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David Coolidge

With the Labor Unions – On the Picket Line

(16 June 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 23 No.24, 16 June 1941, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What It Takes to Work a Farm

The editor of Nation’s Business, writing in the May issue of that magazine, says that government reports that one-fourth of the farm families are undernourished are nothing more than maudlin propaganda. The editor must have spent all his time in the office of Nation’s Business: He says: “We’ve never seen a farm family – owner, tenant or sharecropper – who couldn’t raise a vegetable garden and truck patch if they were willing to exert the necessary elbow grease ...”

Well, there is no defense against stupidity and really no way to refute it: The editor of Nation’s Business is an ass, braying around as is customary with assess. We would like to see this stooge of big business trying to raise a vegetable garden or truck patch on one of the window sills in his office. Then he would discover how easy it is for a cotton region agricultural laborer to raise a garden without land. But perhaps this gentleman has never heard of the thousands of agricultural laborers who own no land and work for 75 cents a day.

He is wrong also about the tenant farmers and share-croppers. It takes more than “elbow grease” to raise a garden or truck patch. You have to have seeds, implements and land. You have to have time to work the land and something to eat while the crop is maturing. Also, you must live in a country and under a government that does not permit tenants, share-croppers and agricultural laborers to be robbed and murdered by cotton planters.

We don’t understand how “elbow grease” can do away with these evils: unless by elbow grease one means militant and planned action against the cotton planters by the workers in the cotton fields. This is the only kind of elbow grease that will even begin to get food, clothing and shelter for the share-croppers, tenant farmers and day laborers. But of course the editor of Nation’s Business doesn’t mean anything of this sort when he talks so glibly about “elbow grease.”

Who Says Government Workers Can’t Strike?

The dispute between the subway workers in New York City, who belong to the Transport Workers Union, CIO, and the city government will be passed on by the courts. That is. the court will render a decision saying whether or not these workers, as city employees, have a status as to collective bargaining, different from that of workers in private industry. The union claims the right to collective bargaining with the city. Mayor La Guardia and the Board of Transportation say no, since they are civil service employees. The city as well as the Civil Service Reform Association say that these workers are “public employees” and therefore can not demand the same rights as they demand from private employers. This means that workers employed by any government have no collective bargaining rights and of course no right to strike.

This type of reasoning of course is very flabby. In the first place, the civil service set-up is by no means a guarantee of equitable treatment from the “public” employer. The Civil Service Reform Association itself in the same report in which it claims that the subway workers are not entitled to collective bargaining rights chastises Mayor La Guardia for violation of the civil service law. This body claims that the mayor, even after court orders directing him to displace certain employees of the Welfare Department, has failed to do so. The report says that “even merit system-minded executives occasionally yield to the pressure of patronage seekers.” Therefore, how can the subway workers believe that this so-called merit system will not function against their interests?

What is more important, though, is the question of the relationship between a governmental authority and the trade unions. The claim that municipal, county, state or federal employees can not form themselves into unions and bargain collectively, and strike if it is found necessary, is based on the theory that the government is some impartial and neutral body. It is a “public” authority established by the people, workers and employers alike. Workers can not bargain collectively with this authority because it is a public authority and the workers are part of the “public,” They can’t strike against the government because this would be a violation of an agreement, of a contract. Also, the government is something above the battle; it is outside and above class and class strike.

All this of course is just so much twaddle which will be hauled out for use in the case of the strike at the North American Aircraft Company in California. The bosses and La Guardia and Roosevelt know that it is twaddle. If workers don’t bargain with and strike against the government when the government is the employer, whom will they bargain with and strike against? Certainly not against some private employer for whom they are not working.

The government in a capitalist country is the government of the capitalist class, it is a capitalist government. The President, Congress and the courts are the general executive board of that capitalist ruling class. The government fights in the class struggle on the side of the bosses. That’s why there is an army, marines and police. If nobody ever went on strike against a government there would never be any basic social change. Capitalism itself could never have triumphed, if the capitalist class of the 17th century had believed it, when the feudal lords told them: “You can’t strike against the government.” The capitalists did strike against the government. They overthrew feudalism and the feudal governments and established capitalism and their own government. If, in 1775, the American colonists had submitted to the warning of the British ruling class that “you can’t strike against the government,” there would be no USA. This whole land would still be a British colony and exploited by the British ruling class. Our early capitalists decided that they and not English capitalists should exploit American workers. They went to war against the British government and the British ruling class and drove them out. They didn’t stop at a mere “strike against the government.”

The subway workers of New York City are far more modest and considerate than were the early capitalists in dealing with the feudal lords, feudal governments, and with England. They don’t want to drive La Guardia out and displace the New York City government. They only ask that government to recognize their union and bargain collectively.

Should the federal government take over the North American Aircraft plant the workers will expect the government to recognize their union and. agree to collective bargaining. The workers will also demand the right to strike if they can not come to agreement with the government. Certainly the capitalists and their government don’t expect the workers to agree to accept less.

If the workers do accept less then they will find that all the unions will be smashed. All that is necessary to accomplish this is for the government to take over a plant as soon as a strike is called. The army will move in; the picket lines will be smashed and the unions will be finished. Then the workers in the U.S. will have no more to protect them than the workers in Germany have today.

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