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The Reuther-Meany Split

by Frank Lovell


From International Socialist Review, May-June, 1968, Vol. 29 No.3-Whole, No. 186, from Tamiment Library microfilm archives
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Few of the one-and-a-half million members of the AFL-CIO United Automobile Workers union are familiar with or care much about the stated differences that have developed between Walter Reuther, president of their union, and George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO. Yet these differences, which have brought the AFL-CIO to the brink of split, are a real reflection, albeit in distorted form, of the feelings, desires and hopes of broad strata of union men and women in this country.

The stated differences are but a superficial expression of a much deeper conflict whose source can be traced to the disparate historical origin, development, personality and style of the two men. Reuther came out of the ranks of those insurgent militants who sparked the drive which toppled the open shop in the auto industry and culminated in the organization of the mass production industries under the banner of the CIO. He fought on the picket line, was beaten up by Ford’s goons, and clawed his way to leadership through a series of bitter internal factional battles. The point that must be underscored is that Reuther’s power base rests upon a union which arose in the process of fierce struggle against both the auto barons and the hidebound AFL bureaucracy and which has prided itself on its tradition of democratic rank and file participation in union affairs.

Reuther’s style and personality have been shaped and conditioned by the events which molded the character of the UAW. His resort to the techniques of social demagogy and his devious maneuvers and strategems in contract negotiations are all part of his necessary adaptation to the pressures of a vocal, oft-times recalcitrant and sometimes rebellious membership. Little wonder that he is often embarrassed and dismayed at the blatant crudities of a George Meany.

In contrast to Reuther, Meany is a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat. He came out of the conservative, craft-ridden AFL Plumbers Union and quickly graduated into the ranks of the bureaucratic hierarchy. His power base is in the bureaucracy itself to which he is completely beholden. Meany is many times removed from any contact with the union ranks. Meany is so free from any taint of union militancy that he was able to boast at the time he was elevated to his present high position: “I never went on strike in my life, never ran a strike in my life, never ordered anyone else to run a strike in my life, never had anything to do with a picket line.” Such are the credentials which qualified Meany in the eyes of his fellow bureaucrats as candidate for president of the reunified AFL-CIO in 1955.

During his 13 year tenure as head of the AFL-CIO, Meany has consistently confirmed his impeccable qualifications. When called before the National Labor Relations Board in the fall of 1966 to testify against charges of “unfair labor practices” brought by General Electric and Westinghouse against several AFL-CIO unions in the electrical industry which had formed a bargaining coalition and were presenting joint demands to the corporations, Meany claimed that he had not personally directed the union strategy and denied knowing anything about the course of negotiations.

The Meany image remained unchanged when projected together with Lyndon Johnson during a half-hour chat in the Fish Room of the White House, the labor federation president proclaimed his agreement with the capitalists’ president on the major political and economic issues of the day.

Reuther, for his part, has disassociated himself and the UAW from Meany’s crudities by resigning, prior to the 1967 auto contract negotiations, from the policy-making AFL-CIO Executive Council. In an interview with a New York Times correspondent on the eve of the Ford strike last September, Reuther said of his leaving the AFL-CIO Executive Council, “No question about it—I’m liberated.” He further explained his reasons for disengaging himself from the mossbacks on the Council by saying: “When you try and try and try to get through that brick wall, and it only gets thicker, and then you can use your wings to fly over it, it’s a wonderful feeling.” But this doesn’t say much about what Reuther intends.

His views are usually expressed in the most general terms—peace, freedom, social justice. In a statement he made early in the game, when the break with Meany was definitive, Reuther broadly defined his goals:

“American labor needs not apologize for its programs, for they are not related to any narrow self-servicing interests of labor, but are related to the basic unmet needs of all the people and the whole nation.

“We have come a long way. But there is still much unfinished work to be done... The only war that should engage man’s attention and efforts is the war against poverty, hunger, ignorance and disease, the war to extend the frontiers of social justice and human betterment.” Detroit Labor News, November 23, 1966.

Meany sometimes makes statements like this too, but coming from Reuther it all sounds more genuine to most workers and seems to be more in their interest.

Reuther knows how to be concrete when circumstances require it. For example, the 1967 auto negotiations were concluded with a signed three-year contract between each of the auto corporations and the UAW. All reference to the AFL-CIO, which had appeared in the previous contract language, was carefully deleted. This serves notice that the AFL-CIO is cut out of the auto industry. Henceforth this sector of U. S. industry remains the exclusive province of the UAW. In so doing Reuther clearly reveals his intention to pull out and leave the AFL-CIO behind. His successfully negotiated auto contracts now reinforce his bid for the central leadership of the divided and disoriented trade union movement.

Reuther’s way of dealing with the auto corporations, his organizational skills in managing the huge bureaucratic apparatus of the giant UAW, his handling of the Ford strike—all this makes a heavy impact and stirs the dulled senses of every trade union bureaucrat who happens to stumble upon it. There is growing evidence that Reuther came out of the 1967 auto negotiations looking pretty good in the eyes of the trade union officialdom. Of course, they don’t know all the details. But around the country there are plenty of business agents in craft unions with wage scales below the UAW skilled trades scale who would like to avoid worry about reelection by negotiating 50-cent-an-hour raises for their members.


The Normal Pattern of Negotiations

There is no better way to examine in detail Reuther’s credentials for leadership of the trade union movement than to review the 1967 auto negotiations, the conduct of the Ford strike, and the settlement that was reached with the auto corporations. Herein we will discover the differences in style, in method, and in goals that divide the Reuthers from the Meanys in matters of union strategy and tactics. We will also see what they have in common, for both are committed in principle to the idea that the working class and the employing class are, and must forever be, partners in the forward march of humanity toward an ever higher standard of living.

It is useful to look behind the scenes in order to understand better the real relationship between union apparatus and corporate management. Over the years the Reuther leadership of the UAW and the auto corporations have established a working relationship which lends the appearance of relative “industrial harmony.” Each side maintains its own staff of economic advisers, research workers, and industrial relations experts. They keep abreast of the statistics on labor productivity, shifting unemployment, average wage rates, rising living costs, corporate profits. In this way, through an interchange of information and by means of countless contacts beyond the limited area of union-management relations, top union officials and their counterparts in the auto corporations carry on continuous negotiations from month to month, year in and year out.

