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E.R. Frank

Auto Convention Posed Labor’s War Problems

Contradictions Created by War Totalitarianism Revealed at Convention

(August 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 35, 30 August 1941, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The sixth annual convention of the CIO auto workers’ union, concluded August 16 in Buffalo, served to highlight and dramatize all the underlying contradictions which characterize the CIO movement as a whole in this critical war period. In no previous convention has the dilemma of the labor movement, faced with the governmental preparations for totalitarian war, been so clearly revealed.

In many respects this convention was the most militant and most progressive in the whole fighting history of the UAW. But, at the same time, the delegates at Buffalo put on the books of the UAW constitution the most reactionary provision it has ever contained – the amendment barring members from elective or appointive posts because of their political beliefs.

On the one hand the debates on political issues of the day were the sharpest and clearest in the union’s history, the speeches of the delegates showing the great strides forward in the political consciousness of the membership; on the other hand the International Executive Board was left unchanged by the election – the few board members who were defeated being replaced with essentially the same type as before.

Riddle of the Convention

What is the riddle of this powerful and vital union which has made great advances both in organization and in political understanding, and yet has returned Thomas and Addes and all the other leaders, with a few exceptions, to office? This leadership is certainly the democratic choice of the delegates, since democracy reigns in the UAW as in no other international union.

Does this mean that the auto workers are content with their leadership? That cannot be so, since the delegates placed plenty of restrictions on leadership, and more than once voted down the unanimous recommendations of the International officers whet the interests of the rank and flit were endangered. R.J. Thomas. who was elected by acclamation himself complained several times during the convention that every proposal he made was turned down. The behind-the-scenes maneuvers of the top leaders were attacked by many delegates; ever the capitalist press was forced to comment that in the UAW, unlike in so many other unions, the leadership sits on an uneasy throne. The answer to the contradictions lies in two main underlying facts:

Background of Conflicts

Ever since the St. Louis convention last year, there has been a fierce clique fight in the UAW International Executive Board. Addes and his group have fought bitterly with Reuther and Thomas Frankensteen and their clique. What was this fight about? It began purely as a struggle for posts and prestige, nothing more:

But in the course of a year, the UAW, profiled by its own organizational progress, collided head-on with the war machine, and the militant membership set up a howl against the strike-breaking, union-busting government apparatus which had been hurled at their heads.

The struggle in the CIO between Sidney Hillman and John L. Lewis, over the important and basic union-issues relating to the attitude of labor toward Roosevelt and to the war apparatus of the administration dominated by the dollar-a-year men, had already come out into the open and revealed as a basic issue the question of’ the independence of the labor movement.

The Lewis group was far more progressive and reflected more correctly the needs and desires of the masses of workers. Hillman and his tendency represented the cynical and unabashed labor lieutenants of the war machine who were willing to tie labor to the tailcoats of the Wall Street politicians who dominate the war production agencies.

The clique struggle within the UAW tops was caught up in this great swirl around Hillman and Lewis, and the board members became partisans inside the UAW of the two groups in the CIO.

This did not occur because the top UAW leaders became convinced by themselves of the correctness of the respective arguments; on the contrary, they would have preferred to limit their fight to power politics. But through the great lessons of the North American strike, the Allis Chalmers strike, the GM strike, and other big battles which brought the union into a clash with the administration agencies, the basic issues being fought out by the Lewis and Hillman groups seeped down to the thinking sections of the membership of the UAW, and wide sections of the membership had taken sides and paired off by the time the Buffalo convention convened. The leadership only reflected this division.

The Reuther group, led by and large by such renegade Socialist Party members as the Reuther brothers, George Nordstrom, Joe Ditzel, and Emil Mazey, constituted a hard and conscious group who, because of previous political training, propagated their policy clearly and formed a tight and well-organized caucus propagating the full-rounded Hillman program on all issues. They used their training in the Socialist Party to fight for the most reactionary tendency in the labor movement.

The Addes group cannot be said in that sense to have existed as a caucus at all. This group was and remains a top clique of job politicians, whose policy it was never to let the membership in on the secret of why they were fighting Reuther.

Addes Group Folds Up

In the whole past year the leaders of the Addes group took a stand only on questions of job power and prestige. On all the basic issues they went along with Reuther. They upheld Frankensteen in his strikebreaking role at North American, they voted to bully the GM workers back into the plants without an agreement in their recent strike, and have in general been no more and no less conservative on the important issues than the Reuther group.

At the convection, therefore, the Addes group was immersed in the problem of their own jobs. They thought without a doubt that they could win supremacy in the UAW by exposing Reuther as a factionalist and by posing as the great defenders of unity. Not only did they give leadership, but. they had to be practicably blackjacked by leading militants from Flint, who understood the need for a basic light, into calling a caucus meeting to discuss the problems. They called a caucus only after terrific pressure.

