Commentary Magazine


Check-Reins for Labor?

American unions, grown strong under fourteen years of protective legislation fostered by President Roosevelt, enter Year One of the Republican Resurgence with no clear-cut program for resisting the assaults that are being made upon them in and out of Congress. The first week of the 80th Congress saw the introduction of labor measures repressive enough to undo a half-century of union progress, and leaders of the dominant party made it clear that they had only begun their campaign to “emancipate” the workingman.

There was nothing surprising about the virulence or vehemence of the drive to curb unions. Strike losses in 1946 set an all-time record. Millions of Americans, avid for new cars, radios, refrigerators, and washing machines, chafed while the CIO and Big Business slugged it out in the steel, automobile, and electrical strikes. Once these were settled (through the beneficent distribution of wage and price increases by the government), John L. Lewis was on hand to arouse the public temper all over again.

Again the normal processes of collective bargaining proved insufficient. With utilities, railroads, and industrial plants running out of fuel, the government got the mines back into operation by taking possession and putting into effect the welfare fund the mine owners had refused to grant. The railroads, long considered the country’s paramount example of harmonious labor-management relations, were next. This time, the impact on the national economy was so swift and so severe that President Truman shook off his customary passivity and thundered into Congress with demands for legislation to force the railroad strikers back to work. His proposal was so extreme that even the Republicans joined hands with Senate Democrats in killing it, after the trainmen and engineers had returned to their jobs.

The merchant marine was now tied up by a series of strikes that kept our commerce out of world trade-lanes for months. Other strikes disrupted telephone and telegraph communications. The integrated chain of production was torn in a hundred places by raw-material and parts strikes.

To make the situation worse, the New York towboat strike and the two Pittsburgh power strikes demonstrated that a tiny group of key employees, acting alone, could hold a great city helpless and deprive millions of essential services. The average citizen became uncomfortably aware of the intimate ties that bound his well-being to the stability of labor-management relations.

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One way to do something about it was provided by the November elections. The results were a Waterloo for labor. New Deal industrial strongholds swung into the Republican column. Labor’s champions were defeated by political newcomers whose chief recommendation was a promise to put labor in its place. Some laborites came up with the explanation that the voters were in revolt against the failure of the Truman administration to carry forward the Roosevelt tradition with sufficient vigor, but none of the election victors subscribed to that theory.

For the most part, the new Congressmen regarded themselves as holders of a mandate from the people to put down strikes. In hometown interviews, they proclaimed their intention of seeing to it that dictatorial union leaders were stripped of the power to stifle the national economy and force hardship on millions of their fellow Americans. Criticism of union practices reached almost hysterical proportions when Mr. Lewis thrust himself back into the center of the picture and called a second coal strike only a few days after the election. The support given to the miners by both the AFL and CIO brought a fresh torrent of demands for extreme action.

In all earnestness, even when due allowance was made for the hysteria, the situation was one that justified alarm. The strike lasted two-and-one-half weeks, making an estimated 300,000 workers idle outside the coal fields. Had it gone on another two-and-one-half weeks, at least 3,000,000 more workers would have been made jobless. Not only would our economy have been crippled, but suffering inflicted on millions in Europe. Indeed, there was fear that the world political balance might be upset if the strike ran eight to ten weeks.

The most disturbing aspect of the situation was that the will of one man represented the decisive element in this situation. The chief of the United Mine Workers consulted no one in making his moves, least of all the 400,000 miners. He mocked the President and the Federal courts, confident in the knowledge that the miners would do what he said when he said it. Even when Judge T. Alan Goldsborough imposed fines of $3,500,000 against the union and $10,000 against Mr. Lewis, there was no break in the intensity of the strike. Then, with the government impotently casting about for a new weapon, Mr. Lewis changed the entire picture by ordering his followers back to the mines. They dutifully complied, and the crisis was past—at least until March 31, the deadline Lewis set for a new contract or a new stoppage.

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It Was in this climate that the Republican high command began formulating its legislative program. A host of bills calling for compulsory arbitration, for prohibitions on strikes in key industries, for repeal or revision of the Wagner Act, and for incorporation of unions were proffered for sponsorship by the GOP leaders.