These negotiations proceed on the basic assumption of common interests. Both sides avow their concern for the health of the national economy, for promoting the needs of society as a whole and for maintaining profits and at the same time raising the standard of living of the working class. Reuther, as UAW president, shows a far greater interest in “community projects” to advance education, improve housing, and wipe out slums, than have any of the spokesmen for the auto industry. But they have gone along in the various civic committees. And in the most recent period, responding to the Detroit ghetto uprising of last summer, Henry Ford II began to overshadow Reuther in this area of public relations. In the course of these joint activities each side has come better to understand the other. Each knows what the other wants, what he needs, how he operates.

This mutual appreciation is naturally transferred to the bargaining table where “common interests” vie with antagonistic pressures. Each side seeks to reconcile the antagonism—to his own immediate advantage. To this end they have evolved a rather elaborate set of unwritten rules and a special kind of language—the language of labor-management diplomacy—by means of which neither says exactly what he means but both understand what is implied.

Something of this “knowledgeable appreciation of the other side” is, of course, present in all serious negotiations whether they occur between buyers and sellers in the marketplace or between the diplomats of great powers. It is no less the case in all dealings between the boss and the workers at all levels, whether in the shop or at the bargaining table. Reuther has managed to formalize this and in the process he has removed many of the crudities of “backdoor bargaining,” “under-the-table deals,” “sweetheart contracts,” and outright “payoff” most commonly identified with the old Meany-type pure-and-simple trade unionist. Reuther has developed the new “bargaining pattern.” And this is the Reuther style.

When time for a new UAW contract rolls around bargaining guidelines are clearly understood by the principal participants on both sides. Each knows in general terms and round figures what “the package” will be. What follows is the method for working out the details of the new contract, allaying some of the most galling grievances of the auto workers, and establishing the new basis of union-management relations for the life of the contract. It is a time of intensive stock-taking by both union and boss.

Traditionally the UAW calls a special convention in Detroit the year the auto contracts expire. The only point on the agenda is DEMANDS. This is always a big affair, capturing headlines and making big news in all parts of the country, and serving to alert the auto workers that their union is on its toes and in fighting trim. The year 1967 was no exception. The special convention, called in April and attended by 1500 delegates from all locals of the union, set the stage for the formal opening of negotiations in July. The union was shooting for a big wage increase and guaranteed yearly income. Banner slogans on opening day of the convention demanded: “Eliminate the Wage Differential Between U. S. and Canada ... Equal Pay for Equal Work,” and served notice to the auto bosses: “No Tampering With Cost of Living Protection. We fought to win it ... we aim to keep it.”

These conventions are carefully prepared and well organized by the leadership of the UAW. They serve a double purpose: to bring the secondary leaders together and acquaint them with the “realistic demands” of the union, and to alert the corporations of what direction negotiations should take and of the areas in which some changes in contractual relations are needed. There is no other union leadership that approaches negotiations in such a methodical manner, and none that knows how to capitalize so well on the publicity resulting from these techniques.

All basic demands from all UAW locals around the country are carefully sifted, catalogued, and endorsed—after which the convention votes for “a flexible policy at the top negotiating table” and empowers Reuther and his staff to select the “hard core issues.” Then there follows a “public relations” job by the UAW publicity department to “explain” the union bargaining position and the key demands.

In 1967 the “guaranteed annual wage” was again advanced to the top of the list, as it had been in previous negotiations. This time it had to share the top spot with “Equity.” No matter if auto workers failed to learn from all this exactly what they were asking for in the way of wages, in 1967 as in the past, the auto corporations knew in advance, just as Reuther did, what the limits were. And both knew that the real issue between them was the cost-of-living provision in the auto contracts, but neither of them had much to say publicly about this in the opening stages.

As the bargaining process unfolds the whole bureaucratic apparatus of the UAW is brought into play, covered over with a paper-thin veneer of “democratically elected negotiators.” This is how it works: Top negotiating committees are selected to meet separately with each of the auto corporations. These negotiators are picked by the UAW subcouncils to which local unions send delegates. Each team of negotiators is headed by the UAW vice president in charge. In 1967 the team chiefs were Leonard Woodcock for General Motors, Ken Bannon for Ford, and Douglas Fraser for Chrysler, while Vice President Pat Greathouse headed a fourth team of negotiators to meet with American Motors and with representatives of all companies in the farm implement industry.

Reuther is accustomed to open negotiations with each of the corporations and in the final days he travels from one set of negotiations to the other in last-minute efforts to “finalize the agreement,” as they say in that peculiar jargon of theirs.

But before this happens there are several stages through which negotiations must proceed. After Reuther sets forth the union position on opening day, negotiations proceed apace, but nothing much happens. Then, sometime around the middle of August, the UAW takes a strike vote of the membership, authorizing the leadership to call a strike “if necessary.”

Now come the corporation spokesmen with their sad tale of woe, telling how ill-prepared they are to grant concessions in these trying times but hinting at what they might be willing to give for the sake of harmonious relations. Next the union selects a “target company” for strike action if no settlement is reached by that fateful day in September when the auto contracts expire.

Very quickly then, with only a couple of weeks to go, the broad outlines of a new agreement are established and the serious bargaining begins. This occurs over how much shall be alloted for health plans, for disability income protection, for supplementary unemployment benefits, for care for retired workers and their survivors, for additional holidays, and for wages. These are matters that must be settled under terms of the national contract. And both sides agree that a deadline must be met. Sometimes they find it necessary to postpone the deadline, but there is no advantage to either side in extending the negotiations indefinitely, once there is firm understanding on “the package.”

When the national agreement has been “finalized” and initialed and each side has congratulated the other on a job well done, there remain the “local issues.” These have to do with working conditions in the shops and the relationship between local union committeemen and plant supervision. This is where the class struggle between worker and boss is most sharply defined, and the issues are myriad, involving infractions of shop rules, management’s prerogative of job assignment, work classification, speedup, etc. Much of this, like the class struggle in all forms cannot be amicably resolved. It cannot be reduced to contract language and set down in rigid rules to be followed. By the time of contract negotiations workers are so dissatisfied with the old conditions that they often walk out and refuse to accept the new contract until their local grievances are settled.

This is a more important stage in the contract negotiations than is generally recognized. Both company managers and UAW bureaucrats understand it as a necessary “safety valve,” a time when workers are allowed to “blow off steam” as they say among themselves.

