Steel Strike

The Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Taft-Hartley injunction in the steel dispute will not end the strike; it may do harm, in fact, by obscuring the issues involved with the false reassurance of renewed production. The steel strike--the longest industry-wide stoppage in the country's history--has intensified two issues: the more immediate one of responsibility in the particular conflict of labor and management, and the general degeneration of collective bargaining between two huge economic blocs.

The question in this strike have been far from clarified either by the propagandist dispatches from each side or the advertisements with their specious economics. The antagonists (as has become the case with many of the world's diplomatic contenders) seem more interested in public relations than specific progress. The issues in the strike have involved wage increases and work rules; the second crystallized union support behind its leadership when economic demands alone seemed insufficient to hold a firm front.

The Union wage demands seemed particularly unpropitious last spring, since high employment had only recently been regained after the recession and since the steel companies had accumulated an inventory sufficient to meet orders for a couple of months. The steel firms have claimed that wage increases would force them to raise prices and have sanctimoniously used anti-inflation sentiment as an argument against such wage increases. A lowering of steel prices, before the strike rather than a threat to raise them afterwards would have proved their sincerity much more effectively and probably would have forced the Union to forego any demands for increases.

The issue of foreign trade that the companies have invoked appears likewise a decoy, since besides the argument against the steel companies on free trade grounds the foreign commerce involved is only a few per cent of total steel trade.

The key issue has turned out to be not wage increases but work rules. The companies say they wish to eliminate featherbedding, have a free hand in introducing automation, and, in short, exercise the administrative prerogatives they believe belong to management. The cases of featherbedding produced by management have been few and inconclusive; they are not industry-wide complaints--such as the railroads have against firemen in deisel engines--but specific instances that can be settled by arbitration. As for the general management desire to regain more control over work rules, most unionists feel that this is a reaction to the days of finks and company unions. Considering the progress made under present regulations, the company demand on work rules seems designed more to impede union activities than to redress grievances.

What is an important in this strike as the particular issues involved are the implications for collective bargaining. On one hand, the chief negotiator for management has claimed that the steel union president holds power sufficient to cripple United States industry; on the other hand, the pressure of Kaiser Steel and the industry-wide front indicate that the industry's oligopoly is as much a potential threat as is the Union's power. Such large units are not only bargaining for their own livelihoods; their hugeness makes their conflicts and their settlements a public concern.

The present stalemates has shown that a better system of regulating disputes than now exists is needed. The injunction mechanism now provided becomes only a lever for management, and is the last weapon in the government's arsenal. And in this strike where such huge forces are involved, the eighty-day return to work may grant only a momentary respite.

New government mechanisms are needed. There should be apparatus such as now exists for mediation and public fact-finding. But in a time when "facts" are so complex, this alone is not enough. Fact-finders should be empowered to make recommendations to both sides--as was unofficially done in the present strike. Besides the injunction, a final procedure for compulsory arbitration is also necessary. And an injunction which orders strikers back to work in case of emergency or irreparable damage should not be presumed an automatic remedy. The certain prospect of arbitration if all else failed, plus the uncertainty of when an injunction might be invoked would make union and management more prone to compromise than at present.

The call for government intervention seems to be a necessary corollary of the size of economic units with which this country operates. To lodge the final power for settling disputes with the government is to admit that the countervailing forces have enough reserve strength so that the pressures of collective bargaining may yield results only after a disastrously long strike. To give the public a voice in proceedings that ultimately affect it, a new government mechanism, not to replace collective bargaining but to smooth its processes, is sorely needed.