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Inside Story

Art Preis

Inside Story of Toledo Strike

Told by a Leading Participant in the Battle with General Motors

(May 1935)

From The New Militant, Vol. I No. 23, 25 May 1935, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Ed. Note: This is the first of a series of three articles by Art Preis on the great Toledo strike. Art Preis was the editor of Strike Truth, the Chevrolet strike bulletin.)

No one will deny that the Toledo Chevrolet strike was one of the most remarkable labor battles ever fought in this country.

1,300 raw recruits to unionism, from a group of production workers formerly considered among the most docile in industry, for three weeks fought to a stand-still one of the most powerful corporations in the world. But one week in the union, they over-rode the timidity and actual hostility of their own national leaders in calling the strike and conducted themselves with a militancy, discipline and precision scarcely ever excelled in American labor history. On their own initiative, in the face of the outright opposition of their own higher officials, they spread the strike to tens of thousands of other auto workers in distant cities and effectively paralyzed an entire giant corporation.

They distinguished themselves not merely on the picket lines, however, but in that complex and treacherous field of negotiations. They demanded and secured direct negotia tions between their employers and elected workers from their own ranks. The pressure, authority propaganda and intimidation of the government, press and employers combined could not deceive or demoralize them. They forced some measure of concessions from an hitherto unyielding gang of industrial overlords.

Went Down Fighting

If in the end they bowed to the shameless and brazen treachery of some of their own leaders and returned to work with very partial gains, they did so only after the most stirring resistance and protest conceivable under the circumstances. Far from succumbing to a disillusionment and demoralization which might well have shattered their ranks, as has happened in similar circumstances with other older and more experienced union groups, within 24 hours they met again to denounce those who had betrayed them, to analyze their successes and mistakes in preparation for a future battle which they are determined to make, and to present an unbroken front of loyal unionism more fighting and progressive than ever.

No competent observer would regard such an example of working class struggle and solidarity as something spontaneous. The record of the present leaders of the A.F. of L., their methods and attitudes as proved in similar past instances in steel, rubber, auto, textile and other basic industries, would indicate that more was needed than spontaneous will to offset the demoralizing and shattering effects of their restraining, demagogic and bureaucratic domination. From vhat occurred in the Toledo Chevrolet strike, certain questions must inevitably arise. What was the leadership and guidance, what the program, what the forces that determined the course of these events. Further, and more significant, what were the means and methods employed by this leadership?

Role of the W.P.

The answer to the first question is generally known and conceded. All competent observers for the capitalist press of the nation, including such an informed reporter as Louis Stark of the New York Times, attributed the leading influence to the Workers Party. It was publicly recognized by Francis Dillon, national A.F. of L. organizer who fought the progressives and temporarily curbed the strike. It has been openly acknowledged directly and indirectly by official representatives of both the Socialist and the Communist parties in Toledo.

More vital for the future guidance of the American working class however, is the answer to the second question. That answer lies correctly not merely in the immediate and apparent events preceding and during the strike, but in events which are rooted in the entire course of the labor movement in Toledo for the past two yelars. It derives entirely from the activities and development of the Workers Party in Toledo.

Toledo Before Auto-Lite

Until the time of the Auto-Lite strike of last May, Toledo to most people was merely a stop-over between Cleveland and Detroit or the place where a boxer named Dempsey gained immortality by successfully pounding with his fists a fellow named Jess Willard. Its only other claim to distinction was the fact that all but one of its ten banks had collapsed two years before Roosevelt stabilized the banking system of the nation by closing all the banks. In 1932, 60 to 70 percent of its formerly gainfully employed population was unemployed.

Toledo was also a notorious cheap-labor, “scab” town. Whatever unions were in existence were weak and ineffectual craft unions among the skilled trades. Year after year they continued in their sleepy and ineffectual way. There was no expansion, vitality or activity.

Latent Power of Workers

For a labor movement built on exclusive and craft lines solely, totally unconcerned about developing genuine power so long as they could fortify the comparative handful in their own ranks, the fact that Toledo was the glass and auto-parts center of America was not even recognized. They did not know, or were unconcerned about the fact that a stoppage of production in even a few plants in Toledo would be sufficient to paralyze automobile production, and indirectly affect the production of steel, coal and other basic products which for the past few years has been sustained largely by the continued expansion of the automobile industry. The Toledo industrial workers had a weapon for power in their hands which they did not know either existed or how to use.

