• U.S.

LABOR: The Government’s Strike

19 minute read

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Ben Fairless, president of U.S. Steel, gleaming in a fresh-pressed cord suit and bright red necktie, was waiting on the White House steps. The man he was waiting for, an elderly, blue-suited figure, came walking slowly up the driveway. “Good morning, Ben,” said Philip Murray. “Hello, Phil,” responded Fairless. Said Murray: “Because of you I didn’t get to bed until 3 o’clock this morning.” Replied Fairless: “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t get much sleep either.”

They were there on a summons from Presidential Adviser John Steelman, who had warned them: “This isn’t a social visit. This is it.” Precisely at 10 o’clock, Murray and Fairless were ushered into the President’s oval study. Harry Truman greeted them curtly, then coldly rattled off top-secret statistics to prove that the U.S. was being crippled by the biggest steel strike in its history. Said the President, turning to Fairless: “You can settle this thing, Ben, and you’ve got to settle it. I want it settled by tomorrow morning, or I will have some things to say that you won’t like to hear, and I will have to do some things you won’t like.”

Fairless started in surprise. “I alone?” “No,” said Truman, turning toward his old friend, the president of the United Steelworkers of America. “Phil, you’ve got to settle this thing too. Now go in there in the Cabinet room, and I want you to come out with a settlement.”

The doors to the Cabinet room closed behind them. At noon, they came out to consult their advisers and have lunch. After lunch they went at it again. At 4:45 p.m., they had an agreement ready to sign, and Steelman came in to witness the signing. Then the trio went to Harry Truman’s office. The President listened, called for the press. Like a snappish schoolteacher, he dictated: “Mr. Murray and Mr. Fairless have just advised me that six major steel companies and the United Steelworkers of America (C.I.O.) have reached agreement . . .” The steel strike was over.

The settlement came in a week when Murray’s labor movement reached new heights of power and arrogance. On the economic front, it had tied up the nation’s most basic industry. On the political front, it had stopped Alben Barkley (see p. 11). The passing of two milestones showed what a long way Big Labor had come. As to where it is and where it is going, the 1952 steel strike offers interesting clues.

Revolving Door. For Philip Murray, the Irish labor boss with a Scottish burr, a gentle manner and a stubborn will, last week’s settlement was the biggest victory in the procession of victories he has won since organizing Big Steel for the C.I.O. in mid-Depression. Then (1936) he found steel with an average wage of 66¢ an hour. The settlement announced last week will raise the average steelworker to around $2.05 an hour: the contract grants a straight 16¢ plus about 6¢ in fringe benefits. In other words, since 1936, Murray’s steelworkers have beaten inflation by about 78¢ an hour, while millions of other Americans have fallen behind.

Murray last week retreated from his original demand for a union shop to what labor called a “modified union shop” —and is, more accurately, a “revolving door” union shop. Under the new contract, all new employees must join the steelworkers’ union, but if they don’t like it, they can swing out the union door again between their isth and 30th day on the job. All steelworkers have the option of turning in their union cards during a 15-day period at the expiration of the contract in 1954. The union cannot touch old non-union employees.

For Ben Fairless and the steel industry, the settlement was a victory too. From the start, they had insisted that they must be granted a price rise to match a wage increase. Two weeks ago, Steelman passed the word that they could count on an average of $5.65 per ton. Fairless saw to it that Steelman put his word in writing at the White House. “I don’t like the price increases we have to give you,” snapped Harry Truman, “but I guess there is nothing else we can do.”

Weird & Tragic. For the U.S. the settlement was far from a victory. In its 55 days, the steel strike has set back U.S. arms deliveries some 25%. Said Defense Secretary Robert Lovett: “No enemy nation could have so crippled our production as has this work stoppage. No form of bombing could have taken out of production in one day 380 steel plants and kept them out nearly two months. The weird and tragic thing is that we’ve done this to ourselves. Whether it is murder committed by someone else or suicide by ourselves, the effect is the same.”

The man who bears the largest share of the responsibility for the strike is Lovett’s boss. Seven months ago, when the steel strike was imminent, Harry Truman felt the tug of all the complex influences which have grown out of organized labor’s long kinship with the Democratic Party. He reacted instinctively — i.e., with reckless political partisanship. He abandoned Government’s position of impartiality to rush to the side of labor, and in so doing, he tumbled into a constitutional crisis. He displayed an uncanny talent for demanding negotiations when they had no chance to succeed, for upsetting negotiations when the prospects were promising. He refused to use the Taft-Hartley law. The net result was a seven-month cataclysm in U.S. life, which already has had these measurable effects: ¶ The nation has lost 19 million tons of steel, has been forced to shut down ammunition plants, airplane assembly lines and parts plants, will suffer a delay in schedules for at least one year. ¶ Some 1,500,000 men were thrown out of work; steelworkers lost $277 million in wages, or about $583 per man. ¶ Mobilizer Charles E. Wilson resigned in protest against Truman’s policies. ¶ Congress stripped the Wage Stabilization Board of the powers WSB used in the steel case.

