The American Workers' Responsibility


By GEORGE MEANY, Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Labor

Delivered before the Detroit and Wayne County Federation of Labor, Detroit, Mich., March 12, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 378-381.

UNDER ordinary circumstances on an occasion of this kind it would be proper to discuss those things that we, as trade unionists, have in common—labor's problems in the organizational field, in the economic field, in the legislative field. We would want to discuss the progressbeing made in extending the benefits of trade unionism to more and more workers in fields hitherto untouched.

We would want to talk about wage increases, work-hour reductions and about legal protection for workers in industry through enactment of wise and just laws.

In short, we would want as workers to talk exclusively about those things that have to do with raising the standards of life and of work of the people we represent.

But, as Americans, we must at this time think of the only thing that really counts today. All of labor's problems, both past and present, pale into insignificance before the one great problem of today for all Americans—rich and poor, banker and shop-keeper, employer and employee—what can we as individuals or groups do to bring complete and final victory for our country and its allies?

Everything that we are, everything that we have, everything we hold dear, must now be subordinate to one single and overwhelming purpose—the triumph of free men everywhere over the forces of hate and destruction, those forces which would, through military domination, impose a system of slavery on workers the world over.

American labor, as represented by the American Federation of Labor, has had no illusions about this war and what was at stake from the very outset. Our organization long ago called attention again and again to the threat to our country and its institutions that was evident in the moves of Hitler and the Japanese military clique against the free peoples of Europe and Asia.

Despite labor's warnings repeated year after year from 1933 on, it was not until June of 1940 that a majority of our people realized that the United States of America was high on the list of Hitler's intended victims, and it was not until December 7th of last year that there was developed (overnight perhaps) in this country a final conviction that Japan was determined to collaborate in bringing about our elimination as a world power.

Labor knew in 1933, labor knew in 1940 and labor knows now what this war means to workers. We knew then and we know now that a victory for the Axis means an end to the free America we have known. We know that it means an end to free trade unionism and the imposition of a brutal, inhuman system of slavery in which the individual human being becomes a mere tool of the state, with no more rights or privileges than has a hammer or a monkey-wrench.

That is why labor today looks upon this war no longer as just a war to defend our homes, our lands and our freedom. No longer can we consider this a war for defensive purposes only. This is a war to the finish between freedom and slavery. There can be no compromise. There can be no negotiated peace with a victorious Hitler or a satisfied Japan. Nothing less than the destruction of Hitler can satisfy America today. Never again shall Japan be allowed to build for conquest while she practices her sinister and treacherous diplomacy. Complete and absolute victory by force of arms over her enemies is the one aim of America.

In bringing about this result, which to me is as inevitable as the coming of daylight tomorrow morning, American labor has a glorious opportunity. As workers we can contribute more toward this sacred cause than can any other group anywhere in the world. This is a mechanical war. This is a war of production. This is a war that is being fought not only on the actual fighting front, not only by our gallant men on the high seas and in the air, but also on the farms, on the roads and in the shops and mills of our country.

Our nation's victory depends on the production of planes, guns, tanks and ships and also on the speedy transportation of these weapons of war to the place where they will do the most good. We must out-produce the Axis powers in an overwhelming way. This most important part of the job belongs to the workers of America. It is a big job. Ourenemies have had a long headstart in their preparations for this war. We must catch up and then speed past them in the race of production before we can achieve final victory.

May I say to you tonight that organized labor has done its full share of the job to date. Beginning back in June of1940, when the fall of France first brought home to all America the possibility of a Hitler victory and the consequences to us of such a victory, the splendid building trades workers of the American Federation of Labor, through their organizations, pitched in to cooperate with the War and Navy Departments to bring to completion the largest construction program ever planned by our nation in peacetime.

In the space of a few months hundreds of cantonments for the military training of our civilian population were constructed all over the country. Thousands of new plants were erected in record time for the production of munitions and other instruments of war. Stiff schedules for this construction work were laid down by the government departments concerned. More speed was demanded in the plans formulated than the government experts had any logical reason to expect. Thousands of mechanics were transported through the cooperation of the Building Trades Department of the A. F. of L. many hundreds of miles from their homes in order to complete this work without a single penny of transportation cost to the government.

