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Susan Green

“National Defense” Used to Break
ALCOA Strike

(31 March 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 13, 31 March 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

LABOR ACTION Reporter Finds That It Took All Kinds of Pressure to Make the Men Go Back
to Work Without Gaining Their Demands Because They Were Willing to Stick It Through

“National defense” is being used as a weapon to cripple the striking might of the workers and keep them from getting higher wages to meet the rising cost of living.

The most glaring recent illustration of his is the strike at the Edgewater, N.J., plant of the Aluminum Company of America. Because of pressure from CIO leaders, upon whom pressure has been put at Washington by Sidney Hillman – placed on the OPM (war board) just for that purpose – the workers returned to work on Monday, March 24, without gaining a blessed thing.

About 3,000 men were on strike since March 12. The plant was at a complete standstill. The workers original demands – promptly refused by the company – were very reasonable. They then offered to compromise and accept much less than they first asked for. But the ALCOA would not give in an inch. They were then hit on the head with the hammer of “national defense” and bludgeoned back to work.

The profits of the aluminum monopoly, which is owned principally by the Mellons, one of the sixty gilded families who own all America, were not so much as dented. These profits have been so astronomical that ALCOA did not dare publish them for 1940. Even greater profits are in the offing, as is evidenced by plant expansion now under way. At Edgewater, N.J., while the struck plant was as silent as a tomb, construction waqs proceeding on a new plant now nearing completion.

The ALCOA manufactures aluminum sheets, aluminum rivets, pins and screws, and other materials for air and sea craft. It has already received, and is in line for getting more, tremendous orders from the government.

It took the speeches of six officials of the CIO, with which Local 16, Aluminum Workers of America, is affiliated, to get the strikers to abandon their excellent strike. When on March 12 the local voted to strike, it was in spite of the opposition of Nicholas Zonarich, international president of the union. No wonder it took so much talking to get the men back to work.

The Bergen Evening Record, Hackensack, N.J., editorializing on the strike, truly stated: “The strike was called against the advice of Local 16’s own international president, so the motive must have been deep and compelling.”

This same opinion was belligerently expressed to this reporter by a boy of ten whose father was on strike. He was putting on his skates at the curb near the struck plant and I went ever to talk to him. When asked why the men went out, the boy looked as if I had asked him why people have to eat. “They weren’t getting enough money!” he snapped, and continued fastening his skates.

Specifically, the men demanded that the company live up to the agreement which called for the payment of time and a half for all overtime. The company paid time and a half for work on Sunday, but for all other time over 40 hours, it refused to pay time and a half. The men wanted the time and a half called for by the contract, and in addition they asked for 10 cents an hour increase in wages.

When the management of the Edgewater plant refused to consider the strikers’ demands, representatives of the men went to the Pittsburgh office of the ALCOA. There they also met with a flat refusal.

At this point William F. Cann was assigned to the case by the Department of Labor. Leo Kriczski was put on the case by Hillman. These “unbiased” conciliators began to conciliate by asking the strikers to compromise – of course, in the interest of “national defense” (that’s what they call the war program). The strikers complied.

Victor Fulgo, chairman of the union’s publicity committee, told me they put their demand for 10 cents an hour increase down to 2½ cents. He also explained that the overtime the men were asking for was equivalent to 2½ cents additional an hour, so that they were willing to settle for 5 cents an hour increase instead of the total of 12½ their original demands amounted to.

A striker who drove me in his jaloppy from the Edgewater plant to the union headquarters at Cliffside said: “It isn’t as if the company was not making plenty of money. Nobody knows just how much they are making, except them that get it. So why shouldn’t we get something to meet the higher cost of living? My wife spends more for food, clothing and things for the house. It’s a losing proposition for us men.”

But the plant management has an entirely different point of view. It doesn’t worry how the workers will meet the rising cost of living. Again it refused to consider even this compromise demand of the workers, which obviously was a very substantial compromise.

Thereupon Vincent McKenna, president of the local, and George Binsted, secretary, flew to Pittsburgh to take the compromise demands up with the main office of ALCOA. Cann of the Department of Labor and Kriczski of Hillman’s office sat in on the conference. It lasted over five hours. The company refused to come to terms. The next thing the strikers’ committee and the mediators were called to Washington by Hillman.

Back at the Edgewater plant the “national defense” pressure was becoming too great for the strikers to resist. On March 19, as a result, the union allowed eleven of its members to walk through the picket line to load 76 tons of finished products. The six trucks, on which the stuff was loaded were labeled: “This material is property of US Government.” It was destined for naval construction.

Another factor that handicapped the strikers was the silence of their negotiating committee. While McKenna and Binsted were in Washington, they were not in communication with the local and did not send infprmation on the developments. The men had only confusing rumors to go by. Some were to the effect that the government was going to take over the plant. Others that Hillman was insisting on breaking the strike. Finally word came from McKenna to call a meeting of the strikers for Sunday, March 28, at which a report would be given. It was at this meeting that the screws were applied and the men were forced to abandon their strike.

Irving Abramson, president of the New Jersey State CIO, who was one of the speakers at the meeting, stated to reporters:

“The return of the workers is made and the settlement of the strike will be made with the hope and understanding that the management will assume as much of the responsibility as labor is doing under the national defense program.”

Abramson apparently forgot that the management did not assume any “responsibility” while the workers had the plant tied up. Why should management be different now when the workers have resumed work, and profit-making goes blissfully on!

Abramson also said that the union had decided to change its tactics and continue negotations on a national scale. An increase will now be negotiated for the Edgewater plant as well as for 21 other plants of ALCOA which were not affected by the strike.

A young striker who spoke to me had a much better plan from the point of view of the workers. This worker had less love for ALCOA than the average worker at the Edgewater plant has. He had been hurt at work, wound up with a hernia, and had trouble getting any compensation from the company. So he doesn’t like ALCOA.

His idea was to extend the strike to all the ALCOA plants. He said that while the Edgewater plant was closed down, the speed-up was used in the other plants to make up for the loss of work in the struck plant. He said this naturally weakened the strikers’ fight.

Meanwhile the government continues to give juicy orders to ALCOA. The newspapers announced another such order on March 21.

In the interest of “national defense” – which is another way of saying imperialist war – the workers have to negotiate their modest demands to meet the rising cost of living. The negotiations will very likely take weeks, if not months. Under the circumstances of an abandoned strike, it is likely that they will get next to nothing. But the fat profits of the company will keep on moving upwards.

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Last updated: 16 February 2014