From the American Socialist Collection of Sol Dolinger

I Warned Reuther!

by Genora Dollinger

FLINT, MICHIGAN— WALTER REUTHER might never have been shot if he had heeded the advice of the Special Investigation Committee elected by the membership of Briggs Local 212. We met with Reuther in the summer of 1945 after thugs had on three occasions badly beaten up two of our Briggs rank-and-file members. Our local committee had demanded that the International Union set up an investigating body with authority to uncover the perpetrators of anti-labor violence. We further proposed that a substantial reward be offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the guilty parties.

The Briggs delegation, headed by Ernest Mazey, went from the office of R.J. Thomas, then president of the UAW, to Walter Reuther, then vice president. As secretary of the committee, I was one of the spokesmen. Members of the committee were aware of my prior acquaintance with Reuther and his brothers, dating a few years before the 1937 sit-down strikes in Flint, and we felt this would facilitate our arriving at an agreement.

At that time we could proceed only from our knowledge of the three assaults and general understanding of the labor-capital struggle. Briggs local had achieved a reputation for militancy and was therefore selected for the attacks. If allowed to go unanswered, the beating of Briggs militants could terrorize the local and this fear could grip the entire labor movement in the Motor City. We of the Briggs local understood this and were trying to convey our convictions to our top union officers.

The Briggs local investigating committee, despite very limited resources, succeeded in uncovering evidence to bear out our contention that the violence was the beginning of a serious plot against the labor movement, particularly the UAW-CIO. It was this conviction, drawn from the evidence we had already found, that brought us to union headquarters to seek resources and help beyond our own means.

I CAN STILL recall the general tenor of my remarks to Reuther which concluded as follows: “They will step up their attacks. If they are successful in the Briggs local, Walter, it will very likely spread to the International and who knows, you might be the next victim.”

Reuther’s scoffing answer certainly didn’t anticipate the shotgun blast of April 20, 1948, which unfortunately confirmed the analysis of the Briggs local and myself to the hilt. He responded with a condescending smile: “Now, now, Genora, let’s not get dramatic.”

A few months later, in September, I became the fourth Briggs victim when two hoodlums entered my bedroom in the dark early hours of morning and severely clubbed me with a lead pipe from head to foot, breaking my collar bone, giving me a brain injury and temporarily paralyzing my right side. This was followed by the severe beating of Ken Morris, later elected President of the Briggs local, and then the shotgun murder attempts on Walter and Victor Reuther.

It was not until I had been slugged that the union commenced to take action. And only after the capitalist press tried to smear the labor movement with the trumped-up charge of internal struggle and factionalism as the cause of the beatings. Unfortunately the union leaders dragged their feet miserable in this crisis.

During the Detroit mayoralty campaign Richard Frankensteen, the CIO-backed candidate, was harassed by a full-page newspaper editorial centered on the clubbing I had received, replete with pictures, cartoons and all. It is ironic that the press was permitted by the unions to utilize this beating against the unions without reply. In light of the subsequent Kefauver report, which revealed that the beatings were engineered by Perrone, who, in turn, was being paid off by the Briggs corporation, the union’s conduct becomes positively astounding. The most charitable explanation for the union leaders’ cowardice was their personal hostility to my politics which prevented them from taking a principled union stand. But to this day I must suspect that their failure stems from too much softness toward the corporations.

NEVERTHELESS our efforts in Briggs were not without results. They led to the establishment of the One Man Grand Jury in Detroit in 1947. In spite of rumors of important revelations, the Murphy Grand Jury showed no signs of activity-with the sole exception of going after the elected leaders of the Teamsters Union in the best labor-hating style. The Briggs Investigating Committee members continued pressing the International Union all this time to force the Grand Jury to make its findings public.

One day, after recuperating from the beating I had received, I met Emil Mazey, now Secretary-Treasurer of the UAW, at the sessions of the Michigan State CIO Convention of that year. Mazey had just returned from the army and had been elected to the UAW International Executive Board. As organizer and former President of Briggs local he had authority and the necessary prestige to press for action on the case. I proposed to Emil Mazey that we either force the Grand Jury to release its report or publicly blast the Grand Jury. Emil counseled caution. He was worried of possible contempt citation. I offered to risk contempt of the Grand Jury with a challenging press statement in my own name. I thought it hardly likely that the Grand Jury would take action against a victim of the hoodlum attacks. But apparently the union officials were bamboozled by the red scare and afraid of publicity in connection with a prominent Michigan socialist. So the issue was buried.

