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E.R. Frank

The Auto Workers: A Step Forward

(September 1942)

From Fourth International, Vol.3 No.9, September 1942, pp.261-263.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Seventh Convention of the United Automobile, Aircraft and Agricultural Implement Workers, just concluded in Chicago, was the most significant since the historic Milwaukee convention of 1937, when the tempestuous union of the auto workers elbowed its way forward and gave notice that it had taken up its position in the front ranks of American labor.

The auto workers gathered in Chicago demonstrated that, although only eight months have elapsed since the United States entered the “shooting war,” they have already overcome to a considerable extent the apathy and confusion that seized the men in the shops in the months immediately following “Pearl Harbor.”

The magnificent revolt during the debate on overtime pay was nothing less than the lightning flash of the mood of exasperation with the auto barons and their dollar-a-year War Production Board. In the language of the English Parliament, it was a vote of “no confidence.” It established conclusively that the war has not cowed the ranks of the auto union, and that the auto workers retain their exemplary militancy, their courage, their fighting qualities and their sound class instinct.

For four solid days the delegates roared their disapproval, they howled down their elected leaders, they hurled contemptuous taunts at their officials, they refused to let an Executive Board member speak. At one point they demanded the removal of all organizers from the convention floor. They voted down almost every important recommendation of the main convention committees.

Yet they concluded the convention sessions by reelecting to office, with a few insignificant changes, the whole top leadership of the union.

How explain this extraordinary behavior?

There is no question but that the leadership was the democratic choice of the delegates, for the convention successfully preserved its high authority and democracy continues to reign in the auto union as in no other international union.

Several of the bourgeois reporters, in attempting to explain the contradiction, made the cynical suggestion that this opposition really amounted to very little, that the delegates were merely interested in letting off steam before reelecting their officers. But this puerile and superficial estimate is rejected even by the responsible bourgeois editors. No! The great roar of protest that rose from the ballroom of the Sherman Hotel carried all the way to Capitol Hill and the White House, and its meaning was too clear to be misunderstood.

The contradiction between the conduct of the convention and the reelection of the old leadership, when analyzed, provides the key to understanding the development and the dynamics of the auto union, and the future course of the whole of American labor.

The American workers have now gone through nine months of “shooting war” and, previous to that, two years of “national defense.” They accepted the war as previously they had accepted “national defense.” But their acceptance was purely formal; based not on a thorough understanding of what modern capitalist war means, but simply on naivete and political inexperience. Catering two years ago to this prevailing mood, Roosevelt proclaimed a program of providing the American people with the guns and the butter too. But modern total war, under conditions of moribund capitalism, cannot be conducted without reducing the mass of the people and above all the workers to a regime of overwork, poverty, hunger and disease. Thus the auto workers accepted the war on the false premise that they would not have to accept any of its consequences.

Now that the reel is beginning to unfold before their own eyes, the auto workers are balking. The convention thus presents the bizarre picture of a majority of its delegates bitter against Henderson and the OPA, bitter against Nelson and the WPB, scornful of the “15 per cent formula” of the War Labor Board, dead set against any proposal to freeze wages, mocking at the 44-cent increase received by the steel union, and yet continuing solemnly to declare that they stand foursquare behind President Roosevelt and his war program. How can you be for and against the same thing at the same time? It is this contradictory thinking that explains the contradictory actions of the convention.

The Chicago delegates had come to the convention fresh from the shops. They were frightened that the “sacrifice program” was leading to the destruction of their union. They complained bitterly of mountains of unsettled grievances, of the nervousness and the dissatisfaction in the rank and file, the growing arrogance of the corporation managements, the firing of increasing numbers of union militants, the red tape and hopeless delays involved in negotiating their demands through the War Labor Board, the helplessness of the union now that it had given up its right to strike. Therefore, they hurled their bitterness and their exasperation at the heads of their leadership and demanded “action.” What kind of action did they want? What alternatives did the opposition present to the convention? In truth, none. They had not yet thought their opposition through to the end. They did not possess a clear-cut alternative program. The opposition was still seeking some middle of the road course, some half-way house. But there is no half-way house; consequently the delegates could not find it.

The Only Alternative: Our Program

Any genuine alternative program could have been patterned only after the one presented by The Militant, which had been widely distributed among the delegates. On Wednesday, at the height of the controversy over the union’s war policy, the opposition was challenged on this very point by the ex-Stalinist, pro-administration chairman of the Constitution Committee, Lindahl.

He declared: “The opponents of this resolution fail entirely to present to this body any reasonable alternative ... There is no alternative except to act through governmental bodies.” Then he indicated whither the arguments of the opposition were inevitably leading them. “Is it coincidental, my friends,” Lindahl asked, “that the arguments used to strike down the resolution yesterday on the ‘Victory Through Equality of Sacrifice,’ is it coincidental the arguments were contained in a Trotskyite sheet passed out at the gates of the hall? Is it coincidental?” At this point the speaker was interrupted by boos expressing the displeasure of the oppositional delegates. After this interruption, Lindahl concluded: “Let me urge this, let us not be betrayed by Trotskyite councils, let us follow the path of patriotism in the leadership of Roosevelt that we set our feet upon months ago.”

