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Jack Wilson

The Role of Labor in the War

(February 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 1, February 1942, pp. 13–15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the epoch of the ascendancy of American capitalism and the concomitant growth of large-scale industry, the development of the labor movement was marked by a stormy and turbulent character. The Pullman strike, Homestead and Haymarket are but a few of the names that hold a special place of honor in the great tradition of the American labor movement. The First World Imperialist War did not retard this development. From the timberlands of the Northwest to the clothing factories of the East, labor continued its battle during the war. And the post-war period was even more openly a period of great clashes between capital and labor. The Seattle general strike, the 1919 steel strike, and the miners’ walkout are three of the highpoints of this stage.

Only for the brief years from 1925 to 1939 did there emerge a relatively “stable” labor movement, the American Federation of Labor, whose varying fortunes from 1881 never before took such a turn for the worse that its very existence was jeopardized. For the Federation, “the aristocracy of labor,” had always managed to keep its place with the bosses as a bulwark against industrial unionism. It was precisely in the 1925–29 period, too, that tons of literature was published proving that the American way of life was permanent and that such ideas as industrial unionism to protect the interests of the millions of mass production workers was a radical utopian dream.

The crash of 1929 destroyed in one fell swoop the vast array of imposing notions about the American way of life. It created the objective basis for a mass movement of the industrial workers, those teeming millions who suffered most keenly from the economic collapse. In the breadlines, unemployed demonstrations, eviction battles and sporadic strike struggles, the subjective basis for the CIO found its roots. The San Francisco general strike in 1934, the Toledo Auto-Lite struggle, the Minneapolis teamsters’ fight were preludes, dress rehearsals in a sense, for the coming struggles of the CIO. These battles revealed that the stormy and turbulent characteristics of the early American labor movement were not something due only to historical conditions of another day. The militancy of the American worker was an integral part of his life, his way, irrespective of the epoch of his existence.

The struggle to establish permanently an industrial union movement in America was the crowning achievement of labor. The story of the CIO is the most brilliant chapter in the history of the labor movement. The sit-down strike wave of 1936–37 assumed nation-wide proportions and built the CIO. Even the ghastly Little Steel strike defeat could not shake its foundations. And in the face of the coming war, and the growth of reaction, the CIO marched forward to greater struggles and victories. Little Steel was fought over again. This time the CIO triumphed. Henry Ford, symbol of open shop-ism, tumbled from his throne and the CIO obtained a closed shop agreement. And just before the declaration of war, the powerful United Mine Workers of America, long the backbone of the CIO, stood off a combined challenge of the Roosevelt Administration and the steel trust over the issue of the union shop in the captive mines.

The Victim of Industrial Unionism

At long last industrial unionism, an indispensable need for the mass production workers, was established permanently in the nation which prided itself on its observance of the “principle of the open shop.” The Knights of Labor had come and gone in the latter part of the 19th century. The Industrial Workers of the World flashed across labor’s horizon like a brilliant meteor, but it too failed in the attempt to organize the industrial workers. The CIO, however, accomplished the main objective.

For many capitalists, and not a few of their journalistic hacks, the CIO was destined historically to play the rôle of an IWW in the Second World Imperialist War. By favoring the AFL against the industrial workers, as was done in 1917–1918, it was hoped to weaken and divide the labor movement and tear asunder the CIO. However, the period of major concessions to organized labor is past. Favors on the grand scale to the AFL are not possible today, as they were in 1918. Besides, the CIO dominates the key war industries. Its power is too great for a head-on collision, as was possible with the IWW, which was isolated from the rest of labor by a virulent propaganda campaign and physical terror.

The CIO withstood even the calamity of bitter internal dissension fomented primarily by the Stalinists in their pursuit of a “rule or ruin” policy. Its militancy and achievements have kept on the statute books the Wagner Act and other social legislation which compels the courts to treat labor with some degree of “respectability.” And the AFL with its antiquated ideas of craft unionism which it tried to impose on the industrial workers in 1934–35 and 36, has lost face with the industrial toilers. The test of events, the verdict of history, stands behind the CIO.

Potential Strength of American Unionism

Today the CIO, representing 5,000,000 organized industrial workers, is strongly entrenched. The transformation of American economy into a war economy creates the objective possibility of increasing the ranks of the CIO by millions more as government officials estimate that war production industry will employ between 15,000,000 and 20,000,000 workers. Combine this economic development with the fact that the CIO is already established in this field, and one can easily foresee an industrial union movement in America of truly staggering proportions! Naturally, the unfolding of this vista will not take a cut-and-dried character. There will be advances and retreats, marked as always by the violent characteristics previously described.

