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A.J. Muste

The New Struggle in Autos

Big Test Awaits Industrial Union Movement

(30 November 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. 1 No. 49, 30 November 1935, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DETROIT, Mich. – On every side signs multiply suggesting that before this winter is over the battle for unionization of the automobile industry will come to a head. The condition of the industry, the developments among the independent unions in the industry; the Green-Lewis controversy in the A.F. of L. over craft versus Industrial unionism, and the strikes that have already broken out or are about to explode, all point in this direction. It is hard to see how a gigantic conflict can be avoided. The automobile magnates’ nervousness is reflected in all the newspapers in the automobile centers of Michigan, Ohio and adjoining states.

The strike of nearly 4,000 workers in the Motor Products Co. in Detroit is holding firm. It is a preliminary skirmish in which the forces that will presently be cooperating or fighting on a grand scale are feeling each other out. The strike was called by the Automobile Industrial Workers Association (the “Coughlin” union) mainly composed of production workers, but the Mechanics Educational Society of America (composed mainly of tool and die makers though its last convention decided for industrial organization) which also had members working in the plant immediately called out its men and gave the strike complete support. The strike also has the support of the Associated Automobile Workers of America (known as the “Greer” union after its leader). As the New Militant reported recently, the executives of these three independent unions in the auto field have voted for amalgamation into an industrial union with a preamble recognizing the existence of class struggle. The referendum vote of the membership on the proposal will be almost unanimously favorable.

The Motor Products strike is thus the first test of the new amalgamation of auto unions. If it succeeds, as seems fairly certain, the new union will become a very potent rallying center.

The reactionary wing of the A.F. of L., headed in the automobile industry by Francis Dillon who gained unsavory fame for his collaboration with the bosses in the great General Motors strike last spring and was rewarded by Bill Green last August by being made president over the protests of the delegates of the A.F. of L. international, the United Automobile Workers, has behaved in characteristic fashion and has succeeded in finally discrediting itself in the eyes of the Detroit workers. Dillon tried to play an open scab-herding role. He stated publicly that he would confer with the management and “take the Motors Products workers back to their job at once.”

The strikers met the Dillon blast with two masterful strokes. First, they challenged Dillon to support an election under Federal auspices to determine which union represents the majority of the men. Dillon cannot run this chance. The firm will also oppose it as long as possible, because to allow an election means recognition of the Wagner Board and recognition of the independent union!

In the next place the strike leaders are inviting Dillon’s union to join the strike committee, help them to win the battle and telling him that they are willing in such case to have him take all the credit he wants for the victory!

Dillon will of course not cooperate with the “outlaws” and the chance that he will be able to do any damage to the strike is now practically nil.

It can be authoritatively stated that from both sides leaders of the M.E.S.A. and the A.I.W.A. and the John L. Lewis Committee for Industrial Unionism have been making exploratory moves to determine whether cooperation is possible. Here is the key to the situation so far as the workers’ side of the struggle is concerned.

The auto workers, especially in Detroit, have unquestionably lost faith in the A.F. of L. which they identify with Dillon and his predecessor, Collins. This outfit cannot organize the industry. The opportunity will pass this year, perhaps for several years, if it is left to them. On the other hand, the workers are not likely to have the confidence that any combination of independents can achieve the huge task, especially as long as an unsympathetic, reactionary A.F. of L. union remains in the field to keep the men divided and to receive the bosses’ support as soon as the independents really threaten the latter. The independents need the support of the John L. Lewis “progressives” to smash the Green-Dillon leadership from inside the A.F. of L. Then the basis will be laid for a genuine industrial union within the A.F of L. which can include the present independents. There are reasons to believe that the more far-sighted leaders among the independents have just such a perspective.

Thus the prospects for a sound foundation for building a union are better than ever. The workers are astir, furthermore, and here and there strikes are break-big out earlier than in other seasons, making it more likely that enough impetus for an extensive struggle will be attained before the season passes its peak. The condition of the industry itself is also favorable for an organization campaign and strike action.

General Motors Nervous

On the one hand, production Is running high. Detroit turned out 93,177 cars last week compared with 16,810 in the corresponding week last year. On the other hand, competition for business is fierce.

The companies are thus caught in a dilemma. If e.g. a plant producing even a minor part of a car is shut down, the production line in one of the big companies may be slowed down in a few days which means losing orders. The same drive of competition is leading companies to seek means of cutting down costs, which means that in the face of rising prices grievances accumulate among the workers. Thus the Motor Products Corporation strike started over an attempt of the company to put over a wage cut under the cover of a shift from piece to week work. General Motors is laying up trouble for itself, in its move to decentralize its trans, mission production, so that it may not be caught again as it was by the Toledo strike last year, by working the men in Muncie, Ind., and Saginaw, Mich. 25 percent longer hours and at correspondingly lower pay than the reduced force still working in Toledo. Little wonder the big companies exhibit symptoms of extreme nervousness!

Militants and progressives must not let this opportunity pass. They must make full use of it. In a real sense the fate of the American labor movement for a long time to come may hinge upon what happens in the auto industry between now and May of next year. Militants and progressives in meeting this challenge and opportunity will:

Program for Militants

  1. Promote the amalgamation movement among the independent auto unions.
  2. Fight to smash the Green Dillon leadership in the A.F. of L auto union once and for all.
  3. Demand that the Lewis-Hillman “progressives” prove that they mean business by fighting Dillon, supporting strikes, whether of A.F of L. or independent unions, and undertaking to unite all forces in the Industry and in the labor movement for a large-scale organizing campaign to start immediately.
  4. Support joint action of all elements in any organizing work and strikes now going on.
  5. Aim at the creation in this production season of a powerful industrial union in automobiles with an autonomous international Charter from the A.F. of L. and democratically controlled by its own membership. Even if the Green-Woll forces block the movement and force postponement of a decision until the next A.F. of L. convention, this must not prevent cooperation of all forces in organizing and strike activity pending final determination of the A.F. of L. attitude.

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