Soon, however, it became obvious that almost every one had his own idea of what kind of laws would be helpful. Industry itself was divided. Only one thing was sure. Industry very definitely did not want laws adopted that might cut against business as well as labor. Compulsory arbitration was a prime example. If a government-selected arbitrator was Jo be given authority to fix wages where a dispute arose, it was only a step to government determination of prices and profits. Industry, which had just sweated its way out of price control, did not want the door opened for more controls.

Experience under the War Labor Board had made it abundantly plain that collective bargaining went out the window when one side or the other felt it could get a better deal by letting the dispute go to the government for decision. Even in 1946, as the nation struggled through its reconversion headaches, government had written the ticket in most major industrial conflicts. By 1947, both sides were ready to return to collective bargaining and solve their common problems without any help from the government.

In so far as Congress was concerned, industry decided to put its emphasis on the theory that labor laws had grown “lopsided” under the New Deal, with the result that excessive power was concentrated in the hands of unions and their leaders. What was needed, therefore, was legislation designed to “equalize” the bargaining position of labor and management and to put union “monopolies” under the same restraints applied to corporations.

There were powerful groups in industry that felt the way to equalize the situation was to wipe off all the laws that had been put on the books to foster unionism, including the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act, which dated back to the Hoover administration. Others felt that an outright demand for the repeal of these laws was bad public relations, but that the laws should be “corrected” by far-reaching amendments.

The National Association of Manufacturers incorporated in its program demands for abolition of the closed shop and of industry-wide bargaining. Both of these objectives were embodied in bills introduced by Senator Ball of Minnesota.

Senator Ball said that he was actuated by the most liberal motives; his aim was to help purge unions of their undemocratic practices and thus protect both workers and the public. He was caustic in his denunciation of the closed shop in all its forms (including even maintenance of membership, which does not require a worker to join a union as a condition of holding his job, but does require him to stay in good standing once he does join). Renewing an argument that was old in Samuel Gompers’ day, Senator Ball maintained that there was nothing more illiberal than making economic ostracism the price of refusal to join a particular organization.

Labor, which had been through this many times before, came back with the reply that it was not fair to the overwhelming majority of workers in a plant to allow a handful of dissenters to go along as free riders, picking up the benefits obtained by the union without contributing to its support. Such a situation was doubly unfair, labor contended, when the dissenters might serve as a focal point for undermining the union.

Regardless of the merits of the debate over the relative democracy of the closed and the open shop, it was clear that legislating the closed shop out of existence, or preventing its introduction in plants not now under some form of closed shop, would represent a limitation on the free exercise of collective bargaining by unions and employers. It was also clear that it would add to the insecurity of unions and tend to make them more militant in order to retain the allegiance of their members.

At a time when more stability appeared to be the crowning need in labor-management relations, this was a dubious contribution to industrial peace. Many labor people, in fact, have objected to the closed shop on the ground that it tends to make union leaders overconfident of their hold on the workers, and consequently slothful or corrupt in carrying out their duties. Where the leadership is of a higher caliber, as in the New York needle trades, the assured status guaranteed by the closed shop has provided a secure base from which the unions have operated to promote the welfare of the industry. In either case, whether the union attitude is one of indolence or of enlightenment, the closed shop has usually had the effect of reducing, rather than increasing, the number of strikes. But like all general maxims about labor, this one does not apply to Mr. Lewis, who has a union shop and plenty of strikes.

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The proposal to limit collective bargaining negotiations to plants within a 100-mile area was equally questionable. The idea behind the proposal was that the public could best be protected against paralyzing stoppages in vital industries if unions were prevented from striking on a national basis.

The difficulty with this plan for putting wage negotiations back on a grass-roots basis, as Senator Ball himself recognized, was that modern industry was not organized that way. To get around this, Senator Ball offered to exempt from the local-bargaining limitation those unions which operated in giant corporations like General Motors and United States Steel. This meant that in such key industries as telephone and telegraph communications, where the facilities of the AT&T and Western Union stretch from coast to coast, the limitation would not hold at all. It also meant that the scope of bargaining would be controlled by the scope of the corporations with which unions dealt.

