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Labor and Responsibility

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

During the decade just ended, labor unions and collective bargaining have become accepted generally in the mass production industries of the United States. Prior to the ‘thirties, each time the workers in these industries attempted to organize labor unions, industrial warfare broke out. There were, for instance, the peat steel strike of 1919, the long and bloody coal strikes in 1922 and 1927-28. These strikes took place not because labor wanted them, but because the employers engaged in concerted attacks upon the existence of labor unions, and gave labor no alternative. As a consequence, labor unions in the public mind became synonymous with strikes and industrial warfare. In the past decade, although labor unions have often encountered employers’ campaigns to destroy them, they have withstood these campaigns. During the ‘thirties labor unions have become established to a greater extent than in any previous decade, and collective bargaining as a way of life in industry embraces more workers than ever before. Thus established, labor has demonstrated its ability to assume and discharge responsibilities. The public generally has changed its conception of unions. Instead of being synonymous with warfare, labor unions gradually have begun to be associated with constructive and responsible undertakings in industry. Where a labor union usually meant a strike, it now means something very important to a great number of persons and to the development of political democracy, particularly its extension to industry.

These developments have led to the ofttimes repeated conclusion that “labor has come through its spasmodic stage, and is now a responsible, orderly, and socially forceful element in American society.” This is only partially true. The change has been in the policies and attitudes of industry and employers. And with these changes, labor naturally has grown because it has had the opportunity to assume and discharge responsibilities in large sectors of industry, where previously its organized existence had been denied. The purpose of this discussion is to illustrate the underlying factors in these developments.


Upon organizing into a union, the first endeavor of the workers is to secure a written collective bargaining contract from their employer that, among other things, invariably provides machinery for the peaceful and orderly adjustment of any differences that may arise between them, and outlaws stoppages of work by either party as a method of settling disputes. Thus the first thing a labor union does when it is established is to assume its share of responsibility for the industrial peace. It is ironical that employers have provoked so much industrial warfare by opposing labor unions, whose initial purpose has been to assume joint responsibility for the maintenance of industrial peace.

Industry, of course, has always favored industrial peace, but upon its own terms—-harshly dictated as a rule. Too frequently this has meant, and in certain sectors of industry it still means, servitude, denial of civil liberties, low wages, long hours, “scrip” wages, and other commonly known industrial abuses. At opportune times workers organize themselves into labor unions to correct these abuses. Whereupon one of two things happens: the employer either fights or negotiates. If he chooses the former, then industrial warfare follows. Confronted with the efforts of their employer to destroy their union, the workers go on strike in self-preservation. The peace is broken. Picketing takes place. Strikebreakers are imported and there are clashes on the picket line.

Injunction suits are started. Newspaper and radio campaigns are inaugurated. As a consequence, it is assumed unfairly by many that labor unions and their leaders thus engaged in righting employer opposition to their existence are irresponsible. Actually, of course, it is the industrial conv cern and its officers offering such opposition who are irresponsible.

When the employer chooses to negotiate, a sound industrial peace is established unless negotiations break down for one reason or another. And even when employers choose to fight, industrial peace is eventually restored. With the union vanquished, the workers return to work under the dictated terms of employment, except the union leaders, who usually are fired and blacklisted from getting any kind of job in town—a reminder to the workers not to organize a labor union again. With the union victorious, however, tbe terms of employment under which the workers return to work are improved, the principle that thereafter these terms shall be determined jointly to the mutual satisfaction of both parties is established, and a collective bargaining contract is signed providing peaceful methods for adjusting future differences.

Whether industrial peace continues in the latter case depends, in the main, upon the attitudes and policies of the employer and the peculiar problems flowing from them. Once a collective bargaining contract is signed, stoppages of work are not abandoned automatically as a method of settling differences. Collective bargaining is something that has to be worked at continually, both by employers and workers. It is the job of the employer and his subordinates, as well as of the union officers, to build up the confidence of workers that they will get justice through the machinery provided in the contract to adjust grievances. Such confidence is essential to unbroken industrial peace.

These principles are illustrated by the experience of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (S.W.O.C.) with a major steel firm. In the spring of 1937 the first contract was signed, covering the firm’s nine plants in four states. Peaceful relations developed in five plants, where not a single stoppage of work has occurred to date. But in the other four plants the contract has not always worked. The explanation for these divergent developments within the plants of a single employer is a simple one.

