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The New International, March 1943

Notes of the Month

Crisis of the War Labor Board


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 3, March 1943, pp. 67–69.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


For some time now the War Labor Board, composed of representatives of labor, industry and “the public,” has been threatened in its position as an arbiter of the living standards of the American workers. The essential reason why it was threatened, almost from the start, with a desperate existence and the danger of dissolution resided in its position as the principal ruler of wage increases the workers should get to meet an admitted rapidly rising cost of living. At least, this was the formal task of this body. Actually, and it has been so stated on numerous occasions, the aim of the WLB was to keep wages within a definite limit, no matter to what heights the costs of living might rise, in order thereby to effect a barrier against inflation and to deflate the mass demand for consumer goods.

By taking on the task of meeting the danger of inflation through a destruction of the living standards of the working class, the WLB has acted as an agency of the government on the one hand and of the monopolistic industrialists on the other, for their rulings against wage increases, or for limited wage increases which never matched the actual rises in the costs of living, have redounded to the benefit of the bourgeoisie. The net result of the WLB actions has been to bring about an increase of the total profit of the bosses.

This is not all. The WLB has procrastinated to such an extent in its deliberations that as many as six thousand cases have been charged as awaiting decision from this august body. Here again, the bosses suffer nothing from the delay. The workers in the shops, faced with the burden of meeting rising prices, suffer from the inability of the board to act with the dispatch required of its position.

In general, the WLB has remained stoically unmoved by the sufferings of large sections of underpaid workers, whose only resort, under the system created by the Administration, is this selfsame board. The professed principle upon which the board was constructed, to keep wages in line with prices and thus maintain an equilibrium, proved in practice to be the swindle it was expected to be. Prices, despite ceilings established in Washington, have far outstripped any wage increases which have been granted by the board. Moreover, and this is most important, the head of the OPA, Prentiss Brown, has publicly acknowledged that it is not within his power really to control prices, and that despite all controls established by his body, prices have and unquestionably will increase beyond all ceilings set for them. This, unfortunately, has been the lesson driven home to the workers long before Mr. Brown uttered his profound observation.

A Formula and the Cost of Living

It is acknowledged that the general rise in prices has been about 21 per cent. Some quarters have estimated it as 36 per cent. In addition, there are many intangible ways in which the costs of living have risen that are not reflected in the price indices. Inferior quality goods, smaller portions of foods sold, substitutions, are additional ways in which the costs of living are actually raised. These intangibles are by no means small items. In the case of meat, for example, a New York World-Telegram report of an estimate made by a meat packer showed that 17 per cent of the meat today is being acquired and sold on the black market. The black market, however, operates in all fields.

Rising costs of living reflected in the high prices charged for food, clothing, shelter and other necessaries of life, in a situation where the administrative head of price control admits that he cannot actually prevent rising prices, has been met by the now infamous Little Steel formula, granting wage increases to the limit of 15 per cent, of the War Labor Board. All certified cases for wage increases which come before this board are decided by this standard of measurement. Geographic location, actual local conditions, specific outrages in the costs of living in one area or another, are blithely ignored by the gentlemen seated on the WLB. Whenever and wherever they rendered a decision permitting an increase in wages to conform to the 15 per cent limit of the formula, the workers have merely reduced their wage cut, for the granting of the full limit in that formula or bringing a specific wage within its range has merely meant that the disproportion between the wages received and the cost of living (using the 21 per cent figure) was reduced to 6 per cent.

More recently the labor representatives on the WLB have come into increasing conflict with the rest of the board over the granting of even the increases permitted by its formula, but especially in two cases where the body refused to grant increases despite the urgency of the needs in these two instances – the packing-house workers and the West coast airplane cases. They have demanded a rehearing of the cases and a revision of the board’s action.

The situation has been highly intensified as a result of the meeting between the coal operators in the bituminous field and the United Mine Workers, led by John L. Lewis. For some time now, Lewis has been waging a one-man campaign against the War Labor Board and its Little Steel formula. He served notice many weeks ago that he would demand a two-dollar a day increase for bituminous coal miners to meet their cost of living. Furthermore, he declared that he would not ask for reference of this demand to the WLB because the board had demonstrated its inability, incompetence and prejudice in the handling of labor cases; that its Little Steel formula, permitting no wage increases above 15 per cent, was a travesty in face of the wild rise in the costs of living, and because the board was anti-labor in its majority, incapable of giving labor a fair deal.

This has been his unwavering position up to the present meeting of the union and the soft coal operators. He took the occasion of these wage negotiations to blast the WLB once more, and made specific and pointed references to the chairman of the board, William H. Davis, as “a rapacious, predatory Park Avenue lawyer on the loose in Washington against the American worker.”

Lewis Forces the Issue Publicly

It is the attitude of John L. Lewis toward the War Labor Board which has brought to a head the conflict between it and the whole labor movement. The CIO and the AFL, for objective and subjective reasons of their own, have joined in, though separately, with the objections similar to those raised by Lewis, though not with his demands. Precisely when the meeting of the coal operators and the miners’ union takes place, the AFL and CIO members of the WLB, and the two organizations officially, demanded that the board “scrap its Little Steel formula” and establish a “realistic wage policy.”

