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National Affairs: Rip Tide

14 minute read

Labor’s sweep toward power continued to surge and boil across the land last week. Keeping in the van. rank & file motor workers set the week’s keynote, showing by a fresh wave of sit-downs that they were getting out of their leaders’ hands (see p. 20). In Wilmington, Del., a short-lived general strike called in support of striking truck drivers sent flying squads of unionists roving the city’s streets, tossing bricks through windows of trolleys, busses, stores. In Albert Lea, Minn., retaliating for the smashing of picket lines and a tear-gas attack on their union headquarters, strikers attacked a gas machine plant where 150 deputy sheriffs were encamped. They overturned automobiles, set fire to one police car and dumped another into the river, did $15,000 damage to the plant. A truck drivers’ strike cut off Boston’s fuel supply for two days; 1,000 Hershey chocolate workers staged a brief sit-down at Hershey, Pa.; sundry strikes, mostly sit-downs, had 4,500 workers idle in Rhode Island, 4,000 in St. Louis. As the Sit-Down fever flashed like heat lightning over the land, ten farmhands on Charles M. Schwab’s estate at Loretto. Pa. supplied themselves with a radio and gas burner, began a sit-down for more pay in the potato cellar.

Sometimes when waves are beating strongly on a beach, an extraordinary outward current of returning water develops, clashes with oncoming breakers, creates a zone of roil and foam called “rip tide.” Last week just such a countercurrent of public opinion was beginning to run stronger & stronger against the surging Sit-Down. Governors White of Mississippi, worried about a pajama factory sitdown, and Allred of Texas, worried about the C. I. O. oil drive starting this week, announced that they would oppose Sit-Downs with all the force at their command. With many a State legislature discussing the subject, Vermont’s became the first to pass a law specifically outlawing the Sit-Down—which it defined as occupation of property by three or more persons without the owner’s consent.

In Congress the two currents met at last in a genuine rip tide of debate.

Byrnes Bomb. Late one afternoon the Senate sat placidly putting the finishing touches on the revised Guffey Coal Bill. Passage within ten minutes seemed assured, and contented Senators’ minds were beginning to turn to thoughts of cold drinks and warm supper. In their snug, thick-carpeted little chamber, the storm & strife of tear gas and window-smashings, of roaring, club-waving mass resistance to the Law, seemed pleasantly far away. Day before the Guffey bill windup, New York’s New Dealing Robert F. Wagner had presented what was believed to be the Administration viewpoint when he rose in the Senate to blame the Sit-Down on employers’ defiance of his National Labor Relations Act, thus implying that it was up to the Supreme Court to resolve the Labor crisis by a decision on the Act. Not one of the Senate’s Sit-Down critics had risen to his challenge. So far as the unpleasant prospect of Senate action on that red-hot issue was concerned, the Sit-Down seemed safely pigeonholed when suddenly South Carolina’s James F. Byrnes stood up to propose an amendment to the Guffey bill.

“Jimmy” Byrnes is one of Franklin Roosevelt’s most useful, trusted and intimate Senate lieutenants. Stunned, therefore, were other Administration Senators when the clerk read off the terms of his amendment: “It is further declared to be the public policy of the United States that no employe of any producer of coal whose employment has been terminated, or who for any reason has ceased to work for such producer, shall remain upon the property upon which he was employed after he has received a written notice from such producer to leave such property.”

For a moment, while the implications of those words sank in, the Senate sat in shocked silence. Then the storm broke, and in one of the most exciting spontaneous debates of this or many a past session, the Senate talked Sit-Down, and nothing else for the rest of the week.

“I yield to no man in adherence to Union Labor,” cried California’s venerable Hiram Johnson. “But I am opposed to the Sit-Down strike.”

“I am not going to condemn the Sit-Down strike,” boomed Idaho’s venerable William E. Borah, “until I know all the facts and factors which enter into the question, both legal, moral and economic.”

Majority Leader Robinson, who until President Roosevelt’s return had been one of the most vehement in calling for action on the Sit-Down, leaped into action as Administration field marshal, bellowed that Senator Byrnes was proposing to turn striking miners and their families who lived in company houses “out into the storm,” that a Senate pronouncement would only “inflame” Labor disputes, demanded that the amendment be referred to. the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee for study.

Senator Robinson admitted that he disapproved of the Sit-Down. considered it illegal. So did other Senators who sprang up to object that the amendment was badly phrased and unjustly applied to coal miners, to blame the Sit-Down on employers’ anti-union tactics. But Senator Johnson roared: “We do a great disservice to this Nation when in this body, gentlemen debate the Sit-Down strike and say it is unlawful but—but—but, and then begin to give fanciful reasons for its existence.”

