Chapter 34 : Labor and the Road Ahead
MANHATTAN SKYSCRAPER. From the shop where I am working, on the thirty-fifth floor, I can look down into the teeming canyons of the midtown garment industry. On the walks below the lunch-hour crowd moves to and fro in sweltering heat. Coatless workers, shoppers, members of the armed forces. And in the streets there is a constant flurry of motor traffic. Busses, trucks, and taxis÷yellow, white, red, orange, and green÷dart hither and thither like restless bugs.
Eastward we can see Bryant Park, in the rear of the Central Public Library, where people of all ages seek coolness beneath its symmetrically laid-out rock-maple trees; the needle-pointed Chrysler tower, industrial smokestacks, the East River, and Long island.
To the North, Radio City, Central Park, a shimmering lagoon, Essex House, and Columbus Circle.
Westward, huge warehouses, the Hudson River, ferry-boats, cargo ships, Army transports, barges, the Palisades of New Jersey.
To the South, the Empire State Building, tallest man-made structure in the world; lower Manhattan's skyline, and the point where the Hudson and East Rivers meet to flow down the bay into the Atlantic Ocean.
Across 200 feet of space a window cleaner works, held on a narrow sill by a leather safety belt. Pigeons sit on balconies feeding on bread crumbs left from workers' lunches. High above an airplane, silver-winged, zooms somewhere with passengers and mail. What if it were an enemy plane, dropping bombs? I shudder at the thought.
For centuries the human race searched for some formula, magic or scientific, to extend its life-span, to eliminate disease, to develop strong, enduring men and women. And after long striving yellow fever, tuberculosis, and other scourges were conquered and the average life was materially lengthened. But now all these gains have been set at naught. For scientists with drugged consciences have devised lethal weapons, designed not only to wipe out the manhood of this generation, but to destroy whole cities and whole nations. Robot bombing planes, the latest invention, coming seemingly from nowhere, wreak havoc among defenseless people. Hospitals no longer are spared. For a few years of promised full employment, human skill is lured into making such weapons to annihilate the flower of mankind.
World War I, so-called, was fought to make the world safe for democracy. Yet democracy has suffered far greater assaults than ever before, from new totalitarian dictatorships that came into being since then. Now, on August 1,1944, thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of that conflict, more than 11,000,000 men, most of them born after August 1, 1914, have been quickly molded into soldiers, sailors, marines, paratroopers, bombardiers, plane engineers, pilots, navigators, medical service attendants, construction workers who rebuild bridges, railroads, and highways destroyed by the enemy, jeep and truck drivers, and armed guards for convoys. One hundred and forty thousand women and girls have become members of the Women's Army Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, and the national air forces. Each has released a man for active combat duty. On the home front men and women have enrolled in numerous activities in civilian defense, Red Cross, nurses' aides, and other services.
Remember Pearl Harbor!
Whose blood will save him? Give a pint of yours! It may mean a life!
Use it up . . . Wear it out . . . Make it do . . . or do without!
Zip your lip and save a ship!
They give their lives. You lend your money.
Such slogans stare at us everywhere so that we cannot forget that a savage war is going on with millions of lives at stake.
In my shop some 50 of us are aiding national defense by working on a Government Issue order. On this lofty floor of a Broadway garment factory building, we turn out WAC uniforms: pongee for summer, beige wool for winter. Precision work, exacting, with the finest possible stitching. I count 16 stitches to the inch. (Quartermaster's specifications: Side seams on dress and sleeves÷one inch; skirt panel seams÷three quarters of an inch; seams on waistline, shoulders, and armholes÷one half inch; seams on neck and trimmings, collar, pockets, pocket flaps, and shoulder tabs÷one quarter of an inch.) For each pocket flap and each shoulder tab there is a buttonhole and a brass button. This is the only decoration. These uniforms, of new design, are smart and dressy in both weights. Nothing is too good for GI Mary Jane, the Wac.