After a week or ten days on the picket line the workers are expected to have “thought things over,” the UAW regional director has appeared at strike meetings to “explain” the new contract, and company spokesmen have expressed a willingness to make some local concessions. Votes are taken. The majority decides to return to work. The workers go back to the plants and the struggle over working conditions begins all over again, under terms of the newly signed agreements. Sometimes the most militant leaders in the plant are reprimanded, and some may be fired.

This stage of “local negotiations” may extend over a rather long period of time. For example the 1967 GM national agreement was signed on schedule December 14 without a strike and on December 28 the UAW announced that a majority of its 375,000 members in General Motors plants across the country had ratified the new three-year UAW-GM contract. But at the end of February (almost a quarter of a year after “top table” negotiations ended) 29 of the 168 GM bargaining units in the United States still had not signed local agreements and were preparing local strike action.

This, then, is the general pattern of UAW contract negotiations. There are an agreed upon time table and recognized mutually accepted stages of negotiations. In the end a working relationship between union and management evolves in the form of a legal document-the contract. This pattern is identified with Walter Reuther as president of the UAW. He likes to take full credit for it, considers it a mark of his “statesmanship,” and boasts of the benefits auto workers have won within the framework of this formula. But the truth is that Reuther is not the sole author of it. The auto corporations have had a big hand in the development of it and have benefited from it. It is the formula for “industrial peace” in the age of big business and the big union.

Corporate profits testify that the auto industry has not suffered under what they call their “industrial relations” formula. Certainly auto is in as good a position as other industries, such as steel or electrical machinery, where other methods and a different formula have been practiced. This is not to say that the super-profits of the auto industry are a direct result of the labor policy of the corporations. But it is clear that their profits have not suffered and that the wages of auto workers are far from excessive.

There comes a time when the tried and tested pattern of union-management relations is threatened, disrupted by social and economic pressures beyond the control of corporation heads and union officials. The beginning stage of the 1967 UAW contract negotiations occurred at such a time.

The 1967 Settlement at Ford

Right at the start negotiations bogged down. Union spokesmen were talking about the guaranteed annual income, salary for hourly-rated employees, some form of profit sharing, substantial wage increases, more pay for skilled workers, higher pensions, wage parity for Canadian workers, a scholarship and refund tuition program, and in general, “Equity.” But these weren’t the issues of major concern to either party at that time. What divided them was the “escalator” clause in the union contract, the provision for a quarterly, cost-of-living wage adjustment corresponding to rising prices as recorded by the U. S. Labor Department’s consumer price index. The auto bosses had made it clear that they wanted to eliminate it from the new contract.

There is always pretense in negotiations. But in this instance both sides pretended not to know anything, to be unable to fathom the depth of their problem. One “anonymous” company source complained, “the negotiators haven’t given us any indication where there is room for give. And that is what collective bargaining is all about.” The UAW responded through an equally “anonymous” spokesman. “There just isn’t any communication. And this may be the thing that will make a strike unavoidable.” A strike was unavoidable, but not for want of communication.

Prices, including auto prices, are going up. But the auto corporations wanted to put controls on the price of labor. They demanded that wages be regulated through a fixed ceiling, that the UAW give up the protection provided by the cost-of-living clause. The UAW could not bow to this demand. That is what made the 1967 Ford strike unavoidable last September.

The auto industry expected the strike and prepared for it. General Motors Corporation drafted a financial assistance plan for the “Big Three” corporations. All negotiations on their side were coordinated, centralized, unified. They practiced “coalition bargaining” without talking about it.

Reuther, for the UAW, ran the Ford strike as if it were the result of a misunderstanding of signals at the top negotiating table. He kept trying to remind the corporation spokesmen that the UAW still had some bargaining power, and had greater forces in reserve. He was careful throughout never to violate any of the basic ground rules that are understood and taken for granted between union bureaucrats and big bosses.

On September 7, when the UAW-Ford contract expired, 160,000 Ford workers struck. They voted to return to work October 25.

On the eve of the strike Reuther suggested that it could be averted by submitting the wage issues to arbitration. He knew that the corporations, under the circumstances, would not pick up the offer. It was proffered to win “public sympathy” at the outset, but it was open-ended and never withdrawn.

In the middle of the strike, Frank Winn, a special assistant to Reuther, explained in a letter to the Detroit Free Press that the UAW proposal was for “voluntary arbitration,” which, he explained, “is regarded by labor and responsible employers as an often useful tool in industrial relations.” This again made clear to the auto industry that Reuther would welcome arbitration in which the arbiter’s decision would be “final and binding.”

Ford officials originally rejected this out of hand on the ground that it involved opening the corporation books—something the Big Three in the auto industry will not submit to. Nevertheless, such arbitration proposals are always a far greater threat to the union than to the company because just to limit the degree of exploitation to the already established level, arbitration would presuppose “impartial” investigation and an attempt to adjust wages in accordance with corporate profits and increased productivity in the industry. The present political reality is that arbitration proceeds under the aegis of a government fact-finding board and that the “findings” always show the workers entitled to a wage increase exactly in accordance with the economic guidelines laid down in Washington.

In the case of the auto workers it might well have been that in the course of arbitration proceedings the corporations would have suffered some embarrassment, since their exorbitant rate of profit (after taxes) might have been found to be excessive and their increase in auto prices unwarranted. But these questions are not ruled on by the arbitrator. Only in the question of wages is the decision “final and binding.” So when it is all over the corporations manage quickly enough to overcome their embarrassment and continue their mad scramble to increase profits and boost prices, but the workers are stuck with the low wages “award” of arbitration.

This arbitration gambit was a foolish and wasted move on Reuther’s part so far as the interests of the Ford strikers were concerned. However, it did serve to demonstrate once again that Reuther is a “fair and reasonable” labor leader and that he is endowed with “statesmanship.” This is most important to Reuther in his bid for leadership of the union movement. He wants the bosses to know that he has something to offer and the “know-how” to present it.

He missed no opportunity to show his respect and proper appreciation of the existing order. During the Ford strike, when the auto workers were determined to break the wage guidelines of the Johnson administration, Reuther found occasion on a television appearance to speak a few kind words in support of Johnson.

