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Arne Swabeck

Rail Bosses Drive for Wage Cuts

(November 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 33 (Whole No. 92), 28 November 1931, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Step by step the capitalist forces are mobilizing their heavy artillery to make certain of a wage cut on the railroads. This important industry is one of the remaining strongholds of the pre-crisis working class standard which now, in the view of the aristocracy of finance, must be battered down at all cost. Yet in face of this, there is no visible action whatever of the unions preparing to meet the onslaught.

Individually the railroad workers have long ago been gradually put on reduced rations by the “economies” effected by the roads. Increasing use of heavier material, heavier rolling stock and longer trains have brought about constantly reduced forces and a greater output per man. This is vividly substantiated by the reports of the unions. According to statements made by the president of the Brotherhood of Enginemen and Firemen before the LaFollette Senate subcommittee, labor saving machinery during the last few years has displaced about 250,000 workers, and since the beginning of the crisis, the owners of the railroads have dropped an additional 500,000 employees. Many important regulations gained during years of struggle have long ago been lost in practically all of the railroad crafts, and some of them have lost the eight hour day once in operation throughout the railroads.

How the Capitalist Pressure Works

The first direct step in the assault upon the present wages was taken by the railroad owners in their appeal to the Interstate Commerce Commission for a 15% rate increase. Their appeal was predicated upon a denial, which promptly followed, to lay the basis for a wage cut. No sooner had the denial been rendered, then several roads began some by directly announcing wage cuts; others by making a pretense of negotiations with the unions, with the stage all set of course and proper pressure provided. The Canadian National Pacific lines demanded a wage cut. The New York Central lines, the largest single system in this country demanded a 10% wage cut, to be voluntary and to remain in effect for one year; evidently to prepare for further cuts after that.

The New York Central Lines alone have reduced their working force from a total of 170,061 on January first, 1930 to 128,448 on February 15, 1931.

Finally there is now additional pressure for wage cuts on the railroads. The Investment Bankers Association at its recent convention demanded that all the roads immediately institute a 10% all-around wage cut. This association includes all the biggest banks of the country headed by the firm of J.P. Morgan.

What answer have the union leaders given to these onslaughts? It is reported that the “Chiefs” of the four transportation brotherhoods recently attended a dinner jointly with the representatives of the biggest railroad magnates, ostensibly to discuss in a friendly mariner. But, while this may satisfy their culinary tastes, it cannot give the slightest security to the position of the railroad work ers. On the contrary, that is the particular method to prepare a sell-out. And today there is no organized Left wing force to effectively challenge such deals.

Will There Be a Repetition of the Past?

In 1921 and 1922 the policy of the railroad union leadership relied entirely upon the railroad labor board for adjustment of grievances. To the workers it proved a deep disappointment. The labor board became the very instrument to take away the conditions from the unions one by one. In 1921 the train service unions threatened to strike, but declared they would look out only for their own interests, leaving the shop crafts to their own fate. The latter were left to strike alone in 1922. They fought not the railroad systems as a whole, but merely single roads, and only those where their grievances were the most outstanding. The result became a settlement only with minor roads, a general defeat and decimation of the union forces from which they have not since recovered.

The railroad companies are now making their demands for wage cuts one by one. Their aim is to repeat the experiences of the past, and all indications are that the unions will fall into the trap. As far as the union leaderships are concerned, there need be no doubt that it fits in well with their views. They have no other interests than to serve the companies by helping keep the workers divided and easy victims for defeat. That the dangers in the present situation have long ago been sensed by the workers is quite clearly evident from the rank and file pressure, particularly for a six hour day. That pressure came to a head last summer and culminated in a conference of large representation by the five main transportation unions held in Chicago. But in anticipation, the leaders – these company lackeys – succeeded in sidetracking the general ferment into proposals to ask for legislation for the six hour day. This was but another repetition of relying upon the capitalist governmental machinery of “justice”. It is doomed to disappointment and defeat.

What About the Left Wing Movement?

The situation growing out of the 1922 strike movements became also the beginning of a powerful Left wing movement, at that time inspiring great hopes among large section of railroad workers. At the railroad amalgamation conference held in Chicago in December 1922, over 400 delegates attended. Several of the railroad unions indorsed the proposals for amalgamation, despite the resistance of the high salaried officials. The Left wing movement experienced a growth until the dizzy “Third Period” tactics were inaugurated by the official party leadership. The results were the fatal mistake by the railroad workers Left wing movement – the adoption of the policy of building new “revolutionary unions” on the roads. Of course no new unions were built, but the Left wing movement received a death blow and has remained practically non-existent ever since.

So much for the Left wing movement officially under the leadership of the T.U.U.L. We have not noticed any admission on its part of this fatal policy. What the workers thought of it, however, they have clearly shown by losing confidence and remaining absent.

But there has been another ray of hope shown since; a beginning toward a correct rebuilding of the Left wing movement. The railroad workers of Minneapolis set this example by the methods and activities of their local railroad council. It became one of the effective instruments in promulgating the demand for the six hour day on the roads. Its activities enjoyed the support of most of the railroad locals in that center. It showed a way for the rank and file towards closer consolidation of the various crafts. This is precisely the first step needed in this present situation. The railroad workers constitute a powerful army. A consolidation of their forces, now divided in the sixteen standard unions; a united taking up of the fight to at least maintain the present standard, not by single unions or against single companies, but by recognizing all of the companies as the common enemy – only in that lies the hope for success.

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