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David Coolidge

Delegates, Alive to the Union’s Problems,
Insist on Having the Final Say at UAW Convention

(18 August 1989)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 33, 18 August 1941, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

BUFFALO – The sixth annual convention of the United Automobile Workers of America (CIO) has just completed its first week of deliberations. The name of the organization is now the “International Union, United Automobile, Aircraft and Agricultural Workers of America” UAW-CIO. Aside from changing the name of the organization the convention has performed more significant tasks.

For one thing, the delegates to this assembly of 1,000 workers, all elected from locals of the union, have demonstrated a firm determination to have their say and vote as they see fit on the important matters that came before the convention. The convention is not “bossed” in the sense that AFL conventions and the CIO steel workers conventions are bossed. This proves the advantage of having a real international and not just an “organizing committee,” such as exists among the steel workers.

There are “factions” in the convention and numerous attempts on the part of some of the leaders to dominate the delegates, but in every instance where the delegates understand the issues clearly they do not hesitate to talk, act and vote as they see fit and as they understand. They are insistent on their democratic union rights and on strict adherence to the international constitution.

This was made very clear when the constitution committee, headed by Victor Reuther, recommended that the constitution be changed to provide for biennial conventions.

Virtually the whole of the International leadership favored this change, including Thomas and Addes. The reasons given for recommending the change were that it would be better to have the convention in the spring. Also, it was argued that it would be better not to hold the convention at the time when car models are being changed. Addes argued that year did no give the GEB time to carry out the mandates of the convention and really get things done before another convention was upon them.

The delegates had other ideas. One delegate said that the international representatives and organizers could stay in the field and keep organizing activities going while the rank and file of the union came to the convention and transacted the business for the international. Frankensteen argued for taking “politics” out of the question. He favored the recommendation of the committee. “Take the politics out of it,” said Frankensteen, “take the personalities out of it and come together on issues, meet and discuss policies of the International Union, and in that way you will have a union that goes forward, not on the basis of politics, but on the basis of building our International Union.”

Addes remarked that the cost of conventions was very high, there being a “direct cost of $16,270.23 and an indirect cost of $23,500 – approximately $39,000 to convene and hold a convention of the Automobile Workers.” Addes also felt that one year was not sufficient time for the officers to carry out the instructions of the convention; they should have more time before another convention rolled around. But a delegate, speaking for the opposition, answered that “from what has happened in the last two days on this floor, you are hearing arguments from one officer and then another officer, and I think we had better make darned sure that we do not stay out of conventions for more than a year, so that we can see just exactly what is going to happen after this convention.”

When the vote was taken not a single delegate voted in favor of biennial conventions and the matter was referred back to the committee, according to the rules of the convention. This means that conventions will be held annually as the sentiment of the delegates was so strongly against any change.

Reject Proposal on Staff

The next recommendation of the committee was also rejected. This concerned the national organizing staff of the International. The committee recommended that “the Organizational Staff of the International Union shall consist of’ international representatives, regional representatives and organizers ...” Chairman Victor Reuther explained that at present there are only international representatives with the same authority and the same credentials. The committee proposed that this be changed so that there would be a difference in authority. Some would conduct “negotiations in the top stages with the large corporations, while others with far less organizational experience are laying the groundwork in new organizational campaigns, distributing leaflets, ringing doorbells and button-holing prospective members.”

The delegates had another idea. They began to talk about “class distinctions” and “second-class citizens.” They didn’t want any A, B, and C classifications for their organizers. As one delegate put it, “I believe one classification here and one title of international representative would be sufficient, and I like the name ‘representative’ better than ‘organizer,’ only that we understand a representative is an organizer.” Another delegate said that “a guy that goes out in the field and fights on the picket line, agitates organisation, should fall in as good, if not a better class, than the guy that sits in negotiations.” Another delegate wanted to know the classification of an international representative “who serves in a capacity of a bodyguard, a traveling companion or chauffeur.” The chairman replied that he was out of order and that no reference had been made to such classifications.

The recommendation of the committee was lost with no votes in favor of it.

