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Jack Wilson

May Day, 1940, to May Day, 1941 – A Year of Labor Struggle

We Are Proud of American Labor’s Victories

(April 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 17, 28 April 1941, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Our movement takes great pride in the accomplishments of the American workers since last May Day because we have become an indivisible part of those struggles.

Toward those thousands of anonymous workers, who shut down Ford and Bethlehem, and Allis-Chalmers, and Vultee we feel the strongest bond of solidarity. The revolutionary movement has no life apart from that of the working class. Its victories and defeats, its laughter and its tears, we share in the plant, at home and in this society under which we exist.

We curse – and try to remedy – the fact that our forces are yet so small that we are unable to take greater responsibility and more work in the union movement. A union button is a badge of honor in our ranks, as it is everywhere when good union men meet.

And while we have much respect for the AFL rank and file and some of the militant unions within that organization, we are pro-CIO. For the future of the labor movement rests with the CIO.

The CIO organized the mass production industries. And it is primarily the CIO unions in the past year that fought the giant corporations to a standstill.

* * *

When the war hysteria was whipped up last spring after the collapse of France, and America began its vast preparations for imperialist war, the labor movement began to take it on the chin.

The steel and auto, and rubber and shipping barons grabbed up the juicy war orders and the profits started to roll in. Big business was happy. Fabulous profits were guaranteed by the government.

And the press, and radio, and movies, and the pulpit were used to fan a flaming fire of “patriotism” which was directed against the entire labor movement. In the name of “national defense,” union contracts were violated, men forced to work overtime, conditions ignored and strikes stigmatized. To protest was “unpatriotic.”

The labor-haters and the red-baiters had a field day. The presidential election was suspicious and, as we predicted, was proved to be phoney. Both Willkie and Roosevelt had the same program – Save Wall Street’s investments abroad and profits at home.

The CIO and AFL conventions reflected the pressure of the union-haters against organized labor. The AFL bureaucrats shrieked their servility and patriotism; the CIO leaders fumbled around; Lewis blundering into support of Willkie, and Hillman becoming office boy for Roosevelt.

Unable to see further ahead than their noses and dues payments, the labor bureaucrats cowed before the thunderous crash of world and domestic events. They knew that the program of big business and its lackeys, the pot-bellied senators and congressmen and local politicians, was to smash the unions. But the bureaucrats were afraid to say so, let alone fight seriously against this anti-union drive.

The CIO top leaders held out better against the pressure than the despicable William Green and his associates, although Sidney Hillman did his best to prove that within the CIO he could be as big a scoundrel as Green was in the AFL.

“Let’s Get Ours!”

Under the guise of “national unity” the politicians introduced legislation designed to make slaves of the men who toil in the factories. Lynch speeches against labor and howls about “Communist plots” proved to be the favorite sport of the congressional windbags.

Conscription was used as a threat against strikers. While big business went hog-wild making dough, every conceivable trick and device was used to curb and smash the labor movement.

And then, just when the big shots thought they had things their way – like the French capitalists thought they had – and life looked rosy for Ford, and Dupont, and Grace, and Morgan, and Rockefeller, and others, the silent voice of the shop workers was heard!

“The big shots are getting theirs, let’s get ours! My wife is raising hell about food prices going up. I’m tired of working like a dog, and being kicked around. I can get another job if I have to. Let’s do something about it!” In hundreds of shops thousands of workers were talking like this during the few minutes of lunch time, or while they were punching the clock card, or going home on the bus.

The newspapers didn’t carry page one stories about this rising sentiment of disgust, of resentment, and of being just plain fed up with things. The newspapers were too busy preaching that the “workers must sacrifice” while the big boys got fatter and richer.

On top of that, the very people who spoke piously about another “war for democracy,” kicked the unions right in the face, when it came to a simple democratic right – the right to organize and to bargain collectively. And that was the final straw.

Vultee Men Win

The first open expression of the feelings of the men in the shops came in southern California at the Vultee plant. The Valtee men were being organized into the CIO and getting kicked around for doing it. They were told to be satisfied with a lousy 50 cents an hour while the company was guaranteed 12 per cent clear profit after all expenses, taxes and bond interest was paid.

