Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Peter Shapiro

Building the UAW: How the CPUSA won the battle and lost the war

First Published: Unity, Vol. 4, No. 7, April 24-May 7, 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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... On a wintry day in February 1937, auto workers in Flint, Michigan, streamed out of the factories that they had occupied for 44 days, jubilant in the knowledge that they had just fought their way into the history books. Their successful strike for union recognition against General Motors was a turning point for the U.S. working class, a climax of a long and bitter struggle against the open shop in basic industry and a major breach in the wall of monopoly power that had remained solid for more than a generation.

Leadership provided by the Communist Party USA was crucial to the success of the strike. Many of the strike leaders and organizers were communists. More important than individual contributions, however, was the mass movement and broad united front the communists had built. Workers knew and appreciated this: the communists had a strong base in the shops, cadre in key union offices (including International Vice President Wyndham Mortimer) and the respect of countless rank and filers.

Just ten years later, communist influence in this same union was virtually shattered. A shrewd union politician named Walter Reuther rallied rank and file sentiment against the party and rode into power on an anti-communist wave. The United Auto Workers, brought into being with such enormous sacrifices and heroism by the masses of auto workers, was already on its way to becoming what it is today – a union dominated by a clique of bureaucrats whose loyalty to the capitalist system outweighs their loyalty to the workers.

The story of how and why this happened holds many lessons for auto workers and communists doing labor organizing today – positive lessons from the pioneering work the party did when auto was completely unorganized and from their skillful building of the united front that made the union a reality; negative lessons from the betrayals that followed, when the party’s vision of a united front was twisted into a hopeless search for “respectability” and accommodation.

Organizing the unorganized: building a mass movement in auto

When the communists began working in auto in the 1920’s, conditions in the industry were abominable. After just two decades, the industry had come under the domination of a few giant corporations who wielded absolute power over their workers. They paid piece rates which were cut every time the workers started earning more than the companies wanted to pay. Long layoffs which reduced workers to near-starvation alternated with working seven days a week, ten and twelve hours a day.

Job security was unknown. Lead poisoning and other job-related ailments were common. The speed of the production line reduced workers to physical wrecks.

Talking union could get a worker beaten up and fired. Spies infested the plants – GM spent $500,000 a year on “industrial espionage,” while Ford’s factories were patrolled by the notorious Service Department, made up of convicted gangsters and killers paroled in the company’s custody.

The industry cried out for unionization. But organized labor, represented by the American Federation of Labor (AF of L), was dominated by reactionary craft unionists who had long since made their peace with the capitalists. They had no stake in organizing basic industry and regarded the masses of unskilled and semi-skilled industrial workers as scum.

Organizing the unorganized was central to the communist political program. They knew that as long as the masses of industrial workers had no unions to defend their basic-interests, there was little else they could do to stand up to the power of monopoly capital.

The climate of fear in the plants made shop-floor organizing nearly impossible. Instead the communists relied on the shop papers that they distributed at the plant gates. One veteran auto worker recalled that the papers had “the stink of machine oil about them.” The papers put out the party’s views on issues of the day and did education about socialism. But their biggest feature was the anonymous workers’ contributions exposing conditions in the shop – the only real outlet workers had to express their grievances. The shop papers’ circulation climbed as high as 20,000 in one large plant.

The communists urged workers to join the Auto Workers Union (AWU), a small independent union that had been kicked out of the AF of L when it refused to be carved up by the craft unions. It was barely alive when the communists assumed leadership of it in 1925. They quickly made it into an active agitational union whose lunch hour plant gate rallies were a familiar sight for many workers.

Few workers actually joined the AWU, for the communists at that time saw unions under their leadership as “revolutionary mass organizations” and demanded a higher level of political unity than was appropriate for a trade union. But many workers soon recognized the AWU’s usefulness. The onset of the Depression brought repeated wage cuts and murderous speedups to the auto plants, prompting many spontaneous strikes. With no plan of action and no organization, strikers frequently sought out the AWU for guidance in drawing up demands, setting up strike committees and organizing picket lines. In 1930 the AWU organized mass picketing by 8,000 during a walkout of Fisher Body workers in Flint. In 1933 it led a strike by 10,000 body shop workers in Detroit against a threatened-wage cut.

