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Burke Cochran

The Crime of the Auto International

Writer Discusses Significance of Green’s High-Handed Domination
of the Detroit Convention and the Tasks of Progressives

(September 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. I No. 37, 7 September 1935, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

TOLEDO, Ohio. – As a culmination of a year’s hard work, during which time their forces were tested in a dozen different battles, the automobile workers sent delegates to Detroit to set up an International union in the automobile industry with full autonomy within the statutes of the American Federation of labor. The union they expected was to have full jurisdiction over all who work in ,or around automobile or auto parts plants, it was to be democratically controlled and officers were to be elected by a majority of the delegates in the convention and they were to receive salaries comparable to the wages received by the workers in the plants. Instead the delegates came back with a charter of a craft union with jurisdiction over production workers, with all officers of the new International hand-picked by the president of the A.F. of L., Bill Green, and salaries of officers racked up to as high as $6,500 per year.

The cruel blow that struck the automobile workers was deliberately aimed and it has weakened their organization as effectively as a successful onslaught of an open shop campaign. But that roar of mighty protest which rose from the floor at the Tuesday session of the convention, when the delegates rejected with indignation and scorn the proposal to appoint Dillon, is a sign of that inexhaustible vitality which has carried the automobile workers forward despite the sabotage and betrayals of the corrupt bureaucracy.

Although most of the union delegates are comparatively new to unionism, the majority of them expected some railroading and were doing all they could to prepare themselves for it; but such open, cynical perfidy, such an arrogant disregard of even the formalities of democratic procedure; such flagrant violations of their expressed wishes – that came as a surprise to even many a die-hard.

The Work of the Bureaucrats

The executive council of the A.F. of L. deliberately pushed the young automobile unions into the labyrinth of craft unionism; it artificially created craft divisions which do not exist in the industry and cynically imposed upon the automobile workers a leadership which they do not want and for whom they have no respect. They have placed their heavy hands around the throat of the young International and deliberately attempted to involve the union with the plague of jurisdictional disputes They are attempting to cut the membership up into half a dozen different unions and thus effectively paralyze their activity and destroy their militancy. In addition they harnessed the automobile workers to an incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy which has taken over the powers of the organization with a heavy dictatorial hand, although it heard expressed on the floor of the convention the contempt and hate for it, on the part of the overwhelming majority of the delegates. Ostensibly, Green and Dillon routed the progressives at the convention. The charter of the International limits its jurisdiction to production workers; Dillon and his machine hold the entire national apparatus in their hands. Actually, Green and the executive council suffered one of the most serious setbacks in recent years. The heavy, cumbersome machinery of the A.F. of L. bureaucracy, which appears cunning and well oiled only when serious opposition is lacking, was forced to reveal itself in all its nakedness. No camouflage, no subtle maneuvers were possible here. All of Green’s eloquence went for naught. After his first defeat on the floor, he no longer dared chance

a vote on any important question. He bluntly informed the delegates that their voting one way or another made no difference. He was forced to come out with the cold, unadorned ultimatum that the delegates must accept his conditions, or he would smash them! The reverberations of this ultimatum will be heard for many a day in the labor movement of this country.

Strength of Progressives

The progressives, who have organized themselves in a very serious manner since the Chevrolet strike, in their determination to oppose the Dillon machine, have now the duty of reconsidering the scope of their work, in the light of what happened at the automobile convention.

At the Detroit convention, the progressives commanded more strength than they themselves expected. Almost every delegation representing the real unions: Toledo, Cleveland, Norwood, South Bend, Kenosha – voted with the progressives. The only real large local supporting Dillon was the Seaman Body local 19059 of Milwaukee. Otherwise the Dillon machine received most of its strength directly from the small locals of a membership of twenty to perhaps a hundred and some who probably came representing not so much membership as their good intentions; locals such as the ones in Detroit, Flint, Lansing, small locals in Wisconsin, etc., etc. The progressive strength proved larger than expected not because of last minute additions to their bloc, but because the early stages of the fight on the convention floor revolved chiefly on the basis of anti-Dillon sentiment and against any appointment of officers. The Toledo delegation, counting some 38 votes, were actually the opponents of the progressives in their own local, and were not elected by their local membership, but hand-picked by the local executive committee. The pressure of the progressives in Toledo was great and was keenly felt; the fact that the other side had no other program of their own, plus the combined pressure of the progressives from the other cities at the convention pushed the entire Toledo delegation to support the progressive bloc at the Detroit convention.

