May 13, 2015

1959. Big Business and Big Labor

Story Pitch on Syndicalism
Bill Downs (center left) with Governor George Wallace (center right)
April 10, 1959 (CBS memo)

To: Irving Gitlin
CC: John Day

From: Bill Downs

I have been thinking about a couple of stories which seem to me lend themselves to public affairs treatment, and which seem to me need telling. Both are in the field of politico-economics, but they can be told with simplicity, and the impact could be tremendous.

The first is what appears to be the very real threat of syndicalism growing in this and other countries. I was talking with Walter Reuther about this a few weeks ago, and he agrees that the combined threats of "bigness" in both labor and industry threatens to smother the individual. And when you have labor leadership and management collusion, as has been exposed in the Teamster investigations and the mafia stories, then you have political, social, and economic dynamite.

As you know, syndicalism in one form or another preceded and supported the movements that led to Mussolini's fascism and Hitler's Nazi movement. There is plenty of film on this subject.

The cure, according to most economists, is not the abolition of "bigness" at the cost of low-cost production. Neither the antitrust nor the labor reform laws being proposed seem to get to the core of the problem.

It appears that free peoples must learn to live with bigness, but at the same time must find some way to keep from being swallowed up in the complexities of the operation, while also having the political power to prevent their exploitation.

Reuther proposes that one answer may be a nongovernmental public watchdog commission—with powers only to investigate and expose—which would make any major US industry or labor union present its economic reasons or proof any time a union demands a wage increase or a company announces a price rise.

Many labor unions and most industrialists disagree with Reuther. But all of them agree that more government control is not the answer. Still, if unscrupulous men acquire power in either the labor or economic fields, as of now the government and its regulations are the public's only protection.

I know this all sounds fairly high flown, but I believe the story can and should be done, especially now that the spring strike season is upon us.

The history of syndicalism could be mapped out in Italy and Germany. Something like it is in operation now in West Germany, with labor union representatives sitting on the boards of directors at Krupp and other big enterprises there.

The Senate Rackets Committee has produced miles of tape and film on management-labor collusion. The New York waterfront is the best example of syndicalism in operation and control in this country. The advent of automation and the labor pressures it is creating threaten a kind of machine-made syndicalism which will become increasingly important.

Big Labor for the first time showed its political muscles in Ohio and California during the 1958 elections. This could only be the beginning.

Big Business and industry keep getting bigger, with greater concentrations of economic power being collected in fewer and fewer hands.

The question CBS News could ask is: "What happens if these two forces ever get together?"