Publishing Information

    The State of the Unions


    Behind the headlines of racketeering, irresponsibility, disunity, what is the inside story of labor's progress toward industrial peace and collaboration?—by a labor economist, John Dewey Research Fellow for 1940

  1. Politicially, we are used to our Federal-State set-up with Washington the capital of a constellation of sovereign states. So, too, it is with labor; but for the most part the public tends to lump unionism together for better or worse. Yet here is decentralization under American democracy in the economic field, with national and local unions, and a new sort of Mason and Dixon line—the cleavage between AFL and CIO.

  2. And in a situation like this, with defense efforts held up, strikes, too, are lumped together and notions of responsibility confused. We need to scrutinize them, and see who are real parties to them and why; and look at the issues they raise. As a basis for discussion, I give the gist of six outstanding strikes.

  3. Most labor groups have been anxious to hold defense tie-ups to the minimum. Yet they oppose the various proposals for the outlawing of strikes in defense industry or for a "cooling-off" period on the ground that the right to strike is one of the greatest benefits that labor enjoys under a democracy. For the same reason they are sharply critical of the order to local draft boards to reclassify men who stop work on defense jobs for which they have been deferred from military service.

  4. In several instances unions have sought to help solve the problem of defense production, as witness the Reuther plan for the mass production of planes in automobile plants and the program of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee for increased steel production. In non-defense industry, unions have also made significant efforts to increase production, as currently in the dress industry of New York City and earlier in the men's clothing industry and on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

  5. Following adverse criticism the AFL building trades unions pledged themselves, on March 31, 1941, not to allow jurisdictional disputes to cause a stoppage of work on essential defense projects; to allow contractors on such projects to employ non-union men, if needed, without collecting permit, privilege, or initiation fees from such workers unless they qualified for union membership; and to keep initiation fees to the minimum, with reasonable time allowed for payment. Two and a half months earlier twenty-five AFL metal and building trades unions, representing more than 2,500,000 workers, had proposed voluntary arbitration of disputes on defense projects. In July 1941, the Office of Production Management approved a no-strike agreement between defense agencies and AFL building trades unions representing 800,000 workers, outlawing strikes for the duration of the emergency. Railway management and labor have agreed to reexamine carefully the labor needs of the roads, with a view to releasing skilled men for defense industry. Representatives of automobile manufacturers and labor, similarly, met jointly with OPM officials in July 1941, to study what is involved in the conversion of the industry to defense needs.

  6. It should be remembered that unionism is relatively new in most of the heavy industries vital to the defense effort. In steel and in automobiles, in rubber and in aluminum, among longshoremen and shipyard workers, in electrical and airplane manufacturing plants, and in other defense industries there was little unionization prior to 1933. Particularly where employers of the type of Henry Ford and Tom Girdler have fought efforts of their workers to unionize there is apt to remain for some time a feeling of suspicion and mistrust. It takes time and the best of good will for a union to train its shop stewards in the proper use of grievance machinery, and for the management to reeducate its foremen along lines of cooperation with the union. Smoldering hostility, mutual distrust, and inexperience will flare up in strikes that industries with longer experience in collective bargaining can avoid with little difficulty.

  7. Clashes between rival unions, the lack of discipline within many unions, factional strife due to political alignments or fights for power, opposition of some employers to unionization and collective bargaining, inexperience in the peaceful adjustment of disputes on the part both of management and of unions—these are among the more important causes of the strikes that have interrupted defense industry.

    CIO and AFL Control of Union Local

  8. THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR HAS POWER ONLY over some 1,500 federal locals directly affiliated with it. As to 34,000 locals in national unions, such as the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the AFL can only attempt to persuade. In its May 29 statement following President Roosevelt's declaration of a national emergency, the AFL executive council called upon all its affiliates to refrain from defense strikes until the National Defense Mediation Board and the Conciliation Service of the Department of Labor had had full opportunity to settle the dispute.