Several Proposals Withdrawn

Numerous proposals made by the Constitution Committee were withdrawn before coming to a vote when it was seen that the delegates were overwhelmingly against the proposals. Most of these were recommendations for changes in the present constitution. One was a proposal to change the eligibility for delegate to the convention. The committee had a continuous good standing for one year prior to the nominations, to continuous good, standing for each 12 months prior to the nominations. This would mean that a member who had been in the union for two years, for example, and who had been in continuous good standing for the 12 but who was not in good standing at some time, say 35 months before, would not be eligible for nomination.

Another proposal withdrawn by the international secretary-treasurer to raise the price of local union charters from $15 to $25. Addes said that the cost of supplies was going up. The delegates insisted that they were not going up that much and that fast. They were willing to pay the increase in the cost of supplies, but were insistent that the international make no profit from the sale of charters. It was agreed that the charters be sold to the locals “at cost.”

The Allis-Chalmers Affair

The Allis-Chalmers affair took up considerable time and stirred up a lot of heat and words from all sides. It revolved around the contention that the delegates from the Allis-Chalmers local had been elected in violation of the constitution. There has been a great wave of talk in this convention about the constitution and living up to the letter of the international constitution. Much of this talk has come from delegates who really want the constitution used to protect the democratic rights of the membership. There are others, however, who use the constitution as a platform only for factional politics and as a club against those who are opposed to certain powerful leaders. This was exposed in the Allis-Chalmers affair.

It was brought out in the discussion that there was no question that the Stalinist leadership of that local had proceeded in the usual Stalinist manner to strongarm the election, to deny democratic rights to the opposition in the local, and to carry on all the filthy tactics that the Stalinists have become infamous for in the labor movement. This traditional Stalinist tactic gave the most reactionary forces in the convention an opportunity to go in for the most vicious red-baiting in the name of defending the constitution of the international. Not only this, but also to make the most demagogic speeches in the name of democracy and workers’ rights. This was true of such arch-union political tricksters as the Reuthers and of such extremely reactionary red-baiters as Doherty from Detroit.

Sincere militant rank and filers really didn’t understand what was going on. They do want the constitution lived up to, they want democracy in the union, they are correctly against the Stalinists; but they are not political red-baiters of the type of Hillman’s stooge, Reuther, or the reactionary representatives of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. It is on such issues as this that these workers get sucked in and derailed, They talk about “power caucuses” but they do not really understand the meaning of these caucuses in their political aspects. The delegates voted not to seat the Allis-Chalmers delegates but they were determined that the local should have representation at the convention. Therefore, a committee of three was appointed to go to Milwaukee and conduct a new election so that new or old delegates could be seated before the convention adjourned. This committee went to Milwaukee and did exactly nothing.

Do Not Discuss the Issue

The committee returned to Buffalo and reported that they had failed to get “cooperation” from Harold Christoffel, president of the local. The reporter for the committee prefaced his report with some irrelevant remarks about the names that Christoffel had called Thomas, Reuther, Nordstrom and Leonard. The reporter, Bioletti, said that Christoffel had called these international officers, “phonies, rats and Hillmanites” and that they were all a bunch of bastards.

It should be said that this was not part of the official report of the committee but it proved to be the issue around which much of the discussion revolved. It was clear that Bioletti intended this to be so. His report on this name-calling (there is no reason to doubt that Christoffel used the words attributed to him) was well flavored and plainly intended to prejudice the situation and cover up the fact that the committee did not make any great effort to have the election. Furthermore, one got the impression that Bioletti was doing a little twisting and distorting of the facts in order to swing the convention against Christoffel. They were out to get the Stalinists by hook or crook.

The fact that Allis-Chalmers men had gone through a 76 day militant strike against a union-busting corporation and the OPM was prominent in the minds of the delegates. Christoffel had led that strike. The red-baiters wanted to “get” Christoffel and at the same time not give the delegates the impression that they were not sufficiently aware of the real grievances the workers at Allis-Chalmers had.

Also it is important to report that when the committee was sent to Milwaukee it was not instructed how it was to carry on the election and what power the committee had. It was brought out that the one point of disagreement that stuck was the question of determining the eligibility of members to vote and who was to preside at the election meeting of the local. According to the international constitution, the local determines eligibility; according to the by-laws of the local, the president presides at meetings of the local. Christoffel insisted on this procedure. The committee had not been instructed on the matter of its authority and, when agreement could not be reached on the two points in dispute, two members of the committee called Thomas and were instructed to return to the convention. The third member of the committee reported to the convention that he had not been consulted about this step. There had been an agreement with Christoffel that there would be another meeting but this meeting never members of the committee were anxious to get back to Buffalo to report that Christoffel did not have a very high regard for some of the international officers. They forgot that they were sent to Milwaukee to hold an election so that the Allis-Chalmers local could be represented at their international convention, just a few months after they had gone through a very militant strike.