Thus the spokesman of the administration pointed out to the opposition the logical goal of their struggle. But the opposition was not yet ready to take more than the first few faltering steps.

The program of the leadership rests on its alliance with Roosevelt and its support of his war program. The immediate steps which have placed the labor movement in the war strait-jacket are the surrender of the right to strike and the approval of the War Labor Board as the super-arbiter of the class struggle in America. As a minimum program for the UAW to regain its freedom, therefore, stands the necessity of reasserting its right to strike. But the top leadership stands panic-stricken before this demand. For the right to strike means the blowing up of the War Labor Board and what will then happen to the alliance with Roosevelt? The UAW top leadership, in common with Philip Murray and the rest of the CIO bureaucracy, is convinced that the labor movement will never survive if it must stand on its own two feet and rely on its own resources and solidarity.

The delegates comprising the opposition were likewise hypnotized by this same CIO program and did not yet dare suggest the alternative, the only alternative program. One delegate did speak on the convention floor about the union’s necessity to regain its right to strike, but the proposal found no response among the delegates.

That is why the convention criticism of the war policies of its leadership, although bitter and hostile to the extreme, constituted for all that no more than a protest. That is why the delegates, returning to the War Policy Committee its proposal on overtime pay, after a savagely conducted full-day debate, adopted virtually the identical proposal the following day. The delegates had no alternative. They could find no half-way house. That is why, for all the ferocity of its criticism, the convention adopted as its positive proposal the demand on Roosevelt to set up regional boards of the War Labor Board in order to eliminate delays! And that is why the convention, because the union has already freed itself, largely, of clique combinations and clique politics, could not create any alternative leadership and was forced to reelect the old leadership to office.

The Gap Between Leaders and Workers

The convention made clear that the auto workers still hold the illusion that they can retain their economic gains and living standards in this period of devastating war on the basis of a coalition of labor with the Roosevelt war government. And here becomes obvious the great difference and the coming source of cleavage between the rank and file workers and the leadership of the union.

The top leadership already understands that the economic gains of the workers are due to be swept away. Their speeches about improving economic conditions are sheer hypocrisy. As a matter of fact, they have already given up these things as a sacrificial offering to Roosevelt in return for the guarantee that they will continue to be recognized as the spokesmen for American labor. They gave up the right to strike, they gave up the independence of the union movement, and in return Roosevelt provided them with a mongrel closed shop: “maintenance of union membership.” The bargain is similar to that of the Dakota farmer who traded off his house and farm for a half-interest in the city hall.

The program of the UAW leadership: support of the war, coalition with the Roosevelt war government, elevation of the War Labor Board as super-arbiter, surrender of the independence of the labor movement – this program the membership accepts at the present juncture of affairs. But the inevitable consequences of this program are the weakening of the union, the demoralization of the membership, inability to organize the new unorganized war industries, general stagnation and decay, the worsening of working conditions and the lowering of wages and living standards. The leadership has already reconciled itself to these consequences, but the membership is determined to resist them.

The top UAW leadership, ground between two millstones, growing increasingly panicky between Roosevelt who demands that they make good on their promises and the increasing resistance of the membership, was inexorably forced into its attempt to destroy the democracy of the auto union. It is impossible for a pro-Roosevelt union leadership to balance itself in this war period, if it must continually answer for its deeds to an aroused, militant, alert and vocal rank and file.

The Defeats of the Leadership

And here the top leadership suffered a cruel blow at the hands of the convention. In contrast to the dilemma of the delegates over the political program, the convention displayed full ability to understand the organizational aspect of the union. The delegates easily defeated the campaign to rush the convention through in a few days on the ostensible ground that the men were needed back at work in the plants. The delegates now were on sure ground. They knew what they wanted and what they did not want. The debate was incisive and to the point. Boos and jeers greeted the Stalinist Levine of Plymouth Local when he began whining that “this convention will hold up these workers that are here, that are vital to the war effort. I am a welder and I weld on the M-4 tank, and I know my services are needed back at that plant.” The delegates shouted at him: “If you’re needed back at the plant, get your grips packed and get out of here.”

The same self-assured conduct was displayed on the proposal to delay the next convention to May 1944. The leadership threw all their heavy artillery into the debate on this question. All the Stalinist hacks took the floor and argued that it would virtually constitute sabotage for 2,000 people to use up precious railroad space when they were needed back in the shops on the production line. George F. Addes who, unlike the Stalinists, still has some credit left with the delegates, recited figures and facts to prove how much money could be saved by both the International and local unions if the convention period were extended. But all to no avail. The proposal was rejected as decisively as the delegates had rejected it the previous year at Buffalo. And so on down the line the delegates rejected the attempts to increase the dues, to cut down the size of the convention delegations, and anything else that smacked of the design to cut down the rights of the membership and increase the authority of the top Executive Board. The Chicago convention succeeded in preserving the democracy of the union.

