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David Coolidge

Notes of the Month

Labor Problems at the Steel Workers Convention

(May 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 5, May 1944, pp. 131–135.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The recent convention of the United Steel Workers of America revealed in the starkest manner all the contradictions which the labor movement has been placed in through the operation of the class collaborationist and pro-war attitude of the trade union leadership. And not only were the contradictions between class collaboration and the material needs of the working class easily apparent, but it was also clear that among the CIO leadership, at least, there is great fear that they will not be able to hold the line much longer in the face of growing resentment among the workers. Furthermore, the labor leaders are beginning to understand just a little that they too, as well as the rank and file, are being kicked around by the Administration in all its various branches. This fact, known not only to all the trade union leadership but to the rank and file as well, does not make it easier for the labor bureaucracy to continue with the line of the past two years. Neither the big stick, nor pleading, or sophistry or the usual maudlin and extraneous sentiments about not failing the boys on the fronts, suffices any longer, One simple weakness of the tactic of appealing to the patriotic sentiments of the workers is its total irrelevance in the mind of the intelligent worker. Not only is this appeal irrelevant but also misplaced and essentially impotent. It is irrelevant in the first place because it bears no logical or practical relation to the question of production, except from the standpoint of increasing capitalist profits. Virtually every government official who has any connection with war production has commented again and again on the tremendous and phenomenal rise in production. This has been particularly true in the production of ships, airplanes and munitions. Next is the fact that the demand of labor for wage increases is just that and nothing more: a demand for more money in the pay envelope to take home. A steel worker can be a flaming patriot, like Murray, or a revolutionary opponent of the war and yet discover a community of interest based on the need for a wage increase of seventeen cents an hour.

The Labor Leaders and Wages

The labor leaders continue to tie up the demand for wages with the question of production and the problem of winning the war. The government claims that wages are stabilized because this is a device for avoiding inflation, or runaway inflation, as it is often termed. Labor leaders as a rule do not attack this inflation theory of the government. This would lead them into a head-on conflict with the Administration, expose the fraudulent nature of the “inflationary spiral” propaganda and make it extremely difficult for the union bureaucracy to continue support of the concessions which labor has made during the war. Union leaders have posed as experts on the war and what is required from labor, but they have had little to say on the matter of monopoly prices and the maintenance of cartel agreements in relation to inflation. That is, such important and pertinent things as high profits, salaries, dividends and monopoly prices are not used by the trade union leadership in order to expose the essentially fraudulent claims about wage increases producing inflation.

The CIO has demonstrated that the cost of living has risen 43.5 per cent since January 1941. But even this is not pushed energetically as the basis for the demand for a rise in wages. The labor leadership refrains from conducting a campaign for wage increases based on the increase in profits, salaries, dividends and the rise in the cost of living. They always bring in the war. Not the war profits, salaries, dividends and interest, but the military problem of winning the war and the patriotic responsibility of labor to win the war, no matter what the bourgeoisie may happen to be doing.

There is a reason for this queer procedure by the trade union bureaucracy. Should they say point-blank that the workers are entitled to a wage increase and that the granting of such an increase has no necessary connection with the winning or losing of the war, then there would be no way to escape making a frontal attack on the whole governmental set-up as it relates to labor. To take such a position in practice would be inconsistent with the pledge not to strike for the duration of the war. Should the labor leaders take the war and patriotism hokus-pocus out of the wages question and stick to their time-honored claims about economic demands, collective bargaining and the “just demands of labor,” they would be forced to answer very embarrassing questions about the no-strike pledge.

In order to escape this embarrassment we see the miserable performance of Murray at the recent steel workers’ convention, telling the delegates that if they withdrew the no-strike pledge that would be regarded as an insult to the armed forces) and using the preparations for the coming military invasion of Europe as an argument against rescinding the no-strike pledge. If one looks only at the surface antics of the labor leadership, neither their position nor their apology for their position makes sense. Here is the fact that both the AFL and the CIO have produced statistics to prove that the cost of living has risen 45.5 per cent since January 1, nearly twice as much as the index of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The steel workers have prepared a thoroughly documented and competent brief on the condition of steel workers and the ability of the steel corporations to pay increased wages. Industry was dumbfounded at the deadly accuracy of this brief and the irrefutable presentation of the steel union officials. Furthermore, the figure of the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the cost of living has advanced beyond the provisions of the Little Steel formula. And yet the CIO leadership contents itself before its own members with the argument that the objective economic situation is not what should decide the policy of the unions but the military question of winning the war; a matter, of course, which labor is not called on to decide and cannot now decide. The question which labor can decide and is squarely Confronted with and for which labor is responsible to itself is deliberately obscured by the leadership in the most Jesuitical manner, with a great deal of cant and saccharine verbosity about labor’s responsibility for not holding up production and for the necessity “to win this war. “

