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American Labor – Fact and Fiction

(November 1962)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.1, Winter 1963, pp.13-18.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A mass of evidence contradicts the steady rumors of the current decline of the American labor movement. The future, in fact, promises a different prospect

NATIONAL trade union organization has existed continuously in the United States since the founding of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886. But only within the past twenty-five years has the organized labor movement assumed truly massive proportions. Organization of the industrial workers – most strategically placed and decisive sector of American labor – was not even successfully begun until the 1935-1941 period. Not until the spring of 1941, little more than two decades ago, did the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) win its conclusive victories in the automobile and steel industries with the first successful strikes and union contracts in Ford Motor Co. and Bethlehem Steel Corp.

The swift rise and gigantic growth of American organized labor within the historically brief span of a quarter of a century has induced a condition in the American capitalist class akin to what psychiatrists term a traumatic shock. The owning and employing class is like a person who never has been seriously ill and is felled suddenly by a dangerous ailment. Thereafter, he notes every twinge and palpitation, every rise or fall in his temperature, however slight.

Just within the past twenty-five years, vast staffs of labor experts, economists and statisticians, both governmental and private, have been mobilized to study and plot the growth or decline, the shifts in composition, the tendencies and trends of the American working class, its organized sector in particular.

Now, every day, week and month, new reports on the condition of American labor and its organization pour forth to enlighten us on the slightest change within the wage-earning class and the labor movement. The ruling class and its agencies, particularly the government, track the course of American labor with the absorption and concern of the US Weather Bureau and Coast Guard in charting the path, speed, intensity, area and possible shifts in direction of a hurricane sweeping north out of the Caribbean.

Despite the data being collected on labor and the constant refinement of methods used to obtain this data, it is astounding how much inaccurate and downright false information is being circulated both outside and within the labor movement. For, along with the increasing statistical study and analysis has come a sharpening of the fine art of manipulating and misinterpreting the accumulated data. We have to be ever more on the alert against false, one-sided or misleading conclusions drawn from apparently solid, factual evidence.

Two startling examples of such manipulation and misinterpretation have come to hand recently. Both have to do with the question of the division of the national income, which is at the very heart of the struggle between capital and labor.

In the first example, Herman P. Miller, a special assistant in the demographic section of the Bureau of the Census, exposes the “myth ... created in the United States that incomes are becoming more evenly distributed,” a “view held by prominent economists of both major political parties” and “also shared by the editors of the influential mass media.” Miller’s expose appears in The New York Times Magazine, November 11, 1962. In his article, entitled Is the Income Gap Closed? ‘No!’, Miller names top economic advisers of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, in addition to Fortune magazine and The New York Times itself as propagators of the myth of the more equal distribution of income.

In giving his “No!” answer to the question, “Has there been any narrowing of the gap between rich and poor?” Miller cites “data in US Government publications available to us all.” If we stick to these figures, he points out, “the answers are clear, unambiguous, and contrary to widely held beliefs. The statistics show no appreciable change in income shares for nearly twenty years.” The share of the national income going to the lower three-fifths of America’s families has not increased in almost two decades; the share retained by the top fifth, who get forty-five per cent of the nation’s income, has not decreased. The lowest twenty per cent of the family groups continues to get but five per cent of the national income, the same as in the past twenty years.

NO SOONER is one myth destroyed, however, than another is created. A week after Miller’s article appeared, the November 18 New York Times published a news story from Washington, headlined: “Gain in Living Standards Found to Top Price Rises”.

According to this dispatch, a seven-city survey by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows “that purchasing power has gone up by 20 to 40 per cent in the last 10 to 12 years.” A cross-section of families, including exactly 212 families in New York City, was questioned and it was determined that their spending has increased 39 per cent while the consumer price index has risen only 15 per cent since 1950. The survey did not go back before 1950. If it had, Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz might not have cited it. For the findings might have been considerably different. The Bureau of Labor Statistics consumers’ price index, which has risen 15 per cent since 1950, recorded a rise in the previous decade of 72 per cent. If purchasing power has actually gone up “by 20 to 40 per cent” since 1950 it means only that the workers have been catching up a bit with the World War II and post-war inflation.

