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Ben Hall

Auto Workers Face Their Convention –

Is UAW Still the Vanguard?

(27 June 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 26, 27 June 1949, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“Unity in the leadership, solidarity in the ranks” – “Make the UAW the vanguard of America, the architect of the future.”

With these inspiring slogans of two years ago, Walter Reuther rallied the delegates to the 1947 convention of the United Automobile Workers Union, won a second term as president of the union, smashed the Addes-Thomas-Stalinist bloc, and gained virtually unchallenged control of the apparatus. The road was cleared for the Reuther tendency. The old opposition, its irresponsibility further revealed in the next two years, went into complete and utter disintegration.

As the delegates assemble in Milwaukee for the opening of the 1949 convention on July 10, they will ponder this question:

“Is the UAW today, as it always has in the past, pointing the way for the whole labor movement and for all the common people? Is it fulfilling the role of the ‘vanguard of America’?

They Did It Then

It was the UAW which won the first major victories through the sit-in strikes and opened the way for the speedy rise of the CIO. It was the UAW which repulsed the first attempts, by Homer Martin, to bureaucratize the new militant union. It was the Rank and File Caucus in the UAW which led the fight against the no-strike pledge.

It was the UAW which led the first post-war strikes and in the course of the battle with General Motors raised the slogan: “Wage increases without price increases.” It was the UAW which showed how to carry on a progressive struggle against the anti-labor Communist Party and how to wipe out its influence without succumbing to conservatism.

It was the UAW, in the Chrysler strike of 1948, which broke the back of the employers’ resistance and led the way toward another round of wage increases to meet the cost of living.

And just because it has served the interests of the working class so admirably in the past, we expect all the more in the future.

The labor movement must take a new step forward, a step at least as significant in the social life of the country as the formation of the CIO. It must form a new political party, an Independent Labor Party without ties to the two old capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans. And here too, the UAW must take the lead.

The labor movement cannot move forward unless it is understood that the old political policy of the CIO and AFL, a policy which relies upon the election of so-called liberals from the two old parties, is bankrupt. The events of the last years have proved it over and over again.

In the 1944 elections, the unions won what was hailed as a “great victory.” But how quickly it evaporated!

The new Congress smashed price controls. Truman became president and anti-strike injunctions fell from his hands like confetti in celebration of the great victory.

As the 1948 elections approached, it seemed as though the labor leadership had learned something. Truman was denounced in vigorous terms by a long roster of big rumor names. Hints and threats: if you don’t watch out we will form a new party. The International executive board of the UAW passed an encouraging resolution favoring a “new political realignment” in the United States.

New Illusions

But these facts were forgotten too quickly. The labor leadership heard a new love song from the Democratic Party. Truman, the big strikebreaker, became Truman, the great Fair Dealer. New promises – new hopes – new illusions. The UAW resolution on political action was dumped into Reuther’s private wastebasket. Straying lambs returned to the Democratic fold and heaven sent its reward in another “great victory” observed in the 1948 presidential campaign.

But the political wind of eight months of congressional debate has blown by, not to mention the breezes wafted out of the chambers of innumerable investigations and hearings. The most acute onlooker can defect little transformation of the social climate. Not a single important measure has been won in Washington by labor. The hated Taft-Hartley Law, which was supposed to be doomed to final and merciless extinction, is still on the books and hangs over labor’s head in the 1949 contract negotiations.

But the powers of rationalization and sophistry seem unlimited. It is not our own political policy which is at fault, explain the wise leaders of the PAC – no, no, not at all. The trouble is, they tell us, we did not carry out our policy vigorously enough. If only we had been able to elect another dozen or so senators, another score of representatives, then the Republican-Dixiecrat coalition would have been defeated.

Disappointment To Disappointment

Only one little fact is left out. The so-called friends of labor, the liberals, the Fair Dealers themselves, have been moving steadily to the right. Give them a majority in Congress in another “great victory” of 1950 and we will see the new majority fall apart. From “victory to victory” equals “disappointment to disappointment.”

It is already difficult to draw a clear line between the standpoint of the Taftleyites and the Fair Dealers. One liberal Democrat, Paul Douglas of Illinois, proposes to substitute a provision for government seizure of plants to replace the T-H injunction law. But if the workers in the seized plants refuse to return to work, then, he says, injunctions will be in order.

Senator Elbert Thomas, reporting on his administration-supported bill, explained that while it did not mention injunctions or plant seizure, it was deliberately written in such a way as to permit the president to ask for both.

The fight in Congress on the Taft Law has become a three-ring circus. When the clowns go home, whatever they do, nothing has been changed. For the ringmaster, Harry Truman himself, told the press many weeks ago that laws providing for injunctions against strikes which “imperil the national welfare” (any big mass strike) are not necessary, since (he says) the president always has had and will have such power and can exert it without any act of Congress.

Thus, under the Fair Deal administration, after two great “victories,” fifteen years after the passage of the Wagner Act, the novel discovery is made by a “liberal” that the power of strikebreaking is the unquestioned right of the president.

Figure It Out

What has happened and why? Each UAW delegate will have to mull it over in his mind and realize that if this problem is not brought before the convention, the convention has failed.

You don’t have to be a diagramless-puzzle fan to figure it out. When they thought they were losing their grip on the workers, the “liberals” became liberal to woo them back. But when labor’s “friends” tied the unions back into the Democratic sack, their interest in the problems of labor dulled. They remembered how “complicated” political problems are and how “necessary” it is to compromise.

Let the labor movement break away from the two old parties and the political and social climate will change with dizzying speed, regardless of the outcome of the elections in any given year. What is the prospect of the UAW’s taking the lead in fighting for a new political line within the CIO?

Unfortunately the Reuther leadership, now firmly in the saddle, has failed up to now to carry out its promise to blaze a new political trail. Even Emil Mazey, who has been known as a leading labor party advocate, has been silent, at best.

Reuther is now unwilling to disturb a single strand in the conservative cobweb which has been settling over the head of Phil Murray. He is noted now, not as the man who carries forward the UAW tradition of taking the lead in changing CIO policy, but as a foremost apologist for continuing the old line in a hard and fast manner.

He is the author of the plan to expel every CIO union which refuses to go along with official policy, thus initiating a bureaucratic innovation in the traditional concept of the American labor movement of international autonomy. Although he proposes this new line as a blow at the Communist Party, its most important effect will be a blow at the most progressive trends in the CIO, especially a blow at the UAW, and it will make it difficult to carry the CIO forward.

It Can Be the Vanguard

Reuther vacillated during the recent rank-and-file Ford strike. He was afraid to scare off labor’s fainthearted friends in Washington. He made a hurried trip to see Murray to make sure that the latter’s congenital conservatism was not ruffled. And finally, he reached a rotten compromise after promising to turn the Ford strike into the big strike of 1949.

The 1949 convention of the UAW will mark a new step forward if ... if those militants who put Reuther into the presidency begin to press him forward; if they take the initiative In shoving aside those conservative elements within the Reuther camp who believe that the time is ripe for turning the UAW into a “normal” housebroken union; if they begin at this convention to take those steps required really to make the UAW tomorrow “the vanguard of America.”

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