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Walter Jason

Unified Wage Demand Strategy Missing

(29 March 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 13, 29 March 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DETROIT – What is happening to wage negotiations between the major CIO unions and the Wall Street owners of big industry? The silence on the wage front prompts this question. An answer may serve to clear up some of the many doubts and confusions that exist in the labor movement today.

The UE-CIO quietly goes into negotiations with General Motors before the UAW-CIO begins its negotiations. The UE represents 30,000 workers, while the UAW-CIO speaks for over 200,000.

Philip Murray; CIO president, says less about the recent price increase in steel than Senator Taft. Murray informs the world that he wouldn’t think of striking this year for a wage increase. The steel workers’ contract is more sacred to him than the welfare of the steel workers, who desperately need a wage increase.

Walter Reuther and the entire UAW Executive Board spend a whole special session dealing with many things, but the dramatic publicity that marked the GM wage struggle in 1945–46 is lacking.

No Unified Strategy

One thing is obvious: There is no genuine unified strategy in the CIO top leadership for a bold, aggressive fight around a progressive program. If steel or UE or any other CIO union accepts any small wage increase it is almost certain to be the pattern. The UAW stands again in the position of not merely being a spearhead, but of perhaps standing alone!

How ironical that John L. Lewis and the coal miners may provide the spurt for an aggressive fight this spring by his pension demand of $100 a month.

There is no unified strategy, which is bad, but even worse there is no agreement or advocacy of wage policies which would be beneficial to all the mass production industry workers.

Is the CIO fighting for higher wages without price increases? Is the CIO basing its demands on “ability to pay”? What has happened to the idea of opening the books of the corporations? Why does the CIO oppose the escalator clause? To find an answer to these questions, one has to look beyond the CIO leadership. It’s only clearly distinguishable policy is silence.

Wage-Price Issue

In the 1946 wage struggle, now called the “first round,” the GM strike program of higher wages without price increases was sold out by UE and Phil Murray, who took wage increases which meant higher prices. These union leaders said prices were not the concern of labor! In retrospect, it is possible to see how wrong was the top CIO leadership which at that time consisted of a bloc between Murray and the Stalinists.

In 1947 these same labor bureaucrats quickly accepted an offer of 11½ cents an hour plus six paid holidays. and Walter Reuther, with his brief calling for 23⅛ cents an hour without price increases, was left holding the bag, along with the entire CIO rank and file. Reuther’s failure to fight consistently for the GM strike program deserves condemnation, but even his milk and water fight was progressive compared to the reactionary role Murray and the Stalinists played.

Once again the basic ideas in wage negotiations are being tested, and we have an opportunity to evaluate the CIO leadership, and all its tendencies.

To fight, for higher wages without price increases today means to struggle against Wall Street profiteering, for higher wages should come out of profits. Murray says in advance he won’t struggle for any wage increases, which is an indication of what a dead-hand grip and bankrupt policy he has to offer the CIO membership. (Imagine if he fought the steel corporations half as vigorously as he is going after the Stalinists, how effective that would be, against the steel companies ... and the Stalinists!)

Business Week recently had a good article exposing the Stalinist strategy in UE-CIO negotiations. They’ll talk tough, but already have agreed in advance to take the same contracts, and anything they can get in wages, for they are in a desperate situation in the union due to their phony attitude toward the Taft-Hartley law relating to signing of non-communist affidavits.

The Reuther leadership in the UAW-CIO is moving cautiously in wage negotiations. At Chrysler, negotiations have been postponed until March 24, and the two previous meetings have been mainly formalities.

The UAW-CIO puts out excellent publicity for higher wages without price increases, but this is meaningless unless the entire CIO unites behind this idea.

Ability to Pay

In the UE negotiations with General Electric, the corporation takes the offensive and says it cannot recognize the theory of ability to pay as the basis for wage demands. This is an acute problem and deserves consideration.

In 1946, GM said the same thing to Reuther. Reuther replied that industry had – or should have – a social responsibility.