  9. "The American Federation of Labor will take disciplinary action itself against any local union coming under its direct jurisdiction which violates this policy," warned the council. For the rest, the council could only call upon its national unions "to take such disciplinary action as is provided in their constitutions."

  10. In the CIO, though national unions likewise possess autonomy, the control from CIO headquarters is greater. Some affiliates, such as the steel union, are still in the form of organizing committees, with appointed instead of elected officials. Others were organized only recently, and still lean heavily upon the CIO for advice and sometimes financial assistance. With them the prestige of John L. Lewis and Philip Murray is enormous, far greater than that enjoyed by William Green in most AFL affiliates. Further, regional CIO directors are controlled from Washington headquarters, whereas their closest AFL counterparts, heads of central labor bodies and state federations, are elected by the organizations they lead and are directly responsible only to them.

  11. At the August convention of the United Automobile Workers (CIO), Allan Haywood, CIO national director of organization, played an active part, summoning leaders of rival factions to his hotel room for conferences on slates for national officers and executive board members. In the AFL, such interference in the internal affairs of an affiliated union would scarcely be tolerated, certainly not by an affiliate of such power. Even in the CIO the youthful unions are yearly becoming more self-reliant. At the UAW convention, for example, the mere mention of Mr. Haywood's name was met with a chorus of boos.

  12. The jealousy with which heads of AFL national unions guard autonomy of their organizations was illustrated by the reaction of Daniel Tobin, president of the powerful teamsters' union, when Senator Norris protested to William Green against the high initiation fees charged by some of the AFL affiliates, and asked Green to take action to stop the practice. Tobin informed Norris that "President Green and the executive council have jurisdiction and can set the initiation fees of federal unions or unions directly chartered by the federation, and in that membership at the present time are 200,000; but Mr. Green and the executive council have no power whatever to interfere with international unions in the setting of their initiation fees...." What is true of initiation fees is equally true of defense strikes and of virtually every possible control over national unions.

  13. Not all national unions are affiliated with either AFL or CIO. Most important among the independents are a number of railroad brotherhoods, including the locomotive engineers, the conductors, the firemen, and the trainmen. Other rail groups, including the clerks, the car men, and the maintenance-of-way employee, belong to the AFL. At the present time the printers are not affiliated with either AFL or CIO, and from 1938 to 1940 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (now AFL) was likewise independent. Independent unions, of course, make their own rules, subject only to the law of the land.

  14. Those who think that labor's decentralization promotes irresponsibility in the sense that national unions may ignore the recommendations of AFL and CIO heads, should remember that centralization may lead to bureaucracy or tyranny. In the widest diffusion of authority consistent with efficiency in collective bargaining may lie the best guarantee of union democracy.

    Union Responsibility—and Rackets

  15. Defense strikes and high initiation fees are but two of the complaints currently being heard against the unions. Objections are heard also against communism. Underlying most of the criticism is the charge that unions lack responsibility in a legal and financial sense, and also in a moral sense—that they do not abide by agreements, that they increase industrial strife, that they squander money and render no accounting to their members, that they cause enormous damage to employers and escape legal responsibility as unincorporated associations.

  16. If one concentrates on the evils, ignoring the positive achievements of the labor movement and the social strife and injustice that have given it birth, the trade union record may be painted black indeed. In certain AFL unions, particularly in the building and service industries, gangsters and grafting business agents have had far more influence than William Green will ever admit.

  17. More damaging to the Federation's prestige than the misconduct of business agents, however, was the indictment in May 1941, on a charge of extortion, of George E. Browne, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and a vice-president of the AFL since 1936. Browne and William Bioff, Hollywood head of the union, are charged with extorting $550,000 from four leading movie producing organizations under threats of causing strikes in picture theaters throughout the country. Ironically enough, as a member of the AFL executive council, one of Browne's duties was to help supervise enforcement of the anti-racketeering resolution adopted by the convention of the Federation last November at the insistence of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

  18. Against racketeers connected with federal locals, President Green has acted vigorously upon occasion. In August 1940, for example, he revoked the charter of the United Sea Food Workers Union of New York City because it reemployed the notorious Joseph (Socks) Lanza as business agent after his release from prison for violating the Sherman anti-trust law. Two days later Lanza resigned and the charter was restored. In other cases, including the Chicago shipping clerks, the AFL has revoked charters to rid federal locals of hoodlums and racketeers. It is with national unions that fail to expel racketeers from their various locals that the Federation is ineffective, and again in the name of autonomy.