George Nordstrom, regional director of the Milwaukee region and international board member, did not play a very enviable role in this affair. It was established that Nordstrom had issued press releases to the Milwaukee papers after the committee was appointed, advising the workers at Allis-Chalmers of the action of the convention and expressing Nordstrom’s personal opinion in the case. Also that Nordstrom had caused a leaflet to be issued from the regional office advising the Allis-Chalmers workers not to vote for Christoffel delegates in the special election.

It developed that Christoffel had a “representative” in Nordstrom’s office. This young lady took a peek, in the office waste paper basket one day and saw something that interested her. It proved to be the stencil and scrap copies of the leaflet that was distributed at the Allis-Chalmers plant in connection with the special election. This material of course found its way to Christoffel’s hands. He used them as exhibits at the convention.

Nordstrom took the floor to explain his role. Although he went through all the motions, he did not come to the point: and that was why he concluded that he was in charge of the Allis-Chalmers elections. The case was in the hands of the convention. The convention had taken a certain action. A committee was sent to Milwaukee to take charge. No part of the negotiations was in Nordstrom’s hands. He, as regional director, had not been authorized to conduct an election campaign at the plant. It was not a Reuther caucus affair. this was an important aspect of the situation that the delegates did not explore on the floor of the convention. They let Nordstrom hide behind some demagogic remarks about what Christoffel had said about the morals of the international officers.

Christoffel was called down out of the gallery to defend himself. He made a long speech that told of many things, but he also did not come to the main point. That was, his conduct of the local and the original election of the delegates by the usual Stalinist strongarm and undemocratic methods. Christoffel did not touch on this nor on the direct charge made by President Thomas about some experiences that he had had with the officers of the local. Christoffel closed his speech with the traditional Stalinist “honest worker” platitudes.

Here was another one of those dilemmas that have faced the plain worker delegates at this convention. There they were caught between two reactionary groups: the Stalinists and the Hiliman-Reuther group; neither group really interested in the needs of militant labor, but in gaining power in the international. There was one thing the delegates did understand, however: this was the fact that they wanted the Allis-Chalmers workers represented at the convention and that this committee failed to carry out its mandate and provide for that. The majority of the delegates didn’t like Christoffel and the Stalinist methods. But they didn’t like the committee’s report, either SO THEY VOTED IT DOWN. They didn’t believe that the important point to be settled in connection with this affair was whether or not Christoffel had called the international officers “phonies” and “bastards.” These workers knew that many of them had called Frankensteen worse names than these during the past few weeks. Many of them agreed with Christoffel when be applied these names to Frankensteen. And they weren’t Stalinists, either.

The delegates were not satisfied just to send the same committee back to Milwaukee. Their instincts were very sure on this point. They added four new people to the committee so that these new people would be the chairman. The committee was instructed this time. It was to determine eligibility and select the chairman for the nominations and election meeting.

Dispute over North American

One of the highlights of the convention was the discussion around the North American Aviation strike. This matter was before the grievance committee in connection with the charges against Lou Michener. Before this report was made there were rumors that Frankensteen had made a deal with the Stalinists. He has announced his candidacy for vice-president if that office is restored. He will of course make a fight to have it restored. The delegates’ expected this to be the big fight of the convention. They had been told that the Stalinists had fomented this strike to embarrass the “defense” program. They had been told that Michener was largely responsible and that his conduct had been reprehensible and anti-union. They were prepared to hear Frankensteen go to town on Michener in the convention and mop the floor with him. But they were in for a strange disappointment. The “power caucuses” had been in session on this question. The Reuther caucus was fully armed and ready for the anti-red, pro-Hillman battle. Hillman’s men, Hardman, Kryzski and Daniels, were at the convention.

