Can Labor Be Mobilized?

AS our world grows steadily more dangerous one fact becomes increasingly certain. The war will be won or lost by American industry. Whether democracy or Naziism rules the world depends on how fast and how voluminously we produce and deliver planes, tanks, ships, guns, munitions.

In 1917 each man in the field required two or three in the factories; today it requires the work of seventeen men to sustain one soldier. Because we realize this we grow increasingly impatient with the seemingly greedy and selfish behavior of workers. Who has not heard the reproachful query: ‘The soldier serves his country for $21 per month; shall we permit irresponsible workers to refuse to produce, except on their own terms, weapons our boys must have to defend us all?’

Thus the nation responded with almost audible, if sober, relief when Mr. Roosevelt — certainly a pro-labor President — ordered the military occupation of the strike-bound North American Aviation plant. Our endorsement of so extreme an expedient stemmed from the conviction that Communist leaders were directing this particular outlaw strike. But it reflected also the mounting impatience with all strikes that had been slowing down defense production since the walkout of the Vultee workers in November 1940.

Efforts to reduce stoppages, however, can become effective only by facing squarely the basic complexities. Even if we should finally write into law any of the measures suggested to curb strikes, we shall find, as democratic countries have always found, that there is no formula for completely abolishing stoppages — and still remaining a democracy. We think how relatively easy it would be to end walkouts if subversive agents or willful leaders or union rivals, or any other single factor, were alone, or even dominantly, responsible for them. But behind the strike leaders bulk the far more baffling average Americans who actually strike. Like the rest of us, the great majority of workers are patriotic citizens, sharing our detestation of Hitlerism, and the firm determination to arm the country against it. We still need to discover, therefore, why these workers follow subversive or waillful leaders, or defy responsible ones.


Significantly enough, the human equation of total war furnishes our first real clue for understanding why workers, even in national emergency, still behave as workers. For, after all, is not the equation a reciprocal one? If the worker is truly a soldier, who is the soldier himself but the worker and the worker’s son, the employer and the employer’s son, the farmer and the farmer’s son? The man at work and the man in uniform are in reality the same man — at different times. What we really need to ask is just why this same American, animated by the same patriotism, behaves so differently in his different rôles. Why, specifically, is the soldier in overalls so different from the soldier in uniform?

The answer must be sought within the pervasive and deep-rooted contrast by which the whole content of daily work and living is changed for the soldier but remains basically the same for the worker. Called to military service, a worker finds himself in new surroundings and among new associates. He becomes a part of daily ordered activities that abound in symbols of his new rôle as defender of his nation. In the factory, too, the worker may feel that he is participating in national defense. But within the day’s work it must be, in the very nature of things, only an occasional, not a continuous, awareness. For men are what they do, not what they are told they should be. And the worker holding down a defense job spends his hours in much the same humdrum way he always did. No reveille, nor retreat, but the same factory whistle opens and closes his working day. He is not publicly marked by uniform and new routines as a defender of his country. Instead, at the bench or assembly line, amid the impersonal relations of the shop, he still feels himself as interchangeable a part of the work force as is a nut or bolt in the armament he is helping to produce. He may recall at times that his nut or bolt will go into some crucial instrument against Hitler, but hour after hour the moving belt, the time clock, the straw boss, and the foreman dominate his activity.

We may gauge the full measure by which the worker’s unchanging daily round constitutes a problem in defense morale when we recall the meagre sense of participation, the anxieties and antagonisms, that may long have prevailed in his own shop. When we shift that shop from peacetime to defense production, we carry over not only its machines and its workers’ skills, but also their emotions about work and its returns, their attitudes toward their employers and supervisors. With these emotions, however, we have thus far completely failed to reckon.

