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Ben Hall

Which Side Should Militant Workers Support?

The Struggle in the Auto Union

(21 April 1974)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 16, 21 April 1947, pp. 3 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

HAVING been toppled out of the president’s chair by Walter P. Reuther, the defeated R.J. Thomas, surrounded by his closest allies in the United Automobile Workers Union, clambered up on a chair in his convention hotel room last year and barked out his plans of vengeance. First and chief plank in his platform: we’re going to shove that president’s gavel out of the hands of the Redhead. Only he put it far less delicately.

The plight of this ousted official was neither unusual nor unexpected. After all, he had been president of the UAW whose ranks had gained maturity and self-confidence while perfecting the art of the sit-in strike. After defeating the billion dollar automobile monopolists, they could never learn to be shy about deposing their own leaders. The UAW official who cannot keep pace with the demands of his irrepressible membership, finds life unpleasant and unpredictable.

At the moment when Reuther was inducted into the presidency, the fires of factionalism, which had been banked during the war years, burst into angry flame. For a long while two groups had been maneuvering and counter-maneuvering for control of the union but neither had been successful. R.J. Thomas, whose chief assets are a booming voice and an ability to prove that he is misquoted, was lifted into the presidency only because his talents had him ideally fitted to fill the required role of buffer between the two evenly balanced factions: the faction headed by Reuther and the Stalinist-sup-ported faction headed by George Addes, secretary-treasurer of the union. Upon his defeat, however, Thomas swung over to the anti-Reuther camp taking along with him whatever independent following he could muster. The Thomas-Addes-CP bloc retained control over the International Executive Board. A violent conflict began between the president and the board.

The Internal Conflict Dominates UAW Life

The internal life of the union is now dominated by this conflict. Increasingly the whole active layer of the union’s membership is being drawn in. Who triumphs in local union elections; who goes to educational conferences, veterans’ conferences, conventions is decided less and less as a popularity contest among the candidates and more and more as a contest between the respective factions.

It would indeed be strange if this conflict, which has aroused almost the entire thinking membership of the union to take sides, and to take sides with passion and enthusiasm, found the socialist elements in the union lukewarmly neutral or coldly indifferent to the outcome. We socialists believe, and we try to convince others, that the efforts and struggles of the working class must be directed toward the establishment of a working class government which will completely destroy the power of the capitalist class of bankers and monopolists by taking industry out of their hands. And we maintain that these industries must be organized and run not for the profits or privileges of any tiny exploiting class but for the needs of the people. But we do not stand on the sidelines shaking a finger at our fellow union members until this happy eventuality comes to pass. We are part and parcel of the living, breathing, fighting labor movement and we support, defend, and further every movement or tendency which strengthens the forces of the working class. Such a tendency, despite its many shortcomings, despite its errors of omission and commission, is the Reuther faction in the UAW.

What are the main aims and chief distinguishing characteristics of the opposing factions? If we classified all the arguments and tied them together into consistent patterns we would find that they can be broken down into two major analyses.

The Two Basic Points of View

  1. One analysis would run somewhat as follows: The Reuther caucus represents a reactionary, “red-baiting,” “right-wing” group which, by demagogy, has succeeded in duping a few progressive workers. Its attack on the anti-Reutherites is primarily a reflection of the anti-“Soviet,” anti-“red” campaign of United States imperialism. The Addes-Thomas-CP bloc on the contrary represents a grouping which fights for a more militant “leftwing” policy and resists the reactionary program of Reuther. This group contains conservatives; it vacillates and compromises; but because it is by and large progressive, we must support it; we must help to weaken the influence of the conservatives within it so that it may be enabled the better to defeat the Reuther tendency.

    Such an analysis, we reject completely.
  2. The second analysis, which “we put forward, is as follows: The most militant radical elements in the UAW are seeking a new social program for the struggle against the capitalist class and at the same time increasingly understand the reactionary nature of Stalinism. They do not understand the problem completely and therefore they allow themselves to be provoked into errors by the CP. But it is on the basis of genuinely progressive and radical aims that they rally around the Reuther banner.