After Pearl Harbor I gave up organizing and returned to work at a sewing machine on the production line in a New York garment factory.
At the 1944 convention of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, held in Boston in May and June, I declined to accept a fourth term on the General Executive Board. Speaking from the platform on this question, I contended that the organization ought to reconsider its old established rule of having only a single woman in its high council. Ten years in office had made it clear to me that a lone woman vise-president could not adequately represent the women who now make up 85 per cent of the International's membership of 305,000.
Continuing to serve on the GEB until the convention, attending its quarterly meetings and carrying out other routine functions connected with the office of vise-president, I had opportunity to observe what was happening both in our own industry and in the labor movement as a whole.
The job of every International union now was to hold its ranks solid, and to safeguard gains of recent years in the face of systematic attempts of employers to disrupt and tear down labor unions in war-time. Day after day the attacks on the unions have gone on, under a variety of pretexts.
At no time has organized labor in this country played such an important part as in the period since Pearl Harbor. And at no time has it faced greater responsibilities. Labor is represented in three major agencies÷the War Labor Board, the War Production Board, and the War Manpower Commission designed to keep essential production at its peak.
Unfortunately, only about one fifth of the nation's working population is organized into unions, but millions of nonunion wage-earners have benefited from organized labor's insistence upon decent living standards for all. Those millions remain opposed or indifferent to unions through sheer ignorance of their merits.
Labor has supplied the vast bulk of the man-power and woman-power on the fighting fronts; has filled most of the blood banks, thus saving the lives of countless thousands of wounded men; and bought war bonds until sales totals have become astronomical. Fifty-five million workers in industry and agriculture, including about 17,000,000 women, have kept vital supplies streaming in unprecedented quantity to the United Nations, who are at death grips with the Axis powers.
Labor has built ships, tanks, bombing and transport planes and motor vehicles, and produced ammunition, food, clothing, and medical supplies for the fighting forces, lend-lease, and home consumption. Almost overnight housewives and farm-hands have been transformed into technicians, among them plane and ship-builders, welders, draftsmen, precision instrument makers and testers.
Immediately after we entered the war organized labor relinquished its strongest weapon÷the right to strike for the duration. In return it got the Little Steel Formula from the War Labor Board. That formula was designed in a case involving four Little Steel companies, notorious for violent hostility to unionism. It determined that, with certain exceptions, there should be no wage increase beyond 15 per cent above the level of January, 1941. This 15 per cent was intended to cover an increase in living costs officially reported by the United States Labor Department Index. Despite Office of Price Administration (OPA) regulations, however, living costs continued to rise, but wages remained frozen.
Hence there have been strikes, some of wildcat nature, some forced upon workers because their wages would not meet the rising cost of living. Some were deliberately provoked by management to demoralize the ranks of labor and to discredit union leadership. Other strikes developed over racial issues, for in the North as well as in the South there are still white Americans who refuse to accept their colored coworkers as equals. Vehemently condemned by union officials, these strikes appear to have been skillfully directed by outside forces interested in dividing Americans on one issue or another.
Employers, too, have slowed down production when it suited their purposes, but this seldom if ever got into the headlines.
Despite all the outcry against organized labor by its critics, the actual loss in man-hours in strikes was negligible. Department of Labor statistics show that the number of man-hours lost through strikes in 1943 was only 15/100 of one per cent of the total available working time.
The coal miners, who staged the largest of the war-time strikes,, had strong reason for walking out. Beside the low wages paid them, under the Little Steel Formula, they had to buy their groceries and other necessities from company stores in the mining towns, at exorbitant prices; in some instances those prices had risen 100 per cent since 1941.
That strike made them the target of a wide-spread campaign of vituperation. They were pictured as "pawns" in the hand of John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, although their actions were governed by a Miners' Policy Committee of 225 men from all parts of the country.
It is of course true that Lewis, through his stubbornness and his faculty for making enemies, has brought the UMW into disrepute in the minds of many people. At the beginning of the New Deal he was an ardent supporter of President Roosevelt. Today he is his bitter foe.
