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Truman Leads Vicious Attack
on Rail Unions

(1 June 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 22, 1 June 1946, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

After a two-day demonstration of their paralyzing power in the greatest transportation strike in history, the 293,000 members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen were ordered back to work by their leaders late Saturday afternoon. This order came shortly before a deadline set by President Truman in his strikebreaking ultimatum the night before.

For 48 hours, the engineers and trainmen, traditionally among the most conservative unionists in America, had defied Truman’s “seizure” of the country’s railroads under the Smith-Connally Anti-Strike Act.

There was no sign of a break in their ranks up to the very moment when A.F. Whitney and Alvanley Johnston, presidents respectively of the trainmen’s and engineers’ unions, under the concerted onslaught of the capitalist government and Big Business, ordered a return to work on the terms fixed by Truman in conspiracy with the railway profiteers.

Workers Bitter

A tremendous wave of bitterness and wrath swept the striking railroad workers when word came of their leaders’ submission to Truman’s dictate. They were full of fight and were prepared for a showdown struggle.

From lodge meetings all over the country came immediate reports of boos and sharp resentment at announcement of the return-to-work order. As even the Big Business press admitted, “the members voiced mixed opinions, but the one that predominated was: ‘Whitney says we’re licked, but our turn will come.’” (N.Y. Times, May 26).

Never, in the whole history of American labor struggle, have workers fighting for their just demands been subjected to such savage attack by the agencies of capitalist rule.

The ferocious assault against the railroad workers, spearheaded by the government and whipped up by the unrestrained howlings of the kept press, even surpassed the attack on the striking soft-coal miners prior to their two-week truce announced May 10.

The climax of the government’s strikebreaking assault, and the threat which forced the leaders of the two striking unions to bow, was Truman’s declaration in a radio address Friday night that if the strikers did riot return to work by 5 p.m. Saturday he would order Federal troops to run the railroads. Thus Truman was prepared to emulate his Democratic and Republican predecessors in the White House who three times since 1877 have turned rifles and bayonets against railroad workers.

At the very moment when Whitney and Johnston were making their declaration of surrender, Truman was before a special joipt session of Congress calling for “emergency” legislation which would permit him to draft strikers into the armed forces and force them to work under penalty of courts-martial. It also provided for firing, loss of seniority, and fines and imprisonment for strikers and union leaders in government-“seized” plants.

Within two hours, the House of Representatives had seized upon this most viciously anti-labor legislative proposal ever put forward by an American president and approved it by a majority of 306 to 13. The measure was delayed in the Senate only because the ultra-reactionary majority desired to make it “foolproof” by amendment and to tack it on to the notorious Case Anti-Strike Bill, which the Senate had previously given precedence on the floor.

Government Serves Wall Street

Throughout the entire current rail labor struggle, the government acted openly as the instrument of the railway corporations and the Wall Street financiers, headed by the J.P. Morgan interests, which control the country’s rail transport. The anti-labor railway magnates simply sat back while the government, led by the Truman administration conducted a savage strikebreaking war on the rail workers. The latter had been driven to strike revolt for the first time in 21 years as a result of decades of cumulative blows that brought their conditions to an intolerable state.

Why did these traditionally conservative workers, bound by the most bureaucratic union structure and dominated by the most craft-ridden, ultra-conservative top leadership in the American labor movement, sweep aside all barriers and go out on strike?

Truman, in his Congressional speech, charged that the strike was the result of the “obstinate arrogance of two men,” Whitney and Johnston. That these timid bureaucrats, whose entire record over decades is one of retreat and capitulation to the railway interests and government, were in any way responsible for the strike, is laughable.

On the contrary, these leaders were finally driven to strike action by the terrific pressure of the union ranks, whom the union tops could no longer hold in check. Whitney and Johnston were stating the literal truth in their last-minute plea before the strike on Thursday when they appealed to Truman to offer some terms which the ranks might find acceptable, declaring “we have told you many times that the present agitation among the men ... is extremely serious and that their demands could not be abandoned.”

Neither in his radio address nor in his speech to Congress did Truman voice the slightest sympathy for the just demands for changes in working rules which were the key issue of the strike. His entire attack was directed venomously at the workers. He did not even mention the railway corporations – nor did he give the slightest hint as to any responsibility for the strike on the part of the rail monopolists.

Railway Profits

He did not tell, for instance, how the leading railroads had piled up three billion dollars in net profits during the four war years of 1941–46 – an increase of 1,164 percent over their profits rake-off in 1936–39! He did not tell how the rail moguls had deliberately stalled negotiations in order to throw the issue into the lap of the government, because they knew the government would intervene on their behalf and exert its prestige and power to force the railroad workers to yield.

He did not tell how government officials during the strike had agreed to recommend not only an 18½ cent an hour wage, increase, but certain rule changes which the unions had said would be an acceptable basis for settlement, and that these proposals were either not presented to the operators, or if they had been, the government officials had kept silent about the operators’ refusal to accept them.

