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Susan Green

WLB Uses ‘Checks and Balances’
to Tip Scales Against Unions

Labor Must Ditch War Labor Board
to Save Its Skin

(31 January 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 5, 31 January 1944, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Every worker has heard the phrase, “checks and balances.” It’s another way of putting the idea that what the left hand gives the right hand takes away. Thus legislatures may pass pro-labor laws which the courts can “check and balance” off by declaring them unconstitutional.

The above story of a so-called wildcat strike in a Jersey shipyard exemplifies how the system of “checks and balances” works for American labor. In a nutshell, all the checks are put on labor – while the big profit balances pile up for the shipyard owners and their brethren.

The War Labor Board is itself an outstanding illustration. Labor representatives of the so-called “public.”

And who are these representatives of the public – supposed to be a cross-section of the American people seen by Mr. Johnson, who narrates the above story? He had dealings with three of them, namely Dr. John Steelman, Dean Wayne Morse and William Hammond Davis. Who are these men, besides being members of the multifarious public? Dr. John Steelman is professor of sociology and economics at Alabama University. Dean Wayne Morse is deal of the Law School at the University of Wisconsin. William Hammond Davis is a patent lawyer. Are these men free, unbiased, interested only in balancing the scales of justice in labor disputes? People are what their backgrounds make them.

The Universities of Alabama and Wisconsin are institutions of capitalist education – even though they may be state colleges. Their BASIC outlook – no matter in what “liberal” guise it is concealed – is that of private property. This is the background of Dr. Steelman and of Dean Morse.

Mr. Davis is a patent lawyer. Patent lawyers function for big fees paid by the captains of industry to protect and enlarge their profits by using and abusing the patent laws. Patent lawyers have a niche of their own in the capitalist structure.

How can such men represent the public interest when the public is made up overwhelmingly of the little people? THEY DON’T!

That does not mean that the War Labor Board granted absolutely none of labor’s demands in absolutely every dispute. Not at all! Enough minor demands are granted to give the appearance of fairness. BUT LABOR AS A WHOLE IS KEPT UNDER THE FREEZE.

From Smiles to Threats

The methods of the government men with whom the yard committee came in unhappy contact are in themselves an application of the system of “checks and balances.” Dr. Steelman, you noted, is “straightforward and democratic,” calling the shipyard committeemen “Bud.” He is the smiling receptionist, putting the horny-handed sons of toil at ease.

Dean Morse follows through with “sympathy.” He agrees with the yard committeemen that “that’s a pretty big speed-up you have ... the accident report shows it.” So the worried representatives of the shipworkers begin to feel they are among friends.

But then comes the balancing factor. Mr. Davis, patent lawyer, is the “other extreme.” He is not concerned about the “night shift that had already walked off the job.” Not he. He makes “his not very witty wisecracks about what he had done, to John L. Lewis” – while all the time the yard committee knows that Davis refers to what he had done to “500,000 sweating, underpaid miners.”

So the yard committee interprets Davis’s wisecracks as a warning to them. And sure enough, it was “checked and balanced” with an empty promise that the case will be taken out of the graveyard files of the WLB “some time in the near future.”

Why Was Hague Interested?

It is noteworthy that the politicians also come in as a factor. The Hague gang became a bit worried. Why? Because the WLB is part of the machinery of the New Deal, and Hague’s political wheels are important parts of the New Deal Democratic National Committee.

Boss Hague is kept in power by people such as these shipyard workers foolishly and blindly voting for his candidates. If the large body of shipyard workers are dissatisfied with the New Deal WLB, they might stop throwing away their votes on Hague’s dummies.

That is why Hague sent his nephew down to Washington with the yard committee to “check” on the WLB.

With what result? This “check” is balanced off by the WLB referring the case to the Shipbuilding Commission, which was, however, in the act of being reorganized and couldn’t take up the case just then.

Johnny Green’s Role

After two months of WLB “working” on their case – when the bitterness of the men, was great and spontaneous work stoppages, slowdown and sitdowns ended in a “sitdown that we couldn’t keep from the public.”

The WLB decides another “check” is in order. So Johnny Green – in person – is ORDERED BY DAVIS (!) to get the men back to work. Didn’t the WLB give Johnny the check-off in that yard in return for his promise to keep the men from striking? And doesn’t Green owe greater loyalty to the WLB than to his own men?

The rank and file did not reward their president “with boos and catcalls” – as sometimes is the response given by shipyard workers to the “friendly” admirals who exhort them not to strike while the company fleeces them. To Green they gave a painful, icy, “respectful, deadly silence.” But he deserved the same censure as anybody else who cripples the striking arm of labor.

The Last Straw

When, at long last, the WLB made its rulings in the case, they were a fine example of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. But modest as the rulings of the WLB were, the shipyard owners objected. Granting vacations, they claimed, was really a “wage raise” which was only more “checking and balancing” against labor.

That was the match that lit the tinder. After three months of shameful “checking and balancing” – with the union leadership working hand-in-glove with the pro-boss WLB ,and through it with the bosses themselves – “thirteen thousand men hit the bricks over the pleas of union officials’ and shop stewards.” THAT IS WHAT IT TOOK TO GET ACTION OUT OF THE WLB.

What are the lessons to be learned from Mr. Johnson’s graphic description of how the workers are being kept in check?

First, foremost and outstanding is the fact that it was only when “thirteen thousand men hit the bricks” that smug Mr. Davis in Washington stopped wise-cracking about what he

had done to the miners. There is no substitute for the might of the working people – no substitute for the, right to strike – no other way to make the industrial owners and their “public” servants heed the demands of the workers.

Therefore, the no-strike pledge has to be finally and officially rescinded by every international union: There must be an end of the “sad sight” of labor leaders pleading with the workers who pay them fat salaries, TO CAPITULATE TO THE CAPITALISTS.

Furthermore, the no-strike pledge is a hidden weapon against UNIONISM ITSELF. The unorganised workers in the yard could certainly see no reason for joining a union that was keeping its own members down, just as, the enemies of labor are. “The unorganized were more for striking than the organized. Non-unionists baited us for being afraid to strike.” That was the big hit the union made with the unorganized workers.

Labor or Capitalist Politics?

Mr. Johnson draws some very sound conclusions in his enumeration above. However, his last point is fundamentally wrong. It is indeed the fundamental wrongness of this point that makes it possible for labor to be “checked and balanced” as in the case of this shipyard strike.

Mr. Johnson says:

“Come election time, it will be difficult for Mr, Roosevelt to explain away the activities, of these gentlemen. Undoubtedly the closed shop, maintenance of membership and check-offs will hold the top labor officials, both AFL and CIO, on the President’s bandwagon. But rank and file workers who have been through the ordeal of the WLB, and who have been more or less coerced into acceptance of its decisions, will be on the lookout for a liberal candidate of presidential stature who will give the whole set-up the blasting it deserves.”

But wasn’t Mr. Roosevelt “a liberal candidate of presidential stature” who promised to give the whole setup that labor hated and writhed under the blasting it deserved? Why should labor run around in circles? Will Willkie be better than Roosevelt? Will the Republican Party be better than the Democratic Party? Will anything be changed except the names of the political job-holders?

It is high time to stop this nonsense of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Labor needs and must organise its own political party based on the unions and absolutely free and clear of all capitalist ties. Through the medium of an independent Labor Party it can proclaim a program to solve labor’s problems, on class lines. ASIDE FROM A CLASS SOLUTION, THERE IS NO OTHER.

And, of course, who, reading Mr. Johnson’s excellent story, does not want to shout: “LABOR MUST GET OFF THE WLB!”?

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