Workers' Post-War Responsibility


By ROBERT J. WATT, International Representative of the American Federation of Labor

Delivered at session on "Responsibility of Labor for Economic Stability in the Post-War World,"New York City, November 16, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 142-144.

I NEEDED that build-up, now that I find myself, my five foot five, lost in this maze of microphones. In fact, about the only time I felt somewhat similar was back some twenty-five years ago when there was never anything that fitted a person who only weighed 117 pounds, and when they hung all of the gadgets on him he looked more like Santa Claus than a buck private in the infantry. As I sat and listened to the distinguished director discuss profits, and my good friend, Eric Johnston, expound his progressive views, I looked back over some of my own hectic days and I began to feel eminently respectable. I was thinking that time marches on."

Mrs. Reid has asked me to discuss with you the "Responsibility of Labor in the Post-War World." And let me begin by pointing out that I fully recognize there are many people who believe that any discussion such as this is premature until the war is won. I think some of your smart New York newspaper men have characterized it as cooking the chicken before they catch it.

I can fully appreciate that point of view, particularlyamong those who opposed our nation preparing for war and particularly among those who are in large measure responsible for us losing the last peace. However, I'd be willing to agree that there is some merit to that opinion, if I believed for one moment that a discussion of this problem would divert any of our energies from the immediate task of winning the war.

Calls Planning Essential

But I see no such consequence. Planning to achieve economic stability does not detract attention or effort from the war to destroy Fascism. Instead, I believe that this program is one of the profound intangibles peculiar to a democracy which strengthen the peace-loving peoples of the world in their determination to destroy those who would enslave us.

The end of fighting is not the end of responsibility. Peace will not come by winning the war. Victory will prepare the way only if we are ready and understand what must be done. We must prove, you and I must prove, in this emergency that whatever responsibility or crisis may confront the nation, we are capable of self-government.

We should view the past—I whole-heartedly agree, Eric Johnston—only for the purpose of avoiding mistakes. The challenge of today is not one of breast-beating for our sins of yesterday. Those of us who have struggled against each other so long, and particularly labor and industry, must courageously take the leadership in healing old wounds. We must concentrate on the big job which we must do together if we are going to win the war and secure an enduring and lasting peace. We must recognize that whether they are wearing the mantle of management or the overalls of the worker there is a real community of interest in the unity of free men.

The responsibility of the workers in the post-war world will not be that of a special group divided from the rest of the community. Their responsibility will be no different from that which every good American should have. The role of labor is distinctive only because the masses of working people have most to gain from the preservation of our free institutions. It is distinctive only because the masses of working people, both now and after the war, must be the first line of democracy's defense, from within as well as without.

An Unselfish World

The sort of post-war world which we must seek cannot be selfish. It must represent the essence of individual well-being within the framework of general welfare. It must march with civilization to meet the needs of men and women. It must dictate that the right of the individual is limited by the needs of the community and that the welfare of the community necessitates the existence of individual rights.

We cannot hope to build a durable and just peace unless we construct machinery to deal with major problems. Law and order must be established upon agreements which derive their sanction from a fundamental acceptance by all parties.

International armies will not succeed if they are not sustainedby the conviction of the people that they are the agents ofjustice.

The present slash of savagery has demonstrated the need for establishing a structure of world order in which the nations of the world will all agree to yield certain privileges. Nations cannot live indefinitely by the suicide which modern war constitutes. We cannot maintain our civilization if our productive capacity is expended in producing the instruments of destruction.

We must strive to build a peace in the post-war world and base our efforts on the recognition that the peoples of the earth are neighbors, who will benefit more from being good neighbors than from being either master or slave.

International Democracy We must build that peace and justice for our people at home. We must fortify it by fair dealing and co-operation with our neighbors, whether located north or south or across the oceans to the east or west. We must build that peace upon a democratic system within and among nations.

We must build an international agency with effective representation of the peoples of the world which will conciliate, mediate and, if necessary, authoritatively arbitrate any disputes or potential conflicts. The old order has passed. Undiluted nationalism cannot meet the problems of our modern economic world. We must build a representative international agency with police powers and equipment for the maintenance of international peace.

It is labor's responsibility not only to make our nation the arsenal of the free peoples of the world but to keep and strengthen the fiber of our own democracy at home. We must continue our effort to make the machinery of government a democratic structure in not only the political but in the economic field. The representative machinery of labor and industry and agriculture must be given the responsibility and authority which is necessary for the preservation of economic freedom.