In steel, for instance, so basic to rearmament, we have centred attention upon estimates balancing demand against capacity. Shall we construct new plants or curtail civilian consumption — or both? Good enough. But how about the morale — the attitudes and emotions — of the steel workers? In our impatience with threatened or actual stoppages, we forget that for almost fifty years — from the violent clash at Homestead in 1892 to that in the mill towns of Little Steel in 1937 — these workers have been fighting for a ‘voice’ in their industry. Under the impetus of the New Deal, Big Steel finally came to terms with its men and their union. But, two years after Hitler made war, Little Steel still holds out. Gradually these companies too are coming around. Nevertheless the defense program inherits the emotional deposit left by this long history of conflict. As one of their leaders recently symbolized it, steel workers enjoy their new opportunity ‘to tell the boss off.’

For many steel workers, moreover, even the defense boom does not completely allay the fear of unemployment. The automatic continuous-strip mill has been replacing the old hand mill in turning out flat-rolled steel. Some 85,000 workers, according to Mr. Philip Murray’s testimony before the TNEC in April 1940, have been confronted with actual or imminent loss of jobs. These men were stirred to new hope by the very likelihood that the obsolete hand mills might reopen to meet war demands. But, at best, reopening offers them only a ’last lap’ on inevitably doomed jobs.

Can it be enough, then, to face the need to retool without even recognizing the parallel need to allay such fears among the workers who man the tools? Signs have steadily multiplied that the emotions of workers and management may yet present our most serious industrial bottleneck. Our preoccupation thus far with the more obvious bottlenecks is rooted in our long tendency to regard production as the manipulation only of materials, machines, and skills. We have failed to realize that skills are inseparable from human beings, that output rates depend on the behavior of the whole man, with his cravings and frustrations as well as his skills.

And so, concentrating upon the mass production which will determine our future, we still disregard the important fact that the worker at the assembly line does not draw from his defense job any sense of direct individual contribution to democratic victory. The wage he receives, rather than the fragmented work he does, still continues his measure of social worth, the source of whatever status, prestige, or security he may win for himself or his family. In the pursuit of these returns he is still badgered by the pressures and uncertainties characteristic of wage work. He still remains aware that his share of the fruits of defense ‘prosperity’ depends in part on a tug of strength among various competitors for them.


This design of thinking is illustrated vividly by a dispute brought to me for arbitration early this year. The men had asked for a 10 per cent increase in wages. The management based its rejection upon the danger of inflation during the emergency. Wages had been increased in 1937, and government figures on the cost of living since then did not warrant another raise. The workers were reminded that only by holding wage increases ‘in proportion to the rise in living costs can we prevent a runaway spiral from which it would be extremely difficult to recover.’

‘What interests us,’ countered the workers, ‘is not statistics on cost of living but making a better living. When times are good, skilled mechanics like ourselves expect higher wages so we may live in a proper way.’ They had cooperated when business was poor by taking a decrease in 1932. They had received only one increase — in 1937. But ‘today employment is here. The United States Government has given out billions of war contracts. Prosperity is here. We don’t see why we are not entitled to have a little of that prosperity.’

Thus workers tend to see defense production as one more industrial fluctuation — a period of prosperity, of indeterminate duration, following upon a long depression. Few who get jobs in the forties will easily forget what unemployment can do to a man in a society that makes work the symbol of personal adequacy and social status. The skilled workers we seek so anxiously know well that they are scarce today because there was for so long so little demand for them.

Nor do even all skilled workers find in defense employment the opportunity to reëstablish themselves. Mike Russell of New Castle, Pennsylvania, one of the thousands of steel workers displaced from the industry, told a typical story before the TNEC. For some twenty years, until his plant shut down in 1937, he had been a hand-roller, as proud a craftsman as could be found. When he testified, in April 1940, he was working on the WPA, although the defense program had been under way almost one year. One month after the shutdown Russell, together with some two hundred other hand-rollers, had been called to work in an affiliated mill, until it in turn shut down seven months later. The corporation, complained Russell, ‘rehired all of us rollers . . . as catcher helpers on the job I had started at thirty-two years ago as a boy.’ He ‘didn’t like it ... to be lowered down like that.’

