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Bert Cochran

Labor Union Trends

Reuther Threatens Opposition

(21 March 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 12, 21 March 1949, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

All the locals of the CIO auto union are now busy holding their annual elections for officers and committeemen. And President Walter Reuther – like the alert politician that he is – has rallied his full-time staff to perpetuate the ruling machine in office. Shoals of organizers are wandering in and out of some of the best organized locals in Michigan to buck up their local supporters, help (them out with literature and in every other way to do a job on the opposition.

Workers report that at no time in the past year have the organizers exhibited such unflagging energy as on this assignment and in no negotiations with corporation executives have they displayed the cold ferocity with which they are now treating the opposition brothers in their own union.

In the last few weeks, Reuther decided that even this was not enough, that the situation called for his personal intervention. Not that his administration is in any actual danger of being toppled. But the opposition forces have been making some headway in a number of key spots, and Reuther considered that a pretty dangerous development – for him.

If Reuther is half the progressive and democrat that he and his supporters claim he is; if his administration is half as good as his apologists say it is – the job of defending his stewardship would seem to be a singularly easy one.

It would be sufficient to call the roll of his accomplishments over the past period to silence all hecklers and confound the critics.

They Can’t Eat It

But apparently the situation is not as glowing as it would appear from the unctuous writings in the Luce publications and the liberal press. The auto workers cannot work up the same lather for their “labor statesman” as the glib journalists. Possibly the reintroduction of speedup in the automobile industry has something to do with it. Possibly the growing arrogance of management in the plants has something to do with it. As for the shining achievements – they are difficult to find. Reuther, who enjoys a monopoly of the union leadership, unquestionably runs rings around the previous UAW officers in pyrotechnics snd swashbuckling rhetoric. But can the auto workers eat that?

These circumstances probably go a long way toward explaining the type of election campaign Reuther is conducting against his opponents. Alas, confronted with an opposition on home grounds, our hero reveals himself as a god with feet of clay. Here are no “Reuther plans,” no talk about the superior virtues of democracy. Like any run-of-the-mill AFLi skate, our redoubtable “democrat” Simply threatens his opponent with disciplinary action if they don’t shut up.

Speech in Flint

Fresh from his triumph of breaking a strike of Chevrolet crankshaft workers who were resisting the raising of production standards – speedup to you – Reuther came up to Flint to address a meeting of 500 Chevrolet and Buick members at the National Guard Armory, reported with great fanfare in the Flint Journal. Since he couldn’t point to any outstanding successes during his tenure of office, and since apparently in his own heart, he doesn’t anticipate any signal achievements ahead, he decided to browbeat his opponents. Moves were afoot, he warned, to outlaw opposition – in other words, to wipe out democracy, the very thing that made the UAW the great union that it is.

Many people, he informed the audience, asked him to take action against those who put out “scurrilous” leaflets in elections, that moreover these leaflets – crime of crimes – were “contrary to International UAW policy.”

“Reuther lashed out against leftist elements,” reports the Flint Journal of Feb. 21. “He warned that such elements would ruin labor and hinted that some action against them might be taken at the next UAW convention.”

Reuther quickly added – protecting his flanks – that he was personally opposed to any restrictions, but that something would have to be done.

Reuther’s assurance is not very re-assuring. Everybody over the age of ten knows that no action will be proposed to outlaw the opposition unless Reuther personally gives the word. Everybody over the age of five knows that this threat hurled at the Flint militants was an attempt to pave the ground for bureaucratic suppressions and to intimidate all critics into silence.

But then what happens to the democracy of the UAW? Union democracy, without the rights of opposition groups to exist, to propagate and fight for their special points of view, is like a knife without a blade.

Opposition’s “Crimes”

What are these high crimes and misdemeanors of which Reuther’s Flint opponents are guilty? Issuing “scurrilous leaflets?” Let us see. I have just received the hand bills Issued by both sides in the election contest. An examination of the literature in question reveals no scurrilous or even personal attacks. The opposition simply claimed that Reuther tied up the GM contract for two years, that therefore the union could not bargain with the General Motors Corporation for pensions and wages in 1949, and that unless a program of industry-wide bargaining were adopted, Reuther’s pension program, so far as the GM workers were concerned, was a fraud.

It is not in order, in this connection, to even discuss the merits of the opposition’s claims and program as against Reuther’s. Who, though, can question the democratic right of a union group to offer such a proposal and distribute handbills for it in the course of an election campaign?

International Union policy? Undoubtedly a union leadership has the right to enforce convention and international executive board decisions, and institute proceedings against violators. But if UAW members or local officers can only talk FOR these decisions and do not have the right to criticize and offer contrary proposals, wherein does that differ from Hitler’s philosophy of the “leadership principle?”

His Own Record

The Auto Union Builder, publication of the opposition group, correctly comments that Reuther, when he was in a minority, repeatedly made use of this same democracy which he now seeks to destroy. The paper states:

“Walter P. Reuther, even as a member of the International board, often violently criticized the policies of the then UAW president, R.J. Thomas, and the board majority. Emil Mazey, our present Secretary-Treasurer, fought on many different occasions for a labor party, when it was the policy of the board to support Democratic candidates. No one dreamed, in those years, of threatening Reuther, Mazey or others with disciplinary action, because they voiced opinions contrary to ‘International UAW policy.&rDquo;

The recent UAW Education Conference in Milwaukee listened to a remarkable address by Professor Robert Lynd which has been widely commented upon in the labor and liberal press Here is a section of this speech that I have not seen mentioned anywhere before. I am quoting from the report printed in the Briggs Local 212 paper in its February issue:

“Lynd advised labor educators to read Michels’ book [Political Parties by Robert Michels] on the growth of bureaucracy in the labor movement. He urged workers in the union to be vigilant of their democratic rights lest they lose them.”

We recommend these words to all UAW members.

It Begins At Home

When the Stalinist leadership of the CIO electrical union, at the 1947 Boston convention, outlawed the Carey-Block opposition, Reuther’s soul-mates in the UE excoriated the Stalinists for their anti-democratic action and proclaimed their resolve to continue the fight. If democracy is good for the UE, it is equally good for the UAW. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Reuther has been widely advertised as a great democrat burning with righteous zeal to bring the blessings of democracy to the suffering masses of human ity ground under the tyrant’s heel behind the Iron Curtain. His threats at the Flint meeting hardly square with this mission. If he goes through with his “hint,” as the Flint Journal delicately called it, that the opposition in the UAW is to be deprived of its democratic rights, he will be entering on the path of all bureaucrats and tyrants the world over. Democracy, like charity, begins at home.

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