Labor and “Winning the War “

Even if it is assumed that labor has a responsibility to “win the war,” what can the working class do that it has not already done? Nobody except a few professional liars, DAR reactionaries and the most incorrigibly and blindly reactionary of the bourgeoisie even pretend that labor has not produced in more than abundance. Even the most stupid must know by now that net profits have mounted to such gigantic sums that the money is actually available to pay even greater wage increases than are asked by the workers. Then why do the labor leaders hesitate to let the matter of wage increases rest on the sound and unadulterated foundation of need, validity, justice and the availability of the necessary wealth with which to meet the demand? Why do they confuse the question of the war with the simple economic demands of the workers, especially when the material satisfaction of those demands can easily be taken care of with ill effects only upon the big monopolists?

Furthermore, why does the labor ‘bureaucracy become so disturbed when the no-strike pledge is attacked? Is it because they believe the no-strike pledge has resulted in gains for labor? How can they prove this and to whom? Surely not to the steel workers or the shipyard workers. It would be difficult to prove to the miners that they would have gained more if they had not had their four strikes last year. This, of course, is one of Murray’s beloved arguments. The steel workers had a certain number of members at the time the no-strike pledge was given; and now, just look: after two years of the pledge, the union has around two hundred thousand more members. Could any argument in support of the no-strike pledge be more fatuous and asinine? To be sure the union has more members. It has a bigger treasury. Having more members and a bigger treasury made it possible to raise the wages of the regional directors from $360 to $500 a month. But the steel workers get the same wages from the steel corporations they got two years ago. Their regional directors will get an additional $140 a month from the union treasury, but the ordinary rank and file have no idea when, if ever, they will get their modest little seventeen cents an hour increase. Murray gets his $20,000 and Bittner, Golden and McDonald their $10,000, but the seventeen cents an hour increase of the steel workers rests safely in the archives of the War Labor Board.

Are the labor bureaucrats worried for fear revocation of the no-strike pledge would produce strikes all over the country and thereby curtail production? Strikes would stop production; that is the purpose of a strike. But does it follow that mere rescinding of the pledge would cause strikes? We can say that it would be possible to rescind the no-strike pledge and there be no increase in strikes merely because the pledge had been rescinded, just as it would have been possible to refuse to give the pledge and yet keep strikes at a minimum. Workers don’t go on strike merely to demonstrate their independence, or to prove that they can live without working. In the present concrete situation, however, revocation of the no-strike pledge would undoubtedly precipitate a wave of strikes and filing of strike notices under the Smith-Connally Act. The labor bureaucracy knows this. They know that the pledge is a deterrent. Therefore they fight in every convention and in every edition of the union papers for a continuation of the pledge. But this can’t save them. When we say that revocation of the pledge would be followed by a wave of strikes we only say that the strikes would be justifiable and a reasonable and responsible action by the working class. That is, it would be a responsible class action by the workers in their own class interests.

Effects of the No-Strike Pledge

No matter what arguments were or could have been made for the no-strike pledge, those arguments have been proved invalid, defeatist and disruptive. The pledge has weakened the labor movement and pushed it back. The militancy of the movement was dampened while the employers and the government took the offensive against labor. Constant reaffirmation of the pledge left labor no weapon with which to meet this offensive. All of this should be clear even to the editor of that putrid and miserable petty bourgeois weekly, The Nation, which proclaimed last year that the miners should not strike, no matter what their grievances were.

It is because they recognize now that they face defeat that the workers would resort to their former militancy, including the strike. They have beheld the complete failure of the cringing and puerile pacifist methods of their leaders. The miners were forced to strike four times in one year to get even some slight gains. The shipbuilding workers asked for a small wage increase in the summer of 1943 and some of these workers were granted about one-half of the increase asked in the spring of 1944. The steel workers’ contract expired in December 1943 and despite Murray’s blustering about not working without a contract, in May 1944 these workers do not have a contract. After a walkout of approximately 175,000 of them in December 1943, in May 1943 not only have they not received any wage increase but there is no evidence that the WLB plans to render a decision prior to the November election. As this is being written, the only activity going on in connection with the case is a parade of steel barons, bourgeois economists and other sycophants before the WLB insisting that to raise wages in steel would wreck this infant and struggling industry. This is the industry whose net profits during the war have increased 244.6 per cent over the period 1936 to 1939. Steel dividends during the war have increased 59.1 per cent, assets over one billion dollars and reserves have increased by 161 million dollars. To this must be appended the revenue provision that steel companies which break even or make a profit during the war are guaranteed tax refunds for two years equal to their peacetime annual average net profits.