    Human Weaknesses and Union Methods

  19. Union Responsibility, however, is more than a matter of eliminating persons who misuse their office for personal gain. It is vital that democracy be maintained within unions, and here, unfortunately, violations are not hard to find. Not long ago the carpenters held their first convention in eight years and the plumbers their first in ten. The AFL retail clerks and the leather workers went almost twenty years without a convention, and the tobacco workers had no convention after 1900 until a referendum and then a court order, late in 1939, forced the officers to call one. The president of the American Federation of Musicians is empowered to annul or set aside portions of the union constitution when in his opinion that is necessary. For years John L. Lewis appointed most of the district heads of the United Mine Workers, instead of allowing them to be elected. The pressmen's local in Chicago, under suspension, has not been allowed to elect its own officers for about two decades. So long as George Scalise headed the Building Service Employes International Union, New York hotel workers in Local 32A had no meetings and did not elect their own officers.

  20. Though grafters have been the worst offenders, some of the ablest union heads have cut the democratic corners rather sharply in their drive to build a disciplined union organization for honest collective bargaining purposes. Others have fought to protect their unions from influences they considered subversive, whether communist or otherwise, and in the turmoil the democratic process has suffered. Nor is it always possible for the rank and file to correct matters. Those who lead the fight against an undemocratic official may suffer suspension or expulsion from the union, and in a closed shop industry this means the loss of one's job. For these reasons vigorous action by national union leaders and by federation officials must supplement vigilance on the part of the rank and file if democracy is to be preserved.

  21. The financial practices of the labor movement have been subjected to criticism, and not without some justification. In one of the most flagrant cases on record, the president of a national union, Scalise of the building service employees, was convicted in 1940 of stealing $60,000 from the union through padded expense vouchers and fake bookkeeping entries. Most unions are careful in the handling of funds, however, and for labor as a whole steady improvement over the years is discernible. The better unions bond every officer who handles money, require uniform bookkeeping practices on the part of their locals, audit accounts regularly, and publish full and easily understandable financial statements in their official journals or convention reports. Unions object, however, to compulsory publication of finances on the ground that belligerent employers, learning the financial resources of a union, could shape plans for its defeat and elimination. As anti-unionism disappears, this objection will lose much of its force.


  22. Some tightly-organized craft unions have sought to utilize their skill to obtain monopoly benefits for those inside, using closed books and exorbitant initiation fees to bar new members. Certain unions, including the carpenters and the electricians, have admitted lesser skilled workers to a class B membership which denied them voting rights in the organization. Some unions, similarly, have unduly limited the amount of work to be performed by each man, to make the job last; or they have prevented the introduction of improved machinery, forced employers to hire unnecessary workers, or had their members do over work already completed by workers elsewhere, a custom which stirred a great of deal of criticism during the New York World's Fair.

  23. It was such practices as these that Assistant Attorney General Thurman W. Arnold sought to prosecute under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act as unreasonable restraints of trade. In a typical case in which Arnold's division Obtained indictments against both unions and employers, the leading plumbing manufacturers in the country, along with master plumbers' associations, jobbers' associations, and the AFL plumbers' union, were indicted in March 1940 for maintaining an uneconomical marketing system that kept plumbing costs 20 to 25 percent higher than they otherwise would have been. The union furnished part of the enforcing power by its agreement to refuse union labor for handling supplies not sold under the system.

  24. In another Arnold prosecution, officers of the carpenters' union were indicted for boycotting the St. Louis brewing company of Anheuser-Busch, Inc., for refusing to turn over to its members the work of erecting and dismantling machinery being done by another AFL union, the International Association of Machinists, under contract with the company. This case went to the United States Supreme Court, which held in February of this year that the Sherman Act did not apply to disputes between unions.