The militant element at the convention, who came prepared in a general way to fight the Hillmanism which threatened to sap the union’s independence, constituted a majority of the convention delegates. This militant element, led by the well-knit and able delegation from Flint, were attracted on several issues to the Addes group when it showed merely a half-hearted pretense at fighting Reuther.

These militants fresh from the picket lines, came to the convention with a great desire to get a crack at the Hillman program. The first few Addes caucus meetings for that reason were big enthusiastic gatherings which discussed in strong terms the basic questions of the independence of the union from administration domination, and pilloried the Hillman tendency for belly-crawling to the government, stooging for Wall Street, and the like. Addes and his top clique did not lead this group, they were pushed around by it in spite of themselves.

The Communist Party people during the whole period since the St. Louis convention of the UAW were the extreme supporters of Addes, paralleling in the auto union their support of John L. Lewis in the CIO as a whole.

However, any discussion of the Stalinists in auto in terms of two or three years ago is totally unrealistic. Precisely because the auto union has been such a militant union, and because the Stalinists have played such a big role, they exposed themselves more thoroughly in auto than in any other section of the labor movement.

At Milwaukee, in 1937, the CP members were the organizers .and. leaders of the Unity group which commanded the major portion of the union, and throughout this period they were considered as the great progressive[s] and militants in auto.

Stalinists Lose Ground

At the Cleveland convention in 1938, while they suffered from a split with Walter Reuther, and had already compromised somewhat by their unprincipled factionalism and disruption, the Stalinists still were a controlling force at the convention and had the largest single unified bloc.

In St. Louis last year, at the height of the Stalin-Hitler pact, they arrived at the convention having lost heavily in Detroit, having paid a heavy price as a result of their flip-flop off the Roosevelt bandwagon. They voted at the convention against the prevailing pro-Roosevelt mood and were a minority also on the Red issue.

Only the fortitude circumstance that John L. Lewis’s policy was similar to theirs in opposition to Roosevelt, enabled the Stalinists to balance themselves. In addition, their new line enabled them to attract the great anti-war elements among the militant membership, and made it possible for them boldly to take a hand in the organization of aircraft and establish new bases for themselves as a result.

No such happy accident and no such opportunity accompanied their recent new turn. On the contrary, the Stalinists in auto stand now completely exposed before the whole conscious membership and at the convention their nakedness was displayed before all the informed delegates.

In the first phase they arrived at Buffalo with a line opposed to Lewis. Secondly, their new flip-flop lost them all standing as a union group and cost them popular support among the auto workers who now saw them as tricksters who were puppets of the Stalin regime in Russia. Third, their numerical strength had catastrophically decreased. While the Stalinists still control a few large locals, they are unable to use them any longer as a base for bigger endeavors, and this was shown at Buffalo.

All of this resulted in great demoralization of their own people and in boundless confusion. The idea that the Stalinists today act as a highly disciplined force in auto is untrue; that is only a memory of the past.

One must remember that in the UAW the Stalinists have not been able to sail ahead as they have in the National Maritime Union, the Transport Workers etc. In these unions the Communist Party had a monopoly of leadership and faced only the out-and-out reactionary opposition, by and large.

In the auto union they had to face competition with every tendency in the labor movement, in the presence of a highly militant and aroused working class engaged constantly in class struggles. Here, faced with real tests, the Stalinists starting with their largest, most conscious and most experienced organized group, have squandered their capital month by month and year by year until, at Buffalo, they hardly dared to open their mouths.

The Stalinists’ strategy, carefully worked out in advance, completely missed flire in actual performance at the Buffalo convention.

Previously the supporters of Lewis and Addes, and bitter opponents of Hillman and Reuther and Thomas, they were forced to try to efface the memory of this on the eve of the convention, to switch completely around, forget the North American strike, and try, in order to save themselves, to get harmony and unity between the warring groups. They had the end in view of gradually drawing Addes and his friends to the support of their pro-war program. and uniting with Reuther and Thomas. This done, they would have been able to speed the union along the rails of Roosevelt’s war machine. But alas ... their power did not correspond to their big plans!

No sooner did the convention open than Thomas rudely hurled back the CP support offered him. Reuther pressed his campaign against the Stalinists with renewed intensity, bent on unseating their delegates and on crucifying them on the West Coast. In sheer desperation, the Stalinists had to trudge along shamefully with the Addes group, the only group that would tolerate them.

At the present juncture, in order to keep their dwindling base, the Stalinists cannot drop Addes and his people, without first coming to an understanding with Reuther and Hillman. Will such an understanding be forthcoming? All indications are negative. The Roosevelt administration, and Hillman as part of it, will not tolerate the Communist Party people precisely because they are weak and discredited. To hang on, they must continue in a way to oppose Reuther and Hillman, although that is contrary to their whole program. In any case, as a major force the Stalinists are through in auto. Discredited as they are, they cannot mobilize the militant elements with their present line. The great body of union fighters who are moving forward towards a progressive program cannot be won by the CP.