The distortion and misinterpretation of data on such vital matters as the division of the national income and the trend of consumer purchasing power are paralleled in the study and analysis of the American labor movement and such closely related matters as the class structure of US society and the composition and weight of the wage-earning sector of the population.

Ever since the AFL and CIO merged in December 1955 to form the largest independent labor organization in world history there has been a growing campaign to convey the impression that the labor movement is in rapid decline and that, at any rate, organized labor has reached its natural limits because the so-called “blue-collar” workers, traditionally the main base of the trade unions, are declining in relation to the total labor force and even in absolute numbers.

Within recent months a slew of magazine and newspaper articles, some employing impressive statistical data, have been discussing and analyzing the “decline” of organized labor. Prominent labor leaders themselves have been uttering dire forebodings based on shifts in the per capita intake. Leading liberal publications, generally regarded as having a sympathetic attitude toward organized labor, have been participating in the discussion and expressing apprehensions of their own.

In my article, The Myth of “People’s Capitalism”, published in the Winter 1962 issue of the International Socialist Review, I examined the claim made in an editorial in The New York Times, February 7, 1960, that the numerical strength of organized labor in the United States had “sharply declined” in the 1956-1958 period, thus “reversing a trend of some twenty-five years.” Citing the actual statistical data, I showed that the “sharp decline” amounted only to 1.7%.

On February 21, 1961, at a meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council at Miami Beach, Fla., organizing director John Livingston reported with great alarm that all organized workers in the country represented 38% of the organizable workers compared to 40% five years before. He said this could spell union labor’s “obituary.” Seven months before, on June 3, 1960, Jacob S. Potofsky, President of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, declared that organized labor faced the “grave danger” of a fast-shrinking membership. Previously, on November 9, 1959, Walter P. Reuther, United Automobile Workers President and an AFL-CIO Vice President, told a convention of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department which he heads that “We are going backward” and that the labor movement was “flabby.” His reference to flabbiness came just two days after the termination of the greatest single industrial strike in US history, the grueling 116-day national steel strike. In the same speech, Reuther proclaimed,

“The merger we put together in 1955 never got off the ground ... We have been pushed around and put through the meat grinder. If we sulk in our tents we’ll be pushed back and back ... We have to stand up.”

The current crop of articles and statements follows much the same pattern as these earlier plaints of leading union officials. One of these articles, however, has aroused particular attention and interest. It is Labor’s Ebbing Strength, by George Kirstein, publisher of The Nation, the venerable liberal weekly. The article was published in the magazine’s September 1 issue. Kirstein came to national prominence during World War II when he served for a period as Executive Secretary of the National War Labor Board.

It is not my purpose to discuss the article as a whole and its important conclusions, which are analyzed at some length by Milton Alvin in this issue of the International Socialist Review.

I wish to direct attention to the two opening paragraphs of Kirstein’s article in which he states the basic premises on which the entire article rests. He writes that “labor’s power and prestige have sunk in 1962 to a depth unequaled since World War II” and this is demonstrated first of all by the fact that union membership, “continuing its descending curve, has shrunk to new lows for the last twenty-five years ...”

BEFORE we look at Kirstein’s less measurable point about labor’s “power and prestige,” let us examine the more tangible matter of the “new lows for the last twenty-five years” allegedly reached by union membership today. Maybe, Kirstein put down a vague impression derived from such sources as the previously quoted New York Times editorial comment about union membership “reversing a trend of some twenty-five years.” Or maybe his entire editorial staff was out having a beer and he asked the office boy, “Do you think organized labor is as strong now as it was back in the good old New Deal days?” and the kid replied, “I wasn’t even born then but I hear tell that the CIO was sure hoppin’ back then and even Roosevelt was scared of John L. Lewis.” So Kirstein figured it was safe to say union membership is at its lowest point in a quarter of a century.

It just so happens that nothing could be farther from the truth. Total union membership, despite extensive unemployment, particularly in the steel and coal industries, remains not much below the 1956 peak of 18,400,000 – a number based, incidentally, on inflated figures issued by the union leaders at the time of the AFL-CIO merger, as I shall presently show.

