Felix Morrow

Roosevelt and Labor after the Third Coal Strike

(July 1943)

Source: Fourth International, Vol. 4 No. 7, July 1943, pp. 202–206.
Transcribed: Ted Crawford.
HTML Markup: David Walters.
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Since Roosevelt’s May 2nd radio address confidently calling on the coal miners to repudiate their union’s call for the first strike, less than two months have passed. Yet already it has become well-nigh incredible that Roosevelt could have deluded himself to think that at his behest the miners would separate from their union organization and leadership. When the workers enthusiastically followed Roosevelt’s leadership, he appeared to be uncanny in his masterly manipulation of their sentiments – nothing succeeds like success. But his bag of tricks looked tawdry indeed when one union and its leadership firmly stood up against him. The miners are deeply embittered at him, after three industry-wide strikes waged in direct defiance of him, and which demonstrated the most complete solidarity of the 530,000 coal miners. Their reluctance to obey the June 22 order of the union leadership to end the third strike was indicated by the fact that on June 28, six days later, more than 150,000 miners were still out, according to an Associated Press estimate. All reports testify that, far from being convinced or demoralized by Roosevelt’s attacks. the miners are ready to renew the struggle at a moment’s notice from their leadership. Unless the situation radically changes, the miners are almost certain to strike again if the mines are returned to the owners in spite of the union’s insistence on continuation of government custodianship, or if there is no contract by October 31, the new deadline set by the union. Fuel is being poured on this unextinguished fire by the War Labor Board which, in its insane attempt to restore its irretrievable prestige, is insisting that the union be forced to sign a contract embodying its decision against the miners. How the miners now feel about Roosevelt, our correspondents in the coal fields report, is indicated by this typical statement: “He was a hero to us back in ’32, and I was for him in ’36 and ’40. But I’m against him now. He’s on the side of the operators and the War Labor Board now.”

This bitterness in the coal fields presages the mood of the workers everywhere. When the coal negotiations opened in March, there was widespread confusion concerning the source of the resistance to wage increases. The CIO and AFL leadership blamed it on the inadequacies of the War Labor Board’s machinery, pretending that the main problem could be solved through regional offices and other decentralized machinery which would expedite cases. Even after Roosevelt’s April 8 “hold the line” order, they blamed wage-freezing on unfair “interpretations” by Byrnes and other officials. These alibis for Roosevelt, repeated often enough, and buttressed by Roosevelt’s own maneuvers, kept the workers from grasping the whole picture. But the miners’ fight, repeatedly forcing Roosevelt’s hand into the open, brought understanding to the minds of millions of workers.

As if to clinch the matter, Director of Economic Stabilization Frederick M. Vinson vetoed a wage increase for 1,100,000 non-operating railroad workers on June 23, the day after the miners were called back to work. The CIO, AFL and Railroad Brotherhoods leadership had given lip-service to the miners’ demands but condemned the miners’ militant methods, implying that “loyal” union leaders would fare better. Certainly the demand of the unions for a 20-cents an hour increase for the underpaid non-operating railway workers was a test case of such “loyal” methods. After months of negotiations, Roosevelt named an emergency board to mediate the case, and it brought in an 8-cent hourly increase proposal, which was accepted by management and the unions. The day before it was to become effective. Vinson vetoed it. Even a Philip Murray or a William Green can hardly pretend that Vinson could have vetoed the verdict of a Roosevelt-appointed board without a direct nod from Roosevelt. The veto came while the operating railway-men were still arguing before another board for a 30 per cent wage increase after six months of dickering before various boards, tribunals and panels. They can guess their fate from that of their non-operating brothers. Even before Vinson’s veto, A.F. Whitney. President of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen, told the board: “I wonder if we have not been sitting frozen, hypnotized, watching for the seven rabbits of the President’s economic program to be pulled out of silk hats of the war agency administration, while our purses were being sneaked from our pockets.”

After the veto, Alvanley Johnstone, President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, and speaking also for Whitney, told the Board that Vinson’s veto had also judged their case and it was “a farce to continue this proceeding.” If these staid and conservative officials are impelled to use such language, it is certain that their members are doing all they can to push them into combat with Roosevelt.

