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Jack Wilson

Background to the
Coming Steel Strike

(7 January 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 1, 7 January 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The impending steel strike looms as the greatest labor struggle in the history of the American labor movement.

In size alone, it dwarfs even such a mighty struggle as the GM battle today. Over 700,000 steel workers are involved in the present crisis.

However, the vital role of the steel industry, more than just the number of workers concerned, is what gives such weight and magnitude to any nationwide steel strike.

For steel is the backbone of American industry. A serious shutdown in steel immediately forces a closing of the auto industry and a big portion of the coal industry, in particular the “captive” mines. Other industries will likewise be hit drastically.

From labor’s standpoint, the heart of the CIO is in this mass production industry. The United Steel Workers of America, CIO, is the backbone of the industrial union movement.

Steel is the citadel of American capitalism. It is run directly by the Morgans, Graces, Girdlers and other industrial barons.

Small wonder that every clash between steel workers and the industrial masters of America produced such violent repercussions in the country.

In the 1919 steel strike, all the might and power of the government as well as the armed guards and thugs of the steel industry were used to smash the heroic efforts of the steel workers to organize and bargain collectively.

Only in the period of militant strike struggles in 1936–37, when the CIO grew in giant strides by using revolutionary techniques like the sit-downs, did industrial unionism achieve a hold in the steel industry.

But even the success of the CIO did not prevent the steel barons from trying to smash the union movement there. In the disastrous “Little Steel” strike in 1937, the CIO took a serious beating. Only in 1941, during another strike wave which saw Ford toppled from its open shop throne, did Little Steel finally recognize union ism after a violent struggle at the Bethlehem steel plants.

In the face of the huge war profits of the steel, industry, the case of the steel workers is crystal clear and just. The demand for a $2 a day wage increase is a vital necessity to maintain a minimum living standard.

But justice and results seldom go hand in hand in the steel towns. They have been run too much like feudal estates rather than cities in which democratic rights prevail. The violent character of steel strikes flows partly from this fact. Violence has always been the answer of the steel barons to workers’ demands.

The coming struggle of the steel union can best be understood by a review of the “Little Steel” strike, for in the policies, program, and lessons gained there is a guide to the next battle. Here is a review of that strike we published in January 1938.

“The inherent weakness of the CIO (and of the AFL, of course), namely its pursuit of a class collaborationist policy whenever possible, revealed itself in the spring of 1937 at a great cost to the workers, in the so-called Little Steel strike.

“Refusal of the four independent steel companies, Inland, Republic, Crucible, and Bethlehem, to sign a contract with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (CIO) in April 1937 made a strike inevitable. It appeared to the workers as a sure-fire success. The CIO top leadership, Lewis, Murray and others, were in direct charge. The Stalinists with their usual pomposity, also predicted inevitable success. They had bootlicked their way into secondary leadership, and they had considerable following because the rank and file considered them – ghastly illusion – as progressives.

“The steel companies didn’t waste any time. Terrorism, tons of false propaganda, injunctions, and all the other means of oppression were immediately employed against the strikers who shut down all the key plants. The steel workers had expected a fight. Years of brutality by the bosses had taught them that only a life and death struggle would bring victory. But the militant workers were cursed with the capitulatory leadership of the CIO and the Stalinist fakers. Instead of mass picket lines, a militant counter-offensive against the steel barons’ attacks, and a policy of class struggle, the workers were influenced to a program of faith in government agencies.

“It took the brutal shock of the Memorial Day massacre of 14 steel workers by Chicago police thugs to reveal the weakness in the CIO policies, and the danger of disastrous defeat unless the workers were given a program of action which had been tested and proven correct in the auto and other strikes. An aggressive campaign against the bloody murderers could have stirred into decisive action hundreds of thousands of workers in other industries. The rubber workers’ rank and file demanded a general strike, as advocated by revolutionary socialists. The auto plants were seething with the anger of union men. Mass action was on the order of the day.

“But the CIO leaders, seconded by the treacherous Stalinists, turned instead to Roosevelt. He rebuffed them, as was to be expected, with the classic comment, ‘A plague on both your houses.’ Governor Earle, of Pennsylvania, a political and personal associate of Murray, Lewis and other CIO leaders, double-crossed them and opened the large Cambria plant in Johnstown. Governor Murphy, the Roosevelt of Michigan, as Lewis called him, gave free reign to vigilantism in Monroe, Michigan, but threatened to call the National Guard if the workers defended themselves at a steel plant there. The CIO-backed governor of Ohio, Martin L. Davey, was called by Lewis to stop the terrorism in Youngstown and Canton. He did. He broke the strike by opening the plants with the bayonets of the Guard. Davey substituted ‘legal’ terrorism for the cruder form of vigilantism.

“How little prepared the strikers were for, these events was illustrated, most unfortunately, by the fact that the arrival of the national guard troops was cheered by them, with the Stalinists and the CIO leaders arranging meetings to welcome the khaki-clothed strike-breakers. When they saw the consequences of the leaders’ policies, the strikers returned to work, bitter, disillusioned, but not forgetting.”

Lessons for Today

Today, the lessons of the Little Steel strike remain in full force. Only the invincible might of the steel workers is worth depending on. Labor can and must stand on its own feet in this fight. The blundering policies of Phil Murray merit little confidence. The fact that he was forced to denounce the Truman administration makes it more difficult from him to return tomorrow with the same old song and dance which cost the steel workers so much in 1937.

The coming struggle between the steel workers and the monopoly capitalists ruling the steel industry can mark a great advance for the CIO and the entire labor movement if the lessons of 1937 have been learned and labor fights on a militant basis.

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