The grievance committeee came in with a resolution. Many of the delegates were stunned at the mildness of the resolution and the fact that they were informed that Michener could run again for international board member. They had been led to believe that this would not be permitted since Michener had been held up to the international and the whole labor movement as a scoundrel who had no business being in the leadership of the international. The Reuther caucus demanded suspension for a year.

Frankensteen was asked to explain. Nordstrom said that Frankensteen had convinced him at the board meeting. “I was convinced,” said Nordstrom, “at that board meeting, by the adept speaking of our brother Frankensteen that he did that job [at North American]. Where is that job to be done today on this floor? ... I only wish that some of the boys who had so much guts on the executive board to do the job ...” (Nordstrom’s time was up.)

Victor Reuther was shocked that the “committee has not made one suggestion or recommendation as far as penalties for that individual who dared to tell Phil Murray, R.J. Thomas and the director of aviation, in so many words, to go to hell. Why?” Again, as in the Allis-Chalmers, the Reuthers were interested in the moral issues and the niceties of polite social intercourse. They didn’t like such words as ‘”bastard” and “hell.”

Victor Reuther said that he believed that “Phil Murray lies sick today in a Pittsburgh hospital because such individuals put him there by their constant disruption of the activities of the CIO.” Readers will realize that Reuther is not only a moralist but also a medical man. Murray got heart trouble because of Michener’s activities at the North American strike. He demanded that Michener be suspended “for at least a period of a year.”

An Obvious Case of Politics

One delegate said that he believed what Frankensteen had said about the Stalinists. “I believed at that time there was an attack on the Communist Party’s part to sabotage national defense. Now, I believe the same individual who made that statement (Frankensteen) is actually guilty of playing politics in this issue by getting up and defending the majority committee’s report be accepted ... I am not going to place myself in a position to have this thing squashed by cheap politicians who want to whitewash this thing on the floor today ... Let’s get these dirty politicians out on this floor while we have the opportunity and let us see ii we can straighten this thing out once and for all.”

Walter Reuther was for one year’s suspension for Michener. He was a brave defender of the constitution and was against “wildcat” strikes. When he had finished, a delegate took the floor to say that there had been more wildcat strikes in Reuther’s local than in any local in the convention. He also reminded Reuther on the matter of democracy that the Reuther local had a resolution in asking the convention to permit them to hold membership meetings once a year. (The convention voted for monthly membership meetings.)

One delegate said that he had been to a caucus where pictures had been shown of Communist activities at North American. These people made “pledges to the delegation they will bring that same information to the convention floor and let the entire delegation know about the matter, suddenly overnight have a change of heart and change their entire line. ... If a few days ago the actions in the North American situation and the actions of Michener were detrimental to our union ... I would like to call on Frankensteen to present what has happened in the past two weeks.” (He should have said, past two days.)

A Deal with the Stalinists

With such tremendous pressure on him, not from the “reds” but from his own side, so to speak, Frankensteen was forced to take the floor several times to “explain.” The Stalinists sat quietly and were prepared of course to accept the resolution. (Had they been instructed?) Frankensteen said that the report was a complete vindication of himself, Thomas and Murray. “I don’t want blood in this situation. I don’t want somebody’s hide in this situation ... (all he wanted was the vice-presidency) ... the way to get a clean labor movement on the West Coast is not to bind them. Yes I have been bitter on this case, very bitter. I agree with what has been said. There has been Communist domination on that West Coast situation. I am not pulling my punches one single bit on that. Brother Michener made bad mistakes on this situation, but I do not think it is the thing to do to go out and crucify him because he made those mistakes. Brother Michener will go back to that West Coast and cooperate, as he did before this situation and will cooperate again.” (At this Frankensteen was greeted with boos.)

Frankensteen continued with a hope that the “fair-minded delegates will forget their factional politics.” The report of the grievance committee was rejected and sent back. Every delegate who understands these things is convinced that Frankensteen and the Stalinists have made . a deal. They know that there is something phony about the whole ill-smelling mess. Frankensteen was on the spot and still is. The committee must bring back another report. I suppose that there will be an effort to compromise the matter. (The convention finally barred Michener from his present post for a year, though allowing him to work for the union in a lesser capacity. – Ed.)

There is much unfinished business at the time this report is written; much that has not come before the convention at all and many things that have been returned to committee and must come out again. More on this and the rest of the convention agenda next week.

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