Ernest Rice McKinney Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

David Coolidge

A May Day Review of Labor and Its Problems

Labor in 1886 and in 1944

(1 May 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 18, 1 May 1944, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

When in 1884 the small and weak Federation of Trades and Labor Unions passed the famous resolution calling for a nationwide demonstration for the eight-hour day, it gave the mightiest impulsion to the labor movement that it had received up to that time in the United States. The resolution read:

“Resolved by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s work after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this jurisdiction that they so direct their laws to conform to this resolution by the time named.”

Down Tools May 1, 1886

This call for mass action, for the workers to lay down their tools on May 1, 1886, and demonstrate in the streets, was issued in the midst of a small depression and right at the time when capitalist big business was organizing with all its might to wreck a young but vigorous trade union movement. The New York Sun said in an editorial:

“Five men in the country control the interests of 500,000 workingmen and can at any moment take the means of livelihood from 2,500,000 souls – – They can stay the nimble touch of almost every telegraph operator, can shut up most of the mills and factories, and disable the railroads. They can issue an edict against any manufactured goods so as to make their subjects cease buying them and the tradesmen stop selling them ... they can array labor against capital.”

The opposition and scheming of the capitalist ruling class did not scare or frighten the unions. They had grievances and they were determined to fight for their just demands. The call of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions caught on. Great enthusiasm was engendered for the May 1st demonstration and strike. This was true not only among the skilled workers, but among the unskilled, who worked the longest hours.

The demand for the eight-hour day became the battlecry of all the forces of labor, and their ranks moved inexorably toward the first great working class political demonstration ever held in the United States.

That is what the struggle for the eight-hour day was: a political struggle, a struggle of class against class, a struggle that would inevitably involve the federal and state governments on the side of capitalist law and order and against the demands of the workers.

In reply to the call, the workers poured into the streets on May 1, 1886, and instituted the first May Day. There were thousands of strikers and demonstrators from all the big cities. Many thousands of workers won the eight-hour day and many more thousands had their hours of labor reduced.

When we speak of the eight-hour struggle and the celebration of May Day, it is fitting that we recall the Haymarket frame-up and the martyrdom of Parsons, Engel, Spies and Fischer. We have inscribed their names on our working class banner. We observe May Day not only to celebrate the victories of the past, but also as a memorial to our brothers, sisters and comrades who gave their lives to make those victories possible.


But of the eight-hour movement and the May Day demonstrations the AFL was developed and found itself at the head of the labor movement in the United States. Through long years of conflict and numerous crises – often meeting the forces of organized capitalism head-on – the movement grew and extended its influence.

Progress Through Struggle

All through the decades following the first May Day, organized labor learned through experience that it had to fight; that it had to strike and mass its thousands on the picket line. Quite often the leaders of labor were against the strike. They would listen to the siren voice of the capitalist enemy, capitulate before his threat of force or take to their heels when the capitalist government thundered from Washington. It was the pressure of the plain workers that lifted the movement to ever new heights and greater power and strength.

The labor movement today with its. millions is the heir of the struggles carried on during the years since the first May Day. We are the beneficiaries of the great militant strikes of the past half century: the militant railway strikes of the seventies, the bloody struggles of the miners and steel workers, of the garment workers, and all the other conflicts that brought the gains to labor that we enjoy today.

It was these militant and, often bloody struggles that brought what freedom the working class has today. It was through determined resistance to the capitalist ruling class that we gained the right to organize. Workers went to jail in the course of the struggle for the establishment of the unions and collective bargaining. This right was not granted freely by the capitalist employers nor was it granted and. protected by any “friendly” government.

A story has been going around the past ten years, fostered by trade union leaders, that the Roosevelt government, with its section 7A of the NLRA, gave the workers the right to organize “into unions of their own choosing.” This is a capitalist lie, a New Deal He. We won that right, along with every other right we possess, on a thousand picket lines over the past 125 years.

The Present and the Future

This is the brief story of our past. But what of today? What about the future? The labor movement cannot live wholly by its past. That is what some of our labor leaders of today would have us believe. They talk about the glorious past of the labor movement, and they are correct. They also talk about the future of the trade unions after the war. They tell us the story of their past militancy and what they will do in the future, “AFTER WE HAVE WON THIS WAR.”

R.J. Thomas proclaimed loudly in a UAW convention that he had called more strikes before Pearl Harbor than any other international president. He promised that after the war is over he will repeat that performance if the occasion arises. Phil Murray is proud of his record in the United Mine Workers’ struggles. The same can be said for any number of labor leaders. Even Sam Gompers once violated a court injunction.

Unfortunately, neither the capitalist class nor its government are awed or, deterred, even in their most timid moments, by the PAST militancy of the labor leaders. They know that this militancy never interfered seriously with capitalism nor with the accumulation of vast wealth by the capitalist class. The working class today, therefore, cannot live or make progress merely by contemplating its past militancy or by listening to the somewhat exaggerated role that the leaders claim for themselves.

We have to take stock of our labor movement today and the role played by the leadership right now. Waiting until after the war will not do. The capitalists do not wait until after the war is, over. Where their interests, power, profits and dividends are involved they make no distinction between before the war, during the war and after the war. The war to them is an episode – an important episode, to be sure – in the struggle for profits and the perpetuation of capitalism and a capitalist government.

Labor Since Last May

The struggles that have been forced on the labor movement since last May Day should make this clear. This period was notable because we witnessed open attempts of the ruling class to guarantee its rule and profits by demolishing the unions as bargaining agents for labor with power to enforce any demands made on the employers.

