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A.J. Muste

Some Lessons of the Toledo Strike

(July 1935)


From New International, Vol. 2 No. 4, July 1935, pp. 127–129.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


IN OUR DISCUSSION in the last issue of trade union developments in the United States we drew the following conclusions. The trend of the workers is still, with rare exceptions, into the American Federation of Labor. In the main, therefore, militants and revolutionists must work in the AF of L unions or simply be isolated from the masses. The AF of L leadership will not, however, carry organizing campaigns in the basic industries to effective conclusions. Still less can it be counted on to carry out effectively the large-scale militant strike actions without which no union which is more than a puppet in government hands will be established. Every organizing campaign and strike becomes therefore a battle ground, not merely between the workers and the employers, but heads up in an ever sharpening struggle between the present union leadership and the rising progressive trade union forces.

All of these contentions were illustrated and borne out in a very clearcut, and often dramatic fashion, in the recent Chevrolet General Motors strike in Toledo and other automobile towns. It will be useful to dwell upon certain features of this strike because of the lessons for the future which they present.

In the first place, the strikers were members of an AF of L federal automobile workers’ union. The whole movement was one of AF of L workers. The independent Mechanics Educational Society of America might have become involved if the strike had spread. It is to the credit of the Detroit district organization of the MESA that it announced its readiness to strike with AF of L members if the struggle spread to Detroit and Flint. Despite the fact that the AF of L leadership, as will be brought out presently, played the role of sabotage and betrayal more flagrantly and openly, if that is possible, than in the past, and that the strikers are well aware of this fact, no movement out of the AF of L and for independent unionism has developed. Especially at the focal point in Toledo the workers are more determined than ever to build their local AF of L union, to carry on the battle against bureaucracy in the AF of L, and to press for the early establishment of an international union under an AF of L charter.

Let us note, in the second place, the lengths to which the AF of L leadership went in sabotaging the strike and in betrayal of the workers’ interest. President Green had the strike votes of the federal auto unions in his pocket. Nevertheless he did not call any strike or make any strike preparations. This in spite of the fact that the AF of L leaders unquestionably believed that a not too big and carefully controlled disturbance in automobiles was desirable in order to impress the Roosevelt administration with the necessity of granting legislative concessions to them rather than permitting “wild men” and “reds” from getting control of the workers. These bureaucrats live in deadly fear of any mass movement getting under way. Francis Dillon, chief AF of L representative on the scene, was also the chief agent in preventing the strike from spreading or assuming militant form. He coaxed and bulldozed the Flint union workers into staying at work when they were eager to strike. He did not hesitate to violate the most elementary principle of even conservative unionism by specifically condoning the manufacture of scab transmissions by the Flint workers. He insinuated that the Toledo strikers were yellow and unworthy of support. His henchmen beat up a Toledo union militant in the union hall in Flint where he was present for the purpose of informing Flint workers about developments in Toledo.

In the meeting of strikers at which the compromise settlement offered by the General Motors Corporation was voted on, this representative of the supposedly democratic trade union movement, who had that very morning issued a pompous statement against “dictatorship of all kinds, Fascist or communist,” told the strikers, their strike committee and their union executive, before the vote on the company offer was taken, that the AF of L would withdraw their charter unless the vote was for acceptance! Here is the representative of the union clubbing the workers into accepting the proposals, not of the union, but of the employers and the government. Fascist unions in the corporative state will play just that role. Many of these AF of L leaders are thus prepared to go much further in subservience to the government than the present stage of development requires of them, so utterly devoid are they of any shred of dignity or sense of shame.

In this connection the role of a local official such as Schwake is most significant. Put into office some months ago by progressives in the union in revolt against a reactionary business agent and probably personally honest and well-intentioned, he nevertheless lined up at critical moments with the top officials against the rank and file strike committee and the workers. It was in fact his speech following Dillon’s, not Dillon’s speech as such, which turned the tide for acceptance of the company proposals. It must be borne in mind that this type, utterly devoid of background and a theoretical position, will always play this role, and that militants in strike situations must skillfully but nevertheless steadily undermine the confidence of the rank and file in such elements.

When the obstacles we have just cited are considered, together with the fact that the strike was against one of the major automobile corporations directly linked to the Dupont and Morgan dynasties, the strike was a remarkable achievement and furnishes new evidence of the energies and the militancy of the present generation of American industrial workers. Typical is the fact that not much more than a year ago the rank and file leader of the strike, Jimmy Roland, was still in a company union and had no knowledge of or experience in the labor movement. Typical also that a couple of weeks before the strike, the union had only a handful of members in the Toledo Chevrolet plant and that still fewer had any previous union experience. But also typical is the swiftness and completeness with which these workers tied up the key transmission plant of a giant corporation; their obvious militancy which prevented the company from making any effort to open the plant, an effort which would unquestionably have meant bloodshed; the extension of the strike to include 30,000 workers in about a week, and so on.

The most impressive features of the strike can, however, be understood only in the light of the contribution made to the labor movement in Toledo during the past year by the revolutionary cadre of Workers Party members and the militant unionists and unemployed leaguers under their influence. The fact that leadership in the automobile workers’ struggle since the spring of 1934 has so obviously been in Toledo and not in Detroit, Flint, Cleveland or some other automobile center is to be ascribed chiefly to the presence in Toledo of these elements whose program is the trade union line of the WP, who have exhibited an unusual combination of sound theory and sound practise, and have carried out the program with singular persistence, ingenuity and a devotion that has stopped at nothing. Wherever party cadres will get into the mass work with the same revolutionary devotion, the same willingness to learn, and the same sticking to the job day in and day out, similar results can be obtained.