As if nothing has happened, Philip Murray and William Green have hastened to assure Roosevelt of the continued support of the AFL and CIO. But their pledges are rapidly deteriorating in value. Already last November, after all the Murray-Green exhortations to vote Democratic, millions of workers who had enthusiastically supported Roosevelt’s party in previous elections stayed away from the polls this time, finding no choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. That was a repudiation of his party but not yet of Roosevelt himself. Now the miners’ fight has obliterated the false distinction between Roosevelt and his party. The top CIO and AFL leadership cling to Roosevelt, incapable of changing their policy, but the distance between them and the millions of AFL and CIO members is speedily widening into an unbridgeable gap.

The miners’ fight struck a deadly blow against the Roosevelt-labor coalition. The effects of that blow, under the given conditions, could not develop quickly enough to bring victory to the miners. They had widespread rank and file support in the CIO and AFL. But Roosevelt’s labor lieutenants in the CIO made the most of the organizational separation of the miners thanks to Lewis’ withdrawal of the union from the CIO in 1941, while Roosevelt’s servitors in the AFL nullified any immediate gains Lewis might have hoped for from his application for re-admission into the AFL. The United Mine Workers remained officially isolated, receiving neither top AFL or CIO backing, and the Lewis leadership, limited by its business unionism outlook, was incapable of a broad working class method of speedily rallying the masses of the other unions to force their officials to support the miners. But their members will not forgive the AFL and CIO officialdom for its treachery to the miners and will find ways and means to punish it in the coming months. For Roosevelt it was a Pyrrhic victory. Certainly Roosevelt is in the position of the general who said: “One more victory like that and we are lost.”

The Real Situation of Wages

The national repercussions of the miners’ fight would not be so serious for Roosevelt if the workers had in their pockets the kind of wages that the incessant newspaper propaganda imputes to them by singling out isolated and unrepresentative examples. One should note in passing that the AFL and CIO leaders do not combat this propaganda by publishing the real figures. Apparently they fear it would incite their membership to provide the figures. Actually, no agency at present offers statistics on wages of trade union members as distinct from other workers.

Perhaps the most useful figures available for our purpose are those of a recent OPA bulletin. [1] After 10 years of the New Deal, and in a year of war, with overtime raising the take-home pay, the income of the population for 1942 was as follows (income is “income per spending unit” per family or individual wage-earner as the case may be but with no indication given of the size of the “unit”):

Spending Units
(in millions)
Income Group Average Income
16.7 Less than $1,500      $862
13.9 $1,500–$,3000   $2,139
  7.3 $3,000–5,000   $3,813
  2.5 $5,000–$10,000   $6,716
    .8 Over $10,000 $21,074

The OPA report implicitly concedes that the most numerous group in the population – the 16.7 millions “units” with an average annual income of $862 is below a decent standard of living. It says:

“It is clear that in general consumers with incomes below $1,500 and possibly even all those below $2,000, are already at as low a real standard of living as is compatible with the war effort and its stated objectives. Although these groups bore only a small proportion of the personal tax burden to 1942, they have had to pay large sums in indirect taxes on consumption; and the Revenue Act of 1942 already makes it certain that income tax and Victory tax will reach much further down the income scale in 1943, placing even greater tax burdens on the poorest section of the population.”

And even of the second-largest group in the population – the 13.9 million “units” with an average annual income of $2,139 which, upon deduction of taxes (not counting indirect consumption taxes) and savings (including or bonds) amounts to an average consumption of $1,763 – the OPA report admits:

“The average income of $2,129 and the average consumption of $1,763 probably are not much above the levels which, under existing conditions, will adequately preserve the health, efficiency and morale of civilian families.”

The OPA’s estimate of the standard of living available at these income levels was of course based on price levels for that year of 1942. It estimated that money spent for goods and services in 1942 was 1 per cent higher than in 1941, but that because of price rises it really meant a 6 per cent cut in consumption for 1942. In the intervening seven months income has remained frozen for wage-earners, while prices have risen at an accelerated pace. Fully to comprehend the real situation of wages, one would have to have detailed figures, particularly on price-rises of food, the main item of expenditure for workers and also the one which is rising most rapidly. As the miners’ figures on food prices in the coal fields demonstrated – they were based on actual prices paid and not on those listed or officially cited by chain and company stores to government agencies – government figures on price rises, especially on food, are becoming more and more unreliable. The official figures concede that food prices have risen over 43 per cent since January 1941, but the real figures are far higher.

The 16,700,000 “spending units” with average annual income of $862 (these families often spend more than their income, says the OPA, by going into debt or selling some “possessions”, constitute 10 per cent of the total number of “units,” i.e., of the population. The 13,900,000 “spending units” with an average annual consumption of $1,763, constitute another 33 per cent of the population. “These two groups of course include most of the AFL and CIO membership. These figures make clear that the miners were voicing the needs of the overwhelming majority of the workers and toiling masses.