Since the AFL boasts of another 5,000,000 organized workers, and the railroad brotherhoods are measured by more than another million members, the combined strength of the American labor movement already surpasses any in the history of the labor movement. It is the specter of this combined strength which so badly frightened the Roosevelt regime and the Wall Street bosses when John L. Lewis recently proposed labor unity. This was openly admitted by all leading capitalist magazines and newspapers, as shown in the survey of the Twohey Associates, a sort of Gallup Poll in the publishing field.

Roosevelt’s ability to block labor unity through his influence over the present CIO top leadership, and his supporters in the AFL executive council, is not of a lasting character. The six-man board he proposed and set up as a spurious substitute for a genuine unity of the two organizations is another of his notorious patchwork proposals which new events will split asunder. The advantages of labor unity are too great for any capitalist politician to block them permanently. When the Gallup Poll indicated recently that 71 per cent of the ranks of the AFL and the CIO were for labor unity, it was testimony that the workers realized the period of rivalry between the organizations was coming to an end. Industrial unionism was established, and this had been the basis for the split in the AFL. The attractive powers of one unified organization, its strength in the economic and political fields, were also foreseen by both the bosses and the workers. No doubt, the close call labor had on the Smith “slave labor” act, which passed the lower house of Congress, had its effect on the bureaucrats as well as the ranks.

In the recent conferences held in Washington, the day-today events have demonstrated likewise the advantages to labor of working as one unit. When the National Defense Mediation Board, now a defunct body, ruled against the United Mine Workers of America on the captive coal mine union shop issue, the real damage was caused by the fact that the AFL representatives had joined with industry and the government against the CIO. But when the two labor organizations made a bloc at the industry-labor conference held subsequently in Washington, the closed shop principle was not sacrificed at the altar of the employers. At the present writing the labor movement has 26 cases before the War Labor Board, which is of course the old National Defense Mediation Board dressed up in a new title. Most of them involve the union or the closed shop. The decisions of the War Labor Board depend largely on how effectively the CIO and AFL work together and against industrial and government representatives on this board. Significantly, the CIO and the AFL representatives have agreed to hold a joint caucus and act as a fraction. This is another demonstration of how the vital needs of the labor movement are forcing a trend toward organizational unity, despite past and present differences. Incidentally, the AFL, which has the closed shop as a principle, can give the CIO the benefit of this one good tradition in the older organization. It should be remembered that the combination of industrial unionism and the closed shop afford the best basis for labor’s struggle in the gigantic industries.

Roosevelt and the Voice of “Ma” Perkins

The unprincipled character of the American labor bureaucracy is demonstrated by its actions of joining without any serious questions or doubts, boards like the War Labor Board, or the new Roosevelt labor board. The bitter experience of the CIO on the National Defense Mediation Board apparently is a closed chapter to Phillip Murray, CIO president, who placed himself along with Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, under the thumb of Roosevelt, alongside of the contemptible William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor. Labor unions are going to learn through their own experiences the need for demanding the resignation of their leaders from these kinds of set-ups, which are openly admitted to exist primarily for the purpose of tying the union movement to the imperialist war machine.

The Roosevelt Administration is placed in a great and insoluble dilemma by the development of the labor movement up to this war. Its first major task must be to get labor to pay the major burden of the war. In a country unorganized, or disorganized, labor cannot struggle effectively against paying the war cost. But in America, the price of smashing labor openly is the same which France paid. Not the least impressive lessons from recent European affairs was the vast difference between the conduct of the French working class, crushed and demoralized when its general strike was broken by Daladier. Through the use of the army just before the war began, and the conduct of the English workers in supporting largely the Churchill government through the deception of “having a say in the government” in the personages of Ernest Bevin and Major Clement Attlee. Roosevelt knows this, and that is why he doesn’t permit the Southern poll-tax congressmen to run wild too often.

How to get the labor movement to give up its union standards – the very reason for its existence – is the question which Roosevelt must try to answer. For that is the only possible, although not very probable, solution to the dilemma. Secretary of Labor Perkins stated the problem succinctly enough in a speech on January 27th which appeared in the New York Times: “Men and women now on the job must keep every machine running, regardless of the sacrifice entailed.” And after outlining a six-day week and other modifications of present union contracts, she added: “These standards must be relaxed if and when necessary for total war production.” Her policy statement which was also approved by the War and Navy Departments, was amplified by Verne A. Zimmer, director of the Labor Department’s Division of Labor Standards: “Existing state laws place a limitation upon hours of work, particularly for women and minors. State regulations also, in some jurisdictions, ban Sunday work, prohibit night work for women and minors, and require one day’s rest in seven. When these or similar laws stand in the way of top production demanded by the war program, relaxation or easement should be effected promptly, as pointed out in the policy statement.” There is Roosevelt’s labor program in a nutshell.

