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Ben Hall

The Howe-Widick Book on the UAW and Reuther Gives a –

Portrait of a Militant Union

(September 1949)

From The New International, Vol. XV No. 7, September 1949, pp. 210–213.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Here is the UAW, as it is and as it must become. The UAW and Walter Reuther, by Irving Howe and B.J. Widick [1], offers the only account of the battles which transformed it from a union of a few thousand into the mighty organization of nearly one million that it is today. If that were all, the work would command our attention, for the magnetism of the UAW, attracting the whole American working class and infiltrating the international labor movement, will yet force its way into world politics. But this book is far more than a history of the UAW; it is a penetrating analysis of the role of the labor movement in the United States illustrated by the UAW.

In his New Men of Power, C. Wright Mills measured the capacities of the contemporary labor officialdom against the need to stop the “drift” of society toward war and totalitarianism; he found it inadequate and faced a chasm in leadership which he tried to bridge with “labor intellectuals” ... unsuccessfully. Howe and Widick approach the same question from the vantage of a single union. A socialist understanding combined with an intimate knowledge of the real life of the UAW (Widick, a chief steward in one of the largest UAW locals, participated in the strikes of the ’30s in Flint and Akron) permits them to fill in the gaps left by Mills. For in the UAW we meet the men and women of the labor movement who are being molded and hardened to grapple with the very tasks which Mills found unsolvable by the labor leadership. Their book is one of the few works on the labor movement that can be read with the same absorbed interest which the living story of the UAW itself provokes.

Into open-shop Detroit, overpowered by the assembly line; torn by racial, national and sectional antagonisms of Negroes, whites, Italians, Boles, Southerners breaking out into bloody riots; cursed with all kinds of fascist crackpot grouplets; dominated by three giant auto corporations which played with city affairs like the owners of any company town ; poor in leisure, deprived of culture, lacking the most ordinary democratic and human rights ... into this city the UAW enters as the main civilizing, organizing force for its two million inhabitants.

“It alone,” the authors emphasize, “has brought a sense of human warmth into an area dominated by robots, pistons and dollars – and that more than anything else is the measure of its triumph.”

The UAW bears the birthmark of its origin. The authors trace its rise in the glorious days of the sit-in strikes when workers in the Flint Fisher Body plant, holding firm against injunctions and threats of eviction by state troops, wrote to Governor Murphy:

“We have decided to stay in the plant. We have no illusions about the sacrifices this decisions will entail. We fully expect that if a violent effort is made to oust us, many of us will be killed ... If this result follows from the attempt to eject us, you are the one who must be held responsible for our deaths.”

With a consciousness of power that came from victory in the fight against General Motors and Chrysler, the militants of the UAW fought off the first attempts to debase their union into a plaything for bureaucrats, ousting their first president, Homer Martin, and assigning him to oblivion.

The union went on to crack the most obdurate open shopper of all, Henry Ford, last of the Big Three to fall to the union. Then quickly into the war years with its debates on the “Equality of Sacrifice” program and bitter factional struggles over incentive, piecework pay. And finally, the momentary emergence of the “Rank and File Caucus,” a faction without the support of a single well-known official which won 40 per cent of the votes at the 1944 convention against the no-strike pledge in the teeth of the united opposition of the top officialdom.

It was the same UAW which led the first post-war strike wave in the famous General Motors strike of 1945–46, inspiring the union movement with its radical demands for a look at the company books and a say-so on prices. Strike leader Walter P. Reuther, then director of the General Motors department, was hoisted into the presidency and the more conservative R.J. Thomas deposed. Internal struggles and conflicts between political groupings taught the union activists more than raw militancy ... They became wise to the ways of the Communist Party, which once boasted a strong UAW following. Its feeble efforts at cold-war super-militancy met with jeers and scorn. In a two-year faction fight, the auto workers reduced the CP to a shadow and eliminated its influence from leading circles. It is this history of united battle against the class enemy and internal conflict over tactics and strategy that created the cadre of the UAW, the union militants, jealous of democratic rights and loyal to a fighting union platform. In the words of Reuther, the UAW is “the vanguard in America.”

