Ernest Rice McKinney Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

David Coolidge

Murray Stems Tide of Revolt at Steel Workers Convention

Stiff Fight on Renewal of No-Strike Pledge

(22 May 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 21, 22 May 1944, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The second constitutional convention of the United Steel Workers of America, held at Cleveland May 9 to 13, might have become a pillar of fire to guide and inspire other sections of the labor movement. The opportunity for deliberate and significant action that would have brought the whole CIO to its feet, came on the second day of the convention when the no-strike pledge was up for consideration. This was the second resolution in the Resolution Committee report. The first, as was to be expected, was entitled “Philip Murray.”

As soon as the resolution was reported and its adoption moved by the committee secretary, Delegate Tavlin of Local Union 2941 got the floor to support reaffirming the no-strike pledge “to keep up production in support of our armed forces.” The next delegate to speak was Mark Brown of Local Union 2715, from near Reading, Pa. Brown was one of the younger delegates and was “speaking against the no-strike pledge and in support of a resolution from his local demanding the revocation of the pledge. Brown made an excellent presentation of the case against the no-strike pledge and was clearly winning the confidence and support of an increasing number of delegates as they listened to his formulation of the things that were in their own minds. At first there was some booing, but this quieted down as Brown continued, and President Murray insisted that the convention maintain order.

It was clear that Brown was really expressing the sentiments of the delegates. They were against the no-strike pledge and were therefore in a mood to listen to any delegate who had the courage and ability to formulate arguments against the pledge and to fight for this position in the convention. Brown was not only speaking for his local but for numerous other steel locals that had sent in resolutions against the no-strike pledge.

The situation was a tense one. This was evident not only in the attitude of the delegates but by the plainly demonstrated discomfiture of the leadership on the platform. It seemed that something dramatic was about to happen. Murray certainly understood this.

After Brown had finished there was applause from the delegates. Another delegate took the floor to relate how difficult it was to get grievances settled. He too was against the no-strike pledge. Next came a delegate in favor of continuing the no-strike position of the union. And then came the perennial Van Bittner, chairman of the Resolutions Committee, with the statement that he had received short notice as to the preparation of the resolutions. He didn’t want to take up the time of the convention and closed with the astounding statement that he believed the overwhelming majority of the steel workers were in favor of the no-strike pledge now, just as they were two years ago.

Murray Gets into Action

Murray then took the floor, it seemed with a sort of sinking feeling that Van Bittner might be just running off at the mouth. Murray was plainly perturbed and alarmed at the unquestionably antagonistic attitude the delegates were assuming. He began with the history of the no-strike pledge. He went over the old ground that the “leaders of organized labor in the United States of America, by their own motion, without a single request from the President of the United States, gave to him a commitment that for the duration of this war organized labor would not indulge itself in the conduct of strikes.”

Murray, told the delegates that when the no-strike pledge was given, the United Steel Workers of America had 600,000 members. “It is meeting two years after it gave its commitment to the President of the United States with a membership of approximately one million.” This was one of Murray’s main arguments for the no-strike pledge. It amounts to saying that the union grew because of the no-strike pledge; that is, that thousands of steel workers joined the USWA in the past two years because its leaders had promised Roosevelt not to strike. If this is true, then one would think that instead of growing the USWA would have lost members, because there have been strikes in steel involving thousands of members. The membership has not adhered to the no-strike pledge. Just last December, at the expiration of the contract, 175,000 steel workers were on strike for a brief period.

Murray had another argument that he has become noted for. He gave, it again in the same words that he has used so often before. His the argument that if the pledge is withdrawn “your organization and its leaders would be required, under some set of circumstances, to suddenly rush to Washington and combat the influence of a powerful anti-labor group who are bent upon the passage of no-strike legislation and national service legislation.”

Murray, Thomas and others advanced this argument two years ago in support of the no-strike pledge. After they had shed their tears and dragged the CIO through the mud of no-strike capitulation, abject submission to Roosevelt and fawning over Army-Navy brass hats, the “anti-labor group” went right ahead with their Smith-Connally Act, state anti-labor laws, wage and job stabilization, higher taxes on workers and with free rein to the big capitalists to make more profits, salaries and dividends. To cap it all, the Great Friend of Labor in the White House came forth with his demand for national service legislation.

Murray Becoming Stumbling Block

As Murray’s reactionary position comes more and more into conflict with the genuine interests of the workers he leads and represents, he becomes more and more dishonest and more of a stumbling block in the way of progress for the industrial union movement. He talks about a “powerful anti-labor group who are bent upon the passage of ... national service legislation.” Who is demanding national service legislation? Congress? No. It is Roosevelt, the War Department and the Navy Department. It is Roosevelt whose boots Murray, Thomas, Green, Bittner, Browder and Golden are prepared to lick every day in the week. Murray doesn’t mention one word of the fact that it is Roosevelt who is running things in Washington and that it was he who demanded national service legislation which Murray himself, in an honest moment, called “quack medicine.”

Murray had another tear-jerker up his sleeve: an indecent and irrelevant appeal to the patriotism of the delegates and workers.

