Chapter 22 : Auto Workers Line Up For Battle
HOMER MARTIN REMINDED ME of my promise in March. He wired from Detroit asking if I would speak at a series of mass-meetings. My co-operation, and that of Leo Krzycki, was especially needed now to round up delegates for the second convention of the United Automobile Workers, to be held in South Bend, Indiana, beginning April 27. A sizable number of such delegates had to be found who were both intelligent and willing to risk losing their jobs.
So I went to Detroit, where Martin, Ed Hall, secretary-treasurer, and others of the younger, progressive group in the UAW welcomed me at their offices in the Hoffman Building.
They introduced me to their provisional president, Francis J.
Dillon, who had been appointed by President William Green of the A F of L, and whose term would expire with the coming convention. Dillon was a colorless person, the cartoon prototype of a union official, pot-bellied, always with a large cigar. He spoke derisively of the activities of his younger fellow-officers and about workers generally. He knew nothing about the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, (and seemed proud of that), said I was wasting my time in Michigan. It was sheer insanity for the UAW to hold the scheduled meetings, he added; none of the auto workers would show up. I learned afterwards that Dillon urged the Detroit Board of Education to refuse us the use of high school auditoriums!
Leo Krzycki arrived the same day, and we both spoke at several meetings in Detroit and Hamtramck. My job particularly was to persuade the women, who almost invariably came with their men, to encourage them to serve as convention delegates.
At those gatherings I was greeted by Russians and Ukrainians whom I had met on previous visits. They were fearful of future repercussions in the international situation.
Next day, more meetings. In the evening Martin, Leo, and I spoke in Pengelly Hall, the union's headquarters in Flint. Though the place could have held hundreds, only a few dozen persons showed up. But this did not dampen my ardor. I knew that those present were good union material or they wouldn't have come. They had courage I recalled times when I visited Detroit in behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti, and spoke to small groups of auto workers, mostly foreign-born, who appeared with their whole families. They were largely from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Prior to World War I, the automotive industry maintained agencies abroad to recruit unskilled labor among the peasantry. The war shut off this traffic, and during the industrial boom the manufacturers turned to the native labor supply. After the passage of the 1924 immigration quota law they depended almost wholly on native sources. Meanwhile technological improvements in production processes displaced men by the tens of thousands, so that Detroit and other auto centers harbored large numbers of unemployed.
Now most of the workers I met in the automobile field were American-born sons and daughters of the Europeans whom I had known earlier, and as in Akron men and women who had lost their means of livelihood during the depression. The men in the industry were automatons in the merciless conveyor-belt production system, and faced the prospect of being burned out before they were 40 by the speed-up's terrible grind.
We kept our speeches short, touching chiefly on the recent victories of the Akron rubber workers, the coal miners, garment workers, and other aggressive sections of the labor movement. We emphasized the opportunity before the automobile workers, contending that they must organize solidly÷in an industrial union÷to get a living wage and decent working conditions. So long as any worker stood alone, the boss could intimidate him, and the boss would always win. The coming convention would give the auto workers a chance to serve notice on their employers that they intended to stand together.
The union leaders were well satisfied with the outcome of those meetings. Enough open-eyed convention delegates were elected to give the progressive group confidence that they could put through obviously needed reforms in the UAW.
Close to 500,000 workers were then employed in the automobile industry. The UAW had a membership of about 28,000, spread among some 40 companies. A closed shop agreement with Nash in Kenosha, Wisconsin, covered 8,000 workers. In South Bend the Studebaker and Bendix plants had been completely unionized, with more than 7,000 members. There was a contract, too, with the White Company in Cleveland, won through a short sit-down strike in 1934.
Next in line for organization was the giant General Motors Corporation, which produced Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, La Salle, and Cadillac cars, Fisher bodies, and Chevrolet and GMC trucks.
Nineteen Thirty-Four also had seen a bitterly fought strike against General Motors in its Toledo Autolite plant, a strike notorious for brutalities to strikers. After the Toledo settlement, the company stated publicly: "It won't happen again," and since then it had endeavored to decentralize its operations by setting up branches in scattered smaller communities.
Many efforts to organize the automobile industry, in its 40 years of existence, had been frustrated by the powerful employing groups. The open shop had generally prevailed, and the big companies notably Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors÷had widely used industrial spies and fostered company unions, thinly disguised as "voluntary" employes' associations.