And yet in practically every case on record these cantonments, training stations and factories were constructed weeks and months ahead of schedule.

In the vital shipbuilding industry, a similar record has been written in the last two years. Under the leadership of the Metal Trades Department of the A. F. of L. a system of labor, management and government cooperation has been worked out in this industry which has brought splendid results. Production facilities have been expanded and the rate of production has been stepped up to an astounding pace. Here again the progress schedules laid down have been left behind and ships are being turned out many months ahead of the scheduled date of completion.

What is true in this respect in the construction and shipbuilding industries is likewise true in other industries where organized workers are engaged in producing the things necessary for our men at the fighting fronts.

Labor took the lead on the question of eliminating work stoppages on defense work when the Executive Council of the American Federation of Labor requested the establishment of a tri-partite board for this purpose in January of1941. The National Defense Mediation Board came into being as a result, and despite any comment to the contrary made a splendid showing. The record discloses that with the exception of one or two highly publicized cases all disputes which arose were settled while production carried on.

When our country formally entered the war after the treacherous attack by Japan on December 7th last, labor again showed the way in an effort to bring about all-out production for victory. On December 15th and 16th the leaders of all national organizations affiliated with the A. F. of L. met in Washington and pledged complete support to our Commander-in-Chief in this crisis. Labor voluntarily relinquished the right to strike as a means of adjusting grievances that might interfere with war production and proposed the substitution of the peaceful methods of conciliation, mediation and arbitration to resolve whatever grievances might arise.

The National War Labor Board is now engaged in applying these methods with almost perfect results to date. Might I say in this connection that the national officers ofthe C. I. O. and the A. F. of L. have cooperated with each other in a very fine way in order to help the War Labor Board pursue its most difficult task.

Labor is cooperating with government and industry in the training and reallocation of skilled men needed in war production. Labor is leading the way in a campaign for all workers to purchase defense bonds to the very limit of their ability. In addition we find organized workers urging the use of more and more shifts in industry in order that around the clock production will be an actual fact instead of a figure of speech.

Labor has used its organizational structure to cooperate to the fullest in order to construct the facilities of war training and production, to produce the weapons of war, to build the ships in which these weapons must be transported and to man the ships when they are complete and ready for their hazardous task. In short, the record of the last several years shows that the workers of America, both organized and unorganized, are giving of their very best to preserve our American way of life.

Despite this splendid patriotic record which is unexcelled anywhere else in the world, and I include Great Britain in this statement, we find that those who make a profession of hating labor in peacetime are still practicing their profession during this time of national crisis. When everyone's efforts should be directed toward the achievement of real national unity and the very highest in national morale we find there are those who would use this crisis that threatens the very existence of our country to shackle labor with restrictive laws and in addition to wipe off the statute books those protective laws that have placed the American worker on a higher plane economically than any other worker on earth.

An example of this is the effort to repeal the Fair Labor Standards Act. Attempts are being made to convince the American people that this law is in some way preventing war production plants from operating more than forty hours per week. This is absolutely false.

Actually, the people who are clamoring for the repeal or the setting aside of this law are not interested in speeding war production. They are interested in returning to the days when pecan shellers, novelty makers and other exploited workers were paid ten and fifteen cents an hour. They are interested in making it possible for the chiseling type of employer (and war or no war we still have some chiseling employers) to work his employees ten and twelve hours a day.

What is needed is not the same workers putting in ten and twelve hours a day, for as long as they can stand it (and let us not forget that work in war industries is not easy work) but that more workers, new workers be given jobs and new shifts be put into effect. That is the way to attain maximum output.

And let no one try to tell labor that manpower is lacking. We may reach that point, but we have not reached it yet. Here in Detroit with so many skilled men and women walking the streets, you know that talk of a labor shortage is poppycock. We still have millions unemployed. Let us put them to work on this vital victory program.

In times of peace it is tremendously important for a democratic nation such as ours to maintain the morale of its citizens at the very highest level possible. In times of war it is absolutely fatal to a democracy to permit the morale of its citizens to be impaired. Democratic nations, unlike dictatorships, depend for the continuance of their democratic structure on the support of the common man. Nothing could be more destructive to the morale of themillions of American workers on whom our nation must depend in this day of mechanized warfare, than to have their confidence in our way of life undermined by the passage of punitive or restrictive measures against labor.