Another disadvantage from the standpoint of employers, especially in industries where competition was keen, was that bargaining on a company or local basis would encourage unions to “pick off” the company they considered most vulnerable while continuing to work for its competitors. Most business men were glad enough to contemplate this prospect as applied to their rivals, but all shuddered at the thought that they might themselves be tapped as the victims. Moreover, many employers felt that a whole industry standing together might better resist excessive union demands, and win a more advantageous settlement, than was likely if the pattern were set by a single employer standing alone and beset by competitive worries.

At any rate, with no moves under consideration to arrest the trend toward concentration of economic strength in the hands of large corporations, it appeared inequitable on the face of it to put local restraints on labor. In England and Sweden, industry-wide bargaining through national associations of employers and labor represented a constructive development of mature industrial relations, making for peace and stability. There was widespread feeling that to close the door to such a development here would delay, rather than advance, a fundamental solution of America’s labor problems.

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Another proposal put forward by Senator Ball, this time with the joint sponsorship of Senators Taft of Ohio and Smith of New Jersey, was a revised “Case Bill” calling for a sixty-day cooling-off period before strikes in essential industries, and for the establishment of a conciliation service outside the Department of Labor.

The trouble with the cooling-off period is that it just does not work. The Smith-Connally Act proved that. The wartime law, rushed through to put the clamps on John L. Lewis, called for a thirty-day cooling-off period. The result was that unions entering negotiations for a new contract filed strike notices or took strike votes a month before the old contract expired, even though in some cases they had not even met with management at the time the notice was given. This actually lessened the chances of an amicable agreement by creating a dispute before there even was one.

Moreover, many strikes have been called without observing the thirty-day waiting period. For the most part, these were wildcat or “quickie” walkouts, disowned by the official union leaders, and almost never was any effort made to invoke penalties against the strikers. The fear of precipitating a new stoppage usually stood in the way of any effort to impose legal or financial punishment when the tie-up was ended, even though it had been called in the face of a valid agreement.

The best insurance against such breaches of contract lies in firm action by the union to compel its members to live up to their obligations. But unions that are themselves insecure are unlikely to take up the big stick against their own rank and file. Interunion rivalry and intraunion factionalism stand in the way of a basic solution from within.

The suggestion that a new mediation agency be established outside the Department of Labor marks an interesting change of face for the Republicans, who concentrated much of their fire in the 1944 Presidential campaign on the multiplicity of independent labor bureaus set up by President Roosevelt. Governor Dewey pledged himself to unify all labor functions under the Secretary of Labor. Apparently the Republicans feel this is a good idea only when they can name the Secretary. The Department as now constituted is “too pro-labor,” in their estimation, to warrant any extension of its authority.

President Truman, swinging sharply away from the mood reflected in his legislative recommendations at the time of the railroad strike, urged Congress in his opening message to shun punitive laws and to set up a commission to study the causes and cure of labor strife. So far as immediate action was concerned, the President called only for measures to ban jurisdictional strikes, for which no one in or out of labor has ever had a good word to say, and certain forms of secondary boycott stemming from jurisdictional conflicts. He also wanted machinery to prevent strikes in violation of contract. For the rest, he felt laws should come out of sober investigation and not rancor.

Whether Congress will follow this counsel of moderation is likely to depend on how successfully labor gets by its second round of wage demands without strikes. The outlook, as these lines are written, is good. In many industries, including clothing, textiles, and oil, increases of ten to eighteen cents an hour have been granted through the normal processes of collective bargaining. The New York towboat men, who had forced a twenty-four-hour shutdown of the city’s business and entertainment life last February, negotiated a new contract without a strike. The Pittsburgh utility workers took their dispute to arbitration this year and there was no interruption in electric service.

Philip Murray, national CIO president, made evident his own determination to avoid strikes when the United Steelworkers, which he heads, and the United States Steel Corporation, agreed to a two-and-one-half month extension of the 1946 contract between the union and “Big Steel.” This action, which was followed by extension along similar lines of contracts covering 1,000,000 workers in the steel industry, was taken as a cue for CIO unions to bend all efforts to reach agreements without halting production.

AFL unions, with the notable exception of Mr. Lewis’ miners, have been chalking up wage gains for their members without finding it necessary to quit work. However, March 31 still hangs gloomily on the industrial horizon as the date for possible renewal of the coal strike. The Southern operators are still holding out against acceptance of the terms Mr. Lewis already has accepted, and Mr. Lewis has ignored overtures from the Northern operators for separate conferences intended to produce an agreement on additional benefits before the deadline. The government, which must get out of the coal business not later than June 30, would welcome an accord between the union and the operators, but there are no present signs to justify optimism.