The Department of Labor on last October 8 issued a report on its latest and most accurate survey of trade union membership. Total union membership in the United States is 17,546,000. This must be regarded as a reasonably hard figure because the data was obtained under the stringent regulations of the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act which exacts severe penalties for inaccurate statements by union officials under the Act’s compulsory reporting provisions.

What was the union membership twenty-five years ago in the heroic days of the rise of the CIO which Kirstein recalls in such a glowing light. Let me quote from my article, The Myth of “People’s Capitalism”. A little more than a year ago, I wrote:

“But before anyone hangs a wreath on the American labor movement ... let us review certain basic facts. Twenty-eight years ago – in 1933 – there were only 2,782,296 union members, or 7.8% of the organizable workers, after 47 years of AFL activity. In 1935, the year the CIO was formed, organized workers numbered 3,616,847, or 10.6% of potential unionists. By 1937, after the CIO went into action, union membership more than doubled, numbering 7,687,087, or 21.9% of organizable workers.”

These figures are from the appendix of Edward Levinson’s classic history of the early CIO, Labor on the March. Contrary to Kirstein’s idealized picture of the American labor movement twenty-five years ago as compared to today, the unions today have two and a third times the number of members and almost double the proportion of organizable workers.

Well, maybe Kirstein slipped up on his dates. Maybe he was really thinking about ten or twelve years ago, not twenty-five. All right. Let’s see how today’s nearly 17.5 million union members compare with the number in 1950 and 1953.

The World Almanac, which annually collates all the data on union memberships from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and from direct questionnaires to the unions, lists in its 1952 edition the “approximate” total of labor union members on June 30, 1950, as “14,000,000 to 16,800,000.”

One reason for the wide spread in the approximation is the fact that the CIO leaders – it was before the Landrum-Griffin Act – had reported grossly exaggerated membership and the fact was well known. The World Almanac listed AFL membership in 1950 at 8,000,000 and the CIO’s at “5,000,000 to 6,000,000.” In 1949, the CIO had reached the climax of a four-year internal “cold war” between pro-State Department and pro-Stalinist cliques. It ended with the expulsion of eleven affiliated unions. At the November 1950 CIO convention, it was revealed that the actual CIO membership at the time of the 1949 split convention had been 3,700,000, not “5,000,000 to 6,000,000.”

In the spring of 1953, according to the 1954 edition of the World-Almanac, the “approximate total” of labor union membership was “16,500,000 to 17,000,000.” This included 8,000,000 in the AFL, 5,000,000 in the CIO and 2,500,000 in independent unions. According to my arithmetic, the three breakdown figures add up to only 15,500,000, not “16,500,000 to 17,000,000.”

We do know that two years later, at the time of the AFL-CIO merger, the CIO membership was considerably less than the 6,000,000 claimed. J.B.S. Hardman, for many years editor of Advance, official publication of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, one of the major CIO affiliates, revealed in the January 4, 1958 issue of The Nation that at the time of the AFL-CIO merger the CIO “entered as pretty much of a junior partner, its stationary 4,000,000 members unimpressive against the AFL’s affiliation of 10,000,000 and advancing.”

Hardman confirmed what most of us surmised at the time of the merger that the CIO membership was closer to 4,000,000 than to the claimed 6,000,000. If this is true – and it is – then the hard figure of 17,456,000 labor union members today remains impressive compared not merely to 1937 but to 1955.

WHAT is true about the decline in labor union membership is that a few key unions – notably in steel, automobile, coal and railroads – have had a fall in membership of one degree or another in the past decade. The decline has been most steep in coal mining and railroading. Here it is sufficient to note that even before the great depression of the Thirties, during the “Golden Twenties,” coal was known as a “sick industry” and the current sharp fall in the United Mine Workers membership – some two-thirds in ten years – is the continuation of a trend, based on technological development, which began more than forty years ago and was halted temporarily only during the exceptional periods of World War II and the Korean War. The railroad unions have gone through a similar technologically based four-decade decline.

We come now to the hard kernel of fact in the talk about the “rapid decline” in union membership. What really is at the heart of this question is the drop in the membership of the United Automobile Workers and United Steelworkers, whose organization in the 1935-1941 period is correctly regarded as the CIO’s two greatest achievements.