“The withdrawal of your no-strike pledge here would be regarded as an insult to the armed forces and to the balance of our union-minded population here in the country ... If you withdraw your no-strike pledge, which I know you are not going to do, what sort of letter would you send to your boy overseas tomorrow explaining the matter?”

Then Murray went on with all the threadbare arguments that delegates have heard from him so often about the value of labor’s representation on government agencies, the coming invasion of the continent, “your country must come first,” there are no labor unions under Nazism, and on and on with a mixture of truth and fiction, sense and nonsense. The point is that even what he was saying that was true was completely irrelevant to the issue before the convention.

He closed his appeal with increasing fervor and emphasis.

“Your better judgment will undoubtedly prevail ... Don’t take unnecessary chances; don’t jeopardize the interests of your union ... I want it over as soon as we can get it out of the way, but I don’t want it over until I am positive that these forces of tyranny which you and I and all of our armed forces are now fighting, are completely destroyed in every inch of ground on this globe.”

Delegates Not Convinced

When Murray had finished, some delegates began calling for the question. The motion for the previous question was put to vote and lost. Murray had not convinced these 2,300 delegates that to withdraw the no-strike pledge was equivalent to guaranteeing the victory of Germany. Neither had, be convinced them that other things he said made sense. They knew they had a case before the WLB and that nothing was being done. They also suspected that Roosevelt would like to hold over a decision on their demands for wage increases until after the election. Withdrawing the no-strike pledge might speed up action from the WLB.

The discussion continued with a Negro delegate, Timothy Smith of Local Union 2603, speaking against the pledge, and Joe Cook, another Negro delegate, who follows the Communist Party line, speaking for.

When the vote was taken, the resolution was carried with FROM 300 TO 500 DELEGATES VOTING AGAINST reaffirming the no-strike pledge. An attempt to make the decision unanimous failed, with several hundred delegates holding out against this effort to force support of a position which millions of workers are really against.

A Detroit capitalist daily called Murray’s speech and his fevered plea for the no-strike pledge “his greatest hour.” Perhaps so, but Murray knows today that, in the days to come, he will not have easy sailing holding the men in line.

Wage Demands Before the WLB

The next most important matter before the convention was the case of the steel workers before the WLB. Despite the fact that the union had presented an excellent brief to the WLB and the fact that Murray and the other leaders spoke on the subject, the delegates were not particularly anxious to take the floor to discuss the wage demands. Murray, in opening the discussion, remarked that perhaps there was not enough interest being shown in the wage situation.

“Now, this is your forum and here is your wage policy. I am asking what it is that you are going to do to help push this program forward back home. All of the people employed in the industry need your support. The officers of your international organization need your support in the prosecution of this program.”

But what support could these 2,300 delegates give? What could the hundreds of members back home do? What could other CIO unions do? The resolution on the wage question came before the convention on Thursday. On the opening day of the convention, Tuesday, Murray had devoted nearly one-half of his opening address to the convention to an endorsement of Roosevelt for re-election. On Wednesday he closed his political harangue to the convention with the words:

“In these days of selective service there is a person who, regardless of his own desires and inclinations, must and, therefore, will be selected to be the candidate of the Democratic Party. We must make sure that Franklin Delano Roosevelt is re-elected.”

On Wednesday afternoon the no-strike pledge was reaffirmed, What could the delegates do in a convention hall on Thursday afternoon in connection with their wage demands which were in the hands of the WLB? The no-strike halter was still around their necks; their leaders had committed them to the support of Roosevelt—the man mainly responsible for the anti-labor WLB, for the demand for a national service act, for the Little Steel formula, and for all the other measures of the government for the protection of the big capitalists and high profits and for the degradation of the labor movement.

These workers and all other workers are in full support of the demands of the steel workers. But the delegates had sense enough to know that you can’t force the employers or the Roosevelt anti-labor WLB to grant a wage increase by sitting in a convention voting to support Roosevelt, the WLB and a no-strike pledge. And at least even the delegates who are for the no-strike pledge know that after you give such a pledge there is no need to wail and moan about lack of delegate interest in a resolution on wages where there is really nothing that the delegates or the membership can do about it. That is they can do nothing about it so long as the union adheres to a no-strike pledge.

Other Resolutions on the Floor

There were other resolutions which should be discussed but there is not space enough this week. There was an important resolution on discrimination against Negroes in industry and the armed forces. Murray made a strong speech in support of the resolution. Some of his remarks might be heeded by a few of the local officers of the USWA and by one national officer.

There was some dissatisfaction voiced by Negro delegates at the way hotel accommodations are made for them at conventions. They are asking why Negro delegates are not quartered at the same hotels as the delegations of which they are a part. This question arose in the 1942 convention of the steel workers and it is about time the national officers took a hand and settled the matter. It is inexcusable that a communication should go out from any national office of any CIO international reading that “The _______ Hotel is exclusively for Negro delegates.” Negro delegates should be housed with other delegates and the CIO unions should refuse to patronize hotels that will not admit Negro delegates.

Ernest Rice McKinney Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 17 October 2015