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A.J. Muste

Labor and the NRA

A Message to the Fifty-third Convention
of the American Federation of Labor

(11 October 1933)

From Labor Action, Vol. 1 No. 11, 11 October 1933, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE contrast between the situation at this convention of the American Federation of Labor and that which obtained at the 1932 convention is overwhelming. Then the workers were on the whole quiet and submissive. Membership in the unions was rapidly falling off. Trade union spirit was at its lowest point in decades.

Now workers are on the march. Every day sees thousands on strike. The greatest organization wave In the entire history of American labor is sweeping forward. The A.F. of L. has taken in tens of thousands of members. The heads of the A.F. of L. have been elevated into positions of national prominence as part of the Recovery program. In the forefront of that program stands a clause that workers shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through unions of their own choosing. Organized labor is “elevated” to “partnership” with industry and government for national recovery.

Little wonder that the official trade union movement was not at the outset disposed to examine too critically the gift which the Roosevelt administration handed it. Certainly the unions were well advised in throwing all their energies into organizing workers. It Is not to be wondered at. that in those trades where unions have added many members, where employees have been put back to work, where wages have for the time being at least gone up, a good deal of enthusiasm for NRA should be felt.

A Slight Change

Already, however, prominent figures in the A.F. of L. are admitting that the early enthusiasm for NRA was somewhat exaggerated and uncritical. The Executive Council’s report to the Convention was to have contained a 101 per cent endorsement of NRA and practically no criticism. That was changed. It is openly admitted now that the minimum wages set in most of the codes are appallingly low. They might have been much better if the A.F. of L. leaders had been vigilant and militant, not overwhelmed with gratitude for small favors when the first codes were adopted. The 80,000 silk workers now on strike would not be in an almost impossible position, if long hours and a $12 per week minimum bad not been put over in the cotton and rayon code, which was hailed by union officials as the bright dawn of a new day. It is now admitted that while the wages of some of the lowest paid workers have been raised, skilled workers have been forced down to an unprecedentedly low level. A demand is made for the 30-hour week, since it is seen that as hours now stand, millions will still be unemployed and will keep all standards down. Prices are going up faster than purchasing power and already, as a result, workers are being laid off or else persuaded to work be low the code wages. The vaunted public works program has produced virtually nothing to date.

Although there is now in trade union official circles considerable criticism of such specific points in the Recovery program, the prevailing position still is that the NRA itself is sound and that the Roosevelt administration must be given full support as the undoubted friend of labor. President Green, in his opening address to this convention, said: “We must have faith, faith in the New Deal; faith in the principles of this Act; faith in those who are honestly and liberally administering it, and most important of all, faith in that great, fearless leader, the President of the United States.”

NRA Is Not for Labor

The Conference for Progressive Labor Action was justified in the doubts it raised from the beginning about such points as we have referred to. We do not say this in an “I told you so” spirit, for these matters are not petty and personal: they affect the well-being of the great masses of American workers and farmers. We now submit for your consideration the proposition that the NRA is not a sound program with a few flaws, but a bad program with only some incidental good features that, whatever Franklin Roosevelt’s personal motives and wishes may be, labor in this country will be led to ruin and Fascism if it trusts him, instead of trusting its own power and militancy.

Labor, it has often been said loosely, has been given the right to organize by Roosevelt. Has it? Was it his to “give?” Just what does it argue about the state of mind that had grown up in the trade union movement if it must go into ecstasies because the right to organize has been “given” it? Samuel Gompers contended that labor need not expect to have anything “handed to it on a silver platter.” If and insofar as labor has now been handed something, should we not be asking “What price are we paying for this ‘favor’?” If workers are now coming into unions because the government tells them to. what will they do when the government changes its mind?

This is not the first time that administrations in this and other countries have been comparatively friendly to labor, and that union membership has gone up. Why lose our heads about it? In Germany trade unionism was for years much stronger than it is here, but Hitler reigns there today.

Besides, bus the right to organize been recognized? To have it written on a piece of paper means little or nothing. No intelligent person who has watched the events of the last few months will believe that the Roosevelt administration or the officers of the U.M.W. of A. would have obtained a code, not to mention a signed agreement for the union, but for the magnificent strikes which the miners carried on in the face of opposition.

Despite the pious declarations of the administration, the steel workers have no code worth speaking of, and their right to organize may have been “recognized” in Washington but has not been recognized in the only place where it counts, namely, the steel mills.

Remember that NRA administrators, without any rebuke from the President, have repeatedly said that the open shop, the company union, the individual agreement, are not barred under NRA. The workers are simply “free to choose.” If they manage to get by discrimination, company thugs, militia, injunctions and a few other slight obstacles How much of a “gift” to labor does this mean?

And when U.M.W. officials dicker with the NRA and persuade their members to keep on mining coal on the assurance that the President himself guarantees them a new deal, until the operators have piled up millions of tons of coul and winter approaches, may it not be that these union officials have already made the miners pay too high a price for this “gift” of “union recognition” from Roosevelt? And just whom is Roosevelt himself serving in a case like this?

We raise other questions about Labor and the NRA. Wages have gone up for Home workers. There is some improvement in employment. Is this the first time these things have occurred? Why should we lie so excited about them?

The important fact is that millions are still unemployed and there is no assurance whatever that they will get their jobs back. From a long run point of view the Roosevelt administration is throwing men out of work. It is plowing under cotton, wheat. etc. and putting millions of acres out of production. Where are the men who worked these fields going?

