By T. Arnold Hill
The year 1937 comes in on a wave of industrial acceleration. There can be no doubt about it, for profits are advancing, sales increasing, capital expenditures expanding, retail sales mounting, and real estate prices rising. Wages are higher and salary bonuses are being granted. Perhaps the surest index, one that is usually a barometer of good or normal times, is the mounting number of strikes. When business is good, and more especially when prices go up, wages do not rise in equal proportion. As a consequence, labor unions bargain for higher wages and union recognition. Failing to receive them, they issue strike orders which are usually followed. At the present time, several of the industries employing large numbers of workers either have strikes or are threatened with them. Such is the case with the steel, automobile, textile, and transportation industries—the last named menaced on land and sea, and in the air.
The nation’s 1937 labor struggle will be beset with new factions, factors and techniques. Prominent will be the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), headed by John L. Lewis, attacking the orthodox American trade-union movement controlled by the American Federation of Labor (A.F. of L.), with William Green at the head. Technically, this is a dispute involving two old theories—craft unions and industrial unions—which has been settled in European countries on the side of industrial unions. The situation here is complicated because personalities are at loggerheads. The miners, now following Lewis, have withdrawn the dominant force of their 500,000 members from the A.F. of L. As to techniques, there is the “sit down” strike, the “lie down” strike, and mass picketing, in addition to the common forms of revolt workers have practiced heretofore.
Thus, while the automobile companies are producing 220,000 cars daily, they are being threatened with what may be the most serious strike in their entire history. Unions of glass workers have already stopped 85 per cent of the production of plate glass for motor cars. The transportation workers, with the seamen forming the spear-head of revolt, have tied up shipping on both the West and East Coasts. Railroads and municipal transportation systems are likewise having their difficulties.
Several new factors are behind labor’s campaign. While the nation’s workers still demand shorter hours and larger wages, they are today more insistent upon union recognition and closed shop agreements. The orthodox labor unions have been reinforced by organizations of white collar and professional workers—writers, artists, engineers, social workers—who are bringing to labor relations a factual and intelligent approach to a degree that has not been noticeable before.
Again, the spirit of the defunct NRA still lives with a number of private industries which have not abandoned the principle of agreement with workers and plans for stabilization of output; to say nothing of the Labor Relations Board and the National Mediation Board, which have given heart and courage to the protests of workers everywhere. Unquestionably, the aggressiveness of John L. Lewis’s CIO, the unrevealed force behind the seamen’s strike, and the leader of the union activity of steel workers and miners and glass workers, is a new influence which will lend impetus to the ceaseless struggle between capital and labor in the year 1937.
There are knotty problems too, for an economist to explain to a tired nation, if it is actually to be lifted up to its 1929 level. There are paradoxes galore in a recovery so certain and so sure while unemployment, equally certain and sure, is not receding in line with the advance industry is making. No reliable estimate of unemployment has placed the figure below seven million, and most estimates are above eight million. Money piles up in banks because investment possibilities are not available. Interest rates are still low, and surpluses are running high, perhaps too high.
The much mooted question as to the actual cause of unemployment is still to be answered. And until this is answered, there can be no agreed policy to prevent it. There is perhaps as much difference of opinion as to the validity of popular theories of stabilization and prosperity as there was in 1930. There are still those who wonder whether or not the upward trend in business will not again recede to the depths of ’32 and ’33 when it reaches the heights attained in 1929. The question is not yet answered as to how far prosperity can advance in a competitive economy without at the same time ushering in a depression.
We go into 1937, with a more optimistic outlook. Among the employing group there is less hostility toward the interests of wage-earners. Indeed, in some circles, there is a friendliness and a willingness to see eye to eye with the laboring group. We shall have social security in many forms and in many states, so that the future of American workers need not now be as hopeless as it once was. The United States Chamber of Commerce has indicated its willingness to liberalize its policies. In all, 1937 promises to be a good year industrially and economically. Business will be good—so good that labor will want its share of it— and so good that industry should have a good disposition to improve upon its past unworthy performance. It will not be so good, however, that vigilance can be relaxed, or aggressive action withheld. There are few people so optimistic as to believe that labor can yet desist from its continuous watchfulness and insistence.
The issues for the ensuing year will engage the attention of all elements of society. The happenings of the past six years have served to emphasize the unavoidable relationship between industry and every other aspect of our national life. So great has been the loss of position and the destruction of incomes deemed impregnable, that every element of our citizenship has had its interest in human values quickened. Our structure for human welfare in 1937 will not rest on grants to the poor by private organizations. The public must pay for the failure of our economic society, and the public will want to know why the bill is so high. Thus it will be the public’s business to look for causes deeper than surface formation.
Opportunity, 15 (January, 1937): 25,29.