Raya Dunayevskaya 1955
Source: News & Letters, July 22, 1955. This piece appeared as Dunayevskaya’s column, “Two Worlds: Notes From a Diary”;
Transcribed: by Kevin Michaels.
The series of wildcat strikes, right on the heels of the new contracts in auto negotiated by Reuther, was a strike against the labor bureaucracy. Pure and simple; profound and new. Never before had the opposition to the labor leadership been so total. Without understanding this, it is impossible to understand “the politics” of the American working people.
Judging, no doubt, by the fact that their thirst for leadership remained unquenched, certain intellectuals who fancy themselves as workers’ leaders were talking at one and the same time about the “political backwardness” of the American worker while they themselves were accepting Reuther’s self-declared victory as “the fulfillment of the workers’ dream.” The auto workers, on the other hand, took to the picket lines.
Their talk on the picket lines revealed a new attitude to Reuther. His name was never singled out at all. “The international-the labor leadership-was seen as a unit. Everyone from the lowest committeeman to Reuther was referred to as “a representative of management.” The workers would have nothing to do with any of them. They listened only to those who were with them in the strike.
New groupings arose on the basis of that activity. In one local, the rank and file simply walked to the back of the hall while the leadership sat on the platform. When they had come to a decision, they then confronted the tops on the platform with it. In another shop where the production workers were all women, while the foremen and the union leadership were men, the struggle assumed the form of a woman’s fight against the inhumanity of man. In several shops they no sooner returned to work than they wanted to go out again. That is how the hunger for the unity of purpose and action, gotten on the picket line, expressed itself.
The self-confidence they gained in taking matters into their own hands is first now evolving into new group formations.
When a decade ago, Reuther could still place himself at the head of the strike wave following the conclusion of World War II, this time he had from the start to come out gains the strike. Where, a few years ago, he could fight the wildcats by redbaiting, this present walkout was so leaderless, so spontaneous, that Reuther had no other weapon left to shout that the long-accumulated workers grievances were “personal.”
In contrast to this, the workers impersonal attitude toward their leadership showed how they had gone beyond the stage of replacing one set of leaders by another as in the days when union caucuses were so popular. This type of politics they leave to the politicians. Distinctively, workers’ politics concerns itself instead with relations at the point of production itself. That is why this time they were so little interested in personalities, Reuther’s and Stellato’s  included.
“Just why was it necessary for Reuther to bring all of those professors in and turn the class struggle upside down?”
A production worker with many years of trade union experience asked me this question, and then continued, “Why did he turn to those guys to carry out his objectives? I know he always used intellectuals, but there is something new this time. I seems to me that this time they are using him. Why, even the top international representatives didn’t get into that room full of professors and engineers. That is why it seems to me that workers are not thinking so much of forms and organizations as of forms of revolt; a way of getting rid of all that planning by people who haven’t spent a single day on the production line.”
Nevertheless Reuther and Plans have always been a pair, an inseparable pair. That was true of him even when he was a worker himself and helped organize the CIO. Always his aim was “to lead” so that when the American working class was changing the industrial face of America, he was attracted most of all by the administrative plan of Russia. In the early 1930’s he had worked there for a year and, where the Russian production worker saw only the speedup, this skilled American worker saw only the grandiose plan.
It is true that the tendency to plan did not then seem organic, that is to say, part of the very organism of this skilled worker-intellectual. It was only when America moved from depression to war and the totality of the crises laid a tightrope for the labor leaders who wanted to continue to lead above all else, that the Plan became so characteristically the mark of the American labor bureaucracy.
First Reuther came out with the plan for more planes. He challenged industry’s ability to transfer itself rapidly to a wartime basis. That this competition with industry for state approval meant that the worker would be chained down with a no-strike pledge, did not disconcert Reuther a bit. He didn’t have to work on the production line. He had his table of blueprints.
He seemed flexible enough when the tidal wave of strikes, at the end of World War II, threatened to overwhelm the whole labor bureaucracy. He placed himself at the head of the strikes and came out with such slogans as “Open the Books.” From opposite poles, both workers and management interpreted this as a challenge to industry’s control of production. But Reuther’s plan called for nothing of the sort. He soon enough got the slogan so tied to the “sliding scale of wages” that it became nothing but a bookkeeping term.
What he had done during the war with the no strike pledge and in 1950 with the Five Year Contract, he now did with the workers’ urge for security in the face of automation. In the face of automation, on the one hand, and the workers’ demand for a say over production schedules, on the other hand, Reuther puts the New Deal brains, that used to be on the government payroll, and comes up with the GAW.
Reuther is a master of substitution, that is to say, transforming something into its very opposite.
That is why the opposition to Reuther now is so total. What form this workers’ revolt will take, no one can tell in advance. But what cannot be doubted now is the workers’ determination to find other ways, than through their present leadership, to bend production to their will and aspiration for a better life. That is the workers’ politics. All other politics they leave to the politicians and intellectual planners.
1. Carl Stellato, president of UAW Local 600, was a rival of Reuther’s during this period.