Instead, Truman maliciously insisted on the strikers accepting terms WORSE than those they had opposed by their strike action. The corporation-dominated “fact-finding” boards prior to the strike had recommended only a 16-cent increase, compared to the 18 and 18½ cents awarded in other industries after strikes, and only seven of the demanded 43 rule changes. Truman proposed an additional 2½ cents increase but NO CHANGES in the rules.

Whitney and Johnston had no choice but to denounce Truman’s terms as even “less favorable” than those offered by the “fact-finding” boards. The union leaders finally offered to order a return to work on the basis of the original “fact-finding” offer – but Truman insisted that they accept his own worse terms.

These were the terms which the panicky and fearful Whitney and Johnston finally hastened to accept in a tearful statement to the strikers, proclaiming: “We confess that we lost our cause.” They called off the strike “due to the pressure brought upon us by the President of the United States in his address last evening.”

Strikebreaking Trick

The chief instrument for breaking the rail strike was the method developed by the late President Roosevelt and further perfected by Truman – government “seizures” under the vicious Smith-Connally anti-strike law. First, the corporations refuse to concede the just demands of the workers. Then, the federal administration “seizes” the plants involved. Finally, the workers are driven back to work on the grounds they cannot “strike against the government.”

Truman followed this procedure in the rail strike, which was called after the “seizure” on May 19. “This is no longer a dispute between labor and management,” he declared in his Congressional speech. “It has now become a strike against the government itself.”

But all that changed in the “seizure” was that the rail owners and their agents were given a government label. As Ralph Ingersoll of PM put it:

“The Government has NOT taken over the railways and made them the property of the people – and given the railwaymen at least civil service rights. The Government has put out a piece of paper, sent a man into the offices of the Railway Owners’ Assn. – and left the railway owners still operating, still the bosses, still saying what they’d pay and how long their men had to work to get it. The deeds to the properties are still in the owners’ vaults.”

In short, these “seizures” are nothing but a strikebreaking device to wrap the monopolists in an American flag and protect their profits and privileges. Thus, immediately following the end of the strike, the ultra-conservative Republican N.Y. Herald-Tribune, May 26, wrote with smug satisfaction: “Now all that remains to be done is the issuance of an executive order turning the seized railroads back to their owners. The formality probably will be put off until Monday.” The roads were actually returned on Sunday.

Combined with the overwhelming assault of the government, the Big Business press and the whole owning class, there was an additional factor which gravely weakened the power of the rail strikers to hold out. That factor was the criminal division existing among the 21 different unions representing the 1,500,000 organized railroad workers.

The leaderships of 19 of these unions, split along craft and jurisdictional lines and ready to stab each other in the back for narrow jurisdictional advantages, did not go along with the strike of the two operating unions. In the very middle of the strike, they publicly announced their acceptance of the terms against which the engineers and trainmen were fighting. This gave Truman the opportunity to praise their “example” and use it as another weapon against the strikers.

Robertson’s Treachery

On top of this came the direct treachery of such rail union leaders as David B. Robertson, head of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, representing 120,000 members, including a claimed 40,000 engineers. Robertson ordered his membership, including the engineers, to aid the government in breaking the strike, wiring his locals to “get transportation moving.” At the same time, he echoed the attacks of Truman on Whitney and Johnston, telling reporters “these are men grasping for power.”

The whole course of the rail workers’ struggle has underscored a profound lesson for all American labor – a lesson which the workers can ignore only at their greatest peril.

Played Ball

For long years, the leaders of the rail unions have played ball with the capitalist government, lined themselves up with the capitalist politicians, diverted the struggles of the workers into the treacherous channels of government arbitration. They have served faithfully as the labor lieutenants of the capitalists and the hand-maidens of the Big-Business government.

They were neither willing nor capable of resisting the government to which they are tied by a thousand threads. They had no program – no political program – with which to fortify the rail workers in the type of struggle to which they were inevitably being impelled. They were totally helpless and unprepared to cope with the savage offensive which the capitalists, through their government apparatus, unleashed against the rail workers.

That offensive, for which the mine and rail strikes have served as a pretext, is now being directed against the entire labor movement. Congress is proceeding at the signal of Truman to speed legislation whose purpose and results would mean destruction of the right to strike, repression and ultimate crushing of the unions, and a system of forced labor under the shadow of bayonets.

Decisive Lesson

Never has the fusion of the capitalist government and the capitalist class been so nakedly revealed. Never has it been so clearly shown that the government is nothing but an executive committee for safeguarding the interests of the billionaire, monopolist ruling class.

That is the decisive lesson the workers must grasp if they are to successfully defend their own interests and halt the march of reaction in the great social crisis that impends. This government is the enemy of labor. It must be fought by labor’s own independent political means, a genuine labor party freed of all ties with the capitalist political machines and agents. American labor must prepare not only for economic struggle, but also for a remorseless political struggle to raise labor and all the oppressed sections of American society to governmental power.

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