The UAW as a Vanguard

The UAW can become the center of an authentic left wing of the American labor movement; in fact, in one way it is so already. In all unions, militants who are dissatisfied with rigid bureaucracy, who hope for a leadership more sensitive to the ranks, who are stirred by a vague disquietude with the policies of their own officials, look expectantly to it. If judged by socialist standards, it might appear conservative indeed; for its leadership and its membership are pro-capitalism in outlook. But we must measure by the standards of the United States where socialists make up a tiny section of the working class and socialism itself lives in tiny sects incapable of decisively affecting the course of the class struggle. The UAW is not distinguished by any special ideology nor by a formally worked-out program clearly different from the ordinary platform of the CIO. Nevertheless it plays a special role. At each stage of the development of the class struggle in this country, from the earliest days of the CIO, the UAW has been in the forefront of labor’s battles, initiating tactics and slogans to show the way. Life, not doctrine, makes the UAW the vanguard of labor and its vanguard role flashes out most vividly when the union movement reaches an impasse and must alter its policy to break out.

We face just such a turning point today. Our giant labor movement, at the peak of its power, enjoying the loyalty of a solidly union-conscious working class, limps along like a crippled dwarf. It demands far-reaching reforms only to file them away for future reference. It lives and thrives only in the soil of democracy and this democracy is dug away as all sections of the bourgeois from right-wing Republicans to Fair-Deal Democrats move toward state controls over labor, injunctions and loyalty oaths. It begs for crumbs at the back door of the Democratic Party, hoping against hope that the icy winds of Taft-Hartleyism will blow warmer.

The authors argue cogently for the formation of a new political party based upon the labor movement “neither tainted by the Moscow touch nor crippled by the usual double-talk of what passes for liberalism,” to fight for its independence from the government and avoid the dangers of the “corporate state,” to take its stand for “butter, not guns,” for social services, not armaments. Can the UAW provide the impulse? They reply: “The UAW is both the closest thing to the kind of union we have described as desirable and yet still far away from it; but in few other unions are there so many people who in one way or another would like to make it this kind of union.”

Will the UAW once again show the way? Hopes seemed near fulfillment in March 1948 when its International Executive Board voted for the formation of a “progressive political party” after the ’48 elections. In a solemn pledge, Reuther vowed to devote his energies toward such an end. He did not intend, he said, to fritter his life away pecking about for pennyweight gains soon lost. But the ’48 elections have come and gone. 1949 ... 1950 looms. The UAW appears momentarily in full accord with the old program of supporting the Democratic Party. It proposes nothing, it watches, it waits, it trails along.

The UAW in a Suspended Position

The UAW has not surrendered its position in the labor movement; it has suspended it. A weight of general conservatism presses it back into diffidence, a gingerly, hesitating caution. For a moment in early 1948, the whole labor movement seemed about to spring forward; Murray, Green and others shook menacing fingers at the Democratic Party which had “betrayed” them. But Truman’s elusive promise of a Fair Deal was enough to soothe their tempers. The curve of labor politics bends back toward the fair- weather “friends of labor,” chasing the 1950 rainbow of a liberal majority in Congress.

In 1945, Philip Murray, president of the CIO, blasted Truman’s fact-finding boards; in 1949 he greets them as heaven-sent. After more than six months of futile negotiations, the steel workers’ union adjured its demands one by one until the fact-finders cut them to the bone. But they left the bone and Murray is grateful for little things. Before taking a step he calculates the mood of the “liberal” Democrats. Voluntary submission to fact-finding boards is a convenient device for limiting the workers’ demands to what is acceptable to Truman. Murray is a typical representative of conservative CIO policy and it is he who sets the tone today.

How such conservative moods are transmitted to the UAW is best understood in the person of Walter P. Reuther, who has always been on Murray’s left and who rose to power in the UAW against Murray’s wishes. Reuther is solidly entrenched in his own union; no conceivable opponent could displace him. The fundamental cause of his standstill policies today cannot be attributed to the pressure of conservative forces within the UAW. It comes from without.