Today, Toledo is a union town to a very great extent. Within one year it has won a name for itself as a stronghold of progressive and militant unionism. Over twenty successful or partially successful strikes have been waged in the past 12 months in all of which mass picket lines and mass action have been the characteristic weapon of labor. In almost every strike those who have organized and led the picket lines have been Workers Party members. Starting with the famous Auto-Lite strike, through the Larrowe Milling and Armour and Swift strikes, up to the General Milk Drivers and FERA strikes, the Workers Party has laid down the lines of the militant strike strategy employed, and its members have personally led the struggles. Their participation was known and welcomed, often officially invited, their advice and tactics were considered and largely pursued.

The First Battle

It was in the Auto-Lite strike that the W.P. first showed its mettle and sowed the seeds of militant unionism and working-class solidarity which are today the characteristics of the Toledo labor movement. With but five or six actual party members at the time, none of whom were connected with the union, the Workers Party, with the aid of the Lucas County Unemployed League, which the W.P. had organized and in which its members had been most active and prominent, went on the picket-lines, at a time when the strike was completely demoralized, defied the injunction against mass picketing, to which the reactionary leaders of the auto union, Ramsey and Bossier, had timidly submitted, revived the strike, built up mass picket lines, reorganized the scattered ranks of the strikers and personally led the workers on the firing line in the six-day “Battle of Chestnut Hill” against all the forces of the police, deputies and National Guards.

But the activities of the Workers Party only began with this strike. The next job was to clean out the union, weaken the reactionary and backward influences, and establish the union on a fighting, progressive basis. Several of the most courageous, intelligent and active members of the union were brought into the W.P. Working under the guidance and discipline of the W.P., they began to organize a progressive bloc inside the union. These progressives drew up a slate of officers which they ran in the union elections, capturing seven out of twelve offices. Among those who were placed in office was Jimmy Roland, the fighting leader of the Toledo Chevrolet strikers, who, from the beginning, was a leader of the progressive forces. Progressives were elected to positions on their executive shop committees of the different plants which were organized and were placed upon the general executive committee of the local. The W.P. inside and outside of the union began to expose the policies of Ramsey and Bossier. Its members built up an air-tight case based on iron facts with which to lay open their anti-union activities. When the progressives were organized to sufficient strength, they placed charges against these corrupt leaders, fought them openly on the floor of the union and had them ousted from office.

In Passing

In this connection, a passing word should be given to the stupid charges voiced in the Daily Worker editorial of May 6, titled Renegades in Toledo. This editorial, obviously written in New York by some hack entirely ignorant of the Toledo situation, asserted that the “American Workers Party” was making an alliance with Ramsey, “an A.F. of L. official,” to split the strike. This is not merely a deliberate lie, but a silly one, since everyone in Toledo knows that there is no such official as Ramsey in the union, and that it was the W.P. members and progressives in the union who forced his ousting eight months ago.

Following the cleaning up of the union, the progressives pushed forward a program of intensive organization in the union. Plant after plant was organized, signed contracts secured from the employers, and the union’s position consolidated and company unionism smashed in all the plants already organized. The militancy which the workers had learned in the Auto-Lite strike held good. Violations of the terms of the contracts by the bosses met with immediate and strong action. Inside and departmental strikes were numerous. The union men were constantly vigilant in the maintenance of their rights.

General Motors Next

One plant alone remained, in particular, to be organized. But this plant was a harder nut to crack than the others had been. This was not the plant of some local capitalists. It was a part of that huge network belonging to the seemingly all-powerful General Motors Corp., the Chevrolet Motor Ohio Company, key transmission plant for the Chevrolet Corp. Workers in this plant had always shunned unionism They would not even accept leaflets. Not more than a small handful had ever been induced even to attend an open union meeting. The spy-system, the black-list, the company union reigned supreme. But forces were at work inside and outside of the Chevrolet plant which all the power and intimidation of General Motors could not offset.

(Continued next week)

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