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David Coolidge

With the Labor Unions – On the Picket Line

(7 April 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 14, 7 April 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Bill Green on High Initiation Fees

In reply to & letter from Senator Norris, Bill Green, president of the AFL has a few words to say about the initiation fees of the AFL internationals. Green defends the present initiation fees on the ground that many AFL members object to a lowering of the fees because these members made sacrifices in building the unions and while fighting for decent wages. Green states that these AFL members “show that they were compelled to pay the same amount of initiation fees now collected from new members into the local when they joined ...” Furthermore, Green adds:

“they protest strongly that non-union men who now secure employment made no contribution toward the establishment of the decent wage scales which prevail, but in securing employment become the beneficiaries of the wage level established by the union, are entitled to all the benefits, and that the union requires the contractor to pay the newly admitted member the same wage scale and to accord to him the same favorable working conditions as every union member employed at the plant enjoys.”

This position of Green’s violates the fundamental principles of working class solidarity. He puts the thing on an out and out dollar and cents basis. This is “business unionism” with a vengeance. Of course, the men who built the labor movement made sacrifices. High initiation fees may be correct at one time and entirely unjustified at another time. The argument is as follows: “I paid $50 to joint the union 20 years ago and you should pay the same today.” Not so much because the union needs the money but because other members paid $50 years ago.

Furthermore, Green wails over the fact that new men in the union profit from union struggles of the past. The contractors are forced to pay the same wages to new men who didn’t participate in these struggles as did the old-timers. Of course! Does Green want to penalize workers who were still in their mothers’ wombs when a certain union was built? Or even workers who for one reason or another did not join the union as soon as they should?

To be sure, Bill Green is a muddle-head, but this is too much, even from him. One begins to realize why it is so easy for racketeers to get a hold in the AFL. They probably feel that if Green’s philosophy is the prevailing opinion in the organization, they may as well get theirs too. Also, on the basis of such a philosophy, these racketeers will find it easy to operate.

Tobin Also Writes His Views on Fees

Green sent his letter off last week. This week Tobin of the teamsters writes to Norris on the situation in his union. Tobin’s main argument is that Green does not have the power and authority to regulate initiation fees and dues in the AFL internationals. Also, he concerns himself only with the teamsters. He doesn’t mention Bill Hutchinson and the carpenters international.

Tobin writes that there a few locals of the teamsters that charge $100 initiation fees. He found one local in New York City that charges $250. He also cites the case of some locals in the midwest where the initiation fee is only $15.

However, Tobin, like Green, misses the main point. And this doesn’t concern Senator Norris or anyone else, friend or foe, outside the labor movement. That is: what is the chief function of the trade union movement and how it should go about carrying out this function? A union must have money and it can be secured only from its members. This is as it should be. The workers should and must support their own organizations. But Tobin, Green and other AFL leaders seem to believe that joining fees and dues should be directly proportional to wages received. Also that no matter what the size of the union or the union treasury, the joining fees and dues should remain stationary through the ages.

Tobin says that his international has six and a quarter million dollars in its treasury. Most of the locals and district councils also have fairly large sums of cash in their treasuries. One would think that it would be possible to reduce joining fees and dues from time to time as the membership and the cash balance of the union increase. Should the union face a special emergency such as a strike, then an assessment could be levied which the members would certainly be glad to pay.

One reason, of course, for the large fees and dues is the desire of officers, international and local, to be in a position to pay themselves huge salaries. Tobin gets $30,000 a year and other officers are paid generous sums. Besides this, they receive large “expense accounts.” Furthermore, a large treasury under the control of the officers gives them tremendous power. They dispense patronage to favorites and yes-men. They build up a machine that controls the organisation, often in violation of all the principles of trade union democracy.

To argue that a worker who will get a wage of $50 a week should not object to paying a fee of $100 to join the union is to make a racket of the union. If not a racket, the best that can be said is that such a union is a business like any other business. The function of the union is to better the economic conditions of its members. The rule and practice should be to have joining fees and dues as low as possible. This should hold especially for joining fees. Joining the union should be made as easy as possible to the end that the unions become mass organizations. Unions should not exist to pay large salaries to officers or to pile up large sums in the treasury in the manner of a business enterprise.

The Oklahoma Senate has passed a bill making it a penitentiary offense for a representative of a union to solicit workers on national “defense” projects for union membership. The bill passed 29 to 11 and was sent to the lower house for action. The fools who voted for this bill said that they wished to prevent the organization of laborers on airfield and army camp jobs in Oklahoma.

Of course, such legislation is unconstitutional and all of that. This is not what we are concerned with, however. Since the war projects are under federal supervision this bill can be only an attempt to keep labor organizers out of Oklahoma and to head off the further organization of workers in that state. These “lawmakers” are looking to the future. In their ignorant haste to protect Oklahoma businessmen they forget though, that labor has moved a long way from the 18th century when it was “illegal” for workers to organize. Such “laws” are not as easy to enforce today as they were then.

Some Figures on the Increase in Labor Productivity

The AFL has published figures to show that whereas the profits of business went up as much as 190 per cent in 1940, the average increase in wages was only about 5 per cent. Furthermore, the productivity of the workers increased to such an extent that the increase in wages was paid for by this increased productivity. This means that what the bosses are pleased to call “labor cost” didn’t cost the employers anything at all.

Since 1929, the AFL points out, hourly wages have been raised 30 per cent, but the output of the workers per hour has increased 40 per cent. The employers gained $2.00 in increased production for every $1.00 increase they paid in hourly wages.

What this means is very easy to understand. If one agrees that the bosses are entitled to profits (we don’t agree, of course), then one should understand that an increase in wages does not keep profits down one penny. Furthermore, when workers sometimes conclude, after an increase in wages, that they should produce more, they should understand that this greater production increases the corporation’s profits far out of proportion to the increase in wages. A few crumbs to the workers for increased production produces a whole loaf for the boss.

This is one of the reasons why workers should not be timid about asking for higher wages. We are talking about those workers who think it is O.K. in general for the boss to live off their toil. Modern machinery and technology make possible tremendous production from each worker. This high productivity guarantees huge profits for the boss. We say that even those workers who think that capitalism is a blessed event should not be hesitant about demanding more of the wealth they produce in the form of higher and higher wages.

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Last updated: 15.12.2012