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Emanuel Garrett

GM Strike Program Is Central UAW Issue

(25 March 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 12, 25 March 1946, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Any proper estimate of the 113 day strike of the General Motors workers must begin and end with the GM STRIKE PROGRAM. The strength and real meaning of the battle waged by the workers against the mighty auto corporation lay in the GM program. Its weakness lay in the extent to which the workers were forced to retreat from this program by the connivance of the top CIO and UAW leadership.

We have already devoted many articles in Labor Action to the GM program and we shall come back to it many times because it represents a high point in the development of American labor’s struggle. It is not easily forgotten; and we propose to do our part in seeing to it that it is not forgotten, but that, on the contrary, it is raised again and again, and in MORE advanced form.

The GM program has, of course, a particular significance for the auto workers who will be meeting this week in national convention. It will be THE issue before the convention. We do not as yet know whether the candidates for office will be judged on the basis of their adherence or repudiation of this program. It is, however, our opinion that they OUGHT to be judged on this basis.

The Meaning of the Program

Let us first consider this program, then relate it to the strike and the outcome of the strike. The GM program can be divided into three parts, as follows; FOR a 30 per cent wage increase; AGAINST any price increase; OPEN THE BOOKS! And the three can be united in a single demand LINKING wages, prices and profits.

The special significance of this program should be immediately apparent. There is here a difference in QUALITY. The wage question is here raised in a new and revolutionary way. It is not merely a demand for higher wages, important enough in itself. It asks, as well, for a voice in DETERMINING wages and, with wages, prices and profits. Thus it challenges the very bases of capitalist rule, of “free enterprise.”

Consider the implications: the workers tell the boss that they are convinced he is able to pay a wage that will compensate for the rise in prices and provide some minimum of a decent living standard; they have facts and figures to prove it. They are equally convinced that he can make more than enough profit without raising prices and therefore tell him that they will not permit any wage increase to be passed on to the consumer in higher prices. BUT, they go FURTHER! They tell the boss, in this program, that THE WORKERS, through their democratically chosen representatives, will decide HOW MUCH PROFIT the boss shall have, WHAT PRICE he shall charge, WHAT WAGE he shall pay.

That, and that alone, is the meaning of OPEN THE BOOKS! These decisions on wages, prices and profits are traditionally the prerogative of the employer – except in so far as he is backed up against the wall by labor militancy and forced to disgorge a few cents in wages. Thus, by linking the three together and demanding a voice in their determination, the GM workers were, in effect, challenging the system of free enterprise AS A SYSTEM, and elevating the quality of labor’s struggle for economic demands, for security.

Toward Workers’ Control

The necessity, of course, does not end there. As socialists, we of Labor Action recognize that there are implications that were not tapped either by the leadership that formulated the demands, or by the workers who held out for 113 days. But these 113 days are proof that the workers understood the importance of the principle for which they were fighting (whether they would have described it in these words or not). They did not voluntarily assume this sacrifice, and be assured those 113 days were a hard sacrifice, for a miserable one cent difference, regardless of how the union leadership later distorted the issue. For, even after they had retreated from their original demands, the spirit with which they began held them to the fight. Surely no one is fool enough to think that they manned their picket lines for the one cent difference between the insulting offer of the corporation and the insulting recommendation of Truman’s “fact-finding” board, 18½ inadequate cents against 19½ inadequate cents.

Victory on the GM program would have inevitably involved the rest of the labor movement in a struggle for the same. And, so compelling is the logic of the GM program, that the necessity of pursuing these demands to their inescapable conclusions would have risen in the concrete circumstances of struggle: toward nationalization of industry under workers’ control – yes toward out- and-out socialist measures!

The industrialists have revealed themselves as incapable of operating industry for the benefit of society. They have revealed that their interest in profit stands in CONTRADICTION to the interest of the great mass of society for low prices, decent wages at guaranteed jobs – or, in other words, for SECURITY. Therefore, an invasion of the rights of “free enterprise” must inevitably raise, as the next step, the necessity of wresting industry from the hands of the industrialists, of nationalizing industry and placing it under workers’ control. The political reflection of this is a WORKERS’ GOVERNMENT, as the political reflection of “free enterprise” is capitalist government.

Responsibility of Leadership

The GM strikers had to retreat, but their program is still the essential pivot of a UAW program. The retreat was not the fault of the strikers. Not by any means! Had the top CIO leadership not worked against them but with them, the GM strikers could have written their program into the contract.

What happened, though? Murray gave away the battle (for which the steel workers were as prepared to stand fast as the GM workers) by taking direction from the White House instead of from the union ranks. He permitted Truman to get away with the “Big Steal” fraud which set the pattern of 18½ cent wage increases for which labor will pay through higher prices. Thomas and the auto union leadership settled with Ford and Chrysler for far less than the GM strikers were asking; and agreed to the infamous company security proposals to boot! Reuther, who began the strike brilliantly (although he never drew the full conclusions of his own stand) and captivated the imagination of every worker by the dramatic presentation of the strikers’ case, fizzled under the pressure of the top leadership. After an inspiring beginning which rallied virtually everybody except the monopolists behind the strikers because there was no mistaking as to who was defending the price interests of consumer, poor farmer and white collar worker, Reuther pathetically collapsed into acceptance of Truman’s “fact-finding” recommendations.

Add to all this the fact that the union bureaucracies for the most part deliberately withheld aid from the GM strikers. Where union treasuries should have been taxed heavily to help the GM strikers, most unions gave nothing or little. There were in this dismal pattern only a few exceptions – notably, the AFL’s International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which contributed substantially. Add also the strike-breaking blow delivered by the Stalinist leadership of the UE with their scab settlement.

Contributed a New Concept

The course of the strike, down to its settlement for 18½ cents, is known to every worker. The GM strikers evidently held out as long as they could. Though they had to retreat from their original demands, they wrote an important page in labor’s history and contributed much to the labor movement. We say that 18½ cents is inadequate and that it is being stolen from labor in price increases. Yet the fact remains that the bosses would not have granted this miserly 18½ cents and would have boosted prices anyway, if the GM workers hadn’t taken to the picket line and been followed there by other workers.

More than that, the GM strikers have contributed a new and progressive concept to labor – not at all new to socialists, but new to the American union movement. And this concept is sure to come, must come, before the UAW convention as a vital issue. Whatever authority Reuther commands in the UAW now, and his prestige is considerable, is traceable back to the GM program. It is a testimony to the attractiveness and basic correctness of this program that, despite his vacillations and hesitations, Reuther has drawn wide support BECAUSE of his association with this program.

The GM workers have done much for the labor movement. Their delegates can do more now by pressing for the GM program at the UAW convention. There is more than one indication that the great majority of UAW workers are ready to adopt this program as their own. It is certainly the indicated basis for judging the qualifications of officials running for office. For, we repeat, the MAIN issue before the UAW convention is the GM program!

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