• U.S.

LABOR: The Big Squeeze

3 minute read

It did not seem to hurt much at first—only some local twinges of discomfortand worried looks in high places. But by last week, the discomfort had become painfully general. The U.S. economy was slowly suffocating in the tight, unrelenting grip of the first simultaneous nationwide strike in coal and steel.

The nation’s coal stockpile was down to 43 days’ supply and dwindling steadily. That would not have been alarming if the coal was distributed properly, but it was not. A prize batch, 10 million tons, was piled in the idle steel industry’s bins. The New York Central R.R. lopped 89 steam-powered trains from its schedule, had to cancel another 57 next day when the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered all railroads with low coal supplies to cut steam-locomotive passenger runs by 25%. “By the end of this week or next,” said a U.S. Government coal expert, “we will be in damn bad shape unless something gives.”

No Muscle. But nothing was giving. Five weeks of strike-shrouded, ill-tempered negotiations between John L. Lewis’ United Mine Workers and the coal operators had only increased their distaste for each other. The northern and western operators walked out of the bargaining room in disgust last week, virtually inviting the U.S. Government to step in. Lewis apparently still hoped to stall the negotiations somehow until Phil Murray’s 480,000 striking United Steelworkers settled their strike with the steel industry.

Steel, the big muscle of U.S. production, was just as palsied. Three weeks of strike in its mills had been enough to hobble the huge U.S. auto industry. Ford Motor Co. prepared to halt production and lay off most of its 115,000 workers by mid-November. Packard worked on halftime. Layoffs would pull most of Chrysler’s 86,000 employees off the line within two weeks. General Motors had cut down to a four-day week at some plants.

Smaller users of steel fell unhappily into line with production cuts or layoffs. Among the big employers were General Electric, the Simmons [mattress] Co., 37 steel-container manufacturers, some farm-equipment works of J. I. Case. In stagnating steel towns workers gathered morosely in the shadow of smokeless stacks, playing cards and trading worries as they waited their turns on the picket lines. Even an immediate end of the strike would not halt the grinding slowdown. It would take six to eight weeks of production to put sufficient steel back in circulation.

No Hope. Phil Murray traveled the grimy U.S. Steel belt, trying to bolster the morale of his striking followers, vowing to stick to his demand for 10¢-an-hour pensions and insurance financed solely by the industry. Federal Mediator Cyrus S. Ching spent a futile week in Washington and New York City talking with steel-industry leaders.

It seemed high time for something sterner to be done. White House newsmen wondered whether President Truman was considering federal seizure of the mines or steel mills. No, the President told his news conference firmly, he had no such plans. “Have you any plans for intervention of any sort?” someone asked. No, said Mr. Truman, he had not. There was still a chance that federal mediation would do the trick, he said. If not, he added vaguely, the Government would go on from there.

But Harry Truman could not put off a decision much longer. At week’s end, a U.S. official summed it up briefly: “We are within ten days of an industrial crisis.”

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