In five of the firm’s plants, confidence was created in the collective bargaining machinery. Workers gained confidence, based on their experiences, that they would get justice by submitting their grievances to their union representatives who, in turn, took them up for adjustment with supervisory officials, step by step as provided in the contract. Likewise the plant managers had confidence that their differences with the workers would be amicably settled in the same manner. In these plants efforts to destroy the union were abandoned, and the plant managers cooperated with the union representatives. Together they succeeded in adjusting all differences peacefully. The workers had no need to strike to settle grievances, because they were able to settle them through the collective bargaining machinery.

But not so in the other four plants. The experience in one of these plants is typical of the other three. Although the company as a whole decided to negotiate, this plant manager, like the other three, continued his anti-union belligerency. Immediately upon signing the contract, he told the local union leaders: “If I had been president of this company you wouldn’t be in this office representing the men in this plant. I’d ‘a busted your union to pieces.”

The manager refused to settle any grievances. The workers soon became impatient with the inability of the local union leaders to adjust their complaints. In addition, the manager made each worker sign a card indicating whether or not he was a member of the union. The contract had reduced the work week from forty-eight to forty hours, and wages had been raised to compensate for this time reduction. The union was recognized for its members only, but the wage and hour provisions of the contract were applied to all workers regardless of union membership. The forty-hour week became universal throughout the industry for all workers except in this plant. Those workers who indicated they were members of the union were given forty hours a week, while the non-members in this plant were given forty-eight hours. Consequently, a number of workers dropped out of the union to get the extra eight hours of work. A grievance pleading for the forty-hour week for everybody was rejected by the manager, despite the fact that every other steel firm, including five other plants of this company, had adopted the forty-hour week. The workers considered this a deadly thrust at their union, as it was, and would have struck had not S.W.O.C. officers prevailed upon them not to do so.

Other provocative actions of the plant manager included discrimination against union members in awarding overtime work; preference to non-union employees in promotions; and a speech before all the employees attending a safety meeting, warning “the leaders of the local union” that they would “live to be sorry for ever having organized.”

Union members presented grievances to correct these violations of the contract. In a department of fifty-odd men a typical grievance arose. All overtime work was being given to the seven men who were not members of the union. Previously such work had been divided among them all. The plant manager rejected the request that the work be divided equally. For five weeks the union representatives argued the matter in vain. In a final effort to settle the matter peacefully, the union requested that it be submitted to an impartial umpire for disposition in accordance with the provisions of the contract. The plant manager refused, whereupon the forty-odd union employees in the department decided to refuse to work one morning until the manager would agree to share the overtime work fairly. Such a move would have been in violation of contract, so the S.W.O.C. director in the area urged the men to continue at work. The spokesman for the union argued with the director: “The manager won’t settle our grievance. He refuses arbitration, and therefore has violated the contract. We have no alternative but to strike and make him live up to the provisions of the contract. If we don’t, he will destroy our union.”

The director replied: “S.W.O.C. is trying to get recognition from the ‘Little Steel’ companies, and is being charged with not being responsible. I know you have just cause for striking, but I must ask you to be patient. We cannot afford any stoppages of work, no matter how justified. When the company violates the contract, we cannot follow the company’s bad example.” The men followed his advice, and continued at work. The following week I had a phone call from our director, telling me the manager had fired the union spokesman in this department. A special meeting of the union was to be held that night for the purpose of striking the entire plant. I called the president of the company to correct these flagrant violations of the contract by their plant manager. My pleas fell upon deaf ears. He mumbled something about the sacredness of plant autonomy. Nevertheless, I instructed our director to counsel the local union not to strike. I advised instead that the union take the case up with the National Labor Relations Board. A year later the Board reinstated the union spokesman, but in the meantime the plant manager had forced all the employees to drop out of the union by giving preference in layoffs, rehirings, promotions, vacations, et cetera, to non-union men. To demonstrate S.W.O.C.’s responsibility under a written collective bargaining agreement, an entire local union was sacrificed for a period of more than a year.

This experience, of course, has not been typical of the 638 companies that signed collective bargaining contracts with the S.W.O.C. If it had been, S.W.O.C. would have had to strike in self-defense. The vast majority of the firms, how-ever, negotiated contracts with S.W.O.C. in good faith. As a consequence, these firms have pointed proudly to S.W.O.C.’s excellent record of contractual responsibility, and those steel companies that did not sign contracts in 1937 have cast envious eyes at the constructive collective bargaining relations their competitors enjoy with S.W.O.C.

