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Gordon Haskell

Steel Strike Raises Some Basic Issues
in Militant Unionism and Class Politics

(10 October 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 41, 10 October 1949, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Condensed from a talk delivered by news commentator Gordon Haskell over radio station KPFA-FM (Berkley, California). Gordon Haskell is heard by residents of the San Francisco Bay Area over this station every Thursday evening at 7:45 – 101 on your dial.

The following radio address by Gordon Haskell was delivered before the steel strike was announced.Ed.

If the steel workers are finally forced out on strike by the refusal of the great steel companies to yield any concessions whatever to their workers, it’s going to be pretty hard to paint a picture of Philip Murray, head of the steel union and of the CIO, as an irresponsible, wild-eyed radical.

The fact is that Murray has in the past been willing to make almost any kind of a settlement in order to avoid a strike. The United Steel Workers of America is probably one of the most conservative as well as one of the most bureaucratized unions in the CIO. Time after time Murray has been willing to settle wage demands oh a minimum basis, far below that which was acceptable to other CIO union leaders.

I would like to remind you particularly of the year 1946. At that time the United Auto Workers had struck General Motors for 100 days, demanding a 30-cent wage increase and calling On the corporation to open its books to the union. Further, the UAW was demanding that the wage increase take place without an increase in the price of cars.

In the middle of this hard-fought strike, Murray signed a contract with the steel industry providing for an 18½-cent increase in wages, with the tacit understanding that the steel workers would support the steel industry in an effort to increase the price of steel to more than cover the wage increase. This settlement set a national pattern for wage increases, knifed the auto workers in the back and gave a further spurt to the increase in cost of living.

It is reported that at that time Murray was very critical of Walter Reuther’s formula of “a wage increase without a price increase,” and told Reuther that prices were of no concern to the unions, as there was nothing about the American economy which couldn’t be fixed up by an increase in wages.

Bosses Prefer Bureaucrats

I’m reminding you of this history, because it has an important bearing on the whole question of collective bargaining in America, and particularly on the role of Murray and those who think like him in the trade-union leadership.

When workers go on strike, the employers usually start yelling about the so-called “autocratic power” of the union leaders. The truth of the matter is, however, that generally speaking the less democracy there is in a union the better it is liked by the capitalists. This is true for two reasons:

A bureaucratic union can control the militancy of its ranks much better than a democratic one. The industrialists know that when the ranks have little or nothing to say about negotiations, it’s much easier to make a deal with their leaders. And the more bureaucratic the leaders are, that is, the further they are separated from the ranks in manner of life and thinking, the more they are inclined to see things from the point of view of the capitalists, or at least from a point of view closer to that of the capitalists than of the rank and file sweating it out in the shops.

Further along this line, the more bureaucratic a union is. the LESS militant is its rank and file likely to become. Both militancy and democracy feed and grow strong on militancy and democracy. When a union membership becomes accustomed to having all problems settled from on top, their interest in the union and their fighting spirit is reduced to a minimum.

Out of Practice

All these things have to be borne in mind when we consider the prospects of a coming steel shake. For a number of reasons, Murray has been able, in the past to make deals with the steel industry owners which gained much less for the workers than could have been got through struggle, but which did gain something for them. Thus the ranks of the union have never become accustomed to fighting for their own interests.

But now the chickens are coming home to roost. The steel industry has apparently decided to give nothing to the union. Murray cannot possibly accept this, as it would deal a deathblow to his status as a “labor statesman.” But now he has to turn to the ranks – the very same ranks which he has for years discouraged from militancy and fighting initiative.

Private reports which I have received from the great steel-making regions indicate that the membership is apathetic, expects things to be settled from on top, as usual, and at present probably has little stomach for a strike. This is shown in dreary and very poorly attended meetings, there’s no doubt that the steel magnates are fully aware of this situation. and intend to use it to the limit. This is probably also the explanation for the outbursts of wrath and frustration exhibited by Murray at the hearings of the fact-finding board, when he referred to the heads of the steel industry as a bunch of sanctimonious racketeers.

lie feels that he has been betrayed. The same men who were always willing to make a deal in the past (when they were operating on government cost-plus contracts, or on the inflationary spiral) have now closed the door in his face. They are forcing him to fight at a time least favorable to the union.

Basis for Wage Raise

The steel magnates are refusing to play ball and have flatly stated that they won’t even give the pittance recommended by the board. Thus the union is now faced with the position of either having to strike for the measly board recommendations or to reverse their whole strategy and strike for their original demands. If they do that now, the industry will charge that they were not sincere in accepting the board’s recommendations in the first place.

Of course, the issues in this dispute bring up, as all major strikes do, the question of what is a legitimate basis for collective bargaining under capitalism. When unions make demands, they almost invariably base them on one or all of three principles.

They claim that the increased productivity of labor justifies an increased share of the product to the workers. They claim that the workers need the increase either to keep up with the cost of living or to bring them up to a decent living standard or to bring them up to standards already won by other workers. Finally, they claim that the profits of industry make possible the granting of their demands.

Industry counters this reasoning with principles of its own. On productivity, they either reply that there has been no increase in productivity or that the increase has been due not to greater efforts by the workers but due to greater investment in new machines by capital. Such productivity, they reason, since it is due to capital investment, justifies greater returns to capital and not to the workers.

On the cost of living or the demand for a higher standard of living, industry either replies that there has been no increase in the cost of living, or that industry cannot be responsible for any such increase.

Which Side?

In this particular hearing the industry leaders have stated that profits arc not the business of the union and that they refuse to consider profitability as a basis for collective bargaining. They insist that profits are the legitimate fruits of capital investment and that their responsibility is to their stockholders and not to the workers.

Finally, they insist that when computing profits it is not legitimate to compute them on the basis of capital investment, but rather on the basis of turnover. That is, how many cents out of each dollar in sales go to dividends, to wages, to reinvestment, to debt payment, etc.

Now, who is wrong and who is right? If you want an answer, you’ll find it by deciding which side of the fence you’re on.

If you believe that industry should be run for the benefit of the American people, the standard of living of the workers will seem to you the most important consideration, as they constitute a much larger section of the American people than do the industrialists. Then productivity, profits, prices, wages and even what is produced and how it is sold and distributed will seem to you a legitimate concern of the workers.

On the other hand, if you believe that the prosperity of the capitalists is the most important thing, then all of these factors are or should be of no concern to the workers, and the fact that they raise them simply indicates, as the employers in this beef have said repeatedly, that the unions are beginning to be permeated with a socialistic philosophy.

Now, one of the difficulties in which Murray finds himself is precisely that he abhors a socialistic philosophy. That is, he is a strong advocate of capitalism and he supports it both economically and politically. He insists that his demands are good capitalistic demands, which would be granted by the industrialists if they were really good capitalists.

Yet when he really has to fight for something for his membership he has to make demands on industry which bring into question one of the basic concepts of capitalism, and that is the profit motive itself.

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