From New International, Vol.12 No.3, March 1946, pp.66-67.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The first great post-war trial of strength between American labor and capital is drawing to an end. The over-all result is a defeat for labor.
The efforts of the labor leaders to point with pride to the wage increases of twelve per cent to nineteen per cent and claim a victory avail them little against a sober analysis of the nature of the struggle. Such an analysis must begin by noting that the 1946 strike wave was not a repetition of the 1919 struggles. In the latter, it was capital which took the offensive to rid itself of the grip which labor had achieved on many industries during the war. Capital’s offensive proceeded under the general slogan of “The Open Shop.” Other struggles of that period were for the elementary demand of union recognition, as in the steel strike.
The strike wave just being concluded began with organized labor at the peak of its strength hi the history of the movement. The combined membership of the CIO, AFL, the railroad brotherhoods and the miners totaled some 14,000,000. The unions took the offensive to close the gap between wages and prices which had developed during the wartime wage freeze and no-strike pledge. The bulk of them set a thirty per cent increase as the amount necessary to achieve this. The statistics they produced made out an airtight case for the justice of this demand. They further aggressively declared that they wanted forty-eight hours’ pay for forty hours’ work in order to maintain the purchasing power necessary to provide full employment. In most cases they denied that a price increase was required to meet their wage demands. In the case of General Motors, they demanded that the corporation “open its books” and make available to the public all information pertaining to its financial situation.
The demands of labor were regarded as elementary justice by the rank and file. The airtight case made out for them by the unions’ spokesmen in collective bargaining were viewed by the ranks as a matter-of-fact presentation of the workers’ minimum needs. The ranks of labor were everywhere solid. Not a single major strike showed evidence of internal wavering, not even in the record-long GM strike.
Yet the mighty offensive of labor nowhere reached its objectives. In most cases the settlements secured only a half to two-thirds of what labor struck for. Labor did not get its wartime “take-home” pay demand. It did not get what its spokesmen had proved was necessary to again bring wages up to a pre-war parity with the cost of living. If an army that takes the offensive and fails to dislodge the enemy from its positions has suffered a defeat, then labor suffered a defeat in the present strike struggles.
Nothing so underscores the correctness of this verdict as the fact that most strikes settled down to a struggle over one, two or three cents per hour between the maximum offered by capital and the minimum acceptable to labor. Capital recognized from the outset that some increase in wages was unavoidable. The issue in the strikes was not, therefore, nothing or nineteen cents. It was the thirteen to fifteen per cent offered by capital and the thirty per cent demanded by labor.
Labor’s effort was an imposing one. Its blows struck both successively and concurrently in the most basic industries-steel, auto, packing, electrical goods, communications, aluminum and scores of local strikes. The strike movement carried into its wake such independent unions as that of the telephone workers, long regarded as being a company union. It produced such offshoots as the tugboat strike, which cut off New York’s fuel and brought the entire city to a standstill, the solid walkout of the Galveston, Texas, municipal employees; the tie-up of the Philadelphia transportation system and the long and stubborn strike of the San Francisco-Oakland machinists. During the course of the steel strike the number of strikers topped the million mark by a wide margin. Behind them stood the largest labor movement in the world. They enjoyed a widespread sympathy in the ranks of the unorganized and the middle class. But the best which the labor leadership could achieve was to squeeze an additional nickel out of the corporations, a nickel that looks all the smaller when compared with the manifest justice of labor’s original demands.
Yet labor was not defeated on the picket lines. Its ranks held solid. Nowhere did a struck industry succeed in operating. Labor received its defeat at the hands of the government. The two factors that decided the strike were (1) the government’s tax rebate scheme and (2) the Administration’s intervention through so-called fact-finding agencies.
The tax rebate provisions of the 1945 tax law have been previously described in these columns as to how they affect strike-bound plants (The New International, December, 1945, page 261). The operation of this law in the case of the United States Steel Corporation caused Philip Murray to protest to Secretary of the Treasury Vinson that the corporation could afford to defy the strikers to the extent of remaining closed all year and still “earn” profits of $149,000,000 through the tax rebate provisions. Compared to such financial subsidies for industry, the strikers could not even collect unemployment insurance, except in a few states where they became eligible after eight weeks.