Both these unions are considerably reduced in membership from their peaks at the end of the Korean War a decade ago. But they are not down to mere skeletons or shadows by any means. Not only are they still completely entrenched in the basic auto and steel industries but they are giants both in membership and material resources compared to any time before World War II and rank among the five largest unions. Here are comparative membership figures from 1941:


Automobile Workers


November 1941



June 30, 1950



April 1953



June 1956



June 30, 1961



At the end of 1961, the net assets of the American unions totaled more than $1.5 billion, aside from huge welfare and pension funds. While the United Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers do not approach the net assets of the United Mine Workers with its $105,355,886, the UAW isn’t doing too badly for a union that owned nothing but debts at the time of its historic General Motors sit-down strike in the winter of 1936-37 which established the UAW for the first time in the biggest corporation of the auto “Big Three.”

The UAW, as of December 31, 1961, had net assets of $57,284,000; the Steelworkers, $22,010,035. This compares with the $25,445,296 of the million-member International Association of Machinists; the $18,430,523 of the 771,000 member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the $22,249,785 of David Dubinsky’s 446,000-member International Ladies Garment Workers Union; or the $36,760,351 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters with its 1,661,983 members. Of course, there are several dozen capitalist corporations with individual assets larger than those of all labor unions combined. But the unions of today command material resources – cash, investments, real estate – beyond anything even dreamed of in the Forties let alone the depression Thirties. In its first two years, 1935-37, the CIO was largely financed by about a million dollars in grants and loans from John L. Lewis’ United Mine Workers. The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), the original organization of the CIO Steelworkers, did not even charge dues during its first great organizing drive in 1937.

This is a good point to discuss – and eliminate – one of the major factors most frequently cited as a reason for the membership declines in such unions as the UAW and Steelworkers. That is unemployment due to what has been termed automation – the employment of electronic and other forms of automatic controls in production to reduce the use of labor power to the starting and stopping of the power flow and the maintenance and repair of machinery and equipment. President John F. Kennedy, in his message to Congress last January, termed automation the big economic challenge of this decade.

True enough, unemployment has been a very decisive factor in preventing any over-all growth of organized labor in the past five years, except in the case of such unions as the International Association of Machinists and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, both AFL-CIO, and the independent International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But contrary to what the Kennedy administration, many economists and quite a few labor leaders contend, automation is not the critical element yet in unemployment.

REPORTING a recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the November 5 Wall Street Journal noted that in a comparison of the years 1959 and 1953, periods of relatively high industrial activity, more than half the decline in jobs in those industries which had falling employment were due to decrease in total output not increased technological efficiency. The Journal wrote that

“... job declines totaling 745,000 were associated with increases in efficiency, while declines totaling the somewhat larger number of 795,000 were associated merely with decreases in production by the industries concerned.”

Increases in “efficiency,” however, do not mean improved machinery or automation. A survey in the November Factory, McGraw-Hill trade publication, reveals that the major cause of “job displacement” in factories employing 1,000 or more workers is “improvement in business methods” and general “efficiency” rather than “modern machinery,” which runs a poor second to the “real villain” in wiping out jobs. Thus, in the basic metalworking industry during the first half of 1962, improved “work methods” – that includes good old-fashioned speed-up – were responsible for the loss of 54% of white-collar jobs and 30% of blue-collar jobs. Only 5% of the while-collar and 16% of the blue-collar jobs were eliminated by new machinery. Improved “work methods” were held responsible for 34% of the white-collar and 49% of the blue-collar job cuts in the chemical industry; slashes due to new equipment were only 19% and 13% respectively.

But “decreases in production,” as indicated in the previously cited November 5 Wall Street Journal, has been the arch villain in the unemployment situation. Take the automobile industry, which has been issuing such glowing reports of 1962 last quarter production. Ward’s automotive report on November 12 said that the automobile industry is anticipating a total car output for the entire year of 6,846,000. This is more than a million below the peak annual production of 7,942,000 in 1955, seven years ago. It is little higher than the 6,665,628 cars produced in 1950, twelve years ago.