Firms which have intelligently and fully accepted their responsibilities for the furtherance of genuine collective bargaining have reaped not only industrial peace, but also added dividends of a tangible economic nature. A number of cases may be cited to prove this, but the example of one sheet producer is representative of this constructive development. The company was on the verge of being forced out of business by highly mechanized competing producers with lower production costs. As a last effort, the management called upon the union for aid. The response was immediate and amazingly effective. Recommendations of the union research committee resulted in net savings of $166,200 the first year. Problems which had baffled the management and outside technicians (including a consultant metallurgist paid a fee of five hundred dollars a day) were solved by the workers. As a result, the company has been able to remain in business, something of which it had despaired a short time ago. This company and a number of others took it upon themselves to aid the union in obtaining security of status. In return, these employers have realized not only industrial peace, but also an added ally in solving the problem of their own economic security.

It is clear, therefore, that the primary responsibility for industrial peace rests upon, the employer. Ordinarily when an employer disregards his written contract with the union and attacks it, as did the plant manager previously referred to, the union is compelled to strike. It has no alternative, except to go out of existence—an alternative that no person or group of persons chooses. Indeed, it is an empty satisfaction for workers to maintain their contract inviolate if in so doing they lose their union. Had the decision been left entirely with the workers involved in the case previously discussed, there is no question but that they would have struck.

Because they did not, they lost their union for more than a year before S.W.O.C. was able to help them reorganize. If the actions of this plant manager had been typical of the employers with S.W.O.C. contracts, certainly it would have been impossible for S.W.O.C. to restrain its members from striking in self-defense. If this state of affairs existed generally throughout the plants of firms with S.W.O.C. contracts, it would be foolish for S.W.O.C. to try and maintain industrial peace. Such a policy could lead only to the destruction of labor unions in the steel industry and the reversion to old conditions of employment. Only because these firms, in the main, ceased their opposition to the union of their workers, and cooperated with it, has it been possible for S.W.O.C. to build up a record of contractual responsibility. Before .the union can carry out its responsibilities under a written collective bargaining contract, the employer has to carry out his contractual responsibilities. The fact is inescapable that the employer’s policies and attitudes determine the nature of labor relations.

This fact was demonstrated clearly in the steel industry in 1937. Three-fourths of the industry peacefully accepted the organization of its workers. The huge industrial center of Pittsburgh went through a revolutionary change in its labor relations policies without stoppages of work. From the most vicious anti-union, open-shop center in American industry, Pittsburgh has become an outstanding example of peaceful labor relations and constructive collective bargaining developments. The steel employers in Pittsburgh did not resist labor’s campaign for greater industrial responsibilities. They granted labor these responsibilities, wrote them into contracts, and discharged their share of the responsibilities. Labor in Pittsburgh during the last three years has assumed and discharged its responsibilities to the admiration of all. The Pittsburgh situation is typical of three-fourths of the steel industry.

Such has not been the case, however, in the remaining fourth of the industry dominated by the so-called “Little Steel” companies. When S.W.O.C. approached these companies in 1937 for a collective bargaining contract under which it could assume and discharge responsibilities with them, the answer was “no.” A most belligerent “no.” S.W.O.C.’s request was answered with the discharge of more than five hundred of its members, the lockout of three thousand, and the intimidation of all others by fair means or foul, the latter being the rule. The peace was broken and labor was compelled to strike in order to preserve its very existence. The bloody character of this strike has been recorded in the newsreel of the Chicago massacre, in the daily newspapers, and upon the records of three governmental and Congressional agencies. If the entire industry had pursued the same policy of opposition, the strike would have embraced every steel plant in the country. And if this minority of the industry had followed the example of the majority, the strike— and its eighteen deaths, all among workers—would never have taken place.

Could it be that labor, the S.W.O.C. in particular, was irresponsible, disorderly, and a socially undesirable element in American society at the properties of the “Little Steel” companies? Coincidentally could it be that the S.W.O.C. was responsible, orderly, and a socially forceful element in American society at the properties of three-fourths of the industry? If so, then I am both a gentle Dr. Jekyll and a hideous Mr. Hyde, and so are my associate officers of the S.W.O.C. Also the workers in the “Little Steel” plants, if this were the case, are Mr. Hydes, while those in the rest of the industry are Dr. Jekylls. This assumption is, of course, absurd. The difference between developments in “Little Steel” and the rest of the steel industry is not one of labor responsibility, but of employer policy. In the former case the employers ordered industrial warfare; in the latter case, they desired industrial peace. In demonstrating its responsibility in the majority of the industry, labor has shown how foolish the policies of the “Little Steel” firms have been.

