Main Document Index  |  ETOL Home Page


Lessons of the Square D Strike

by Frank Lovell

Concern for the Democrats Costs Labor a Victory


From Fourth International, Winter 1955, from Tamiment Library microfilm archives
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A study of the Square D strike in Detroit reveals some developments in the relationship of class forces in the area that should prove of interest to union militants throughout the country. First, the facts:

(1) The strike was called June 15 as a result of the uncompromising attitude of management. From then until September 2, when the company announced its intention to open the plant with strikebreakers, there was nothing different about this strike from hundreds of others.

(2) The decision to open the struck plant marked a new development in the general anti-union drive. This decision was not made by the Square D management alone-it was a considered decision, supported by important segments of the employing class in Detroit, and was prompted by the enactment of the “communist infiltration” law.

This was clearly stated by the Detroit Free Press in an editorial on September 4 that declared, “The company is pitted against a union whose very existence and right to consideration has come into question under new Federal law. It is the United Electrical Workers, long since thrown out of the CIO because its leadership was incurably in the hands of Communists.”

(3) The appearance of CIO United Automobile Workers flying squadrons on the picket line, September 9, under the leadership of left-wing locals was an important and significant event in recent labor history.

New Relation of Forces

These events clearly demonstrate that a new relationship of class forces has developed during the past ten years, i. e., since the end of World War II and the 1946 strike wave.

The significant part of it is that a new understanding of the class forces in this country is beginning to appear -on both sides of the battle lines that are being drawn.

The understanding the union spokesmen had of the matter is expressed in the leaflet distributed at the picket line when the left-wing locals appeared.

It said in part, “We know that this strike is an industry experiment to see how far they can go in the breaking of unions and we cannot stand idly by while the Detroit Police Department, who are the public servants of the people of Detroit and paid by the taxpayers, are used for the purpose of herding scabs and playing the company’s game in an attempt to break this strike.

“We call upon all union members, whether they be CIO, AFL, or members of independent unions, to give all-out support to this strike.”

This call was signed by 13 officers of nine local UAW unions.

It is not surprising that this particular leaflet did not mention the direct connection between the passage of the “communist infiltration” law and the strikebreaking move of the employers. But it is important to note that nowhere at any time during the strike did any representatives of the UAW mention the effects of the new law.

Reuther remained silent, but Reutherite locals joined the picket line a few days after the left-wing locals came out. A “co-ordinating committee of UAW-CIO local presidents” was established, comprising both rightwing and left-wing officials.

This “coordinating committee” issued a statement on “where we stand in the Square D Strike,” which read in part:

“We of the UAW-CIO support the strikers themselves. We do not support the UE international union, with which the local union representing Square D workers is affiliated. Our support is for the workers directly, and is for the purpose of helping them win a just settlement, no matter what the political tinge of the International UE.

“Our concern is for the welfare of Detroit workers. No matter how much irrelevant matter and emotional hoopla is injected in the strike, we will continue to work for decent collective bargaining and against any return to the law of the jungle in our city.”

The change in line, after the Reutherite locals came out in support of the Square D strikers, is apparent in the statement of the “Coordinating Committee.” The overtone of CIO raiding was spelled out in statements by Emil Mazey who advised the Square D strikers to join the CIO International Union of Electrical Workers.

Employers Crack Down

(4) On September 23 the employers cracked down. An injunction was issued against mass picketing, the riot act was read over loudspeakers, union leaders were arrested, the pickets were dispersed. Only a token picket line was allowed to remain.

During the two weeks from September 9, when the UAW reinforcements first appeared, until September 23 pressure continued to mount.

The left-wing local leaders tried to mobilize greater forces at the scene of action—under cover of pacifist statements that were suitable to the UAW right-wing leaders. At the height of the action the UAW never at any time had more than 1,000 members at the strike scene.

They were lacking in organizational experience, and they were stymied at every turn by the restrictions and limitations which the right-wing leaders insisted upon.

Nevertheless, the presence of more and more union men at the scene of the strike—culminating in an attempted motor blockade of the struck plant on September 21, and sporadic fights between pickets and scabs (or potential scabs)—was obviously leading to a showdown.

It was clear that the strikers were learning how to handle themselves better and that the growing numbers of pickets were making for a more even battle between police and union battalions.

At this point the bosses decided to act.

Strike Supporters Arrested

They began arresting UAW strike supporters. Some of the union leaders were rounded up (including Paul Silver). And the following day, the city administration—headed by Mayor Cobo—moved all its forces against the strike in a show of strength designed to smash the mounting union pressure to close the Square D plant.

Judge Ferguson issued a court order limiting pickets to 30 outside the plant gates. He also invoked the Riot Act under an 1846 Michigan law. Cobo gave instructions to Police Commissioner Piggins to “follow the court order to the letter.”

