Max Shachtman

Fighting UAW Convention Votes —

Referendum on No-Strike Pledge!

(September 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 39, 25 September 1944, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

GRAND RAPIDS – The membership of the United Automobile Workers Union will have the first opportunity yet offered any of the rank and file of the organized labor movement of this country to express its opinion on the no-strike pledge, according to a two-to-one decision made by the delegates to the ninth annual convention of the UAW-CIO in favor of a referendum on the pledge to be held throughout the union within the next ninety days.

The decision was taken on a roll-call vote after the Convention had spent two days of stormy debate on “the pledge.”

It was significant of the temper of the 2,300 delegates attending the Grand Rapids convention that they voted for the membership referendum in the face of the opposition of almost the entire union leadership and despite the severe pressure that the leadership exerted upon the convention as a whole.

The decision for a referendum climaxed a number of stirring floor battles.

To begin with, the convention resoundingly defeated an attempt by the Rules Committee to prevent the. opponents of the no-strike pledge from bringing a resolution and report of their own before the delegates. It also defeated an attempt to jam through the election of international officers before the pledge could be discussed and acted upon.

The report of the Resolutions Committee majority, filled to the brim with flag-waving buncombe, called for a reaffirmation of the pledge, acclaiming it as a proud achievement of labor, and not spending as much as a word on the fact that the big monopolists, and capital in general, have had a picnic at labor’s expense through the war by exploiting, among other things, the no-strike pledge.

The majority report was signed by committee members Norman Matthews, Local 190; Ben Ambroch, Local 840; William Dieter, Local 32, and by the two outstanding Communist Party leaders in the UAW-CIO, Nat Ganley, Local 155, and Shelton Tappes, Local 600. It goes without saying that the majority resolution was warmly supported by the Stalinist faction. It was also supported in the ensuing debate by all the top leaders of the union, with the exception of Walter and Victor Reuther. It was known to have the backing of Philip Murray, CIO president, who made a tearful appeal to the delegates, accompanied by Murray’s usual invocation of the deity, to observe their “commitments.”

The Minority Resolution

The minority report was sponsored by Victor Reuther, Local 174; H.A. Moon, Local 645, and Harold Johnson, Local 814. As one of the delegates sarcastically remarked, “It’s full of the splinters you get from squatting hard on top of a fence.” He was expressing the real sentiments of about nine-tenths of the delegates. The minority resolution was a typical Reuther straddle full of sonorous phrases, lots of wind, no fury and no proposal for ACTION to meet the crisis which the resolution found itself compelled to point out.

The resolution boasted of the contributions and sacrifices labor has made for the war and gave assurances that these would be continued. At the same time, whimpered the resolution, “the successful maintenance of continuous production is a responsibility of management and the government as well as of labor.” It went on to admit that “management continues to provoke stoppages by taking advantage of the no-strike pledge.” It argued that “slogan and lip-service will not insure continuous production; only genuine collective bargaining and fair play can achieve that end.” No mention was made of how collective bargaining, destroyed by the no-strike pledge and the War Labor Board set-up, was to be restored.

Having recited as delicately as possbile the disastrous results to labor of the pledge, and the fact that it Has been a brutal weapon in the hands of “management” – this is the tender term Reuther likes to use when referring to the do-nothing plutocrats of monopoly capital – the resolution ended with typical Reuther cowardice in a proposal to reaffirm the fatal pledge “in those plants wholly or partially engaged in war production.”

To be sure, the Reuther resolution provided for abandoning the pledge “in those plants reconverted to the exclusive and sole manufacture of civilian production.” And it also condemned “those individuals inside or outside the labor movement who propose to extend indefinitely labor’s wartime no-strike pledge in time of peace.” But these provisions fell on pretty deaf ears, inasmuch as the issue was obviously whether or not the paralyzing no-strike pledge should be kept or rescinded NOW. As everyone knew, only case-hardened Stalinists, headed by Harry Bridges and “following the line of bowing arid scraping before the National Manufacturers’ Association, are in favor of keeping the no-strike pledge indefinitely, even after the war.

