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Susan Green

Lewis Asks Joint Labor Fund
to Aid Steel Strike

(24 October 1949)


From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 43, 24 October 1949, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).



This past week John L. Lewis raised a question of paramount importance to all workers – that of pooling the resources of organized labor, and presumably also its wisdom, to support any section or sections of the workers on strike.

In a letter to William Green, AFL president, Lewis proposed that the nine richest AFL internationals and the United Mine Workers each contribute $250,000 a week (making in all $2,500,000 a week) as a war chest for the 500,000 steel workers on strike, “to enable the great union to win beyond peradventure.”

Lewis declared in his letter that the steel companies are not alone in their desire to deal the steel workers a crushing defeat, that united with the former are several other industries as well as investing insurance companies and the DuPont and Mellon financial empires. He was proposing; therefore, to make the strike of the. steel workers “the uncompromising fight of all American labor.”

In the opinion of Labor Action, this concept and this aim are exactly what the labor movement needs desperately.

As LA pointed out in a front-page editorial two weeks ago, the steel workers ARE fighting a battle for all labor. The question of pensions, contributory or otherwise,’ is a pretext for the steel companies: their real aim is to rock labor back on its heels and to stiffen Taft-Hartleyism. Labor solidarity should be the reply and Lewis’ proposal is something to get enthusiastic about.
 

Flash in the Pan?

Therefore, it is a great disappointment and even a misfortune that three days after the publication of Lewis’ letter, the whole matter appears to have been a mere flash in the pan. Unless the rank and file of organized labor take up where their top leaders left off, nothing will materialize from this move by Lewis which made the front pages for a few’ days. William Green rejected the proposal out of hand; and while Philip Murray, CIO president, assumed the most constructive attitude of the three men, he did nothing to implement it. What was wrong?

In the first place, Lewis’ method of procedure was highly questionable. Normal procedure would have been to call an inter-organization conference on the question of support for strikers, at which conference discussions could take place and a plan could be worked out. Lewis’ high-handed “I propose” and “I suggest” could arouse nothing but resentment. Furthermore, his bursting into the press with his letter almost before Green had a chance to read it, let alone answer it, afforded good ground for AFL and CIO officials to characterize his proposal as nothing but “a grandstand play.”

The fact that Lewis referred only to the steel workers aroused his own miners. One local sent a telegram to Lewis along the lines that “a kitty should be raised to alleviate poverty in the mining fields first” and “charity begins at home.” Commentators of every stripe took the occasion to accuse Lewis of not really having the interest of strikers al heart at all but of posing as the distributor of largesse to his weaker brethren.

Again, Lewis must know very well that no union, however rich, will agree to part with a quarter of a million each week. Furthermore, the idea of calling on only the ten richest internationals is entirely unwarranted. Strike support can and must come from all unions, big and little, rich and not rich, according to their ability and willingness. This is how strike support is organized.

Finally, if Lewis was serious, why did he make his contribution contingent on the others? Why wasn’t he the one to set the example?
 

Green Says No

William Green, on his part, was only too eager to find purely formalistic reasons for rejecting the Lewis proposal. He wanted to know, for instance, if Murray had asked for aid for the steel workers! Another limping objection Green made is that the AFL unions are autonomous and would have to determine for themselves whether to disburse money as suggested. (There is no reason why the unions for their autonomous and he could not submit the matter to democratic decision.)

Green seemed to emphasize that the establishment of organic unity within the ranks of labor is a basic primary requirement for united strike action; that any combination of labor’s resource “while divided as it is today, is impossible and impracticable.” This is an obvious evasion of the question of unity. For if unity is desirable, then united actions in strikes are desirable not only in themselves but as steps toward more complete unity. But Green says in effect: “We are not united. Let us stay that way.”

Although Lewis addressed no communication to Philip Murray, the latter correctly took the opportunity to make a statement in the form of a press release. As indicated above, his position its the most constructive of the three.

He disregarded Lewis’ proposal that steel workers be the sole recipients of aid and came out for the pooling of resources “for the common defense,” thus slapping down the rich relative attitude struck by Lewis. Most significant is the general principle for labor unity which he formulated:

As president of the CIO and the United Steel Workers of America I have consistently advocated unity of action on the part of all responsible and genuine American trade unions. It has been my hope and conviction that such unity of action in the political, legislative and economic fields will lead eventually to that organic unity which is vital for American labor to defend itself against its powerful political and economic enemies.”

Such words deserve hearty approval, but Murray did not try to give them substance by calling for an inter-organizational conference to make today’s strikes really the fight of all labor. And since the issues of the current strikes are as much political as economic, the agenda for such a conference would have had to Include the question of an independent party of labor, the only real expression of labor’s political unity against its enemies.

The Lewis proposal brought into the limelight the importance and the meaning of labor solidarity and labor unity. Lewis seems to have played around with it, Green to have run away from it, Murray to. have left it an abstraction. Now, it appears, the rank and file of the great labor organizations make it a reality.


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