A Joker in the Labor-Disputes Act?—Victory for the Pullman Porters—Our Unemployed Youth

With the exception of one amendment, the Wagner labor-disputes bill, as finally enacted by Congress, does not differ much from the measure in its original form. But that amendment may be a joker and turn the entire Act into a company-union charter. It has to do with Section 9b, which governs the choice of the appropriate unit for collective bargaining. As first written, this provision gave the labor board the power to decide whether the appropriate unit “shall be the employer unit, craft unit, plant unit or other unit.” As the section now reads, however, the choice is limited to “employer unit, plant unit or any subdivision thereof.” Obviously, the ambiguity in the clause, as it stands, might permit an antiunion board to interpret it against craft unions, against locals affiliated with A.F. of L. internationals, or against industrial unions that have as members employees of more than one employer. It might even be interpreted to limit collective bargaining to company unions.

Of course, if one agrees with the policy of having the government supervise labor relations, there can be no objection to having a board decide the appropriate unit for collective bargaining. For representatives cannot be elected unless the unit is first determined. The employees themselves cannot determine the unit, because the unit must be determined before it can be known what employees are eligible to participate in the election. Yet this is an important power to place in the hands of a governmental agency that may be dominated by reactionary business interests. It may be a step toward the fascist control of labor organization, and it is the chief reason why left-wing labor leaders, especially the Communists, oppose the entire philosophy behind the Wagner measure. At the very least, if the board is to serve labor, it should not be restricted in its decisions. It should have a broad power of choice, as provided in the Railway Labor Act, which declares that the Railway Labor Board (in the conduct of any election for the choice of union representatives) “shall designate who may participate in the election and establish the rules to govern the election.”

There is a strong probability, to be sure, that the shortcomings of this Act may never be of more than academic significance. For even if the new board is wholly impeccable from the labor point of view, the employers have already given notice that they will not obey the law. The Act gives them the right to appeal any order of the board to the courts and, by doing so, they can probably tie the hands of the board for the next year or two, when the Supreme Court may declare the law unconstitutional.

By a vote of 5,931 to 1,422 the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an A.F. of L. affiliate, has won the right to represent the Pullman maids and porters in collective bargaining. The victory is significant not only because it marks the culmination of a ten-year fight by the Brotherhood against the company-union policy of the Pullman Company, but also because it is the first time that a national trade union of Negroes has been able to establish itself over the determined opposition of a large corporation. The Brotherhood, moreover, had to overcome extraordinary handicaps. Its membership was scattered throughout the country, its organizers were intimidated and frequently beaten up. Its resources were practically nil (union officials have received no salaries in six years or more), and several hundred porters and maids lost their jobs during the struggle. Yet in the recent election, which was held in twenty-nine cities under the supervision of the National Mediation Board, the Brotherhood defeated the company union in every city and also won a majority of the ballots cast by mail.

Whether or not the National Youth Administration recently set up by President Roosevelt is able to give work and vocational guidance to the unemployed youth of the land, it at least directs attention to a serious problem. The Department of Labor estimates—and the estimate is considered conservative—that there are 3,000,000 young people who are wholly unemployed. In July, 1934, it found that more than a third—2,450,000—of employable high-school and college graduates between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine were out of work. The younger element, those between eighteen and twenty-four, were hit the hardest. Within this group 44 percent of the high-school graduates and 55 percent of the college graduates were out of work.

A large number of these, of course, have never had the opportunity to work. An extensive survey made in Allegheny County (which includes the city of Pittsburgh) revealed that inDecember of last year about 38,000 persons, or more than a fifth of the unemployed, were seeking their first full-time jobs. In Milwaukee, 75 percent of the boys and girls graduated from nine public high schools in Jane, 1933, and seeking work were found unemployed six months later. For the youth, the tragic part of all this is not merely that the best years of their lives are being wasted but that they are not even being trained or fitted for work of any kind. Apprentice training and vocational guidance will be better than idleness, but unless the government can also find real jobs the National Youth Administration will not help greatly in solving the fundamental problem.

The high-handed policy of President Tighe of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers to maintain control by expelling the militant rank-and-file unions received a setback last week, when Federal Judge Kelson McVicar ruled that the Riverside Lodge in Cleveland had been expelled illegally and was entitled to reinstatement. This opens the way for the reinstatement of some thirty other steel locals which were expelled under similar circumstances. And since these locals, if reinstated, will have a large majority of the membership of the Amalgamated, they should be able to carry through their own aggressive campaign of organization inthe industry. This looks like bad news for Mr. Tighe and the steel employers.

The popular notion that railroad workers are among the aristocrats of American labor receives rather harsh treatment in a report recently issued by Coordinator Joseph B. Eastman. From an analysis of actual payroll records, covering approximately 300,000 railway employees, it develops that nearly 20 percent received less than $600in 1933, 50 percent less than $1,200, while only 20 percent received more than $1,800—the minimum amount fixed by authorities. The study, one of the most thorough ever made of any industry, shows that nearly a million employees lost their jobs between 1921 and 1933, approximately 600,000 having been displaced since 1929. Thus the drop of 24 percent in yearly income between 1929 and 1933 represents only part of the drastic effect of the depression on the railroad workers. At present basic rates of pay are below the minimum standards in other industries. “For the railroads to continue to pay these low wages,” the study concludes, “will certainly not be inthe public interest—underpaid and exploited workers are poor producers, poor consumers and poor contributors to the well-being of their communities.”

This article originally ran in the July 17, 1935, issue of the magazine.