¶ In a decision which halts a 20-year trend, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the President’s seizure of steel. ¶ The price and wage raises will doubtless touch off yet another postwar round of wage and price increases.

The sources of this cataclysm go back far beyond the Truman era to the early days of the New Deal. First in NRA and later in the Wagner Labor Relations Act, the New Deal provided the shield for a new labor organizing drive. And it provided a mass of new federal machinery to regulate employer-union relationships.

As a result, the new industry-wide labor unions (mostly the C.I.O.) became dependent on national politics.

Inside Influence. When the Federal Government expanded its control of the U.S. economy in World War II, labor fought hard—and with success—to balance business influence in the control machinery. In the new mobilization that followed Korea, labor knew all the ins & outs of Washington bureaucracy. Phil Murray was appointed to the President’s Board on Mobilization Policy, which kept an eye on Mobilizer Charles Wilson and was privy to his plans and secrets. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. United Labor Policy Committee walked out on the first Wage Stabilization Board, and stayed out until the board was revamped to make it semi-independent of Wilson. The new WSB had a “balanced” membership of six industry members, six labor members, and six “public” members—the last mostly professional labor arbiters and professors who were acceptable to labor.

Labor’s new influence inside the Administration was a reflection of an outside political reality. Harry Truman, even more than Franklin Roosevelt, alienated the conservative Democrats. Truman, no labor idealist, saw in 1948 that he most certainly would have lost the election without labor support.

The symbol of their alliance was the Taft-Hartley Act, the Republican revision of the Wagner Act. Truman and labor agreed that Taft-Hartley was a slave labor act and (as the Democratic Party platform put it last week) operated “in an arbitrary manner.”

Thus matters stood just before the dawn of the presidential election year, 1952, when Phil Murray called the strike. Murray and Big Steel had been meeting since late November; they got nowhere because the steel companies simply refused to make a counteroffer.

There was a logical reason for Big Steel’s hard-nosed attitude. To compensate for wage increases, Steel wanted sizable price increases. The Administration was openly boasting that Steel would get no such thing. So Steel’s refusal to bargain with Phil Murray was its only lever in its bargaining with the hostile and partial Government. Said Ben Fairless in Cincinnati last November: “Whether our workers are to get a raise, and how much it will be if they do, is a matter which probably cannot be determined by collective bargaining, and will apparently have to be decided finally in Washington.”

Prepared Position. Faced with a steel strike on New Year’s Day, Harry Truman telephoned Phil Murray in Pittsburgh just before Christmas, and asked Murray to hold off. Submit the dispute to the Wage Stabilization Board, said the President, or the Government will step in with a Taft-Hartley injunction against you. After pondering briefly, Murray accepted the WSB, which was, after all, like falling back to a prepared position.

Because Murray had voluntarily postponed the strike, Truman felt himself bound not to invoke the Taft-Hartley law. The argument gained some logic when Murray postponed the strike 80 days while waiting for the WSB decision—an interval which balanced Taft-Hartley’s 80-day cooling-off period. (Legally, the argument had no validity at all, as the Supreme Court later pointed out.) But the logic was soon swallowed up in the strange and wonderful performance of the WSB.

For three months, the WSB heard witnesses and deliberated. At the outset, Chairman Nathan Feinsinger, a law professor, was instructed that the board was not to consider the ability of industry to pay wage increases. Once, when Economic Stabilizer Roger Putnam telephoned Feinsinger to find out how things were going, Feinsinger abruptly told Putnam that his question was improper (although Putnam was supposed to be working on the same case). During one last grueling session of the board, Feinsinger fainted dead away. The steelworkers themselves almost fainted with joy when they saw the results. The WSB, over the objections of its six industry members, recommended a wage package totaling 26. if an hour, and—to the astonishment of everyone, including the steelworkers—went beyond its wage function to recommend a union shop.

How it came to do this is a fascinating example of labor’s new political skill. This is what happened. During the sessions, both Feinsinger and the “public” members of WSB shied away from the union shop issue. But Feinsinger was under strong pressure to get a majority report and wind up the hearing. The labor members of the WSB knew this and, under the coaching of C.I.O. Counsel Arthur Goldberg, they withheld their support (siding with industry) until Feinsinger put his blessing on the union shop. When Feinsinger was asked at a press conference why the WSB stretched its authority to recommend the union shop, he blurted: “We were boxed in.” Then he got around to a lawyer’s justification of the WSB’s reckless venture into a field that was none of its business.