All of these facts and more have been placed before the steel workers in the brief laid before the WLB. While this brief applies specifically to the steel industry, its main lines are applicable to the whole of industry and labor. The grievances of labor have been compiled, organized and argued with clarity and force. Not a single contention made by labor has been refuted. But the labor movement only sits and waits and listens to the upper bureaucracy demand reaffirmation of the no-strike pledge.

Murray feigned surprise at the steel workers’ convention that the delegates showed so little interest in the wage question when presented to the convention. He wanted spirited discussion on this issue. But what was there to discuss? Two days before, the convention had reaffirmed the no-strike pledge. A rock-ribbed case was in the hands of the WLB. In the light of this real situation, what was there to discuss? The growing experience of labor, the facts in the case and the increasing realization that a stalemate has been reached indicate one thing and one thing only: labor cannot move so long as it adheres to the no-strike pledge.

An Impasse Has Been Reached

Murray, the two Greens, Thomas, Reuther and the rest of the AFL-CIO leadership know this. They know that an impasse has been reached. They know that the condition of the working class is not improving. They ought to know that it will steadily grow worse if some steps are not taken to halt the organized and planned offensive of the bourgeoisie and its government. This situation confuses and perturbs hundreds of thousands of workers. At the recent steel convention, the writer was discussing the question with some delegates who took the position: “We don’t want strikes during the war, but we are against this no-strike pledge. It ties our hands. “

In order to clarify the problem before the trade unions it is necessary to get at the roots of the difficulty. The problem is not resolved merely by saying that the union bureaucracy is pro-war. Thousands of workers are pro-war in the sense that they believe Hitler must be defeated or that fascism must be defeated. Thousands believe that the war is being fought for something they call “democracy.” There are other thousands who take a more positive and unambiguous pro-war position. But in the ranks of each of these groups are very militant workers who are thoroughly dissatisfied with the no-strike pledge and other events transpiring today. There is reason to believe that if a secret referendum was held the overwhelming majority of labor would vote to revoke the no-strike pledge.

AFL and CIO Differences and Similarities

The CIO leadership is pro-war, but there is a difference between the AFL and the CIO on this matter. With the AFL the pro-war position is a type of unadulterated and direct class collaboration. The AFL leadership goes along with “free enterprise” wherever it may lead, whether in peace or war. This leadership does not and cannot conceive of the labor movement as in any way divorced from capitalism even in its most conservative manifestations. The AFL can therefore .endorse Martin Dies for reelection and issue a statement on post-war planning that in no important aspect differs from the pronouncements of Eric Johnston, president of the United States Chamber of Commerce. To be sure, a part of the orientation of the AFL is based on its feud with the CIO and the preference of the big bourgeoisie for the older organization. Furthermore, the AFL is always concerned with using and protecting whatever bargaining advantages it may have as an organization of skilled craftsmen which has established a certain prestige and stability in the narrow field in which craft unionism operates. This prestige and stability and the preference of many employers for dealing with a “responsible” organization give the AFL some advantage when attempting to expand into the mass production field.

The AFL was never as ardent a supporter of the New Deal as was the CIO. The older organization was always a little suspicious of the value of government intervention in the solution of the problems of industry-labor relations. This attitude was based not only on the basic Gompers philosophy but probably on the experience of the leaders with concrete experiences the organization had had with such forms of intervention as court injunctions, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Clayton Act. Long before the New Deal, Gompers had hailed Section 6 of the Clayton Act, beginning with, “The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce,” as labor’s “Magna Charta upon which the working people will rear their constitution of industrial freedom.” Despite this outburst of Gompers, a few years later the AFL was fighting all along the line for a change in the procedure of the courts in validating “yellow dog” contracts and holding them not in violation of the provisions of the Clayton Act.