The Rescind Resolution

A third resolution, called the “Super-Minority” or, jokingly, the “Super-Duper” resolution, was reported out by a committee minority of one, Ben Garrison of Local 400. Even though its wording at certain points was open to objection from the standpoint of the militant progressives, it nevertheless came to clear grips with the problem.

It reminded the convention of the auto workers’ conference in Detroit on April 7–8, 1942, at which the ten-point “Victory Through Equality of Sacrifice” program was agreed to. These points included a demand for limitation of corporation profits to three per cent; a limitation on individual or family income to a maximum of $25,000 annually; rigid price control to prevent inflation; a fair and just rationing program; wage increases commensurate with increases in cost of living; a living wage to the dependents of men in the armed forces; a moratorium on all debts during the reconversion period, and so forth.

Although the no-strike pledge was given, so far as workers were concerned, on the condition that these points be carried out, not a single one of them had been put into effect. As a result, continued the resolution, “labor has been forced to take a retreating position?” While it has continued to make sacrifices, “the moneyed interests and large corporations have drawn tremendous surpluses and instituted a policy of abrogation of collective bargaining, which if allowed to continue will surely mean the disintegration of all labor unions as has been the fate of the labor movement in Germany, Italy and ottier fascist countries.”

The Super-Minority resolution therefore proposed flatly “that we assembled in this great convention rescind our no-strike pledge.” It also called for a referendum vote of the membership sixty days after adjournment of the convention “to either uphold or reject the action of this convention.”

One after another the top leaders of the UAW came to the fore to fight for reaffirming the pledge. The air was thick with flag-waving speeches until you almost felt like you were attending a convention of the American Legion. The leaders tried to bear down with all the authority and prestige at their command. Thomas had even gone so far as to declare, before the convention assembled, that if the no-strike pledge was rescinded, he would not run for president of the union.

Rank and File Win Test

Murray was brought down to the convention for the special purpose of defeating the movement to rescind the pledge. Toward this end he even pulled a “sensation” out of his hat with the announcement that he could give full assurances that the infamous Little Steel formula was going to be abandoned by an upward revision. He was listened to with considerable coolness by most of the delegates, and several attempts to give him an ovation fell flat.

The sentiment of the militants in the convention toward the attempt by the flag-wavers to muddy the issue was well represented by the aggressive delegates from the Briggs Local. Every time one of the “patriots” would start the old song about “Our Commander-in-Chief,” “our duty to our country,” or “the foxholes,” the Briggs delegates would raise up tiny American flags and wave them mockingly at the speaker. There is not the slightest doubt that the Briggs men are as sincerely patriotic as the next man, but they, like hundreds of others, were fed up with the attempts to drown their legitimate demands in a flood of “patriotic” oratory.

There was a tense atmosphere when the first roll-call was taken, on the Super-Minority resolution. Everyone understood that this was the first real test of the no-strike pledge, and that the convention’s action could mark a real turning point for the American labor movement.

When the final tabulation was made, the rank and file militants were vastly elated at their initial success and the officialdom looked as glum as it felt. In spite of all the handicaps and difficulties, the Super-Minority resolution received more than” thirty-seven per cent of the total vote, lacking only about 1,300 out of the more than 10,000 votes cast for a clear majority. The militants felt that they had gained a victory, and they were right. In the first big contest they had shown a strength that not even the most optimistic had looked for. They had polled three-eighths of the total vote, despite the barrage of charges of “unpatriotism” laid down against them, despite the fact that the whole officialdom was against them, despite the fact that their own leaders were comparatively unknown and despite the fact that any number of the small, out-of-the-way locals, feeling themselves dependent upon the good will of the international officers, voted pretty solidly against the resolution to rescind the no-strike pledge.

The Reuther resolution fared miserably. The Rank and File Caucus, following the defeat of the “Rescind” resolution, promptly issued a leaflet to the delegates announcing that “the fight has only begun” and urging them to vote down both the other resolutions. Hitherto the isolated militants all had the tendency, once their own views were defeated, to vote for a “half-way” Reutherite position as a “lesser evil’’ in comparison with the Communist or the Addes-Frankensteen position. This time they clearly and intelligently avoided any traps. Vote against both the Matthews-Ganley and the Reuther resolutions, they said.

