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Carl Davis

Rail and Steel Workers

Drive for Higher Wages

(3 January 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 1, 3 January 1944, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This week saw the struggle of hundreds of thousands of railroad and steel workers for wage increases reach a climax.

On Monday, December 27, more than 150,000 steel workers went out on strike with the slogan: “No contract – no work.” Following the brilliant lead given them by the coal miners, the steel workers declared they would not trespass on the companies’ properties.

Up until all of the railway unions accepted President Roosevelt’s proposal that he act as final arbitrator in the railway wage dispute, all the operating and non-operating unions had voted to strike on December 30.

In the case of the steel workers, the men walked out when the WLB backed up the steel owners with a refusal to okay retroactive pay for any contract signed. Roosevelt intervened with a promise that any contract signed between the owners and workers would be retroactive.

Thus we have still another case of Administration run-around, sidestepping and overruling that has been characteristic of its intervention in labor-management disputes and collective bargaining.

With a promise of retroactive pay, the steel workers have gone back to work. But this concession which they obtained from the President would never have been obtained had the steel workers sat back to await a grant from any conceivable quarter.

In the case of the railway workers, the President has virtually promised wage increases, compensation for overtime work for which these workers have not hitherto been paid, and other demands made by unions, if they accepted his arbitration.

Thus after almost two years of negotiations and buck-passing, the railroad workers took the only action possible for labor to win even the slightest demands.

Many of the reactionary papers are absolutely right when they point out that the steps taken by the railway and steel workers might not have been taken were it not for the fight which the coal diggers of America waged for their most elementary rights. While the miners did not win all that they asked for, they showed that it was possible to win by united and militant efforts.

The Campaign of Business

The yellow press as usual has carried on its lynch agitation against the workers. They have hidden behind the screen of the war and patriotism to denounce the workers. But, as usual, what really lies behind this campaign against American labor is a defense of the profit interests of big business.

This campaign against the workers of the nation is inseparable from the campaign against the renegotiation law which takes back some of the war profits of big business (and much too little at that when it is remembered that profits continue at the highest rate in history). This anti-labor campaign, too, is inseparable from the campaign of the National Association of Manufacturers to bust the union movement in this country and to make the workers bear an even greater burden in the war.

Labor’s Share

But behind this whole strike situation is the fact that the no-strike pledge given by the labor officialdom without the consent of the great rank and file, was based upon the Administration promise that prices would be kept down, rationing would equalize distribution of goods, and no black markets would operate in the country.

Exactly the opposite has happened! There have been sharp price increases; there has been no equity of rationing, and black markets have mushroomed all over the country. The cost of living has risen steadily.

But wages have been stabilized and frozen. Labor has in large measure been frozen. Withholding taxes on top of hidden taxes have played havoc with the wages of the workers. The higher paid workers have had their real wages lowered. The lower paid workers have had their real wages reduced even further.

Who is at fault for this situation? First and foremost, the profit system under which we live, where everything is carried on for the private profit of a minority class of industrial overlords of business.

Big Business’s Share

Big business is producing for the War – that is to say, it is willing to operate its factories and “let” the workers toil – only on the condition that its profits are guaranteed.

The big industrialists have had new factories built for them. They have received all the materials necessary to operate their plants. They have received the government orders and money with which to proceed.

On top of all that, they have cost-plus contracts and where such contracts do not exist, they are guaranteed, a very substantial profit. This is revealed in the fact that, despite the highest corporation taxes in history, big business will get more than eight BILLION dollars of profit in 1943. Their “reserves” run into tens of billions of dollars.

And yet they have organized their forces throughout the land, their newspapers, their hired radio commentators, their congressmen and senators to fight any concessions to the workers and resist their legitimate demands.

In this situation, the Administration, seeking to satisfy the class interests it represents and at the same time placate labor by a few concessions, has made the situation worse.

The Little Steel Formula

The WLB has been a veritable bull in a china shop. It has contradicted itself endlessly. First it demands adherence to the rotten Little Steel formula. Next it announces that the formula is dead. Again it declares that the formula has been unfair to labor because it has resulted in laying the whole burden of the war economy on the shoulders of the workers. And finally it resolves to retain in full force and effect the same formula!

Stabilization Director Byrnes and his deputy, Mr. Vinson, have only muddied up the waters on their own. Vinson has rejected proposals for wage increases in the railway dispute agreed to by the unions and operators and recommended by a special panel. He was supported by his superior.

The Stalinist Daily Worker rushed into print to denounce the congressional reactionaries and to praise Philip Murray, saying that the steel workers’ strike is not like the coal miners’ strike and that the head of the Steel Workers Union is not a John L. Lewis. To be sure!

But did not the same situation prevail in the case of the coal miners? Weren’t the coal miners given the worst run-around in American labor history? Would the miners have obtained even what they did without resorting to their militant struggle for their rights?

The yellow Daily Worker and the liberal press point an accusing finger at only one group responsible in Washington, the congressional anti-labor bloc. But it would take all ten fingers to point to the anti-labor forces in Washington.

Read the charges of the railway unions against the Administration! And you will find that the anti-labor actions in Washington range from Congress to the Administration and its many bureaus and agencies which trip over each other.

The demand of the Stalinist Communist Party that the Little Steel formula be retained but that it be brought into balance with the stabilization program and the cost of living is a fraud. The only thing that can be done with the Little Steel formula is to throw it out of the window. It has served its only real purpose: to keep labor’s wages depressed!

It is impossible to create any balance with it. It is necessary to discard the formula. There can be only one measure bearing, any equity for the workers: An equal increase, in wages for every increase in the cost of living.

What Labor Must Do

The reactionaries and their press have used this fight by the railroad and steel workers to carry on an anti-labor campaign among the service men. The labor movement must take note of this campaign to tell the truth to its brothers in uniform!

What is the truth? The truth is that labor bears the main brunt of the war. Labor suffers from high prices, poor quality of goods, inequity in rationing, the vultures of the black market, high taxes, long hours of gruelling work. The right of the workers for better wages will not and cannot enrich them. It can only make their lives more bearable.

On the other side of the ledger we have big business getting rich out of the war. There you will find the real culprits. There you will find the profiteers in war goods and food and clothing and rents. There you will find cost-plus contracts and guaranteed profits.

Thus when big business strikes for its profits, that is called legitimately demanding “an incentive to produce.” When labor strikes for the right to live, that is called a strike against the war effort.

Senator David Walsh only last week stated that when the soldiers come back and find out about the “unconscionable profits” made by big business, they will have their say about this situation.

The railway labor unions have said as much and more. But it is necessary for the whole labor movement to get up on its powerful legs and tell the truth to the whole country, to every segment of the population: Labor is getting the heavy end of the load; big business is getting its greatest profits in history!

This is the real background to the labor dispute!

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