A semi-industrial union called the United Automobile, Aircraft, and Vehicle workers, affiliated with the A F of L, built up considerable strength during World War I, and by 1920 claimed a membership of 45,000. But demobilization of industry following the war and loss of a strike for which it was not adequately prepared, plus attempts of the A F of L to split it into crafts, caused it to disintegrate.
At the A F of L convention in Detroit in 1926, plans were outlined for a drive to unionize the auto workers. The craft internationals were asked to waive questions of jurisdiction while the campaign was on, but they demurred, though automobile manufacturing was a mass production industry and the bulk of workers in it unskilled.
Heads of some of the 17 internationals concerned did make sympathetic gestures when the drive was started by six organizers in the summer of 1927, but that was all, and the campaign soon fizzled out. Even if the craft unions had been co-operative, other circumstances were strongly against it÷the huge labor turnover, the shutting down of the great Ford works while preparations were made to produce the new Model A, and the presence of 125,000 jobless workers in Detroit.
So the auto workers remained unorganized, and nearly six years were to pass before anything tangible was done about the problem.
When the National Industrial Recovery Act became law in 1933, the automobile manufacturers balked at signing an NRA Code of fair competition, delaying behind a barrage of patriotic sounding utterances. When a code finally was agreed upon, it contained a "merit clause" enabling the companies to evade observance of Section 7-a, which forbade discrimination against union members. This clause gave them freedom to hire workers "according to merit÷that is, competence on the job as judged by the employer."
Wage cuts below the cost of living and vicious working conditions brought a succession of revolts among the auto workers in 1933. Strikes in seven plants took place in January, and through the year walkouts closed or crippled 33 plants in eight cities÷Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Cleveland, Oakland, California, Edgewater, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Chester, Pennsylvania.
Three independent unions were formed that year÷the Mechanics' Educational Society of America, the Associated Automobile Workers, and the Automobile Industrial Workers' Association. The first took in only skilled tool and die makers at the start, but later widened its scope. Others in action in this field were the battle-scarred Industrial Workers of the World and the Communist-led Auto Workers' Union, developed from a remnant of the old United Automobile, Aircraft, and Vehicle Workers.
The activities of the independent unions aroused the A F of L to new organizing effort. It set up federal locals in the auto industry, and new members flocked in by the thousands. By 1934 the A F of L had lined up more than 210,000 auto workers in these loosely organized locals. A general strike, to compel union recognition, was "postponed" at President Roosevelt's request. The "settlement" arranged proved a Greek gift to the workers, for it added to the NRA Code a section providing for "proportional representation': for A F of L unions, independent unions, and company unions, on all committees for collective bargaining and adjustment of grievances. Thus company unions were given the same recognition as legitimate unions by the national government.
At the same time an Automobile Labor Board, headed by Leo Wolman, was set up, supposedly to uphold labor's right to collective bargaining and prevent discrimination. Its decisions, however, usually favored the employers, and the A F of L denounced it as unfair to labor.
Although the general strike plan had been ditched by the President's 'intervention,' automobile strikes occurred that year in at least nine cities.
One strike, at the Hudson plant in Detroit, pointedly proved the fallacy of craft organization. An A F of L organizer led a handful of A F of L mechanics, who had won a union contract, through an A F of L picket-line I
By thousands the disillusioned members now dropped out of the Federation. Transferred from federal unions into craft locals, they had soon discovered that this kind of unionism had no value for them.
But the conflict over the NRA Code and the rise of company unionism under the sanction of the "proportional representation" amendment brought into sharp focus the need for self-organization by the auto workers. Like all in mass production, they needed an industrial union. Outspoken men who remained in the A F of L pressed for an international of their own, and won it in 1934. Those who demanded an industrial union were largely former coal miners, who knew the power of that form of organization.
For decades the heads of the motor industry had been so sure of their position that they had defied law and disregarded common decency in human relations. On one hand they derived profitable free publicity from employee welfare programs more showy than real; on the other, they ruthlessly exploited their working forces. Men laid off in one department, where they had worked up to a fairly substantial wage, would be re-hired in another department at reduced pay. Workers who became vocal about plant conditions were fired as "trouble makers."
In 1932 Dearborn police had fired into a crowd of 4,000 seeking entrance to the Ford plant to protest against mass lay-offs, and had killed four men and wounded many others.
