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Sylvia Merrill

American Labor in the Last World War

Epidemic of Strike Struggles
Followed the War Armistice

(16 March 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 11, 16 March 1942, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The frenzied crowds that surged through the streets on November 11, 1918, were less moved by the thrill of victory than the immense feeling of relief that “it was all over at last.” Ever since the summer of 1914 they had lived under the black shadow, which touched every phase of life. Now the pall had been lifted and all the pent-up hopes, hates, ambitions, broke loose like a flood-tide.

Labor had found itself more and more ham-strung by the War Labor Boards and the whole war-making machinery of the government. It was forced to accept an occasional hand-out in the form of a wage increase while prices sky-rocketed. Labor had only one desire. To make up for its, sacrifices, to win something for itself out of the victory for which it had paid so dearly. Walk into any labor hall during those hectic post-war months. The air was filled with talk of strikes, closed shop, the Plumb Plan, government ownership, general strike, syndicalism, Russia, and a new day for the working man.

The hard-boiled employers who formed the policy making bodies of the National Association of Manufacturers, the Iron and Steel Institute and the National Chamber of Commerce had likewise chafed under the restraints made necessary by the war. To avoid “trouble” with labor they had been forced to handle it with silk gloves. Here and there they had to make concessions. Worst of all was the fact that the AFL had greatly increased its membership.

With the war over, the employers were impatient to do away with all the clap-trap about collective bargaining, mediation, etc.

Walk into any rich men’s club at the time and the air was heavy with denunciations of Bolshevism, unionism, IWWism, Wilson liberalism and the need of “putting labor, Negroes and Jews in their place.” In the smaller towns their views were put into action by the growing legions of the Ku Klux Klan.

Attempt to Salvage

The American workers attempted to salvage something from the war, but the attitude of the “brass hats” and industrialists was hostile. The hostility with which they fought labor can only be present in a group of people who fear something. They feared a labor movement that might seek to emulate the specter of Europe, Bolshevism.

The workers struck. They wanted a 48-hour-week, eight-hour-day and collective bargaining. But the great open shop offensive was on. The employers were out to smash the unions.

In January 1919, New York harbor workers, 17,000 strong, struck for the eight-hour day. Wilson was at the Versailles Peace Conference and he asked the War Labor Board to intervene. Union officials told the workers to go back to work. Once at work the board offered them even less than the bosses had been ready to give. They struck a second time but again the union officials forgot that “united we stand, divided we fall.” One section was urged to make a separate agreement. They did, and in actuality returned to work as scabs. That was the end of waterfront organization for quite a time.

Lawrence, Mass., was the scene of a bloody battle. The workers asked for a 48-hour week. The American Woolen Co. said sure, but six hours less pay. The slogan of a 48-hour week with 54 hours pay was adapted and 32,000 went out on strike.

The American Labor Year Book said:

“The strikers, the general strike committee (which we will deal with later) and the leaders who came to help, suffered from every form of vilification and persecution. Newspaper hostility, citizen committees, police brutalities, denial of open air meetings even on private property, paid spies in the strike committee and among the people, attempts to frame up the leaders and finally the use of lynch law by masked vigilantes upon two of the strike leaders.”

The whole labor movement, however, backed up the strikers, and after sixteen weeks they won.

How many workers must have remembered the war for democracy in those years of the Palmer raids and the brutal policy of the capitalists out to break labor?

The Great Steel Strike

Then came the great strike in steel – that citadel of the open shop. “The failure of this strike,” boasted G.B. Clarkson, spokesman for employers, in his Industrial America in the World War, “was the death blow to Bolshevism in America and stimulated chauvinism among employees.”

The steel workers asked only the most elementary human rights achieved by other unions. Their strike vote was almost unanimous and the organizing committee requested a conference with U.S. Steel. Judge Gary, who sat on Baruch’s War Industries Board, and who had no great love for labor, was the head of U.S. Steel. He openly stated, that “our corporations and subsidiaries decline to discuss business with them (the unions).”

Gompers asked Wilson to call a conference of both sides. But Wilson did nothing and the steel companies began to discharge people. The unions had to do something. They told Wilson this, but he said he couldn’t get a joint conference and that they must hold off the strike. They struck after several delays and a bloody battle ensued.

One of America’s most powerful industries was out to teach the labor movement a “lesson.” By relying on its treasury, swollen with war profits, steel used every known device to break this strike. It was a decisive defeat for the labor movement and called forth a renewed offensive against labor by the open shoppers.

Miners Pitch In, Too

The United Mine Workers struck during the course of the steel strike. This strike was smashed by a most vicious injunction. On the eve of the strike the courts issued a temporary restraining order against all officers of the UMW. The injunction restricted the UMW officials from in any way counseling, aiding or being in any way connected with the strike. The labor fakers were no longer needed by the government and they were slightly bewildered by what was happening. Gompers issued a statement saying:

“It is almost inconceivable that a government which is proud of its participation in a great war to liberate suppressed people should now undertake to suppress the legitimate aims, hopes and aspirations of a group of its own people.”

Despite the injunction, nearly half a million workers went on strike. This was answered by a permanent injunction. It gave the union officers 72 hours to rescind the strike order. The strike was lost. The forces against the strike were great and included the union officialdom, who declared: “You can’t strike against the government.”

The big strikes in coal and steel found their repercussions in numerous industries and crafts, among them the railway shopmen’s strike, which was broken by one of the most vicious injunctions in labor history.

We see from, the foregoing that labor, during the war, was exhorted to stay on the job, not to fight for higher wages, not to worry about union recognition and the closed shop. When the war was over, reaction ruled and the worker now felt the brute force of the American ruling class which was determined that the unions should not gain a foothold. One can echo Gompers on this score by asking why is it that whenever this capitalist nation sets out to “save democracy” somewhere, it begins and ends by suppressing the rights of the workers at home?

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