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Charter W.P.A. Workers: Major Task Before C.I.O.

Industry Pick-Up Does Not Relieve Unemployment;
Labor Action Alone Will Open Factories

(December 1938)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 55, 24 December 1938, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The failure of the capitalist system to supply even the most elementary needs of the workers is no more glaringly illustrated than in the persistent phenomenon of mass unemployment in the richest country on earth.

It becomes increasingly clear, particularly in the mass production industries, that the organized labor movement and the employed workers in general, face in chronic mass unemployment the most devastating menace to their interests.

Despite all the tremendous gains of the past few years, particularly in the field of industrial unionism, constantly recurring economic declines heaping up new and more extensive strata of unemployed have cut wide swathes in the union ranks and hold the terror of insecurity over every employed worker. The knowledge that there are thousands of jobless men, desperate for any opportunity to earn a livelihood waiting just outside the plant gates, cannot help but breed an extreme caution in the average worker. It is a desire to hold on to his miserable portion without complaint rather than risk the loss of all in a fight for more decent wages and working conditions.

Mass Unemployment Permanent

In the past year and a half of Roosevelt depression, one decisive fact stands out – mass unemployment is permanent. If in the past nine years the workers have constantly renewed their hopes on the illusion that “bad times” were merely temporary and that “relief” was desirable merely as a “hand-out” to tide the jobless worker over until his next job, this illusion is fast disappearing. Where formerly the WPA worker said, “When I get back into private industry ...” today, the workers in mass production industries are saying in increasing numbers, “When we get back on WPA.” A pick-up in production no longer means a proportionate rise in employment. Rationalization of industry has proceeded at a pace sufficient in the past three years to permit a 25 to 35 percent expansion of production from the low norms of last March, without any material increase in employment. Those who worked two days a week work four now, and production is more than doubled. The totally unemployed must look to relief or government relief jobs as a permanent source of mere subsistence.

Production Up – More WPA!

A striking illustration of this fact was given several weeks ago, by the District WPA Director, William B. Schmuhl, in Toledo, Ohio, in a conference with the representatives of the C.I.O.-WPA Joint Action Committee. He stated that if production in Toledo industry were to rise to the peak of the 1937 boom, a minimum of 8,000 more WPA jobs would still be required now over the 7,000 actually provided previously during the production peak.

Included in the hundreds of thousands, rising production will fail to call back to private employment is a high percentage of young, militant union members, particularly in the C.I.O., who possess insufficient seniority. They had a taste of wages in unionized plants back in ’36 and ’37. They do not relish, as a permanent livelihood, WPA with its $10–$14 per week wages.

But despite the almost 100 percent political support given by organized labor in the past to the New Deal, that agency is proceeding with its now time-hallowed practice of withdrawing unemployed benefits, rather than expanding them and raising the standards.

Up to the present, the organized labor movement has failed to recognize the true character of present unemployment. The jobless worker who looked to his union for help, received little more than the encouragement of occasional resolutions and the sporadic aid of hastily formed, and most often, poorly informed, grievance committees.

In addition, the C.I.O. in many instances, especially where the Stalinists had any foothold or influence, simply told its members to join the Workers Alliance. Sad to relate, this organization was not merely numerically weak, but was so interlinked with the New Deal politicians and so anxious to gain the favors of the WPA officials as a “respectable” organization, that it has long since degenerated into its own unique form of company-unionism. Throughout the entire period of the Roosevelt depression, it spent its time fawning before the government officials. Its leaders, like David Lasser and Herbert Benjamin, cooled their heels in the anterooms of the WPA headquarters in Washington, the legislators offices, or the back-gates of the White House, rushing eagerly into print to expand each perfunctory official hand-shake or smile into another major victory for the unemployed. Such concessions are cheap, and the politicians bestowed them lavishly.

The specter of 10 to 14 millions of permanently disemployed hangs over organized labor. Hundreds of thousands of union men are jobless. The trade union leaders cannot and dare not permit these workers to continue either disorganized or divorced from the organized employed worker. Such a policy means only a gigantic breeding ground for the doctrines of the Father Coughlins, the Gerald K. Smiths, and all their fascist ilk, who spread the gospel that the unions only want the money of the workers, that the unions by their “excessive demands” are creating unemployment, etc.

The only answer organized labor can give to such demagogy, is a national program of organization of the unemployed and WPA workers.

More is needed than wordy resolutions or the intercessions of individual labor leaders. Just as the auto workers themselves, in open battle with the industrialists, won concessions, so the WPA workers and jobless are themselves the key to the solution of their problems.

The pressure from the ranks of the WPA workers in particular have forced the C.I.O. in cities like Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit to set up unions for the WPA workers. In this, they have begun to follow the spendid example of the Minneapolis Central Labor Union and the General Drivers Union which has followed this practice for four years and won outstanding benefits for the jobless of their community.

This move, still in its beginnings, is being bitterly fought by the reactionary elements within the labor movement, particularly the Stalinists, who fear the growth of fighting organizations directed against the New Deal politicians and the government which they so ardently woo.

Such elements must and will be brushed aside. The important thing right now is a nation-wide demand by every honest, militant unionist: “Charter the WPA workers!” and “Build the WPA Industrial Unions!”

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