Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

UNITY interview with Network activists: Building rank and file forces in the UAW

First Published: Unity, Vol. 3, No. 11, May 23-June 5, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Recently three members of the California Auto, Aerospace and Agricultural Implements Workers Network (Network) completed a tour of the East Coast and Midwest. Ron Delia, president of Ford Local 923, Pam Keener, a member of the Concerned Autoworkers Movement (CAM) at GM Local 1364, and Eric Mann, a rank and filer from Ford Local 560 spoke to UAW members from 15 plants in nine cities and in six states. The following is an interview which they granted to UNITY.

* * *

UNITY: What was the purpose of the tour?

Delia: To exchange information and to build unity for the Convention and for struggles that auto workers are facing. The Network developed in California as an informal getting together of UAW members who had similar problems. For example, our local at Ford Pico Rivera, Local 923, had a successful recall in which over 680 workers voted to kick out five company minded committeemen. Then the international overturned the recall. People in 923 asked for help statewide, and that’s how a lot of us first came together.

Everywhere on the tour, people said, “We need a nationwide organization of rank and file groups to have any influence in the union.” We don’t see this as right around the corner, but the Convention is an important chance to work together and get to know each other across the country.

UNITY: With 37% of all auto workers now unemployed, were people ready to take up the fight against layoffs?

Keener: One of the best ideas was from a caucus in New Jersey, the Linden Auto Workers (LAW). The company threatened to lay off 1,000 people. The caucus countered this with a demand that GM run a four-day work week, with workers over one year getting short-work-week benefits. The company refused, but this is a demand we should consider raising more.

Mann: In St. Louis we had some good meetings with a caucus called Concerned Black Workers at the GM plant there. They had 10,000 people working, with over 2,000 Black workers. Now layoffs have reduced the plant to 5,000, leaving only 400 Black workers, with the layoffs going back to 13 years. Not one Black woman.is left, and virtually all women are gone. They’ve been raising the demand of voluntary inverse seniority to deal with this problem and have built a lot of support for it. This would allow the highest seniority workers to take a voluntary layoff and draw SUB (supplemental unemployment benefits) pay, while the minority workers, women and all other low seniority workers auld build up their seniority during the layoffs.

UNITY: What were people’s attitude toward the UAW International?

Delia: Most of the people we met with were anti-international for various reasons.

Mann: One of the things we discussed a lot was why there hasn’t been more organized resistance by auto workers to all the attacks coming down. Almost everyone agreed the main obstacle is the international union bureaucracy. Many workers expect the company to screw up, but are still shocked when the union leadership goes along with the company.

Delia: The international is becoming a lobbying agency for the “Big 3.”

Mann: We learned there is a high level of repression against rank and file groups, actively supported by the international. At a recent UAW contract meeting, Fraser spent 20 minutes attacking a leaflet from the Independent Skilled Trades Council which had urged a “no” vote on the contract. Workers who were there said that Fraser gave the green light to the company and the international reps to crush any rank and file resistance to the international.

UNITY: What were the responses to the Network’s strong stand against discrimination?

Keener: I went there thinking, I’m going to meet with ten different groups that all think the same way we do. Some places seemed to want us to drop the fight against discrimination, but in others, we had to reassure them we were really fighting discrimination.

In Chicago we met with workers from a number of plants. The workers at the Fischer Body plant especially agreed with our program totally. They have a caucus there – Workers for Equal Rights and Job Security. They have a good nucleus of active people and they deal with a lot of discrimination. At the plant they even have the KKK distributing literature openly.

One worker at the International Harvester plant there, Bennie Lenard, was beaten very badly by the police, for no good reason. He’s now pushing for criminal action against the police. He’s gotten a lot of support from rank and file workers.

Mann: Several of the workers in Chicago told us that Bennie’s. wife, Ardrella Lenard, fought to bring this issue before the Convention in 1977. Officially, the UAW has done very little since then, and Bennie hopes to come out to the Convention this year.

At St. Louis, the Black workers impressed on me that “St. Louis is a lot like Mississippi.” A big case there was when a white plant manager kicked a Black woman worker for being a few minutes late from break. The role of Black auto workers in the Midwest has been critical, and we were able to win the respect of many minority workers for the Network because of the strong stand we’ve taken against discrimination.

Keener: At one place I took out a paper with pictures of our Network buttons. One button says, “Defend Undocumented Workers.” This guy looked at it and said, “Undocumented workers . . . those are wetbacks, right?” We have to struggle with these attitudes. We can’t say, “We want to unite with them, so let’s give in to them.” We made it clear that we disagreed and we’re very firm on our platform.

Mann: We don’t just put our finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. When those immigration authorities try to deport undocumented UAW members fighting for their rights, people have to take a stand. Many people on the tour respected us – even when they didn’t totally agree yet.

UNITY: What about the question of redbaiting?

Keener: I told people, keep on the issues. People will respect you for your stand.

Delia: I think eventually the honest working people on the line will see through redbaiting. The workers are going to ask themselves what is really happening and start asking these questions of the local leadership.

Mann: The UAW was originally built through a broad alliance of progressive forces including communists. Workers are going to have to tell Fraser, so what, we know some people are communists, others aren’t. But we’re willing to work with people we trust, who have proven they’re ready to fight in our interests.

UNITY: What do you see as some of the steps needed to build this movement of the rank and file to regain control over the union?

Delia: The people are out there, they know the issues. They face the same problems we do and they’re ready to take it up, but they just can’t take it on singlehandedly. If we can keep organized, we do need money, but if we can do more things like this tour and the communications mechanism, there’s a lot of people out there that are concerned enough to do something.

Mann: I think we came to see the real need for the working class to have organization. Groups like CAM (Concerned Autoworkers Movement) that consistently put out a newsletter become the only real source of information for most people. A lot of times right now, the level of organization of the membership is very low. We met groups of five to ten people and they are told, “You ain’t nothing but five to ten people.” We have to explain to them it doesn’t take that much to form a group. If you have five to six activists and you know other people on the line respect you, . . . start putting things out, give yourself a name and start something people can join into. As conditions get worse, these forms of organization become important ways to fight within the union.

Keener: I think I learned a lot from the tour. There’s a real need for nationwide organization. It’s out there, it can be done.

Delia: I felt the whole tour was a high point and a learning experience. I think if you oppress people long enough, they’re going to have to come out swinging sooner or later; sooner is better than later.