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Susan Green

Why Big Steel Forced a Strike: Aims to Revive Taft-Hartleyism

(10 October 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 41, 10 October 1949, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Steel workers to the number of 500,000 are out on strike – and thus Big Steel has its wish fulfilled. It is no exaggeration to say that the steel industry wanted a strike. Its conduct from the very inception of the dispute with the union indicates just that.

The United States Steel Corporation, leading the industry, refused to submit the issues to the president’s fact-finding board until the pressure of public opinion became too strong for it. Then, during the hearings, the representatives of steel companies continued to express their contempt for such boards in no uncertain terms, while several of these representatives – notably the president of Republic Steel – openly declared their preference for a strike.

Finally, when the board recommended a ten-cent-an-hour-increase settlement as against the 30-cent increase demanded by the union, and the union accepted this recommendation so unfavorable to the workers, the companies decided to hold to their “principle” that workers most also contribute to a pension fund.

The attitude of Big Steel must be understood to evaluate this strike of 500,000 workers which may spread, and include many thousands more. What is behind the industry’s insistence that workers must contribute along with the companies to the workers’ pension fund? The companies have been very “principled” about it. However, while “principle” is involved, it would seem that it is not the “principle” of contributory, pension funds.

Non-contributory pension systems now exist throughout the steel industry, however small and inadequate they are. And, of course, it is well known that better or worse non-contributory pension systems can be found in all industry, including coal and now the Ford plants. Reference must also be made to the very fancy and very adequate non-contributory pension systems the steel industry maintains for its own official staffs.

Why the Strike?

Therefore the non contributory principle for pensions is not the crucial issue. Neither is the big hurdle the money involved in the 10-cent package recommended by the board, since United States Steel has agreed to pay this.

The motivation for the steel companies’ forcing the strike can be found in the speeches of their representatives before the fact-finding board better than anywhere else. These representatives delivered heated diatribes against “statism” – and government boards. They did everything in their power to assert their freedom to reject its recommendations. In his ultimatum the other day, Benjamin Fairless, president of United States Steel, again referred to President Truman’s written assurance when he created the board “that its recommendations would not be binding.”

This is the point. Big Steel’s “principle” is refusal to accept the fact-finding board’s recommendation because the Taft-Hartley Law has been by-passed in the whole process. It wants the strike to revive Taft-Hartleyism. (See editorial on page 1 – Ed.)

Also brought out by the speakers for Big Steel before the fact-finding board is the anger the industry feels at having to deal with a union movement so well organized, so efficient, so potentially powerful. Between the lines of the speeches was evident the nostalgia of the steel magnates for the “good old days” when steel workers could be beaten back to work by violent and bloody means.

Steel owners are, of course, smart enough to know that those days are gone, that the United Steel Workers of America makes a world of difference, that it is here to stay and that even violent and bloody means will not break it. But the hope springs eternal in the breast of Big Steel that the union can be weakened, that it can be humbled, that its treasury can be depleted, that its members can be discouraged by a long strike in which the monetary stakes are small – and that Taft-Hartley will be used to teach the steel workers and others a “lesson.”

Appeasement Didn’t Pay

It would seem that the arrogance of Big Steel grew in direct ratio to the conciliatory attitude of the union leadership, and the question comes up whether the union leadership’s appeasement policy paid off. If the workers had struck on July 16 last, the first strike deadline, they would have been fighting for a 12½-cent wage increase, for 11.23 cents to put into a pension fund, for 6.27 cents to cover insurance – a 30-cents-an-hour package demand.

By accepting the recommendation of the fact-finding board, the leadership has given up the wage increase and whittled down the pension and insurance coverage to six and four cents respectively. But even this 10-cents-an-hour increase is no longer at stake for United States Steel, in negotiations with the federal mediator, consented to pay it only if the workers contributed to the pension fund also – single workers at the rate of $2 a month and married workers at the rate of $3.

It is plain, therefore, that the monetary gain the workers can win has been greatly reduced by the actions of the leadership before the strike. To be sure, Philip Murray has threatened to restore the wage demand of 12½ cents an hour and even the entire 30-cent package. It remains to be seen if he is serious about this, as the strike progresses. In the mean-time, it is’ incontestable that by having accepted the miserly 10-cent package recommended by the “neutral” fact-finding board, the original demands of the union were badly compromised.

What the government will how do remains to be seen. President Truman at this point does not intervene! The federal mediation service make further futile efforts to bring both sides together. As for applying Taft-Hartley at this time, that is not likely since there has already been a “cooling off” period of some 77 days since the first strike deadline.

What all of labor has to do seems plain enough. The steel workers have been forced out in a contest of strength. Labor’s strength is in solidarity and the steel workers need the support of all labor – indeed of all people whose fortunes are bound to those of labor.

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