From New International, Vol.12 No.7, September 1944, pp.195-196.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Two major struggles by the American working class were fought since the end of the war in the Pacific. In one, organized labor won a partial victory; in the other, the people as a whole suffered a defeat.
The first struggle was not an unexpected one, for the labor movement, principally the CIO, had given notice even before the war ended that the struggle for wage increases would begin in a series of basic industries. This was a very logical post-war development in a situation where the big bourgeoisie enriched itself not only from the “natural” conditions of a war economy, but with the official acquiescence of a labor officialdom which accepted almost all restrictions of Roosevelt’s War Stabilization Act on labor.
The labor officials always sounded a warning: wait until the end of the war! One was led to assume that the coming of peace would result in a new situation, a decline of the power of big business and a rise in the influence of labor and its share in the national economy. But even in its most optimistic moments, the labor officialdom must have known by experience alone, if nothing else, that whatever the working class would gain in the post-war period, it would have to fight for it. And for that reason, large sections of the labor movement prepared for strikes as a means of overcoming the decline in wages by a drive to increase their basic rate.
The post-war tendencies of the First World War are to be experienced again: the bourgeoisie would seek to guarantee a rate of profit as closely as possible approximating the inflated years of the war. This would be done legally through redress granted the profiteer patriots by Congress; it would be done by sharply cutting into the standard of living of the working class. In the first case, Congress responded nobly by granting industry rebates on taxes paid during the war if industry demonstrated that its profits fell below immediate pre-war averages. It lowered taxes of industry and adopted legislation which would ease the the pains of reconversion for the bourgeoisie. Congress did all in its power to assist the bourgeoisie in shifting the burden of reconversion upon the shoulders of the people, in the first place, the working class. But if it did this for the class whose interests it represents it remained coldly indifferent to the needs of the masses. No adequate housing bill; no minimum wage bill; no FEPC; no anti-lynching bill; no guaranteed job bill!
The reaction of the organized workers to their tremendous loss in wages with the end of wartime production was to present industry with wage demands that revolved around the figure of thirty cents an Hour. The first post-war struggle between monopoly capitalism and labor in auto, steel, coal, packing, rubber, etc., had begun.
On the one side, labor showed by cold statistics that the workers had suffered wage-cuts reaching almost forty per cent of their wartime income. Economic reports were presented which not only demonstrated that the official government statistics were falsely constructed, but that if the workers did receive a thirty cent increase their wages would still fall far below their wartime level in a period in which prices had surpassed wartime levels. For their part, the monopoly capitalists carried on an expensive campaign to prove that they could not grant such “astronomical” demands and still operate their industries profitably; that the very system of “free enterprise” was threatened by labor’s demands.
The impasse reached in the period of negotiations was resolved by strike action and the reappearance for the first time since the beginning of the war, of mass picket lines and the complete paralysis of whole industries. As a result, the massed power of labor succeeded in partially breaking the will of industry and winning wage increases which levelled off at about eighteen cents an hour.
But even more significant for the future development of the labor movement than these gains was the role played by the United Automobile Workers in their strike against General Motors. There was revealed in this struggle the first signs of a maturing process taking place among the workers. The General Motors strike, which preceded the other big strikes, saw the union present two demands on the giant GM monopoly which lifted the strike out of the ordinary wage struggles characterizing the main strategy of the pre-war labor movement. These demands were: Open the Books! and Wage Increases Without Price Increases!
The social importance and significance of these demands have already been fully treated in The New International. It is only necessary to remind our readers that these demands involved the whole question of workers’ control of production and linked wages to prices, which in the epoch of monopoly capitalism are intimately related. No wonder the corporation resisted so strongly; no wonder the major monopolistic combines came to the support of the corporation!