Party work among the jobless was even more effective. Its Unemployed League brought evictions in Detroit to a virtual standstill by showing up en masse whenever sheriff’s deputies tried to move a family out of its home. As the deputies moved the furniture out into the street, the Unemployed League demonstrators would take it right back into the house. The League also organized massive “hunger marches,” bringing 100,000 into the streets of Detroit in 1932 and attracting national attention with their historic march on Ford’s River Rouge plant the following March.

These mass struggles gave the communists a solid reputation as organizers and fighters. Their leadership helped give concrete form to the spontaneous revolutionary sentiment that was beginning to develop among the masses in the worst years of the Depression.

The battle for the UAW: building a united front

The passage of President Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act in 1934 was a turning point for industrial workers. The NIRA sought to check the economic collapse by giving the big monopolies unprecedented power to “regulate” their respective industries. To woo labor’s support for this blatant giveaway to big business, the NJRA contained a clause “guaranteeing” workers’ right to form unions. Thousands of industrial workers, thinking they could now organize without fear of reprisal, began beating at the doors of the AF of L.

The AF of L assigned industrial workers to “federal locals” until the existing craft unions could agree on a way to divide them up. In the meantime, members of the federal locals were forbidden from striking and given no say over how their unions were run.

The communists, having had only limited success in building the AWU, now had to decide whether to work in the federal locals. Party cadre in auto plants pointed out that was where the masses of workers were and that was where the party belonged as well.

For the next two years, the communists were in the forefront of the drive to transform the federal auto locals into a single international industrial union, free to run its own affairs and free of the threat of dismemberment by the AF of L crafts. They exposed the company unions that sprouted like weeds in the auto plants as the auto barons manipulated the NIRA “right to organize” clause to their own advantage. They fought moves by the AF of L bureaucrats to settle all worker grievances through government intervention and arbitration. They helped workers gain the confidence and ability to stand up to the bureaucrats.

Making contact with federal locals around the country, the communists set up a network of rank and file activists to push for an international industrial union and demand a national strike. In defiance of the AF of L leadership, three rank and file conferences were held in 1934-35 to unite auto workers around a strategy and program. Throughout it all the communists repeatedly urged workers who were disillusioned with the AF of L to stay and fight it out instead of quitting the union. Such activities thwarted the bureaucrats’ best efforts to keep the lid on the federal locals and provoked one confrontation after another between AF of L officials and rank and file auto workers.

The movement in the federal locals laid the basis for a tactical alliance between the communists and those forces in the AF of L who were fed up with the federation’s failure to organize basic industry. The United Mine Workers, in particular, was threatened by the growing control of the steel and auto monopolies over the coal fields and wanted to check it by organizing unions in steel and auto. In 1935, UMWA chief John L. Lewis led ten unions out of the AF of L and formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), committed to “organizing the unorganized.” The communists were among his most important allies. The organizational and financial resources of the UMWA were complemented by the communists’ experience, dedication, skills and mass base, built up over ten years in the shops. Personally anti-communist, Lewis knew the open shop in basic industry could not be cracked without the party’s help.

Party members edited the CIO News and served as Lewis’ top legal counsel. They helped bring the federal locals they had worked to build in auto, steel, rubber and other industries into the CIO. The federal auto locals joined the CIO as a full-edged industrial union – the United Auto Workers (UAW). Its international Vice president, Wyndham Mortimer, was communist.

When the Flint strike broke out in the last days of 1936, communists were active virtually every aspect of the struggle. They spurred the initial organizing drive and formed the core of the strike committee in the key Fisher Body plant. They bore major responsibility for strike strategy. Their supporters, working for a U.S. Senate committee investigating industrial espionage, uncovered the names of GM stool pigeons and leaked them to union leaders. Their lawyers foiled a strike-making injunction by exposing the judge who issued it as a GM stockholder. The Party played a leading role in bringing the giant corporation to its knees, breaking the open shop in the auto industry and making the CIO a major force in American life.

“Defeat from victory,” or how the united front was twisted

Overnight the UAW had become a large and powerful organization. Auto and auto parts workers across the country flocked to join it, and there was a rash of sit-down strikes in the industry. The CIO drives gained momentum as workers in a dozen industries fought successfully for union recognition. Though much work remained in organizing the unorganized, the open shop in basic industry had in the main been broken.

The tasks of communists changed accordingly. They had to develop a program and strategy in a new complex situation, to build on the gains that unionization had brought.

