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Will the Auto Industry Strike Next?

Karl Lore


From New International, January 1935, from Tamiment Library microfilm archives
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE EVENTS of 1934 educated the auto workers.

In 1935 they may translate its lessons into action.

The new year opens on a situation in which it is increasingly obvious that labor will have to fight. It has no alternative if it wishes to maintain its organization and to win a decent existence.

It will be no easy job to make the motor barons back down, to plant unionism so solidly in the industry that it cannot be uprooted. The lack of any organization tradition, the highly seasonal nature of the industry, the power of the employers—to mention only a few of the factors involved—must be realized. But the bright pages that the automobile workers have in these past two years already written into the history of American labor prove that the job can be done and that the workers of the assembly line and at the benches may form the backbone of the labor movement that is to be.

With but one exception there has never before been any organized force in the industry worthy of mention. Right after the World War the United Automobile, Aircraft and Vehicle Workers, an A. F. of L. union organized on an industrial basis, made a considerable stir in the body plants. In 1921, however, a disastrous strike plus the efforts of the Federation to divide it into craft lines killed practically all its influence. It withdrew from the A. F. of L., was later taken over by the communist party and became the base for its Auto Workers Union. During the whole boom period the banner of unionism dragged in the mud and only sporadic departmental walkouts kept the flame alive.

Early in 1933 hell began to pop. Strike followed strike with bewildering rapidity. The long exploited, too long patient auto slaves were getting tired of the game. The year started off with a bang with the Briggs Body strike on January 11, the Motor Product girls on January 20, the Hayes Body at Grand Rapids on January 21, the complete tie-up of the four Detroit Briggs plants on January 23 and 24, the Murray Body workers on January 27, the Hudson Body workers on February 7, the Hudson production workers the following day, the Toledo Willys-Overland workers on February 26. The Chevrolet strike in Oakland, California, and the White Motor Company walkout in Cleveland finish the chronology for the spring and summer.

On September 22 the Mechanics Educational Society pulled out the tool and die makers at Buick, Chevrolet, A. C. Sparkplug and Flint Fisher Body. It spread to Cadillac, Chevrolet, Dodge, Fisher Body, Hudson, Packard, Plymouth, Briggs Vernor Highway, Ternstedt, Murray, Pontiac and G. M. Truck. The production workers at Murray walked out September 27, Henry Ford faced his first strikes September 26 at Chester, Pa. and again two days later at Edgewater, N. J. The Kenosha, Wis., employees of the Nash Motor Company went to bat on November 9, and the more than 4,000 workers at Budd Mfg. Co. in Philly followed suit on November 13.

A pretty good year on the whole, for a great open shop industry. There was an immediate stop to wage cutting. Improved conditions were forced in all Detroit plants. “Dead time” was abolished. The auto workers were learning fast.

The first movement was a chaotic and many-sided surge of revolt. All sorts of local groups and organizations came into being, led strikes, played a role in the developing situation. The Industrial Workers of the World, the C. P.’s Auto Workers Union, an organization called the American Industrial Association and many others had their day in the sun. In April ’33 the independent Mechanics Educational Society had been organized and had gone out in a spectacular campaign of organization among the tool and die men. By October the M.E.S. had a picket line in front of every auto factory in Detroit except Ford and Graham-Paige. Its first convention in February 1934 approved the organization of a production workers’ department and heard reports to show a total membership of some 25,000 in a number of centers. Of all the independent formations the M.E.S. is the only one which has maintained itself as a real force in the industry.

The American Federation of Labor played no leading part in the initial stages of the strike wave. As late as June 1933 there was not a single union of auto workers affiliated with the Federation. In the last half of that year, however, the Federation devoted a great deal of attention to the industry and the auto workers poured into the Federal locals which were formed. The caliber of the organizers was in most cases very low. The few progressives who were sent in found themselves tremendously handicapped by the craft union question. Workers wanted to know whether the local industrial organizations which were set up would later be united into a national industrial union of auto workers or whether the A. F. of L. would attempt to break them up into craft divisions. The organizers themselves didn’t know. All sorts of conflicting orders came from headquarters, but when it came down to an actual jurisdictional fight with the Machinists, for example, it was noted that the craft union always won out. At the time the auto lords began the large scale organization of company unions. All the usual stunts were used to force these phony formations down the throats of the workers. The elaborate spy systems were put to work. The Hudson Industrial Association, for example, was formed in August. The general manager and foremen instructed the men to come. The laws were made for them when they came to the meeting. Only about 150 men took part but the foremen and supervisors were active in putting the idea over. Every new employee automatically is enrolled in the company union. Out in South Bend, Ind., when a worker was hired at the Bendix Brake factory he signed an application that he was “voluntarily” joining the Bendix Employees Association which met once a week while everybody was at work.