  25. Labor spokesmen assert that unions, on the whole, diminish rather than increase the volume of strife in industry, that in most industries more strikes occur before unionism is recognized than after collective bargaining is established. The peaceful course of the cotton textile industry since its organization by the CIO in 1937 is an illustration of this. Other countries, including Great Britain and Sweden, have had a similar experience. People who read of a union organizer going into a new territory and of a strike soon following may conclude that he caused the strike; what typically happens in such cases is that he provides organization and leadership to workers who have endured hardships and built up resentments until they reached the exploding point. Often the strike occurs spontaneously, and the union representative is called in afterwards. If he does his job well and the management acts in good faith, further grievances usually are adjusted as quickly as they occur.

  26. The record of unions in keeping their agreements has been excellent, on the whole, with virtually all the pressure of national officers exerted on workers to adhere to the terms of their contract, even when some clauses work poorly. Violations of contract have been most frequent in the early years of collective bargaining, for example the many illegal stoppages in General Motors plants in the spring of 1937, when neither the company foremen nor the union stewards had learned to work in harmony, and when both sides harbored suspicion and distrust after their long period of bitter strife.

  27. Employers have much the same record with regard to their agreements. For evidence of violation one has but to examine the numerous complaints brought to grievance committees or impartial chairmen. In a number of cases the union has turned the injunction tables on the employer, by obtaining court orders restraining him from violating the contract. Perhaps the outstanding example of repudiation of contract in the history of American collective bargaining is that of the coal mine operators, following the signing of the famous Jacksonville Agreement of 1924. Nevertheless, with employers as with unions, contract repudiation has been relatively rare.

    Employer Responsibility

  28. Employers, too, have engaged in their share of irresponsible practices. In New York City, as Thomas E. Dewey has shown, businessmen in some industries were glad to have underworld characters enforce their collusive agreements. Nor should it be forgotten that since the 1860's employers have used ex-convicts and plug-uglies as spies, strikebreakers, and armed guards. In 1939 Senator La Follette, following his long investigation, could say that the important National Metal Trades Association "furnished strikeguards, whose records revealed that they were men of vicious and violent character, some of them with long criminal careers," and that the Associated Industries of Cleveland "furnished to its members strikeguards who were recruited from the gutters of Cleveland through an underworld grapevine."

  29. The General Motors Corporation spent $994,000 for labor spies from January 1934, through July 1936, employing fourteen separate spy agencies; in its service Pinkerton agents spied on former Assistant Secretary of Labor Edward F. McGrady when he visited Toledo during a strike in 1935 in the capacity of a government mediator. General Motors reached a climax when it obtained a set of spies from the Pinkerton agency to spy upon another set of spies it had previously employed through the Corporations Auxiliary Co. All this has been changed since General Motors recognized the union, but employers who have engaged in such practices can scarcely hold up their hands in horror at union irresponsibility.

    Should Unions Incorporate?

  30. If unions are socially desirable and their practices on the whole beneficial, people often ask, if racketeering and anti-social monopolistic practices are limited to a relatively small number, why should unions oppose compulsory incorporation or government regulation? Has anyone but the crooked labor leader anything to fear?

  31. The proposal of compulsory incorporation assumes that unions escape legal responsibility, whereas employers, as corporations, are subject to suit. Yet employers, subject to no compulsion in this respect, incorporate to limit liability. Moreover the United States Supreme Court in its Coronado Coal decision in 1922, held that a union, though unincorporated, was subject to suit. The property of individual union members may also be seized for unlawful union actions, under the Supreme Court decision in the Danbury Hatters case of 1908. Edwin E. Witte, in his notable volume on "The Government in Labor Disputes," has a three-page list of successful damage suits against unions or their members.

  32. Were unions forced to incorporate or register before they could become active, labor fears that hostile authorities might delay or bar incorporation for organizations they disliked, or remove them from the accredited list if they acted vigorously. Employers who still keep spies in union ranks might readily put an incorporated union into receivership at a critical moment, or a disgruntled union faction might accomplish the same purpose.