The character of labor relations is determined, in the main, by the employer. He sets the example; labor, of necessity, follows. The sit-down strike is the outgrowth of employers’ strikebreaking policies. In the early days of the N.R.A., employers in many cases successfully opposed labor by housing and feeding strikebreakers inside their plants. The workers had gone on strike, a conventional outdoor picketing strike. They saw their union destroyed, their leaders discharged, and their working conditions unimproved, because their employer had defeated them by housing and feeding strikebreakers. A few years later, in 1936 and 1937, the workers followed their employer’s tactics. They housed and fed themselves inside the plants, hence a sit-down strike, with as much success as the employers had met when, a few years earlier, they had housed and fed strikebreakers. I am not commenting on the merits of the sit-down strike; my purpose is merely to point out its origin. I do this to illustrate that labor’s policies are formulated as a consequence of employer policies, and not vice versa.


During my thirty years of experience in the labor movement, involving collective bargaining conferences with some of the most important employers in the coal, steel, auto, glass, and other basic industries, I have always found that the campaigns of some of them to “make labor responsible” do not ring true. These campaigns to legislate “responsible labor” are directed along two main lines.

“Labor unions should be made to give out public financial statements of their income and expenditures.” This attempt to “make labor responsible” has always amused me. All the more so, because of the 475,000 private corporations in the United States, less than five per cent give out public financial statements. A much larger percentage of the labor unions in the United States give out financial statements. The United Mine Workers of America, of which I am vice-president, is one of the older and well established unions. It has virtually every coal operator under contract. For the past seven years it has assumed responsibilities for the welfare of the bituminous coal industry, for example, that far transcend any responsibilities ever assumed by the organized coal operators. Its position is recognized as invulnerable. As a result, every six months the United Mine Workers makes public its financial accounts. The S.W.O.C. is a new union, still violently opposed by a minority of the steel employers. It does not give out a public financial statement because of the obvious reason that its enemies would distort its meaning and significance for the purpose of maligning and harassing the S.W.O.C. After the entire industry is under written collective bargaining contracts, S.W.O.C.’s financial accounts no doubt will be made public as are those of the United Mine Workers, and, I feel, will receive as little public notice as the statements of the mine workers’ union now do.

“Labor unions should be compelled to incorporate.” This second line of attack is likewise amusing, as one of the reasons private businessmen have incorporated their businesses has been to evade personal liability. No one sincerely desirous of developing “responsible labor” advocates the incorporation of labor unions, because they*know that unions, as presently constituted, are fully responsible for their acts and the consequences of them. Under the disguise of “making labor responsible,” the enemies of labor advocate the incorporation of labor unions as a cleverly designed effort to put them in a strait-jacket, and then into the graveyard. The United States Senate Civil Liberties Committee has re-vealed how employers have placed agents provocateurs inside labor unions for the purpose of disrupting and discredit-ing them. On some flimsy pretext such agents could demand an examination of the books of an incorporated union and obtain information valuable for union-smashing purposes. The day when labor’s enemies are successful in compelling labor unions to incorporate will be a victory for them indeed, and a defeat for the proponents of genuine col-lective bargaining.

During the past years labor has proved itself to be just as responsible as industry will permit it to be—and ofttimes more so. Employers enjoying the most amicable collective bargaining relationships are those who have stressed the need of authority and security for the union in their plant, rather than those who have asked for further restrictions upon unions. They have removed rather than added obstacles to the development of effective unions. Their experiences flatly contradict the allegations of opponents of labor whp claim that labor must be legislated into a sense of responsibility. The purpose of such measures is destructive rather than constructive. Those who are most bellicose in proposing such restrictions are the ones who themselves are least responsible, and they hope that such hue-and-cry may detract public attention from their own shortcomings.

Labor responsibility is the by-product of the policies and attitudes of employers. Those who choose the road of collective bargaining, and who accept the union of their employees in good faith, soon learn that their employees through their union develop a sense of responsibility for the promotion of the mutual interests of labor and industry.


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