The progressives, although they had come to the convention partially prepared to do battle were not anywhere near organized to the extent of the reactionary machine. The progressives had no slate, and no possibility of agreeing on one at the convention. Had the question of candidates come up for a vote, the delegations would have split wide open.

The Enemy to Overcome

The progressives made a splendid showing at this first convention, but even the short experience has made it obvious that a real progressive group that is to challenge the “leadership” of Dillon, cannot be made up of scraps and patches. It must be systematically built up around a broad program which can command the interest of the great majority of the automobile workers. All unreliable elements, all local union “politicians” who sprout up around election time, must be ruthlessly eliminated.

Long ago the progressive movement of the A.F. of L. in this country came to the conclusion that the fight for a progressive program in the trade unions involves simultaneously a struggle of ruthless extermination with the present “leadership” of the A.F. of L. which is the most venal and stupid of the whole world. To these leaders, the needs and desires of the rank and file workers are as foreign as the customs of the Zulu tribes They dread the very thought of struggle and fear the development and growth of young progressive movements, as they fear the plague itself. When they find their positions and salaries endangered, they are ready to collaborate with the police, the bosses, with anybody to smash the insurgent movement even though they may wreck a whole movement in the process. The present fossilized leadership of the A.F. of L. stands today as one of the greatest obstacles in the path of the automobile workers. They will have to be swept aside, before the automobile unions can develop to their fullest potentialities.

It seems, from observing recent trends in the American Federation of Labor and the trade union movement in general in this country that many of the new unions, in the mass production industries are beginning to occupy a more conspicuous place in the A.F. of L. and are beginning to displace in importance, to a degree, the older building trades unions.

The automobile industry is led by the most self-confident and aggressive combination of industrial magnates and financiers. It is one of the few remaining branches of industry which is still able to create its own “prosperity” without benefit of the federal government. This business combination is least inclined to “sentimentality” in relations with its employees. They will not yield an inch of ground until they are forced to do so by the combined strength of the automobile workers. That, it is obvious, can only be accomplished on the picket line; but that is precisely the place where Dillon is least interested in going. The automobile industry is super-centralized and integrated. The automobile workers, split up into a dozen different craft unions, are least capable of fighting the confident and ruthless barons of the automobile industry. Again the present leadership and its policies block the road!

The reaction, on the part of the progressives to the treachery of the Green-Dillon machine was very healthy. They did not allow themselves to be provoked, or fall into the trap of quitting the unions, and leaving, at this time, the bulk of the inexperienced workers to the tender mercies of Dillon. They are preparing to appeal the decision of the executive council to the A.F. of L. convention in October; meanwhile they are going back to their locals to strengthen their numbers and to prevent all attempts at splitting them up.

They are beginning to realize that to challenge the leadership of the bureaucracy means the beginning of a battle of ruthless extermination; and that the battle once undertaken, cannot be stopped halfway. Dillon will spare no effort in building np his machine. He will spare neither effort nor cost to destroy the insurgent movement of the progressives. For that he has the support of the whole A.F. of L. bureaucracy.

Despite the heavy task and all of the obstacles involved, the progressives can come out of this battle victorious. If they succeed in arousing the still untouched thousands of automobile workers in the industry, whose interests they represent, if they push their progressive program and win ever wider support; If in addition, they rely upon the progressive groups of all the other unions, especially in rubber and steel, they will have created a movement which will prove itself invincible in battle against any and every foe.

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