So the men hit the pavement. Do you remember the “shock” the manufacturers got, when that happened? How Martin Dies screamed about “red plots?” How a drunk army major tried to force the men back to work? How Sidney Hillman tried to discredit the strikers?

But the men stuck together. You couldn’t fool them with the talk about “crippling national defense.” They knew they deserved better consideration, higher wages, better conditions.

The Vultee strikers won! They proved again what the frightened labor bureaucrats didn’t believe, namely, that you can strike and you can win if you don’t fool around.

News of this victory flashed throughout the country, it stirred the hearts of the Harvester plant workers, the steel workers, the auto workers and other mass production employees. “WE CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.”

And they did!

The Vultee strike reminded them of the glorious days of the CIO arid the lessons of the Goodyear strike, the General Motors sitdowns, the Little Steel strike, when the manufacturers trembled before the challenge, ‘The CIO is on the march!”

A sharp pick-up in dues payments and participation in the unions was noticeable throughout the country. And union organization drives were meeting with success.


The Allis-Chalmers strike developed from incidents in the plant provoked by the company through hiring of some “toughs” to harass the union members. This grievance was the spark that set off the explosion. The union called a strike.

Despite Mr. Knudsen and Secretary of the Navy Knox – who owns some stock in Allis-Chalmers – and Governor Heil, and a red scare, and ravings about “sabotaging national defense” and other baloney, the workers remained solid.

So the cops, backed by the strike-breaking orders of Knudsen and Knox, tried busting the picket lines and aiding a “back-to-work” movement. They used an armed and moving fortress to terrorize the strikers, and they shot tear gas into the union ranks and clubbed the pickets.

But the Allis-Chalmers strikers remembered the lessons of the General Motors struggle. A huge mass picket line was the answer and when the cops played rough, they were taught a real lesson. The company had to shut down the plant again. And the cops were forced to call it quits.

In case any union man had doubts, the Office of Production Management (Knudsen-Hillman, etc.) showed it’s true colors, a super strike-breaking agency. And an ominous hint of the future was contained in Governor Heil’s moans about, “We haven’t got a National Guard to call and the Home Guard isn’t built up yet.”

Harvester Follows

Meanwhile, eyes were glued on Chicago where the International Harvester Co. workers were really revolting against the tyranny of the McCormick interest. All the threats and terror and discharges weren’t enough to keep down the spirit of the workers. They joined the CIO and went out to fight for their rights.

Chicago has a foul name in labor history. It goes back to the Haymarket days. To the frame-up and death of the Haymarket Martyrs. But for those workers who didn’t remember that struggle there was a more recent reminder of Chicago police brutality, backed by the government.

When the CIO boys formed picket lines by the Harvester plants, they knew that thousands of blue-coated thugs would be out there trying to crush them. They each asked themselves: “Will there be another Memorial Day massacre? Will we be shot down like dogs, clubbed, framed, blackjacked again?”

For two lifetime’s couldn’t erase the horror of that Memorial Day when the Chicago cops went berserk. When the Little Steel strike was broken in a bath of blood, while President Roosevelt tapped his cigarette holder and nonchalantly declared “A plague on both your houses.”

The Harvester strikers took their places in the front ranks of labor fighters in our history when they went out. In the face of that possibility. Of such calibre of men are revolutions made. The strikers got slugged, the AFL betrayed them by leading a back to work movement, and they bad to go back with the prospect of mediation at the bands of the new federal board. But they made their mark. They declared themselves men, not slaves. They have just begun to fight.

Bethlehem Boils

On a plane with the Chicago strikers, was the action of the men who sweat and toil in Bethlehem’s octopus steel plants. Since this company crushed the Little Steel Strike in 1937 its attitude toward the workers has been intolerable.

Over a billion dollars in war orders, unbelievable profits, favoritism from the federal government made Eugene Grace, czar of the company, and his board of directors crazy with power.