What Is Driving Roosevelt

Roosevelt absurdly overestimated his ability to keep the workers hypnotized; still, he must have known that sooner or later wage-freezing would weaken his hold on the labor movement. Why, then, did he get so tough with the miners, to the point where his direct responsibility for wage-freezing became apparent to the whole working class? This in the face of the fact that Roosevelt’s main support has come from the trade union leadership and that with the loss of that backing he will get short shrift from the right wing of his own party. And Roosevelt wants to be elected President again in 1944, obviously impossible without labor support.

The answer is not to he found in Roosevelt’s personality. His malice toward John L. Lewis caused him to make tactical blunders, but the basic factor is that Roosevelt, as head of the capitalist state, and at this stage of the capitalist war economy, has to try to keep wages frozen. The war economy has reached the point where there is no room for the minor concessions to labor which Roosevelt was able to make before the war. Under the profit system, war can be waged only by permitting the big capitalists to profiteer and have their way generally even more so than in peacetime. This was admitted as recently as 1940 by a governmental body, the Temporary National Economic Committee, in a document which stated:

“Speaking bluntly, the Government and the public are on terms which it dictates. It controls the natural resources, ‘over a barrel’ when it comes to dealing with business in time of war or other crisis. Business refuses to work, except on terms which it dictates. It controls the natural resources the liquid assets, the strategic position in the country’s economic structure, and its technical equipment and knowledge of processes. The experience of the [first] World War, now apparently being repeated, indicates that business will use this control only if it is ‘paid properly.’ In effect, this is blackmail, not too fully disgnised.” (TNEC Monograph No. 26, Economic Power and Political Pressures, p. 172)

The terms which big business dictates includes not only profits for itself but also means throwing the burden of the war on the workers by slashing their living standards through wage-freezing, price-rises and increased taxation. Price-rises are inevitable because the government can get the private owners of industry to shift from civilian to war production only by making war production more profitable through higher prices for war materials and goods. The resultant curtailment of consumers’ goods, in turn, leads to price rises in that field too, cutting down the workers’ standard of living more and more.

We have said that big business “dictates” this situation. More accurately, it is the result of the anarchy of capitalism. Planning is possible only where, as in the Soviet Union, the economy is nationalized property – a government can plan only that which it owns and controls. The United States is so rich in productive power that, with a planned economy, it would consequently be possible to wage war on the present scale and still allocate a sufficient sector of the economy for consumers’ needs to keep the main item of workers’ expenditures, food prices, near their 1939 level – especially if there had been no ploughing under during 1933–1940. But capitalism cannot plan.

Another way of keeping down the cost of living would be effective policing of prices. But that way, too, is impossible for a capitalist government. On April 29, 1942, while admitting the necessity to enforce price-fixing, the first OPA administrator, Henderson, in the same breath hastened to add that his organization had spent “little time” in “figuring out means for putting people in the hoosegow. The idea that we will have a whole army of people searching for violations will not be an important part of the picture.” Yet only a “whole army of people” could stop the violations which are being universally practised by the capitalist class as a whole, irresistibly tempted by the possibilities for profiteering created by scarcity. As we predicted from the first, the so-called policing of prices by a government bureaucracy has proved worthless. The necessary “whole army of people” is easily available to do the job – the trade unions and housewives’ groups could set up a network of mass committees on prices iii every street and city. Their living standards are at stake and they would make the food and clothing corporations, the chain stores and the landlords toe the mark! But that of course would be the class war of the workers against the capitalists. Price committees manned by the unions and housewives would become proletarian forums voicing the class anger of the masses against the scarcity of food and clothing, rising prices and the black market. Roosevelt is no more capable of endorsing such a method than of proposing the abolition of capitalism. [2]

Nevertheless, Roosevelt wants to keep prices clown as far as it possibly can be done by capitalist methods. He and the capitalist class have their own reasons for desiring it. Indeed, they are desperately determined to do so. Every increase in prices means the government has to pay more for its purchases for the armed forces. The meteoric rise of the national debt tends to endanger the stability of the currency. Without the stable measure of value that a sound currency provides, government purchase and organization of war production would become a hundred-fold more disorganized than it already is: inflation always means economic chaos. Though certain sectors of the capitalist class would gain through inflation, even they fear its consequences in wartime. In addition, of course, price rises are alienating from the government not only the workers but also the large sections of the middle classes which have relatively fixed incomes.

