Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist)

Communist work in the campaign to free Robert Smith

First Published: The Call, Vol. 7, No. 29, July 26, 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Detroit – After years of harassment and discrimination, Robert “Smitty” Smith, a Black crane operator at Chevy Forge, shot his foreman. He was immediately jailed and charged with “assault with intent to kill.“

Today Smitty is a free man, thanks to the struggle waged by his co-workers and members of the CPML.

The role of communists was significant throughout the struggle, which lasted from October ’77, when the shooting took place, to Smitty’s trial last April. By consistently linking the case to the whole system of national oppression, by mobilizing the workers at the plant and by providing concrete exposures of the labor bureaucrats, the CPML was able to carry our valuable revolutionary education, while playing a leading role in the day-to-day struggle to free Smitty.

The Forge plant is a key parts plant in the Detroit inner city, where employees turn out piece-work under hot, dirty and dangerous working conditions. The majority Afro-American work-force migrated from the Black Belt South during the post- WW II years.

Although the Forge has always been a hard place to work, the combined effects of the capitalist crisis – speedup, job combination, forced overtime and harassment – have worsened an already bad situation.

These are some of the conditions which led to the shooting.

As soon as Smitty was arrested, the CPML helped to initiate the struggle to free him and indict GM as the real criminal in this case. Although individual, spontaneous acts of resistance such as Smitty’s shooting of his foreman are not the answer to the workers’ exploitation, the particular facts of this case as well as the history of repression and resistance of the Afro-American people made it an important struggle to take up.

Only a few hours after the shooting, the CPML passed out a leaflet explaining to the workers what had happened and the conditions which gave rise to it. The leaflet called on workers to organize to free Smitty as well as to fight for better working conditions.

The Party was thus able to seize the initiative in the struggle by telling the truth to the workers before management, the union misleaders and the bourgeois press had a chance to unleash their flood of lies. The CPML leaflet was able to show concretely how the murderous speedup and the racism of Smitty’s foreman drove him to the desperate act of shooting the foreman.

Soon afterwards, the Robert Smith Defense Committee was formed by some of the most active fighters in the plant. The committee carried out many activities designed to mobilize and raise the consciousness of the workers in the plant as well as the Detroit community at large.

Before the trial, for example, workers from the defense committee appeared on a local radio talk show, which reached many workers from the plant and people from the community. Later, a local TV station did a documentary, which featured an interview with Smitty in jail. Workers from the committee also attended several union meetings to demand that the UAW Local 262 take a stand and support Smitty’s defense.

The committee produced good agitation and timely leaflets to inform workers of the progress of the case. When the trial opened, members of the committee, together with the Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) coalition, called a demonstration in front of the courthouse. Workers, communists and community activists marched side-by-side to show that Smitty’s case was no isolated action of an “insane person” but an example of the oppressive conditions of Detroit’s factories and the special oppression of Black people.


The success of these activities was the result of correctly carrying out the “mass line.” By relying on the advanced workers, the Party was able to draw many middle workers into the struggle. Thus workers of many different political levels and views were able to participate in the struggle.

A few weeks before the trial, workers from the defense committee demanded and got free use of the union hall to hold a beer party fundraiser in Smitty’s behalf. Many workers attended and over $500 was raised. Moreover, many Calls were sold inside the union hall right under the noses of several local officials.

Throughout the whole course of the struggle, the main blow was aimed at the bureaucrats. From the very start, the local UAW misleaders “washed their hands” of Smitty’s case and did everything they could to oppose any rank-and-file activity.

The bureaucrats refused to investigate the conditions in the plant and file a grievance on Smitty’s behalf. Given a chance to speak on TV about the incident, they refused to comment.

During the trial it was revealed how Smitty himself tried in vain to get union misleaders to help with the problems he was having with his foreman and his time card – the issue that directly sparked the shooting.

But at union meetings, and through leaflets and articles in The Call, the Party and members of the defense committee criticized this treachery of the bureaucrats. Though many of the workers had previously known of the sellout practices of the union misleaders, timely criticism of their actions during this case helped to expose them even more and show why rank-and-file workers had to rely on their own efforts.

The struggle to free Smitty also brought out the strategic importance of placing The Callat the center of the Party’s work. Because of consistent selling of the paper over a long period, workers were already familiar with it and many bought it regularly. Thus when the struggle began, workers began to look to us for leadership.

At one point during the trial, over 200 Calls were sold in one week! Through regular articles about the case, the paper helped link the particular struggles of the workers in this plant with the class struggle as a whole, as well as mobilizing for each event in Smitty’s defense.

The fight to free Smitty was a big blow at complacency and pessimism, both in the plant and even in the Party. Ideas like “the workers are too backward” or “we can’t raise funds inside the plant” were shown to be false as auto workers militantly took up Smitty’s case. People saw the importance of correctly estimating the extent of the bureaucrats’ influence among the workers. But rather than giving up in the face of that influence, the Smitty struggle was used to wage a vigorous fight against it.

One way we gained influence among the workers was by taking up Smitty’s case not simply as a fight against harassment and working conditions, but as a component part of the Black liberation struggle. Using Smitty’s own life as a starting point, we were able to show how the oppression of the Afro-American nation is directly responsible for the oppressive conditions of Black people in the North and elsewhere.

Smitty, like millions of other Black people who previously lived in the Black Belt South, was forced to migrate to the North in search of a better life after the decline of the share-cropping system. But all that was waiting in the Northern cities were the worst jobs in the worst plants, along with a new form of segregation in the inner-city ghettos. The struggle against these conditions therefore must be directly linked to the overall struggle for self-determination for the Afro-American nation.

An important weakness in taking up the national question around Smitty’s case was in building the unity between Black and white workers. Because we did not produce agitation and propaganda directed especially to the white workers (material which would have brought out the connection between their own exploitation and the Black liberation struggle) not more than a few whites became actively involved.


Another weakness was that while The Callplayed an important role in the struggle, it was still not utilized fully. Not very many workers were organized to actually write for The Call, with the result that where there could have been news and correspondence about the case and the plant every week, many issues of the paper had no coverage.

Call articles also could have used Smitty’s case more fully as a jumping off point for explaining how the bureaucrats act as agents of the imperialist system. These and other shortcomings in the work, however, were outweighed by the many positive steps forward made in the struggle. Not only did the workers’ movement advance and learn new lessons in this battle, but the Party grew as well.

In summary, the struggle to free Smitty was a positive example of the communist principle “dare to struggle, dare to win.” The Party’s revolutionary line, particularly on the Afro-American question was taken to the masses in the heat of the struggle.

Building on the gains of the Smitty struggle, the Party must persevere in the protracted fight to build a strong, rank-and-file organization and transform the union into a fighting organization of the workers. It must step up efforts to expand the influence of The Calland continue to consolidate the advanced workers who came forward during this struggle by winning them to Marxism-Leninism and the Party.