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Walter Jason

Books You Should Know ...

The GM Strike

(2 February 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 5, 2 February 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Many and the Few
by Henry Kraus
The Plantin Press, Los Angeles 1947

If Henry Kraus’ book on the great 1937 General Motors sit-down strike did nothing else than remind the trembling bureaucrats of the CIO that this powerful organization was built through class struggle, it would serve a useful purpose. It is also a valuable source of study for younger militants who were not fortunate enough to participate in that significant period of turbulent labor history. For much of what Kraus writes is accurate, descriptive and revealing, in spite of the inevitable factional slant of the author, one-time editor of the United Automobile Worker and active participant in the GM strike. The Daily Worker’s complaint that Kraus underplayed the role of the Stalinist party in the GM strike indicates that he did try to see further ahead than his pro-Stalinist vision ordinarily would permit.

For example, the Reuther brothers, Victor, Roy and Walter, come out looking pretty good in this book, in spite of Kraus’ obvious hero-worship of his old-time associate, Wyndham Mortimer, and his exaggeration of the work of Robert Travis, organizational director in the Flint area. In fact, the Reuther brothers look all the more impressive when described by a factional opponent. Homer Martin flashes through this book, as he did through the UAW. So do other labor figures, many of whom have since passed into obscurity. The book is good background reading material, in a word, for those who are vitally interested in the UAW and the labor movement as a whole.

The most significant part of this book treats with the politics and the national personalities of that day. Regrettable indeed that this wasn’t written with the kind of critical and analytical approach that marks a book like Charles Rumford Walker’s American City. Walker drew the social and political forces operating in the Minneapolis strikes in clear-cut pictures. The politics in Kraus’ book are indirect. We are not speaking of the inner-union politics, but rather of the major political forces operating in the GM strike struggle.

Perhaps unintentionally, Kraus does a neat job of destroying some of the myths built up around the persons of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and former Governor Frank Murphy, long heralded as outstanding “friends of labor.” Kraus relates the story of the first break between John L. Lewis and President Roosevelt. It took place during the GM strike, when Roosevelt called Lewis to the White House and demanded that Lewis order the GM workers to go back to work, without a contract. That was Roosevelt’s sole contribution to the auto workers, engaged in a life-and-death struggle. If Lewis had done nothing else but say no to this outrageous strike-breaking demand, his role would have been progressive. Lewis stood by the auto workers, he poured funds and qualified organizers into the strike and personally came to Detroit to handle negotiations!

As for Governor Murphy – the epitome of the New Deal liberals – he demanded that Lewis back down from his demands on GM and that he get the sit-downers to evacuate the plants or he’d send the National Guard into the shops to clear them out. Lesser men might have quailed before this threat of a “friend of labor,” but Lewis merely told the Governor that in those circumstances he’d have to leave the conference immediately to join the sit-downers so he could be there when the troops came to clear them out! The counter-pressure worked and Murphy took a “middle of the road” position again. Lewis understood the temper of the sit-downers. Murphy was a befuddled politician.

How amusing to read the special explanation in Kraus’ preface on why he gives the facts showing Lewis’ progressive role in that period. Since the break in 1941 between Lewis and the Stalinists, he was nothing but a devil to them. In fact, they even called him a fascist. No doubt Kraus wanted to soften the blows his Stalinist audience might have in reading about Lewis. They aren’t very happy about the build-up this book gives Walter Reuther, either.

We know that many of the participants in the GM strike disagree with this or that aspect of the description Kraus gives either of a specific event or of individual roles. Certainly his sharp attack on Kermit Johnson, Flint strike leader, is contradicted by other accounts written of those days. As an example, Rose Pesotta in her autobiographical work, has a much higher and more accurate evaluation of Johnson. So do others.

The GM Empire

This book concerns, itself primarily, and properly so, with the tense struggles at Flint, heart of the GM empire. The Battle of Bulls Run, the capture of Chevy 4 and other highlights of the strike will refresh the memories of old UAW militants and bring back that feeling that was the mark of a CIO man in those great days.

The GM strike furnished important lessons to all labor. The sit-down strike got its biggest test and won its biggest victory as a new and powerful tactic of labor. But more important than the tactical lessons are the political implications of that struggle. The GM workers rallied the decisive masses of American people behind them through their bold, fight and uncompromising opposition to the Wall Street owners of General Motors. They proved what class independence, class action and class leadership could do. They showed what class power labor possesses. Those factors brought victory for the CIO. They are the source of a successful labor program for this epoch of Taft-Hartley laws and the general anti-labor drive.

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