George Clarke Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

George Clarke

The Chrysler Settlement

What the Union Asked and
What They Got in 54-Day “Lockout”

(16 December 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 93, 16 December 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The agreement signed by the Chrysler Corporation and the United Automobile Workers (CIO) ending the 54-day “lockout” represents a major development for the American labor movement. The calamity-howlers, who have been predicting the death of the CIO and its proudest acquisition, the auto workers union, received a major disappointment. Confronted with a major attack by one of the “Big Three” of the auto industry, the UAW-CIO emerged from the conflict a formidable power.

The Chrysler Corporation entertained some extravagant illusions regarding the union. The auto barons believed – they hoped – that the union had been weakened and disintegrated by years of internal struggle and unemployment. Hence, they concluded, if we lock the workers out at a time when production is high, the workers will desert their organizations and even march through picket lines to get in a few months of steady pay.

The corporation was prepared to lose millions in profits at the peak of the season if the backbone of the union could be broken. The infamous Mohawk Valley formula was trotted out of the dusty files. Every faucet of propaganda was turned on full force. Full page paid advertisements appeared daily in the local press. Business and professional men were circularized by mail with a wad of lies about the alleged crimes of the union. Chrysler dealers were squeezed into a denunciation of the UAW. The fascist spielers, Coughlin and Gerald L.K. Smith, were amply provided with funds to pour their venom against the workers over the radio. A huge meeting was called to organize fascist gangs. A back-to-work movement, with Homer Martin and his scab AFL outfit in the leadership, was launched several times. Misguided Negro workers were led through the picket line in an attempt to provoke a race riot. Even doddering Governor Dickinson was dragged off his knees long enough to threaten National Guard assistance to strikebreakers.

Company Plans Break on Union Rock

And yet – all of Chrysler’s plans went wrong. The union remained solid as a rock. Despite five weeks of privation, denied unemployment insurance by a Chrysler stooge committee, denied relief except in the most miserly allotments, the ranks of the Chrysler workers were unbreakable. Every rumor of scab movements brought thousands of workers to the picket line before the Dodge main plant. Only a few days before the agreement was signed, 10,000 workers formed the largest strike line ever seen in Detroit. Fifty thousand auto workers jammed Cadillac Square when it appeared the corporation would take aggressive strikebreaking steps.

The frontal attack of the auto barons was smashed decisively by the Chrysler workers. Unanswerable proof was given in this battle that the lesson of unionism has been burned so deeply into former “hillbillies” and “farmers” that only a veritable civil war can bring a return to the open shop days. The automobile workers union is a tower of strength after the Chrysler strike and no boss in the auto industry will henceforth lightly play with the notion that he can break the union by “old-fashioned” methods.

The defeat of Chrysler plans is a great positive achievement. The agreement resulting from the struggle, on the other hand, cannot be viewed in such unqualified terms.

What the Union Actually Got

What did the union get? How close did the union approach these demands after 54 days of the lockout? When considering the settlement it must be borne in mind that a union very rarely gets everything it asks for in a strike. But the extent of the compromise is usually determined by the strength of the union at the time of the settlement. The ranks of the UAW were intact in the Chrysler “lockout”, the picket lines were the largest ever seen in Detroit on the eve of the settlement.

The corporation granted a general three cents an hour wage increase. The union had demanded a 10 per cent wage increase. Only a few classifications received this increase.

The corporation granted sole collective bargaining to the UAW. The union asked for the “union shop”. It had already won “sole collective bargaining” by the huge majority vote it polled in the NLRB election before the lockout.

The corporation conceded an improved grievance procedure whereby a committee of two from the management and two from the union are to render decisions on grievances within 30 days from the time they are submitted. The union asked for a voice in setting production standards. The company rejected this demand and returned the procedure described above which union leaders claim rectify previous abuses.

The new agreement abolishes the “no-strike” clause. Under its terms a strike may be called five days after the union has complied with all the steps of the grievance procedure. This is a decided advantage from a propaganda point of view. In the past the corporation could charge the union with “irresponsibility” and violation of the agreement when the company made a strike inescapable.

No Gains on Seniority Issue

The union did not get the six weeks seniority clause. New workers, mostly young militant elements, have little opportunity to establish the six months seniority required by the agreement as it stands now. This will not enhance the popularity of the union among thousands of young workers who attribute – falsely – their failure to get steady jobs to union regulations.

The union did not get the “war seniority” provision. It did not get the vacation with pay. This gain had been won by smaller and weaker local unions, in the Bohn Aluminum and Packard plants, through a two and one- half per cent yearly bonus.

To summarize: the union gained some substantial improvements in bargaining procedure and some slight concessions in wages. And that’s all.

Leaders Frightened by FDR Pressure

It is clear from a comparison of the terms of the settlement with the original demands that Philip Murray, Frankensteen and Thomas traded too much of the workers’ demands. The leadership of the union was frightened by the pressure of the War Deal administration. Murray rushed into Detroit to conclude any kind of settlement quickly so long as only a few concessions could be gained to justify it in the workers’ eyes. The workers were ready to fight. The CIO leadership was prepared to capitulate. The ranks were not organized to push the leadership. Hence the settlement on poor terms, far below those’ which might have been gained from the struggle.

Why, then, did the workers vote in their local unions with such unanimity for the acceptance of the agreement? It is not enough to say that they lacked leadership of their own. Spontaneous resistance would have certainly arisen under other circumstances. In these conditions lies the significance of the Chrysler strike from a broader standpoint.

The workers did not feel that the demands pressed by the union leadership over the conference table warranted a continuation of the struggle. The workers wanted the thirty-hour week at forty hours’ pay as they so overwhelmingly indicated at the UAW convention last April. Conditions of permanent unemployment for a large section of auto workers and only intermittent employment for those more fortunate, put the 30-hour week at the very heart of the auto workers struggles. The UAW leadership has not lifted a finger – besides a few articles in the United Auto Worker – to fight for this demand – since the convention.

The auto workers wanted a substantial increase in wages. This demand was buried for almost the entire duration of the “lockout” and finally raised towards the last few days in the public press but only in a horsetrading manner. To force a ten per cent wage increase for the Chrysler workers it was necessary to organize a militant strike. The UAW leaders surrendered this policy for the dubious advantage of unemployment insurance. Which the workers didn’t get.

The real demands were lost in the loud publicity of the union for a union shop and a voice in control of production. But the workers were completely baffled when, after a few days, the negotiating committee publicly announced that they had withdrawn both these demands.

The New Strategy of the Bosses

What then was the struggle about? That was precisely the question the corporation was attempting to get the workers to ask. The same strategy was used in the General Motors strike early last summer. The workers were out on strike for several weeks. They got only a few minor concessions in the agreement – and for that matter the original demands did not represent the basic improvements required by the workers.

The corporations are laying the groundwork by this strategy for a mass revulsion against the unions. They throw the onus for the long weeks of privation on the unions, and at the conclusion when they refuse to grant decent concessions, they ask the question: what do you get out of the union but a swift kick in the teeth?

It is a futile business at attempt to counteract this propaganda by foaming at the mouth at company lies. The workers want results. They are willing to fight, but they want their fights to be fruitful. They are ready to be defeated, if necessary, if only the struggle is organized on real basic demands.

The corporations are preparing a tremendous debacle for the auto workers. The union leadership by its weak, vacillating and capitulationist policy is facilitating the game of the auto Barons.

Only a rank and file progressive organization of auto workers can force the UAW leadership to organize the auto workers’ struggles on the basis of bold demands, can carry the struggles through militantly and defeat the bosses on the major issues of the day.

The rank and file must begin.

George Clarke Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 27 June 2016