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David Coolidge

Militant Ranks Oppose UAW Appeasement

Militant Flint Delegate Shouts: “Let’s Adjourn While We Have Our Shirts Left!”

(19 April 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 16, 19 April 1942, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Some of us who sat through the two days of demagogy, hollow “patriotism,” distortions, cheap maneuverings, whining and capitulation of the leadership of the United Automobile Workers, at the “conference” in Detroit last week, came away with at least the satisfaction that the membership are not the full-fledged ninnies the leaders evidently thought they were when they called this conference.

The International Board had taken great pains to have a select group of delegates at this “War Emergency Conference.” The call for the conference, on the recommendation of the board, said that delegates should be selected by executive boards and the bargaining committees of the locals and that in so far as possible the delegates should be chosen from these two groups.

Thomas said in his opening address that there was not time for the election of the delegates by the locals. This explanation of course is plainly fraudulent. Every local could have held a special meeting if necessary to elect delegates to the conference. Furthermore, the issues before this conference were precisely the sort that should be decided only by delegates freely and democratically elected by the whole membership.

How Can Thomas Justify Procedure?

How can Thomas and the international board of the UAW justify such a procedure? Why was it necessary to depart from the thoroughly democratic practice of the organization in this matter of selecting delegates to a “conference” or convention?

What difference does it make whether the board called the gathering a “conference” or a convention? It was a deliberative body, a decision-making body and, as I shall show later, it was the intention of the leadership to make these decisions final.

Thomas said that there wasn’t time enough to have the delegates elected by the locals. But what was the rush in holding the “conference”? Why couldn’t it have been postponed for a few weeks so that the locals could have had the Victory Through Equality of Sacrifice Program for the Nation to study and discuss in the locals before the election of delegates?

What Was Thomas Afraid Of?

Why was this program tucked away and not delivered to the delegates until the morning the conference opened? The people back home, in the shops and the locals had no idea what was in this Program for the Nation. One prominent delegate remarked on the floor that he tried to get hold of the program the night before the conference opened and finally succeeded in stealing one at about ten o’clock at night!

What were Thomas and the board afraid of? What were they running away from? They confessed again and again what it was they were afraid of. To be sure there was a great deal of dishonesty and hypocrisy mixed up with some real fears on the part of these leaders. They were fleeing from Smith of Virginia, Cox of Georgia, the capitalist press, the National Association of Manufacturers, something they called “public opinion” and that best of all fakes, the Gallup Poll.

Furthermore, as Thomas explained in his last tearful effort before the vote was taken, the Roosevelt-Murray-Green board of labor overseers was to meet a week hence. Thomas said that he wanted to go into this meeting and say to the President that the UAW had agreed to go along with his request to give up the Saturday and Sunday “premium pay.”

There is the story and the explanation. They are after us, said those who favored the “program.” We’ve just got to do this to get them off our backs.

The Speeches of the Retreaters

“Let’s come out of this war with a union,” said Linwood Smith of the international board. “Congress is going to shove this thing down our throats.”

“Not one of you has said what to do in place of this program. Congress is already on the warpath,” said the “socialist” Victor Reuther. “You are not bargaining with the manufacturers, you are bargaining with Congress. I sat in meetings just like this in France. It did happen there.”

“If we don’t give up present Saturday and Sunday pay, they’ll take it away from us anyhow,” said DiLorenzo of the Brewster local.

“We don’t choose at this time to take on more than one opponent,” said Leonard of the board.

John Anderson, of Local 155, Detroit, wanted to know: “Shall the selfishness of General Motors, Aluminum and Standard Oil have a counterpart in the selfishness of labor?” Anderson was worried that “a year from now we may be saluting some slant-eyed Jap.”

Delegate Watt, of the Ford Local, said that “the paramount thing is not our union, but our country. We know that Roosevelt is pro-labor.”

Frankensteen’s Tear-Jerking Speech

Frankensteen, strike-breaker of the North American strike, delivered a real tear-jerker. This is also the same Frankensteen who was willing to make a deal at the convention last August to go easy on the Stalinists if they would support him for vice-president of the UAW. Frankensteen said that “the best way to lose the 40-hour week is to drive our friends together with our enemies. Are we going to tell the President to go to hell in the first request that he has made to us? Where would Russia be today if they sat back and said well do nothing until we get all that yon promised us? Read about the men dying at Bataan. You are going to line up our friends against us.”

This was only a small part of the rubbish dished out to the delegates by the members of the international board to the 1,400 delegates on the floor. They battered, begged and pleaded. It was clear that they were quite surprised at the opposition to their “program for the nation.” The delegates were really against the program. They wanted a program for the union and for labor and they said so, many of them in such strong and direct language that even the slow-thinking Thomas could understand.

Shipley of the Dodge Local said that some of the speakers from the international board were “trying to mislead the conference. They’re not country bumpkins.” Then Shipley went on to ridicule and blast the speakers who had made statements to the effect that the opposition wanted to see the boys die on the battlefield without a gun in their hand. “We’re not afraid of Congress,” said Shipley. “They talk about defeating Hitler; I don’t hear anybody talking about defeating Hitlerism.”