A Portrait of Reuther

In their chapter, Walter Reuther, a Portrait, Howe and Widick give us new insight into the personality of the man who is undoubtedly the outstanding figure in the American labor movement. We understand how his socialist past continues as a nagging vestigial remainder in his consciousness. We examine his new social outlook, pieced together in his experiences in the early days of the union and his evolution toward New Dealism. We follow his career to the top, see him walk a tight rope between the radical and conservative sections of the union during the war, watch him take undisputed leadership over the radical wing during the GM strike and then permit his far-reaching GM program to fade away on paper. We see how skillfully he synthesizes the most progressive sentiments of workers, the backward and the advanced, the passive and the active in a struggle to defeat Stalinism, a struggle which remains a model of the lines along which to combat the CP in the union movement. And, we might add, we see him shift over to the position of Murray and demand the bureaucratic expulsion of the CP-controlled unions from the CIO by authoritarian decree.

To union critics who ask why he does not speak out squarely for the formation of a Labor Party, Reuther is fond of replying: “We must not get too far ahead of the parade.” The reply would have merit if one demanded that the UAW itself form a new national political party. Still, the UAW could take the initiative in proposing its formation, in arguing and crusading for it, in educating the widest numbers of workers in the UAW and in other unions to its necessity. In this respect, Reuther is not “ahead of the parade” at all but sinks back into line with Philip Murray.

The authors explain the paradox of a man who is by turns bold and timid, radical and orthodox, describing him as an “unfinished personality” torn between “vision and power.” Nevertheless, we can detect a definite pattern in Reuther’s seesaw course. At each point in the class struggle when the old policies appear outworn and when the rank and file grow increasingly restive and push in new directions, it is Reuther, sensitive to every developing leftward mood, who seizes the initiative, articulates these moods in new slogans and new proposals. And in every period of lull, he sinks back again into normality. Reuther understands the vanguard role of the UAW; he reacts most quickly to it; at times he puts it in words; but he does not create it.

The authors tell us that “Reuther is convinced that he has succeeded in reconciling power and vision.” They are dubious. (The contrast between “vision” as something good and “power” as something evil is somewhat misleading. Any social program [vision] would remain only Utopian speculation without the power to put it into effect and every conception of “power” is linked to a corresponding “vision”). But if he has not reconciled the two, he has in a sense combined them into a common conception. Reuther is pushed back and forth between two “powers” – the explosive power of the rank and file, flaring up in leaping flashes then subsiding, and the power of the stolid citizen labor leaders which doggedly presses for short-term gains, oblivious of the future. His “vision” is a resultant of these two powers.

When Reuther abandoned the Socialist Party as an inconvenient obstacle to the full use of his talents in the labor movement and slowly groped his way toward the platform of liberalized New-Deal capitalism, Reuther moved away from the conception that the working class could reorganize society by taking power. In the years that followed, the socialist movement all over the world was beaten back while in the United States it remained more than ever isolated in small sects. Reuther remained tied to the working class. His union reminded him more than once of the latent powers of the rank and file but he now assigned it a more limited role in keeping with his new vision. The activity of the working class became a constant spur not to the transformation of society into socialism but a force for the preservation of a liberal free-enterprise economy and for the defense of democracy.

In the maneuverings among the various factions and caucuses in his own union, often carried on by tiny groups behind the backs of the membership, he saw how frequently even the active union veterans could be manipulated by small men for petty ends. If this was true in his own UAW, then how much more so in the rest of the labor movement? He learned to respect the power of labor officialdom in general. And if such power could be wielded for little things by shortsighted men, why not for noble purposes of social betterment? Only, curbing the role of the working class within the limits of capitalist politics gives rise to bureaucratic tendencies, even in the UAW, where they take on the most subtle forms.