The picture of steel production is even more revealing. During the second and third quarters of this year, the steel industry operated at between 45% and 55% of the 1961 rated capacity. In this month of November, even with the stimulus of the Cuban war crisis, the steel industry has been operating at about 61% of capacity. Based on the tonnage production index of 100 for the 1957-59 period, the index for the four weeks ending November 10 was 95.1. Iron Age, steel industry trade magazine, explained on November 14 that the $1.4 billion capital expenditures expected next year are intended to cut costs and increase efficiency, not to expand production. The steel industry’s present “break-even” point – the point where it begins to make profit – is 42% of capacity.

In spite of the factor of unemployment, the major causes of which are “efficiency” and lowered total output, the union movement of today not only remains gigantic in human and financial resources compared to twenty-five years and even ten years ago but it has more contracts and better contractual terms than in all American labor history. More than 100,000 collective bargaining agreements are negotiated each year and it is extremely rare for such agreements not to contain some gain for the workers, although for some key unions, like the Auto Workers, Steelworkers and Ladies Garment Workers, the recent gains have been minimal and not commensurate with the real size and resources of these unions and the capacity of their members for struggle.

This year, the Kennedy administration sought to impose a ceiling on wage increases in union contracts. The President indicated a limit of 2.5% to 3% based on the estimated annual average increase in hourly output per worker in industry. On November 10, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in the first nine months of 1962 major collective bargaining settlements covering 3,100,000 workers had been negotiated. The median increase for all the workers covered by these contracts was 3.2% of straight time hourly earnings. (Median is the point where half got more and half got less.) But for those who received raises the median increase was 3.4%.

The significant fact is that the majority of workers securing increases got gains of well over 3%. This was particularly true of construction workers, transportation and other non-factory workers. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area construction workers, after a strike of 200,000, won wage increases of from 7% to 8.4%. Airline pilots won 8%, although the Eastern Airlines strike is still not settled at this writing. West Coast dock workers netted 6.2%; textile mill workers from 3.25% in the North to 5% for some mills in the South; non-operating railroad workers, 4.1%; copper miners, 3.8%; telephone workers, 3.5%.

The aluminum, glass and oil workers were restricted to a bare 3% while the steelworkers, under the direct pressure of the Kennedy administration, settled for 2.5%, all in fringe benefits. This latter settlement, involving a half-million workers, seriously dragged down the total average gains.

The fact is that the workers won what the union leaders were willing to let them fight for. Thus, the Teamsters Union, headed by James R. Hoffa, in late September and early October, through a brief strike of several IBT locals won New Jersey-New York area contracts providing a 37-cent an hour wage increase for 57,000 truck drivers.

One fact cited as evidence of the “rapid decline” of the American labor movement is the smaller number of strikes, strikers and man-days lost due to strikes. In his August 13 broadcast and televised speech on the nation’s economy, President Kennedy boasted of his “extraordinary record of labor peace in the last eighteen months.” The press prominently reported the fact that in July 1962 man-hours lost in strikes reached the lowest point for any month since World War II.

Of course, the month in question also saw the greatest number of wage earners enjoying union-won paid vacations of any month in US history. Aside from that, as A.H. Raskin noted in an article in the November 11 New York Times, “The strike front just won’t stay zippered up.” In fact, an examination of the over-all strike statistics for the first half of 1962 shows a total of 9,800,000 man-days lost in strikes – a 62% rise over the first half of 1961. During the first quarter of this year, the number of workers on strike rose 38% over the corresponding quarter of 1961.

There are other factors to take into account in analyzing the over-all decline in strikes since 1953 – not just in the “last eighteen months.”

A study of the annual strike statistics since 1920 reveals that the eight-year period, 1946 through 1953, coinciding except for 1953 with the last Democratic administration, was the greatest strike period in US history. The years 1950 through 1953, during the Korean war, saw the largest number of strikes for any four-year period, climaxed by the all-time annual record of 5,117 strikes in 1952.

The reason for this great upsurge in strikes ranging over an eight-year period has already been indicated in the early part of this article. A rampant inflation, boosting the consumers’ price index 72%, occurred during World War II and the post-war period. In addition, direct federal, state and local taxes levied in the same period took an estimated one-third of the average wage-earner’s income. After a brief pause in the inflation during the Truman recession of 1949-50, the rise was resumed during the Korean war, when more than one-half of the 15% rise in the price index during the decade of the Fifties was recorded.