Barred by the very structure of capitalism from planning consumers’ economy or really policing prices, Roosevelt is thus reduced to adopting the methods compatible with the anarchy of capitalism: wage-freezing and increased taxation, which siphon off mass purchasing power and thus, though only partially and ineffectively, reduce the pressure on prices. These anti-labor methods have been in use increasingly since Pearl Harbor. They were already embodied in written form as the government’s aim in OPA Administrator Henderson’s Price-Fixing order of April 29, 1942, which stated:

“Left to itself, the process [of rising prices] has no definite end. It can be stopped only by measures which will eliminate the occasion for increased income payments on the one hand, and narrow the gap by withdrawing excess purchasing power on the other.”

To “eliminate the occasion for increased income payments” meant wage-freezing. “Withdrawing excess purchasing power” meant increased taxation.

Maybe the overworked war workers couldn’t understand this language easily, but certainly the CIO and AFL leaders, with the help of their lawyers, understood just what was involved. Yet their main activity since Pearl Harbor has been to attempt to deceive the workers concerning the real meaning of the Roosevelt war policies. For a while Roosevelt was able to facilitate this deception by an occasional nod to the War Labor Board to grant a very minor concession here and there, although the inevitable course of the war economy gave Roosevelt less and less room to maneuver. But no matter what Roosevelt did, the AFL and CIO leadership continued their attempts to confuse and misinform their membership.

The Meaning of Roosevelt’s Veto

The latest instance is the CIO and AFL, statements on Roosevelt’s veto of the Smith-Connally Act. It is instructive to note the lengths to which the union officialdom went in distorting the plain facts.

The facts are that Roosevelt made no effort to prevent the overriding of his veto. For ten days after its passage he gave no public hint of what he would do with the bill – scarcely a method of mobilizing public sentiment against it. What is more, the press has reported, and it has not been denied, that the President’s chief lieutenant, Byrnes, told Congressmen to support the bill; and that several Senators declared, when the veto message arrived, that they had been assured by administration spokesmen the bill would be satisfactory to the President if certain changes were made, and these had been made in the final bill. Certainly a Congress in which several Senators are surprised when Roosevelt’s veto message arrives is scarcely one which has been canvassed by the President to sustain his veto.

The margin by which the veto was overridden was very small nine votes in the House, two in the Senate. Among the Senators who voted to override the veto were several who are very close to the White House: Caraway, Chavez, Hatch, Hayden. Hill, Maybank, Pepper, Russell and Thomas (Oklahoma). At least two of these, enough to sustain Roosevelt’s veto, have never before been known to go against the wishes of the President: Hill of Alabama and Pepper of Florida (that same week the latter announced in Look that he was living for the day when he could nominate Roosevelt for President of the United States of the World).

In the House, there was an even more amazing situation – amazing, that is, from the point of view of those who pretend that Roosevelt tried to get the nine additional votes required to sustain his veto. There were at least 10 Representatives from labor constituencies who could under no circumstances vote to override the veto and who were absent when the vote took place! Eight of these were Democrats from New York City, six of whom (Heffernan and Delaney of Brooklyn; O’Leary of Richmond; Fay and Gavagan of Manhattan; Buckley of the Bronx) were elected in November with the endorsement of the American Labor Party; the two others (Pfeifer of Brooklyn and Burchill of Manhattan) were elected with trade union sup-port. It is impossible to believe that these men, had they been called upon to do so by the White House, would not have voted to sustain the veto. Trying to cover up Roosevelt’s responsibility for the conduct of these “absentees,” Philip Murray’s statement of June 25 on the overriding of the veto declares:

“It is a tragic fact that the absence of a number of members of Congress made it possible for a Congressional clique to engineer a sneak attack on the Commander in Chief by rushing through the overriding of the veto within minutes of its announcement.”

Murray thus implies that the speed of the overriding vote caught the absentees unaware. But a Congressman who wishes to vote though he will be absent has a method available to him: it is called “pairing” whereby two Congressmen of opposing views agree to absent themselves together. Those in the minority (only one more than a third of the votes was necessary to sustain Roosevelt) can always find Congressmen to pair with. As a matter of fact there were 12 Representatives who did pair to sustain the veto. These elementary considerations should make it plain that the Congressmen who could not but vote against the bill and who failed to answer the roll call or pair themselves did so deliberately and with no pressure from the White House to do otherwise.

