Commentary Magazine


Taft-Hartley and Labor's Perspective:
Where is the Unions' Constructive Program?

Among the songs that enjoyed a great vogue a year ago was a sprightly little number called “Accentuate the Positive.” So unremittingly was it repeated by radio and juke-box that people had to stuff cotton in their ears to elude it. Probably the best job of ear-stuffing was done by the leaders of the American labor movement. They rejected not only the song, but its basic idea as well.

It is a commonplace in our democratic society that we know what we are against but we do not know what we are for. Nowhere is that negative spirit more evident than in the ranks of labor, and nowhere is it more tragically insufficient. To those who feel that much of the vitality of our democracy stems from the vigor of our unions, this lack of affirmative goals is particularly dispiriting at a time when the worldwide survival of free institutions appears to depend almost as much on the luminosity of our political example and morale as on the abundance of our material aid.

Labor’s primary emphasis at the moment is on the building of political organizations in preparation for the 1948 national elections. The American Federation of Labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the independent railroad brotherhoods are all determined to put forth the most strenuous political drives in their histories. Unfortunately, however, the unifying element in these separate drives is not the achievement of any constructive program. It is the elimination from Congress of the men who voted for the Taft-Hartley law.

Political forecasting at a year’s distance is a chancy business, but it seems reasonably safe to predict that the rank and file of labor will not react to the Taft-Hartley issue with the vehemence of its leaders. Only two things might alter this forecast. One would be a major depression before next November. The other would be a sudden outburst of union-busting by employers.

I leave it to others to speculate on the likelihood of a recession in the next twelve months. In so far as the attitude of employers is concerned, the best judgment that can be made after four months of experience with the new labor law is that most business men appear determined not to give labor any provocation, at least until after the crucial election next year.

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Indeed, employers have been so apathetic about invoking the weapons put in their hands by the law as to leave some of the law’s Republican sponsors sputtering indignantly at their ingratitude. Representative Hartley, in particular, has stumped the country demanding that the leaders of industry stop “conspiring” with labor to find ways of by-passing the law. To their credit, most industrialists have shown little disposition to respond to this goading.

There are four possible explanations for the conciliatory attitude displayed by employers in the early weeks of the Taft-Hartley law. The first, and perhaps the most cogent, is that opportunities for profit-making are so great at the present time that few industrialists are willing to risk any interruption or slowdown in production as a result of labor discord.

A second factor is a desire on the part of many large employers to avoid any test of economic strength until after the 1948 elections for fear that a showdown now would jeopardize the Republican chances of carrying the country next year.

Still a third element in the current calm is the uncertainty that clouds many features of the law. Most business men, especially those with big plants, prefer to have others bring the court tests that will decide whether controverted sections are valid and what they mean. Few want to pick a fight and then find the legal ground shot out from under them by an adverse court decision.

The fourth factor, and the only one that offers real hope for long-term stability in labor relations, is a growing conviction in some sections of industry that the welfare of both management and labor depends on wholehearted acceptance of the principles of collective bargaining. That means something more than sitting down and talking to one another. It means a real sense of partnership between employer and union, and a translation of that partnership into increased industrial democracy and productivity.

Only to the extent that this spirit becomes universal in labor and in industry can we expect the present lull in hostilities to lengthen into a full-fledged peace, punctuated only by the occasional spats that are inevitable in the relations between men and nations even when they have learned to respect one another and to recognize their interdependence. How good are the prospects for maintaining a solid floor of cooperation under future labor-management relations?

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Without questioning the validity of the argument that the Taft-Hartley Law obstructs, rather than helps, in the spread of such cooperative relationships, one looks in vain for signs that the campaign for its repeal is likely to bring forth any constructive labor proposals for substitute legislation to promote industrial harmony and safeguard the public against abuses of power by unions or employers.

During the months that preceded enactment of the Taft-Hartley Law, labor’s friends in Congress entreated Philip Murray and William Green to advance plans of their own for modification of the Wagner Act as a means of staving off more drastic measures. Both took the pious view that there could be no compromise with reaction. The net effect was to leave the field in possession of their enemies.

Now that the law is on the books, labor seeks to blow it off with the blanket condemnation that it is a “slave” law incompatible with America’s protestations of concern for the principles of freedom and democracy. There is no doubt that the “slave” label has big appeal at union conventions. Delegates unfailingly and unanimously resolve to raise funds and ring doorbells to see that the rascals responsible for perpetrating this atrocity are driven out of public life. Millions of dollars and millions of votes are thrown into the battle (conversationally). The workers are depicted as more irate than ever before, and more determined to translate their resentment into devastating political action.

