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A Defense of the Packinghouse Workers’ Demand
for a Cost-of-Living Bonus to Meet Rising Prices

(28 September 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 39, 28 September 1946, p. 2
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Minnesota Labor, Stalinist-controlled organ of the Minnesota State CIO, has stirred up a hornets’ nest with an editorial called, Escalator Trap.

The editorial, published August 23, is a stab-in-the-back at progressive wage demands of a number of CIO unions, particularly the CIO United Packinghouse Workers. The UPWA is currently negotiating for regular adjustable cost-of-living bonuses in addition to higher basic wage rates.

This Stalinist-authored editorial consists of a number of deliberate misrepresentations about the nature and purpose of the cost-of-living bonus and escalator clause.

Typical of progressive union reaction to this Stalinist attack on the packinghouse workers’ demand, was the blistering reply of Frank W. Schultz, president of UPWA Local 8, Austin, Minn., published in the August 30 issue of Minnesota Labor. Schultz expressed the natural indignation of the packinghouse workers that such an attack on their demands should have appeared during their negotiations, in an organ of the CIO.

Two Misrepresentations

The Stalinist attack on such demands as the cost-of-living bonus and the sliding scale of wages is of more than local or passing significance. It is an attempt to provide arguments for the conservative top union leaders, against the most effective form of wage demands now being advanced not only by the packinghouse workers, but by CIO auto, rubber and other unionists.

Since the top union leaders, who oppose any wage fight, will undoubtedly use these arguments provided by the Stalinists, it is Important that these arguments be examined in. their original form and at their very source.

The Stalinist editorial, Escalator Trap, begins with two misrepresentations of how the cost-of-living bonus and escalator clauses would operate.

First, the editorial claims that such demands are a “plan to tie wages to a cost of living index ... compiled by the National Association of Commerce, the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Department of Agriculture.”

As the Stalinist editors well know, the proposals of the packinghouse, rubber and other workers for various forms of the sliding scale of wages specifically provide that wages should not be tied to any indexes of the capitalist government or the employers. The plan of the Akron rubber workers, for instance, would establish a special union, working-farmers’ and consumers’ committee to maintain a dependable cost-of-living index.

Having begun with a misrepresentation – “the fundamental error of tying the wage rates to a disputed cost of living index” – the Stalinist editors pyramid their next falsifications upon the first one. “Such a step,” they said, “is a tacit admission, that the present basic wages are adequate and need never be advanced.”

Here the Stalinist leaders in the Minnesota CIO deliberately confuse two different aspects of the wage question. The fight for higher basic wage scales is primarily to improve the workers’ standard of living. The fight for the cost-of-living bonus or escalator clause is to maintain, during the life of a union contract, the established standard of living. This means the automatic provision of additional wages equal to any rises in the cost of living.

In reopening wage negotiations, the union fights for a higher basic wage, below which the employer may not go during the life of a contract. That is precisely what the CIO packinghouse workers are doing right now. They are demanding increases in the basic wage rates of from 12 cents to more than 22 cents an hour. They are demanding a $1 an hour minimum wage.

At the same time, the UPWA is demanding additional protection. It knows-that fixed wage rates, however high, can be cut indirectly through rising prices. Therefore it also asks that a clause be provided for the paying of a regular bonus, in addition to the regular wages, to be based bn the proportionate rise in living costs as determined by the union.

Such additional protection in no way prevents the union from demanding higher basic wage rates whenever it feels in position to fight for them. In fact, in a period of inflation, workers may hesitate to fight for a fixed increase, knowing it may be “wiped out. very quickly by price rises and that they then might have to strike all over again. But with the cost-of-living bonus or sliding scale of wages, they will be more anxious to fight for higher basic wage rates, knowing that their real wages will be protected against price rises.

The Stalinist editors state as their “clincher” against living-cost bonuses and escalator clauses that these “commit a union to a policy of accepting pay cuts when prices start down.”

It has already been shown that such demands in no way affect the basic wages or demands for higher basic wages. The sliding scale of wages does not permit the employer to cut basic wages. Nor does it prevent the union from fighting for higher basic wages.

Meets Today’s Need

The sliding scale of wages is designed precisely for periods of capitalist inflation. The government and the capitalists keep assuring the workers that prices are “going to go down.”

The workers answer:

“Good, then you should have no fear of giving us a sliding scale of wages. According to your own assurances, what have you to lose? At the same time, we’d like something more than mere assurances – we want a contract providing for automatic rises in wages above the established wage rates – just in case, mind you, prices should go up before our contract expires.”

The Minnesota Labor editorial tries to substitute for the sliding wage scale demand the argument that “all pay raises be made a part of the contract rates of pay” and that contracts provide reopening clauses “for readjustment of the wage structure on 30 days’ notice.”

This is no counterproposal to the sliding wage scale. All raises in basic wage rates are part of the contract rates of pay. Sliding scale clauses are designed merely to protect these rates against rising prices. Nor is there anything that would prevent a union from including a 30-day renegotiation clause in a contract also containing a sliding wage scale. The Stalinists raise these points merely to confuse the issue further – and to make it appear that they, of course, are not against a struggle on the wage front.

The Stalinist editors admit that so far as the capitalist government’s “price stabilization” promises, are concerned, “a fraud has been perpetrated on the American people.” Therefore – they offer as their program that “mass demonstrations” and “buyers’ strikes” be organized “to impress those in authority that effective price controls must be restored.”

The futility of appealing to the Big Business Congress or depending on the capitalist government to “control” prices has been amply demonstrated throughout the war and in the past few months of “price decontrol.”

Why are the Stalinists leading the attack on progressive unionists who are putting forward the only real program to protect the workers during inflation? The Stalinists are trying to string along with the top conservative union bureaucrats who are opposed to any fight for higher wages, not to mention living-cost bonuses and escalator clauses.

They are giving the bureaucrats the arguments to use against growing demands for a wage fight. That fight is centering more and more around far-reaching demands for wage clauses that will automatically protect the workers against rising living costs.

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