The Addes-Thomas-CP bloc represents a reactionary coalition of the most conservative sections of the labor leadership with Stalinism. We conclude that all class conscious workers should support the Reuther tendency. They will find some conservatives or reactionaries within it and they must fight against such influences the better to defeat the reactionary Addes-Thomas-CP bloc.

Public Platforms and Fancy Speeches

What facts justify our conclusions? Merely to quote from the “platforms” of either group, assuming that such hard and fast documents existed, would not be convincing. Nor would a repetition of the banquet speeches of the leaders be any more satisfying. Platforms are too frequently formulated to catch votes and not to outline real intentions. Candidates for office make many promises and voters are wary of the election promise or the fine speech.

However, although platforms and speeches can seldom be taken at face value, they have some significance. He who declares himself against the no-strike pledge obviously appeals to a certain tendency among unionists; he depends upon an entirely different group of workers. That either or both candidates may be calculatingly ambitious or insincere does not alter these facts.

Taking all these aspects into consideration, the true character of the two contending camps can be best clarified by examining their course of action over a whole period of years and by determining their stands on a series of important questions.

On Many Points Both Groups Agree

On many important questions all the top leaders of the UAW in both factions and most, but not all, of their followers have been in agreement. They surrendered premium pay for weekend work in the name of a farcical “Equality of Sacrifice” program; they stubbornly supported Roosevelt; they endorsed the no-strike pledge; opposed the formation of a Labor Party; accepted the freezing; kowtowed to the War Labor Board.

Many articles in Labor Action were devoted to proving how in all these instances both groups acted against the interests of the workers. On many important questions, even today, if the two groups do not see eye to eye, they face in the same direction. But while they are united by these points of agreement, they are separated by many antagonisms. We do not dwell on these similarities here but simply indicate that they exist because our aim is to make clear the difference between them ... differences which are of great importance.

Incentive Pay a Key Difference

When the Addes group proposed an “incentive pay” plan one of the first faction fights of the war period was precipitated. “Incentive pay” was simply a fancy name for the old piece-work system so hated by the UAW ranks. Reuther was the chief of the forces that fought against the Addes proposal.

The line-up in this fight was clear. The most seasoned unionists had always fought the piece-work system as a form of intensified exploitation which pitted worker against worker, as a means of cutting wages in the guise of raising them. Flag-waving and patriotic phrases did not alter their opinions. They supported Reuther.

The more backward workers, however, who had the least experience in the union movement, tended to favor the institution of incentive pay as a quick and easy means of raising their take-home pay in a period when wages were frozen.

His opponents kept asking Reuther: “If you are against this scheme, how do you propose to get a wage increase?” And he could not reply, because his support of Roosevelt and the war, his acceptance of the no-strike pledge, and his acceptance of the wage freeze precluded any real struggle.

But this could not shake the opponents of piecework. They were far sighted enough despite Reuther’s weaknesses to refuse to saddle themselves with this netv burden. They were willing to face a short term loss for a long term gain. The line of division on this question is between the more advanced, more far sighted on the one hand and the more backward, more short-sighted on the other.

The proponents of incentive pay, the Stalinists who greeted the scheme as a means of squeezing out greater production for Russia; and their non-Stalinist allies, the labor officials who sought to appease the demands for higher wages by pandering to the lowest instincts of the backward elements – these are the elements who compose the anti-Reuther camp today.

A Rank And File Caucus Gains Much Support

The strength of the union movement was undermined by the wartime no-strike pledge. If continued over a long period of time, this policy necessarily would have so sapped the vitality of the labor movement that it would have bqen subject to disastrous defeat. The WORKERS PARTY and LABOR ACTION condemned this policy and denounced all those labor leaders, including Reuther, who defended it.