Defeat Majority Resolution

The vote against the Reuther resolution the second report to be considered, was overwhelming. It did so so badly on the voice vote that the Reutherites decided it was the better part of wisdom not even to call for a roll-call vote.

At last came the vote on the majority resolution – the third test. The vote was close. Many of the Reutherites voted with the resolution supporters as a “lesser evil.” Others, however, followed the counsel of the Rank and File Caucus and voted against the majority resolution. A tremendous cheer went up from the floor when the final roll-call disclosed that the majority resolution had been DEFEATED by something like 298 votes.

As matters stood at this point, the union no longer had a no-strike pledge! The harrassed officialdom was dismayed. Heads were put together! Then the inevitable happened. The Reuthers, the Communist Party gang, Addes, Frankensteen and Thomas came forward with a united resolution which simply stated, in a few words, that the pledge was reaffirmed, Reuther’s “reservations” were revealed for what they really were – of second, third, even tenth-rate importance!

Then came one of the most contemptible pieces of trickery ever tried at a labor convention. The new “united” majority came forward with the announcement that, in view of the defeat of all three resolutions, the convention would have the opportunity to vote simply on whether to reaffirm or rescind the pledge, and just as simply on whether to hold a membership referendum or not. The new majority, that is, the whole officialdom, therefore came forward with two motions: one, to reaffirm the pledge; two, to hold a referendum’. Garrison, still a minorrty of one on the Resolutions Committee, came forward merely with a proposal to hold a referendum.

A Bureaucratic Trick

With Reuther openly rejoining the rest of the top leaders, the motion to reaffirm the pledge was carried by a standing vote. Then came the trick! The majority announced that inasmuch as the convention had already made a positive decision, it withdraw its proposal for a referendum! The booes of the delegates shook the roof of the Civic Auditorium. Tappes, the Stalinist leader, and others of his stripe made the most transparently demagogic speeches yet heard at a UAW convention, which is saying a good deal. They argued that a referendum is a bad thing, it will mean “strife” in the locals, it will impair the working efficiency of the union, it will stand in the way of the reelection of “our Commander-in-Chief” and more of the same.

But the delegates saw through all this as if it were plate glass. The officialdom had held its referendum motion in reserve in case the resolution to reaffirm the pledge would be defeated. In that event they were ready to try to overturn the convention decision. But once the convention voted to reaffirm, they did not want to give the minority the same opportunity to appeal to the membership. No speaker was needed on the floor to point this out. Everybody understood it.

Garrison persisted in his motion for a referendum. An apparently close standing vote precipitated a demand for a roll-call. It was obvious that many delegates who had voted against a referendum under official pressure feared a roll-call which would put them on record where their membership could see that they had opposed a rank and file consultation. When the roll-call was finally taken, it was a run-away victory for the militants. The decision for a referendum was adopted by the stunning majority of two to one.

It should be pointed out that after the Addes-Stalinist crowd had withdrawn their own motion for a referendum, Victor Reuther and Harold Johnson switched over to Garrison in favor of a referendum. To go along with the others against the referendum would have been too much!

It should also be pointed out that the Garrison motion provided that the referendum be supervised, not by the International Executive Board, but by a special nine-man committee composed of three representatives from the supporters of of each of the three original resolutions. It further provided that while international officers and representatives retain their ordinary rights, they are forbidden to use their offices, their positions, the union press or union funds for the purpose of influencing the vote in the referendum. This expression of non-confidence in the officialdom carried, along with the main motion for the referendum itself.

Fight for Power

Properly speaking, the convention came to an end at this point. But the behind-the-scenes convention was only then getting under way. It was the hotel-room convention to decide the question of the division of power among the cliques and individuals making up the leadership.