Why Roosevelt did not try to mobilize his supporters is made clear by the text of his veto message. The principal provision of the Act, embodied in the first seven of its nine sections, makes a criminal offense of strikes in “government-operated” plants or mines; this provision goes into effect in any industry as soon as a custodianship is set up like that of Ickes in coal. It was primarily with this prevision in mind that the joint memorandum of the AFL, CIO and Railroad Brotherhoods, asking Roosevelt to veto the bill, stated:

“The ‘War Labor Disputes Act’ is a wicked, vicious bill. It is the worst anti-labor bill passed by Congress in the last hundred years ... It is the very essence of fascism ...

“Compulsion, civil damage and criminal penalties are the unholy trinity by which this act accomplishes its evil purposes.”

Did Roosevelt agree with this estimate of the principal provision of the bill? On the contrary, his message stated: “If the bill were limited to these seven sections, I would sign it.” His objections to Section 8 were by no means pro-labor; conservative organs like the New York Times agree with him that its requirement of 30-day strike notices and secret strike ballots “might well become a boiling period instead of a cooling period.” Only this Section 8 is cited by Roosevelt as his reason for vetoing the bill, because it “will produce strikes in vital war plants which otherwise would not occur.” Even section 9, which has nothing to do with strikes, but brazenly outlaws use of trade union funds for political purposes, is not cited by Roosevelt as a ground for his veto. He merely says that it “has no relevancy to a bill prohibiting strikes during the war”, and he does not even condemn it as a general law “If there be merit in the prohibition it should not be confined to wartime ...” And in conclusion Roosevelt’s message recommends a “work or fight law providing for induction of all up to 65 years into non-combat military service: “This will enable us to induct into military service all persons who engage in strikes or stoppages or other interruptions of work in plants in the possession of the United States.” Such was Roosevelt’s “veto” message – no wonder the bill was passed.

As Arthur Krock noted in the June 27 New York Times, Roosevelt’s message made “new and unusual concessions toward labor curbs.” Yet this is the message which brought Roosevelt a letter from William Green praising the President’s “courage” and “statesmanship” and one expressing gratitude for his “statesmanlike attitude” signed “Gratefully Philip Murray.” At least the servile AFL, leadership during the last war did not express praise and gratitude for a “work or fight” order issued by Wilson during a strike. The point has been reached where Gompers looks like a fighter in comparison to Green and Murray! And this, too, while they “lead” a labor movement triple in numbers and tenfold more powerful than the AFL of 1919. Truly, there is no limit to the fall of the bureaucrats.

Even if their picture of the Roosevelt veto were true, they would still have to answer the question: why did the bulk of Roosevelt’s own party representatives in Congress vote to over-ride it? The answer is that his party is an agency of the capitalist class and that the trade unions must establish their own Independent Labor Party. But the AFL and CIO bureaucracy is still hunting for an answer acceptable to Roosevelt. The Stalinist Daily Worker, with its own foul logic, of which the major premise is support of Roosevelt no matter what he does, provides them with the only answer compatible with continued support of Roosevelt: “It is wrong to judge members of Congress only on the basis of the vote on the [Smith-Connally] bill.” There is certainly no limit to the fall of Stalinism.

The lies of Murray, Green and the Stalinists have been all too effective hitherto in shielding Roosevelt. Had their alibi of his veto message been launched in the climate preceding the miners’ fight, it would probably have done the job.

Finally, however, the class struggle broke through. The miners’ fight, month after month, pounded home the real meaning of Roosevelt’s line. And. with the eyes of millions of CIO and AFL workers now opened to the real situation, Roosevelt’s control over the labor movement is drawing to its close. The CIO and AFL leaders resist as long as possible. But the workers will finally drag them along out of the camp of Roosevelt. More precisely, a large section of these “labor statesmen” will remain with Roosevelt, but as individuals without their membership and finally without their official posts in the trade union’s. Most of them are incapable of leading the unions in the coining stormy period when. breaking out of the coalition with Roosevelt, the unions march forward toward independent class action on both the economic and political fields.


1. Civilian Spending and Saving – 1941 and 1942, published by the Division of Research, Consumer Income and Demand Branch, Office of Price Administration, Washington, 1943.

1. For a more expanded discussion of these aspects of the war economy, see my article Labor’s Fight Against Inflation, in the May 1942 Fourth International, and the editorials in the October and November 1942 numbers.


Last updated on: 21 August 2015