If men like Russell obtain defense jobs in the new automatic strip mills they probably won’t ‘like it’ for much the same reason. For, according to Mr. Murray, the ‘comparatively few handmill workers who have been employed in automatic strip mills . . . are working as laborers, or semi-skilled workers, and are receiving wages one-half to one-third their former daily earnings.’ Even though they will be working on defense orders, moreover, their employer will be, not the nation, but still the same corporation that had rendered their skill obsolete for all time.

The emotional ‘carry-over’ from the thirties rises not only from the strains endured by individuals and families, but also from the programs directed toward their welfare. This is hardly the place to appraise the various innovations of the Roosevelt administration. What remains important now is the passionate support and opposition they evoked. The hero worship of the working-class women who scrubbed the streets of an industrial town over which President Roosevelt’s car was scheduled to pass during the campaign of 1940 was quite matched by the demonology elaborated at country clubs and dinner tables. That the New Deal program came at a time of world-wide upheaval intensified its aura of revolutionary transition.

Whether the New Deal be reform or revolution, the National Labor Relations Act has projected a major change in the balance of power between employers and trade unions. To labor, it marked the culmination of a long struggle to achieve equality of bargaining power. This power has generally been augmented by prosperity and impaired by depression. If this explains organized labor’s determination to utilize its new rights in the defense boom, it also throws light on perplexing obstacles to uninterrupted, maximum production. For it is just the crucial defense industries — steel, motors, aircraft, aluminum, oil, chemicals, rubber — that have most stubbornly resisted unionization. Only recently or partially organized, these industries contain young unions determined to press their current advantages of favorable economic conditions and new legal status. Strikes for union recognition present the most bitter form of industrial conflict, and leave in their wake the most lasting aftermath of hostility. It takes young unions time to establish discipline, to hold back members seeking quick returns from union dues, and to make the transition from fighting to collaboration.

Nor is this all. Just because the defense industries constitute the centres of the current organizing effort, they represent also arenas where the two rival labor movements are most likely to clash, as each seeks to extend its membership. And finally, because these industries are thus both central to defense and still unsettled, they attract subversive agents bent upon crippling production by stirring up class division and industrial strife.

Industrial relations are affected by still one more subtle emotional heritage of the thirties. The depression worked a change in attitude toward our leadership group. The business man, the idol of the booming twenties, has fallen from his high estate. For the past ten years he has been projected as the scapegoat for all our economic ills. Now he is commanded to mobilize industry for defense. The worker, once aspiring to the boss’s place, now relates himself to the labor leader and the government official. The net result is sharpened suspicion and hostility between the two groups — management and men — whose daily and wholehearted working together must be the very spirit and heart of the defense effort.


What we have failed to solve in peace remains to plague us as we strengthen our defenses in a world at war. Human relations in industry have always constituted our outstanding failure, as mechanical efficiency our spectacular success. Just as our technical equipment, moreover, has been weakened by the erosions of the Great Depression, so the emotions of workers and employers have been profoundly unsettled by its harsh stresses and social upheaval. Thus we are compelled to move from a sharp crisis to an even sharper one, before we have assimilated — or even generally accepted — the far-reaching changes introduced into our labor relations.

Yet emergency hardly seems the time for Olympian patience. Hitler does not wait for democracies to tackle stubborn difficulties; and, if we too fail to prepare our defenses in time, the Nazis will liquidate the democratic inadequacies for us by making our whole democracy impossible. If the man in overalls cannot immediately see how directly his every little personal interest depends upon the outcome of this larger conflict, surely his leaders know the fate of workers and their unions wherever the Nazis conquer and control. However much the pointed parallels drawn between the New Deal and the Popular Front may have slurred our greater resiliency and productive power, we cannot disregard the warnings written large for us in the tragic fate of France. Class strife even over social gains must yield priority to the collaboration of hard work and sacrifice, if those gains themselves are ever to prove permanent. That the large majority of labor leaders see this clearly is a national strength; that a minority have proved ready to play politics, or subversive whenever the ‘ party line so dictates, is a challenge preëminently to the labor movement itself.