This placed the next move squarely up to the leadership of the UAW—and apparently the employers were not sure what the union movement would do.

(Piggins was sent to confer with the UAW “Coordinating Committee” in order to get agreement that the injunction would be respected.)

The issue was decided next day on the picket line. There had been much talk of a “labor holiday” . . . but this was not the answer of the UAW officialdom.

The UAW leadership remained silent when the Riot Act was read. The police dispersed the rank and file UAW members.

The UAW Answers

(5) An answer was forthcoming from the UAW executive board, headed by Reuther, two days later—on September 25—after the union forces had forfeited the battle.

This answer came in the form of a paid advertisement in the capitalist press. It proposed arbitration of the issues in dispute in the strike. In addition to this proposal, Reuther took the occasion to give advice to the employers. The ad said that “efforts to exploit the issue of communism as a means of denying Square D workers that measure of justice to which they and their families are entitled is both morally wrong and tactically stupid, for such irresponsible action would play into the hands of the communists.”

The Settlement

(6) A settlement was reached and a new contract between the UE and management signed on September 30.

The outcome of the strike was—and remains—indecisive. The employers decided to retreat in the face of the union resistance they had encountered. They did not go through with their union-busting plans.

The settlement, terminating the 108-day strike, was hailed by the capitalist press as a victory for the employers. Time magazine: “A victory for management, face-saver for union.” The Detroit News: “A new one-year contract, pay boosts of 4 cents an hour, a seventh paid holiday which would cover Good Friday, improved vacation benefits for employees with long service, and a no-strike clause patterned after one in a contract between the UE and a company in Evansville, Ind.”

Twenty-seven militant leaders of the strike were fired by the company and their fate is to be decided by arbitration.

* * *

The above is an outline of the developments in the strike. Several questions are presented to us:

(1) What was the meaning of the settlement?

A union contract is a legal reflection of the relationship of forces at the time it is drawn up. This relationship changes constantly—sometimes the contract itself provides the means for one side strengthening its position at the expense of the other. (This was true of nearly all contracts signed in the thirties when the union movement was on the march.)

There is little doubt that the company intends to use this contract at Square D to strengthen its position. The meaning of the no-strike clause was caught by the editors of Time magazine: “If a wildcat strike is called, the union can be sued if it supports the strike . . . employees can be fired if union does not support the strike.” It is clear That under the terms of this agreement the militants can be weeded out of the plant. Besides this, the fact that 27 of the leading union men and women have not returned is a blow from the start to the union.

On the positive side, the fact that the union still exists, that the contract runs for only one year, allows the workers in the plant to prepare for the next battle—on the basis of what they learned this time.

Political Lesson

(2) What is to be learned from this strike?

The most important lesson will not be immediately grasped by the workers at Square D. That is the political lesson. It is a lesson that has to be explained. It is the key to an understanding of the whole development of the strike.

It was apparent all along that the rightwing leaders—including those who joined the picket line—were motivated in their cautious tactics partly out of concern for the re-election of their friend, Governor Williams.

We now know that the left-wing leaders went along with the policy dictated by the Reutherites—largely out of concern for Williams’ fortunes at the polls—because they were unprepared to give any other answers.

The Reutherites thought the employers and their agents were being provocative when they suggested that only the Governor had the power to step in and close the plant. (The UAW had suggested that if the police wanted to be impartial and avoid violence, they should order the struck plant closed down. The answer they got was that only Williams, as Governor, had the power to do this. Williams’ office then issued a statement that the Governor could do nothing until called upon by the local authorities.)

The UAW officialdom explained on the picket line: The employers have everything to gain, they want Williams to expose himself. The unions have everything to lose. If Williams comes to the aid of the strike, it will cost him the election.

This reveals an important change.

There was a time when a self-styled “friend of labor” could remain impartial and his impartiality actually weighed on the side of the union in a struggle of this sort.

But that was in another era. That was in the days when unions were younger and had just demonstrated their invincible power, when the local authorities -like Cobo—who were the open representatives of the corporations had either been cowed or replaced by more tractable officials. These local authorities were afraid to move then without some assurance that they would be supported by State and Federal backing.

All that is changed today.

Slowly the power of the labor movement has been undermined by restrictive legislation—Federal (Taft-Hartley), State (secondary boycott, etc.), Local (injunctions)—which gives the legal basis for the authorities most closely tied to the corporations to move against strikers. This renders the “impartial friend of labor,” like Williams, helpless—and useless to the labor movement.

Need for Labor Party

This is the process that must be reversed. And the only way a counter political trend can be set in motion is by the unions breaking out of the strait-jacket of the Democratic party and entering their own independent candidates for public office. This, of course, means the formation of a Labor Party.