Exit Charlie. In the public eye, the WSB recommendations gave Phil Murray’s case the sanctity of an impartial Government verdict. Mobilizer Charles Wilson tried to convince Harry Truman that industry should get a $5-to-$6-a-ton price increase if it signed a wage agreement on the basis of the WSB report. But when Price Stabilizer (and good Democrat) Ellis Arnall heard of the Wilson-Truman conversations, Arnall persuaded the President that any price increase was unwise for two reasons: 1) economics, 2) politics. Wilson stormed back to his office and wrote out his resignation. Murray got ready to strike on April 8.

Last-minute negotiations began in New York. The steel companies, wincing under the public acceptance of the “impartial”

WSB findings, made their first offer—a package of 16¢. Then they went to 20¢, just 6¢ less than the WSB had recommended. But Murray wasn’t interested. The steelworkers had already been tipped that the President would seize the industry if negotiations broke down. And they guessed (correctly) that, once Truman was running the steel mills, he would try to give them the full WSB terms.

In his seizure announcement, Truman lashed out in fine style against his old whipping boy, “the interests.” praising the WSB recommendations as “fair and reasonable,” snapping at “the greedy companies” for demanding a price increase.

Vice President Barkley, the loyal party trumpeter, traveled to Philadelphia to tell 2,500 steelworkers that “it is as un-American for any group [i.e., Big Steel] to defy or deny or disregard the verdict of a governmental agency [i.e., the WSB] as it is to defy the verdict of a jury in a court of justice.”

But Harry Truman had overreached himself. His seizure order landed in the courts with a thunderous crash. Even good Democrats gasped when U.S. Assistant Attorney General Holmes Baldridge ad-libbed in court: “The President is accountable only to the country and his acts are conclusive.” Until it could rule on the legality of the seizure, the Supreme Court restrained the Government from raising wages or changing working conditions. And on June 2, the Supreme Court held (6-3) that Truman had usurped the powers of Congress, and turned the steel plants back to their owners. Phil Murray pulled his strike as soon as he got the bulletin of the court’s decision.

Then negotiations began in earnest. Left alone, the two parties had all but reached agreement when Truman summoned Murray and Fairless to the White House.

Black Eye. On the picket lines there was some grumbling last week because Murray had held out so long on the union shop. But he had a pressing reason: he wanted to get a union shop before the 1952 election. Now that the pattern of Government intervention in labor disputes is so thoroughly established, Murray feels that he needs a union shop to protect his gains in case an unfavorable Government climate may lie ahead. “We’re stronger than ever before,” crowed one C.I.O. executive after the settlement. “Now let them elect two Eisenhowers.”

Murray’s involvement in the steel negotiations kept him from active direction of the C.I.O. offensive at the Democratic Convention. Less skillful hands than his were on that helm. When Alben Barkley publicly blamed labor for his withdrawal, it was the worst black eye the unions had received at the hands of a top Democrat in many a year. The A.F.L.’s shrewd Dave Dubinsky, who had not attended labor’s famous breakfast with Barkley, laughed at the discomfiture of the C.I.O.’s Walter Reuther, Who had been a leader of the stop-Barkley movement. The embarrassment caused by the Barkley statement may have contributed to Truman’s determination to end the steel strike then & there. Murray, furious at what his Chicago lieutenants had done, painstakingly drafted a warm letter of affection to Barkley.

Big Heart. Warmth comes easily to Phil Murray, now 66. An admirer (somewhat extravagantly) says: “Phil has survived a life among wolves by having a heart too big for them to eat.”

Phil Murray was born in 1886 in Scotland, of Irish Catholic parents. His father was the president of the local coal miners’ union, and Phil went through his first strike when he was six. Four years later, he quit school and went into the mines to work at 80¢ a day. The Murrays came to the U.S. in 1902, and Phil and his father went to work for the Keystone Coal & Coke Co. in Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County. In 1904, Phil slugged a Keystone weighman who was shorting him at the scales, was fired and ordered out of the county. But before he left the Keystone, the miners started him on his career by electing him the president of their local.

His rise through John Lewis’ United Mine Workers to Steel and the presidency of C.I.O. have given Murray enormous political power—a direct and live kind of power that few full-time politicians can equal. For a time, John Lewis held the same kind of power and hurled it, like Thor, in enormous thunderbolts. But, as Murray watched from close by, Lewis soon shot his bolts and lost his prestige. Murray keeps his power impersonal and out of the public eye, and thus it grows and multiplies. His views are a major factor in any important decision in Washington. How will he use this increasing power on labor’s behalf?

