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David Coolidge

GM Rejects Union’s Offer of Arbitration

(3 December 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 49, 3 December 1945, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

After its success in pushing General Motors Corporation into a corner, throwing obstacles in the path of the anti-labor capitalist press and placing itself in a favorable tactical position before the “public,” the UAW, as a final conciliatory step, made a proposal to General Motors for “voluntary arbitration” of the strike dispute. The union made the offer of arbitration just one day before the strike took place, setting as the deadline for the corporation’s reply, 4:00 p.m., Tuesday, November 20. The only reply received from the company was an acknowledgment of the UAW arbitration proposal and the statement that its reply would be ready Friday, November 24. The company having failed to reply by the time set by the union, the strike went into effect the morning of Wednesday, November 21.

The UAW arbitration letter included the following:

  1. The parties submit this dispute to a three-man board of arbitration composed of one representative of management (the corporation), one representative of labor and a chairman selected by the other two members.

  2. The board of arbitration shall have full access to the books, records and other documents of both parties which, in the judgment of the board, are essential to an intelligent and factual solution of the dispute.

  3. The board of arbitration shall make a final and binding decision of this dispute ... We challenge you to match our action in relinquishing use of the strike by laying the arithmetic of this wage dispute before a board of arbitration ... We prefer the conference table and the hearing room to the picket line. Do you?

It can be assumed that the UAW offer of arbitration, as set forth above, was only one more carefully planned step by the union to place the corporation on the defensive, to expose the unwillingness of GM to bargain collectively and to win the support of the “public.” Furthermore, it may be assumed that the UAW leaders were convinced that the reply of GM would be a blank refusal to submit the dispute to arbitration. Even if this is granted, however, we express disagreement with the union leadership on the question of arbitration in the specific and concrete conditions which existed at the time the offer was made. In the first place, the negotiations had been in progress, in one way or another, for a three-month period. The union said in its letter to GM that “for the past three months the UAW-CIO has been attempting to carry out collective bargaining in the constructive spirit called for by President Truman. The General Motors Corporation has persisted in treating its bargaining with the union as meaningless and futile, or, in the words of President Truman before the Labor-Management Conference, ‘as a step-child.’”

Why the Arbitration Proposed

The next point to be considered is the fact that the union had thoroughly indoctrinated the membership with its intention not to be deflected from its determination to tackle GM in the most thorough-going manner. A few months before, so set was the leadership on its GM course that strikers at Kelsey-Hayes were disciplined for an action which the UAW leaders said was interfering with the progress of the organization of action against GM. Furthermore, the whole course of the negotiations, the nature of the union’s demands and the preparation of the membership for decisive action, had created a situation in which a last-minute proposal for arbitration, coming from the union, could only disorient the membership and create demoralization, not only immediately in the ranks of the UAW but among other unions and workers who were watching anxiously to see what the UAW would do. This is one of the most important considerations in connection with the arbitration proposal in the concrete situation which prevailed at the time the offer was made.

While it is true that the whole question of arbitration as against militant class action is involved in the consideration of this particular arbitration offer, it is not the point which we are stressing right now. We say, for the reasons given above, that whatever the position of a union may be on arbitration, the proposal made by the UAW was incorrect and if indulged in will certainly defeat the organization in its present fight with General Motors.

The UAW proposed that a three-man board be selected and that its decision be final and binding. But first there was the problem of getting the three-man board. The two members from industry and labor were to select the third man who would be the chairman. Obviously this would take time and while labor and industry haggled over the naming of a chairman, to be followed by long days of discussion in which GM would certainly not have given an inch, disintegration of the solidarity of the membership and demoralization would have set in.

What the Proposal Means

The proposal to go to arbitration ignored the real nature of the demands made by the union. The demands made on the corporation were not simple wage demands. The “arithmetic of this wage dispute” included as a a fundamentally new departure the demand that the corporation open its books so that the union could demonstrate to the consumer that the company could increase wages without increasing the price of its product This was a higher form of “arithmetic” than has been used heretofore by the labor movement in collective bargaining and transcends the traditional bounds of collective bargaining.

At the time the offer to arbitrate was made and under the concrete conditions the union really could not submit this particular dispute to arbitration. The demands made by the union and what was implied in them, thoroughly understood by the corporation, could not really be submitted to arbitration. As we said above, this flows from the pre-arbitration proposal negotiations and the militant nature of the demands.

“We prefer the conference table and the hearing room to the picket line.” Such a position was really preposterous in the concrete situation. If there was ever a situation in which the mass militant picket line is indicated it is exactly this situation where a union demanded the right to examine a corporation’s books and have a say in what prices should be charged for the product. The whole capitalist ruling class, including the press, rushed to the side of GM when the UAW made what the corporation called “unreasonable demands.”

It is the position of the Workers Party that in issues enjoined between the working class and the ruling class, between the unions and the employers, the rule should be to resolve the conflicts in militant class struggle action. There can be no such thing as an impartial arbitrator in a dispute between labor and capital, drawn from the ruling class. All arbitrators in labor disputes do come from the ruling class or from its middle class hangers-on. It was just such an individual who would have been the chairman of the three-man board proposed by the UAW. This would have meant that the ruling class would have had two members of the board and labor one. And this, in a situation where the union is demanding that its experts examine the corporation books and that the union have a say in the control of prices.

We say again that this particular proposal to arbitrate was particularly flagrant and only underscores the need for extreme caution by labor in writing arbitration clauses into its agreements with the employers. The content of the proposal tended at least to the acceptance of arbitration as something to be accepted as a regular procedure in the dispute between the ruling class and the working class. It was in effect a proposal to substitute the conference table, dominated by the ruling class, for militant class struggle action by the workers and the unions themselves. This is the all-important factor in this situation as it is usually the important factor in all the relations between the working class and the capitalist ruling class. We hope that the membership of the UAW will maintain an alertness and a constancy that will serve notice on the leadership that the union is prepared to fight this strike through until its aims are won.

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