Here it becomes doubly clear that the political program of the union leadership was put over at the convention not primarily through slick maneuvers or sleight of hand, but because of the political immaturity of the convention. The delegates proved to the hilt that they knew how to deal with parliamentary trickery when the subject matter involved was thoroughly understood by them.

The Progress Since Buffalo

The basic issues that were dealt with at the Chicago convention: the independence of the union movement, the democratic rights of the membership, Roosevelt and the war – all arose at the Buffalo convention a year ago. As a matter of fact, the formal program adopted in Chicago was not basically different from the program provided by the Buffalo convention. And yet, how obvious it is that the auto workers have taken a great step forward in the intervening year.

The Chicago convention was truly significant because the delegates revealed that, in spite of their support of the war, they have retained their excellent class instinct and have in reality not succumbed to the chauvinist wave. They passed several resolutions to the effect that winning the war was the No. 1 job of the convention, etc., etc., but they really belied these resolutions by their conduct. This was illustrated in many different ways. The debate on the Second Front, built up as the great publicity spotlight for the convention, proved a washout. The debate was perfunctory; no rank and filer was interested enough to take the floor. Debate was almost immediately closed, the resolution was adopted, out of the way, and that was that. The same half-hearted response was accorded to Captain Cecil Charles Poole, Labor member of the British Parliament, who attempted to get the convention excited about the war. The polite applause granted Captain Poole and others turned into downright annoyance at having the convention’s time wasted when two days later Irving Abramson, president of the New Jersey CIO, was introduced to appeal to the convention on behalf of the National Allied War Relief Committee. The confusion and noise was so bad that Thomas was forced to interrupt to lecture the delegates and plead with them to hear Abramson out. After passing high sounding resolutions on the war, the delegates apparently didn’t want to be bothered any more about it.

The growing cleavage between the auto union membership and the top officialdom was indicated even last year at the Buffalo convention. But it was expressed in a distorted and corrupted form then. As in all previous conventions of the auto union, the factional battle at Buffalo occurred between and through two sets of people of the top administration; the militants worked exclusively through Addes and his Executive Board supporters and that is what confused and distorted the whole struggle; Addes and his supporters had no principled differences with the Reuther faction. On all questions of policy and program they saw eye to eye and voted together. At the Buffalo convention they both condemned the North American aircraft strikers but launched a furious debate as to whether Michener, west-coast regional director, should be allowed to continue in office. A gigantic struggle likewise was waged on whether Frankensteen should be elected as vice-president. And the high point of the whole faction fight was reached when Leonard ran against Addes for the post of secretary-treasurer. Thus the desire of the militants for a more audacious union policy was frustrated and sidetracked by Addes into a struggle for posts at Buffalo.

The New Alignment

The war thoroughly cleansed the factional situation in the auto union. The war made it impossible to play at opposition. The alliance with Roosevelt is not a platonic one. Roosevelt demands payment on every single promissory note issued by the top UAW leadership. “Pearl Harbor” finished the comedy of the factional fight between the Addes and Reuther groups on the International Executive Board. They united organizationally as they had previously been united on principle and program.

At Chicago, therefore, the militants grouped around the leadership of the Buick, Dodge and Hudson locals could not rely any more upon their friend Addes or any other would-be progressive of the International Executive Board. For the first time in their experience, the militants were forced to rely solely upon their own strength, their own organization and their own program. This is a new development and it signifies an enormous step forward. Its beneficial results are apparent by contrasting the Chicago and the Buffalo conventions.

The key differences at the Buffalo convention were sidetracked in favor of the struggle for posts. The key differences at the Chicago convention were debated openly and squarely, on the level of political understanding of the delegates, without any consideration for unprincipled clique alliances or horse-trading of votes. The Chicago convention thus records the great achievement that at last, in the midst of the Second World War, the militants have cut loose from the unprincipled politics and intrigues of the UAW officialdom and have formed, at least potentially, an opposition group that rests upon adherence to principle.

The War Drives Them Forward

The war is already increasing the cost of living with terrifying rapidity. The Chicago convention has served notice that the war has not erased the militancy of the auto workers or their determination to resist the practical steps of the Roosevelt war program. The top leadership, on the contrary, is being forced to take on, more and more, the role of policeman crushing resistance. The coming repressions and terror, which Roosevelt will inevitably be forced to employ against individual local unions and groups of workers who defy him will further embitter the auto membership against the government and widen immeasurably the present cleavage between the membership and its top leadership.

The Chicago convention took the first step in the organization of a clear-cut opposition. The experiences of the coming period will push the auto workers to the left, will develop their social thinking, will increase the present dissatisfaction and must perforce lead to the adoption of a clear-cut militant opposition program.

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