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Grace Carlson

A GM Striker’s Story

(19 January 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 3, 19 January 1946, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

I talked with Ernest Dillard, a UAW militant, on the Fleetwood picket line on one of the early days of the General Motors strike. There was an icy wind blowing down Detroit’s West End Avenue that November morning, and the pickets, marching back and forth in front of the plant’s gate, were stamping on the ground to keep their feet warm.

“My feet are just about as cold as Sloan’s heart,” Dillard exclaimed.

The pickets near him greeted his wisecrack about the GM boss with laughs of approval and shouts of “You said it, Ernie!” It wasn’t easy to carry on extended conversation on the picket line, so Ernest Dillard invited me to visit his home.

I got a chance to visit the Dillards last Sunday afternoon. We had a fine, two-hour talk, which was all the more pleasant because most of it took place in the Dillards’ friendly kitchen over an almost endless series of cups of coffee.

After 11 years of married life, the Dillards have become a real team – and attractive, 27-year-old Jessie Dillard is not a silent member of that team! The mother of two growing children, Marilyn, nine, and Ernest, Jr., eight, Mrs. Dillard has found time outside of her household duties to take an active part in trade union and political work.

In the course of the interview I learned the story of how the Alabama-born Dillards had come to Detroit and become active in the union movement. Both Jessie and Ernest Dillard were born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama. When I questioned them about their education, Ernest said with a smile, “Well, I guess that ‘education’ is what, they call what goes on in the colored schools in Alabama. But we got most of our education in the CIO here in Detroit – and it’s been a good education, too.”

When he was 12 years old, Ernest had to quit school and go to work. First as a dairy truck helper and later as a private chauffeur, he was paid $4 per week! In fact, this was all he was earning when he married 16-year old Jessie Dawson on Christmas Day, 1934. But after their marriage, Ernest did odd jobs on the side, and raised his income to $5 a week. Jessie got a job as a cook for $1.50 a week, and the Dillards managed to get along on their combined income until their first baby was born in 1936.

Then Ernest Dillard decided to go up North to get a job. He arrived in Detroit in June 1937 and went to work as a houseman at the Gotham Hotel for $14 a week. Most of his wages were sent back to Jessie in Montgomery. She needed all the money that Ernest could send, and more, because her second baby was born in November 1937.

It wasn’t until May of the following year that Ernest was able to arrange to have his family move to Detroit. But it wasn’t until 1942, when he went to work as a welder in the Fleetwood plant and received union wages, that he was able to provide his family with a semblance of decent living. That is why the Dillards are such union patriots!

“You can easily see,” Jessie Dillard said, at one stage of the conversation, “why the Southern bosses don’t like to have their $4-a-week Negro workers go up North and join unions and ‘get spoiled’.”

“Yeh, and these GM bosses would sure like to push us back to those starvation wages,” Ernest Dillard broke in. “But we’re going to fight this thing through.”

I pulled out a clipping from the Detroit News, which reported that 801 GM strikers had applied for relief and asked whether they had been receiving relief. “No, we’re luckier than the others,” answered Jessie Dillard. “Ernie has been getting a little unemployment compensation. He was laid off at Fleetwood after V-J Day, so he was eligible for it. $24 a week compensation isn’t much but it’s better than $10 a week relief.”

No, $24 a week isn’t much for a family of four in 1946! The Dillards, have had to cut their food allowance to less than half. Where they used to order two and a half quarts of milk a day, they now get only one quart. The whole quart goes to the children despite the fact that the doctor has ordered Jessie Dillard to drink more milk and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.

And even the inadequate $24 a week compensation won’t last much longer. But the Dillards aren’t whining. They think that the union will win the strike and that Ernest will be back at Fleetwood, earning union wages.

This is the kind of faith that will move capitalist mountains!

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Last updated: 18 September 2018