Ever since Henry Ford announced a $5-a-day minimum wage for unskilled labor in 1913, the automobile industry had had the reputation of paying "fat" wages. But the auto workers received less than an average of $1,300 a year in 1925, when times were good, and less than $1,000 in 1935. A report to the NRA (by the Henderson committee) showed that 45 per cent of these workers were paid less than $1,000 in 1934. In one plant three-fifths of the employes received less than $800, while a third got less than $400.
UAW aggressiveness in 1936 evidently was felt by the car manufacturers. With the exception of Henry Ford, always an independent, they acted in concert in most matters affecting the industry. Now they were spending $100,000 jointly for "educational purposes," which meant propaganda adverse to unionism. This sum was to be spent within six months on radio broadcasts, press, schools, recreation and social clubs in the plants, and general welfare practices, as well as financing company unions, which were being organized feverishly to offset the growing movement among the auto workers for a legitimate trade union of their own.
Germer, Leo Krzycki, Powers Hapgood, and I arrived in South Bend on the eve of the UAW convention. We worked with various committees, giving them the benefit of our experience in preparing reports on resolutions.
Most of those delegates, from 60 separate locals, were young men, and a few were young women. In-the main, they were attending such a conclave for the first time. Spokesmen for two independent unions came as "impartial observers." One of these, who addressed the delegates, was a large, heavily built young man who wore a gold football on his watch-chain. This was Richard Frankensteen, former University of Michigan football player, worker in the Dodge plant in Detroit, and president of the Automotive Industrial Workers' Association. The other was A. E. Greer, head of the Associated Automobile Workers of America. Later Frankensteen's organization joined the UAW and he became a member of its general executive board. And subsequently Greer was exposed as a Pinkerton spy.
President William Green of the A F of L spoke on the opening day and turned the International over to the convention, lifting the probationary period and automatically freeing the UAW from its appointed officers. His voice vibrated with emotion as he viewed the future of the American labor movement with apprehension, obviously referring to the activities of the six-months-old Committee for Industrial Organization, which acted independently, though within the A F of L.
Provisional President Dillon, in his swan song, voiced great concern over the well-being of the nation's workers, and particularly those in the automobile industry. What he had said to me in the privacy of his office completely belied the sentiments he now expressed from the platform.
Officers were elected on the third day. Homer Martin was named as president; Wyndham Mortimer of Cleveland, Ed Hall of Milwaukee, and Walter N. Wells of Detroit as first, second, and third vise-president; and George Addes of Toledo as general secretary-treasurer. Adde, one of the younger leaders of the 1934 Autolite strike, still holds that position.
Martin, then 84, had been a Baptist minister in Kansas City, Missouri, his congregation including many employes of the General Motors plant there. Because of sermons dealing with the social struggle, he was removed by the board of deacons, and went to work in a Chevrolet factory, where he was elected president of the federal local union. Later he was appointed vise-president of the UAW by William Green.
Mortimer, a former coal miner, worked for the White Motor Company in Cleveland. Ed Hall was a World War veteran, employed by the Seaman Body Company.
Every delegate had received a mimeographed letter, signed "The Communist Party," endorsing Martin and Mortimer for the two top offices. Earl Browder, head of that party, wired a quick repudiation of this testimonial. Clearly it was the work of an agent provocateur, designed to defeat the chances of the two candidates. The trick failed.
I was invited to address the convention on May Day Eve. A resolution to expel all Communists had been hotly debated, and I took issue with its purpose. I reminded the delegates of the great price the labor movement had paid to establish the right to hold conventions of this kind.
Other groups had championed unpopular social causes, sacrificing liberty and life. I spoke of the Anarchists hanged in Chicago in 1887 because they had fought for the eight-hour day; and of the IWW, brutally manhandled and lynched because they dared speak out against exploitation.
Regardless of the faults of Communism, I argued, our nation was confronted by an even greater danger÷Fascism, whatever it might be called on American soil. I pleaded with the delegates to end political conflict among themselves. A trade union was primarily an economic organization; members must work together for the good of all despite their political differences.
Through succeeding months we kept in close touch with the United Automobile Workers. Quickly and effectively they strengthened their lines at every possible point, and their organization campaign in the big production centers steadily gained momentum. Carrying out a mandate of the convention, they established an efficient educational department akin to ours in the ILGWU, and a competently staffed research division, began to publish a newspaper, and issued various pamphlets and leaflets.
Several independent locals had joined the UAW soon after the convention, adding perhaps 8,000 to its numbers. With members coming in by hundreds each week, the young international moved on toward the inevitable show-down with General Motors. All along it had the constant support of the Committee for Industrial Organization.
