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LABOR: The New Era: Fewer Strikes

5 minute read

Said Dwight Eisenhower in his first State of the Union message in 1953: “American labor and American business can best resolve their wage problems across the bargaining table. Government should refrain from sitting in with them.” Since then, the Republican Administration has faithfully followed a hands-off policy in labor-management relations. How well has the policy worked? From the bargaining tables, picket lines and Government statistics last week came the answer.

Second Thoughts. Strikes during 1954’s first seven months, the Labor Department reported, were the lowest for any seven-month figure since World War II. There were only 2,050 work stoppages involving 950.000 workers. Actually, the last 18 months have been the quietest on the labor front since war’s end. But in the last two months, said the Labor Department cautiously, strikes have been on the increase.

The Eisenhower Administration cannot take full credit for the drop in work stoppages. With a buyers’ market back in most industries, and unemployment hovering around 3,250,000—or 5% of the work force—unions now think twice about striking and then usually settle. For example, Jim Carey’s C.I.O. International Union of Electrical Workers last week settled with Westinghouse (for an average of 5¢, plus 10¢ in fringes) only three hours before a strike deadline.

Long & Bitter. Paradoxically, the Government’s hands-off policy, while cutting down on the number of strikes, has tended to make them longer and more bitter. Management, now operating in a friendly political atmosphere—and struggling to keep profits up—can afford to take a tougher line than before.

One case in point is the 13-week strike at Detroit’s Square D electrical-equipment plant, where the Communist-led independent United Electrical Workers walked out over a company demand for a no-strike clause in the contract. After weeks of negotiation—and no progress—the company decided to throw its gates open and try to break the strike of its 1,200 employees. By last week 450 workers—more than half of them U.E. members—had braved threats and flying fists to go to work, giving rise to scenes reminiscent of the strike-filled ’30s (see cut). The company began operating at better than one-quarter capacity. If the strike is successfully broken, it might mark the end of the independent Red-tinged union in Detroit.

Another bitterly contested battle has been the strike of A.F.L. Teamsters and other unions against Pittsburgh department stores (TIME, April 12). Now in its 42nd week, the strike shows no sign of ending. The chief issue is the question whether teamsters should have assistants on their delivery trucks. As a result of the fight, the stores have lost about 30% of their sales.

Ask 50¢, Take a Dime. In general, the pattern for wage settlements was set by the steelmakers. The steelworkers asked for a package totaling some 50¢ an hour a worker (TIME. May 31), settled for 9¢ to 12¢ (including 5¢ in wages). Last week smaller steel fabricators were settling along the same lines with the union, and in some hardship cases were even getting concessions in their contracts. In Pittsburgh a number of building-trades unions signed new contracts this summer with no raise at all. The C.I.O. United Rubber Workers went after a reported 12¢ raise this year. They settled with Goodyear after a 53-day strike, and with Firestone after 24 days, for 6½¢, just a little more than the companies offered in the first place. Workers who went on strike last month at Kennecott Copper for 25¢ an hour were settling for a nickel.

In some restricted areas of the econo my, workers have actually had to take pay cuts. Most notable were the cuts by Kaiser-Willys and Studebaker (TIME. April 26; Aug. 23), which may soon be followed by downward adjustments in fringe benefits by American Motors. In eastern Pennsylvania’s Panther Valley last week, some coal mines closed by Lehigh Navigation Coal earlier this year were getting ready to start production under new operators. The action was made possible by a work-harder, produce-more plan signed by the union.

The Administration, well-pleased by its hands-off policy, had no plans to change it. Said Under Secretary of Labor Arthur Larson last week: “Up until very recently, the Government in this country has actually been found at different stages ranged on one side or the other of the contest between employers and employees, at one time suppressing labor organizations, and later throwing its weight on their side to offset the greater economic strength of employers. Now, although the two forces are not in exact balance and never will be, they are near enough to that for the most part to make active Government intervention and interference unnecessary and even harmful . . . The essential role of Government in this new era of labor relations is not control, not interference, but service.”

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