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News & Views from the Labor Front

Modify GM “Disciplinary” Penalties

(26 May 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 21, 26 May 1947, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DETROIT – The General Motors Corporation replied to the mass demonstration of April 24, during which half a million Detroit workers laid aside their tools and left their machines, by disciplinary penalties affecting almost 500 unionists. Over 400 were laid off for one and two days; twenty-six local union leaders were given 30 to 60 day layoffs; fifteen other leaders including several local union presidents were discharged outright.

Negotiations with the company were instituted under the direct supervision of the top policy committee of the UAW. A meeting of the presidents of all UAW locals in this area pledged full support to the disciplined workers. The union negotiators made clear that insistence upon the above disciplinary actions would mean a strike and, that in any case, if a single worker remained discharged the GM plants would be closed down by the union. The company representatives retreated many steps but refused complete satisfaction to the union, saying in so many words: “If you refuse to compromise, hit the picket line!” A compromise settlement was agreed to: all discharges were revoked and all disciplined men maintain full seniority rights. However, the one and two day layoffs stand; the 26 men who received layoffs were to return to work immediately but without back pay for the more than two weeks loss of work; twelve of the fifteen originally discharged go back to work on the first week in June and the remaining three in the first week in July without back pay, (These three are particularly hated by the company for their record as union militants: Anderson of local 15, Petrill and Mitchell of local 735.) The top policy committee voted that the International Executive Board which called the demonstration was to compensate the men for lost time.

The Settlement

This settlement was endorsed by an overwhelming vote of the affected GM workers and was accepted by a unanimous vote of a meeting of local union presidents held on Monday night, May 12. The top policy committee gave unanimous approval to it. However, no one contended that this settlement was really satisfactory but it was accepted for the following reasons:

  1. It was clear that nothing more could be gained by “peaceful” negotiations and that rejection of this agreement had to be accompanied by strike action.
  2. The strike would have had to be a bitter one especially because anti-labor developments in Congress had led the company to adopt an irreconcilable attitude of arrogant confidence.
  3. Steel shortages had resulted in losses of work through temporary layoffs, and the immediate prospects ahead were for a continuation of these shortages.
  4. The GM workers had themselves gone through an. exhausting four-month strike and needed a certain respite to recover their strength. Despite these considerations, had a single worker remained discharged a strike would have unquestionably followed.

This settlement is undoubtedly a setback for the union. The April 24 demonstration had the full support of the International which pledged to back up anybody who suffered for answering the call. GM has succeeded in penalizing many participants although it was compelled to modify its stand. What was at stake here is an important political principle. The workers decided to stop work not to make any demands upon their own bosses but in order to put their demands before the government; the government which they consider, however erroneously, their government.

GM has arrogated to itself the. dictatorial right to declare that it will use its power over the workers’ jobs to prevent them from engaging in certain types of political action. The company has therefore not only hit out against the unions but it has struck a blow at the very heart of the workers democratic, political rights in the most direct sense. The representatives of the bosses in Washington utilize their political power to strengthen the position of the capitalists. The capitalists spearheaded by GM utilize their economic power to shield their representatives from the wrath of the workers.

We would not be so foolish as to believe that every and all grievances, under any and all circumstances must be fought out to the bitter end by strike action. However, in this case it was and still is possible to transform the undoubted setback for the union into a blow against the company and into an advantage for the union. But that can be done only if the leadership of the union or some section of it has-a clear understanding iof the political policies which the labor movement must adopt and a determination to carry them out. It is necessary to broadcast to all, to the union members, to all workers, to all sections of the population the political meaning of the actions of the GM company. This incident proves that the big capitalists utilize their control over the nation’s wealth to dictate to the workers and to control the government. It is necessary to destroy that political power by expropriating the Sixty Families. It is necessary to form an Independent Labor Party in order to do this. But the leaders of the unions, including the UAW, support the capitalist political parties. They accept as God-given the “free-enterprise.” system of rule by the big monopolists. It is the political backwardness of the labor leadership that allows GM to strike at the union.

Whose Fault Is It?

At the May 12th meeting of local presidents, in the absence of any serious opposition, the representatives of the Addes-Stalinist bloc had a field day. These demagogues, without any political ideas to propose, were in unanimous agreement with the proposed settlement. But they used the occasion for a parade of bombast against the workers in those GM plants that did not participate in the walk-out. Every difficulty, every problem, every loss was due to the fact that a lot of GM workers had stayed on the job, said they. And you see, Reuther is head of the GM department. Therefore ... Originally they had come prepared to repeat the rumors that they had been planting to the effect that the Reuther group had opposed the demonstration but they took a different tack after it had been conclusively proven that the demonstration in Cadillac Square was finally called upon the motion of Emil Mazey, one of the leading men in the Reuther group.

It is true that thousands of GM workers did not stop work for this demonstration. It is also true that during the OPA demonstration of last year, the Ford Rouge plant controlled by the Addes group did not stop work. These incidents betray an element of disunity in the ranks of the working class. This disunity must be overcome. But where does it arise from? Is it the “fault” of the GM or Ford workers? Does it result from what someone said to so and so over a bottle of beer?

These elements of disunity are the direct result of the policies of the union leadership during the war years. The top leadership planted disunity in the ranks of the workers; they insisted upon disunity. All the leaders without exception upheld the no-strike pledge. They preached about the sanctity of contracts. They demanded that their members cross picket lines. They put administrators over locals which insisted upon striking. In the Rouge plant under the leadership of W.G. Grant of the Addes-Stalinist bloc they helped the company to fire militant union men. And now, demagogues who are themselves responsible for breaking the unity of the working class during its wartime struggles play the role of sanctimonious advisers to the GM workers! And this hypocrisy serves to conceal their total inability to offer any program to combat the attacks of the bosses, politically and economically. (At the meeting, the spokesman of the Addes group, Richard T. Leonard, already hinted that his policy will be to support Truman in 1948.)

One militant from the Budd local made a beginning in putting things, in their proper light. He pointed out how the decision to accept the modified penalties was a direct consequence of the compromising policies of the union leadership on the political field. He demonstrated the futility of continued support of the Democratic and Republican politicians. He showed that the tremendous power of the Cadillac Square demonstration proved that the workers themselves were ready to follow their unions in a renewed offensive, given the proper leadership.

But more voices like this must be heard in the UAW.

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