Since the auto settlements Reuther has become more critical of Johnson’s course in Vietnam, but he carefully balances this with high praise of the administration’s domestic program. Thus, in a letter to Johnson on February 23 of this year, he hailed as “imaginative and innovative” administration proposals for urban development. “Mr. President, I congratulate you on the vision and commitment that inspired this historic recommendation . . . Your proposals deserve full support ... We will work hard to help pass them.” This is telling Johnson and all others who care to listen whose corner Reuther is in. He is not on the side of the workers who are looking for substantial wage raises this summer to meet the rising cost of living, because this is what Johnson’s domestic program specifically and explicitly opposes.

Union bureaucrats always talk over the heads of the workers to the bosses and the bosses’ representatives in government where they think all the power is. Reuther is no exception. He ran the Ford strike as if it were simply a sounding board for his maneuvers in the auto negotiations, carefully blocking all avenues through which strikers traditionally organize their own actions. The conduct of the strike discouraged rank and file discussion of strike strategy. Picket lines were limited in numbers and token in character. Strikers were requested to report only once for picket duty every 11 days.

No strike machinery was organized to provide for the pickets’ needs. Cash benefits were kept to a bare minimum, $20 a week for single men and $30 for family men. Coffee and sandwiches were served to pickets at the plant gates, but even this was organized by “the union” so as not to involve the strikers directly in the conduct of their strike. A catering service was hired to perform this routine strike committee function. Talk on the picket line at the time was to the effect that the catering service cost the UAW $35,000 for the first 10 days of the strike.

There was no effort on the part of the UAW leadership to inform the strikers about the conduct of their strike, to tell them of the stiff-necked attitude of the auto bosses, to acquaint them with the state of negotiations, or to alert them to the ever-present threat of government intervention and to explain what this would mean in light of pending anti-labor legislation in Washington. All this was left to the speculation of the strikers based on what information they could get from the daily newspapers, which gave the employers’ side of the story and explained all developments according to the needs and hopes of corporation spokesmen.

Even the central issue-cost-of-living protection-which prompted the strike, was kept hidden from the strikers. The picket signs said: “We Want Equity.” The strikers were asking, “How much is Equity?”

There was no sign that strike strategists at UAW Solidarity House ever considered issuing a daily strike bulletin to keep UAW members informed. Local union papers gave little or no information about the real issues of the strike and long ago gave up the practice of printing rank and file discussion letters.

Ford Facts, the official publication of Ford UAW Local 600, exactly once came out with a solicited and carefully edited “Ford Workers View” column. In this case, where the editor went out for a sampling of what workers at the Rouge plant thought about the Ford offer, he came back with clear statements of what these workers needed and wanted. One of them, D. T. Smith, Engine Repair, said, “I feel that the Company has failed to take into consideration our working conditions—more relief time, production standards, and retirement with full benefits at an early age.” A young production worker, Redus Garwood, reported what these men were thinking about. He said: “When we young members got together this morning and discussed the Company proposal we were glad the huge strike vote was recorded last week. We need more money to buy the things young people need.” Another young worker, Frank Wiecha of the tool and die unit, simply observed that Ford’s offer “does not keep up with the cost of living.” Of the more than 30 workers quoted in the survey all spoke about the need to improve working conditions and raise wages to meet the rising cost of living.

The same issue of Ford Facts carried the full text of the statement of the UAW International Executive Board rejecting the Big Three contract proposal. There is a vast discrepancy between the general demands of the top union officials and the specific needs expressed by the workers they represent. This is illustrated in one of the Executive Board’s summary statements: “Collective bargaining, to perform a constructive role in our free society, should be based upon economic facts, not economic power. Collective bargaining decisions should reflect the relative equities of workers, stockholders, executives, and consumers. In the current negotiations, we are determined to get full relative equity for UAW members and their families, not out of the pockets of American consumers, but rather out of increased productivity and profitability.” Clearly, in this statement, UAW officials were talking to the corporation heads and, indirectly, to the Johnson administration.

They hardly talked to the auto workers at all. The only mass meeting of Ford strikers in the Detroit area was held October 1, and Reuther invited Henry Ford II to attend and address the meeting. Ford turned down the invitation. But Reuther had nothing to report on that occasion and failed to emphasize that the auto corporations were bent on undermining the workers’ cost-of-living protection.

One time the UAW officials did talk to the rank and file. At a one-day special convention on October 8 they asked for a dues increase. While Reuther used the Ford strike to push through a dues increase that will nearly double UAW income, no increase in strike benefits were provided for the Ford strikers.

The ’One-at-a-time’ Strike Strategy

In case anyone gets the idea that no thought was given to the overall question of strike strategy, the UAW bureaucrats will be the first to dispute it. This strike was called and concluded under the sign of the now-famous “one-at-a-time strike strategy.” This strategy is treated as part of the UAW’s sacred heritage, and to question its infallibility as a key to success in any and all instances is a sacrilege. Younger members of the UAW are told often and at length how clever the leadership has been to take advantage of competition between the corporations by singling out “the one” to strike, thus cutting off its profits and injuring its competitive position in the industry while encouraging the others until the struck company simply gives up. Having forced one of the Big Three to sign a favorable contract with UAW, the others then have to follow. The historic example is the 1946 GM strike which lasted 113 days and was led by Reuther himself. We are never told how it is that GM’s “competitive position” didn’t suffer then or since. And we have already seen that in this latest Ford strike, the company suffered no serious competitive disadvantage and besides, the other corporations were prepared to underwrite the losses.

It was clear from the beginning that the aim of the 1967 Ford strike was not to hurt the company. Maintenance crews remained after the walkout to close down all furnaces and properly secure all machinery so as to insure an orderly and rapid return to production when the strike ended. Supervisory personnel was allowed through the picket lines at all times.

After the strike had gone on for a month, UAW top officials agreed to reopen three struck Ford plants. These were parts plants that supply American Motors Corporation. This decision came as soon as an AMC official notified Ford and the UAW that his firm was running out of parts and might have to close before the end of October.

UAW officials also agreed in the first days of October to open picket lines and allow parts shipments at two Ford installations in the Detroit area: the National Parts Depot in Livonia and the Detroit Parts Depot. Ford produces a variety of vehicles and parts for the Army, and the Pentagon had claimed that parts were urgently needed to prevent shortages at the Vietnam war front. UAW officials hastened to release all needed parts, unmindful of the effect on the strike.