The Grand Jury’s data on the Briggs beatings were released by the Kefauver Senate Investigating Committee in 1951. It contained explosive information of the relations between Briggs Corporation, the Michigan Stove Company and the Perrone gang. Perrone’s union-busting, head-busting activities have become public knowledge three years after Reuther was shot. Yet it was know by the Grand Jury for a year prior to the Reuther shooting!

The Kefauver hearings filled in many details then unknown to us. Yet even previously we were in possession of the most important facts. And it is incontestable that a concerted campaign in 1947-as proposed by the Briggs Investigating Committee members and myself-would have forced the Grand Jury to release its information. The attendant widespread publicity could very well have averted the Reuther shootings.

IT IS OBVIOUS from reading between the lines of the daily press that enormous pressure is being exerted to clear the skirts of the auto corporations. Everyone understands that the Briggs beatings and Reuther shootings must have a cost a pile of money. The only source for this kind of money is the wealthy industrialists in Detroit who have never reconciled themselves to militant unions. The absurd press attempts to attribute the beatings to a gangsters’ attempt to seize control of the union hardly needs refutations. Even a cursory knowledge of the UAW structure shows the impossibility of this. Certainly the elimination of Reuther would not have given control to the gangsters. This talk is strictly poppycock for a purpose: It is designed to cover up the corporations who are the actual power behind the hoodlums.

The way the union officials are now conducting themselves proves they haven’t learned a thing from the whole experience. How can one overlook the escape of the star witness from a guard of ten Detroit policemen? How did Sam Perrone get wind of impending arrest? Who is responsible for the ugly rumors in the press attempting to convert the murder attempt into an inner-union squabble-without, let be noted, a single counter-statement from Reuther, or even a modest effort on the union’s part, independent of the police, courts or capitalist press? One would think the least the union officials could have done was to guarantee protection to the star witness in the case. Why didn’t the union surround Ritchie with a union guard? Reuther knows, or ought to know from past experience, about Perrone’s influence in the Detroit police department. The cop who gave me the third degree after I was beat up-grilling me as cruelly and inhumanly as though I were the criminal-was later exposed by the Kefauver Committee as having a mysterious source of income through his wife who had mysteriously come into possession of a beer garden. This same cop, DeLamillieux, was assigned to the case of the Briggs beatings!

Reuther’s failure to inform the press along proper lines and to demolish poisonous press “rumors” seems to point to nothing less than a demonstrated fear of Perrone’s powerful backers. It may signify that there is a cowardly attempt on the part of the union officials to play ball with the police and capitalist politicians in hanging the rap on a few hoodlums while permitting their wealthy corporation backers to get out from under and go scot free.

Are union leaders so naive as to think labor peace has been established in America? Do they think the beatings and shootings were an aberration of a local industrialist suffering from an overdose of anti-union rabies? If they have these illusions they better get rid of them. They should know from the rising unemployment figures that the class struggle will get sharper. Anti-union terrorism will rise with national difficulties, not go down.

THE PERSONNEL managers of the big auto corporations make no bones of the fact that unions are tolerated-but only until the changing political climate will enable them, they think, to bust unions. Reuther and Mazey are in possession of these reports. They can’t pretend ignorance on the count. They may delude themselves into thinking their favorable press treatment-after they started red-baiting inside the unions-is going to remain. But those illusions paved the way for the Reuther shootings.

Not all union militants have gone through the experience of the veterans of the sit-down strikes. If these workers were shot at and tear-gassed as I was in Flint, they would know General Motors doesn’t like unions. If they were violently driven out of Saginaw by GM-inspired vigilantes in the same year for trying to organize workers into a union, they would never forget it. If they had lived through the bitterness and violence of the Ford organizing drive in Detroit this conviction would be part of their flesh and bones.

I hope Reuther and the other union officials have second thoughts on all this. I hope they will stop soft-pedaling the issue which involves them as much as the ranks, and use the coming trial on attempted murder of Walter Reuther as an opportunity to expose the whole rotten mess of Big Business tie-up with hoodlums, thugs, spies and the rest of the underworld scum, to expose the responsibility of the corporations for the gangster attacks. I hope also the UAW will give full and unstinting backing to the three of us who were beaten up, and whose court case against the Briggs Corporation is due to come up shortly. This is the best way to prepare the union membership for the hard battles that lie ahead.

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