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Arne Swabeck

Reply of the Steel Workers

Preparations to Resist Wage Cuts on the Order of the Day

(October 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 26 (Whole No. 85), 10 October 1931, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

It has already been amply demonstrated that the 10 percent wage cut decided upon by the board of directors of the United States Steel corporation, affecting about 220,000 workers on Oct. 1, became the signal to a whole series of wage cuts for a number of the biggest industrial concerns, such as the General Motors, the United States Rubber Co., the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co., the B.F. Goodrich Co., the Northern Pacific Railroad, the biggest Arizona copper companies, several New England textile concerns and the other major steel corporations. Similarly the reaction of the steel workers to this slashing of their standard will in many respects be determining for the working class as a whole.

Wages and Living Costs

By Ethelbart Stewart, the United States Commissioner of Labor Statistics, we are informed that since December 1925, using that period as the basic figure of 100 both for cost of living of the American workman and for total payroll in manufacturing industry, when compared to June 1931, there has been a total drop of only 15 per cent in the cost of living but of 40 per cent in the total payroll. These are telling figures. The total payroll, of course, includes in this case the present heavy unemployment. But that is precisely the biggest curse of capitalist society today. When one adds to this the drab prospect of much more deep-going wage slashes, as aliready haughtily proclaimed by the barons of finance and industry, the outlook for the working class indeed becomes one fraught with sinister import.

To what extent and how effectively can the steel workers take up a serious resistance to these attacks? For the moment this is quite a crucial question. What the attitude is of the American Federation of Labor leadership and what can be expected from them we have so often pointed out in these columns. Throughout the whole present period of wage cutting, the bombastic statements by Green and other A.F. of L. officials about “standing like the rock of Gibraltar against wage cuts”, are just so much empty chatter. It is not associated with an appeal to the workers and preparations for their resistance; and such could not he expected from imperialist agents. Their empty proclamations to organize the automobile industry and the Southern textile field were not even worth the paper they were written on. Now they address themselves to the employers saying that wage cuts will not help the recovery of industry. But, it is, of course, a well known fact that the employers’ aim is to unload the whole burden of the crisis upon the backs of the workers as a means of facilitating an industrial recovery. Hence the wage cuts.

The steel workers cannot look for any leadership or assistance from the A.F. of L. The difficulties in their way are indeed great. Herded into their miserable hovels, working and living under the most brutal industrial and political oppression, with armies of privately owned police and a complete spy system watching their every move within the plants and within the company owned cities in which they live, only the greatest power of solidarity and consciously planned militant organization can batter down such walls. It is a well-known fact that the steel barons have already before this wage cut announcement taken all possible precaution to forestall effective resistance. Undoubtedly they even have their spy system busily engaged not only in attempting to prevent any sign of organization but also to provoke abortive actions which can easily be defeated.

Past Experiences

The steel industry is rich in experiences of spontaneous strikes on a local scale arising out of grievances, of special conditions, within single plants. Though entirely unorganized, many such strikes have been successfully won by the workers. But the industry is also rich in experiences of strikes of a national character around issues of national importance “won” by the employers. The powers of the steel trust are as mighty today as before. The forces of state suppression and the private armies of police and gunmen are as much at their disposal as ever. But today we also have all the potentialities of a coming new wave of rising resistance of the working class in face of which the power of the mightiest trusts might be reduced to rather small proportions. In this lies real hope for the present.

It will be recalled that during the time of the mighty wave of organization of the steel workers in 1919, the labor movement as a whole was experiencing an upward curve. A growth of organization and a growth of militancy. So much so, that the reactionary A.F. of L. leaders found themselves compelled to engage in this campaign of organization and strike. That they did it reluctantly is true. That they used every opportunity for betrayal is equally true. Nevertheless there was an almost irresistible sweep of organization and struggle. And yet the steel trust, aided by these factors mentioned, “won” the battle and since crushed practically all remnants of union organization.

Today, the possibilities for dissension division and betrayal of these imperialist agents are lessened. The possibilities for Communists and militants as a real factor in leadership of organization and resistance are much greater. These become two additional positive points of real value in favor of the steel workers. We are again facing an issue of national proportions and importance – a wage slashing throughout the industry. But the steel workers as yet remain practically without any trace of organization or actual preparation for struggle.

In face of this situation serious-minded revolutionists can look upon with deep apprehension upon the attitude of the official party leaders proclaiming, and apparently pushing forward for local strikes against the present wage cut, expecting them, as stated by Foster, to “spread like wildfire”. This is not the method or tactic to pursue. Local strikes in face of this national issue carry all the dangers of becoming abortive of facilitating isolation of the most militant sections to become easily crushed as a means of administering decisive defeats before the main forces can be collected; before any adequate preparations and organization can be accomplished.

Unquestionably the wage cut in the steel industry can become a real incentive toward organization. That itself is the main task. Amongst revolutionists there should be no dispute about that. Organization in preparations for a nationwide strike should be the issue at present.

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