In a similar action to prevent the Ford strike from “damaging the national economy” or “slacking the war effort” or threatening Ford competitors in the auto industry, Douglas A. Fraser, director of the UAW Chrysler department, rushed to Dayton, Ohio, to head off a strike at Chrysler’s Airtemp plant there. Workers in this plant are members of the International Union of Electrical Workers, not the UAW, and their contract with Chrysler expired October 6. They make instrument panels and heaters for almost all Chrysler cars and a strike by them would have closed Chrysler plants across the country. There are about 2,600 workers in this Dayton plant and they voted in September to strike if Chrysler failed to settle with them before their old contract ran out.

Fraser’s job was to get them to extend the old contract while negotiations continued. He argued that closing Chrysler would cut across the UAW one-at-a-time strike strategy and hurt the Ford strikers. The IUE workers voted to go along with Fraser’s appeal, but of the 1,500 who attended the meeting only 600 voted. A second meeting had to be called in order to record a larger vote.

The IUE had earlier walked out for a short time at two GM plants but had agreed to go back to work without a contract—“in order to help the Ford strikers,” as UAW officials put it.

This is the strike strategy in which no one suffers except the strikers. Only their demands go unanswered. The auto industry continues to increase production. Government demands for military supplies are promptly met. Strategic Ford plants are reopened. Other workers in the industry are urged to produce this year’s high priced cars for last year’s low wages. Ford continues to roll up profits. And Ford stock gains a point or two on Wall Street’s big board.

Here is an example of how Reuther applies “coalition bargaining,” which is his prescription for industries where the work force is split up and divided among several unions. He urges those unions to draft joint demands and present the bosses with a union coalition. This is the sensible, elementary, united action which union men and women expect. It is the very thing George Meany claims to know nothing about and never had a hand in. But when Reuther puts his hand in it, as he did with the Chrysler workers in Dayton, Ohio, who were represented by another union, the IUE, his “coalition bargaining” turns out to be a way to keep the workers divided and on the job in the midst of a strike when united action would be most effective and would afford them the best opportunity to win some badly needed wage gains.

This is not the worst of the crimes committed under the general heading of “strike strategy.” It is often a tactical question whether to strike one company or a whole industry, but Reuther’s course in the 1967 auto negotiations did not follow from a simple choice of this kind. His use of the usual one-at-a-time strike strategy was deliberately designed to forestall the industry-wide battle that is dictated by monopoly control in the auto industry and that must yet be fought by the UAW if the inroads of the auto giants into the living standards of the entire working class, not only auto workers, are to be blocked.

The time was favorable when the auto contracts expired last September. The employing class, the capitalist masters of this country, were and remain in deep trouble. They are caught in the Vietnam war trap and don’t know how to get out of it. Their savage destruction of a whole nation and their wanton killing of innocent people have revealed the moral depravity of this ruling class and shocked the civilized world. There is widespread discontent among all classes of people here over this war and a deep sense of shame in significant sectors of the middle class whose members feel themselves implicated and responsible. The millions of black people are in open revolt against this society, which oppresses and humiliates them. And the unions are beginning to assert some of their old militancy in response to slashes in the standard of living brought on by the war’s high prices and high taxes.

This was the time for all those leaders in the UAW, beginning with their president, to lead. What else are leaders for? They made some sounds at the start to give the impression of generals marshalling their forces. Vice President Leonard Woodcock told General Motors: “This union will not allow the corporation to weaken the cost-of-living protection of GM workers.” That sounded good. How will this not be allowed? What is to be done?

Back in 1946, when the ruling class of this country was caught up in the post-World War II economic and political crisis, Reuther began to act like a leader. He was then UAW vice president in charge of the GM department. Right from the beginning the GM union committee, which he headed, conducted negotiations seriously, presented clear and specific demands, and gave the corporation to understand that it meant business and wasn’t there simply to go through the motions and make the record. Reuther attacked the corporation publicly and exposed their poor-mouth arguments by demanding that it “open the books.” By mounting a big campaign for “wage increases without price increases,” he dramatized to millions of CIO and AFL workers the injustices of the profit-bloated corporations and exposed their insidious propaganda that high prices are caused by high wages. He stood up against the hired “brains” of the richest and most powerful capitalists, answering each and every one of their twisted arguments, and he beat them down. In the end the General Motors Corporation agreed to the cost-of-living allowance. That was something new in union contracts of that day, and it has served the auto workers well ever since.

This lasting victory was not the result of the one-at-a-time strategy which Reuther initiated and insisted upon in that situation. On the contrary, the victory of the auto workers was assured when electrical, packinghouse and steel workers walked out in January 1946, after the GM workers had already been on strike for two months. At the peak of the 1946 strike wave almost 2 million workers were out. This is what brought the victory.

In the 1967 auto negotiations Reuther lacked those very qualities that distinguished him in 1946. The twenty-one-year interval has converted him from a labor leader into a labor statesman. To be sure, the conversion occurred very early in his career as UAW president, but that only means he has had twenty years to practice the art of statesmanship, the way of the misleaders of labor. If Reuther had had the will and the courage to challenge the deceitful, self-seeking, corrupting, socially-poisonous, war-making practices of the auto barons, he could have exposed the plans of the auto corporations to a giant Labor Day rally in Detroit, and he would have been heard by millions of deprived, underpaid workers throughout the nation. Instead, with only two days remaining before expiration of the UAW contracts, the motor city was ominously quiet on Labor Day, 1967.

Officials of the Wayne County AFL-CIO had called off the Detroit Labor Day parade in order, as they said, to “start planning ’68 Labor Day holiday.” This inability to do anything out of the ordinary is an acquired characteristic, born of habit.

Since 1948 these labor leaders have converted the traditional Labor Day protest demonstrations into servile rallies for labor’s enemies in the Democratic Party. They now plan to continue this ignoble practice and unmindfully chose the eve of the 1967 Ford strike to announce that “come 1968 with the Democratic National Convention and more importantly the National elections, we will indeed be very busy and need the cooperation of every affiliate and every delegate to make Labor Day of 1968 the most spectacular and eventful holiday of the year.”

Russell Leach, president of the Wayne County AFL-CIO, past officer of the UAW, and always staunch supporter of Reuther, managed to piece together a “Labor Day message” without mentioning the impending strike struggle of the auto workers against the united might of the corporations reinforced by the anti-labor policies of the Johnson administration. Reuther showed no disapproval, and there was no sign that he would have wanted it otherwise.