In contrast to the extreme consciousness of the bourgeoisie who saw the whole system of private property threatened, the majority of the labor officialdom showed little consciousness whatever. John L. Lewis and Philip Murray sought strike settlements in coal and steel without regard to the question of price increases and its conseqences upon the standard of living of the working class. Conservative minded, ignorant of economics or else educated in the platitudes of bourgeois economics they declared: industry deserves and should get all the profits it can; the operation of industry is none of our business; all we want is a wage increase for our workers.
In the earlier days of capitalism, when the system was young and expanding, this reactionary doctrine did not have the end-effect upon the masses as it does today. Today it is a fatal doctrine. That has been the lesson of the period since the strike wave ended. The failure to understand that lesson is in large part responsible for the defeat the people have suffered on the price front. While the “GM Program” would not have guaranteed success, it would have given the labor movement a fighting chance. Without it, all other measures, while individually good, could not succeed in breaking the determination of big business to shift the cost of wage increases upon the shoulders of the masses.
Whatever construction may be put on the actions of Congress and the Administration as revealed in their inner struggle over price control, the fact is that both conspired to defeat strict price control. The former, by its outright abolition; the latter, by a process of successive and gradual lifting of controls. The President vetos one undisguisedly hypocritical control bill only to sign one equally as bad. No sooner is this bill made law when the administrators of the OPA proceed to lift price controls precisely on those commodities which affect the daily life of the people. This was one of the outstanding swindles in the history of reactionary national legislatures.
But that was to be expected. Any labor leader who feels that he was “betrayed” by Congress should begin to study his lessons to learn the meaning of state power in a class society. The labor leaders had only betrayed themselves in placing one ounce of confidence in the “profiteers’ Congress."
The reaction of the labor movement to the crippling of price control was swifter than it was on the question of wages. The sharp rise in prices struck home in a literal sense. It beat its fierce notes on workers and their families, the middle classes, the small and poor farmers, on professional people and every other layer of the population. The UAW adopted a five-point program calling for a buyers’ strike, flying squadrons to prevent evictions, rent strikes to halt the gouge of the landlords, a demonstrative strike against the abolition of price control, and for a national conference of labor to meet and deal with this burning question which affected the whole nation.
The responses of consumers’ bodies, tenants’ leagues, and neighborhood committees, dovetailed with work stoppages, mass meetings, resolutions to Congress, and a host of other actions. These had the effect of forcing the passage of the present OPA bill.
But the fight of the labor movement fell short. Instead of increasing in scope, it ended quickly. The price fight declined with the passage of the aforementioned OPA bill. And the responsibility for this rests upon the shoulders of the labor leaders. Throughout the most stirring days of the struggle, the president of the CIO had not a single word to say on the problem! If William Green muttered anything at all, no one paid any attention to him (now he blames the wage demands of the CIO unions as the cause of the price increases!). The failure of the tremendous American labor movement to develop an all-sided, continuous struggle on the wage and price fronts has given the initiative momentarily to the capitalists.
This is only the first stage of the post-war class struggle. Even the boom nature of the present economic situation in the country cannot long down this struggle. The boom itself has a fictitious character and is experienced in part by the reduced economic share of the masses in the national economy.
The lesson for the future, however, is clear: the labor movement must wage a new kind of struggle. Wage fights are not enough. Victories on the wage front can be lost on the price front. The struggle for wages must therefore be linked with a struggle against price increases. It is the sheerest kind of sectarianism and doctrinarism which says that they cannot and should not be linked; that it is a violation of Marxist principle; that control of prices under capitalism is impossible. These are economic questions which are solved in the last analysis by the class struggle.
The development of a new stage of struggle of American labor has come. It is a maturer struggle, a struggle with deeper social implications. The essential content of the GM Program must become part of a national program of labor. This struggle will not develop its full power until it is accompanied by independent political action of labor, by the establishment of an independent labor party, and by the adoption of a program which must lead to a struggle against the bourgeois government and the bourgeois social order. The establishment of such a party would mark the first stage in the socialist political development of the American working class and would give genuine power to its economic struggle.
Last updated on 6.10.2005