Even before the death of the New Deal had been announced by, its midwife, Roosevelt, the ruling class had brought this experiment in “capitalism for the millions” into the burial ground that big business had been preparing for several years.

The big capitalists succeeded in ,this by taking over the New Deal in a furious assault. The labor leaders, especially those of the CIO, had looked to the New Deal as the second great Magna Carta; the “Great Charter” of labor. They called on the New Deal government to protect the interests of labor, to defend the working class against the attacks of the big employers. When the war came, these leaders of labor, counting on the friendship of Roosevelt and “progressive” congressmen, virtually delivered the labor movement to Roosevelt and government boards appointed by Roosevelt. While the ranks of labor were not consulted, it was assumed that Murray and Green would be able to deliver.

The capitalist employers, however, had reason to be skeptical about this wedding between Roosevelt and the top leaders of the labor movement. They remembered the great mass struggles of the past and they knew that labor cannot so easily be brought under control. They especially feared the CIO unions – that had not reached the “age of discretion.” They had not become “responsible” labor bodies.

United States capitalism and the capitalist class were engaging in their second great imperialist venture. Capitalism at home must be made safe from attack by the workers.. The employers moved in and took over the New Deal. If Roosevelt wanted to be, a victorious war lord and war chieftain, then he must listen to the commands of the men of property. If he wanted appropriations and the agreement of the men of big business, then they must be accorded seats of control. THIS IS WHAT THE CAPITALISTS AND THEIR PRESS MEAN BY “LISTENING TO CONGRESS” AND BRINGING “PRACTICAL BUSINESS MEN INTO THE GOVERNMENT.”

Roosevelt submitted to the demands of the corporations, and not to the demands of labor. He didn’t have to obey the demands of labor. He had already very cunningly stripped labor of part of its power with the aid of the leaders of labor. He had their promise that the trade unions would not strike for the period of the war. The capitalists would go right on piling up their profits but the workers must consent to wage stabilization, job freezing, high living costs, the sixty-hour week, the Little Steel formula, the Smith-Connally Act and a national service act. They must submit to these iniquities because they had no way to break through this capitalist-New Deal barricade. THEY HAD GIVEN UP THE RIGHT TO STRIKE!

The Ranks of Labor Fight Back

With all this drive of the employers and the government, labor, however, refused to be pushed to its knees. The workers fought back. Faced by increasing threats to their already low standard of living, deserted by a cowardly leadership and faced with the annihilation of their unions, thousands of workers in numerous industries took to the picket lines.

Inspired by the indomitable courage and union discipline of the miners, a real upsurge of labor and a new birth of militancy took place in 1943. This was true not only of the CIO but of the AFL Jnions and the railway unions. The threat of further uprising was so ominous that the big bureaucrats of the labor movement began to bestir themselves against the Little Steel formula and for definite increases in wages and other demands that were being pressed an them by an aroused and betrayed membership.

The CIO convention did not endorse Roosevelt for re-election to a fourth term. The Communist Party’s delegates at the convention were, of course, ready for a blanket endorsement of Roosevelt, as was Hillman, but Murray knew that Roosevelt had betrayed svery Confidence that labor had placed in him. Murray could not, therefore, so easily shove this bitter pill down the throats of the CIO rank and file.

The attack of the employers and the government has been exposed, but it has not been halted. The imperialist war goes on, the capitalist employers want increased profits out of their war, the government at Washington wants the bureaucratic power and prestige which it gets from doing the will of its capitalist overlords. The drive against labor will continue. The WLB will not yield, Byrnes and Vinson will not yield. Stimson, Knox, Land and Roosevelt will press for their national service act. The employers will conspire and scheme for lower wages and longer hours. The drive will continue for piecework, wages. Congress will continue to be obedient to the demands of Wall Street, the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. There will be no reduction in workers’ taxes. There may be an increase. Government control of prices will continue to be the plaything of the food producers, processors and manufacturers, as it has been up to now. THAT IS, THESE EVILS, THESE ATTACKS ON LABOR WILL CONTINUE UNLESS WE OURSELVES DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

Reaffirmation of the no-strike pledge is not the answer-for labor to give. Support to Roosevelt or Dewey is no answer for labor to give. Labor members on the WLB and other government boards is “quack medicine.”

The miners gave the answer last year. And so did the rubber w.orkers. And so did thousands of workers in many industries. The steel workers made a beginning in December but Were halted by their leaders.

The Struggle Must Deepen

The voice of these workers was not loud enough, not insistent enough, not determined enough. What was done was only a mild gesture. It didn’t stop Roosevelt, nor Congress, nor the employers. It didn’t put sufficient heat under the labor leaders: the Murrays, Greens and Thomases. We haven’t put enough pressure on them yet. They cling to their no-strike pledge like drowning men to a small bit of board. They hang onto a few crumbs from the Roosevelt table as though there were not bread enough to go around.

What labor did since the last May Day was only a small sample of what we can do. The rising tide of dissatisfaction can swell into a mighty torrent. But we must take the no-strike halter from our necks. We must get away from the capitalist parties and into our own Independent Labor Party.

We must return to the spirit of ’86, which gave birth to our militant labor movement. We must carry on this year and the years to come in the spirit of militancy and aggressiveness that won for us what measure of freedom we have today. These victories were not gained with no-strike pledges!

Ernest Rice McKinney Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 17 October 2015