Reuther’s course was based on the limited use of union power and the careful exclusion of rank and file participation in the affairs of their union. Workers in each of the giant corporations were kept apart. War production, which was exempted from strike action, provided convenient and profitable sanctuaries for the bosses in important segments of the industry. All this was done to keep the arena of struggle limited and to avoid any clash with the capitalist government that would be embarrassing to Johnson.

This strategy of limited action served to keep Reuther in the best position to run things bureaucratically, without serious interference from unruly strikers demanding action, and it shaped the situation which made it possible for him to dictate settlement terms to the ranks.

Cave In on the Escalator Clause

The final lap of negotiations with each of the auto corporations becomes highly dramatic, for then Reuther personally enters the talks and invites the head of the corporation to join him. In the Ford strike Reuther was closeted with Henry Ford II for a series of marathon sessions. Both sides pledged themselves not to make public statements so as not to upset the delicately balanced relationship. The news blackout is maintained as each side sweats out the onrushing deadline previously agreed upon. During this period the boss-controlled daily press indulges in speculation about the outcome while the giants negotiate “in the dark.” The idea begins to circulate, passed along on the picket lines and around the auto shops, that this is the time when Reuther picks the big boys’ pockets. In 1967, it turned out to be a rather cruel joke when the Ford settlement was announced October 22.

Reuther had caved in on the key bread-and-butter issue—the cost-of-living protection. No longer would auto workers’ wages be geared to the rapidly rising cost of living. A ceiling on wages had been agreed upon. This was neatly drafted to fit the shell of the old “escalator clause” but the kernel was gone.

Under the emasculated form of the cost-of-living “escalator” clause Ford workers will get in addition to their base pay at least 3 cents an hour in the second and third years of the contract, or a total of 6-cents. They may get as much as 8 cents additional in the second and third years, or a total of 16 cents. But no more. That is the ceiling. This cost-of-living allowance is now to be paid quarterly in a lump sum and no longer added in the weekly check to the hourly base pay rate.

Reuther accurately reported the new wage scales as follows:

“The average production worker will receive a 20-cents-an-hour wage increase upon his return to work plus a three per cent annual wage increase in the second and third years of the contract. These wage increases, together with the impact of the ’roll up’ factor, will amount to an average of 58 cents an hour over the three-year period of the contract.

“The average skilled trades worker will receive a 50-cent-an-hour wage increase upon his return to work plus a three per cent annual wage increase in the second and third years of the contract. These wage increases, together with the impact of the ’roll up’ factor, will amount to an average of $1.02 an hour over the three-year period of the contract.” (“Roll up” consists of increases in wage-related fringe benefits such as holiday pay, vacation pay, shift premiums, etc.)

The average wage scale in the auto industry today, after signing the national contracts with the Big Three, is $3.50 an hour for production workers, and $4.90 for skilled tradesmen. The new rates for the life of the three-year contracts, which expire September 14, 1970, represent an increase of about 5.5 per cent. This is the average increase of union wages in the year 1967.

So what Reuther sells to the auto workers as “the greatest gains In the history of UAW bargaining” turns out to be just average. The 5.5 per cent increase is easily within the guidelines of the Johnson administration, although more than Johnson now says can be allowed in the future. Some unions got more than the UAW, some less. And that’s about the way Reuther figures it. He is strictly a percentage man when it comes to wage rates.

The cost-of-living protection is another matter. It was a new concept in union bargaining back in 1946. The UAW “escalator” clause was the first included in a union contract, and it was the best. It remained so much better than most others patterned after it that even on this issue Reuther can still explain his “sacrifice” by comparing what the UAW has with other unions.

The Ford Motor Company, in its third quarter report to stockholders, appraised the UAW settlement as follows: “We are gratified that significant changes were accomplished in the provisions governing the cost-of-living allowance. For the first time changes in the allowance will be confined within specific limits. Contrary to what seems to be the prevailing public impression, it entails labor cost increases in line with those negotiated recently in other industries ...”

In the end this is what “Equity” turned out to mean.

Parity for Canadian Workers

There was another issue of great concern to the UAW leadership when the 1967 negotiations got started: “Parity.” This means equal pay for U.S. and Canadian auto workers, and it opens very far-reaching questions having to do with national differences imposed and maintained by the auto monopoly. Involved are tariff regulations between the two countries, currency exchange and inflationary pressures within the Canadian economy. Most of all, the parity demand threatens the present cozy arrangement, resulting from the 1965 U.S.-Canadian tariff agreement, which allows the auto monopoly to manufacture in a common market, and gives it the advantage of selling on both sides of a tariff wall. Canadian auto workers earned an average of 43 cents an hour less than their UAW brothers here, while cars in Canada sell for much higher prices. This is an injustice to Canadian workers and a threat to UAW members here because the auto monopoly can exchange assembled units as well as parts freely across the border, while taking advantage of lower wages and higher prices on the Canadian side.

This question became a big issue in the Chrysler stage of the auto negotiations, having been bypassed at Ford because the UAW contract with Ford in Canada expired at a later date than in the U. S. But of course, like all other questions, parity was not simply a matter to be settled with Chrysler. Ford and General Motors also have extensive operations in Canada. The “pattern” for dealing with this question had to be established for the industry. In this case Chrysler simply served as the “target” company. And just because the issue of wage parity is in fact so far reaching, extending to the vast holdings of Ford in England, Chrysler in France, and General Motors in West Germany, discussion of it during the 1967 auto negotiations was limited to Canada.

The advantage the UAW has in bargaining for Canadian wages is the support it receives from the New Democratic Party of Canada, the political voice of labor there and the equivalent of a labor party in this country. Unlike the Democratic and Republican parties here the NDP of Canada is not directly controlled by the employing class. It was formed by the unions of Canada and is responsible to them. NDP representatives in the Canadian parliament declared their full support of equal pay for equal work and opposition to monopoly control of prices. That is very different from anything heard in the U. S. Congress.

Reuther, the practical bargainer, was content simply to raise the complex parity demand, hoping in this way to wheedle a small concession in this and other areas. He stated categorically at the outset, “We will not make a settlement with Chrysler in the United States in 1967 without having the Canadian wage-parity matter nailed down firmly and clearly and completely.” But in the very next breath he explained that full parity could be achieved over three years at Chrysler at an annual wage increase of only three-fourths of a cent an hour for the 115,500 Chrysler workers in the U. S. and Canada.