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The most sympathetic observer finds it hard to escape the conclusion that the unions are their own worst enemies in the present situation. Even when they seek peace, they are likely to put on a belligerent air for fear that their pacific intentions may be interpreted as signs of weakness. The CIO is especially inclined to err in this respect.

Thus Mr. Murray’s negotiations with United States Steel were prefaced by publication of the Nathan report holding that the profits of industry as a whole were large enough to warrant a 25 per cent general rise in wages without a rise in prices. The basic thesis of the report was that a depression was inevitable unless prices came down or wages went up, and that the decline in prices, if left to the normal play of economic forces, would not be sufficiently prompt or comprehensive to restore the shrunken purchasing power of the workers.

The effect of the Nathan report on employers was exactly the reverse of what Mr. Murray had hoped. Instead of persuading them that higher wages were in order, it caused them to swing sharply in the opposite direction. Industry, which had been granting second-round pay rises as a matter of course in many fields, began to take the line that labor should forego any increases as its contribution to lower prices and full production. The AFL, which shared the CIO’s basic view that prices were too high and wages too low, promptly disavowed any adherence to the theory that a 25 per cent increase was possible on a general basis. Mr. Murray himself was obliged to say that the report was not intended to apply to wages in any specific industry, and that he was not setting 25 per cent or any other figure as his goal in steel. It was obvious that everyone would have been better off if the report had never been made public at all.

Even more disastrous in its public-relations effects was the avalanche of portal-to-portal back-pay suits filed by CIO unions. The CIO had expected that these billions of dollars in claims would prove a potent lever in 1947 wage negotiations. Again the effect was just the reverse. Employers, alarmed at the magnitude of the suits, held that they could not discuss new wage agreements until they knew how much, if any, of the potential portal-pay liability would have to be paid.

Here again the AFL and the CIO were arrayed against one another. The AFL agreed with industry that the suits, whatever their legal merit, were inconsistent with the spirit of collective bargaining. What constituted compensable working time was a matter for determination between unions and employers, the AFL argued, and once a contract had been reached, it should provide a guarantee to both sides that the terms of employment and compensation were fixed.

The portal-pay suits also brought new appeals for legislative action, this time to amend the Wages and Hours Act. The danger was that any bills finally passed would limit the whole area of collective bargaining and weaken the effectiveness of the Act in protecting workers against sweatshop conditions.

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The differing attitudes of the AFL and the CIO on portal pay and the Nathan report were outward manifestations of a continuing bitterness between the two organizations that time has accentuated rather than healed. The persistence of this strife is one of the factors likely to produce legislation hostile to the interests of all labor.

It is not simply that labor’s internal strife dissipates its political strength and public prestige. It is that union leaders are impelled by fear of competition and fear of losing the allegiance of the rank and file to hold out for greater and greater gains. Mr. Lewis, for example, would sooner retire than accept meekly a wage increase won under a pattern established by Mr. Murray. Mr. Lewis must maintain his individual pre-eminence. The same spirit prevails to a greater or lesser degree at all levels of the labor movement, and particularly in those places where rivalry is acute between the AFL and the CIO.

The chances of establishing organic unity between the AFL and the CIO at this time are virtually nil. The chances of developing a program of united action against repressive legislation are almost as slim, despite repeated calls for such action from the CIO.

The fact is that the AFL high command feels that the presence of Communists in positions of influence in many sections of the CIO precludes any common front between the two organizations, no matter how high the tide of reaction that rises around both. The Communists, to Mr. Murray’s vast embarrassment, are screaming loudest of all for unity, which makes the determination of the AFL to steer clear of CIO entanglements stronger than ever.

There is good reason, however, to believe that Communist power in the CIO, while still substantial, is on the downgrade. Mr. Murray took decisive action at the CIO Atlantic City convention in November to clip the wings of the CIO city councils, in which Communists were particularly active. After the convention, Allan S. Haywood, CIO executive vice-president, was sent around the country to give aid and comfort to insurgent elements wherever there was a chance of undermining Communist leaders.

