Philip Murray: Union Man
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In , Murray mobilized support on the Executive Board to confirm another rising star in the organization, John L. Lewis, as vice president of the UMW. Then, when Lewis was elevated to the presidency of the miners' union, he supported promoting the 33 year-old Murray to the vice presidency. For the next 20 years, Murray was Lewis's right-hand man. Lewis handled relations with management, financiers, politicians and the press, while Murray handled relationships with the members.
The two men worked closely together for many years, but Murray was capable of acting not only independently of Lewis but also in complete opposition to him. Murray's organizers cultivated leaders of the industry's many company unions, while his staff filed unfair labor practice charges against the companies with the new National Labor Relations Board and fed congressional investigators information about the steel industry's use of anti-union spies and hired thugs.
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Steel, the nation's largest steel producer signed an agreement with the SWOC. Other steel producers soon followed. Although the so-called "Little Steel" companies would thwart unionization until , by the end of SWOC had chartered more than 1, local unions and was administering hundreds of collective bargaining agreements. When the CIO held its first official convention in , Murray was elected its second vice president. Lewis resigned in protest over President Franklin D.
Roosevelt's re-election and his interventionist foreign policy. Murray, in contrast, supported the president's effort to aid the Allies in their war against Nazi Germany. And he agreed to serve, as did his CIO colleague, Sidney Hillman, in the agencies established by the Roosevelt administration to coordinate war-related production and to expedite the settlement of labor disputes in war-related industries.
Because of this combination of factors, the bureaucracy of the United Mine Workers was able to move into steel, and to saddle the new union with a tightly bureaucratic apparatus from the very beginning. Although the steel union was organized in June, , it existed in the form of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee until May, Top officers, directors of the districts into which the union is divided, and the staff representatives of the union were all appointed from the top, and formed themselves into a self-perpetuating machine.
This machine has a tight clique character; far more so than in most other CIO unions, where the ranks have been able to intervene, stir things up, and break up top cliques. The steel union bureaucrats stick close together. The District Directors today remain virtually the same as those appointed during the SWOC days, with minor changes made from the top. An official is rarely fired from the staff in the steel union. If he is too scandalously incompetent, if the stink get too bad, he may be transferred to another district. The general result of this top bureaucratic domination has been a serious stifling of local and rank and file education, training and initiative.
Local leaders have been slow in developing, and, with some exceptions, are not of the highest caliber. The staff is probably less generally competent in the important steel union than in most other CIO unions, despite the poor general quality throughout the whole trade union movement.
Full time local officials, paid by the local unions are rare, although many large locals with good dues incomes exist in the steel union. Indications have been that the International office frowns upon the practice of putting local union officials on full time. Local union newspapers are also a rarity, and the International paper, Steel Labor , does not even meet the mediocre standards set by most papers of the US trade union movement. The domination by a strong top bureaucracy and the general conditions of backwardness in the union have tended to stifle the political development of the ranks.
Left-wing political tendencies, experience has shown, are indispensable for the education of the ranks, for the stimulation of a lively internal life, and for the general forward movement of unions. The Communist Party at one time had a very strong position in the steel union. However, because of the fact that this position was not securely based among the ranks but was dependent on appointed offices, and because of the role played by these Communist Party forces in the betrayal of the Little Steel strikes into the hands of the New Deal government, it was quite easy for Murray to root out the CP many years ago, and since that time neither the CP nor any other radical tendency has had any widespread influence in the union.
The foregoing general picture of the steel union would be most accurate as a portrayal of the union of six or eight years ago. The present picture, while not very greatly altered, shows some signs of change. The increasing experience of the ranks and of local leaders in class battles with the steel industry underlies this change.
The second world war had an effect upon the steel union similar to that which it had upon most other unions. The progress of the union in terms of improved conditions and better pay was temporarily slowed, but the union grew tremendously in size , members in , 1,, today and in stored-up, potential power. In , this power exploded in one great steel strike, and in in a second. These strikes were fully supported by the ranks. The mills were shut down tight, every company attempt at strikebreaking was smashed, and the strikes ended in victories: in both cases a significant portion of union demands were won.
These strikes were not comparable to such upsurges as the auto strikes that compelled union recognition between and , or to similar great organizing struggles. They did not require a maximum of rank and file initiative or organization.
They began with a signal from the top, they were completely solid, and all that was required of most local bodies of men was to stay out, with the prospects of victory good all the time. Never at any time was the existence of the union itself directly endangered. However, despite the semi-automatic character of the two great strikes, they necessarily worked certain changes throughout the ranks. The workers gained more confidence in the union, and pride in its great power. Small-scale organizational experience in strike problems, such as picket organization, food supply, issuance of printed material and the calling of strike mass-meetings accumulated throughout the ranks.
Officials and local leaders were tested in struggle, and the habit of judgment of their capacities was formed. Even more important than these two industry-wide strikes, so far as the education of the ranks is concerned, is the continual guerilla warfare at the plant and district level.
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Plant policies relating to seniority, local premium-payment plans, hiring and firing, job duties, crew sizes and speedup, and all the innumerable other matters that go to make up working conditions have never settled down into any set grooves in the steel industry. Neither the union nor the company has as yet emerged predominant in this respect.
Thus a large section of the local unions of the United Steelworkers of America has been involved in a series of bitter struggles with the companies over these conditions. The fights have become particularly intense during the past two years, due to an increasing company offensive spearheaded by the US Steel Corporation. Indeed, although it is hard to get statistics on such a matter, it seems that there have been far more local strikes, stoppages, slowdowns and even lockouts in the steel industry over the period of the past year or two than in any other industry.
Philip Murray: Union Man
Moreover, the top officials of the union have not put clamps on the membership in the recent period. From all appearances, top officials are not getting in the way of local struggles, and, to a certain degree, are even protecting and defending militants in the mills. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that the bureaucracy finds itself in need of a counter-balance to the increasing arrogance of the corporations, an arrogance which often appears to be on the verge of challenging the very existence of the union.
Here the present contrast between a Reuther and a Murray becomes clear. Reuther has no need of developing and encouraging the militancy and initiative of the ranks. Reuther need never fear an insufficient reaction on the part of the ranks of the union in case of any attempt to destroy it. Murray, on the other hand, is at times troubled by.
Thus he has been, for the last few years, attempting to encourage the development of a militancy, which he wants to be able to turn on and off like a water tap, to back him up in negotiations. This contradictory process makes the hide-bound conservative leader of a backward union appear more militant than the Social-Democratic leader of the most dynamic union in the country.
Results of this process of education-by-struggle have been seen within the union. Already in , a series of flare-ups occurred at the founding convention. At this convention, the delegates got a little taste of Murray methods in dealing with an opposition. The dues question brought half the convention to its feet clamoring for the floor. The floor protest against a constitutional provision for continuing the appointment of organizers was almost as big. Murray, in speaking for the provision, said:.
We cannot run the gamut of democratic procedure to the point of license. You are only taking the first step in the direction of a democratic setup. Good as your intentions are, you should not assume the hazard of placing the union in jeopardy. Murray appealed to the delegates, in other words, to be patient.
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