Then the union's international officers, in an effort to deal with the numerous grievances, asked for a conference with William S. Knudsen, executive vise-president of General Motors. He curtly advised them to submit complaints to plant managers.
This was simply a runaround, for the managers had no authority to make decisions on questions of major import. But the union leaders decided to go through the motions of following Knudsen's advice, to see how far they would get. They drew up a tentative contract, handed it to the manager of the Fisher Body Works in Flint, owned by the GMC, and requested an answer within seven days.
Overnight three inspectors in the small Fisher No. 2 plant, where seat-covering material was made, were ordered transferred to undesirable locations because they refused to quit the union. Immediately 125 men in No. 2, a full shift, staged a sit-down. This was on December 30.
A few hours later company foremen in the huge block-long Fisher Plant No. 1, also in Flint, took drastic action, presumably as an object lesson to the workers there. Conspicuously they loaded dies onto flat cars for shipment to Pontiac and Lansing, where the UAW had not yet attained strength.
But that "lesson" defeated its own purpose for at once several hundred men in Plant No. I also sat down. the Belt÷the production line÷which depended on their continual activity, stopped as they stayed at their usual places idle. All ruses by company chiefs to get the strikers to leave the buildings failed. So long as they remained inside, the GMC could neither produce bodies nor remove any more equipment.
On the fourth day of this strike the company obtained from Judge Edward S. Black an injunction prohibiting the union from occupying the two factory buildings, from picketing, and from interfering in any way with non-striking employes. The sit-downers jeered the sheriff as he read the injunction to them, and remained where they were. They knew their one chance to win was to retain possession of the buildings.
That injunction was never enforced, because the union exposed the fact that Judge Black owned 1,000 shares of General Motors' stock. By sitting in a case in which he had a personal interest, he had violated a state law. The union began impeachment proceedings against him.
A week after the Fisher Body strike started, Homer Martin wired me: "Please come now." Adolph Germer, Leo Krzycki, and Powers Hapgood already were on the scene.
I was then in Montreal, where we had been carrying on an aggressive organization campaign, and was leaving for the ILGWU general executive board meeting in Washington. After that meeting, with the consent of President Dubinsky, I took a midnight plane on January 8 for Detroit.
Arriving there shortly after 4 a.m., I took the only cab at the airport, and went to the Fort Wayne Hotel, for a few hours' sleep By 10 I was at UAW headquarters, where I met the strike leaders; including John Brophy, who had come from Washington to help. At the time of my previous visit this headquarters had been as dead as a doornail. Now it was teeming with activity.
After the morning press conference Martin Brophy, Wyndham Mortimer, and George Addes were leaving in a car for Flint, and took me with them. As we drove toward the embattled area, they told me what had been happening in Flint since the sit-down began÷ about the exposure of the judge who had granted the injunction; the organization of the "Flint Alliance," a back-to-work vigilante set-up, by George Boysen, ex-mayor of the city and former Buick paymaster; and an attack two days earlier on an outdoor union meeting of Chevrolet workers by hoodlums who wrecked the UAW sound equipment.
In Flint we went to the Pengelly building, where I had spoken the previous spring. Now used as strike headquarters, the place was crowded.
In the union office new members were steadily being enrolled. A pledge signed by all impressed me deeply. Each man promised to buy only union-made goods whenever possible; never to discriminate against a fellow worker, or wrong him or see him wronged, "if it is in my power to prevent it"; to "subordinate every selfish impulse to the task of elevating the material, intellectual, and moral condition of the automobile worker"; and to "be respectful in word and action to every woman."
On the second floor, the strike publicity department, directed by Carl Hostler, was turning out frequent news releases. Its office was a center for writers and artists attracted to Flint to record an epochal chapter of labor history. Among the writers were Mary Heaton Vorse and Josephine Herbst. In another room material was being prepared for the Flint Auto Worker, weekly organ of the strikers, by its editor, Henry Kraus, and his assistants. And volunteer students from the University of Michigan÷both boys and girls÷were busy putting out a mimeographed bulletin, The Punch Press, and miscellaneous leaflets.
Mrs. Bud Simon, wife of the union chairman in Fisher Body No. 1, was in charge of the commissary in Cook's restaurant, across the street. Normally Cook had enjoyed a healthy patronage from the men in No. 1. When the strike came, rather than close his doors, he offered the restaurant to the union, to use as long as need be. All he asked was that the UAW pay for rent, gas, and light. Thus the union had a well equipped center for feeding the strikers, and Cook made many new friends.