It follows a policy of high tariffs, economic nationalism. That means less trade with other countries though millions in the world need the goods we destroy. What is to become of those who work or might work in our export trade?

Preparing for War

On the other hand, the administration launches a naval armaments race. We grab at the jobs that are involved and give thanks to Roosevelt. The king who gives out such favors can do no wrong! But when other nations build battleships, we know it means war. If we were not blinded by the administration’s “friendship” for labor, would we not see that Roosevelt guns also mean war ... misery, death, slaughter, generations bowed under war debts?

The Roosevelt economic and financial program is bound to lead this country to the abyss. President Green in his opening address to this convention warned against inflation. He said labor wanted to be paid in “honest dollars.” He pointed to Germany where eventually nominal wages of thousands of marks wouldn’t buy a loaf of bread, and misery at length bred Fascism The statement was greeted with tremendous applause. But it is precisely inflation and nothing else that stands at the end of the road upon which the administration has entered. Holding before labor the wisp of hay. tagged friendship for labor, it leads the union movement to a point where the trade unions either become Fascist or are smashed by Fascism That happened in Germany and elsewhere Why indulge in a pipe-dream and say it can’t happen here?

All the Rooeevelt measures of abandoning the gold standard, etc. have produced only a speculative boom so far. in which the “suckers” who have bought stocks and commodities will be caught again. The figures show that in the strict sense of the term there has been no inflation so far under the Roosevelt regime only because, while governmental agencies are increasing the public debt pretty fast (and who will pay through the nose in the end?), the cutting down of commercial loans by the bankers, and bankruptcy and foreclosure proceedings are wiping out credit faster than the state expands it.

Abbreviating a recent analysis by Mr. Lawrence Dennis, a well-known writer on economics and once a member of the U.S. diplomatic service:

“We shall probably see in the near future a collapse of the security and commodity markets. This will again endanger credit structure and the banks. Then Mr Roosevelt, under the pressure of Congress and all the industrial interests, will come out for drastic inflationary measures In carrying out those measures. Mr. Roosevelt will have to take over the important Industries. He will disclaim an intention of confiscating private property and will use the government printing press to make capitalists happy and respect property rights The government will stand behind all the worthless assets of all the banks, insurance companies and financial institutions. It will finance all deficits of state and local government.

“Obviously this program ran only mean a steady depreciation of the purchasing power of the dollar until it reaches near zero.

“These developments will ruin the bondholder, depositors in savings banks and the insured. They will impoverish the middle classes and make millionaires of shrewd speculative traders.”

The Same Marked Cards

What labor gets out of such a “dishonest dollar” Mr. Green has pointed out!

No other program was to have been expected from a President who is trying to put over a “new deal,” but with the same old marked cards. He may temporarily have pushed the Morgan interests away from the card table, but the Rockefeller interests are there in force. Kaskob of General Motors who filled the treasury of the Democratic Party which elected Roosevelt is in the background, but Swope of General Electric, Teagle of Standard Oil, and Barney Baruch have prominent seats. Roosevelt carefully refrains from touching these people with his tax program. Instead he economizes at the expense of veterans and government employees. The international bankers have given way to the heavy industrialists in other countries too – Germany, for example. In the end that does not mean a better but a worse deal, for labor.

Before it is too late, labor must stop following. It must take the lead. It must cease to have faith In any one else’s program, no matter how kindly disposed he may be. It must set forth its own program. The working class must take command of the situation.

A Program for Labor

This is not the place to suggest labor’s program in detail. It would have to include, in distinction from the fake revolutionary measures of the Roosevelt administration, such genuinely revolutionary measures as these:

1. A moratorium on profits until every worker and farmer gets a living wage 2. Taxation to take for society all incomes above $5,000 until there is an income of at least $3,000 for every family of five. 3. A capital levy to wipe out the entire public debt of the nation. (Government bond issues are oversubscribed, showing there is plenty of idle money.) 4. Scale down drastically the mountain of debt in the form of mortgages, corporation capital, etc. under which the workers groan. 5. Take measures to put all and not a few of the unemployed to work. Put an end to the degrading system of handing out food baskets to millions of American workers and farmers and so long as there are jobless provide a federal system of unemployment insurance for them.

What to Do Now

At least four concrete steps must be taken at once:

  1. The A.F. of L. must definitely abandon the craft union basis of organization. The workers demand industrial unions in the basic industries. Nothing else will bring them anything. Any attempt to palm off a fake industrial unionism on them, to draw them into the A.F. of L. and then divide them again into craft organizations. can have only one of the results: either company unionism will be forced upon the workers finally robbed of all hope of getting anything from trade unionism, or the A.F. of L. will be smashed by workers on the move and enraged at their betrayal.
  2. There must be an end at once to the policy of discouraging the workers from striking. Let labor leave that to the bosses and their political henchmen. The workers have their chance now with the slight upturn which has come after years of suffering. They must strike while the iron is hot. Unionism is dead when in practice it gives up the strike weapon, even though it reserves a mythical paper “right” to strike.
  3. The unions must effect the closest cooperation between the employed workers and the unemployed whose Leagues are even now in Ohio, for example, striking on relief jobs so that they may not undercut the employed workers.
  4. The industrial workers, poor farmers, all other exploited groups must unite at once to build a Farmer-Worker Party. Labor must declare its independence forever of the parties of the bosses.

If it will do this, then dawn for the masses of the U.S. is indeed at hand. If not, this convention of the A.F. of L. will go down in history as a convention of men and women who saw a mirage in the desert, who, trusting in a smiling face, led the masses in the richest nation on earth to poverty, war, tyranny, Fascism.

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