As the destructive effect of the pledge made itself plainly evident dissatisfaction mounted in the UAW. This discontent crystallized in the formation of the Rank and File Caucus, a third group independent of the Reuther and the Addes factions, both of which supported the pledge. At the 1945 convention the Rank and File Caucus was supported by more than one-third of the delegates. Because this movement obviously represented a growing radical, militant tendency, if is especially instructive to witness its effect on the Addes and an the Reuther factions.

The Addes-Thomas-CP bloc came into open and head on collision with the rank and file movement. The CP supplied ideological guidance for a campaign of denunciation and slander which borrowed all the epithets in the Stalinist vocabulary. The anti-Reutherites insisted upon the unconditional retention of the no-strike pledge. The Reuther faction; however, tried vainly to reach a compromise with the Rank and File Group. Reuther himself proposed a middle of the road policy: retain the pledge in war industries; abandon it in non-war industries. But the Rank and File caucus would not accept such a compromise. It continued the fight at and after the convention for an unqualified revocation of the pledge.

Reutherite Militants Aided Rank and File

As the convention proceeded to vote on the pledge, the Reuther forces were all but wiped out. The Addes camp held on to its votes. The Rank and File mustered a tremendous vote. Reuther was left with a small balance of power group. The lessons of this fight were clear:

The Addes-Thomas-CP bloc, bated as it was Upon the least radical and the most chauvinist elements was able to remain comparatively Immune to the effects of the radical anti-pledge agitation. The Reuther faction, however, based as it was upon the more militant elements was left hanging in mid-air when its base moved sharply to the left under the impetus of the campaign against the pledge. The elements composing the Reuther tendency were ready to go farther to the left than their leader Reuther was able or willing to go.

The rank and file movement as an independent grouping has by now disappeared. The reason is simple: it has been reabsorbed into the Reuther faction. As a labor leader who believes in the maintenance of the capitalist system of society, Reuther was greatly limited by the restrictions which his support of the capitalist war imposed. When the war came to an end, he was able to allow himself more elbow room. He has been able to “catch up with” his rank and file which had moved ahead of him in wartime. The elements that spearheaded thq fight against the pledge in 1944 and 1945 are today in the Reuther camp, noteworthy among them the leaders of the progressive group in Briggs Local 212.

Split in Wayne County CIO Council on Strike

During the war, a split occurred in the Detroit and Wayne County Industrial Union Council (CIO). This split was the direct result of a difference in policy resulting from the Montgomery-Ward strike. The company had “defied” the War Labor Board by refusing to accept its decisions and sought to smash the Department Store Union (CIO). To defend its very existence, the union was compelled to strike despite the fact that it too had taken the pledge.

The strike received the active and enthusiastic support of the entire labor movement of the Detroit area, with the exception of the Wayne County Council which was controlled by the Addes-CP bloc, the latter demanded abandonment of the strike in accordance with its defense of an “unconditional” no-strike pledge even though such a policy meant the speedy extinction of the clerks union. But the opposing group, led by the pro-Reuther forces, drew back from, such a suicidal policy and set up its own coordinating committee outside of the Council to aid the strike. The split dates from this illuminating episode.

Those who contend that the Reuther tendency represents a “yielding” to the pressure of pro-imperialist, chauvinist “red”-baiting must explain how it comes about that those militants who best resisted chauvinism and best fought the class struggle when it was most difficult – in Wartime – make a flip-flop and capitulate to this same demagogy when it has a less enticing ring in time of peace.

Throughout the war, the labor movement continued to support the so-called friends of labor in the capitalist parties. The Reuther supporters bowed just about as deeply at the throne of King Franklin as did their opponents. The socialist forces In the union movement appealed unsuccessfully for the formation of a political party of the working class, an Independent tabor Party. Although no such party was formed, small currents in that direction drew along many progressive workers who sought a more radical and independent political path. One such current was the Michigan Commonwealth Federation formed in 1944 with its main strength in Detroit. Labor Action criticized the vacillations and inconsistencies of the MCF but at the same time recognized that it expressed a genuine desire for a more advanced program by those workers whom it attracted.

