SEPTEMBER 21, 1953
HYDE PARK, Sunday—On Wednesday afternoon I attended a special showing of a film which well illuminates the position of labor unions in American life today. The film is a documentary that tells the story of the AFL United Automobile Workers, and was produced by Union Screen Films, a small, independent company whose young owner, Martin Lencer, I have known for a long time. Technically, it is beautifully done, with color, sound and drama.
The story of the automobile union is a dramatic one, but many people now growing up do not remember the days when union organization in this country was virtually nonexistent. Industrial associations and chambers of commerce existed, and employers were well organized. But labor was not, and in those days any effort to organize it met with great opposition. Moreover, there were no social security laws, so that the man who worked with his hands on a job—or, for that matter, the white collar worker—had no protection either through government or through organization of his fellow workers. Many young workers today, reading the history of those early struggles, would hardly believe what men and women of those days suffered in organizing their fellow workers.
At first, small, local unions were always overwhelmed, for by themselves they could not carry their points against the more powerful employers. When labor finally combined to achieve the American Federation of Labor, as well as international union affiliations, it became much easier to obtain better working conditions, better wages, decent homes, medical care and all the things which go to build security in the life of a human being.
The documentary film uses just 45 minutes to tell this story. It opens with a scene where a young, new member comes in for initiation. Two typical troublemakers are present, wisecracking and criticizing the union. The two do not appear again, but you realize at the end of the film that the story of the union has answered their criticisms.
Today there is concern that the strength which has come to labor unions will not be completely utilized in a wise manner. Labor leaders need to be aware that with their new strength has come a new responsibility. Today, however, there is no longer any question that labor has the right to organize and to protect itself, just as capital has. The question now, for both labor and capital, is how to use their strength for the benefit of the people as a whole—for both are included in the whole, though they represent different areas of interest.