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Fourth International, April 1942


Joe Andrews

The Auto Workers’ Conference


From Fourth International, vol.3 No.4, April 1942, pp.111-112.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


The War Emergency Conference of the United Automobile, Aircraft and Agricultural Implement Workers Union met in Detroit April 7-8. It showed that the vital militancy that shattered the defenses of the Fords and duPonts has not been extinguished in the ranks of the autotmobile workers.

At this conference there was voiced the first powerful voice of protest against the retreat of labor since December 7.

This opposition – 150 delegates – was the first sign of a new movement in the auto union, and a new development in American labor as a whole. It was unlike any group or faction in the UAW-CIO in the past.

The daily press, although it correctly pointed out the militancy and determination of this opposition group, did not properly estimate its true strength and importance. At first glance, a group of 150 delegates at a conference of 1,400 delegates may seem insignificant. But these 150 delegates were local officers and shop committeemen representing over 100,000 auto workers of key locals which have been in the forefront of all the battles of the union. The delegation from the locals of Flint, Michigan, always recognized as the heart of the auto union, was solidly against the International Executive Board’s policy of retreat before the wartime antilabor drive. The Flint delegation led the opposition. This was not accidental, since the Flint workers have in every crisis led the auto workers and have provided the militancy for great victories.

In addition delegations from the Dodge and Murray Body locals of Detroit were solid for a militant program in defense of labor’s gains. Even more significant, local unions which had formerly been the unpenetrable property of Walter Reuther, notably the West Side Local of Detroit, were split on the question. Both in the numbers they represented, and in the important role of the locals from which they spring, the opposition was a real power.

A Fight on Basic Questions

Not only was the opposition strong, but the issues were the most fundamental and clearest yet debated in the trade union movement.

There were two main points immediately at issue. First, the International Executive Board’s proposal to surrender double-time pay for week-ends and holidays and, second, the question of endorsement of the WPB labor-management speed-up committees. The six-hour debate, in which dozens of delegates participated on both sides, moved inevitably from a specific discussion of these two points to the broadest political issues confronting the workers.

In the end, the International Officers found it impossible to win a favorable vote except by posing the question as a vote for or against President Roosevelt. Opposition speakers proved that to sacrifice double-time pay meant a wage cut while the employers were profiteering. The union administration admitted this in the course of the debate and openly stated in their 10-point program: “The foregoing of this right actually means the acceptance of substantial wage cuts, even in the face of sharply increased living costs during the past 12 months.” But the leaders dared not ask the delegates to vote on the issue of wage cuts; the vote was taken as a vote of confidence in Roosevelt. The President personally intervened with a letter to the conference. It was read again at the end of the debate. Finally, the moment before the vote on overtime pay, Frankensteen shouted from the platform: “Are you going to tell the President of the United States to go to hell?” And with this and on this the vote was taken. One hundred and fifty delegates voted no confidence in Roosevelt – and in his labor lieutenants.

Every previous struggle in the UAW has been channelized into clique fights for power between groups of International Board members. Program and issues were always secondary. Not so this time.

It is an extremely important development that the militant auto workers find not a single member of the International Board to take up their fight. Workers who hitherto blindly followed Secretary-Treasurer George F. Addes, because he paid lip service to their militancy, are now forced to look to themselves for leaders. Men who had been the unqualified supporters of Walter Reuther and his pseudosocialistic phrase-mongering also find themselves on their own. The top leadership, under pressure from Washington, moved away from the workers; the best of the local union officers, who face the workers in the plants every day, would not follow Addes and Reuther.

The auto union has therefore entered upon a new phase of its life: a struggle between the militant workers in the plants led by local leaders against the top officers of the union acting for the government. It is a battle for the most basic economic and political needs of the workers.

The opposition necessarily must fight not only their own top officials but also Roosevelt, in whose name the officials speak.

In the Tradition of the UAW

The auto union provides a favorable arena for such a struggle. The conference served to show that the leaders have as yet been unable to wipe out the deservedly famous democracy of the UAW. The union tradition that an opposition has the right to express itself fully had to be observed by the officials.

That the opposition was more powerful than its 150 votes, and that it represents a great proportion of the union membership was admitted by R. J. Thomas, who repeatedly stated at the conference that the opposition was taking the “easy road” by supporting the “popular position.” The leadership itself feels the stirring of the ranks and fears the coming storms. The newspaper FM has pointed out: “Unless some phases of the UAW’s counter-program for ‘Equality of Sacrifice’ are written into reality there will be a major upheaval in this union.” Since the ten-point program includes such demands as the limitation of profits to three per cent, wage adjustments to meet increased living costs, moratorium on debts of draftees and unemployment, it can be predicted that the auto workers will never receive what their officers and Roosevelt promised them in return for the speed-up and the sacrifice of overtime pay.

The UAW has a healthy tradition of rejecting outlived leaders. In the short life of the dynamic auto union since its rise in 1935 the membership has toppled one leadership after another.

The AFL thought their dictatorial craft union methods could be imposed on the auto workers. But a stormy upheaval unseated the AFL-appointed dictator Francis J. Dillon and launched industrial unionism.

Homer Martin was catapulted to the top as the leader of the fight against Dillon. He was driven from the leadership and reduced to oblivion when he tried to impose a personal dictatorship of his own and to lead the auto workers back to the AFL.

The Stalinists inherited the leadership from the fallen Martin. Then they tried to impose their zig-zag policies and bureaucratic grip on the union, and were quickly discredited and reduced to an impotent minority.

For a period after that, George Addes and Walter Reuther jockeyed for control. Today Walter Reuther, having forced Addes to capitulate, dominates the docile executive board. But he sits on an uneasy throne.

In six years there have been four sets of leaders. Those who are now in power have never been fully trusted by the membership. They have already against them their unprincipled maneuvers and clique fights which have disgusted the rank and file.

Never has a UAW leadership stood in such open opposition to the needs of the ranks. Never has a leadership in the UAW dared to propose speed-up, wage cuts, sacrifice of the basic union rights. They have temporarily found cover under the wing of Roosevelt. In effect the militant opposition is being told: “You can’t fight the leadership of the UAW without fighting Roosevelt.” And this is absolutely true.

The fight confronting the auto militants is now infinitely more serious and more difficult than any previous struggle. To unseat the present leaders will require a far more revolutionary upheaval than the past changes of power. The auto workers this time will have to fight on the higher plane of national political issues.

The opposition which took its first steps at the Detroit conference has a great historic task. In leading the struggle against the policy of surrender in the UAW, it will also be providing the inspiration and the program for the entire American trade union movement.

It is singularly appropriate that this task should fall upon those who, in the sit-down strikes, gave the American workers a new revolutionary weapon and a new perspective of industrial unionism. The victory of industrial unionism over craft unionism meant a higher stage of both economic and political development for the American working class. The victory of the new opposition would be even more significant than the rise of the CIO. It would represent the politicalization of the American workers. To fight Roosevelt logically means independent labor political action. At last the workers as a class would confront the capitalists as a class in the political field. And that means to raise the decisive question: what class shall rule? Those who stormed the Ford and duPont Empires – perhaps history has also destined them to storm the political Bastilles of the American ruling class.

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Last updated on 19.8.2008