The second decisive factor that told against labor was Truman’s fact-finding intervention. The rôle of the Administration was one integrally associated with all forms of “labor conciliation” – to maneuver between the two contestants, to confuse the issues, to apply “pressure,” to browbeat and threaten, to trick and cajole. The Administration’s specific tactic in the major strikes of the recent wave was a trick that is hoary with age and is the first one every small-fry conciliator uses when injecting himself into a strike situation. This trick consists of a widely-heralded refusal to comment upon the issues until they have been submitted to a scientifically impartial fact-finding. The next step is to ascertain labor’s minimum demand and the corporation’s maximum offer. Having determined this, the conciliator makes a firm announcement that labor is entitled to an amount which is usually slightly above the maximum which capital is ready to concede. The corporation knows its cue and belligerently rebukes the government conciliator for seeking to browbeat industry, charges that the conciliator is pro-labor and with a great show of stubbornness declares it will not go a penny beyond its original offer. At this point the gullible labor leaders beat their breasts and begin a big campaign of demagogical denunciation of the corporation for “defying the government.” The conciliator states that he has done his best, that the corporation is unreasonable and makes an appeal to its sense of fair play. By this time the labor leadership has retired to the sidelines and becomes all but spectators as the conciliator and the corporation go through a sham battle over two or three cents. If the conciliator is one who operates in the grand manner, he will even tell “the boys” to leave it to him, that he can get more for them if they stay out of the limelight, etc. At one point the corporation finally “capitulates.” It either agrees to an increase somewhere half way between what the conciliator asked for and what the corporation originally offered or, if hard pressed, even accepts the conciliator’s recommendation. The labor leaders then announce a “great victory” over a stubborn enemy.
Is not this just about what happened in the steel strike! The best of the labor militants already realize this. As time goes by and the mass of workers try to measure up their increased pay envelopes against their grocery and clothing bills, they too will discover that the “great victory” left them far short of their objectives set at the beginning of the strikes.
Above all do the strike settlements look paltry and threadbare in contrast to the bold demands about “ability to pay,” “open the books” and “no price increases because of wage increases” with which the CIO leadership entered the fray. The revolutionary implications of these demands proved too much for the labor leadership when the reactionary press and the full-page ads of the corporations began to drive them home by pointing to their logical conclusions. Yet, as it was developed in these columns in our December and January issues, these demands were not accidentally adopted by labor. They were implicit in the very situation in which labor found itself at the end of the war. The basis upon which the strikes were settled does not alter this situation. The way out for labor which was indicated by these demands will again and again present itself as the obvious and logical choice. It has become the indicated program for the progressives in the unions. “Open the books” and “Make profits and prices subject to collective bargaining” must be an integral part of any progressive program that seeks to keep abreast of labor’s needs in this period.
However, the crowning demand of every progressive program, and without which it hardly can lay claim to that distinction any more, is the demand for an independent Labor Party. The first great strike experience of the American labor movement since the organization strikes of the CIO in 1935-37 revealed that the relations between the labor movement and the Administration had undergone considerable change. The magnitude of the strike crisis forced Truman to make his “cooling off” proposal as a major step toward an over-all solution from the point of view of capital and, in turn, brought down upon him the angry denunciations of not only the CIO but the AFL and railroad brotherhoods as well. Rumor has it that Robert Hannegan, Democratic Party strategist, is hard at work to save the Democratic Party-PAC alliance, at least for the Congressional elections of 1946. It may have been this consideration that caused the tone of the Administration to change during the course of the strike wave from the initial “cooling off” message to the more subtle strike-breaking rôle of “fact-finding” and “labor conciliation.” However, a note of dissatisfaction with labor’s political strategy is everywhere apparent in the trade unions. To some measure it reflects the cautious moves of the Stalinists toward “third party” alignments. However, in the main, it represents the growing awareness on the part of the rank and file that the PAC strategy has failed, that labor’s politics have reached an impasse, that the Democratic Party is more than ever the instrument of the Southern reactionaries and the Northern big city machines and that its traditional “friends at court,” like Henry Wallace, are themselves barely tolerated in Democratic Party circles. It appears that Hillman and Murray are prepared to again go through the farce of electing a Congress “friendly to labor” in the 1946 elections. It is highly probable, however, that the political lessons of the strike wave will bear fruit in a series of local moves toward independent labor politics on a municipal and state basis before the November elections roll around.
Last updated on 1.10.2005