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October 2002 • Vol 2, No. 9 •

John L. Lewis Called It ‘Toadyism’

By Bob Mattingly

In early 1942, a few months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the federal War Labor Board (WLB) was created to monitor labor in war industries. Then, less than a year after the WLB was established, its authority was extended to include most non-farm workers. The core aim of the WLB was to keep wage and other work disputes from disrupting the rapidly growing wartime economy. By war’s end, the WLB reported, it had handled nearly 18,000 disputes between companies and over 12 million workers. It also had received 415,000 applications for “wage adjustments” involving over 26 million workers. Of course, many wartime disputes and shop floor arguments about “wage adjustments” never made it all the way to the WLB.

Labor representation on the board was secured when top labor leaders agreed even before the WLB was put together that organized labor would give up its right to strike over all matters for the duration of the war. Corporate representatives, however, made no similar concessions. In fact, cost-plus government contracts guaranteed enormous corporate profits. Corporate participation on the WLB was meant to curb “wage adjustments” and to weigh in on shop and factory disputes that weren’t locally settled. Of course, the tripartite set-up of corporations, labor officials and politicians made it possible for company bosses and union officials to tell unhappy workers to keep on working, as their problems would get a WLB hearing and union representatives on the board would be there to look out for their interests.

Shortly after the war’s start, the Depression-era unemployment rapidly declined, as wartime deficit spending and the draft accomplished what President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies failed to do. In time, millions of women and Blacks were offered jobs that previously were denied them, even during the so-called Roaring Twenties with its soaring stock market. By the war’s end, organized labor’s numerical strength exceeded the most optimistic hopes of the pre-war union leaderships, but that was not because of new mass organizing drives.

In July 1942, the WLB allowed maintenance of membership clauses that provided that new employees need not join the union that negotiated their contract, but if they did join, the workers must maintain their membership and pay dues for the life of the contract. That was the labor representatives’ reward for their solely verbal objections to the board majority’s basic wage formula that would hold down or erode workers living standards during the war years, as prices for food, rent, and most available consumer goods soared.

Wartime inflation cuts wages

As early as April 1943, CIO head Phillip Murray charged “living costs, particularly in foodstuffs, had increased approximately 38 per cent for the average worker.” In July, AFL President Green said that “food prices alone have gone up from 50 to 400 per cent.” Nine months later, AFL Vice President George Meany said that someone would have to be “simple-minded as to believe that price control as it now functions can be relied upon by American workers…” Inflation was so high, wrote labor reporter Art Preis in his classic history, Labor’s Giant Step, that, “The [large] wage increases won by the [postwar] strikes in 1945 and 1946 did not compensate even for the wartime price increases.”

In the summer of 1942, top autoworker union officials went to Washington and urged that all union workers be denied overtime pay for Saturdays and Sundays, not just those in war industries, as proposed by Roosevelt; the Roosevelt administration readily agreed, imposing the wider wage-cut.

Despite the WLB machinations, the unions’ no-strike pledge and government threats to draft recalcitrant workers, the struggle by workers during the war to defend themselves from their bosses, their union officials, and the government could not be suppressed totally. Strike statistics for 1942 record that “were no fewer than 2,968 strikes that year, involving 840,000 workers,” Preis found that that the “number of strikes surpassed that of any year back to 1919, except the record-breaking years of 1937 and 1941.”

Although most strikes were broken, those strike struggles, social pressures by Blacks and women and the inevitable demands of the wartime economy did result in some victories for workers. In mid-1943, the WLB ruled that women employed to replace men on jobs that had not changed were entitled to equal pay with men. However, the ruling included loopholes that gave bosses many exceptions. The next day, the board also abolished the classifications of “colored laborer” and “white laborer,” mandating the same rates of pay for workers in the same job classification, regardless of race.

It’s a clear measure of the racist grip on industry and government that such “categories” still existed more than a year after A. Phillip Randolph’s threatened 1941 March on Washington to protest discrimination. The threat of mass action by Blacks compelled Roosevelt to formally ban segregation in the war plants and establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission. That the WLB finally recognized obvious and serious employment inequities suggests that women and Blacks were finding ways in the labor-short economy to make their opposition to raw discrimination felt at the highest levels.

The great strike in coal

One notable strike couldn’t be broken, and that was the miners’ strike of 1943 that defied threats of mass jailing and retribution by President Roosevelt as well as the opposition to the miners by both the AFL and the CIO. To Roosevelt’s threats of a military takeover of the mines, the 540,000 miners replied that coal couldn’t be mined with bayonets.

Of the craven AFL and CIO tops, the miner’s leader, John L. Lewis said, “It is beside the point that other labor organizations, such as the AFL and the CIO, through their leaders, have adopted a policy of cringing toadyism to the [Roosevelt] administration coupled with a blind worship of the astoundingly unsound economic policies of the administration. The United Mine Workers and its membership will continue to make the fight.”

The miners did fight and did win wage concessions. Preis concluded that “the miners’ victory opened a whole new wave of labor struggle, mounting steadily through 1943, 1944, and 1945, reaching a titanic climax in the winter of 1945-46.”

Shortly, after taking office, AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney extolled the virtues of labor-management collaboration. In a meeting with an audience of the corporate elite, Sweeny said that he wanted to build bridges to big business. Perhaps the corporate world didn’t understand his meaning. So almost a year to the day, he again addressed business leaders and told them, “It is time for business and labor to see each other as natural allies, not natural enemies.” (New York Times, Oct. 27, 1996) But his attempts at class-collaboration haven’t been any more successful in protecting the working and living standards of U.S. workers than was the WWII “toadyism” of the AFL and CIO officialdom.





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