Unionization continued. More strikes broke out. The auto workers wanted action on a national scale and the agitation for a general strike to force union recognition grew by leaps and bounds. It was claimed that well over 60,000 were enrolled in the A. F. of L. Finally, forced into action, the Federation chiefs set March 20 as the day on which the auto workers of the nation were to strike and deliver a death-blow at company unionism and industrial autocracy.

March 25 is a famous day in the annals of motor labor. On that date the A. F. of L. chieftains accepted a “settlement” offered by President Roosevelt, which settled nothing. It set up a special board for the industry which was to solve all its problems, stop discrimination and guarantee collective bargaining. The general strike was called off to the accompaniment of loud victory yells by the union leaders.

The M.E.S.A. called out 4,000 tool and die workers. Cleveland, St. Louis, Flint, Racine, Kenosha, Milwaukee, and Tarrytown, N. Y. saw walkouts by Federal locals. A conference of three hundred representatives of A. F. of L. auto unions held April 8, heard the sharpest criticism of the actions of the new Labor Board and a new strike vote was narrowly averted by the Federation representative. And on April 13 the great Toledo strike broke loose and brought down the entire house of cards so elaborately constructed by the Administration and the N.R.A.

There has been grumbling and dissatisfaction ever since. The A. F. of L. lost a good many members but still remained the greatest force in the industry. The auto bosses took advantage of the situation to clap on the speedup worse than ever. Labor provisions of the automobile code were laughed at and active unionists were fired right and left for organization activity. The industry paid its workers an annual wage averaging less than $900.

Labor had looked to the Automobile Labor Board to protect it against discrimination by the auto bosses but even the union officialdom who put it over have had to admit its ineffectiveness. The report of the A. F. of L. executive to the last convention complains that “the Board has failed completely to encourage real collective bargaining.... Its action in regard to cases of discrimination has been slow and has lacked definiteness. The Board has proceeded on the assumption that all questions . . . could and should be settled through mediation and arbitration. To this end the Board has consistently refused to make decisions”. Less diplomatic but much more to the point was the letter sent by the White Motor Company local union in Cleveland to Dr. Leo Woltnan, chairman of the Board. “It was against the better judgment of our grievance committee,” this forthright communication read, “to submit any case to your Board, as past history has shown that many cases . . . have either been sidetracked or biased decisions given. . . . May God forbid that this union ever have any more such moments of weakness.“

Labor had been promised an open hearing on the auto code before its expiration on November 3, 1934, hoping thereby to substitute the thirty for the thirty-six hour week and to strike out the hated “merit clause”. No hearing was held, the Great White Father Roosevelt renewed the code unchanged, conceding only a commission to study methods of leveling out seasonal peaks and stabilizing employment.

Labor was hot under the collar. The company unions were being pushed with vigor and were being worked into shape by the employers. No other course was left open but to withdraw from the March 25 settlement and in December the A. F. of L. unions in the industry announced that they were no longer bound by the terms of that agreement.

Nor did the announcement of the Board that it would hold elections in the auto plants to determine collective bargaining instruments (a step which it had consistently refused to take), help the situation. The workers were to be polled and all organizations were to be represented on a collective bargaining agency according to the number of votes polled by each. The bonafide unions claimed that this was a recognition of company unionism, that it meant sowing such confusion and division among the workers that collective bargaining would be a farce. Both the A. F. of L. and the M.E.S.A. instructed their members to boycott the first election held under this plan at the Cadillac plant recently.

* * * *

Here the situation stands today. After two years of fighting the unions are just as far away from recognition as they were in the beginning. The efforts of the N.R.A. have not led to a solution. The sole effect has been to put off the issue, to dampen the militancy of labor, to give the employing group the time and the opportunity to rebuild their badly shattered company union fences. There can be no doubt that the situation is coming to a head. What are the forces in the situation? Is labor in shape to put up a battle? Can it depend on assistance in allied industries and from the American Federation of Labor itself? Here are some of the factors involved.

The United Automobile Workers of the A. F. of L.: It was reported to the 1934 convention of the Federation (held in October) that 106 federal unions existed in the industry, and that these locals were in every major plant in the country. The number of members has been estimated all the way from sixty thousand to one hundred thousand though it is probable that the smaller number comes nearest to the truth. Last June saw the establishment of a national council of auto workers to coordinate activities. The leadership was placed in the hands of the A. F. of L. representative Collins, who has since been withdrawn because of his complete inefficiency and helplessness in the situation. The recent Federation convention voted to grant the auto locals an international union charter, with the provision, however that the Federation maintain its leadership of the organization for an indefinite period. A movement began in the spring of 1934 on the part of a number of locals, especially in the St. Louis-Kansas City sector, to withdraw from the A. F. of L. and to form another national organization. Most of them, however, subsequently reaffiliated.