In the National Maritime Union, Joseph Curran, never a Communist but long a complaisant partner of the party liners, finally dived out of the boat with a loud splash. Mr. Curran declared open war on the Committee for Maritime Unity, of which he had formerly been co-chairman with Harry Bridges. Whether the NMU members will line up behind Curran or behind his opponents, who are led by three acknowledged Communists, is now being fought out port by port and ship by ship, with Curran matching his own personal popularity against the party’s well-entrenched machine. One indication that many maritime workers are beginning to doubt the efficacy of the Communist brand of unionism was the little publicized victory of Harry Lundeberg’s AFL Seafarers Union over the NMU in a long and bitterly contested NLRB election among 2,000 seamen on ships of the Isthmian Line, a United States Steel subsidiary.

In other important unions there are signs that the rank and file is turning away from Communist leadership. In a number of large locals of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, anti-Communist forces have mustered enough votes to oust the incumbents. However, it is doubtful that they will make sufficient headway to win national control of the union this year.

In the United Office and Professional Workers, one of the reddest of the red unions, the general executive board issued a surprise call to all locals to hew to a middle-of-the road course and eschew identification with any “wing” of the CIO. The “firmest exercise of union discipline” was threatened in order to curb Communist interference in the union’s affairs. However, after a couple of stem lectures from the Daily Worker, the union issued a “clarifying” statement quite different in tone from the original. In the light of the second statement, it seems wise to reserve judgment before reclassifying the office workers out of the Communist group.

In the United Auto Workers, Communists have been successful in exploiting personal differences between Walter P. Reuther, the union’s brilliant young president, and its other top officers. The so-called “left wing” is able to outvote Mr. Reuther on the UAW executive board, and they have lost no opportunity to harass and embarrass him. Mr. Reuther’s enemies also seek to drive a wedge between him and Mr. Murray, and their efforts are often very successful.

The internal contest for power among the UAW top officers is a constant source of potential strikes. With each faction anxious to win and hold the affection of the rank and file, the temptation is strong to vie with one another in militancy. This is likely to prove fatal in the automobile industry, where management shows a stronger inclination to resist second-round wage demands and to press for anti-labor laws then in most other sections of American industry. Mr. Murray’s hope to avoid big CIO strikes this year is most apt to founder in the Chrysler or General Motors negotiations this spring.

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By Contrast with the CIO, the AFL presents a facade of impressive unity. Its Communist elements are infinitesimal—confined, for the most part, to local units of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers and the Painters in New York City. But there remain substantial differences within the AFL—not only between its conservative leaders and the rank and file, but in the executive council itself.

There is little doubt that Mr. Lewis, who was welcomed back into the Federation just a year ago, has already established himself as the dominant figure in the AFL high command. There are many who expect him to push William Green aside as president at the 1947 convention, but Mr. Lewis’ intimates say he has his eye on even bigger game. He still nurtures the hope of heading a unified labor movement in which the Communists will have no place. Until he is in a position to lead such an accouplement, according to some of his supporters, he is uninterested in becoming head man officially.

When Mr. Lewis re-entered the Federation, many observers, remembering the insults he and Mr. Green had exchanged in the ten years of separation, predicted that Mr. Lewis would lose no time in maneuvering the seventy-two-year-old AFL president into the discard. Nothing of the sort has happened. The thing that keeps Mr. Green in his job long after he would have welcomed retirement is that neither he nor Mr. Lewis wants to see the powerful building trades bloc take over the Federation.

There is less democracy and more corruption in the building trades than in any other section of the AFL. It is this condition that hampers the advance to the presidency of George Meany, the AFL secretary-treasurer, even though he is personally both able and honest. Mr. Meany, a plumber by trade, has always been the darling of the building trades and has never done anything to stir a reform movement within them.

The inertia of the AFL executive council is best illustrated by its feebleness in dealing with jurisdictional conflicts. The Hollywood fight between the carpenters and the stagehands, in which the Communists have lined up with the ultra-reactionary William L. Hutcheson, boss of the carpenters, is a case in point. The brewery workers went over to the CIO because the AFL failed to protect their jurisdiction from raids by Dan Tobin’s teamsters. The machinists walked out for t similar reason.

