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Joseph Keller

Highest Paid Labor Leader

(1 November 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 44, 1 November 1948, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

One of the evils within the old AFL that helped precipitate the revolt of the CIO was the big salaries and expense accounts of the AFL bureaucrats, When the CIO was formed, the ranks insisted that their officers be paid wages comparable to what a skilled worker getting the union scale might receive.

It was not because the CIO workers begrudged their leaders the extra money. But bitter experience had taught them that union officials who are too far removed from the workers in their living standards lose touch with the realities of the workers’ lives, become soft and corrupt.

The old-line AFL moguls – the Greens, Tobins, Wolls, Hutchinsons and Freys – not only lived like well-heeled business executives, but thought and acted like them.

One feature of the recent mine workers convention that the capitalist press gave much publicity was the raising of John L. Lewis’ salary from $25,000 a year, plus a $10,000 annual bonus, to $50,000 – making him the highest paid union official in the world. John Owens, Secretary-Treasurer, got a boost from $18,000 to $40,000, and International Executive Board members were raised from $500 to $1,000 per month.

Lewis and the officials of the UMW are in the top national income brackets. Their scale of living places them closer to the more successful capitalist executives than to the mine workers. This is the outward sign of the fundamental weakness of the Lewis leadership.

Like the Greens, Murrays and Tobins, the UMW leaders live in a world apart from the workers. They are accustomed to material security and luxury. They regard their jobs as a source of emoluments and wealth. They thrive under capitalism, live like capitalists and are capitalist-minded.

That is why Lewis – personally so aggressive in economic struggles – is an unregenerate reactionary in politics. He clings to the system that nourishes him. He is a Republican in his pocketbook and in his heart.

Lewis may fight the capitalist government on this or that issue, and sometimes he may win a point, but in the end, and on the basic issues, he must submit. His great talents, his inspiring combativeness founder on the rocks of his backward social and political philosophy.

Lewis’ militancy differs in an important respect from that of the early CIO. That latter militancy was linked with the rights of the members and was the democratic expression of their will. It could not be turned on or off at the whim of a leader.

But the UMW is internally throttled. Lewis runs it with a well-paid machine based on personal loyalty to himself. He appoints two-thirds of the district presidents. He is a bureaucrat – albeit a far more capable one than most – lacking in faith in the powers and intelligence of the workers. Which means he is blind to the real source of his own powers. And in this too he reflects the psychology of the capitalist class system – ruler and ruled – which he upholds.

That is why the labor movement, if it is to go forward, cannot depend on even so talented a man as Lewis. For the job of fundamental social reorganization that labor is destined to undertake, new and superior leaders are demanded, leaders linked integrally with the way of life of the working-class, leaders with real social vision and understanding of the class forces that move society.

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