But are they? Most observers think not. The law simply does not seem that important to the average worker. He may disapprove of the law—I am sure most workers do. But it is not a burning issue in most areas, and it is questionable that any amount of oratory will make it so. The crushing defeat sustained by the labor forces in the Eighth Pennsylvania District, where the Taft-Hartley Act was made the cardinal issue, indicated the gulf between the threats of union leaders and their ability to deliver.

Even more discouraging from the standpoint of those who talk so glibly of a Congressional purge were the findings of a survey made by the Opinion Research Corporation for Look Magazine. This survey disclosed that many workers who opposed the new law were nevertheless in favor of all or most of its basic provisions. In this poll, heavy votes of approval were given by workers to clauses requiring unions to account for their funds, barring Communist officers, establishing a sixty-day cooling-off period before strikes, making union-shop agreements dependent upon majority vote of the employes, and granting more freedom of speech to employers. If these findings constitute a trustworthy guide, opposition to the statute may diminish, rather than increase, as workers learn more about it.

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A part from the Taft-Hartley law, labor has little around which to build a political campaign. That is not to say there is a dearth of issues. With prices and profits at record highs and with the retreat from the New Deal in full swing, there are plenty of issues. But there is no agreement between the AFL and the CIO as to how these problems should be met. What is worse, there is not even agreement within the AFL or within the CIO.

A good deal of the difficulty grows out of the fact that 1948 is a presidential election year. Now it is obviously impossible to whip up a tremendous groundswell of political interest in a presidential year unless there is a candidate for president whose personality and program excite the enthusiasm of the voters. It is regrettably true that President Truman is not the kind of man to fire anyone’s imagination. With the exception of General Eisenhower, there is no one on the Republican side with magnetism enough to dissipate the distrust that most workers have learned to feel for that party.

It is not unnatural, therefore, that labor leaders talk exclusively in terms of Congressional and local candidates for next year and shun references to the presidency. It is more than possible that the AFL will not throw off this ambivalent position even after the rival presidential candidates have been nominated. The Federation’s high command is so split between Democrats and Republicans that any attempt to force through a presidential endorsement might torpedo the whole political action movement within the AFL. On the other hand, if the Democrats adopt a national platform committing their party to repeal of the Taft-Hartley law, any AFL failure to back President Truman would undercut efforts to drum up votes for Taft-Hartley foes on a local basis.

Philip Murray and his top associates in the CIO have pretty much made up their minds that they will have to support Truman. However, they are not enthusiastic and doubt that they can persuade their members that the President is the dynamic champion they need to get rid of repressive legislation and bring prices down.

Moreover, the Communist elements in the CIO are dedicating all their energies to tearing down the Truman administration as a tool of “Wall Street monopolies.” With a fervor that sometimes obscures the illogic of their arguments, the pro-Moscow group is peddling the notion that the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan are instruments in a big business plot to put across a Taft-Hartley act for the whole world.

It is not true, as has so often been charged, that Communists control the CIO Political Action Committee. But it is true that they have supplied most of the motive force for the field work of PAC. They have no equals when it comes to distributing leaflets, visiting voters, setting up precinct organizations, and doing all the other thankless jobs that are essential to arousing the electorate. If, in the forthcoming campaign, they back CIO domestic policies and sabotage CIO foreign policies, PAC will suffer a first-class attack of schizophrenia.

The curious blend of ardor and apathy with which labor views the 1948 elections focuses fresh attention on the infantile state of political development in the union movement. Samuel Gompers’ doctrine of “reward your friends and punish your enemies” still defines labor’s political philosophy, just as “more pay for less work” defines its economic aspirations.

To be sure, there exist within the PAC and the new political education league planned by the AFL potentialities for raising this level of political thinking. But in all candor, it cannot be said that these potentialities have manifested themselves in any positive form up to now.

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Nonetheless, the recent conventions of the AFL and the CIO must be credited with having improved the outlook for such thinking by reducing the obstructive power of extremists on the Right and Left—to be more specific, of John L. Lewis in the Federation and the Communists in the CIO. When and if labor gets around to defining its political direction in terms of concrete goals, the only contribution Lewis and the Communists can be expected to make lies in demagogic confusion. To the extent that both have lost influence, hope for a progressive political program has increased.

