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James Burnham

Attacks on NLRB Reflect Blows Suffered by Labor

William Green Joins with Employers Against Board
Militancy Alone Will Save Gains Under Wagner Act

(September 1938)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 36, 3 September 1938, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

During the past month, the long sniping from many quarters at the Wagner Act and its creation, the National Labor Relations Board, has broken out into a sustained and rounded attack. As in the past, we discover in the vanguard spokesmen for the Republican Party and for the National Association of Manufacturers.

On this occasion, however, the American Federation of Labor is taking more conspicuous part, and indeed is currently the chief public critic. Hardly a day goes by without a new denunciation from Bill Green.

For the first time, moreover, President Roosevelt has entered the controversy. Green last week held a long conference with the President. Following it, Green told the press that they had discussed possible amendments to the Wagner Act, and that Roosevelt was in favor of (unspecified) changes in order to clear up certain “ambiguities.” By failing to issue a denial, Roosevelt has tacitly admitted the correctness of Green’s report.

Want Courts Supreme

The bosses have long since made blear the nature of their attack, and the amendments which they demand. They wish to give employers the right to petition the N.L.R.B. directly, at present excluded by the wording of the law. They wish to subordinate more completely the actions of the Board to the regular Courts, in which they have full confidence. And they wish especially to write into the law certain requirements of union “responsibility” which would enable them to utilize faked-up or even genuine contracts as a means of smashing militant union activities.

The A.F. of L. charges that through its power to designate the bargaining unit, the N.L.R.B. has favored industrial unionism and the C.I.O., and that the law should be amended so as to “protect” the right of employees to bargain in craft unions. Green objects also to the personnel of the N.L.R.B. and tried unsuccessfully to block the re-appointment of Board member Smith. Green joins hands with the bosses in wanting the Board to be compelled to give increased recognition to contracts: that is, Green wants to be able to negotiate, over the heads of the workers, a contract which the Board cannot upset|

It would be a delusion to imagine that the present attack is a merely legalistic one. Like the passing of the Wagner Act, the present attack must be understood in terms of the actual relationship of the social forces involved.

Aims of Wagner Act

The Wagner Act, sequel to Section 7A of the N.R.A., came into being as a class collaborationist device designed: (1) to swing the workers behind the New Deal’s method of salvaging U.S. capitalism; and (2) to keep the growing mass movement of the workers from getting out of capitalist bounds, to restrain it firmly within the frame-work of the bourgeois state.

The Act was thus in one sense a concession to the workers, a concession for the sake of the more general aim of preserving capitalism and renewing profits. At its inception it was opposed by many (though by no means all) employers, who were short-sightedly against making such concessions. Interestingly enough, there is no longer any explicit employer objection to the Act as a whole; the demand now is only for “amendments” or “modifications.”

Act Is “Ambiguous”

The Act, called into being by the incipient movement of the workers, became itself a factor stimulating union organization. The “ambiguity” mentioned by Roosevelt is a fact, and no accident. The Act is sufficiently flexible to be utilized on one occasion as a factor in the growth and strengthening of workers’ organization; on another – as it has several times already been – as a factor weakening the workers and their unions.

There is no doubt that the N.L.R.B. has made many decisions in general favorable to the unions, and specifically favorable to the C.I.O.

This is not, however, a tribute to the beneficence of the Wagner Act and the N.L.R.B. In reality, it is a reflection in the juridical sphere of the strength, during the period recently ended, of the upsurge of the labor movement in general and of the C.I.O. in particular. The problem of the N.L.R.B. was to adjust class conflicts; and this meant above all to meet the challenge of the C.I.O. Strength Shifts to A.F. of L.

Today’s drive to amend the Wagner Act in a reactionary direction, and the prominence of the A.F. of L. in this drive, similarly reflects the weakening of the organized labor movement before the new slump and more specifically the terrific set-backs which the C.I.O. has received during the past year. These setbacks are altering sharply the relative positions of C.I.O. and A.F. of L. A year and a half ago no one would have dreamed of disputing the dominance of the C.I.O. in the American labor movement. Today the A.F. of L. is shifting again toward the ascendant.

As in all important cases, the parliamentary questions, though having a secondary relative autonomy, are in the last analysis subordinated to the relationship of social forces. The fate of unionism in this country will be decided neither by preservation nor by amendment of the Wagner Act, but by the class strength and militancy of the workers themselves, outside of the courts and the halls of Congress.

This does not, of course, mean that workers should be indifferent to the fate of the Wagner Act. On the contrary, all proposed amendments designed to aid craft against industrial unionism, to bolster faked contracts, to lessen employer responsibility, or to limit and bind trade union activities should be vigorously resisted. But the best way of putting up this resistance also is not by parliamentary jockeying but by extending and deepening the mass organization of the workers and by combating militantly the direct offensive of the bosses on the economic front.

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