The President and John L. Lewis

Dorothy Thompson

The Pasadena Post/January 28, 1937

This column predicted many weeks before the election that President Roosevelt, in his second term, would face serious embarrassment from some of his own supporters. But it is surprising to see it come so soon. John L. Lewis’ statement on Friday was extraordinary. He apparently suggested that the President owed the Committee on Industrial Organization—Mr. Lewis’ trade union movement—a quid pro quo for electoral support, and that the CIO intended to collect it. The President’s reply—given to his press conference—was noncommittal, but a hardly veiled rebuke. And the rebuke was in order.

What, precisely, does Mr. Lewis wish the President to do? Shall he tell General Motors that it must recognize Mr. Lewis’ union as the sole collective bargaining agency? Shall he go on the air and advise the workers of the United States to join Mr. Lewis’ union? Shall he create a special cabinet position and delegate to Mr. Lewis the job of organizing the industrial workers of the nation? To do any of these things the President would have to usurp power which he does not have and delegate authority which he does not possess. Mussolini did that in Italy. He ordered the workers in every industry to join one sort of trade union and recognized that trade union, then, as the sole collective bargaining agency. Stalin can do the same thing in Russia. But the United States is still a democracy, and has to move by democratic processes.

The situation is this: Under pressure of the extremely costly strike, and through the influence of a federal and a state government which are both definitely friendly to labor and trade unionism, General Motors has retreated a considerable distance from the position which it took originally. General Motors agreed to negotiate on all eight points of the union’s demands, and to negotiate for the industry as a whole, and not plant by plant. It agreed, furthermore, to suspend production while the negotiations were in progress—not to reopen the plants. But on its part, it demanded that the sit-down strikers evacuate the two Fisher body plants in Flint, which they still occupy, while the negotiations were in progress. The union agreed.

Want To Work

The union evacuated all but two plants. Then came the Flint Alliance episode. The Alliance was organized by a former mayor who is a General Motors employee, and it claims to represent the workers opposed to Lewis’ union. It sent a letter to General Motors petitioning to go back to work and asking General Motors to negotiate with them as well as with the union. General Motors replied that it would always be willing to negotiate with any group of its employees. No date was set for such negotiations. Lewis charges that the Alliance is a stooge of the management and that the whole exchange of notes was a maneuver of the company. Since the eight points on which General Motors had agreed to negotiate included the claim of the union to be recognized as the sole representative of the workers, Lewis declared that the demand had been denied by implication in advance of opening negotiations, and was evidence, therefore, of bad faith. So he halted the evacuation and retained the two Flint plants with his sit-down strikers—as “hostages.” General Motors, on its part, claimed violation of the agreement, and broke off negotiations.

Action Disconcerting

For the government, which we guess wants to arrive as speedily as possible at a peaceful solution with some recognition of the trade union, Lewis’ action and his statement must have been extremely disconcerting. Apparently the rigid attitude of the management had broken down; apparently the situation was moving toward solution. And it is not easy to envisage what Mr. Lewis’ strategy will be. He does not want to submit the question to a vote of the workers. He charges that the workers will be intimidated, but we suspect that he is not nearly strong enough to control a majority, even in the most carefully protected election. Probably he does not really accept the idea of majority representation at all. It is a new idea in trade unionism. But it has come into trade unionism, by the very fact that labor is seeking government support and government co-operation. As long as employer-employee relationships were not a matter for government interference one way or the other, the question of who and how many any union represented was not so important. But if decisions are to be made by government, the democratic process will become a public demand. For government cannot arbitrarily choose to sponsor whatever minority can bring most pressure upon it. That way lies chaos.

Passive Resistance

In the great industries of this country the trade union movement is still struggling for mere status. The movement is extremely weak. In the sit-down strike it is using the most effective possible weapon of the weak against the strong—a very old weapon indeed, that of passive resistance. It is also a hazardous weapon, because it can certainly be an instrument by which a minority can coerce a majority, even of the workers themselves. If independent trade unionism were accepted in principle by industry, genuinely accepted, then this weapon would have no more moral justification than it has legal justification which, we suspect, is nil. But as it is, it is not easy to work up moral indignation, for this is a fight going on, a real fight, for the status of something recognized by law but sabotaged by heavy industry in practice, and industry certainly holds the bigger guns and the stronger strategical positions.

Can’t Have Both Ways

But the trade unionists cannot have it both ways. If they want to fight it out by themselves, that is one thing. Their success will depend on their power with the workers, and incidentally with public opinion. But if they want government as a party to the struggle, and they certainly do—it was their idea and not that of the industrialists—then they must collaborate to create conditions under which government can participate. Government can protect their right to organize, and see that the laws on the matter are enforced. Government can mediate as between equal parties. But it can only act in a spirit of arbitration. The government does not represent Mr. Lewis or even “labor.” It represents the people of the United States, all of them, who are directly concerned in this strike, because they are going to have to help pay for it. The temper of the country as a whole, at this moment, is sympathetic to labor. But that temper can be exasperated, and, we fear, will be, if Mr. Lewis overreaches himself with demands upon the President, which the President has no power to concede.

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