Two of the leaders of the MCF movement, Matthew Hammond and Emil Mazey together with their followers, are part of the Reuther faction today and in fact outstanding leaders of it. The MCF, it is true, has never attracted substantial mass support but what following if does have in the UAW is drawn chiefly from among the elements that support Reuther.

The GM Strike as Turning Point

When World War II ended, millions of workers in every basic industry engaged in strikes. Unlike the “unauthorized,” “wild-cat” strikes of the war years, which were conducted against the official leadership of the unions and sapped its influence and control over the ranks, these mass strikes were led by the very officials who were thus permitted to mend their tattered reputations and regain their influence. But in the UAW the post-war strike wave swamped former president Thomas and lifted Reuther into his place.

This upset occurred because Thomas and his followers were unable to keep pace with the radical, leftward sentiments of growing sections of the union who were turning away from the old paths and looking in new directions. These militants turned to Reuther for leadership, to Reuther who had emerged as the director of the GM strike which eclipsed all the others with its most advanced social program.

The slogans of the GM strike: “Open the Books” add “Wage Increases out of Profits Without Price Increases” linked up the strike movement not simply with the wage question in the narrow sense but with a broad conception of a role for labor in society as a challenger of the monopolists and a champion of all the underprivileged.

The strike was long and exhausting for the workers. The GM program was not defended consistently and determinedly enough. The company was able finally to get an increase in the price of its cars. But the corporation wanted not only an increase in prices; it also aimed to shift the blame for this increase onto the labor movement and toward that end sought the public approval or silent consent of the union for the rise. It failed in this. Had the UAW, however, been ready to withdraw its agitation against an increase in auto prides, the strike could very likely have been settled as readily as the steel strike, led by Murray. Reuther’s opponents harped on this point.

Addes-Thomas Group Tries Two Strategies

The anti-Reuther forces experimented with right wing and left wing arguments against him until they finally settled upon an attack from the right. The left experiment consisted in a criticism of the “one at a time” strategy ancj implied that the strike was not led militantly and uncompromisingly enough. This attack initiated by the CP never aroused any enthusiasm in the Addes-Thom-as-CP bloc. The record of the bloc was too clear: the strikes led by the CP itself in this period displayed no startling militancy. The Stalinist controlled United Electrical Workers Union settled with GM while the UAW fight continued; it was denounced by auto workers for signing a “scab” agreement. The allies of the CP in the UAW were themselves for a more conservative, not a more radical policy. The leftist attack was forgotten.

The real line of the anti-Reuther bloc became a conservative. attack from the right: The strike was called too soon when the company was too strong. Reuther’s “screwball schemes” and “fancy economics” is dragging out the strike. He doesn’t care if the workers have to go cold and hungry because of his pet theories. Why does the union have to stick its nose in where it doesn’t belong?

These arguments were shaped to appeal to workers with a narrow vision. They banked upon fatigue and discouragement and depended upon desire to return to work at all costs. But they failed because more and more workers were receptive to “fancy economics,” that is, to a new social program.

It is meaningless in this connection to argue that Reuther may not have been “sincere,” that he may have adopted this program for his own opportunist reasons, that he does not or will not carry out his program consistently. Such questions are of great Importance for an estimate of the role of Walter Reuther the individual. But we tfre considering here the question at the role of the Reuther tendency or caucus in relation to the opposing faction. We are considering the relative progressiveness of the Reuther camp; relative, That is, to the Addes-Thomas-CP bloc.

