Max Shachtman

The Meaning of the Fight in the UAW

Auto Labor’s Struggle
for GM Strike Program

(1 April 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 12, 1 April 1946, pp. 1 & 3-M.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The UAW-CIO has set the pace for the entire working class so often that it has become a commonplace to speak of it as the vanguard of the labor movement. For that reason alone, the Atlantic City convention of the auto workers’ union would be an important event for every worker in the country. But the issues that confront the UAW convention this year are of a kind that give its deliberations an extraordinary importance. What it decides will shape the course of the American working class for a long time to come.

The issues before the convention are fundamental and – if you are not too frightened by the word that gives the shivers to the monopolists – revolutionary. They do not boil down to the question of who is to be elected president of the UAW, R.J. Thomas or Walter P. Reuther, although this question has its importance. They do boil down to the question which is of supreme and primary importance.


The Atlantic City convention will have to deal with many questions, important ones, too, as it has in the past. It will have to deal with the question of the strike strategy recently employed against the Big Three manufacturers. But none of these questions can even approach in importance the ones indicated above.

In the all-important question, the union sees two positions. One is represented pretty consistently by such men as R.J. Thomas, Richard Leonard and Philip Murray who has supported them, at least up to now. The other position is represented, very inconsistently, by Walter Reuther. The two positions are more or less summed up, or symbolized, by the “Ford program” on the one side, and the “GM program” on the other. The fight between the representatives of the two positions at the convention will not mean very much unless their basic significance is clearly understood.

The “Ford program,” which Leonard and Thomas sought to put over, and which Reuther could not bring himself to fight openly, can be summed up in two words: company security. The very idea of “company security” is reactionary. It flies in the face of the basic principles of trade unionism – those basic principles which are so often ignored or violated by the leadership of the trade-union movement. The only real security for the companies, that is, for the big monopolists, existed when there were no unions to defend the security of the workers. The only way in which the corporations can reestablish undisturbed security for themselves is by destroying the unions. Then they can pay pretty near any wages they want, charge pretty near any prices they want, and take pretty near any profits they want. That would represent real security – for them.

We are not alone in saying that. In the statement he issued for the UAW during the strike, Walter Reuther declared on November 24 that General Motors is seeking to establish “an industrial economic dictatorship” and to conduct a “war to break the back of organized labor.” The difference between us is this: we understand just what we are saying and we mean what we are saying.

For the labor movement to champion or support the idea of “company security” is utterly wrong in principle and disastrous in practice. First, the companies can be trusted to look after their own security. There is no sense in workers forming a special organization of their own, like unions, to give the companies a hand in this. Second, the idea of “company security” puts the interests and needs of the monopolists – the du Ponts, Fords and Chryslers – ahead of the interests and needs of the workers. It makes the conditions of the workers dependent upon the welfare of the monopolists. It guarantees the high profits of the monopolists as the basis, presumably, of decent wages for labor. Third, the idea means in practice (there are a thousand proofs of this) that the union is transformed from an agency of workers into a company watch-dog over the worker. Why the devil do the workers need an organization for that purpose? If we must have watchdogs, let the company hire its own and pay them out of its own treasury!

Follow the “Ford program,” follow Thomas and Leonard, and you end up with a first-class disaster for the labor movement and the working class.

The “GM Program”

The “GM program” – we mean the original GM program – is something entirely different.

We of the Workers Party and of Labor Action do not hesitate for a moment – quite the contrary! – to declare ourselves the enthusiastic champions of the GM program.

What did it call for? What did it mean?

It said the following tremendously important things: We, the workers, declare that the industry is easily capable of paying us a 30 per cent increase in wages. We declare further that this can be done without raising prices of automobiles and trucks. We say that wages can be raised and prices kept low without eliminating a “fair profit” for the corporation. We say, finally, that we can prove these contentions by the books of the corporation itself and we demand that these books be opened up so that the proof may be adduced.

Why were these declarations so important?

Because for the first time on such a scale the workers tied together the questions of wages, prices and profits into an inseparable whole and declared that they were ALL the concern of labor.

Because for the first time on such a scale the workers gave the monopolists a vote of non-confidence. They said: We not only do not trust you to set wage scales by yourselves, we also do not trust you to set prices for the consumers or profits for yourselves. That’s our business too. And your arguments are lies because you don’t show your books. Your books are our business too.

Because for the first time on such a scale the workers said that up to now their wages had been dependent upon assuring corporation profits, but from now on profits would be dependent upon first assuring the workers a decent standard of living and assuring the consumer a fair price instead of a steep monopolistic price for industrial products.