Industry must have an ability to pay, That is why it exists, he said. GM replied, suppose we don’t have the ability to pay, suppose we don’t make money some year, will you take a wage cut? At this point, Murray and R.J. Thomas, then president of the UAW-CIO, replied, we agree, we don’t accept the theory of ability to pay, see what a trap it leads the labor movement into. Reuther himself was silent.

Reuther had no answer because he was afraid to follow the revolutionary implications contained in his higher wages without price increases formula and theory of ability to pay (they were interwoven).

What are these implications. If industry has the ability to pay higher wages without price increases, it means taking wage increases out of profit. If industry lacks this ability, it has demonstrated it is incapable of functioning for the welfare of the nation, and therefore ... instead of accepting wage cuts, as Murray and Thomas thought labor might have to do ... the logical conclusion is to call for nationalization of these bankrupt industries. And since its capitalist managers proved themselves bankrupt, naturally WORKERS’ CONTROL OF PRODUCTION was required, for the welfare of the entire nation (excepting the capitalist parasite, of course, who proved themselves bankrupt.) Reuther hesitated then, and now, to draw those conclusions.

Until the CIO movement adopts these basic ideas, or philosophy of the wage struggle, the kind of mess it finds itself in at the present time remains inevitable.

Open the Books

Two years ago, the slogan Open the Books by Reuther and the GM workers created a storm of reaction in the capitalist press. It was a wonderful idea. Let us, the workers, look at the books to see what the real financial situation is. We, the workers, have a fundamental right to a look at the books, for our labor makes production possible. Of course, this was a direct assault on the “sacred prerogatives” of big business.

Today the idea is just as valid. If it now lacks the force in negotiations that it had then, it is mainly because corporation profits are so fabulous, and well known, that “ability to pay” is an admitted fact. Likewise, outside of the Reuther leadership, the rest of the CIO has not yet accepted this idea as a sound one. It is beyond Murray’s comprehension, and as for the Stalinists, to accept it would mean to acknowledge Reuther was correct. That is why the Stalinists evade this, and slur over the idea of higher wages without a price increase.

A “Look at the Books” even today would show profits greater than those reported in annual reports. It would get down to details in exactly how much is extorted out of each worker. Today, it is vital that labor challenge the corporations’ control of industry, because of the anti-social character of capitalist control of production. That is why the slogan is so valid. A look at the books would signify an important advance of the working class in its struggle against Wall Street.

Escalator Clause

The last important idea required in wage negotiations is the escalator clause, sometimes called a “cost of living” bonus, but more often “the sliding scale of wages.” In essence,this sound idea consists of demanding a clause in the contract adjusting wages to the rising cost of living, after a fundamental minimum standard of real wages has been set up. When prices rise, an automatic wage increase would follow. Surely, in a period of inflation such an excellent idea should catch fire in the labor movement.

Instead, the only CIO union of importance that had such a clause in one of its major contracts took it out. It was the CIO oil workers union. The reason given was that it created a hardship on that one company, and also, that labor feared it would boomerang if prices went down. Neither are good reasons.

In my opinion, one of the major reasons why this “escalator” clause hasn’t been more popular is that one of its chief advocates, the SWP (Cannonites) have agitated for it in a sterile, sectarian fashion. Both in The Militant and in speeches at union meetings, SWPers keep referring to “the sliding scale of wages.” Only recently, when the commodity market suffered a temporary price decline, and when workers legitimately were asking, is this it? is this the beginning of the depression and low prices and wage cuts? a follower of the SWP got up and urged a union in negotiations to adopt the “sliding scale of wages.” Naturally the response was negative. Workers don’t want wages to slide. They want them to increase.

At the present time there are two forces operating in the labor movement which stand in the way of continued silence on the part of the top CIO leadership in wage negotiations. A major struggle by the coal miners would, and it appears will, force the Murray leadership in the CIO to put up a more militant struggle, or else lose additional prestige. Secondly, the UAW-CIO, and above all, its active militants are pressing for more action and results. In the UAW-CIO leadership, Reuther is conscious of his need to deliver something if his caucus is to retain its domination of the union.

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