Furthermore, the AFL, following the oft-quoted statement of Gompers, believed that the time had come for industry and labor to sit together at the council table to arrive at decisions in the mutual interest of both groups. The government should remain aloof and permit labor and capital to solve their own problems. The old-line trade union bureaucracy were and remain protagonists of a type of craft business unionism which developed alongside laissez-faire capitalism. This philosophy is reiterated and emphasized again in the recent AFL pronouncement on post-war planning.

While it must be emphasized over and over that both the AFL and CIO are pro-war and class-collaborationist institutions, the difference in approach to the solution of the problems of labor is important for understanding the dilemma of the CIO leadership.

New Deal Misunderstood

The pro-war allegiance of the CIO bureaucracy flows not only from their basic collaborationist position but also from the way this bureaucracy appraises the New Deal. In the long run, of course, any principled position they may have in connection with the New Deal is reduced in practice to simple support of Roosevelt, who to them is the New Deal made flesh and dwelling among men. It must be remembered that the CIO came on the scene in the heyday of the New Deal, which was hailed as labor’s new Magna Charta upon which the working people would surely this time rear their constitution of industrial freedom. It is not difficult to understand how such simple and primeval minds as Philip Murray’s might be beguiled into believing that New Deal capitalism was pro-labor. One can understand also why a leader such as R.J. Thomas, fortuitously hurtled to the top of the UAW, might not be able to grasp the meaning of the New Deal. It is easy also to explore the minds of the “socialists,” John Green and Walter Reuther, and see that to them the New Deal represented one rung in the gradualist ladder leading to “socialism in our time. “

Murray, and John L. Lewis too for that matter, did not understand that the New Deal was a relief measure. The fact that some of the more romantically exuberant and liberal New Dealers may have believed that their refurbished capitalism would bring plenty for all does not alter the fact that the New Deal was instituted in order to hold the line for capitalism. Roosevelt said this again and again but class collaborationist labor leaders are not famous for being guided by these utterances of bourgeois statesmen which are true and factual. The federal housing program was a relief measure and was never envisaged as a permanent feature of capitalist society competing with private construction. The forty-hour week was also a relief measure made for an emergency in order to spread the work. The capitalist press is correct in stating this insofar as the bare facts in the case are involved. The bourgeoisie hammers away at this for its own class reasons, of course. What the labor leaders have failed to do is to attack the scuttling of the federal housing program and the extension of the work-week in a way demanded by the class interests of the proletariat. The same goes ior the so-called premium pay which was relinquished without a struggle.

The more enlightened of the CIO leadership saw that the system of “free enterprise” had broken down. Roosevelt saw this also. He set out to repair the damage. The CIO leaders concluded that a part of the damage Roosevelt would repair was the damage which had been done the working class and the trade unions in the days of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. The Republican Party was conceived in sin and born in iniquity, but the Democratic Party of Roosevelt had been washed in the blood of the lamb. They sensed that in the circumstances, government aid and intenvention were necessary. They called on the New Deal to protect labor, to rescue the people from want and insecurity.

Labor leaders either forgot or did not understand that business was also calling on the government for help. If their plea was not so loud as that of labor, business at least was willing for government to intervene long enough to help “free enterprise” to stand on its feet again. Also the labor bureaucracy did not realize that in days past business had not only acquiesced in government intervention but had demanded it. For decades and decades, for instance, business has demanded and received aid and protection from government in the form of increasingly high protective tariffs. And the story of the building of the railroads with government subsidies in cash and free land could have taught labor leaders some of the things important to know about whose interests capitalist governments really serve.

The New Dealers declared that they were out to help everybody. The CIO leaders took their representations at face value. These gullible men, politically ignorant and whose grasp of economic realities is as slight as that of Alf Landon, dragged the whole labor movement into the New Deal fairyland. In the long run, as is evident today, this meant to drag the labor movement into the net of the bourgeoisie. There were certain agitational and tactical advantages labor could have secured from the New Deal. But the class-collaborationist labor leaders, like all class-collaborationists, proceeded tactically and in practice not from a base of proletarian class principles, ‘but on a purely opportunistic platform which keeps the working class tied to the Democratic Party – which means: tied to Roosevelt and the bourgeoisie. This is important for any understanding of the dilemma the CIO leadership finds itself in. The root of the difficulty would be crystal-clear if the Republicans should win in November. It is in part to save themselves from this acute embarrassment that Murray and the others strive with might and main to force Roosevelt to run again, and will turn heaven and earth to secure his election.