I was taken into Plant No. 1, in which 8,000 workers had been employed. Escorted by two strikers, I climbed onto some wooden boxes, and got into the building through an open window. Bud Simon showed me around inside. Slim, earnest looking, and apparently in his early forties, he took his responsibilities as chairman of Fisher No. I seriously. He was anxious to avoid all unnecessary disturbance and conflict, and to prevent any possible property damage.
Brilliantly lighted, this vast plant was heavily guarded inside and outside÷to keep strike-breakers and other interlopers from entering, and to protect the building and its contents. Especially did these strikers guard the company's dies. No liquor was permitted on the premises, and smoking was prohibited on all production floors. Forty-five men were assigned to police patrol duty inside. Their word was law.
Production being at a standstill, a long line of Fisher bodies hung from the motionless conveyor-belt,1 as if frozen in space. But throughout the building there was ceaseless movement and watchfulness. One section had been fitted up like a hotel lobby, with soft cushions from car bodies to sit on. Newspapers and periodicals of varied political shades, labor papers, and mystery magazines were among the reading matter in evidence.
Having organized an orchestra and a chorus, they staged nightly concerts, broadcast through a loud speaker from the window to audiences outside in automobiles and on foot. One of the most popular of the songs had been composed especially for the Flint strikers:
Most of these men had worked for Fisher Body from four to 12 years. They told me it was tough to sit around and do nothing after the speed-up had got into their blood.
"But I'll sit here till Hell freezes under me," said one. "I won't give up the fight, for I know where I'll land if we don't win this time."
There was a mass-meeting in the Pengelly building auditorium on Sunday afternoon, the place being packed to the doors. Brophy, Martin, Hapgood, Victor Reuther, and I spoke to a keenly receptive audience, in which many dared for the first time to listen to such speeches with hearts and minds open to conviction.
On this, the twelfth day of the strike, the scene was wholly peaceful. With the single exception of the breaking up of the meeting near the Chevrolet factory, when the union sound equipment was smashed, no violence had been used against the Flint strikers.
I had to leave that evening to fill a speaking engagement in Pittsburgh and return to Montreal, where pressing affairs demanded my attention.
"You don't really need me," I told John Brophy. "You have the situation well in hand, and you're moving in the right direction And you've got Adolph Germer, Leo, and Powers÷t hey're all free to stay on as long as necessary."
"You may be sure we'll need you before we get through here," Brophy answered. "This won't be an easy fight. Hell is likely to break loose any day."
Early in February a long distance call from Ed Hall, UAW vise- president, to the ILGWU in New York, was relayed to me in Montreal. I must go to Flint at once; the situation was critical. At any hour the leaders expected to be arrested. They wanted me to be on hand, ready to take charge of strike headquarte rs if that should happen.
Flint, I already knew from newspaper dispatches, had become a battlegrou nd the day after I left there, with strikers as the casualties. More than 4,000 state troops, sent in by the new Governor, Frank Murphy, were on guard in the strike area.
Taking a midnight train, I arrived in Detroit next afternoon, and hastened to the Hotel Statler, where the UAW general strategy committee was quartered. Here the negotiatio ns with the General Motors spokesmen were being conducted by John L. Lewis, though he was sick in bed, with assistance from John Brophy, Adolph Germer, and the UAW officials.
By this time the workings of the far-fl ung GMC system had been crippled so badly that it was producing only 1,500 cars a week in contrast to 53,000 in mid- December. Nearly all its 200,000 employes either were on strike or were prevented from working because essential parts were unavailabl e. Eighteen plants were strike 5;bound in ten cities, the other nine being Detroit, St. Louis, Toledo, Cleveland, Atlanta, Kansas City, Mo., Janesville, Wis., Anderson, Ind., and Norwood, Ohio.
The sit-d owners in Flint still held Fisher Body Plants No. I and 2, and the union also had scored a master 5;stroke in taking over Chevrolet Plant No. 4. The company had been compelled to negotiate, and the negotiatio ns were friendly enough on the surface. But the strike leaders were apprehensi ve that the GMC was planning some smashing counter 45;blow. A new and wide- ;reaching injunction had been issued by a different judge, and arrests of strikers had begun.
1. Ordinarily the word belt suggests leather But in thin case the conveyor-belt is more easily pictured if thought of as a traleling crane.
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