Because the workers said that production and distribution, profits and prices as well as wages, are no longer the exclusive affair of the champions of “free enterprise,” that is, the wealth-swollen and power-swollen monopolists, but the affair of the workers.

How did the country react to the GM program?

GM Program Inspired Little People

Millions of workers were cheered and inspired by it. They felt that a new road had been opened up to them. They have their belly full of the champions and beneficiaries of “free enterprise.” They remember this gang of bankrupts from the days of the crisis and the mass unemployment. They remember also that the only time they were able to overcome unemployment was when plants opened up to produce the means of death and destruction. They see that now that the war is over, they cannot get a guarantee from these monopolists that they will have a year-round job and a minimum annual wage. The GM program was a challenge to the bankrupts and it immediately gained vigorous support from workers everywhere.

Millions of consumers, even the middle class people, were rallied by the GM program. The consumers are weighed down by the monopolistic prices on commodities which the big corporations enforce. They know that if they are left in the hands of these corporations, prices will be kept high. They know that the monopolists can sooner or later break the feeble OPA “ceilings” and get what they want in prices. The workers said: We can get higher wages and still keep prices down. More power to you, cried the millions of consumers. It is hard to remember a time when the labor movement was supported so enthusiastically by the consumers as a whole, by the middle classes as well, as was the case with the support they gave the GM program. Every newspaper was forced to concede this fact. It showed that all the people (except the monopolists) can be gotten to follow the lead of labor IF labor adopts a course which shows that it wants to be the spokesman and leader of the nation against the monopolists. That should be a lesson to all of us.

The capitalists, however, reacted as one man. Every capitalist paper fumed and shouted and lamented and threatened – but they did not represent the heart and mind of the people. The CAPITALISTS knew what the GM program meant – if hot today, then tomorrow. Labor wants to take over industry, they yelled. Well, what’s wrong with that? Labor wants to replace “management,” they bellowed. Well, what’s wrong with removing these self-confessed bankrupts who cannot guarantee a decent living for the workers but can only guarantee their own fabulous profits, even in wartime, or rather especially in wartime?

Reuther Displays Weakness

There wasn’t an intelligent worker in the labor movement who was moved by the miserable hysteria of the capitalist press campaign against the GM workers. But we regret to record that Walter Reuther, author of the GM program, was moved. But instead of moving forward, in line with the simple logic of the GM program and in line with the needs of the workers, he moved backward. He jack-knifed under the capitalist press barrage. He wrote a letter to the highly respectable and authoritative spokesman of the monopolists, the New York Times, of December 5, 1945, in which he begged for mercy. Here is the core of his complaint against an earlier Times editorial which denounced the GM program for its “radicalism”:

No reference whatever is made (by the Times) to the union’s proposition that if GM can show that it cannot pay this wage increase under existing prices, then the union will scale its demand to what GM can pay without raising prices. That is not a demand by the union to fix the prices and profits of the corporation. It is a demand for a wage increase that can be paid without injury to the corporation’s customers or stockholders.”

Everything is wrong with this “complaint,” this “correction” by Reuther. It isn’t a strategic retreat; it’s a capitulation. You can’t have it both ways. EITHER wages should be increased or lowered on the basis of whether or not it will do “injury to the corporation’s ... stockholders” (poor, suffering, poverty-stricken stockholders!) – OR the corporation’s interests should be considered on the basis of whether or not they will do “injury” to the workers. The first is the basic capitalist viewpoint. The second is the basic labor viewpoint. And you can no more mix or reconcile the two than you can mix or reconcile business unionism with labor unionism.

A consistent champion of the GM program – and that’s what every thoughtful militant in the labor movement should be – would take a different tack entirely. He would follow the program through logically and from the standpoint of labor’s needs and interests. He would say, we number tens of thousands and the du Ponts number a dozen. We make the automobiles, they make the profits. We come first, they come last.

Therefore, our GM program is a challenge. We say, labor needs a 30 per cent wage increase in order to live decently – not like a multi-millionaire du Pont, just decently. They say, labor doesn’t need 30 per cent more. We say, industry can pay the 30 per cent. They say, it can’t. We say, prices of cars can be kept low. They say, high prices must be raised to a higher level. We say, their profits are too high and are extorted at the expense of worker and consumer. They say, our profits must be raised at the expense of worker and consumer. We say, open the books. They say, no (we’re afraid to).