  33. With monopolistic practices of highly skilled or strategically placed unions, such as the building trades or the teamsters, in mind, Assistant Attorney General Arnold now proposes amendment of the Sherman Act to prevent unions from restraining interstate commerce except for legitimate labor aims. But this would allow the Department of Justice, in whose labor sympathies trade unionists have limited confidence, to determine which union aims are "legitimate."

  34. Despite the services to workers performed by the National Labor Relations Board and other labor agencies of the government, there still lingers in the minds of union leaders a deep-seated distrust of governmental interference in union finances or other internal affairs. Were the regulation of unions to be placed permanently in the hands of men who believed in genuine collective bargaining, such—as those who have served on the important labor boards that President Roosevelt has appointed, most labor leaders' objections could be brushed aside as due to a desire to retain absolute power, if not to hide wrongdoing. What is properly to be feared, however, is the type of regulation unions would suffer were someone less thoroughly committed to the principle of collective bargaining to exercise the appointive power.

  35. Moreover, unionists point out that the judiciary, which will interpret any law regulating union practices, frequently is unsympathetic to labor. The judge who issued an injunction against the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in Philadelphia in 1922, declaring that "This organization is no corporation, should have no legal recognition and should be driven out of all existence as a menace to the nation" was an extreme instance, yet he helps to explain labor's ingrained fear of judicial control.

  36. Nevertheless, with legal compulsion on employers to deal with unions, and with increasing economic compulsion on workers, through the closed shop, to become members, the trade union movement has ceased to be purely private and voluntary. Probably the labor movement will not succeed in avoiding regulation; its hope should be that regulation can be delayed until employers give up anti-unionism, and until labor has sufficient political influence to assure the appointment of fair-minded administrators and judges.

    The Need for Labor Statesmanship

  37. In the meantime the Labor Movement must convince the public that it is actively seeking to eliminate abuses. By a vigorous exercise of its power to conduct investigations and make recommendations to the annual conventions—quite apart from the anti-racketeering powers conferred upon it last year—the AFL executive council probably could compel the resignation or expulsion of most crooked officers. Where the national heads of a particular union dare to protect an improper official, the AFL should revoke the charter of that union, and sacrifice an affiliate rather than its own good name.

  38. Both AFL and CIO, similarly, should frankly admit that there is a problem of responsibility to the union membership in the proper handling of funds and the achievement and preservation of a functioning democracy; that there is a problem of responsibility to employers, in the observance of contracts, the promotion of efficiency, and the elimination of graft; and that there is a problem of responsibility to the public, to end unduly burdensome practices of monopoly unionism, keep the unions open to membership on reasonable terms, keep unions clean, speed defense production. Both AFL and CIO would have much to gain by establishing standing committees to receive and investigate complaints of abuses, to give publicity to evils and recommendations to cure them, and to strive publicly to raise labor's standard of responsibility.

  39. Settlement of the AFL-CIO cleavage, could that be accomplished, undoubtedly would be the evidence of labor statesmanship most welcomed by the public, as well as by employers and union members. Real difficulties block the path to this goal—differences in structure, in philosophy, and in personalities. The division between craft unionism and industrial unionism is as sharp as when the CIO was formed, and in the intervening six years new areas of conflict have developed. To solve the jurisdictional jigsaw puzzle would take months of difficult negotiation, given the best of good will on both sides. Added to this are personal animosities, vested interests in salaries and prestige, and left wing control of some CIO unions.

  40. Yet a solution is not impossible. In both camps there are moderate factions favoring renewed efforts to end labor's civil war on a basis fair to all. President Roosevelt's desire for labor peace is another important factor. AFL and CIO have many common interests, including the protection of labor's legislative gains. The labor policy committee of OPM consists of six members from AFL unions, six from the CIO, and four from railroad labor organizations. The harmonious working relationships on this body may bring about better understanding, and help pave the way to labor peace.