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Pay Reduction in the Building Trades

A Blow at the Workers’ Standard Throughout All the Trades

(February 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 7 (Whole No. 103), 13 February 1932, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The wage cut drive in the building industry now initiated in several large cities simultaneously reveals a concerted plan of action. In the cities of New York and Chicago alone the demanded 25% cut will involve more than 200,000 workers. But the objective is a far greater one. The objective is to strike at this section of “privileged” workers, to more effectively pave the way for the reduction of the workers’ standard throughout. A devilishly well fitting complement to the much heralded Hoover Home Building Program.

The Building Trades Employers’ Association hardly awaited a reply to their proposed wage cut, it immediately became a virtual ultimatum. It was practically offered as: “Take it or leave it.” In this they counted on the effective assistance of the lashing whip of unemployment.

The extent of the increasing tempo of wage-reductions recently applied can very well be understood from the late reports made by the Department of Labor. Up to September 15, when the U.S. Steel Corporation took over leadership in wage reductions, there had been during 1931, 2,257 cuts involving 315,229 workers. In the ensuing two months alone there were 1,074 reductions, involving 290,082 workers.

With this ultimatum the wage cut drive is carried into the very centre of the A.F. of L. unions. For among the exclusive craft union make-up of the A.F. of L., the building trades still constitute the actual backbone. But it is also this exclusiveness of craft organization and craft ideology, terribly antiquated in conditions of modern class relations, which spells the greatest handicap to these unions.

What will be the answer of the Building Trades Unions to this ultimatum? Will they resist? It should be clear that failure to resist at the outset will soon start them on the toboggan slide with one wage cut following another. William Green and his A.F. of L. hierarchy have repeatedly made grandiose declarations that the unions will resist wage cuts. Now the A.F. of L. backbone faces the test. But there are no indications that this leadership will back up its declaration with preparation for action The Chicago union leadership has already offered a compromise. This is how much the grandiose declarations of Bill Green and his hierarchy mean.

For public consumption the employers have for some time held up in horror the example of the high wages in the building industry. The fact, however, that employment is extremely seasonal, that the building trades worker manages to keep a job only a few months out of the year is never mentioned. Though now, glib promises are being made that a wage-reduction will increase building and thus increase the jobs. Yet it is a well-known fact that the amount of building to be done does not at all depend upon the wage level of the workers in that industry. As one example we may cite the instances of cities where building trades wages have remained low, or where cuts have been accepted, that did not bring an increase in building. As a second instance it is well to remind building trades workers that the present crisis has already seriously diminished building requirements; and with a general reduction of the working class standard of living one could not at all expect an increase in residential buildings. Thus wage reductions will rather react in the reverse of the promises made.

Within the building trades unions the corrupt practice of business unionism flourishes. The miserable incompetence of the leadership stands out glaringly. A host of useless petty grafting business agents has infested these unions with the general result that the organized position is today very seriously weakened. The power of the organization is not at all maintained on the job. Workers find employment today in practically every instance only by accepting a wage considerably below the official scale. Some unsuspecting worker might think that it would be better to reduce the official wage scale to the level of what is actually being paid – and this is a quite widespread belief. They forget, however, that the minute a cut of the official scale is accepted it will be as much reflected in the wage actually paid. That will be immediately cut further also.

Thus the wage cut ultimatum looms as a real problem before the building trades unions. Added to this is the present heavy scourge of unemployment. Meek submission to the employers’ demands cannot at all solve the problem but only aggravate it. It can only result in a further reduction of the workingman’s standard. An aggressive attitude is necessary. The unions do not face a question of maintaining what is being charged to be a high wage scale but of maintaining a bare possibility of existence. Acceptance of a wage cut can never bring relief to the workers either for their maintenance of a standard nor for the problem of unemployment. To find a solution for these problems it is first of all necessary to prepare well to utilize all the power of the organization to resist the attack, to resist the wage cut. Secondly, it becomes necessary to give serious consideration to the reduction of the workday so as to actually help relieve the unemployment situation. This is where the six hour work day without reduction of pay should be particularly considered.

The building trades workers unions today constitute the backbone of the organized labor movement. As such they should show the lead in resisting the general attacks upon the workers’ standard of living.

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