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Inside Story

Art Preis

Inside Story of Toledo Strike

Told by a Leading Participant in the Battle with General Motors

(June 1935)

From The New Militant, Vol. I No. 24, 1 June 1935, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

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

Two-fold were the lessons of tie Auto Lite strike, lessons which quickly permeated the entire Toledo labor movement, and which in turn affected through the Toledo labor movement the Chevrolet strike. The first lesson was that better conditions for the workers are won on the picket lines. Secondly, the Toledo workers had learned that the struggle of one group of workers is the battle of all workers, in which all labor must cooperate if victory is to be assured.

Side by side with the progressive growth and development of the auto workers union, Local 18384, a new spirit began to animate the other unions as well. One of the significant indications of this fact was the increasing participation of the Toledo Central Labor Union in every strike battle and its response to the appeals for assistance from the organized unemployed.

The Organized Unemployed

It was a well established fact that the Lucas County Unemployed League, acting with the assistance of the Workers Party, had taken the Initiative and aggression in smashing the Auto-Lite injunction and reviving the lifeless strike. This action on the part of the organized unemployed served to drive home to the union men that the unemployed, instead of being a serious menace to their jobs and wage-standards, a huge reservoir of potential “scabs,” might become an invaluable ally on the picket lines. In the Armour and Swift and Larrowe Milling strikes, which shortly followed the Auto-Lite, the Lucas County Unemployed League was officially invited to aid the strikers and in actuality formed the backbone of the mass picket lines.

One of the significant contributions of the Workers Party to the Toledo labor movement, and one which has had a vital bearing upon the present characteristic solidarity, was the weapon of the united front. While the Unemployed League was demonstrating the effectiveness of joint action between the unemployed workers on the Auto-Lite picket lines, a united demonstration was secured for increased relief between the Central Labor Union, the Unemployed League and the now defunct Relief Workers Association. A successful united front anti-injunction demonstration, originally proposed by the W.P., was carried through by the Workers Party, Socialist and Communist parties.

The Famous Death March

In the fall of 1934, on the initiative of the Unemployed League, a Joint Action Committee was organized with several other local independent unemployed groups. A continuous fight of several months duration was conducted to better the relief standards for unemployed single men. A series of extremely militant marches and mass demonstrations, climaxed by the famous six-day-and-night Single Men’s Death March and the seizure of the Lucas County Court House, were organized and led by Sam Pollock and Ted Selander.

During the latter part of February of this year, the Toledo Building Trades Council initiated a strike among the skilled workers on the Federal Emergency Relief projects in Toledo. The Unemployed League soon stepped to the fore in this strike. The program of the Unemployed League for the conduct of this strike was adopted in entirety. A Joint Action Committee, representing the entire Building Trades Council, the U.L. and the Workers Alliance, was set up and a general FERA strike was effected. Mass strike tactics, hitherto completely outside of the experience of the skilled craft unions, were adopted. Again W.P. and U.L. members organized and led the picket lines and a series of splendid demonstrations.

A May Day United Labor demonstration was organized by the Joint Action Committee, endorsed by the Central Labor Union. This was the largest May Day demonstration ever held in Toledo, with A.J. Muste as the principle speaker. It ended in a militant march upon the Lucas County Relief headquarters.

“March of Labor”

While the FERA strike was reaching its height, four other strikes occurred, the outstanding being the general Milk Drivers strike. An unofficial Joint Board of Strategy was devised, composed of the leaders of all the strikes including Sam Pollock, representing the Joint Action Committee. The forces of the various groups of strikers, under the leadership of Pollock, were combined into a joint picket line, called the March of Labor, which by a series of quick concentrations on various struck plants and projects closed them all down effectively.

It is only on the basis of an understanding of this simultaneous development – the organization of the progressive forces within the auto union and its expansion and achievements by virtue of the militant policies fostered by these forces, and the corresponding development in the entire labor movement of the attitude of working-class unity and mass action, with a weakening of class-collaboration policies – that the subsequent unionization of the Toledo Chevrolet workers, their strike and its unique aspects, can be correctly understood. In the final analysis, what preceded and immediately followed the Chevrolet strike is as significant from a broad perspective as the strike itself.

Showdown Comes in Autos

Following the unionization of the vast majority of the Toledo auto-parts plants by March of this year, the auto workers’ union finally approached the last major challenge in its path, the transmission plant of the Chevrolet Motor Ohio Company, employing 2,300 workers. Previous attempts to organize this plant had met with almost total failure. Certain more backward elements and leaders in the union balked at the seeming magnitude of the task, for this was poaching upon the previously inviolable domains of the General Motors Corporation whose illimitable resources would be fully and unhesitatingly used to smash the union. Nevertheless, the progressive forces in the union pressed unceasingly for an organizational drive on the Chevrolet plant. They recognized that all previous union activities had been merely preliminary skirmishes and training for this major onslaught, which carried with it the possibility of a general auto strike and a genuine show-down on the issue of unionism in the automotive industry.