On November 8, 1967, the UAW and Chrysler Corporation reached tentative agreement on a new contract which included a wage parity formula covering U. S. and Canadian auto workers. Agreement came at the end of 34 hours of continuous negotiations in time to beat a strike deadline set by the union. As expected, Reuther emerged jubilant, hailed the Chrysler pact as the best in UAW history, and predicted “there will be a Chrysler in both Ford and GM’s future in Canada.” Parity was won.

UAW spokesmen estimated that it would cost Chrysler about 13.5 cents per man hour over a three-year period to provide wage parity for the firm’s 12,000 Canadian auto workers. So it appeared that Reuther had won 12.75 cents more than his originally estimated three-fourths of a cent.

On closer examination this “parity” turned out to be somewhat illusory and only to be realized in the future. The UAW Chrysler bargaining bulletin subsequently explained the specific terms reached. “In both countries, all but 5 cents of the present cost-of-living allowance (which is now 23 cents in the U.S. and 31 cents in Canada) will be transferred into the base rates. After that, the U. S. and Canadian base rates will be compared, classification by classification, and the difference will be eliminated step by step over a two year period, beginning next June, as follows: June 1, 1968, 10 per cent of original difference to be eliminated; December 1, 1968, an additional 15 per cent; June 1, 1969, an additional 20 per cent; December 1, 1969, an additional 25 per cent; June 1, 1970, an additional 30 per cent.” Finally, 100 per cent parity.

It was further reported that “provision is made for negotiating a single international agreement covering UAW Chrysler workers in both countries.” That is not in the current contract, but next time.

It subsequently came to light that a firm understanding had been reached that the company in its Canadian operations would be allowed to introduce “methods,” that is, speedup, to enable it to raise productivity on the Canadian side to the higher U. S. levels. In this way, Reuther characteristically sought to win agreement in principle“, but devoid of material gain. This is how to win worker demands without cutting into boss profits.


Settlement at General Motors

Having settled the “Equity” pattern in the Ford strike and the “Parity” issue in negotiations with Chrysler, Reuther moved on to the third and final stage, the negotiations with General Motors. The fact was that he had been negotiating with GM all along because no settlement at any stage of the negotiations was ratified without unanimous agreement in the councils of the Big Three.

On December 14, Reuther and GM’s chief negotiator, Louis Seaton, jointly announced that, “after 30 hours of round-the-clock negotiations,” agreement had been reached on a three year contract covering 375,000 GM workers represented by the union. It was essentially the same as the one signed with Ford.

At each stage of the negotiations Reuther had emerged from these round-the-clock “dead-line” negotiations conducted under cover of a news black out to announce “the largest economic pact ... in the history of collective bargaining.”

After GM workers ratified the contract on December 28, Reuther made the following announcement: “This agreement, as was true with the contracts negotiated by the UAW with Ford and Chrysler, is non-inflationary in character since it represents the equity of GM workers as measured against the profitability and rapidly rising productivity of the General Motors Corporation. As such, it will necessitate no increase in the prices of GM products.” Still another gain for the workers.

Gains for the bosses were announced last October 25, the same day the UAW announced that Ford strikers had voted to accept the new auto contract. On this day General Motors Corporation reported record sales and profits for the third quarter of 1967. Sales rose to $3.8 billion for the three-month period ending September 30, yielding $149 millions profits. Stockholders collected 51 cents a share as against 34 cents in the same period of the previous year, 1966. The same day the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced its estimate that it takes an income of at least $9,191 a year for an average family of four to maintain a modest standard of living. Half the families in the United States get less than $7,000 a year, many thousands of them members of the UAW.

The ’$1-an-hour’ Movement

The giant trade union movement, in all its parts—including the very central and vital UAW—has, over the past quarter of a century, become institutionalized. It is recognized and regulated by government, is grudgingly accepted by employers, and operates on a day-to-day basis in the persons of its present leaders in partnership with big business and many of its government agencies. This explains why the 1967 Ford strike, which closed down one of the traditional and hallowed industrial empires of U. S. capitalism for 48 days, was looked down upon by the high and mighty in their seats of power as one of the more or less routine demonstrations that can be expected about every three years in the auto industry, and that result from the rifts and differences of opinion periodically developing there. The kept press carried daily reports of the struggle as reflected at “top table negotiations. There was no hint of alarm or consternation, only confidence that the whole thing would work out satisfactorily in the end.

But social institutions are in a constant process of change and the union movement is no exception. The change proceeds slowly up to the moment when it erupts into open struggle. The fight between Reuther and Meany is an instance of this in the top circles of the AFL-CIO. But this is only symptomatic of much more profound changes occurring within the unions.

Very important changes within the UAW became manifest during the 1967 auto negotiations. Only a few years ago local UAW presidents were cast in the image of Reuther, and his methods of operation, which follow from the concept of company-union partnership, had seeped down to the shop committee level. Many shop committeemen had the idea that they, in collaboration with the local plant personnel manager, were supposed to sit as “impartial” arbiters to adjudicate the disputes that inevitably arise between foremen and workers. When a question came up about how to interpret the UAW contract the committeeman usually turned to the all-knowing personnel director for the answer. Of course, such committeemen were regularly voted out of office and very often graduated to the status of foreman, but they were succeeded by others of the same type. This regular succession of company stooges to fill the job of union committeeman was encouraged by the UAW regional director in charge who intervened in local union elections to defend militant candidates for office.

Much of this is changing now. A new breed of union committeeman is beginning to appear in the auto shops. Some of these even have the very radical idea that “the union” is not something separate and apart from the membership, but that the members are the union. Many of them even think that their job as union committeemen is to defend their fellow workers against the boss. They know how to read and they no longer have to ask the personnel manager what the union contract says. And they have discovered that “personnel manager interpretations” are not reliable, are in fact crooked.

This appearance of new local leaders coincides with the growing restiveness of auto workers, especially the skilled tradesmen. In the face of the steep rise in prices and cutbacks in overtime work, they want more money and less speedup. They have become interested in economics.

An example is the $1-an-hour movement. Some skilled tradesmen took Reuther’s demand for “equity” and figured out that it must mean at least $1-an-hour increase in their wages right away.

That is how the $1-an-hour movement in the UAW got started. The United Skilled Trades Committee, organized to advance this demand, called big demonstrations in support of it. The idea caught on all across the country.