Even the railroad brotherhoods are not united. The engineers and the trainmen act together on matters directly affecting rail labor. The trainmen usually line up with the CIO on political matters, but the engineers held aloof from such outside alliances. The firemen, the conductors, and the signalmen have severed their ties with the two other groups. They are generally to be found with the AFL on public questions.

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Labor’s political thinking is still conducted largely on the bread-and-butter level. With the exception of a handful of leaders in the AFL and the CIO, there is little concern with the development of a long-range philosophy. No one knows where labor and the country are going, and few even have a clear idea of the direction they would like to see labor and the country take. Labor’s legislative program, while broad enough in theory, functions most aggressively in combating laws that labor feels would harm its present position and only half-heartedly on issues that are more affirmative in character. Fight today’s fire today and let tomorrow take care of itself, is the guiding precept.

The AFL still clings to Gompers’ political principle of “reward your friends and punish your enemies” and hopes it will never be confronted by a situation in which it can find no friends in either major party. The CIO also steers clear of any official identification with avowed third-party movements, although the potentiality for an eventual third party alliance exists in the Political Action Committee. However, Mr. Murray, equally cool to the political aspirations of Socialist and Communist elements in the CIO, is now quietly engaged in maneuvering PAC away from identification with other independent political groups. It is probable that he will keep the CIO political efforts more and more confined to the union membership and shun active cooperation either with the Progressive Citizens of America, to which the Communists have given their blessing, or the Americans for Democratic Action, which is trying to weld a non-Communist liberal front. The day when America will see a native counterpart of the British Labor party is still not in sight.

Even preliminary pamphleteering and educational work of the type done in England a half-century ago by the Fabian Society is absent here. The division of counsel among laborites and leftists, and the fear that a new political party would become a vehicle for the Communists, are among the powerful deterrents to immediate third-party action. Equally potent is the fear that labor would find itself isolated in a minority party that politicians of both parties would feel safe in ignoring. But the tendency of labor to make decisions on a day-to-day basis may reflect itself in a sudden swing toward independent political action if it becomes convinced that the Democrats and Republicans are both hostile and untrustworthy. At present, the odds are all against such a thing.

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Despite all their internal bickering, American unions have had many constructive—if often divergent—ideas to put forward for the guidance of world statesmen on the disposition of the atomic bomb and the general reorganization of the world. Unfortunately, they found little time at their 1946 conventions to give much attention to the problems that now threaten to throttle them.

Not one union had any suggestion to offer on how the public could be protected against paralyzing shutdowns in cases where collective bargaining broke down. In fact, when the president of the AFL Boilermakers Union hinted that it would be wise for labor to put forward some proposals of its own as an alternative to the much harsher curbs its critics were advancing, he was denounced so vehemently that he retreated in confusion and denied that he had meant what he said.

It was this refusal on labor’s part to accept the notion that its rights were subject to any curtailment in the public interest that made repressive legislation seem inevitable. The public, which had supported labor’s demand for legislative restraints on the abuse of power by industry, did not take kindly to the notion that any labor leader could hold out as long as he wanted for as much as he wanted, whatever the cost to the community.

If Mr. Lewis hog-ties the country with another strike this spring, it is a safe bet that harsh laws against labor will be stampeded through Congress. It is an equally safe bet that such laws will do little good and, perhaps, a great deal of harm. Mr. Lewis is by way of being a special case, and any effort to solve broad labor problems through laws aimed at him is almost certain to fail. If the Smith-Connally Act is any criterion, such laws are bound to fail even so far as Mr. Lewis is concerned.

The fundamental assumption in most of the bills now awaiting congressional action is that labor has grown too strong. I think a sounder case can be built for the assumption that labor has grown strong but not strong enough—it has the strength to fight, but not the strength to feel secure. Laws designed to weaken unions will only delay the day when unions, by and large, will feel sufficiently well entrenched to substitute cooperation for conflict. Until that day, there will be no real stability in industrial relations.

The challenge to American management is to foster a spirit of democratic partnership calculated to lend strength to the more responsible elements in labor. Restrictive laws will have the opposite effect. Far from preventing strikes, they will foster them. They will provide fodder for the extremists and weaken the authority of those who seek peaceful solutions. In the end, like all ill-considered limitations on freedom, they may provoke further restrictions, until industry as well as labor finds itself in chains.

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