The Labor Party is the key to many of the present problems of the labor movement—including the most basic question of all, the right to strike ... as was demonstrated in this recent strike at Square D.

But that does not mean that nothing can be done until the union officials—as a result of some further and more bitter experiences than were provided at Square D—arouse themselves to the need for a Labor Party and issue the call for the founding of such a party.

If the labor movement has to wait for that—then there wild never be a Labor Party in this country.

The Labor Party will arise out of the aggressive and provocative actions of the employing class which will produce countless battles like Square D -that will be much broader in scope and more bitterly fought—and it will be brought into being by the struggle within the labor movement over policy to meet this new menace—the menace of strikebreaking and union-busting.

This strike pretty clearly revealed what the UAW is. It is a slumbering giant—that only began to stir a little bit under the prodding of the left wing.

But this left wing as it is presently constituted and organized was not capable of arousing a single segment of the UAW into action.

The reason for this is to be found partly in the program of the left wing. When the decisive moment arrived, and these left-wing leaders had either to call upon the UAW ranks to defy the court injunctions or remain silent—even the best of them like Silver and Stellato followed the lead of Reuther and remained silent. We know the immediate reason for this: they didn’t want to embarrass Williams.

But this is only the surface aspect of the matter. It is an “explanation” given by Silver and Stellato themselves when they faced the moment of decision and found themselves unprepared.

We say they were unprepared because they lacked a program. They don’t yet understand the need for a Labor Party as clearly and fully as we do, and they don’t know how to fight for the formation of a Labor Party.

But every program—even the most limited and elementary one—requires an organization to effect it. The program announced by Stellato for the Square D strike was very elementary, direct, and could have proved adequate.

When he first appeared on the picket line he was asked by newspaper reporters why he was there. He answered: “To help win the strike.”

Q: How many are with you?

A: Quite a few.

Q: How many can you bring?

A: 60,000.

Q: How long do you expect to stay?

A: Until we win.

That is a program of sorts. But like any program it can be realized only through organization. And like any program it contains within it a certain logic.

The decision to support the UE picket line brought the UAW flying squadrons into action. Members of these squadrons were the first to be called upon to reinforce the picket line.

The first day revealed that these units of the UAW, like the whole union organization, had undergone a change during the past 15 years.

Rebuilding Necessary

This was apparent to many. Most conscious of the change were those who had been through the hardest fights in 1937. They knew what had to be done, but they also knew they had to find some men today who are like they were in those years.

The rebuilding process had to be started immediately, on the picket line. And this began to occur, but without much conscious leadership. The leadership failed to prepare carefully to challenge the police. They made no selection of group leaders. No survey of the most important elementary steps that had to be taken to stop the scabs. No meetings of action groups. As a result of this lack of preparation the motor blockade of the plant failed.

If the elementary organization work had been undertaken, the action groups could have been busy not only on the picket line but throughout the labor movement soliciting aid for the strike. It was clear that great sympathy for the strike existed. Locals of the AFL donated money and other aid without being asked. A little well-planned work could have got out the support for a local Congress of Labor when the first big clash between pickets and police occurred. And this Congress of Labor would have been the logical body to call for a Labor Holiday when the reactionary Cobo administration cracked down on the strike.

Once the organization of such a sequence of events is undertaken and rolls on from one to the next—the argument that “we don’t want to embarrass Williams” doesn’t have much effect.

Under the circumstances as they developed—with the union forces poorly organized and the police retaining the initiative—this argument about poor Williams was more of an excuse not to do anything than a serious reason for calling off the strike. The real reason was the apparent weakness—due to lack of organization—of the union forces.

Lessons Summarized

The lessons of the Square D strike may thus be summarized: A carefully thought-out plan of action, the most necessary part of any strike, was missing. It was not supplied by the leftwing UAW leadership, who understood the need for victory and who had forces sufficient to easily win, because they were not willing to take a political course independent from the official Reutherite bureaucracy. The Reutherites, in turn, committed to backing Democratic politicians, feared embarrassing them during the election campaign. In addition, they were swayed by the possibility of raiding the UE in favor of the IUE. Thus the full victory that was in the bag was dissipated.

On the other hand the strikebreaking and union-busting plans of the employers suffered a setback. The rank and file of all sections of the Detroit labor movement proved that they were alert to the implications of smashing the Square D strike as a test case and showed their readiness to rally against the bosses despite years of intensive redbaiting against the union under attack and despite repressive legislation.

On the picket line considerable weaknesses were revealed, primarily of an organizational character. These, however, can readily be remedied in future struggles, particularly under a leadership capable of standing on its own feet politically.

The Square D experience is well worth the attention of every militant interested in getting better armed for the big battles that lie ahead.

Main Document Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive