B.J. Widick Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Walter Jason

Auto Workers Union Debates Issues
in GM and Chrysler Settlements

(30 May 1948

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 23, 7 June 1948, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DETROIT, May 30 – Out of the differences between the General Motors settlement and the Chrysler agreement has arisen a real debate in the United Automobile Workers-CIO,which is only beginning at the meetings to ratify the contracts. The UAW-CIO is in for another discussion period which should serve to further educate its ranks.

For an understanding of this debate, certain facts regarding the settlements are necessary. Although some details are not yet available, the main facts are.

GM’s offer of an “escalator” or cost of living clause was a surprise to UAW-CIO circles, including the entire leadership. However, Walter Reuther gave a go-ahead signal to his two assistants in GM, John Livingstone, UAW vice-president, and Tom Johnstone, assistant GM director of the UAW-CIO.

Emil Mazey, acting union president,was not in the final negotiations, just as he stayed out of Chrysler negotiations, in order to allow the people in charge of those departments full credit for any gains. The GM agreement was signed before consulting the international executive board.

In spite of this situation, when the IEB did meet, they approved the idea of an escalator clause, and urged Norman Mathews, Chrysler director,to get a similar settlement.

One other important background fact: Over two months ago GM put out a feeler to Walter Reuther, asking if the UAW-CIO would take 9 cents an hour and some changes in the contract that would guarantee “production consciousness” among the GM workers. In an informal poll of the IEB, most of the members were willing to bite on the feeler. However, Walter Reuther and Emil Mazey spoke strongly against it, and they insisted that in this period of huge profits, the UAW-CIO must fight to get more.

Mazey’s repeatedly expressed theory has been – as against those who were against any strikes (“the time is not now.”) – that “if the UAW-CIO can’t win strikes for higher wages in a period of relative prosperity and huge profits, when can it do so, during a depression?”

Leadership Divided

Right after the GM settlement, the Stalinists began a real campaign against the escalator clause and the whole agreement. A stooge introduced a resolution in Plymouth Local 51, denouncing it. They put pressure on Mathews and Richard T. Leonard, one of the Chrysler negotiators. Their main argument was that the UAW was accepting the principle of “wage cuts.”

Mathews refused to go along with the idea of an escalator clause. “I haven’t got any use for fancy economics,” he told people, thus repeating a remark that the late, unlamented R.J. Thomas said a couple of years ago about the GM strike program, before the ranks retired him from leadership in this union.

Mathews accepted a flat 13 cents an hour wage increase in negotiations, turned down the idea of an escalator clause, and extended the present Chrysler contract, with its “company security clauses,” for an extra year, namely June 1950, with an additional provision that wages might be re-opened once during this two years.

Thus the united UAW-CIO leadership found itself divided, Mathews breaking on this issue with the Reuther leadership. (Perhaps if Reuther had been active in the situation instead of being confined to bed with his injuries, this might have been different.)

What happened really is that Mathews succumbed to the pressure of the Stalinists, and his own lack of understanding of the escalator clause.

Instead of the Chrysler workers getting more than GM, in terms of cash, and an escalator clause, they find themselves without any safeguards against a rising cost of living.

One of the main arguments the Stalinists used against the escalator clause is that prices might go down, and then GM workers would lose 5 cents of their wage increase. Of course, in practice, the Stalinists go further than what appeared in the Daily Worker. They don’t say that prices could go down, they say prices will go down, so GM workers will lose 5 cents, so the GM contract is bad.

However, in the Sunday Worker May 30, the resolution of the central committee of the Communist Party has a section outlining the reasons why in America today living costs will rise.

This double talk is typical of the Stalinists. Their only interest is to create confusion, and to try to exploit the situation for FACTIONAL gain.

Another criticism they made was that the GM contract was for two years, and two-year contracts are bad (as they are!). Now that Mathews signed a two-year contract, they either shrug off that argument, or try to minimize the company security clause in the Chrysler contract.

Certainly, after the GM settlement, the Chrysler pickets were in a good position to get MORE. They had Chrysler on the spot. Better handled negotiations could have achieved this result.

The confusion which the Stalinists are forcing may work sufficiently to cover them up for a brief period. But the rising cost of living – and a GM wage increase – will settle both that argument and Mathews.

We say that the main responsibility now for any opposition to the escalator clause in UAW contracts belongs to the Stalinists. But this by no means excuses the Reuther leadership from its blunders on this score.

Only a couple of months ago Walter Reuther went to Flint and debated against Jack Palmer, then president of Local 659. Palmer advocated an escalator clause. Reuther denounced it as impractical. Small wonder that Mathews is confused, and was unwilling to accept it. Before wage negotiations began, both the GM and the Chrysler wage conferences turned down the idea of an escalator clause. It was one of those “Trotskyite” ideas of the Workers Party and the Socialist Workers Party.

Readers of Labor Action may recall that this newspaper, along with The Militant, were the only two labor papers vigorously promoting this idea. We emphasized higher wages without price increases, plus the escalator clause, as a sound policy in wage negotiations. The Militant advocated mainly if not exclusively, the idea of the escalator clause – or sliding scale, as it chooses to call it. (In subsequent articles we’ll deal with the question of the SWP’s policies in the current wage struggle.)

The Reuther leadership was caught unprepared by GM, despite the Stalinist talk that this whole thing was cooked up long ago by Reuther. (If Reuther were going to negotiate privately for an escalator clause he hardly would have fought so vigorously against it recently.)

Valuable Discussion

There is one other special fact that must be given proper recognition. The debate in the UAW-CIO does not take place in an atmosphere of gloom or defeat. The argument is over what is the best wage policy to get the most from the companies,considering the general state of the American labor movement.

In this debate, many of the ranks will be drawn into the discussion,and, in the final analysis, the UAW-CIO rank and file will decide the issue. This is in keeping with the splendid democratic tradition of the UAW-CIO.

In steel, electric and other unions which got nothing or very little, compared to the UAW-CIO, the first lesson is very clear. Build a militant, democratic union, along the lines that symbolize the UAW-CIO, and you have an instrument that can protect your elementary economic interests in the shop.

B.J. Widick Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 6 March 2018