The decline in strikes over the past decade can be attributed neither to Kennedy’s policies since he took office in January 1960 nor to any shift in the programs and attitudes of the top union leaders. The latter were just as permeated with the philosophy of class collaboration, just as opposed to militancy, just as subservient to the capitalist government in the 1946-53 period as they have been since and are today. The difference was the greater inflationary pressure on the workers which forced them to strike and forced the union bureaucrats to go along, even though reluctantly.

THERE is another very important element in the decline in strikes over the recent years. That is the long-term contract with built-in automatic annual wage increases. The trend toward long-term contracts, now averaging between two and three years in duration, began with the signing of the notorious five-year General Motors contract in 1950 by UAW President Walter Reuther. It was hoped that such a contract would preserve “labor peace” for a long time in the auto industry and dampen the tradition of militancy among the auto workers. The Korean War was begun about a month after the GM contract went into effect. The renewed inflationary trend brought such rank-and-file condemnation of the five-year “handcuffs” contract that Reuther was forced in 1953 to demand a wage re-opener in spite of the contract. In fear of a strike, GM yielded.

It is well to keep in mind, however, that in the glorious days of twenty-five years ago for which Nation publisher Kirstein sighs, it took a major General Motors strike, including the historic “sit-down” occupation of the company’s main plants in Flint, Mich., to win a six-month contract, after CIO President John L. Lewis indignantly rejected President Roosevelt’s offer to propose a one-month contract to settle the strike and get the workers off GM’s property.

A recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that union contracts are increasingly of longer duration. In 1956, about 15% of the contracts covering 1,000 or more workers were for three years, in contrast to the traditional one- and two-year contracts of the previous twenty years. By 1961, the proportion of three-year contracts had risen to more than 30%.

In order to get the workers to accept long-term contracts, the employers must agree to automatic annual wage concessions. In a sense, these are deferred wage increases because it is possible that the workers might insist on larger initial increases if the yearly wage raise were not built into the contract. Nevertheless, such automatic increases averaged 8 cents an hour so far this year and 8.2 cents in 1961 compared to average negotiated increases of 7.5 cents and 7.8 cents respectively, according to the Bureau of National Affairs, a Washington research organization in the labor market field.

But even with the diminution of the inflationary pressure and the increase of long-term contracts providing automatic annual wage raises, the current period is by no means the low-point of strikes during the past twenty-five years. The impression that organized labor moved steadily onward and upward following the 1937 upsurge of the CIO is wrong. In the matter of strikes, the three-year period following the smashing of the Little Steel strike in the summer of 1937 and the period of US participation in World War II from December 8, 1941 to August 14, 1945 were far more repressed years for labor than the latest period. Here is the comparative statistical chart:

Strikes in the United States


Number Stoppages

Workers Involved

Man Days Idle

















































1961 (Jan.-July)




Even a cursory study of these figures is revealing. In both 1958 and 1959, regarded as “quiet” years on the labor front, the number of strikers was greater than in 1937, the record year for the two decades, 1920-1940. The figures for 1960, low point of the decade, were still far larger in every strike category than in 1938, 1939, 1940 and 1942. Even for the seven-month period in 1961 for which I have available statistics at this writing, there were more strikers than in the entire years of 1939 and 1940 and more man-days lost due to strikes than in all of either 1940 or 1942. And as I showed earlier in this article, the first half of this year far surpassed the comparable period of 1961 both in the number of strikers and the man-days lost.

This does not tell the whole story. The strikes of the recent “quiet” years with few exceptions brought material gains in wages, benefits and improved working conditions. Most of the strikes in the 1937-1941 period were fought for simple union recognition – to compel an employer to agree to meet with a union committee and negotiate. The Little Steel strike of 1937 – the largest steel walkout since the smashed 1919 Great Steel Strike – was wiped out in blood. The low figures for man-days lost during the World War II years represent wholesale breaking of strikes by the quick action of the government and the cooperation of the union leaders during a period of fast-rising prices while wages were officially frozen.