As his colleagues squirmed and dodged. Michigan’s plump, thin-haired Vanclenberg, Republican might-have-been of 1936 and maybe of 1940, put their agony in unequivocating words. Declared he: “One of the reasons why we in the Senate find ourselves in trouble at the moment in connection with this problem is the fact that Governmental agencies dealing with labor relationships have been so completely silent respecting the Sit-Down strike. They are very vocal indeed respecting the obligations of the employer, but as silent as the tomb respecting obligations to law and order and the maintenance of civilized society. … If this proposal goes to a vote on the floor of the Senate and is defeated, the inevitable interpretation will be that the Senate has declined to condemn the Sit-Down strike. . . . That is the terrible feature of the situation in which we now find ourselves.”

Glumly, after an exhausting hour of debate, the Senate recessed to sleep on its dilemma. Instead of hurrying off about their fun, Senators went into unhappy little huddles. Vice President Garner bounced up to Senator Byrnes, threw an arm around his shoulders, whispered something.

There was no mystery about why Jimmy Byrnes had put his colleagues on a spot. Last week John Lewis’ C.I.O. was just getting underway its big push into the weakly unionized South, its goal an organization of 1,250,000 textile workers. No factories are more vulnerable to the Sit-Down than the South’s textile mills. Furthermore, by taking the lead in condemning the Sit-Down while Franklin Roosevelt preserved silence, the Senate would be doing the President a good turn —as Texas Jack Garner, stanch backer of the Byrnes proposal, was heard remarking to Majority Leader Robinson.

Soon as the Senate convened next day, Senator Robinson resumed, with every parliamentary trick in his bag, his attempts to get the Byrnes hot potato tossed out to cool in committee. But newshawks noted that gruff Joe Robinson was arguing with unaccustomed joviality. He grinned when, each time he asked for unanimous consent, North Carolina’s Bailey boomed: ‘T object.”

Senator Vandenberg cried that responsibility for a Federal stand on the Sit-Down extended “straight down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.” Senator Johnson asserted that the President could have stopped the Sit-Down epidemic with six words—”I will not tolerate Sit-Down strikes”—and recalled an old law which empowers the Government to step in when a State is unable to put down public disorder. Senator Borah, the Senate’s greatest constitutional lawyer, reminded his fellows that the Government could do nothing until local officials announced themselves thwarted.

“The Mayor [of Detroit] and the Governor [of Michigan] have not said they could not handle the situation,” returned Senator Bailey, “but actions speak louder than words. They have not handled it.”

When, after five hours, the Senate recessed for an unhappy weekend, an amazing total of 54 Senators had taken part in the afternoon’s debate. Still adamant was Senator Byrnes, having refused to withdraw his amendment in favor of a separate resolution when he heard that Senators Guffey and Neely were planning to amend such a resolution with condemnation of another species of mass lawbreaking: lynching. And of all those who had raised their voices in defense of sit-downers, not one had championed the Sit-Down as admirable or lawful.

When debate resumed this week, Sena tor Byrnes changed his amendment to apply to all Sit-Downs affecting interstate commerce, but many a colleague still objected to having it tacked to the Guffey Bill. Denying assertions that a vote against the amendment would be a tacit endorsement of the Sit-Down. Senator Minton cried: “I’m willing to meet this issue but I am unwilling to have the textile industry compel me to cast a vote that might be construed as the Senators suggest.”

Having salved their consciences by such objections, virtually the entire contingent of Administration Senators joined in killing the Byrnes’ Rider by 48-10-36 — but only after Leader Robinson had promised that a separate Sit-Down resolution would get early consideration.

Blood or Sanctity. Conscientious citizens could sympathize with President Alfred P. Sloan Jr. of General Motors, who wrote to his stockholders last week: “The Sit-Down strike should be dealt with by those responsible for law and order just as aggressively as all other offenses in which the safety and welfare of the community are involved” (see p. 84).

But impartial observers could also sympathize with harassed Governor Murphy of Michigan, who pleaded by radio last week: “I have been urged to ‘shoot the workers out of the factories and thus end sit-down strikes once and for all.’ Put yourself in my place. If you were Governor of Michigan, would you authorize a plan which might very easily and almost certainly result in bloodshed, bitter and lasting animosities and a deplorable situation which it might very easily take years to correct?”

Reviewing his own strike, whose cost to the national economy he estimated at “many hundreds of millions of dollars,” President Sloan asserted that it had represented not workers struggling toward better lives, but Labor bosses grasping for power. Yet the “unauthorized” General Motors sit-downs which were embarrassing union leaders last week showed that plain workers, awakened to a sense of their own power, were taking the new weapon in their own hands. Aghast at wholesale seizure of private property, some jittery souls were calling the Sit-Down a step upward communism. To calmer observers, the sit-downer’s fierce assertion of a proprietary right in his own job seemed more like communism’s antithesis, an uncalculated species of simple anarchy. In asserting that right, the sit-downer did not lack for articulate defenders. Even Son James Roosevelt took it up when, in a speech for his father’s Supreme Court plan at Anderson, S. C. last week, he remarked: “When you talk about the sanctity of property rights, you must remember that all the property rights which many people have are their jobs.”