Bureaucratism Seeps In

The UAW is unquestionably one of the most democratic unions in the United States. But there are disquieting signs of a slow seeping in of bureaucratism, the rise of a centralized officialdom which tends to raise itself above the rank and file and become independent of it. Its manifestations are analyzed by the writers and the counter-tendencies described, so that the reader sees the complexity of the action and interaction between forces giving rise to bureaucratism and counterforces making for democracy.

As it unites for the first time in its history under the leadership of a single man who enjoys the support of 95 per cent of the union, the UAW provides a unique example of the continuation of all the forms of democracy combined with the sprouting of a bureaucratic apparatus. To fight effectively, any working-class organization needs a certain consistency in its leadership; it cannot follow one policy on Monday, another on Tuesday and a third on Wednesday; it will not overturn its leadership every day in search for one in which it has confidence. The story of the rise and decline of the various groupings and factions in the UAW culminates in the victory of Reuther and the hundreds of secondary leaders who follow him. The union now has a fairly stable upper leadership. But how is this leadership to be held together and consolidated? Will it remain a force for the protection and extension of the processes of internal democracy or will it itself degenerate into a bureaucratic machine endangering democracy?

One of the sources of the trend toward bureaucracy in the UAW is the failure of its leadership to base itself upon a clear, progressive political line. A basic aim of the socialist movement, for example, is to forge a democratic leadership for the working class and its institutions by educating a class-conscious cadre of workers assembled on the basis of intellectual convictions, of a social philosophy checked and rechecked in the course of democratic discussions. The socialist program, voluntarily embraced by the working class, would make possible a democratic leadership for the working class. Our criticism of Reuther in this connection, however, is not that he does not build a socialist cadre. He is not a socialist and no one expects him to do so. But he does not unite his own followers on the basis of any consistent platform clearly and recognizably distinct from that of the ordinary conservative and bureaucratic labor officialdom. He leaves himself free to swing back and forth between opposing slogans and policies with the winds of the class struggle. Here lies his chief weakness and from it come the dangers of bureaucratism at this stage in the life of the UAW.

That is why the leadership of the union becomes increasingly based upon the paid officialdom, the top officers, the appointed international representatives (“porkchoppers”) who are required to speak to the membership with one united voice regardless of misgivings they may have with official policy. They tend to be a machine for jamming through the decisions of the higher officialdom and not a collectivity which itself participates in the give-and-take of democratic discussion. The Reuther group tends to become less and less a caucus of the active union members and more and more the meeting place of the officials.

Reuther synthesizes a leadership from two antagonistic elements. Its left wing comprehends the unique role of the UAW in the labor movement; it hopes for the formation of a new party; it understands, in a general way, that labor has a decisive part to play in shaping society; it includes many militants who sympathize with socialism. It is this wing of the Reuther group which spearheaded his rise to power. In the right wing are the bandwagon jumpers, the men who linked up with Reuther to get on the winning side, conservative in outlook, suspicious of new ventures, inclined toward a narrow “business unionism.” The influence of this group within the Reuther caucus is not evidence of strong conservative leanings within the UAW (although of course there are many conservative workers in it) but a reflection of the power of the right wing in the labor movement outside of the UAW, in particular the power of Philip Murray, whose social outlook they share. Reuther yields to his own right wing, makes concessions to it and insists that his own radical followers refrain from antagonizing it because he fears to come into conflict with Murray.

The future of the UAW, its internal democracy, its inspiring vanguard role, its militant traditions depend upon the evolution of the left wing of the Reuther caucus. The task of the day is the formation of an independent labor party. If it is willing to press for such a program despite the pressures of Murray conservatism, the UAW will quickly assume its rightful place as leader of American labor.

“If the UAW succeeds in coping with, or even tries to cope with, the complex problems facing it in the coming years,” write Howe and Widick, “if it succeeds in transforming union energies into drives toward political action and social change which alone can fulfill the larger purposes of an alert union – then it will arouse sufficient enthusiasm and interest among its members to preserve its admirable democratic tradition.”



1. The Howe-Widick book is available to readers through Labor Action Book Service, 4 Court Square, Long Island City 1, N.Y.

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