This question revolved, at Grand Rapids, around the office-hunting aspirations of National Ford Director Richard Leonard. He wanted to become a union vice-president, and to make sure that he got the post, he was working for the artificial creation of a third vice-presidency, the first two being occupied by Richard Frankensteen and Walter Reuther. Reuther, supported by Leonard up to this convention, played for a while with the idea of supporting Leonard’s ambitions in order not to alienate him. The Addes crowd was adamant against a third vice-president, for fear of disturbing the “balance of power” in the union leadership, but was ready to support him for second vice-president against Reuther.

The conferences behind the scenes on this question were endless. It is known that Murray stayed over at Grand Rapids in the hope of straightening out this mess. Hillman came to the convention largely for this purpose, representing not so much himself as Roosevelt. It was authoritatively reported to me that even Mr. Hannegan, national chairman of the Democratic Party, took a hand in this dispute through the offices of his personal emissary, whom he sent to the convention from New York – an emissary who has as much to do with the labor movement as any corporation lawyer.

The CIO heads, Murray and Hillman in particular, were extremely anxious to avoid a division among the UAW leaders. They wanted peace in their ranks and unity. But they wanted it for a special purpose this time. They wanted, and want, unity among all of the top leaders against the alarming growth of independent, militant rank and file sentiment. For the same reason, Murray and Hillman were insistent that, come what may, Reuther should not be defeated in his candidacy for vice-president. That would mean Reuther’s return to the ranks. Under such conditions, Reuther could very easily become, in a bid for a return to the leadership, the spokesman and organizer of a wide rank and file movement. That he would not be an authentic and reliable leader of such a movement was beside the point, from Murray’s and Hillman’s standpoint. It sufficed that Reuther could, willy-nilly, create a dangerous situation for the whole precarious top set-up in the UAW and therefore in the CIO as a whole.

Their fears were only partly dispelled by the convention. The delegate’s voted overwhelmingly against creating a third vice-presidency. They are suspicious and resentful enough of their leaders as it is, without adding a new one, and an obvious office-chaser at that. In the same spirit they shouted down a motion that provided for electing international officers for a two-year term instead of for one year, as at present.

In the first vice-presidential election, Frankensteen defeated Reuther by a small majority, while Leonard ran a very poor third. In the second, Reuther won handily over Leonard, in spite of the Addes-Frankensteen support thrown to the latter. Incumbent Addes was elected again as secretary-treasurer without any opposition candidate running against him.

R.J. Thomas was not let off so easily. Running as a candidate for union president against him, for the first time in the years since Thomas took that office, was a young militant from Flint, Robert Carter, acting president of the Flint Industrial Union Council, who was placed in nomination by Larry Yost, leader of the Rank and File Caucus. Carter of course had no chance to win and as a matter of fact he conceded defeat half-way through the roll-call vote. But it was a significant act for him to run at all. The notion that the present UAW leaders are to be in office for good and aye, is breaking down. The old attitude is giving way to the view that the union must have leaders who stand committed to a militant, uncompromising fight to defend and build the union with the same weapons that marked the early years of the union, plus new weapons – such as independent political action – which more and more militants are learning to realize that the union must have.

The long fight on the vital question of the no-strike pledge made it practically impossible to have any discussion on such important questions as a Labor Party, which many delegates favor, and a fighting post-war program, which the UAW leadership has abandoned in practice for the sake of giving blind, cowering support to the Great White Father in Washington.

But the outstanding fact is that the militants in the UAW showed their hand for the first time in an organized and impressive way and on the basis of a clear program. The outstanding fact is that these militants are inspired with the feeling that “the fight has only begun.”

Now they are determined to put all their weight behind the movement to rescind the no-strike pledge in the coming referendum and to see to it that the Rank and File Caucus remains an organized, year-around and nation-wide movement. There is no sign that they intend to fold up and hibernate following the convention. That is good and heralds a new day for the UAW and the whole labor movement. A profound change is coming and the rank and file militants are the promoters of the change. They will have the ardent support of all the healthy and progressive forces in the union whose hearts are lifted at the prospect of an end to the days of capitulation and a beginning of the days of victorious fighting.

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