Ironically, Mr. Lewis’ humiliation at the San Francisco AFL convention grew out of his endeavor to use the Taft-Hartley issue as a stepping-stone to the one real ambition of his life—the presidency of a combined labor movement. The specific issue seized upon by the domineering leader of the United Mine Workers was the law’s requirement that union officers swear they were not Communists in order that their organizations might make use of the services of the National Labor Relations Board.

Robert N. Denham, the NLRB’s general counsel, interpreted this as meaning that all top officers of the AFL had to sign non-Communist affidavits before any AFL local union could ask the board to conduct an election or hear an unfair labor practice charge. Mr. Lewis, as an AFL vice-president, could thus force a boycott policy on the Federation’s entire membership, even though all his colleagues in the executive council were eager to sign.

With characteristic arrogance, Lewis leaped at the opportunity to thwart the will of the majority. Not only did he refuse to sign in his own right; he berated his associates as craven, cringing “belly-crawlers” who were signing the death warrant of organized labor with each attestation that they were not Communists.

The NLRB took some of the heat out of the issue by overruling its counsel’s interpretation, but the status of the so-called federal locals, which function directly under the AFL executive council, left Lewis in a position to deprive some 300,000 workers outside his own union of NLRB protection.

When he rose at San Francisco to speak in support of his stand, he was making his supreme bid for power. Nearing sixty-eight, his hair silvered and his frame weakened by ill health and sadness over the death of his wife, the UMW chief was still a man to strike terror into the breasts of those who crossed his will. Since his return to the Federation less than two years ago, he had established himself as its most influential single leader. In meetings of the executive council, he was so overbearing that more than one of his fellows wished he had never been invited back. Yet none dared speak out against him.

His words at San Francisco were directed not alone to the AFL delegates. He was talking across 3,000 miles to the convention of the CIO in Boston. Well aware of Philip Murray’s implacable resolve that Lewis should never again gain domination over the unions now in the CIO, the mine leader was carrying forward his attempt to woo away the rank and file of strategic CIO unions and enlist them under his banner.

The results were devastating—for Mr. Lewis. The AFL delegates listened politely but with mounting fury to his tirade, then smote him down in an avalanche of hostile votes. This in the face of a warning that he would feel compelled to withdraw from the executive council—and perhaps, he hinted darkly, from the Federation as well. As encouraging as the vote was the readiness of such Federation leaders as George Meany, Daniel J. Tobin, and David Dubinsky to take the floor in open denunciation of the UMW overlord.

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At Boston the deflation of Mr. Lewis had less apparent but equally salutary repercussions. Probably the chief of these was in Mr. Murray’s attitude on the Communist problem in the CIO. Communism is personally abhorrent to the CIO president. Moreover, he has been under intense pressure from his own union, the United Steel Workers, to do something about curbing Communist influence in the CIO.

Nevertheless, Mr. Murray has felt that his primary responsibility was to prevent the CIO from being torn apart by wrangling over the Communist issue. In this understandable desire to maintain unity, he has, in the opinion of many anti-Communists, helped to strengthen the hold of left-wingers on a number of key unions and has often permitted them to use the CIO as a vehicle for the pursuit of party-line objectives. On issues important to the Communists, notably foreign policy, the right-wing forces have consistently found themselves thwarted in efforts to uphold American positions or to criticize the actions of the Soviet Union.

At the outset of the Boston convention there was little to indicate any departure from this policy of cautious neutrality. A middle-of-the-road resolution on foreign policy was formulated in accordance with instructions from Murray. Designed to win unanimous acceptance, it was one of those pallid documents from which neither side could derive encouragement or offense.

But it became apparent early in the proceedings that the Boston gathering was to be no joy ride for the leftists. Their first setback came with the announcement that Murray had invited Secretary of State Marshall to speak. This was followed by a whole series of Murray rebuffs to the “party-line” followers, all leading up to the tumultuous ovation given General Marshall and Murray’s declaration that he interpreted the meaningless resolution on foreign policy as an all-out endorsement of the Marshall Plan. To top things off, the CIO president heckled one left-wing speaker with a jeering reference to free speech for the “heroes of Stalingrad,” helped engineer a demonstration of greeting for Joseph Curran on his arrival in Boston after a narrow and hard-won victory over the Communists in the National Maritime Union, and gave the signal for removal of R. J. Thomas as a vice-president in favor of O. A. Knight, right-wing head of the Oil Workers.