The Mechanics Educational Society of America: This large independent union has a strong hold on the key tool and die workers. Organized by radical and progressive elements, it has known how to carry on spectacular and effective campaigns and strikes and today numbers its membership in the neighborhood of 25,000. Originally organized for machinists only it went out for the production men in 1934. Its recent trend has been all the other way, unfortunately, and instead of building itself as the union of the auto workers it has become more and more craft-conscious, organizing machinists in sewing machine factories, instrument and radio plants. At present the M.E.S. lives chiefly on the memory of its past, although it still holds tremendous potential strength. No reliable news has come from Cleveland where the organization is holding its convention, as I write. It is doubtful however, that the sharp turn and the new start that is necessary, will be made.

Other organizations: Most of the smaller grouplets have vanished from the scene. The I.W.W., the American Industrial Association, and the Auto Workers Union have been unable to stand the competition. In August 1934, the Hudson Motor Company local broke away from the Federation to organize the Associated Automobile Workers of America. Its leader, Arthur E. Greer, has given evidence of company union leanings but the break can be attributed directly to the conservatism and the do-nothing policy of the A. F. of L. leadership. Greer is lined up with Richard Byrd, labor’s representative on the Auto Labor Board who has split with the A. F. of L. big shots who originally put him there.

Industrial Unionism: This issue is far from settled in spite of the decision of the last A. F. of L. convention to grant an international charter to the Federal unions in the industry. Various craft groups have been active and, since craft feeling is still strong in some groups, have been able to gain some strength. The patternmakers and machinists, for example, are said to be well entrenched in automobiles.

Such a set-up holds tremendous potentialities for trouble. In the great Toledo strike members of the machinists’ union worked all through the fight. This threat to the solidarity of auto labor will never be overcome till the craft groups are forced to give up their jurisdictional rights over craft groups in the industry. In the rubber industry the Federation leadership has installed a fake industrial unionism by which a basic craft structure is given some industrial touches. Any attempt to introduce such a conception into autos must be fought. Complete and thorough-going industrial unionism provides the only answer to the overlords of the industry.

Allied Industries: 1935 should be an especially good year for joint action by unions in the various subsidiary and allied industries. A real blow-up in steel seems likely and the powerful rank and file group of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers has already approved united action with the organizations of labor in coal, autos, glass, etc.

The rubber workers of Akron face a crisis also. Their request for Labor Board elections to determine the collective bargaining agency for the industry, has been dragged into the courts by the companies. They know from the experiences of other unions that a long drawn out court battle must inevitably kill the morale of the workers and weaken the hold of organized labor. There can be no evasion of the issues. The existence of unionism in the great tire factories is at stake.

The recent convention of the Mechanics Educational Society went on record for joint action with all labor organizations in the metal industry, thus aiding the movement for a concerted organization and strike drive. One of the most important tasks facing the auto workers is that of getting together with the unions in steel, rubber, glass and some sections of the metal and machinery industry. Such a united phalanx of labor would be an irresistible force.

Will the A. F. of L. Help? The national textile strike showed the futility of looking to the international unions of the Federation for financial or other help. In that great conflict only four unions—the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the International Ladies Garment Workers, the Hat and Cap, and the United Mine Workers—helped out with money or organizers. The large and wealthy craft organizations have no interest in helping to make the industrial unions of the unskilled and the semi-skilled, strong. The auto workers cannot depend on them.

There is, however, another source of aid for the auto workers. According to the constitution of the A. F. of L., the Federal unions are assessed regularly for a central defense fund which is supposed to be used for strikes or lockouts. Last year the Federal organizations paid in $133,615 to this fund while only $1,084 was expended. At the A. F. of L. convention the fund was reported to have reached over $460,000 and was growing at the rate of about $12,000 per month. It is certainly the job of the auto workers to see that the Federation shells out when the fight comes.

The Progressives: It is hard to say just what the strength of the militant forces in the industry amounts to. At the conference held last June which formed the National Auto Workers Council, the A. F. of L. leadership put over an arrangement by which the National Chairman of the Council was to-be appointed by William Green. A hard fight by militant elements, however, rolled up about 50 votes in opposition. There is no doubt that considerable progressive sentiment exists. A number of auto delegates to the last Federation convention introduced resolutions on unemployment and social insurance, on industrial unionism, remission of dues for unemployed, etc. A conference of delegates representing 18 local unions, held early in November in Flint, Michigan, called for the immediate formation of a genuine industrial union under control of its membership.

Another advance was made by the auto unionists of Toledo, Ohio, when the old guard leadership which had sabotaged the strike, fought the militants and kept the union down, was forced to resign. A progressive administration has taken its place and is going places fast.

* * * *

The overlords of motordom have issued hallelujah statements about the prospects for the coming year. Production is to be higher than last year or the year before that. Profits are going up. Labor is going to embrace the employee representative plans which the kindly cut-throats have set up for its special benefit.

“Not much!” says organized labor.

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