The facts I have just cited also throw light on the low state of “labor’s power and prestige” which so concerns Kirstein. I do not know if labor’s “power and prestige” today are any lower than during the Little Steel strike of 1937, when the police of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” colleague, Mayor Kelly of Chicago, murdered ten workers in the Memorial Day Massacre at the Republic steel plant and Roosevelt answered John L. Lewis’ plea for help with the cynical reply, “A plague on both your houses.”

CERTAINLY, labor’s “power and prestige” are no lower than during World War II when wages were frozen while prices soared and every strike was smashed except the four national strikes of the coal miners in 1943, when John L. Lewis stood up to the lynch cries of the national press and the tirades of Roosevelt and Congress and the miners won their greatest victory.

It is not quite clear from Kirstein’s article just how he measures labor’s “power and prestige.” But to my way of thinking, labor’s “power and prestige” can’t sink much lower than it was during the 1947-1952 period of the Truman administration – the same Truman who woke up on the morning after Election Day, 1948, to find out he’d been unexpectedly re-elected to the Presidency and exclaimed, “Labor did it!”

It was in June 1947 that Congress enacted the Taft-Hartley Act, condemned by every sector of organized labor as a “slave labor law.” The most significant political fact about the passage of this Act was that the overwhelming majority of both capitalist parties – Democratic as well as Republican – in both the House and Senate voted for this bill.

What is most significant of all is that President Truman invoked the injunctive powers of the Act against actual or threatened strikes seven times in 1948 and three times more before the end of his term in January 1953. This did not include his strikebreaking seizures of railroads, coal mines and steel plants.

There was not a single union man in Congress to speak or vote against the Taft-Hartley bill. There was no mass action of any kind initiated or led by either the CIO or AFL national leaders in opposition to passage of the T-H Act. All but a handful of labor leaders, notably John L. Lewis, Charles P. Howard of the International Typographical Union and Matthew Smith of the Mechanics Educational Society, took the degrading Taft-Hartley “non-Communist” oath.

In the spring of 1948, the top union leaders, particularly of the CIO, were hurling invectives against Truman and had initiated a “Draft Eisenhower” campaign. On April 4, 1948, the Detroit Free Press carried an interview with Walter Reuther, head of the CIO’s largest affiliate, who complained that “Truman is hopelessly inadequate” and hoped that “some competent man like Eisenhower will be nominated by the Democrats.” Surely, when Reuther and the rest of the labor leaders shortly fell into line behind Truman, campaigned furiously for him and hailed his election as a “great labor victory,” that was a pretty low point in labor’s “power and prestige.”

There is one other measurable factor most frequently cited as the conclusive argument against any further possibility of growth of the US labor unions and, indeed, as certain evidence that the unions must inevitably decline. Kirstein raises the argument as his concluding point when he refers to “the white-collar worker, who is now surpassing the blue-collar worker in numbers” and who, “one thing is certain,” will “not join the production worker’s union.”

It is not my purpose to take up the arguable point of whether white-collar workers will or will not join a blue-collar workers’ union. I wish to concentrate on the fiction, accepted as unquestionable fact by even well-informed and good-intentioned people like Kirstein, that the blue-collar workers are in decline and that the white-collar workers are inheriting the American earth.

In my previously cited article, The Myth of “People’s Capitalism”, I reported the Bureau of Labor Statistics data for July 10-16, 1960, on the occupational division of the gainfully employed in this country. As of that date, I wrote:

“Two-thirds of all the gainfully employed are males – 90% of them white. An outright majority – 58.4% – of all employed males are in the manual, service and farm laborer classifications ... Factory operatives and kindred workers form the largest single group of male employees, 19.2%. Then come craftsmen, 18.7%; non-agricultural laborers, 9%; service workers (a wide category including domestic servants, repairmen, laundry workers, elevator operators, janitors, clothes pressers, garbage collectors, barbers, hotel, restaurant and bar workers, police and firemen, etc.) 6.5%; and hired farm laborers, 4.9%.

