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David Coolidge

What Labor Can Learn from Recent RR Situation

(7 February 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 6, 7 February 1944, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

One of the strangest escapades yet indulged in by the Roosevelt government has been terminated by the return of the railroads to the capitalist bondholders and stockholders, that is, to the owners of the roads. The twenty-two-day colonels have returned their eagle bedecked uniforms to the War Department, along with their commissions. These railroad presidents remain “gentlemen” but they are no longer “officers.” The saluting is over, the presidents are plain Mr. or Bill, and Mr. Roosevelt is no longer their Commander-in-Chief:

Farcical Bumping

These twenty-two days of government “ownership” were not only an escapade, but somewhat of a farce. Not a farce from the side of the railway unions, but a farce from the side of the government bureaucrats who attempted to bungle through as in so many labor disputes. The railroad unions did a good job and came out of the affair with real gains which resulted from the mass pressure they had voted to exert.

In the course of the fight, “Assistant President” Byrnes and Vinson, the assistant to the “Assistant President,” were kicked around like a Missouri hound dog. General Marshall also came in for attention by Labor, the official paper of the railway unions. This paper stated that the White House had used Marshall in the “strangest of propaganda stunts,” “in a scheme to inflame public opinion” against the unions.

It was only the railroad unions that came out of the contest with any degree of honor. Not only this, but they achieved something more substantial than the honor of the unions. They got wage increases beyond what they were prepared to accept from the National Mediation Board. The board had made an award of eight cents an hour. Boss Vinson vetoed this and said that four cents was enough. In the final settlement, the operating brotherhoods got an increase of nine cents an hour, plus a week’s vacation with pay, which they didn’t get before.

The non-operating organizations got increases of from nine to eleven cents an hour. The four to ten cents part of the settlement is retroactive to February 1, 1943. This will total about $170,000,000.

One of the most important aspects of the victory of the unions was the defeat of Roosevelt’s intention to freeze the wages for the duration of the war.

“Above all,” says Labor, “they blocked the scheme of President Roosevelt and ‘Assistant President’ James F. Byrnes to freeze rail wages for the duration ... On top of that, they vindicated the all-important principle of collective bargaining ... and set a precedent which will aid all unions in all industries.”

Another Hole in Little Steel

The railroad settlement means that the Little Steel formula has been punctured again. Last June Vinson vetoed the eight cents an hour increase because he said it exceeded the Little Steel formula. But now it is claimed that although nine, ten and eleven cents are more than eight cents, the formula has not been breached and “inflation” need not be feared.

How did the government arrive at such a conclusion? The slick statisticians and economists who work for the various government boards and stabilizers said that overtime pay should be absorbed in the hourly increase in pay.

If you call overtime pay which you never got before, a part of your regular hourly rate of pay even though this means more money per hour and by the week, that is not inflationary. If you get nine, ten and eleven cents increase in pay by counting in your overtime, that will not produce inflation even though you get more money each week. But if you are given a straight eight cents an hour increase, that will be inflationary, even though you will have less money in your pay envelope each week!

Holding Down Basic Pay

This sounds crazy, but there is method in the madness of the Roosevelt government on this point. The Roosevelt capitalist government and the capitalist employers are not so much concerned with what they call “inflation” but with holding down the base rate of pay.

They are insisting here, as in the case of the miners, that if workers get more money in their weekly pay envelopes, it must come, not from an increase in the basic hourly rate, but from overtime work, from putting in more hours. That is, they want to increase the length of the working day. They have no serious objection now if the workers take home fifty dollars for sixty hours of work, but they are against his having the opportunity to take home fifty dollars, say, for forty hours of work.

The owners of industry and their government at Washington have their eyes on the post-war period. Should labor establish comparatively high basic hourly rates of pay now, the workers will fight after the war is over to retain this basic hourly rate. The employers, aided by their government, are laying plans for holding down wages and increasing hours for the period after the war. The nonsense about inflation is simply a scheme to hide their intentions from the working men and women.

It is necessary to make some comment on the business of the government taking over the railroads.

It Was a Phony

The government didn’t really take over the roads any more than it took over the mines. A government does not and cannot take over capitalist private property simply by nailing up a sign saying: “No Trespassing, Property of the United States Government.” Neither can any government take over capitalist private property by putting a few corporation presidents in army uniforms with eagles on their shoulders.

The only way a government can really nationalize capitalist private property is by expropriating the capitalists, by taking their property from them, in the name of and for the benefit of all the people, eliminating the payment of interest and dividends to the private owners, and of all private profit.

All the government did in the case of the railroads was exactly what it did in the case of the mines. It carried on operations to guarantee that its imperialist war plans would not be interfered with and to head off a strike against the capitalists who own the railroads and the mines. All the workers know, however, that neither the railroad workers nor the miners got anywhere with the government and their capitalist bosses until they decided that mass action was the next step.

Now that the railway unions have won a victory for themselves against their employers and the government, we think it in place to call their attention to a very disgraceful situation which they have conspired with their capitalist employers to create.

Negro Railroad Workers

We refer to their monstrous, reactionary, anti-labor and anti-democratic attitude toward Negro railroad workers. We are speaking specifically about the firemen, engineers, conductors clerks, brakemen, switchmen and all those railroad unions which exclude Negroes from membership, and conspire with the employers to keep them from holding certain jobs and getting promotions.

With the utmost stupidity, these unions make a bloc with the railroad companies against Negro workers. They mouth about “democracy,” they fight for the democratic rights of white workers and at the same time lead these same white workers to practice the most vicious form of discrimination and hatred against Negro workers.

Instead of placing themselves in the forefront of the struggle for democratic rights for Negroes, these unions join with the reactionary employers, the Negro-hating and labor-hating Southern congressmen, the Ku Klux Klan and all the most rabid and backward forces in the population against the Negro workers.

Labor, the official organ of the railroad unions, is a very progressive union paper on many important issues. But on the matter of discrimination against Negro workers it is noticeably and strangely silent.

At the top of its editorial page Labor carries the expressions: “INDUSTRIAL DEMOCRACY” and “TRUTH, JUSTICE AND FREEDOM.” For whom does Labor seek industrial democracy? For whom does it seek freedom and justice? For white people and white workers only? It’s about time Brother Keating had something to say in Labor on this question.

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