Old Sam Gompers used to sum up his ambitions for labor in one word: “More.” Murray’s goal—although he does not like to talk in terms of ultimate goals—is much wider and deeper.

He keeps Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, at hand in his Pittsburgh office, and he often makes a most significant comment on this Catholic outline for industrial justice. Says Murray: “My grandparents had these ideas before Leo wrote them.” Like Pope Pius XI (who brought Leo XIII up to date in 1931), Murray accepts the social and spiritual importance of the worker’s vocation, his job. Good wages are important because good pay gives a steelworker standing, dignity and significance in his community. But to Murray, a good union is important for more things than getting pay raises. In this age of vast mechanization, the union gives a man social focus and purpose which he will rarely find simply by being a good citizen of a modern city or town.

Beyond Phil Murray’s “more” lies a concept of society that, he feels, fits the emerging facts of urban, industrial U.S. life today. It is a society where politics, community life and the feeling of “belonging” revolve around a man’s occupation, and not around the neighborhood or suburb where he happens to live. Murray’s “more” may result in calamitous clashes, of which the 1952 steel strike is a horrible example, but Murray’s “more” does not imply class warfare. He specifically insists that worker and boss are members of the same community, a “functional” community more meaningful than geographical neighborhoods.

Last week, after the strike settlement, Murray’s first act was to propose to Ben Fairless that together they tour U.S. steel plants to lay the base for a lasting labor-management relationship. Fairless jumped at the offer, and, as his first test, went with Murray to a meeting of the strike-scarred Steelworkers Wage Policy Committee at the Mayflower Hotel.

“The Friendliest Strike.” The atmosphere was strained when Fairless stood up to speak. It eased considerably when he dropped his hands to his sides and said quietly: “Last night was the first good night’s sleep that I have had in a long time . . .” Fairless made public a little-known fact: he has a brother who is a member of the steelworkers’ local in Massillon, Ohio. “During this affair,” said Fairless, “I kept away from Massillon . . . Of course [my brother] has been out of work for some time.”*

Fairless pointed to Phil Murray as “an honest man and a great American.” Then he took a tinsel-wrapped cigar box from an aide and gave it to Murray. He explained that Murray had learned to like Fairless’ little cigars during the negotiating sessions. “Phil,” said Fairless, “there’s something about you that doesn’t go with a cigarette.”

Then Fairless got down to what he came to say. It could not have been said in a country where labor-management relations are conducted against a background of class struggle. His message showed how far Big Business and Big Labor accept the fact that they are part of one community. Said Fairless: “[The strike] was snarled in a series of mistakes made by all three parties, I think. I know we made some, and there were some made by our Government.” He congratulated the steelworkers on “the friendliest strike I have ever heard of,” and told of an incident at McKeesport, Pa., where a foreman ran out of a struck plant and begged the lone picket to call the union hall and get them to send out a striking plumber to deal with some emergency. The picket replied that he could not leave his post untended. The foreman grabbed the picket’s sign and marched up & down while the union man ran off to make the call.

Of the future, Fairless said: “Phil Murray and I agreed that we’re going to start something new in labor-management understanding . . . I’m going to find out what you’re thinking about, and you may be interested in some of my problems.”

Murray, puffing one of the cigars, listened intently to Fairless and answered that he agreed with all Fairless had said. Added Murray: “This is an unprecedented thing in the history of labor organizations.”

The fair words on both sides did not mean that the millennium had come in Steel—or in the rest of U.S. industry. But the fair words were by no means all guff. U.S. management and labor have been moving, through stormy days, toward a very much closer relationship. For some years, the main source of trouble has been the U.S. Government’s role in the labor-management field. The steel strike was the most disastrous example to date of how the alliance between labor and Government can mess up collective bargaining. Phil Murray was riding high last week, and it is possible that he had the wit to see that he was riding too high.

As a labor politician, Murray will exploit his alliance with the Democratic Party. But as an ultimate goal, Murray does not claim control of the Democratic Party or of the Government. Any Administration that will foster what Murray and Fairless have in common has a lot more to offer both labor and management than the kind of violent White House partisanship that caused and prolonged the steel strike.

*In Massillon, Fairless’ brother, John Williams, last week agreed with Ben that the President should have invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to end the strike. The brothers’ differences in surname occurred when Ben, at the age of five, was adopted by an uncle named Fairless (TIME, Nov. 12).

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