A New Organization of Industry

Now, if “management” (as these parasites like to call themselves) say they can’t or won’t do all the things labor says they can and should do, what is left for labor? Either it’s right or wrong. Either it means what it says or it’s bluffing. We say it’s right. Therefore? Therefore it should conclude by saying: If you can’t or won’t organize industry so that it pays decent wages, and charges the consumer fair prices and still yields a fair profit – WE DECLARE THAT INDUSTRY CAN BE ORGANIZED THAT WAY, AND WE DECLARE WE ARE READY TO ORGANIZE IT!

That’s where Reuther stopped short The simple, logical and necessary step to make the GM program a real fighting program lay in this simple proposition: The monopolists are bankrupts, THEREFORE we demand that the industry be nationalized!

But suppose the Truman Administration, which Reuther AND Thomas AND Murray helped put in office, won’t nationalize the industry, as it won’t? Truman and Co. were ready to “nationalize” workers into the Army; they were ready to “nationalize” labor by freezing wages and jobs; but they won’t nationalize the industry of the sacred du Ponts and Fords and Chryslers. We know that.

Our Own Government Necessary

But if nationalization is right and necessary, all that means is this: We must have a government of our own, a workers’ government, that WILL nationalize industry, that will run it so that the country is assured full production, labor is assured a decent living standard and a year-round job and a minimum annual wage, and the consumer is assured a decent price level.

Such a government requires that labor have a party of its own which openly declares its intention to establish a government based on this program. It requires a party that breaks completely with capitalist politics, capitalist political, parties and capitalist politicians.

And that’s where Reuther also stops short. And that’s why the GM program, elaborated, amplified, rounded out, made applicable on a national scale; in other words, worked out consistently so that it could sweep behind it the support of all the common people in the country, was watered down and practically abandoned during the strike.

Reuther and his associates are simply scared at their own boldness! They are scared of breaking all down the line with the reactionary ideas of the privileged monopolists. They are scared of breaking all down the line with the capitalist politicians who are such noble “friends of labor” every election day. They are scared of the very challenge they hurled into the faces of the GM autocracy. Hence their retreat and capitulation.

But why should the workers be scared? Look at the power they have and the power they have displayed. There isn’t an industry they haven’t been able to shut down. When they quit, all the efforts of “management,” multiplied by a hundred, can’t get a wheel to turn. All they should be scared of is: low living standards which make life a misery; high prices which make life a misery; the coming unemployment which makes life a misery. All they should be scared of is GM’s “industrial economic dictatorship” and the “road to World War III and, with the atomic bomb, the blackout of civilization,” which Reuther charged the du Ponts with in his statement of last November 24th. But their program, which scared the du Ponts, should not scare them. They should press their great challenge to the hilt and let the monopolists squirm and squeal to their hearts’ content.

We want to open the books! Indeed we do! But that demand has been exaggerated and its meaning distorted.

The du Ponts say: If our books show a deficit, will you take a wage cut?

Reuther answers ... with a tragic and helpless silence! He doesn’t know what to say, or he fears the consequences of the right answer. And the right answer is a bold and simple one:

The Books Must Be Opened

Gentlemen, if your books show a deficit, you’re a gang of bankrupts. Get out! If you can’t provide labor with a decent living standard, we have no use for you. Get out! We will nationalize your industry and run it so that labor can live like human beings, live in security and abundance. We will form .a party of our own on that simple program. We will win with that party and it will set up a workers’ government that will “retire” the self-confessed bankrupts by nationalizing industry and running it for the benefit of all. We have all the necessary confidence that we can win, because we have already seen how the simple presentation of our GM program brought us the support of millions throughout the land. We are ready to take the leadership of the nation!

That’s what we have to do if we are to survive, let alone prosper. Otherwise it’s the old vicious circle. A little wage increase, then a big price increase. Another little wage increase, then a bigger price increase. A still higher price increase and then – the collapse of the market, depression, crisis, unemployment, the end of painfully accumulated savings, the ruin of family, the debasement of human dignity, chaos, and then after a while, it begins all over again. That’s why our program breaks with the old union policy. We want to determine not only wages, but prices and profits: And because of all that has been said above, the last words in the great GM program MUST read, a Labor Party and a Workers’ Government!

* * *

That, we believe, is the fundamental meaning of the fight in the UAW convention, before it and after it – because the fight will not end when the convention adjourns. That is how we socialist interpret it. And that is why it is a fight that concerns and will continue to concern every worker in the country.

Our job – the job of the Workers Party especially – is to make this fully clear to all. It is a job we mean to do with all the strength we have and can win to our standard.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 20 January 2019