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B.J. Widick

In the Trade Unions

(28 April 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 28, 28 April 1939, p. 2. [1]
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

War-time brings with it a swift and never-ending rise in prices that shoots the worker’s cost of living sky high and makes his good union contract of today seem like an anchor to a low wage tomorrow.

During the world war, for example, the worker’s cost of living rose 70 per cent!

Since this actually meant a real wage cut of great proportions it is easy to understand Why there were 4,233 strikes in 1917 and 3,181 in 1918, with one-third of them being called to gain higher wages.

Over 80 per cent of the strikes were caused by purely economic causes (i.e., wages, hours and working conditions) While those called for union recognition, etc., were a very minor proportion.

The largest number of these war-time strikes occurred in the leading industrial areas – New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois.

Possibilities Neglected

Here, indeed, was a perfect setting for a nation-wide union organization campaign that could have built the A.F.L. into a really powerful body.

Even without a carefully planned national campaign the A.F.L. grew from 2,072,702 in 1916 to 2,726,478 in 1918 and the seething unrest that swept the working class of the world in post war days reflected itself, among other ways, by the growth of the A.F.L. to 3,260,068 in 1919.

But the oil and steel industries were neglected to a great extent. Only 4,000 oil workers were enrolled in the A.F.L. while the Iron, Steel and Tin Workers union had an official membership of 19,700. Of course, the Machinists’ union in somewhat the same field grew from 100,900 to 254,600 in this period.

Not until the development of the C.I.O. was the mass production industrial worker in the key industries given a chance to join a union.

Properly utilized, the economic conditions during and after war-time could have been the lever to lift up the American union and working class movements to new heights of power, strength and progress.

Same Problems

Likewise, the facts of the strike struggles in war-time show that tomorrow union militants will have to face these problems, despite all efforts of the government war boards to settle grievances, etc. through arbitration or rulings. The class struggle cannot be legislated out of existence.

The job of building and maintaining a good progressive union does not stop with declaration of war. It becomes more difficult, in some respects, but in others, such as in the mood of the workers after the first flush of patriotism is over, conditions are not so difficult.

A study of the record of A.F.L. and C.I.O. top leaders (then in the A.F.L.) during the first world war shows that nothing can be expected from them in behalf of militant struggle for unionism in war-time. They all supported the imperialist slaughter.

The cowardice of these leaders was recently revealed again in the debate of the military (appropriations bill where amendments to assure union rates of pay on government contracts were thrown into the waste basket.

John L. Lewis and the C.I.O. leaders and William Green and his A.F.L. clique were very silent after the manufacturers’ lobby, aided by the Army and Navy lobbies, killed the section of the bill that might have given labor a few rights.

Time magazine put the whole question nicely in speaking of labor during war-time: “Leaders of the C.I.O. and A.F.L. know much but wisely say little of the lot of labor in war.”

The misery of the unemployed will be even greater, if that is conceivable, than it is now, and all that has been said ...


1. In the currently available copy of this issue of Socialist Appeal the end of this article is missing. This will be replaced when we locate an undamaged copy.

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