The AFL demanded, in addition, that the WLB declare itself independent of any “person or governmental agency” endeavoring” to control its actions. This has reference to James F. Byrnes, Economic Stabilization Director, who has sought strict adherence by the board to its formula. It also refers to Prentiss Brown, OPA Director, who is vociferous in his opposition to any revision of the Little Steel formula.

The meeting of the WLB which considered this proposal of the labor bloc, also had before it the latter’s proposal for a rehearing of the packing-house case and the airplane cases. Significantly enough, Wayne L. Morris, representing the public on the board, supported the demands of the labor bloc against Chairman Davis, also representing the public, who defended them in common with the industry members. But the fight in the War Labor Board is not and cannot be confined to its quarters. It has roads which lead in many directions, not the least of which is to the White House itself.

The denunciations of the WLB following Lewis’ declarations have grown to include many sections of the labor movement. We have already cited the actions taken by the AFL and CIO representatives on the board. But prior thereto, Philip Murray, CIO president, had already proposed the drafting of a new wage policy, while he characterized the Little Steel formula as “inadequate and unfair.” The International Ladies Garment Workers Union, in demanding wage increases, pointed out that the increases already granted to it did not meet rising costs, but merely compensated for the decreases which the union had voluntarily accepted in 1937 and 1938. In New York City, the Allied Printing Trades Council announced that it would call a conference of all AFL unions in the city for the purpose of developing a program to meet the “mounting cost of living.”

R.J. Thomas, president of the United Automobile Workers, rejecting the formula of the WLB, declared for “a realistic formula recognizing an advance of at least go per cent in the cost of living since January 1941, so that the workers through their unions can commence to bargain now for comparable increases in wages.” As a matter of fact, a résumé taken of the number of unions actively forcing the issue of wages, would run into scores.

Pressure of the Worker

The iniquitous position taken by the anti-labor WLB aroused such resentment among the millions of rank and file workers that it compelled the labor bureaucrats to speak out somewhat forcefully on the issue of wages. The workers have a nose for these matters. They know that one-third of the nation lives under sub-standard conditions. The position of these millions has not been altered in the slightest by the WLB. They know that the price-fixing machinery in Washington is a patent failure. They know that their economic position has been materially worsened by heavy taxes, which cruelly eat into their living standards. But throughout it all they note how the bosses, the financiers, the industrialists, the brokers and the merchants are fattening themselves with huge profits granted or permitted them by a government which stands in the way of an improvement of their miserable conditions. They know that any wage-saving achieved by the bosses goes into the bosses’ pockets in the form of increased profits. But they also know that wage increases, if granted, for the most part will be paid by the government, because war contracts are granted on a cost-plus basis – the government pays all costs and then adds a more than comfortable plus for the industrial magnates – to guarantee their profits!

When Lewis declares that the mine workers are not interested in any of Roosevelt’s “utopias” but want “a more favorably ‘divvy’ as along the road we go,” he is merely echoing the sentiment of the overwhelming majority of the workers. The restlessness and restiveness of the American workers is quickly felt by the labor bureaucrats, who have been quick to respond to the pressure of the workers. The Administration feels the pulse of the masses through its intimate associations with the officialdom of the labor unions. And Roosevelt, who has keen instincts, feels this better than most of his associates. Undoubtedly he understands something of the importance of the mass dissatisfaction of the workers, otherwise he would not have intervened in the present dispute between the operators and the United Mine Workers by saying to reporters that the struggle of the UMW for increased wages must not be prejudged!

But just at the time that Roosevelt made this statement, Prentiss Brown warned the WLB that it must not violate the Little Steel formula, else the whole anti-inflation program of Washington would be fatally endangered. James F. Byrnes likewise added his voice of authority to warn the WLB that it must adhere to the principle it adopted long ago.

What Does Roosevelt Plan?

It is difficult, at the time of this writing, when the over-all struggle on this question is first unfolding, to foresee all of its possible ramifications. Is Roosevelt merely playing politics, preparing for 1944, by publicly insinuating his sympathy for the workers, to finally declare his inability to do anything about it? Or is he preparing to save the face of his WLB, Economic Stabilization Board and the OPA? Is he preparing a concession to the workers and, if so, what kind of a concession does he have in mind? These things we shall certainly know in a very short time. The termination of the miners’ contract on April 1 will bring matters to a head.

If Roosevelt goes ahead and revises the formula of the WLB, then the WLB in its present form is a dodo. A reorganization, or the formation of an entirely new body, is inevitable. If he backs up the board, then the labor representatives, already committed to a fight against its present principle, will very likely withdraw from it, and again the question of its reorganization would necessarily arise. The WLB is on the spot, but its demise would be a boon to the workers, for its authority and the legal powers vested in it have given it the power to stand as an obstacle in the path of the American workers.

What Roosevelt does, however, is largely dependent upon the vigor and power displayed by the labor movement. If he feels that the present outcries of the labor leaders are merely face-saving gestures before their rank and file, he will, of course, do nothing. But if he should find that the labor leaders themselves are helpless before the urgent pressure of the ranks, he will find it necessary to make some important concessions to the workers.

The key to this situation is held by the workers. If they suffer defeat in the present struggle, it will make their future battles only more difficult. Should they, however, succeed in forcing the issue and obtaining their essential demand, the strength and power of the workers will be considerably enhanced. And this is of inestimable value in the face of the rising tide of reaction, whose headquarters are now divided between the portals of big business and the congressional halls in Washington.

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