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B.J. Widick

In the Labor Unions

(23 December 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 94, 23 December 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The American labor movement is watching with considerable anxiety the fate of the union movements in England and France in the present war.

The facts of the situation in France have trickled into England and also America, and the story of the strangulation of the French labor movement is shocking. English unionists are wondering if the same tragic lot is in store for them. American unionists are confronted by similar thoughts.

Shop Stewards

Daladier and the French military machine recently ordered the abolition of the shop steward system, among other drastic decrees. This is like cutting the heart out of a body and expecting it to function.

The shop steward system has been recognized as the real life, the heart, and the backbone of a good union. In France, the creation and extension of the shop steward systems was one of the major victories of the famous 1936 sit-down strike.

Protection for the rank and file on the job comes primarily through the shop stewards. They negotiate and settle the day to day grievances that constantly irritate the workers.

In addition to that vital function however, the shop steward system in France was the basis for the workers committees that virtually took power in 1936 – a fact that Daladier has not forgotten.

Daladier seeks to kill two birds with one stone in his order abolishing the shop steward system: break the backbone of the unions and prevent the workers from having committees capable of functioning in times of social unrest.

Daladier remembers too well how the shop committees became the embryo Soviets in 1936. It is this eventuality that he tries to block.

War Taxes

How much social dynamite is packed in the French industrial system is indicated by two other decrees of the Daladier government. All industrial workers have to “contribute” fifteen per cent of their wages to a war chest, and 40 per cent of all overtime is “contributed” to this fund.

Under the pressure of the rising costs of living on the one hand and the cut in wages on the other hand, combined with longer hours, speed-up, and accumulation of grievances, the French workers are building up a terrific resentment that will turn into a gigantic explosion. Not since the days of Louis Fourteenth have the French ruling classes been sitting on such a powder keg.

Is it a wonder that the French Foreign Legion and other picked colonial troops are “judiciously” distributed behind the front lines?

England Too?

The rank and file workers in England are worrying about the probability that the Chamberlain government, with the approval of the labor fakers, will further curtail the rights of the union movement under the guise of war emergency measures.

Do they also face the signing of a pact between the government and the labor bureaucrats which brings the application of compulsory overtime and wage cuts, coupled with longer working hours? Are concentration camps for militant workers, and forced labor under military control the next step in England? And are the shop committees in England going to be suppressed?

A story appeared last week that indicates how the English workers are feeling. Union bureaucrats agreed with an industrial concern not to press for the solution of certain grievances and a wage dispute. However, the rank and file through the shop committee organized a strike that was averted only with the greatest difficulty. The shop stewards are still sore about the sellout. Orders from the union bureaucrats are being disregarded. Another strike is threatened.

How many more of these events occurred which do not escape the censorship? Undoubtedly many. The seeds of unrest are inherent in the war production schedules.

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