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Mary Bell

Fight to Open the Books!

(31 December 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 53, 31 December 1945, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The vigor and determination of the striking automobile and oil workers, the strike votes of half a dozen other CIO unions and, above all, their far-sighted demand to “Open the Books!” have wrung from President Truman the interpretation that his fact-finding board shall “have the authority, whenever it deems it necessary, to examine the books of the employer.”

Truman’s proposal, while falling far short of labor's needs, gives recognition to the principle of “ability to pay,” that is, the profits of the corporation, as a basis for increasing wages.

The weaknesses in Truman’s proposal, which should be recognised immediately by organised labor, can be summed up briefly: (1) the contents of the books shall not be made public, out of respect for the competitive character of business; (2) the inspection of the company’s records shall be made by government bodies, such as the fact-finding boards, which are composed of industry, government and “friends of labor” representatives; and (3) the authorisation to inspect the books is turned over to Congress, the legislative servant of big business.

But even this partial recognition of what the union is seeking is too much for the representatives of the corporations. In a chorus of unanimity, they and their legislative and journalistic spokesmen label the opening of the books “dangerous and revolutionary.”

Dangerous ...

How is the demand to “open the books” dangerous? The workers organized into their unions want security and a living wage. They want full production and full employment. The corporations have refused to guarantee these things. Yet it is common knowledge that, they have heaped up a mountain of war profits while labor endured the no-strike pledge, bought war bonds, suffered from frozen wages, scarcities and shoddy goods. It is also common experience that the corporations were not able to guarantee employment for all, let alone a living wage during the last peacetime period. They went full blast only during the war when they were furnished orders by the government and had their profits guaranteed by the government Yet they demand to continue their management in the same old way. They insist on keeping their corporate secrets. They shout that corporation profits have nothing to do with granting a wage increase. They want to continue monopolizing control of their production.

... to Profits

Opening the books IS dangerous to the precepts of monopoly capitalism. The handful of very rich who own and control the industrial wealth of the United States want no tampering with their property and their property rights. And foremost of these is the appropriation by them of the profits of industry. Touch their profits and you wring their hearts. For the heart and soul of the corporation is profits. When the UAW couples its demand to base a wage increase on profits with the demand . not to raise prices to the consumer, it has General Motors in a vise, where the wage increase can only be squeezed out of the hoard of profits.

Ira Mosher, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, attacked even Truman’s plan to use profits as a partial basis for determining wage increases. He poses as a champion of the “public” and even of labor’s interests. “Ability to pay as measured by earnings would mean that whenever there is technological improvement in the productive process, thereby reducing the cost of production, the full benefit of the improvement would be passed along to a small group of workers in the form of higher wages instead of to the public in the form of lower prices.” This from the head of an organization which has been trying to break the price ceilings of OPA since they were imposed! Mr. Mosher omits the fact that labor demands no price increases, merely a wage increase, out of the golden hoard of profits.

Then Mr. Mosher displays some partial statistics to show that the “ability to pay” principle would work to the detriment of small business and labor.

“In every year between 1913 and 1940,” says Mosher, “except during World War (1916-19), at least forty per cent of our business corporations showed no net income, and in 1932 almost 84 per cent showed no net income. In other words, except in wartime, never more than three out of five business corporations have any net earnings and in all but the most prosperous years never more than two out of every five have net earnings.”

These figures are purposely deceptive: the major part of industry is composed of large corporations and the greatest number of workers are employed in the big companies. We need only ask, when Mosher complains that “businesses with established earning capacities ... would be the only ones able to pay the wages established under this formula:

“Why should any business be permitted to operate if it cannot assure a high standard of living for its employees?”

Then Mosher cries for labor: “It would hurt labor, because under this formula wage rates must be reduced when earnings decline ...” What big crocodile tears! Labor under this or any other formula is not going to press for a reduction in its wages. If corporate management is so bankrupt that it cannot plan an ever-increasing standard of living for the workers, then it will have to forfeit its right to manage and let labor take over. Labor has no ties to the profit interests of the corporations, and will have as its sole criterion production for abundance.

“Revolutionary” ...

Mosher states that with the principle of “ability to pay” ... we move to the corporate state with the government determining prices, profits, investment and who shall work where and for how long and at what wage.”

That is not what Mosher really fears. That is what the government did during the war, and big business was mighty pleased with the results: no labor trouble to speak of, and a steady flow of profits.

Mosher and the men he represents fear the implications of the demand of labor to have a say in prices and profits. They fear that labor will not stop with opening the books. If the corporation’s books show ability to pay – which has been conceded in advance, even by the Administration – the union can press for its wage increase with no price increase.

The books will also reveal (see editorial, page 3 – Ed.) according to Walter Merritt, GM counsel “... forecasts, projections, guesses at the cost of raw materials where future policies are speculative,” etc. In other words, the books will reveal all the inner secrets of corporate operation. The union will demand a voice and a vote in the affairs of business. Is this illegitimate? It is not, inasmuch as the ability of business to operate, pay wages, keep employment at a peak, etc., is of concern to all of society. The production of the corporation is social but its management remains private.

... to Labor

This invasion of its private, privileged ground is what big capital fears. That is why it characterizes labor’s demands as revolutionary. This new type of fight on the part of organized labor is indeed a revolutionary step for labor. As a large organized labor movement, it has shown its social responsibility as never before in United States history.

If labor pries open the secret accounts of the monopoly capitalists in auto, steel, rubber and other mass production industries, it will learn how production takes place, how it is controlled. It is a short step to the conclusion that production can be undertaken not for profit but for use.

Labor can then challenge industry. “You haven’t the ability to pay decent wages or to produce for the good of society as a whole,” says labor. “Your lust for profit strangles industry and brings depression and war. You are bankrupt. We know how to undertake production for use. We know how to plan production. We are not interested in profits; we are interested only in full production, full employment and an economy of abundance. We demand workers’ control of production.”

A revolutionary demand, indeed. If labor wins the right to inspect the books and make ability to pay a principle in bargaining, it will take a giant stride forward.

What has been gained so far has been due to the fighting strength of strikers and pickets, the rank and file of organized labor. They must not retreat. They must halt the tendency of their leaders to compromise with dangerous proposals of “union security,” such as the one made by the UAW leadership to Ford.

Labor must carry on the fight until victory has been won for all of its demands.

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