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Arne Swabeck

The A.F. of L and the Wage-Cut Drive

(June 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 12, 15 June 1931, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

William Green has come forward with a statement that the A.F. of L. Executive Council will call upon the workers, organized and unorganized, to “resist wage cuts to the fullest extent”. If that was meant to be taken seriously one would assume that steps for through-going preparation of all unions to adopt, methods and measures for effective resistance should follow to correspond with such statements. But this is not the case.

What the Executive Council has in mind becomes clear from the editorials by Green in the June issue of the American Federationist. His appeal is not at all directed to the working class, not even to the unions, but in the usual boot licking lackey fashion addressed to the employers. He says in part, with regard to the present crisis: “We look to gatherings of captains of finance and leaders of industry to find a way forward”. And then calling upon the unions he says:

“Get ready the facts to show your community how many customers are wage earners and what their wages mean to the retail trade of the town, to those who rent houses to insurance agents, to automobile salesmen, etc. ... Interest community groups in this wage preservation movement and get your statements into the local papers. Remember you must convince employers and the public. This is a time to utilize the facts and put your full strength behind them.”

The actual extent of wage-cutting can perhaps best be gathered by referring to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ figures for the month of January 1931. A total of 335 companies reported reductions affecting 43,507 workers. The same bureau also lists the wage cuts in percentage for a number of industries under the heading of per capita weekly earnings of March 1931 compared with March 1930. We quote in part.

2,937,525 workers in the manufacturing industry have had their weekly wage lowered by 9.4 percent; 110,669 anthracite miners by 9.2 percent. 213,028 Bituminous miners by 16.2 percent and so on for many other industries. These outright wage cuts listed by the bureau do not, however, at all include the many clever schemes which are being applied by way of indirect wage cutting of which many thousand workers have become the victims.

Undoubtedly these figures by themselves express a slashing capitalist offensive of a terrific magnitude against the working class standard. We might add that without a doubt the A.F. of L. leadership has become quite alarmed over the present situation. Not so much over the reduction of the working class standard as because of its ravaging effects upon the union membership. First, by the fact that large proportions of this membership find themselves unable to meet their dues payments. Secondly, and this is a well known fact that the unofficial wage cuts are far heavier than those registered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Notably is this so in the building trades unions, which form the very backbone of the A.F. of L. These unions are today unable to maintain the wage scale which the official agreements call for. Because of the failure of the organizations really to take any steps to repel the capitalist offensive the members find themselves face to face with the choice of prolonged unemployment or whatever wage the boss sees fit to pay. It is very natural that under such conditions the unions should experience heavy membership losses.

It should now be perfectly clear that what we have clearly and distinctly emphasized some time ago as an inevitable perspective, is actually coming to pass. Capitalism is beginning its desperate efforts to overcome its economic difficulties by saddling the burden more securely upon the workers’ backs. They are aiming for a new sort of stabilization level, many degrees further down, based upon a drastically reduced working class standard. The all-important question now is: Will the workers resist and attempt to prevent it?

In answer to such a query we notice some very encouraging signs. Strikes are today on the increase. Workers are beginning to resist the capitalist onslaughts. The Department of Labor reports that there were only 903 strikes during the year 1930 which records the lowest number since 1918. During the most recent weeks, however many strikes, mostly against wage cuts, have broken out. There have been several strikes involving thousands of workers in the anthracite section of the Pennsylvania coal producing territory. Just now, about ten thousand workers are on strike in the Cannonsburg bituminous section in Pennsylvania under the leadership of the National Miners Union. About 2,000 steel workers struck in Mansfield, Ohio, against a 15 percent wage cut. The latter have so far experienced a total cut of 37½ percent in eighteen months. Several thousand miners have been on strike for some time against wage cuts in Kentucky. Several thousand workers struck against the wage cuts in the Mishawaka rubber and woolen factory in Indiana. Hosiery workers in Pennsylvania are still on strike. Building trades workers in Indianapolis struck and prevented a 20 percent wage cut. Two thousand pocket book workers in New York are on strike against a 25 percent wage cut. Similarly leather goods workers in Massachusetts are out fighting wage cuts. The New England machinists have decided to resist any wage reductions. The street car workers of St. Louis, Mo., have decided to strike against a 10 percent wage cut if negotiations fail them. These are only some of the present examples.

The American workers are still fighting on the defense. A change toward offensive battles is of course not determined only by the numbers involved the frequency of occurrence, the industries involved or even the specific nature of demands. It is rather determined by the general character and objectives of the struggles, not only toward the immediate issues but also toward the whole system of class society. Nevertheless there are without a question of a doubt great possibilities for development in such direction. And it is particularly important to remember that upon the revolutionary movement rests the task of bringing forward the slogans and tactical guidance which will furnish the bridge from the defensive to the offensive.

It would be erroneous to draw the conclusion from the decrease of membership of the A.F. of L. unions that it is definitely facing an unbroken period of decline. Undoubtedly it is in a serious crisis. But it is to be expected that the very pressure of the capitalist onslaught will bring many in the workers’ ranks to seek organizations and will still throw many of them into the folds of the A.F. of L. unions despite the treacherous career of its leadership. It is particularly pertinent, however, at the present moment to call the attention of the workers to the fact that the fundamental reason for the present plight of the A.F. of L. unions is to be sought precisely in the character of the leadership and its policies. It is only a short time ago, at the beginning of this present crisis, that William Green promised the Hoover Conference that there would be no strikes for “wage adjustments” during this period. And that at a time when any worker with an ounce of brains would know that precisely this period would be utilized for a general reduction of the working class standard.

It is to be expected that the present period of such slashing attacks upon the unions will bring forward new elements with pretentious “progressive” declaration. Such are merely the weathercocks of the general trend of the working class movement and serve as a mask cloaking the treason being prepared by the reactionary leadership whose color does not change. In that respect, such elements become particularly dangerous, as their fundamental outlook has not changed either, but only their appearance. They furnish the feeding channels of social reformism, into which they endeavor to direct the trade union movement to prevent its development truly and genuinely in a Left direction.

The American working class has during the past “prosperity” period been lulled into a false sense of security which to a large extent accounts for the slow developments of resistance to the attacks upon it. These workers have not suffered serious defeats. All the more can it be expected that with the increase of these attacks the developments toward large scale struggles and even offensive struggles will become quite rapid. There are great prospects and great encouragments in such a perspective. But there are also immense responsibilities resting upon the Communist movement. The coming period will most likely hold rich possibilities for the organization of the unorganized industries for the building of new unions. But it also holds similar possibilities for development of militancy for building of a Left wing movement within the old unions. Only a correct combination of these two tasks can assure success.

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