They laughed at the Walsh-Healy minimum wage bill, they sneered at the Wagner Act, they jeered at the National Labor Relations Board decisions, and fought the union all the way. They sponsored a company union, fired union men, terrorized the workers, and rode so roughshod that even a conservative labor leader like E.J. Lever of the SWOC said, “If you ever worked in Bethlehem you would not doubt that the Bethlehem corporation was stronger than the United States government.”

But the boys in the shops got fed up. The breaking point came recently when company union elections were being planned in the various plants. The resentment over the lousy wage, the terrible conditions and the kicking around boiled over.

At the Lackawanna, Bethlehem and Johnston plants in quick succession strikes were called. The SWOC leaders were forced into this action by a militant rank and file. In the usual pattern of strikes, the government agencies tried to get the men back to work without any settlement, then the cops tried their stuff. The union ranks held firmly and small gains were made. Little Steel is organized! Now the job is to get some more for the workers.

And Coal Too!

Four hundred thousand coal miners are on strike as we write these lines. The United Mine Workers of America are demanding a dollar a day increase and will get it. John L Lewis stepped back into the national limelight in these negotiations. His blast at the strike-breaking technique of Roosevelt’s new Mediation Board shows he hasn’t made peace yet with the war machine.

The coal strike added four martyrs to our long list of victims of capitalist terror. Four Harlan strikers were murdered. “Bloody Harlan” is organized. Unionism has always been a life and death question with the coal diggers there. We should pause and pay tribute on this May Day to those gallant soldiers of unionism who are always on the firing line at Harlan.

Surely these brief records of deeds of the workers since last May Day alone should be a matter of great pride. But that isn’t all. We can think of the sharecroppers and the California Oakies who are out on bitterly fought strikes in censored counties where we can’t even find out what’s happening. And the many other strikes and struggles.

Ford Is Taken

But most important of all, however, is the Ford strike. For Ford is the symbol of all that every good union man hates.

The year 1941 will be remembered in labor history as the year Ford was taken.


Four words! How petty the language! How magnificent the deed! Ford didn’t think it would happen. Neither did the government. Nor did most of the top CIO leaders!

Ford was shut down! Harry Bennett, boss of Ford’s Gestapo, thought he could provoke a small walkout by firing eight union militants – and then smash the CIO once and for all. The CIO leaders were scared. Michael Widman, head of the Ford CIO drive, had sent a wire to Washington saying he was afraid he couldn’t prevent a strike.

Like a tidal wave the Ford workers swept everything before the. Enough was enough! Years of terror from Bennett’s thugs had hardened their souls! Other auto workers under CIO contracts had higher wages, some security, some seniority and some respect as human beings from the company officials.

Eighty-five thousand Ford workers had cowered and bitterly complained to themselves long enough. The NLRE records had unfolded the whole story of Ford’s ruthless terror. His cynical violation of every half-way decent human standard.

The flivver king is the most hated man in America, and not just among his employees.

This hate flared out in the open. The men started to join the CIO. The government gave him fat war orders. The men fumed. It wasn’t getting easy to beat up union men, there were too many of them. Mass discharges only aroused more anger.

Sit-downs began! And the capitalist newspapers were afraid to mention the fact. Were afraid the idea would spread like it did in 1937.

When 20,000 workers sat down, it was a cinch. It was too late for piddling compromises. The Ford workers were determined to break through their shackles if only for a day. And they did. You can’t quiet down until the steam is let off.

Even when some few hundred misguided Negro workers were used against them in a fight, the Ford workers didn’t forget who they were sore at – Ford. They are trying to win the Negroes to the union banner.

Of course, the CIO leaders compromised. They accepted the proposals of Governor Wagoner, and the strike ended.

But this was only the first major battle! And the CIO won. Tomorrow in the shop the struggle continues, even more intensely.

May Day, 1941

May Day, 1941, comes with the workers carrying out the best traditions of this great labor holiday, a day dedicated to renewing and intensifying the struggle of the workers for their self-interest and progress.

And on May Day we can laugh at the fools who quote statistics to prove only a small per cent of the workers are engaged in strikes, thereby hoping to bury the class struggle and bow before the master class. This same stripe of statistician proved the Russian revolution was impossible in 1917 because of the “small number” of workers in Russia and their “backwardness.”

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Last updated: 15.12.2012