One of the largest single international unions, comprising 600,000 members, the UMW was suspended from the A F of L in 1936 because of its part in building the CIO, in which Lewis was the prime mover, and of which he was the first president. Having declared that he would resign as the CIO's head if FDR won a third term, Lewis carried out that intention. And after Philip Murray was elected in his place, Lewis caused the UMW to withdraw from the CIO. Since then he has tried repeatedly to have the A F of L take the United Mine Workers back into its ranks, but without success. So his organization remains an independent union.
Generally the mine workers have followed Lewis's advice on economic matters, but being individualists like himself, they have gone their own ways politically. In 1940 Lewis swung to the support of Wendell Willkie; the coal-diggers largely voted for Mr. Roosevelt....
When they went on strike in 1943, they knew they had mined a huge reserve÷79,000,000 tons of bituminous coal. But those who assailed them as "unpatriotic" generally failed to mention this great stockpile.
And I don't recall seeing any headlines in the newspapers for Mrs. Esther McCabe of Lilly, Pennsylvania, miner's widow, who has 10 sons in the armed forces÷nor for other miners' sons on the fighting fronts who didn't succumb to newspaper propaganda about their fathers being "traitors," but who urged them in letters to keep up the demand for decent wages and working conditions now, so that when they returned from the battlefields they would not have to start the battle with their employers all over again.
To my mind, too, painfully little space was given in the daily press to recent coal mine disasters in which miners perished through underground fires or explosions. For dynamite is still one of the tools of a miner. Gas still accumulates in coal mines. And inspection is often faulty. No miner knows when he goes into a pit in the morning whether he will be alive that night÷not any more than a soldier in a combat area knows whether he will be alive or dead tomorrow.
Various labor leaders joined the reactionaries in assailing the miners for striking. But their militant stand against the Little Steel Formula gave the others courage and strength later to demand that that formula be revised to meet prevailing conditions.
Soon after the coal strike Congress passed the Smith-Connally bill, which provided drastic penalties for persons promoting or encouraging strikes in essential industries in war time. Under this law the government can "seize any war manufacturing or production facilities threatened with or suffering from strikes." Sponsored by Representative Howard W. Smith of Virginia, and Senator Tom Connally of Texas, both Democrats and both anti-labor, that bill's passage marked the beginning of an organized effort to wreck bona fide unions through legislation.
A bill recently introduced provides for a year of military training and four years' reserve service for every male citizen and alien resident, at the age of 18. Another bill calls for the induction into military service for one year at the age of 17 or immediately upon graduation from high school, and subsequent reserve service for eight years.
Thus some legislators in Washington are paving the way for a standing army÷for the next war÷and also for postwar home use. In the event of a strike, the younger strikers could be called up for service and forced to serve as strikebreakers in uniform against their own brothers and fathers and against their own economic interests. Such things have happened in other countries under dictatorships, against which our youth has been sent to wage the present war. Compulsory military training is conducive to waging wars rather than to the maintenance of peace.
Much has been written and said about labor enjoying excessive pay, but little has appeared in print about low-paid workers, such as those in hotels, restaurants, and laundries, being frozen to their jobs if they were employed in "locally needed activities." And scarcely anything is being said about the munitions makers who are amassing huge profits in this war as in those of the past. Profiteers of a new class also have sprung up, reaping fortunes in the black market and in various other illegitimate ways.
The House Military Affairs Committee has revealed that the government has been defrauded of millions on cost-plus contracts by labor-renting concerns. Those outfits, posing as engineering companies, recruited workers at wages ranging from 50 cents to $2.75 an hour, and rented them out to industrial corporations at rates varying from $2.60 to $12 an hour. Some of them made a labor charge per man of from $250 to $350 a week. The committee found, too, that in various instances the men rented out "were inexperienced and incapable of performing the duties for which they were hired."
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