The chances that Murray will maintain a consistent anti-Communist position in the future are greatly enhanced by the diminished stature of John L. Lewis. So long as the specter of a Lewis-dominated unification of the labor movement loomed over Murray, his primary interest was in preventing any disaffection within the CIO. Now that Lewis is out of the AFL executive council, Murray is less dependent on the continued fealty of the pro-Communist wing.

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Even if Lewis and the Communists renew the alliance that existed between them from 1935 until Hitler’s termination of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1941, they cannot exert a decisive influence in the affairs of American labor. Despite the bitter things Lewis and the leftists have said about one another in recent years, it would be far from surprising if the old entente cordiale were resumed.

Lewis is not the man to rest content with control of the mine workers. He needs a broader stage for his talents. The Communists, well entrenched in a dozen CIO unions and skilled in the arts of propaganda and disruption, might serve as useful foils in his attempt to rehabilitate his shattered fortunes and avenge himself on his enemies in both labor camps.

That Lewis, in his turn, could be of benefit to the Communists in their present low state of public esteem is even clearer. On foreign policy, his isolationism would be a real asset at a time when the party’s main interest is in convincing the United States that it should mind its own business and not assume its proper and necessary role of leadership in world affairs.

On the Taft-Hartley law, the Communists have a more direct stake than any other group in Mr. Lewis’ fight to kill the affidavit requirement. It is well enough to say that Communists are schooled in deception and experience no moral qualms in swearing they are not what they are. But more than moral qualms are involved in submitting a false affidavit under the new labor law. The perjurer is subject to ten years in jail. And the FBI has remarkably detailed information on Communists in union ranks.

Personal security is by no means the only consideration that makes the boycott policy attractive in Communist eyes. It represents a form of political strike against the government and, as such, a precious aid in the perennial Communist effort to persuade the workers that their salvation lies in direct mass action and not in constitutional processes.

Most non-Communist unions have realized from the start that such a policy would deprive them of all the protective features of the act without in any way mitigating its destructive features. Few have been willing to risk the losses involved in the dubious hope that the Taft-Hartley law would follow the Volstead Act into oblivion through disuse. Many felt that the chances of getting rid of the law would be far better if the NLRB collapsed through inability to keep up with the flood of work that would descend upon it if all unions utilized its facilities.

Actually, of all the things wrong with the Taft-Hartley law, the worst is that it threatens to tie up labor relations in a morass of litigation and red-tape. The law is a hodgepodge that will remain obscure in many of its provisions until Congress repeals them or the courts clarify or invalidate them. Even its authors, Taft and Hartley, cannot agree on the meaning of some sections.

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The Republican leadership has made it clear that it will resist any changes at the forthcoming session of Congress. What will happen after that will depend on the outcome of the 1948 election and the character of the new president. I have already indicated my doubts about the effectiveness of labor’s congressional purge campaign. These doubts are strengthened by the probability of renewed jurisdictional warfare in the next few months between AFL and CIO unions, with Lewis adding his mite of confusion by warring on both with his catch-all

District 50, which literally organizes everyone from baby-nipple makers to grave diggers.

This writer’s own regret at the probable failure of efforts to modify the law proceeds primarily from the feeling that there is little hope for any serious labor cooperation in meeting fundamental economic problems so long as labor feels itself under indictment by Congress and the public.

Preoccupied by considerations of elementary security, harassed by repressive legislation, labor finds it easy to shirk long-range problems of social utility and economic stabilization. Even the boldest thinkers in the union movement—men like Walter Reuther of the Auto Workers, and George Baldanzi of the Textile Workers—are obliged to put aside their concern for industrial reorganization and planning and for a more equitable balance of production responsibility between management and labor. Similarly, imaginative programs for governmental action on both the national and international level are placed in cold storage while labor fights a defensive battle.

All of which brings me back to the point I tried to make in COMMENTARY last February, four months before the Taft-Hartley law was passed: the underlying cause of labor discord is not that labor is too strong, but that it is strong without feeling secure. The handicap that the law puts in the way of new organization and the multiplicity of new weapons it makes available to employers for hacking away at the strength of established unions, contributes to this sense of insecurity, with a consequent lessening in labor’s readiness to take its necessary place as a vital civic-minded force in our society, instead of a special interest group.

What is needed—and what, unhappily, does not seem to be in the cards at the moment at all—is a sincere, joint effort by management, labor, and the public, as represented by government, to work out a program that will provide a reasonably firm security for all three groups. Neither the Taft-Hartley law nor demagogic campaigns for its repeal can serve as a substitute.

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