“All income earners of both sexes totaled 68,689,000 in the above-cited BLS report. Of these, 37,449,000 – or a 54% majority – are in physical labor categories, including operatives, craftsmen, laborers, service workers and hired farm hands. Clerical workers number 9,907,000 and sales workers, 4,405,000. The latter two ‘white collar’ groups total 14,312,000. They formed 20.8% of the employed working force in July 1960. Even if we add to them a mixed category listed as ‘professional, technical and kindred workers,’ numbering 7,042,000, or 10.3% of the total, we cannot stretch the ‘white collar’ workers to more than 31.1% of the gainfully employed.”

I pointed out, however, that in arriving at the conclusion that white-collar workers outnumber blue-collar workers, the classification of the service workers, who until 1960 were classified with the manual labor group, was transferred to the “white-collar” category and the remaining classifications of “managers, officials and proprietors” and “farm owners and farm managers,” together representing 14.4% of the total, are lumped in with the white-collar wage-earners.

TO THIS statistical data, I am now able to add information based on an actual census presented in the October 1962 Scientific American, unquestionably the finest and most authoritative general science periodical published in this country. It is contained in the article, More from the Census of 1960, by Philip H. Hauser, chairman of the Technical Advisory Committee for the census of 1960 and head of the department of sociology at the University of Chicago.

Prof. Hauser has broken the census figures down into two general categories, “Providers of Services” and “Producers of Goods.”

Before we examine these figures, it should be noted that all managers and proprietors are listed as “producers of services” and all farmers, who are owners of their means of production and very frequently employers, are listed as “producers of goods.”

Hauser’s article contains a chart showing the continuous ratio of the various sectors of the labor force from 1900 to 1960. This chart reveals that aside from the farmers, who are in the main petty capitalists, the chief classifications of the “producers of physical goods” – the so-called blue-collar workers or operatives (factory workers mainly) and craftsmen (construction trades, etc.) – have increased in absolute numbers every year since 1900 and, every year right through to 1960, have represented a larger proportion of the total labor force. That is, the main base of the labor unions is not narrowing; it is widening.

In his two main categories, Hauser lists 54.4% in “producers of services,” including “42.2 per cent in white collar occupations and 12 per cent in household service and other service occupations.” Remember, “service occupations” include the $40-a-week Puerto Rican and Negro hospital workers in New York City who this year engaged in such a militant strike. He adds that “only 46 per cent were engaged in work directly contributing to the production of physical goods.”

He immediately adds, however, that “the decline in production workers is entirely attributable to the reduction in the number of farmers, farm laborers and nonfarm laborers. Since 1900 agricultural employment has fallen from 37.5 per cent to only 6.3 per cent of the labor force ...” He further adds that “men are still engaged primarily in the production of goods (three-fifths of the male work force in 1960, compared with four-fifths in 1900), the white-collar and service functions that have come to the fore have been taken over to a large extent by women ...” On the average, women workers earn only two-thirds the average wages of male workers.

Here is the break-down for the various classifications of “producers of goods” in 1900 and 1960 as a percentage of the total labor force:












Laborers (non-farm)



Farm Laborers



Service (incl. Domestic)



If the unions were to stick to only the above categories of manual workers, although such white-collar and professional workers as the New York City school teachers and newspaper reporters went on strike this year, they could double the present labor union membership, from 17.5 million to 35 million. As a matter of fact, the AFL-CIO announced on November 14 a plan for an organizing campaign in the Los Angeles area, where there are about 5,000 unorganized firms with 750,000 potentially organizable workers.

IF ORGANIZED labor faces a critical period ahead – and it does, it won’t be because the union membership is in “rapid decline” or because the blue-collar workers are disappearing. It will be due to the policies and program of the union leadership.

For one thing, the unions will have to develop a political action program and organization that will be completely independent of the old capitalist two-party set-up. The labor experts of the capitalist class don’t low-grade labor’s potential power and prestige in the political as well as economic arena. Thus, John D. Pomfret, labor reporter, wrote before this year’s elections in the October 24 New York Times about “labor’s principal political asset – sheer mass. The nation’s 17,500,000 union members and their families are an enormous political force.”

You bet. If they had their own party, they could turn the Democratic and Republican parties almost overnight into minor parties. They could be the government.

November 27, 1962

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