As the $1-an hour movement developed, it happened that one of its chief spokesmen was Joe Malotke of UAW local 160. Malotke was not only serving as a member of the UAW National Negotiating Committee, GM division, but had been elected chairman of that committee.

Reuther is one of those who believes that actions sometimes speak louder than words, and he wanted to make sure that General Motors did not get the mistaken notion that he was asking or encouraging others to ask for a $1-an-hour raise in wages. So Malotke was promptly removed as chairman of the UAW negotiating committee.

Fisher Central Engineering, the UAW unit from which Malotke was originally elected, wired Reuther protesting Malotke’s “undemocratic removal” as chairman of the negotiating committee and warning that this “has only served to antagonize all skilled tradesmen in the UAW.” The interesting part about this episode is that Malotke continued to serve as a member of the negotiating committee, though no longer its chairman, and remained a leading spokesman for the $ 1-an-hour movement. He declared his support of demonstrations for this demand, which is just what the Reuther leadership sought to head off.

When the Ford wage settlement was announced this group voiced opposition. Immediately following a noon time hour long television appearance by Reuther on October 24, in which he explained the good points of the new contract to the Ford strikers, these $1-an-hour now spokesmen exposed the shortcomings of the contract for 30 minutes. They were skilled workers from Ford, GM, Chrysler, and Burroughs Corporation.

Chris Manning, president of UAW local 160 and chairman of the United Skilled Trades Committee, explained that Ford workers were being asked to ratify a new contract without ever having an opportunity to know what was in it and what they were giving up.

Don Johnson, from Ford UAW local 600, said that under the cost-of-living provision of the old contract UAW workers would be better off. He compared the new UAW wages with those in the building trades. UAW electricians would get $4.50 when they went back to work, while the building trades were paying $5.20. Pipefitters and millwrights each would get $4.47 under the new UAW contract, compared with $6.85 and $5.25 respectively on outside construction work.

Art Fox, also of local 600, explained why Ford (and the auto industry) held out on the “escalator” clause. He said that in 1968 the consumer price index was expected to rise 3.5 points, the equivalent of 30 cents an hour. “Our cost-of-living protection,” he said, “has been given away at a time when we need it most.”

Reuther later was quoted as saying that the cost-of-living issue was “the most difficult fight we had.” He threatened the Ford strikers that if they “are so foolish as to reject the proposed contract, I think they will be walking the bricks for a long time.”

When Ford strikers went back to work under the new wage pattern, it didn’t mean that the opposition subsided. Protest groups began to appear in locals all over the country, most having no direct contact with the others. All were critical of the cost-of-living give away.

UAW local 160, in its publication of January 31, printed an exchange of letters between Chris Manning and Emil Mazey, UAW secretary-treasurer. Much of the correspondence had to do with financial relations between the local union and the International, but other matters were brought into the exchange. Mazey was indignant about many things. “I consider your numerous press statements . . . harmful and irresponsible; I consider your organized picket line at the Ford Glass House . . . an act of cowardice; you ought to resign from office ... ”

The answers Mazey received reveal the attitude of a whole layer of new local leaders in the UAW. “You elaborate about your great virtues and the contributions you made in 1939. I compliment you, but the year is 1968 . . . The decision to picket the Ford Glass House was made at a meeting at local 160 ... comprised of UAW secondary leadership representing 31 local unions . . . 11,000 members from as far away as Cleveland participated (on the picket line), and what do you have to say about this effort Brother Mazey, why that it was an act of cowardice ... Well, again, I don’t happen to agree ... Brother Malotke and I were both democratically elected by referendum vote ... I challenge you to run in a primary election.”

The challenge to the entrenched leadership of the Reuther bureaucracy will continue in the UAW. Caucus formations are springing up in local unions everywhere. Of course this has been traditional in the UAW in the scramble for local offices. The “ins” always tried to hold a little group of friends together and the “outs” tried to gather a group to help them get elected. But now the caucuses are different, more along the lines of the old formations in the earlier period before World War II. They are again interested in the more far-reaching goals of the union. They talk about independent political action, not about how to support the Democratic Party. Some see the possibility of a labor party. All agree that the union must be run by the rank and file. They are strong supporters of the idea of choosing all officials by referendum vote. They think the union should be entirely independent of the bosses, protected against all types of intervention by the personnel managers. They want to throw off the shackles of the “no-strike pledge” that is incorporated in every union contract today, this odious clause that gives the bosses the right to discipline or fire a worker at will while his union brothers are barred from walking off the job in his support. This gives the company the whip hand in every dispute that develops at the shop level.

The supporters of these different caucuses are only beginning to reach out in efforts to form a national caucus. None yet knows the magnitude of the tasks ahead. All proceed mostly by feel, often going in whatever direction they are shoved by the pressure of events, guided mostly by the response they get from the rank and file in their union locals. Since the 1967 contract negotiations the opposition caucuses have scored some resounding victories over Reuther-backed slates.

The skilled workers still appear to be the most vocal and the most articulate in their opposition to the Reuther machine, but the production worker, who represents the overwhelming majority, is beginning to join the opposition chorus. He will soon call the tune because he suffers most and has gained least in the contract settlements and he will be hardest hit by rising prices under the new three-year wage freeze.

Already there is talk of a “black caucus” in the UAW where the misleaders, who have operated within and under cover of the Reuther machine, are badly discredited. A “black caucus,” if one is organized, will project the needs and hopes of the black community, and it will be a powerful force capable of eradicating the pernicious influence of Reuther in the civil rights movement and at the same time rendering invaluable service to the opposition movement inside the UAW.

This is a period of gestation for the new forces in the trade unions. These embryonic opposition forces are not by any means confined to the UAW. In some other unions they are already more advanced. But everywhere they are taking shape.

With each passing day the union movement is inexorably drawn more directly into the unfolding social struggle in this country. This fact dictates the course for the union movement, and its response will decide its fate. Either the unions will produce new leaders to champion the cause of the working class, who, completely free of all ties with the employers, are capable of rising above the petty intrigues of union politics, and are determined to fight for the needs of the working class regardless of consequences and without fear of where the fight may lead—either such leaders will develop in the course of the struggle, or the union movement will be strangled by the Reuthers and the Meanys in that straitjacket of capital-labor partnership which in the end must destroy the unions.

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