There is nothing in the record which warrants any such action and these attempts to shackle labor, whether successful or not, are bound to bring about a lowered morale among workers.

It is in the nation's interest that workers on whom depend for victory should work under conditions conducive to their health and the health and welfare of their families. Break down a worker's conditions and you break down his morale and deal a body blow to his productive capacity. Anyone who attempts for selfish purposes to impair the morale of the American worker is guilty of an act of treason.

The working men and women of America today are supremely confident in the efficiency of the democratic way in this struggle. They are supremely confident of our ability to out-produce the slave workers of the Axis. They are above all supremely confident of the ultimate and inevitable victory of the United States over Hitler and his Japanese cohorts. Let us not do anything to destroy that confidence.

The position of the American Federation of Labor in this time of national stress is clear. We seek no special privileges or advantages in this period of crisis. We are ready to make sacrifices. We have already made sacrifices. We make them gladly because we are determined that our nation shall win this war.

The charge has been made that labor is seeking to grow rich out of this war. That charge is absolutely false. The fact is that rents, food prices and the cost of clothing and all essential commodities have increased so greatly that, in terms of real wages, American workers are worse off than they were a year ago even where they have received small wage increases.

Organized labor, as represented by the American Federation of Labor, never has and never will attempt to turn a national crisis to selfish advantage. In this war in which we are now engaged we, of the American Federation of Labor, are adhering to this policy. Loyal as we are to our movement, which has meant so much to the growth and development of our country and to the improvement of American life, we place our country first. This is a cardinal principle of the creed of the American Federation of Labor.

As we of labor shun all opportunities to use the nation's crisis for advantage, just so, we feel, should employers, in turn, refrain from seeking to use the war period to gain selfish advantage for themselves by breaking down the standards of their workers.

Above all things, in this war we must have unity—real unity. We are all in the same boat. Every American, be he worker or businessman, farmer or professional man, will remain free or become a slave depending on whether or not we win this war.

We must all work together. There can be no denying that constructive management has a vital role to play just as has labor. Labor and management and government must cooperate. America's life as a free land depends upon it.

If we are to have the full unity which is so essential, all this unwarranted sniping at labor on the part of foolish or vicious men should cease, for these baseless attacks have one outstanding effect, and that is to breed disunity, and he who promotes disunity is an enemy of America, whether he realizes it or not.

While discussing this question of unity, it is pertinent to refer to the unity of purpose that has been achieved inthe ranks of labor on the all-important question of complete all-out production for victory. Labor has shown that it is intelligent enough and patriotic enough to realize that this is the time to put factional differences aside for the nation's welfare.

In my opinion there has never been a sound trade union reason for a divided labor movement. There is no sound reason for division today. Let us hope that the spirit of unity engendered among labor men by our nation's needs in this time of national emergency will lead to a speedy adjustment of the differences which now keep us apart. The A. F. of L. is ready. Our peace committee is still intact and waiting for a word from the C.I.O. for a resumption of meetings designed to bring about a single united movement which we need now and surely will need more than ever when this war is over.

In looking forward to the trying months to come let me ask you to keep uppermost the thought I mentioned earlier in my talk to you tonight, that nothing is really important to any of us these days except ultimate and complete victory for our nation over its enemies. Let us remember that theworker of today in this modern war is actually a soldier in overalls; let us remember that production must go on without stoppage, without delay, at a faster and ever faster pace. Let us remember that the labor representative who contributes to the causes of a work stoppage during these times is Hitler's friend and the enemy of American trade unionism as we have learned to know and respect it.

Let us remember that America's workers are carrying the responsibility of producing not only for our people but for the liberty-loving people of all the world. Let us remember that it depends on how well we do our job as to what kind of world this is going to be for many generations to come.

If we remember these things in the light of the American Federation of Labor tradition that you cannot be a good trade unionist unless you are first of all a good citizen, then some day in the not too far distant future we will perhaps have an opportunity to gather around as we are here tonight, in an atmosphere created by a just peace, to celebrate the victory of humanity and decency over the forces of inhumanity and barbarism.