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Gertrude Shaw

How Will Labor Get an
Annual Minimum Wage?

(24 January 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 4, 24 January 1944, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Among the demands that the United Steel Workers of America, CIO, are making upon the steel Barons with whom they are now negotiating for a new contract, is one for an annual minimum guaranteed wage. The idea is that for every week during the life of the new contract each employee should get a minimum weekly wage, regardless of, whether he is working that week or whether he has been laid off.

For instance, if a steel worker’s straight time rate is $l.00 an hour, $40 for a forty-hour week, or annual wage of $2,080 for fifty-two weeks, the company would pay this annual wage to the worker whether he is actually employed twenty, forty or fifty-two weeks in the year.

The aim of this demand obviously is that the wages of the workers should not be cut by part or full time layoffs, which never were and cannot be the fault of the workers. A very urgent demand it is – since human life goes on and must have its needs satisfied whether the capitalists keep their plants going at 100 per cent of capacity, at fifty per cent or not at all.

Philip Murray, president of both the CIO and the USW, stated: “This is the first time in the history of the United States or any other country that a labor organization has undertaken to seek the establishment of an annual minimum guaranteed wage through collective bargaining.”

The demand is not confined to the 155,000 steel workers of the USW, which says it intends to ask the War Labor Board to order a clause in the new steel contract in case the steel corporations refuse it. The whole CIO is also behind it, not only as, an, economic demand, but also as a political issue.

President Murray has referred to the annual minimum guaranteed wage as the “major issue for the 1944 elections,” and the CIO Political Action Committee will try “to enlist all possible support” for this demand.

A Share in Accumulated Profits

An annual minimum guaranteed wage would, without a doubt, keep the wolf of hunger away from the worker’s door when unemployment begins to stalk the land. In effect, the CIO is asking that the workers share to some extent in the $42,000,000,000 post-war reserves, of big business, in the $19,000,000,000 undistributed profits accumulated since 1939, in the billions of tax refunds the government will make to the industrial overlords. And rightly so! An annual minimum guaranteed wage would mean that the capitalists would have to disgorge a little of their war profits so that workers need not sell apples on street corners.

Will the Capitalists Be Willing?

Will the steel barons be willing to pay their workers wages for periods when they are not working? Will other industrialists do this? Will they sit down with labor leaders and through the medium of collective bargaining slice off a bit of their war profits in the interest of preventing privation among their workers?

The idea of a full-time wage hits at the very foundation of the wage system – according to which the workers are given a wage at the end of a work period for creating wealth far greater than the wage they receive. Rather than allow their basic profit structure to be weakened, the capitalists will shirk the responsibility of unemployment and salve their consciences by having the government hand out some WPA Jobs and the dry bone of relief payments.

It will, therefore, be necessary for labor to be ready for an all-out fight.

It will take much more than collective bargaining to get that annual minimum guaranteed wage!

Will the War Labor Board accede to the demand of the USW when the steel corporations refuse it – which they almost certainly will. The public members on the WLB are entirely with the capitalist members in protecting every hair of the profit system. This pro-capitalist body is .not likely to start anything along the lines of an all-time wage for workers.

Is it likely that the CIO Political Action Committee – following its bewhiskered and false political policy of rewarding the Democratic or Republican so-called “friends of labor” – will get capitalist politicians to pass a law for a guaranteed wage?

Of course, Candidates may promise – before the elections – to sponsor such a law in Congress. To get the votes of labor, politicians will support anything by word of mouth – before election. However, to suppose that capitalist politicians will pass a law that really would change the basic concepts of the profit system is to be more childish than any grown-ups have a right to be.

CIO Has Something – But ...

In a word, the CIO has definitely got something in its demand for an annual minimum guaranteed wage – but it will be necessary to use labor’s full economic and political might to get it. The idea is reasonable enough that the industries that workers built and where they create the stupendous wealth appropriated by the industrial masters, should pay an all-time wage so that workers’ won’t starve during periods of unemployment.

Such a demand, however, cannot be carried through in the ordinary channels of collective bargaining and the WLB – nor through the politics-as-usual of the Hillman committee.

An annual minimum guaranteed wage is indeed a major issue for the 1944 elections, as Murray says. But it can be a realistic issue only on the platform of an independent Labor Party – acting not with the capitalist parties and capitalist interests, but against them. This point cannot be emphasized too much.

Similarly the whole problem of unemployment is a burning issue for the coming election, and there are practical measures directly applicable to the solution of the unemployment evil. One is a thirty-hour work week to spread the available jobs, with pay commensurate with the productive capacity of the most advanced country on earth.

Another is the opening up of idle plants and factories under the control of the workers themselves for the production of things for consumer use, regardless of capitalist profits. The ultimate goal, of course, is to turn all production away from the profit motive to supplying human needs as the only permanent solution for unemployment.

These are all issues that only an independent Labor Party can honestly and earnestly work for – because the capitalist parties and capitalist interests will not really support any measures that put human welfare above profit-making.

Yes, the CIO has a good idea in its demand for an annual minimum guaranteed wage. It is indeed something new – and necessary. To fight for it and for similar working class aims requires not only militant industrial action by the workers, but also class-conscious political action through an Independent Labor Party free from all capitalist politics.

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