as it has been done by the Workers Party in its Reconversion Program. There the Workers Party calls for “Absorption of all workers thrown into unemployment during reconversion by reduction of the work-week with no reduction in the weekly take-home pay.”

“A job for every worker with a guaranteed minimum annual wage of $2, 500 per year ... A guaranteed annual income to all workers’ families ...” Of course this money must come from somewhere. It it cannot come from industry directly, then the government should conscript the war industries, nationalize the banks, big industrial monopolies, transportation systems and place a100 per cent tax on war profits above 5 per cent on invested capital. These procedures, of course, cannot be left to the present Congress or any capitalist Congress. Production would necessarily have to bender the control of the workers’ committees. The whole working class would need its own labor party as the government to run the country. None of this program can be left to free enterprise.

Neither Lewis nor any of the labor leaders have any program that answers the real needs of the “population, ” Lewis wants to “maintain free enterprise in America.” This is the sore spot and the source of the real bottleneck. “Free enterprise” doesn’t go for full employment, for short hours, high wages. That isn’t the capitalist conception of freedom.

The capitalist conception of freedom and “free enterprise”is high salaries to its corporation officers, high interest and dividend payments; social, political and economic power for the capitalist class and no more to the working class than is necessary to maintain that working force needed in capitalist production at a certain period and under certain conditions. To look at capitalism, including the capitalist government at Washington in any other way, is to give oneself a big dose of opium.

A Good Point

Lewis made an attack on the clause in the bill providing for the payment of “locally prevailing wages, ” This was correct. This clause in the hill only underscores the fact that what this bill really aims at is not a high standard of living for everybody but a minimum standard of living for everybody. It is a“full employment bill, ” but not a high standard of living bill. Lewis said that this clause should be stricken out and “wages fixed through collective bargaining” substituted. In connection with this clause he mentioned specifically the low wages in the South and particularly the “vicious economic exploitation of the Negro race.”

It is correct to insist on collective bargaining in connection with wages, hours and conditions of work. Collective bargaining, however, if it is to produce anything, worthwhile is not something to fight for “in principle’ only. This is particularly important today when the capitalist employers are hell bent forsaking the unions weak and impotent. In fact capitalist society has reached the stage in its degeneration where collective bargaining, if carried on vigorously by organized labor, becomes a millstone around the neck of capitalist profits.

When Lewis mentions the low standard of living in the South, the vicious economic exploitation which goes on there and the demand that wages be settled by collective bargaining, he poses the question of the trade union organization of the South. Before we can have collective bargaining in the South, the workers there must reorganized. They are not today. The millions of agricultural peons and the unskilled urban workers are not organized. The CIO talked about“organizing the South” before the war but did virtually nothing. Lewis can do a far better job for the working class by sending District 50 organizers there than he can by talking before the Senate Committee on Banking and Finance.

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