If Reuther for opportunist reasons appeals to and mobilizes radical workers on the basis of radical policies, then for similar opportunist reasons his opponents appeal to more conservative elements on the basis of a more conservative policy. When we weigh the two factions against one another, the “opportunism,” the “insincerity,” etc., etc., cancel out and we are left with the differences between the groups. (Unless one were to adopt the utterly absurd belief that all the connivers and carrerists are in one camp and all the honest idealists in the other. This would still not explain why the “careerists” make a radical appeal and the honest citizens a conservative appeal.)

The issue in the UAW is increasingly posed as follows: for Reuther, or against him. Personalizing the conflict in this way dramatizes it as a fight between individuals but obscures its real content. Of course different individuals do oppose one another for election, for control of the union. Those who are dismayed by such “power” politics within the labor movement can seek vainly for some substitute means of deciding between conflicting programs and policies other than through the conflict between individuals and groups which represent these programs and policies.

The contestants, in what often appears as merely a conflict of personalities, appeal to and mobilize different strata or tendencies that already exist within the labor movement. Or, in a somewhat different way, different tendencies or strata force to the fore as their leaders, those individuals who will thereafter represent these tendencies. The prominence of well known individuals usually serves to blur over what is really going on. The rank and file seeking a short-cut in the pursuit of its aims usually expresses itself through the already prominent leaders. By a strange refraction, it seems as though these leaders themselves create the movements among the ranks. In the UAW a radical tendency or movement impels Reuther to the forefront.

The Basic Division Between the Two Camps

This or that individual in either of the two groups can be singled out as a man who shifted to the opposite side on some question or other. But these isolated or accidental cases of crossing the line does not erase the line itself. In both camps, we can find conservatives, “red-baiters,” Jim-Crow elements. (The CP itself, for example, is the outstanding red-baiting group in the labor movement. It most violently lashes out against the truly socialist and revolutionary section of the labor movement.)

The Reuther tendency does not consist exclusively of militants and progressives any more than the anti-Reuther group consists exclusively of hard-bitten conservatives and incurable Stalinists. The facts of UAW life over the past years nonetheless prove that the Reuther tendency by and large is based upon and receives its stamp from the forward moving radical and progressive elements while the anti-Reuther bloc is based upon and appeals to the conservatives and the reactionary Stalinist elements.

The two tendencies in the UAW are usually referred to as the “leftwing” and the “right-wing”; the Reuther faction is called the “right” and the anti-Reuther bloc, the “left.” But this careless terminology is based upon a misconception. The term “left wing” signifies a policy of more militant, more radical struggle on behalf of the working class. “Right-wing” signifies a policy of compromise or sacrifice of the interests of the working class. Judged by these standards, the Addes-Thomas-CP bloc is typically a right-wing and the Reutherites are to its left. The fact that the Stalinists sacrifice the interests of the workers to the interests of the Kremlin does not change this fact. It only emphasizes it.

The genuine left wing of the labor movement is composed of the adherents of revolutionary socialism, or Trotskyism, and their followers. This group, although tiny today, will gain supporters precisely from among those who are now attracted by the Reutherite policies. Compared to the real left, Reuther occupies a position in the middle, a “centrist” position. On virtually all the vital questions facing the labor movement, questions of national and international import, Reuther and the group he represents take a position which to say the very least is ... inadequate; Reuther himself is a defender of the “free enterprise” system, that is, of capitalism.

It is Reuther’s basic shortcoming that he rises On the shoulders of radical workers and at the same time clings to the capitalist system. While he “represents” the progressives, while he ably articulates their desires, he remains fundamentally the outward expression of the already existing level of consciousness of the militant wing of the UAW. He does not raise that level of consciousness and understanding any more than a thermometer raises the temperature.

But these considerations in no way alter our differing estimates of the two main tendencies in the UAW. We support the Reuther tendency as against the Addes-Thomas-Stalinist bloc and work for its victory in the union. This does not at all mean to have confidence in Walter Reuther, the individual. It means to have confidence in the future evolution of that strata of militant workers in the union which is at this time grouped around him. It is this type of militant which will be the basis for the development of a workers party.

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