The Coming Clash

While Reuther had a tight caucus functioning all through, and Addes tried weakly to form one, the chief aspect of the convention was the fluidity of the delegates. Caucus lines were crossed and re-crossed on different questions, and on many issues almost the whole convention opposed the unanimous leadership at the top. Some of the most militant and well-thought out speeches on the OPM, on government control of labor, were delivered by rank-and-file delegates at this convention.

This militant element, clearer on basic issues than ever before, represented a great positive weight at the convention. With unequalled boldness this positive weight put to the forefront the big organization problem – the organization of aircraft. The insistence upon this organization exceeded the demand at St. Louis for the organization of Ford. An assessment will be voted to pay for the aircraft drive, and the whole convention centered to a large degree around this problem.

The Roosevelt and Hillman program for aircraft is to adopt a scheme similar to the shipyard agreements which freeze wages. Inevitably, the aircraft organizational drive will clash with the Roosevelt administration, and will bring out all the militancy and fight of the auto union. That is the positive road the union is really going to take in spite of the top leadership. Couple this fact with the fact that this is also the road of the whole CIO in its fight for complete domination of the American labor movement, and you can say for sure that this fight started at Buffalo, which began as a clique fight, will deepen and clarify, and in the course of clashes with the apparatus of the war machine will become the major aspect of the labor movement and its advancement in the yea? ahead.

The leadership is forced to propel the union into the aircraft drive not only because of the insistence of the rank and file, but in the interests of their own preservation. The AFL threatens to capture aircraft and that cannot be tolerated by the UAW; moreover, priority curtailment of raw materials for auto threatens to drastically cut down employment in auto and face the UAW with a vastly reduced working membership. The aircraft drive will be pushed and pushed hard.

Temper of Membership

In spite of the desire of the UAW Board members to patch things up and build a unified top machine to their mutual benefit, the aircraft drive will sharply pose all the basic issues confronting the auto union today; this, plus the accumulating bitterness of the Lewis-Hillman fight is bound to split the UAW board more widely than ever in the past year. Reuther has the majority of the board today. But in the ensuing struggles, the problem of who controls the majority of the board will be decided by the temper of the membership and only by that factor.

Addes can still be expected to work closely with Lewis. What direction will he get from him? The Lewis machine in the CIO is made up of the old line wheel-horses of the Miners union. In the Buffalo convention, Lewis did not attend and throw his personal weight behind the Addes group; he did not do this because Lewis is a prestige politician, and would not risk his prestige and standing where he was not sure of victory. He sent instead his man Alan Haywood, whose contribution, with or without Lewis’s aid, was the unprincipled horse-trade by which Frankensteen was assured a board job in exchange for his support to Addes, dumping Reuther, and making some deals as to appointments in the aircraft set-up. The North American fight was hushed up as a result of this deal.

Such a deal cooked up by the boys in the back room might have smoothly gone over in an AFL convention, or even in the Mine Workers or Steel Workers, but when it reached the red hot floor of the UAW convention its rottenness was exposed and derided and bitterly resented by the militant delegation. This type of tactic is typical of the Lewis machine.

But events are unquestionably going to propel Lewis toward more progressive positions as the struggle for the building of the CIO progresses, because he is staking his future not on Roosevelt and his war adventure, but upon the future and strengthening of the CIO. This may tend to force Addes in his turn also to take a more progressive stand.

Reuther on the other hand, to meet the new militancy of the aircraft drive, will use his new majority if possible to kick out the radical and militant elements under the constitutional amendment passed at the convention. This is his only defense against the new onrush and the auto union may witness, while it is surging forward organizationally, an attempt by the top group to behead the militants and isolate them.

Know What They Want

But the militants from Cleveland, Flint and elsewhere, at this convention showed the greatest solidarity of ideas in the history of the union, and demonstrated that they know what they want. There is no question that many of this fighting group will break in the coming period decisively with the war machine, and this fighting core of men who pushed Addes as it did at the Buffalo

convention, will push further in the coming months, for a program to build the union in the face of any and all opposition. To understand the auto union, it is necessary to understand the courageous fighting men who make up its heart and sinews. They are determined to build. Those who go along with them they will accept. Those who stand in their way they will brush aside; the veterans of the sit-downs and scores of labor battles, are determined that the UAW shall march forward, organize aircraft, solidify their gains, and protect and defend the most powerful labor union in the history of the country. In the course of this struggle, these union men who have learnt so much in the past years, who have developed so far, will grow in stature and will insure a fighting leadership for American labor.

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