When all this has been granted, however, an appreciation of the emotional atmosphere in industry offers the only realistic approach toward keeping stoppages within the narrowest possible limits. We need, of course, emergency controls by which disputes can be adjusted as they arise, and strikes averted or quickly ended. We must also harness the power latent in the loyalties of our workers. ‘ Cracking down ‘ is not the sole instrument available for opening up emotional bottlenecks. It has its uses against subversive activity. For the bulk of patriotic men, controls imposed with voluntary consent, coöperation won by shared conviction, will prove far more potent than shotgun prescriptions. If we were ever inclined to doubt, Britain has shown the superior strength of free men convinced of their own stake in the society they are called to defend.

Yet no blueprints can be devised either for limiting strikes or for mobilizing emotions. Events move too swiftly. Yesterday we offered war supplies; today we promise delivery. Yesterday Communists sabotaged production for an ‘imperialist war’; today they clamor for all-out aid for ‘the people’s war.’ Yesterday the Ford Company appeared ‘bitter-end’ against organized labor; today it operates under one of the most comprehensive agreements ever extending power and recognition to a union. Yesterday the ‘strike wave’ flowed; today it ebbs; tomorrow it may flow again.

Clearly, then, the key for limiting strikes is flexible policy, administered by experienced men who talk the language both of labor and of management. Such policy and administration the National Defense Mediation Board has basically given us. Its handling of our turbulent industrial relations has thus far been as effective as any available. If the emergency intensifies, we may find it necessary to invoke new powers a compulsory waiting period, or a ceiling over wages, or compulsory arbitration. But whatever steps we take will yield maximum results only as we obtain from employers and labor a consent based upon the overriding demands of the sharpening crisis. It is undoubtedly revealing that Britain, obtaining such consent even to compulsory arbitration, has succeeded best among the democracies in reducing stoppages to a minimum.

Toward the task of mobilizing the affirmative drives of workers, peacetime experience has given the democracies almost nothing to go by. The Nazis now spend as much effort upon channeling the emotions of their people as they do upon harnessing their material resources. Why should we too not seek ways of carrying to every fragmented defense job the sense of vivid sharing in a stirring and widely accepted national cause? Pageantry, symbolism, celebrations, are no monopoly of the Nazis. Nor need it be only they who confer the community’s accolade upon the man in overalls as well as the man in uniform.

But ceremonial participation, important as it is, will not completely satisfy the rank and file of the nation. Democratic victory depends also on how we deal with those feelings of insecurity that the dictators exploited so skillfully. The very fear of unemployment after the emergency, for instance, may be converted into solid coöperation if employers incorporate into conditions of employment adequate dismissal wages.

To claim the future, democracy need not deny any of its unsolved social problems. In all the great democratic dreams — opportunity, security, freedom — realization has never been as bright as aspiration. Nonetheless, democracy alone can rest its promise for the future on past performance. Democracy alone has brought oppressed groups the slow but steady advances that made them increasingly free, individual men. Tyrannies may be paternal, but they can never admit equals at home or abroad. They may give gifts, take tribute, exact homage, confer mastery, impose slavery. Free men alone can be truly fraternal; they alone can ultimately make a human family.

That is why democracy can afford now to reassess its people’s internal aggressions and hostilities as well as their faiths. Do these aggressions blur the national purpose? Do they create industrial blocks that in the present emergent moment threaten the democratic future? Well, then, we need no hymns of hate to recanalize and deflect these differences within our nation toward a determined battle against Hitlerism and a Nazi world. Certainly whatever the differences between employers and employees, between labor and investors, between CIO and A. F. of L., they are all on one side, while Hitler is on the other.

Or do we have to wait for threatened invasion, the loss of the seas, or our own Dunkirk before we close ranks?