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Hillman Plays Judas in Arms Contract Fight

(26 October 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 4 No. 43, 26 October 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On September 6, a formal statement of the National Defense Advisory Commission was issued declaring, “All work carried on as part of the defense program should comply with Federal statutory provisions affecting labor wherever such provisions are applicable. This applies to the Walsh-Healy Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, National Labor Relations Act, etc. ...”

The Commission’s statement was seconded on September 9, by a formal endorsement from President Roosevelt.

On September 11, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, most notorious open-shop corporation in the country and branded as a violator of the labor laws by the NLRB, was granted the largest single war order yet released, for $625,000,000.

Phillip Murray, head of the CIO Steel workers Organizing Committee, expressed “utter astonishment” at this award to Bethlehem Steel just five days after the Defense Commission had presumably called on all war contractors to obey the labor laws.

The workers in Bethlehem Steel were puzzled by this contradiction between implied policy and applied fact.

Whereupon Sidney Hillman, as head of the Labor Division of the Defense Commission, sought to reassure the workers by a press statement on September 13, proudly quoting the Commission’s original statement and adding, “You will further observe that, in this statement of conditions underlying the awarding of contracts, the Commission has not limited itself merely to the requirements that contractors observe existing laws. It has gone substantially beyond that.”

But war contracts continued to go to Bethlehem Steel – to the sum of over $1,000,000,000. The Bethlehem workers became uneasy, and the CIO – organized Sparrows Point shipyard of Bethlehem Steel went out on strike. The CIO wrote Hillman for a little further clarification.

On October 3, Hillman hastened to send a letter citing an “informal” opinion of Attorney General Jackson to a gathering in Pittsburg of several hundred SWOC representatives who were considering the crisis in Bethlehem. This opinion declared; “It seems too clear to admit of controversy ... that the findings of the National Labor Relations Board that an employer is in violation of the National Labor Relations Act are binding and conclusive upon the other agencies in the executive branch of the government unless and until these findings are reversed by a court of competent jurisdiction”.

This obviously means, and was so interpreted by every capitalist newspaper, that no government agency may ignore a ruling of the NLRB and award contracts to outlawed corporations. Among several score corporations publicly listed as hit by this ruling were Standard Oil, the duPonts, General Motors, Ford Motor and Bethlehem Steel.

The Bethlehem conference of the SWOC looked on the Hillman assurance and the Jackson ruling as good coin. No action was taken to spread the Sparrows Point strike. Instead, they hastened to discourage direct action. The Sparrows Point shipyard stride was called off on the urging of Philip Van Gelder, national secretary of the CIO Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, who declared that Jackson’s opinion “could be used as a weapon for enforcing collective bargaining in the Sparrows Point and other Bethlehem plants without the necessity of strike action.”

And After Stifling the Strike

The capitalist press showed no gratitude to Hillman for spiking the Bethlehem strike. It did not like the method he employed, and demanded an unambiguous rejection of the principle implied in the Jackson ruling. The New York Times cynically likened a violation of the National Labor Relations Act to the violation of a municipal ordinance forbidding smoking in the subway. What! Hold up “national defense” for such trivialities?

The pay-off came – the day of the return to work of the Sparrows Point strikers on Oct. 8.

That afternoon a procession filed before the Smith Committee, the Congressional body “investigating” the NLRB. First came Under-secretary of War, Patterson. Said he, “It is not my understanding that a labor dispute is any bar to a contract. It is merely one thing to be considered.” Next, Secretary of the Navy Knox declared, “His (Patterson’s) words accurately reflect the navy’s attitude.” Hillman sat quietly listening to Knox and Patterson brazenly repudiate their own previous statements in letters to him.

Jackson then testified. There had been “a great storm of misunderstanding” about his previous opinion. “The effect,” said he, “was not intended to direct or imply that the Defense Commission should withhold contracts from persons or corporations declared by the NLRB to be in violation of the Wagner Act.”

Judas-Hillman Apes His Masters

Finally, Hillman was called to the stand. He cold-blood[ed]ly put the period to the end of Jackson’s sentence. As the New York Post described it:

“Of all the apparent back-tracking, Hillman’s was the most startling, causing gasps among the committee members and spectators.”

“I’ve got to agree” with the gentlemen who had preceded him on the stand, said Hillman. “The army and navy have the power (to determine the conditions for the letting of contracts). In every case the first consideration is whether it will help or harm national defense.”

After the hearing, Hillman further clarified his stand.

“If the cause of national defense is to be served it is entirely obvious that there may be times when a person should not insist upon the final technical letter of the law.”

The next day the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an NLRB ruling against an appeal of the Bethlehem Steel corporation. The court declared Bethlehem Steel was guilty of “a plain violation” of the National Labor Relations Act.

Two days later, Bethlehem Steel was awarded another fat war contract, for $54,000,000. This was an example of Hillman’s non-insistence upon the “final technical letter of the law.”

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