Labor's Giant Step is a thrilling history of U.S. rank and file union militancy in the period 1934-1957.
The "giant step" of the title was industry-wide organizing, a break with insular and atomizing craft structures epitomized by the American Federation of Labor.
The sucesses that built the CIO were not unique strokes of genius by international union presidents or government officials. They were the product of rank-and-file initiative and leadership putting its stamp on events, reaching broadly outward for solidarity and creating a mass social movement in the process.
Art Preis, a young leader of the unemployed movement and the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike, covered most of the struggles in Labor's Giant Step as a reporter for The Militant newspaper. He was an expert on both the making and writing of working class history.
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The giant step that U.S. labor has yet to take is independent political action.
Throughout Preis's book, top union officials of every political shade work with might and main to thwart any tendency in that direction. Johnson, Murray, and Reuther repeatedly and demogogically endorse the idea of a labor party, but keep their members tied in reality to the Jim Crow Democrat Party.
"Now is not the right time," they always lament.
(When John L. Lewis opposed Roosevelt's pro-war union-busting course in 1940, he endorsed Republican Wendell Wilkie.)
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A real strength of Labor's Giant Step is its portrait of Roosevelt's real anti-labor record.
I have sat on my share of porches with prospective Militant subscribers debating the role of the Democrat party. More than a few told me, "Roosevelt gave us the unions."
Preis gives us the facts and the context: far from being a "traitor" to his own class, Roosevelt was a champion union-buster. Before World War Two he made a few pious pronouncements, but he backed-up New Deal governors every time they called out the troops to try smashing a strike.
He financed the U.S. imperialist war effort by freezing wages, outlawing strikes, and introducing taxes on incomes as low as $300 a year. By 1944 he was ready to introduce labor conscription, legislation that makes Taft-Hartley look like a vicar's tea party.
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One roadblock the next mass U.S. labor radicalization will not have to face is Stalinism.
The U.S. Communist Party bent every effort in the period covered by Labor's Giant Step to promote peaceful coexistance between Washington and Moscow. They defended and promoted the Democrat party is a progressive force to this end, rationalizing and deceiving where they were not strong enough to beat and bully.
They supported U.S. goverment prosecution of leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters and the Socialist Workers Party for their anti-war campaigns. During the war they opposed all strikes and demanded reintroduction of piece-work to boost labor productivity. At every opportunity, the CPUSA and its labor allies negated in word and deed the slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all."
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Roosevelt used troops against 1941 strikes
Below are excerpts from Labor’s Giant Step by Art Preis, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for May. Written by a participant in the explosive labor struggles and political battles of the 1930s, it tells the story of how the industrial unions were built and how they became the vanguard of a mass social movement that began to transform U.S. society.
The excerpt below, entitled “Roosevelt—open strikebreaker,” tells the story of how during two strikes in 1941 U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic “friend of labor,” initiated his administration’s direct strike-breaking program. The first was the 75-day strike by members of United Auto Workers Local 248 against the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company plant in West Allis, Wisconsin. The second was at strike at the North American Aviation plant in Inglewood, California.
The author refers to several top union officials: United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) Phillip Murray, and Amalgamated Clothing Workers president Sidney Hillman. Copyright © 1964 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission.
BY ART PREIS
Now faced with opposition from the top CIO and UAW leaders as well as the strikers, the administration officials beat a retreat and denied they had issued any ultimatum to the strikers. They then asserted that “the original strike vote had been obtained by fraudulent means.” The March 30 New York Times reported, however, that “more than 5,000 UAW workers…voted today at a mass meeting to persist with their strike at the Allis-Chalmers Company plant, hooting down appeals of government officials….” There evidently was no fraud about the workers’ desire to continue the strike.
Inspired by the Roosevelt administration’s strikebreaking intervention, the local police on March 31 made a violent assault on the Allis-Chalmers picket line. For the first time in American labor history an armored car manned by police firing tear gas bombs through slits in the steel plates smashed through a picket line of 3,000 workers. Many were sickened and injured, but the line closed up and picketing went on.
In the meantime state militia had been sent to the scene. The workers, however, could not be driven back to work at bayonet point. After three days Governor Heil withdrew his troops and ordered the plant shut.
On April 7, after 75 days, the union voted to end the strike when the company agreed to accept the terms the union would have settled for at the beginning. The agreement provided a “maintenance of membership” clause—a watered-down version of the union shop—which guaranteed the membership status as of the time of signing the contract.
Just two months later Roosevelt moved into the most open and violent phase of his anti-strike program. This was his use of federal troops to smash the picket lines of peaceful strikers at the North American Aviation plant in Inglewood, California.
Looking back, it seems incredible that the workers had not struck long before.…
North American’s minimum wage was 40 cents an hour, ten cents less than an unskilled laborer’s relief wage on WPA. It was far below the subsistence standard of living computed by government agencies and lower than the average of all Southern California aircraft plants.
When the company finally agreed to open negotiations on April 16, the workers asked for a 75-cent hourly minimum and ten cents an hour more for all workers. In 1940, even before receiving huge government war orders, the company had made a net profit of $855 for every worker in its employ. But when the union made its wage demand, North American’s President J.H. Kindleberger scoffed: “I don’t have to pay any more to my workers because most of them are young kids who spend their money on a flivver and a gal.”
After being stalled for five weeks with this kind of talk, the union membership on May 23 voted for strike. The issue then went to the National Defense Mediation Board. The workers stayed on the job 13 days past their strike deadline. When it became clear that the NDMB intended to stall indefinitely, the 12,000 North American workers struck on June 5.
The NDMB turned the case over to the White House. Roosevelt acted with dispatch. He ordered the workers to end their strike and announced he was sending U.S. troops to be on hand Monday morning, June 9, to open the plant in the interests of the “national emergency.” Why he did not order the company to pay decent wages as a means of ending this “threat” to the “national emergency” the President did not say.
Roosevelt acted with confidence because he felt he had the backing of high CIO and UAW officials. In speaking of those who were at the President’s side when he signed the order for the troops to smash the strike, Roosevelt’s secretary Stephen Early, spoke of “Mr. Hillman and the others.” Hillman—that was a name to conjure with. It was a “Labor” seal of approval.
After the strike was broken, at a meeting of 250 CIO executives in Washington on July 7, Lewis denounced Hillman as a “traitor” who was “standing at Roosevelt’s elbow when he signed the order to send troops to stab labor in the back.…”
On the very day the strike was called, the UAW international union officials dispatched Richard Frankensteen to the strike scene. That same night, without consulting the strike committee, he broadcast a denunciation of the strike over a national radio hookup.…
[On June 9] the embittered workers massed at the plant. There to meet them was the first large contingent of what was to grow by nightfall into an army of 3,500 federal troops. Thus, the United States government waged its first military engagement of World War II on American soil against American workers resisting hunger wages.