The struggle between the trade union bureaucracy and the young rank and file leadership was carried several steps further in the General Motors strike than it has been in rubber, or steel, or elsewhere in automobiles. The strike was called despite the bureaucrats. It was extended in spite of them. It attained a high degree of efficiency. Several attempts to bring it to a premature conclusion were thwarted. The company was forced to negotiate with the rank and file committee. Decided gains for the workers were achieved. Most significant of all, there is no discouragement, no slump in union leadership or spirit, among leaders or rank and file following the acceptance of the compromise settlement and their experience with the sabotage and betrayal of the top union officials. Instead there is a firm determination to organize the militants so that the next time they may carry the struggle still another stage forward and administer a complete defeat to the trade union bureaucracy. This is the most encouraging development which has taken place in the movement for organizing the union progressives, and once again there is no reasonable explanation except that here a revolutionary cadre has been at work more devotedly and for a longer period on the basis of a sounder program.

That the progressives were not yet organized and trained as they should be was of course demonstrated by the fact that in the final analysis Dillon outmanoeuvred them. How serious that is becomes clear, for one thing, when we analyze what the position would have been if the compromise offer of the General Motors Company had been rejected by the strikers in defiance of Dillon’s “orders”.

If President Green had not executed the threat to withdraw the charter of the Toledo local and had continued the policy pursued up to that time, in other words, had not openly disowned the strike and attempted to forbid the unions generally to support it, the progressive forces would have been confronted by a colossal but, in my opinion, a not impossible task. The ranks in Toledo, Norwood, Cleveland, Atlanta, etc., would probably have been held firm. The conference of strike committees which Roland called and Dillon cancelled, would have been held. The strike would have been spread to Flint and other centers. The progressives would have had a much freer hand and would have enjoyed the confidence of the masses after the defeat of Dillon. Substantial funds could have been raised throughout the country. Unquestionably, on the other hand, General Motors would have put up a terrific fight. Quite likely pitched battles would have occurred in Flint or in Muncie, Ind., if the corporation had made an attempt to open a new transmission plant there. A “red” scare would have been started against the progressives and the Workers Party; the preparations had in fact already been made. The federal government would of course have thrown its forces against the strike. As I have said, there is no denying that for the progressives, whose organization except in Toledo had to be improvised, this would have been a tremendous task. But General Motors was in a tight fix and a victory was possible.

But it is far from certain that Green would have taken this course. Had the strike gone ahead and achieved substantial results, this would have meant building up the prestige of the militants not only in automobiles but in other unions, to such a degree as to shake the present class-collaboration leadership of the AF of L to its foundations. Furthermore, it would have demonstrated to the employers and the Roosevelt administration that this leadership could no longer control the masses and so was of no use to them. It is, therefore, entirely possible that Green would have backed up Dillon.

Then the strike would have become an “outlaw” strike. It would have been much more difficult to get support in the unions generally. The “red” scare” would have known no bounds. The corporation and the government would have treated the strike as a “revolution”. Leaders would have been jailed. There is no use pretending that the progressives had adequate numbers or experience or machinery to deal with such a problem. There would have been a thrilling struggle. It is just barely possible that the forces would have grown swiftly under the emergency and so would have hammered out a victory. Quite possibly an orderly retreat would have been the utmost that could have been achieved. A serious defeat might have been the outcome.

It behooves the militants to lose no time in extending and strengthening their organization in all important industries and the revolutionary party swiftly to train its cadres in the unions. One of these days the battle will be carried a step further than it was in Toledo. Some day Dillon will make his threat and this time the militants will be wiser and harder. They will laugh at his threat and vote down his and the employers’ proposal. Then the AF of L leadership will have to decide whether it will keep these “wild men” in the AF of L or will drive them out. If it bows to the storm, fails to carry through its bluff, keeps the strikers in the AF of L, that will be the end of the old leadership; there will be a vastly changed AF of L under a class struggle leadership. If, on the other hand, in the crisis that we envisage the old leadership decided to stand its ground against well-organized and well-prepared militant forces, decided to kick the latter out of the AF of L, that will still mean the end of the old leadership, for they will be left with the name and the shell of the AF of L, as Powderly, for example, was left with the name and the shell of the Knights of Labor. But the workers will be elsewhere – in that “independent federation of labor” which will then represent not an incurable Leftists’ dream or adventure, but the major forces of the working class, the will of the working class.

The present writer’s opinion happens to be that when the decisive moment arrives, it is the latter variant that is likely to occur; but at this moment speculation on that point is – speculation and no more. The lesson of Toledo, of the sell-out of the Akron rubber workers in April, of the recent flare-up in steel in Canton, is that no time must be lost in welding the militants in the AF of L into a fighting force. And, we may ask, what else is the lesson of the Roosevelt $19 per month wage for project workers, the Supreme Court decision on the unconstitutionally of the NRA, the employer drive to break down such slight defenses of labor standards, as have existed and to intensify the effort to achieve capitalist recovery, i.e., step up profits, at whatever cost to the masses? There will be no unions worth the name unless the militants build and maintain them. Without fighting unions the workers will presently be made the object of an attack which will make 1929–35 seem like “the good old times”.


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