Eric Johnston, president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, together with President William Green of the American Federation of Labor, William Witherow, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, and President Murray of the Congress of Industrial Organizations have proved over and over again during the past six months that there is far more ground for agreement between labor and management on economic issues than there is basis for disagreement.

This may sound revolutionary to many people, to many people in our nation who fear economic democracy more than the systems we are fighting to destroy. But essentially it is the real safeguard for competitive capitalism. If our economic problems are all determined by those elected for their political ability, the democratic process in our own nation will be weakened, and the government will be master instead of the servant of the people.

Failure to establish the machinery of economic self-government for labor and industry has been one of the greatest failures of our nation. Many leaders of industry have feared any restraints upon their realm of dynamic monopolies. Many have feared the spectre of Communism which stupid or vicious rabble-rousers have raised. But despite all this, American industry and labor have done a grand job. We have made an amazing record together. It is now chiefly a matter of how long our brave allies can hold the line until the power of our mighty equipment and our millions of soldiers and sailors and aviators get going.

Labor believes now is the time for all war agencies effecting economic affairs to establish real policy committees with responsible representatives designated by their respective organizations. One of the greatest guaranties for an enduring democracy and an enduring peace in the post-war world is the growing understanding in our nation between management and labor, an understanding which, I am sure, will recognize that each of the parties must prove the responsibility of their leadership and must grow in strength and competence for the welfare of the nation.

The law of the jungle is no longer the law of civilization. Men and women of labor have learned that there are some things worth fighting for, even if the odds are overwhelming and even if it necessitates partnerships hitherto undreamed of.

Brotherhood Amid Bombs

Labor has learned that there is a brotherhood of man. It may be partly hidden in normal times by the veneer ofsuperficial rivalries. But when bombs burst, the veneer cracks off. The dowager and the charlady shiver the same fears. They know the same courage and the same determination. Men and women the world over find their common humanity is a tie which binds civilized people and enables them to find the unity which is needed to beat back and overthrow the foe.

That is the hope of labor today, for tomorrow. The fiber of the exploited people has proved tougher than the sharp teeth of the exploiters. The Chinese have shown that the coolie has the soul of a hero. There is today no Herrenvolk because their intended victims have shown stronger vitality of spirit than the brawn of lust could overcome.

Labor will not surrender any victory this time to the old outworn systems which produced the rise of a Hitler and the decline of a Mussolini. Labor has seen the consequence of a do-nothing system on one hand and totalitarian dictatorship on the other.

Labor will refuse to accept either. We want a nation of people who dare to be free and who choose to establish and accept authority to civilize our economic system. We want to win the right for all to live as free men so that free men can share the fruits of the land and the accomplishments of men and women.

To achieve this kind of a system and a real peace, the freedoms we talk so much about must have full meaning. Justice among nations will not arise merely by defeating the gangsters or by winning the war. We must not only purge the world of the totalitarian scourge and defeat the Axis in the ordeal of battle. We must win in the ordeal of cross-examination in the hearts and minds of men. We must prove that democracy not only can win, but deserves to win.

In the post-war world there can be no exploiters and exploited. Here at home, and in all the home places all over the world, the masses of people will demand and must obtain the opportunity to earn as free men a decent living for themselves and families. No longer are they to be fair spoils for economic exploitation.

If we are to succeed in establishing a peace in a world in which all people will have the right to enjoy political liberty, economic equity, freedom of religion and the integrity of the free man's home, we must be ready to sacrifice old prejudices in the face of the terrible demonstration of their consequence. We must be willing to play our part and assume our responsibility in the building of a post-war world on a firm foundation of decency and progress.

We are not fighting, labor is not fighting, for the well-being of any one race, any race or any one people. We are not fighting to preserve the status quo. We are fighting to remove the Verboten sign from the eyes and ears and the mouths and the souls of men and women all over the world. We are fighting to realize the simple hopes of common men and common women all over the world to be free.

If you and I have learned that men and women of every nation have the right to work and earn a decent standard of living, then the future offers a post-war world of progress, and this war shall not have been fought in vain. Labor shares with you and all liberty-loving people the responsibility for designing that kind of a world. Let us, let you and I, the actors in the greatest drama the human race has ever staged, be worthy of those who die to win and preserve the heritage of freedom. Let us build a post-war world and secure a lasting peace which will enable all our people to enjoy that heritage.