Lloyd Jones, president of Murray Body Local, said that he was against the ten-point program. “It doesn’t look like equal sacrifice,” said Jones. He said that Point 5 calling for the adjustment of wages to meet increased living costs was not sincere. Jones asked how the board could talk about increasing the pay to meet the rising cost of living and at the same time write Point 10 of the program that upon the “adoption of the foregoing measures, we agree that all wages for time over 40 hours per week shall be paid in the form of non-negotiable SPECIAL DEFENSE BONDS.” Jones said that the conference should vote against Point 10.

One delegate said that he was willing to sacrifice and he had. He was against this program. “Let those who have not sacrificed do it first.”

Another delegate said that “Last August we elected our officers to negotiate for us. Now it seems like they are negotiating with our enemies against us.”

One delegate said that he knew of no manufacturer that had sacrificed anything “and neither do you,” speaking to the members of the board; This fitting delegate added: “You’ll have to hand us something more than a lot of flowery speeches.”

Leadership Attacked by Buick Delegate

Case of Buick Local 599 said that he was not convinced that the international board had not been taken in. He said that not one thing had been offered by the leadership to tell “what we are going to do after we sacrifice.”

Delegate Manning in a stinging reference to the Stalinists and former socialists said: “There are people here supporting this program who built a political reputation in 1917 cursing the AFL for doing just what we are doing here today. We would look stupid in six months if we give up overtime and the manufacturers give it back in six months because they can’t get workers.”

I said in the first paragraph that some of us came away from this conference still convinced that the UAW is a first-rate fighting labor organization. They proved it to their leaders last week at this “War Emergency Conference.” The leadership was really surprised. Thomas was alternating the speakers, for and against, until he discovered that there was no end to the determination of the opposition. Every time Thomas called: “I want one who is against,” two dozen hands went up. But after six hours of the struggle and under the final barrage from the international board with their tears and pleas, the opposition retreated and the vote was taken. The rising vote wag about 1,200 to 200.

Not Really a Representative Vote

I am convinced that nobody believes that this vote represented the real sentiment of the delegates. Surely Thomas, the “socialist” Reuthers, Frankensteen and Addes know better. They know how they got that vote. They thought that things were safe in the manner in which the delegates were picked, but that didn’t prove true. It was clear in the first hours of the debate that the majority of the delegates were definitely against the “program’’ of the international board.

The board had the greatest difficulty in presenting its case convincingly. It had just two arguments; both weak, as I shall demonstrate in an article in Labor Action next week. Their first argument was that the union must agree to this program in order to appease Congress. This second argument was that the program should be adopted as a tribute to President Roosevelt, who had promised in his letter to the conference that none of the wages that would be given up would go to increase the profits of the corporations.

When these very flimsy arguments and the program were attacked the leaders had no reply that made any sense at all. They could only resort to tear-jerking, cajoling, pleading and the most scoundrelly forms of fraudulent “patriotic” appeals and threats.

Reuther’s Demagogic Reply

For instance, when Mullens of Local 174 said that the leadership was “bargaining against us,” Walter Reuther replied that when Mullins made such a statement he was making accusations against not only Thomas, but Murray and the President of the United States.

This was the sort of thing that subdued the militants in the conference. They were not organized and they did not have a program. It was perhaps too much to expect that they would reply to Reuther, asking what was wrong with criticizing the President of the United States? Far more, none of the delegates in the opposition seemed competent to untangle the net that the leaders had fastened the conference in.

What was this continual linking of Murray and Roosevelt together and making them both representatives of labor? Some of the delegates seemed vaguely aware that something was wrong in this picture, but they couldn’t formulate it and bring it out in an organized manner.

“While We’ve Got a Shirt Left”

McGill of Flint really expressed the sentiment of the overwhelming majority of the delegates when he said that the situation was that of the spider and the fly and when he said on the second day that he was inclined to move for adjournment “while we’ve got a shirt left.”

The fact is that the leadership was ready to give away the shirt and anything else. The delegates to this conference knew that the manufacturers have sacrificed nothing and that they don’t intend to. They saw the Rockefeller Standard Oil Co. accused of treason and yet nothing has been done. One of the Rockefellers, Nelson, holds a big job in the Roosevelt war government. But the leadership of the CIO and the UAW walks boldly into a conference of 1,400 delegates and insists that they give and give and give until nothing is left, not even a shirt.

The leadership had many tricks up its sleeves. At the opening of the conference Thomas announced that the conference had no legislative authority and that its decisions must be submitted to the locals and the international board. After the vote was taken, however, and the program had been approved by the conference a resolution was quickly introduced and read by Addes, instructing the locals to revise their contracts in line with the vote just taken by the conference. If the conference had no legislative authority, then how could it instruct locals to revise their contracts before a majority of. the locals had voted to accept the action of the conference? The vote of the conference could only be a recommendation to the locals.

But immediately after the vote is taken and there is a majority for the “program” the international officers twist the conference from a body with power to make recommendations only to one with binding legislative functions!

To add insult to injury, organizers went back to their posts and informed locals that they may as well vote to support the conference vote because “it’s going through, anyway.” This can only mean that the international board will carry the program through itself, should it be faced with such an alternative.

Next week I will take up a discussion of the “program” and the following week an analysis of the “Labor-Management Production Committees.”

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