Three primary factors determined the ultimate success of the progressives’ program for organization of the Chevrolet plant. The first of these was the general atmosphere of unionism which pervaded the air of Toledo and the steady succession of labor battles and victories and partial victories which followed in the wake of the Auto-Lite strike. The Chevrolet worker might have shunned direct union appeals, but he could not avoid the experiences of his friends and neighbors who were in the unions nor the daily evidences of union activities and achievements which constantly forced themselves into the Toledo press.

The Company Maneuver

Secondly, the officials of General Motors connived with the Automobile Labor Board in attempting to put over a crude maneuver to place the official stamp of company unionism upon the Chevrolet workers. This was an “election” called in the Chevrolet plant for April 9, under the supervision of the completely repudiated Board, to determine what agency the workers desired to represent them in collective bargaining. The real union had not even requested such an election, but it was the intent of the company to force through a vote favorable to the company union before the genuine union could secure the slightest foot-hold in the plant. The obvious crudity and arrogance of this maneuver acted as a boomerang against the company and served to drive the workers in desperate defiance to the union.

Then there was Jimmy Roland. Jimmy was a plain everyday production worker in the Chevrolet plant. He joined the union in its early stages prior to the Auto-Lite strike. In short order, he got the “can.” During the Auto-Lite affray he was one of the handful of union militants who fought the injunction. He was one of the real mainstays of the fight. During his period of unemployment he joined the U.L. and became one of its leading members. He likewise established himself as a leading progressive in the union and was elected to the position of trustee on the executive board.

One-Man Picket Line

Despite his inexperience and youth, Jimmy was class-conscious to the core, intelligent and eager to learn, tireless in his efforts to build the union, honest and incorruptible In every fiber and, above all, a bull dog fighter for his principles. He refused to back down before General Motors. When the Auto Labor Board avoided his appeal for reinstatement on his job, he put on his one-man picket line before the Chevrolet main gate. He was re-hired in short order – and placed in an office post at his original wage.

With its hand forced by the imminent Auto Labor Board election, the union was compelled to act promptly and decisively. Ten days before the election a meeting of the Chevrolet workers was called. The phenomenal number of 600 showed up. Jimmy Roland was chairman and acting organizer. Other successful meetings were called in quick succession. The union was flooded with applications for membership. When the elections were finally held, despite the fact that the union advised the workers not to participate in it, the vote of the Chevrolet workers went overwhelmingly for the representative of the union, the business agent, Fred Schwake.

Acted Quickly

Once the vote was over, there was no stalling or delay. Moving quickly and decisively, guided by the strong and militant leadership of Jimmy Roland, as chairman of the elected executive shop committee, the new union men acting through their committee drew up a union contract and presented it to the plant executives on April 19. Roland firmly and skillfully directed the inexperienced committee through this first treacherous conference, and indicated thereby the undeviating position he would maintain throughout the strike. The committee refused to discuss anything but the terms of their own contract. They would not accept cigars or non-union brand cigarettes offered by the bosses. They declined to lunch with the bosses or deal with them in any but a formal and business-like manner. The class lines were strictly drawn.

Every significant condition in the union contract was flatly rejected by the bosses. That very night a mass meeting of the Chevrolet workers was held and a unanimous vote for strike taken. A strike committee of nine was elected with authority to call the strike. Jimmy Roland was the chairman.

Trying to Stall

Desperately, General Motors sought to delay the action. Top-notch G.M.C. officials flooded into Toledo from Detroit. Monday, April 22, at 5 A.M. and called the shop committee into another conference. General Motors was obviously on the defensive. They knew they were dealing with leadership of a different calibre than that of the weak, vacillating, conciliating type of the A.F. of L. officialdom, personified by individuals like the national auto union organizer, Francis Dillon. They kept the committee closeted in conference for twelve straight hours so that the strike could not be called that day. The committee held to its demands like the Rock of Gibraltar.

At 6:15 A.M., April 23, Jimmy Roland and his committee went through the plant and spread the word. The power was turned off, the wheels stopped moving. In a disciplined organized line, the workers marched from the plant. The company foremen tried to threaten and cajole the strikers not to leave. Company handbills, calculated to distort the issues of the strike and confuse the workers, were circulated. The company tactics were useless. In short order, the plant was entirely shut down.

At the plant gate, the strikers were met by a group of the union men, headed by Bill Prior. The progressives aided the strikers to organize a solid, effective mass picket line.

Then the strike committee, as guided by Jimmy Roland, sent a number of telegrams. One went to Washington to the surprised and chagrined Francis Dillon, informing him that the strike was on. The others went to all the union locals in General Motors plants throughout the country, telling them of the strike and urging them to take similar action. Every one of these moves had been previously calculated by the union progressives.

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