Tied to Roosevelt

The coming of the Second Imperialist World War complicated things for the trade union bureaucracy, especially the CIO leadership. Not simply because, as believers in class collaboration, they would accept the war, but concretely for the reason that they were and are Roosevelt idolators. They are not only American patriots of the common garden variety, but Roosevelt patriots. They were blind to the relationship between the New Deal and capitalist society, but also to the relationship between the present war and capitalist society. They make no significant connection between the war, capitalism, the importunities of bourgeois society and the difficulties the labor movement faces. The CIO leadership still looks to Roosevelt as a savior; not just a lesser evil, but a real savior. To them there is only one evil, the defeat of Roosevelt and the victory of the Republicans. They see but two alternatives: Roosevelt or the Republicans. They follow Roosevelt even though he slay them and the labor movement.

This is why Murray is always disturbed by the raising of the no-strike pledge. A commitment has been made to Roosevelt. He is for Roosevelt and Roosevelt is for the war. This is the concrete way that class collaboration expresses itself right now. This is how and why in practice the CIO bureaucracy delimits the activity of the unions even on the wages question and other matters like longer hours, “work or fight,” job stabilization, income taxes, etc.

We said further back that the existence of the war is not relevant in a discussion of the wage demands or to insistence on revoking the no-strike pledge. It is now necessary to clarify this judgment. These considerations are not relevant if one is taking a position based on the needs and interests of the working class as a class. Labor resents the no-strike pledge, presses its demands for wage increases and continues to strike because the working class discovers out of its experience that it must do this to protect its organization and standards of living. That is, labor pursues the class struggle because of class need despite any attitude which workers may have on the war as such. We are witnessing today the formation of class-conscious attitudes in the ranks of labor. This is unquestionably due in part to the increasing success of the propaganda of the Marxists, which is surely being integrated into the experience of the proletariat.

The trade union bureaucracy has some meager understanding of what is taking place. They know that to yield only a little will cause the dam to burst and the result will be the rising of the resentment of labor to flood tide. Hence the appeal to patriotism, to the “support of the boys over there” and to keeping “our promise to the President.” In this sense, that is from their pro-Roosevelt, pro-war position, their advocacy of class peace and the feeling that there is no other place to go, the seemingly queer actions of the leaders are relevant.

Restoring Labor’s Power

It is interesting to note that whereas the AFL and CIO make a different approach to the problem of government intervention, the paths of both organizations converge and they move off together in the same direction: support of the Second Imperialist World War. And not only this, but each organization moves in the direction of the other in politics. The AFL for years has had the position that in politics they would “reward their friends and punish their enemies.” But that is precisely what the CIO position reduces to. The fact that the people supported by the CIO are less reactionary than some supported by the AFL does not by any means answer the real problems faced by the labor movement. Neither the AFL nor the CIO candidates for office are pro-labor in the sense of being against the Little Steel formula, high income taxes for workers, or any of the other measures put through by the ruling class. The AFL supports those candidates who are friends of labor as the AFL understands it. The CIO supports those candidates who support Roosevelt.

The no-strike pledge today represents the apex of class collaboration. The fact that it was given in relation to the war is not only significant as evidence of the support of the imperialist war by the labor bureaucracy but also as a manifestation of the willingness of the trade union leadership to push the working class as a class into capitulation to the bourgeoisie as a class. The rescinding of the no-strike pledge would not be merely an incentive for labor to press its demands by vigorous mass action but, far more important, it would mean that as a class labor had risen to its feet again, that it had improved its understanding, if not of the theoretical implications of their action, at least of the more practical manifestations of present-day imperialist society. Such a political act by the proletariat would certainly be understood by the bourgeoisie for what it really was: intensification of the class struggle.

Furthermore, in the course of the struggle against the no-strike pledge, those militant workers who are still pro-war would have their education enhanced. They would begin to understand the contradiction between support of the imperialist war and the insistence on their class rights and the defense of their class position. They would learn that the Little Steel formula is a class weapon of the ruling class in a period of capitalist war and that support of that war can only militate against asserting an independent working class position even on the seemingly simple question of wages in an era of gargantuan profits.

Revoking the no-strike pledge as a militant class action would also reveal to labor the real role of Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. In the ensuing class conflict labor would discover the need for independent working class political action, the most imperative need of the proletariat today. The continued activity of the Marxists in the labor movement and their persistent intercession in behalf of class struggle would open the way for the rehabilitation of the labor movement on a far higher and more political plane.

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