Unfortunately, the communists were not able to live up to this challenge. In fact, the CPUSA made the serious mistake of liquidating its independent work and presence in the united front, an error which not only isolated them and led to the loss of their influence, but which also cut the guts out of the mass movement they had worked so hard to build.

When the Flint strike was over, the communists enjoyed widespread respect and influence among auto workers. Their base, though, was mainly built through the work of individual communists during the big organizing drives. Few workers really knew what the communists stood for or how their union work fit into a larger strategy of class struggle.

Not only did this weakness go uncorrected, but a far more serious weakness was developing in the CPUSA’s leadership. General Secretary Earl Browder, seduced by the party’s close relationship with the top CIO leadership, incorrectly concluded that there should be no struggle against the incorrect aspects in the union leadership and that the party should have no independent role.

The first sign of trouble came in the spring of 1937, when Browder sharply criticized party cadre who had opposed the settlement Lewis negotiated with Chrysler. The merits of the issue, said Browder, were secondary. What mattered most was that communists should not criticize Lewis. This position carried serious implications. The party’s alliance with Lewis had begun as a partnership of equals, each recognizing the strengths and contributions of the other. Now Browder wanted to reduce the communists’ role to that of “yes”-men.

In 1939, when the UAW was selecting new leadership, Browder ordered the communists to throw their support to R.J. Thomas, a blundering right-winger, in order to demonstrate the party’s willingness to work with anyone. The effect was to foist upon the workers a leader they neither respected nor trusted. Thomas was quick to stab the communists in the back, too – in 1940, he disavowed a strike of aircraft workers in Los Angeles that was organized by Wyndham Mortimer, calling it a “communist plot” and helping federal troops break the strike.

When the U.S. entered World War II, the CIO agreed to a “no-strike” pledge in the interest of the war against fascism. The CPUSA lent full support to this position and the CIO’s own contribution to the war effort. Most auto workers shared this position and were prepared to make sacrifices, provided the auto companies did too.

But the auto companies used the no-strike agreement to step up their exploitation of the workers. By 1943, there was a wave of wildcat strikes in the auto plants. The CIO leadership condemned these strikes as “undermining the war effort,” and the communists vigorously agreed. But it was actually the auto companies who were undermining the united struggle against fascism, by provoking the strikes and placing their own profits above everything else. By refusing to resist the companies’ attacks, the communists actually hindered the building of a real united front – which would have required mutual respect and cooperation of all the forces involved in war production.

Browder’s real concern was not so much wartime unity as it was respectability. He hoped to identify the CPUSA as much as possible with the political “mainstream” of the U.S. For him, this meant projecting the party as the most active and faithful proponent of official Washington and CIO policy. Browder saw party cadre holding responsible positions in the union as evidence that they had “arrived” and achieved lasting and significant influence over millions of workers. Thinking that these positions in themselves were the object of the struggle, the party liquidated its independent work and presence. The shop units, trade union fractions and shop papers were abolished; in 1944, Browder dissolved the party itself.

All that was really accomplished was to isolate the party from the masses. The workers now concluded that the communists could not be trusted. The mass base the party had built up so carefully, and which had made it possible for them to make the alliances they were so proud of, rapidly eroded. When the war ended, the communists found themselves all but defenseless as the national political climate turned sharply to the right.

Anti-red campaigns stepped up in a number of unions. In the UAW, Walter Reuther won a narrow victory over the communist-backed candidate at the 1946 convention and used his mandate to drive the communists virtually out of the union. In a few years, no fewer than 12 “communist-dominated” unions were expelled from the CIO.

The united front is a fundamental weapon in any struggle, including the labor movement. What the CPUSA forgot was that there is more to making alliances than “concessions”; the united front demands there be both unity and struggle, whereas the CPUSA wound up liquidating their independence and capitulating to the CIO leaders at the expense of the workers’ interests. The CPUSA also failed to understand that access to the circles of power is no substitute for a strong mass base and cannot be maintained long without a mass base.

The temptation for Marxist-Leninists to seek influence through “get-rich-quick” schemes remains strong today. The experience of the CPUSA in the United Auto Workers is a persuasive lesson in how strong mass movements can be built with communist leadership, and how those mass movements and the communists’ presence within them can be destroyed by opportunism.