Dangers in War Labor Board

The War Labor Board and any other agencies set up by Roosevelt are the facades under which the union movement will be slowly squeezed out of its gains and standards. The rôle of the labor leaders on these boards will be to cover up their real meaning. However, the pressure of the men in the plants will not be lacking, and will manifest itself through the regular union channels. Of course, in the first period of the war, the natural tendency to resist the breakdown of union conditions will be partly sublimated in the spirit of self-sacrifice, another quality distinctly working class in character. But a few more reports like the Truman revelations, which show what fabulous profits the munitions makers and other Wall Streeters are gorging from the war effort, will arouse a different spirit among the workers. [1]

The battle of production will not merely take the form of fighting to increase the war materials necessary for the grandiose strategy of American imperialism. Nor will it reflect itself only in the lowering of present union standards. It will intensify the antagonisms within the factories because it means the introduction of new technological devices, which brings technological unemployment, and, above all, the speed-up of the men at the machines. It should not be forgotten that the burning issue o£ the General Motors sit-down strike was the speed-up which reached a tempo a human could no longer stand.

All these conditions will react strongly on the leadership of the unions within the plants, the shop stewards. It is true that the labor bureaucrats have pledged their unions to a no-strike policy. However, i£ the labor leaders spend their energy in resisting the just demands of the ranks, it is probable – the Washington politicians expect it – the actions will take place anyhow. And the shop stewards, as in England, will become the more direct leaders of the unionists. This development has also the effect of making the union movement more democratic since the ranks participate as a whole in the shop in the determination of their immediate destinies.

To counteract this significant development, one can expect the “outside” union leadership, the international officers who find themselves further and further removed from the immediate vicinity of the ranks, to seek to retain their influence and control by obtaining increased participation of the organized labor movement in the war machine. Perhaps along the lines of the English experience. (How nice of the Labor Party representatives in Parliament, for example, to take the main responsibility and blame for the conscription of man power, through Ernest Bevin, the minister of supply. How nice of it to save Churchill the political embarrassment, and a major political crisis, over the issue of conscription of wealth, by taking the matter up first in the Labor Party caucus, and then rejecting it, after the Tory pleas of Bevins and Attlee. So the issue failed to arise in Parliament.) Et tu, Murray!

Labor’s Future Depends upon Its Struggle

The grand sweep of world and national events which are hitting labor with such a powerful impact, the perspectives outlined herein, indicate that the course of labor will continue along its classic lines: storm and strife. But the inability of capitalism to offer major concessions will tend to give purely economic struggle of the working class less results. Economic struggles, that is, strikes, will continue and sometimes reach unabated fury. But the problems of today demand further and more general solutions. The problem of cost of living, for example, of the coming rations, is one which strikes alone cannot settle. Action on the legislative front becomes more imperative. The CIO has already gone in for more “legislative and balloting” action, as an organized body, than any other labor movement of the past. The political education, therefore, will continue. And in the objective situation arising, there will also arise even more sharply the need for independent political action.

Labor’s perspective for this war is only “blood, sweat, tears and toil” insofar as the Roosevelt Administration has plans for it. But the economic conditions, the class interests, the rich traditions, the glorious opportunities for expansion, and the growing political consciousness of the American workers, indicate that labor has for itself, in a groping, unclear fashion at present, to be sure, a different perspective. For the American labor movement is now the mightiest in the world. It hasn’t gone through the terrible defeats and demoralization of the European working class. It is fresh, growing, militant and unafraid, as its history shows.

Labor has come of age in America.


1. The CIO Economic Outlook, in its yearly forecast, just published its conclusions for 1942. Besides an increase in unemployment by 2,500,000 due to war economy dislocations, thereby bringing the total unemployment figure to 7,500,000, the CIO report contrasts the trend for a reduction in the real wages of employed labor, to the soaring profits of industry. The CIO report emphasizes that all efforts to increase war production will Intensify these glaring contradictions. Here, as in the CIO upsurges in 1936–37 and 1939–40, are the objective economic conditions which are the basic cause of turbulent “labor relations.” And while “priorities unemployment is fundamentally a temporary phenomenon,” as explained in the last issue of The New International by James M. Fenwick, the scars of this experience will remain. The present crisis In the auto industry is a case in point.

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