Lewis to Chair? Accustomed to his loud oratory, Washington correspondents paid small attention when Texas’ young Martin Dies uprose in the House to berate the President for failing to use his “insurrection” powers against the Sit-Down. Cried he: “There can be no human or personal rights without property rights.” They paid even less attention to the resolution which Representative Dies introduced for a House investigation of the Sit-Down and its causes. Even under the Old Deal, no Congressional investigating committee ever dared poke its nose far into the affairs of Labor. Under the New Deal, which has missed few chances to turn the limelight on Capital’s transgressions. Labor’s inviolability has been unquestioned. The Dies resolution was quietly turned over to the potent Rules Committee, from which few bills unwelcome to the Administration ever return.

One day last week the Rules Committee’s hard-boiled chairman. John J. O’Connor of New York, lunched off a Presidential tray. “The President did not mention Sit-Downs to me,” said Chairman O’Connor when he left the White House. A few hours later his Committee astounded Washington by reporting out the Dies resolution for prompt House action. “I don’t predict what action the House may take,” said Speaker Bankhead, “but admittedly there is strong opposition to Sit-Down strikes on the part of the membership.” That sentiment, if unchecked, promised the incredible spectacle of John L. Lewis following the path of bankers, stockbrokers and utilities magnates to a Congressional witness chair, there to have his inmost secrets exposed to public view.

The Motor Front

In Detroit last week Harry H. Bennett, one of Ford Motor Co.’s top executives, reluctantly confirmed a story which had leaked into the press after a full week of secrecy. As personnel director and chief of Ford’s super-efficient plant police, tough Mr. Bennett is the man who has done the nation’s most famed job of nipping unionism in the bud. One day last fortnight he was motoring to his office at the Ford Administration Building at Dearborn when he passed a parked car, recognized its five occupants as men who had been trying to see him about Ford labor problems. One of them yelled “Stop!” Mr. Bennett did not stop until the men had given chase, rammed their car into the side of his. Then they stopped too,but fled when the uninjured Ford chief waved his revolver. Last week Mr. Bennett pooh-poohed reports that the “boys” were trying to kill him, said he had no intention of pressing charges against them.

Harry Bennett, a wiry, dynamic ex-sailor and pugilist, was last in the news when a flying brick felled him during the riot of unemployed outside Ford’s River Rouge plant five years ago (TIME. March 14, 1932). That he may soon make news again appeared last week when militant United Automobile Workers, who have been roaring FORD NEXT! throughout their General Motors and Chrysler imbroglios, staged the first Ford sit-down in an assembly plant at Kansas City. Grievance was a regular seasonal layoff of some 300 workers in which unionists claimed that long-employed union men were being dismissed while newer non-unionists stayed on. The sit-down lasted only 25 hours. Down from Detroit flew a U. A. W. vice president and several Ford officials, quickly negotiated a settlement restoring all jobs and guaranteeing seniority rights, got the men out of the plant. Plainly the union was not yet ready to start its big push against Ford. Its leaders were already having all the trouble, they could handle with Chrysler and their own turbulent followers.

”Spontaneous” sit-downs of dissatisfied unionists have plagued General Motors and U. A. W. officials ever since they came to terms last month.* Late last week the worst outbreak of unauthorized sit-downs and walkouts to date shut nine G. M. plants in Flint and Pontiac,including the big Flint plant which makes all Chevrolet motors. A few of the strikes were in protest against discharge of union employes, but most were ostensibly called because rank & file hotheads felt they were not getting enough representation on shop committees, that their grievances were not being settled quickly enough. Thoroughly out of patience, G. M.’s Vice President Knudsen sent U. A. W.’s President Homer Martin a stern letter reminding him of the union’s agreement to forego strikes until regular grievance procedure had been exhausted, listing 30 sit-downs which had occurred since that agreement was signed.

Hotly embarrassed, President Martin and his lieutenants whirled from plant to plant, persuaded their men to come out. go back to work, but a fresh sit-down this week closed Chevrolet’s steering gear plant at Saginaw. With confidence in their authority badly shaken, U. A. W. leaders resorted to straight capitalistic tactics, blamed their troubles on communists, promised a union purge.

When Chrysler strike negotiations resumed in Lansing at week’s end with the return of Walter P. Chrysler and John L. Lewis from Manhattan. Motorman Chrysler’s hand was vastly strengthened by the evidence of U. A. W.’s inability to live up to its agreements. This week the deadlock continued as in normally Republican Michigan’s elections for minor State offices, widely anticipated as a referendum on Governor Murphy’s sit-down policy, the Republicans showed signs of digging out from under the November landslide.

*Some Chevrolet malcontents have also resorted to the “slow down” cutting production from 400 to 250 units per hr. by stopping work at regular intervals.

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