Preis Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

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. 25, 8 June 1935, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Ed. Note: This is the last 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.)

From the outset of the Chevrolet strike, the line-up of opposing forces was clear-cut and marked. On the one side were the strikers, a minority of the strike committee and the progressive forces in the union local. On the other, were General Motors, the organized commercial and industrial interests such as the Chamber of Commerce and Merchants and Manufacturers Association, the capitalist daily press, the “leading citizens” including prominent socialites, university and school officials, ministers, public officials, etc., the government, and finally, certain union officials themselves, particularly those representing the national leadership of the A.F. of L.

The strategy of the union progressives was first of all to maintain the Toledo strike on a militant, mass action basis, to keep the leadership of the strike in the hands of the elected strike committee, and to prevent the settlement of the strike by Francis Dillon and the A.F. of L. officialdom over the heads of the strikers. Further, the progressives realized the necessity of spreading the strike to every General Motors plant and, if possible, to inspire a general auto walk-out.

No Try at Scabbing

For the first four days of the strike, under the aggressive leadership of the progressives, the strikers pushed forward with irresistible power. Apart from the newspaper propaganda – anti-strike stuff thinly disguised under a veil of impartiality – and misleading advertisements on the strike paid for by General Motors and the Chamber of Commerce, no effective counter-attack was launched. No effort was made by the company to run scabs into the plant, for memories of the Auto-Lite strike still provokes sleeplessness among the industrialists in Toledo.

Mass picket lines kept a 24 hour vigilance about the deserted plant. Plant managers and officials were forced to beg the permission of the strike committee to enter upon their own premises. The company was compelled to pay the strikers off the property and while on the picket line. By keeping one step ahead of the company, by taking the aggressive, the strikers prevented the company from carrying through a coordinated counter-offensive. The company simply did not know how to deal with progressive labor leaders of the caliber of a Jim Roland.

Combating Company Propaganda

Moreover, from the standpoint of demoralizing propaganda, the strike committee began to show the “public relations councils” of General Motors a thing or two. When the company issued lengthy statements to the public through press channels, the strike committee promptly replied through the same channels with equally lengthy but extremely devastating prepared statements that quickly forced the company to change the substance of its propaganda. Further, the strike committee issued a strike bulletin, Strike Truth, which had wide-spread distribution among the Chevrolet workers and workers in other auto-parts plants. The militant tone, the factual material anl the clear-cut analysis of the strike issues contained in this single bulletin tremendously strengthened the morale of the strikers and laid the basis for the progressive principles which strongly directed the further conduct of the strike and the negotiations.

One primary consideration motivated the union progressives as they mapped out their tactics. They understood well enough that in this particular situation the most dangerous forces they had to combat were within their own camp. They knew they were dealing with inexperienced, uneducated (from a working-class standpoint), inarticulate workers, fearful of “public opinion,” subject to confusion in the welter of rumor and misleading propaganda, raw with indoctrinated prejudices against “radicalism,” suspicious of everything they could not unlerstand – , but nevertheless anxious for competent guidance and willing to make a stand-up fight. The real enemy they would have to combat would be the A.F. of L. top officials, Bill Green and his lieutenant, Francis Dillon, whose policies were opposed to strikes and militant action, who believed in asking favors of the bosses and keeping on friendly terms with the labor exploiters and the government. In every major industry these elements had succeeded in curbing necessary militant action by reliance on compromising methods of arbitration and the diversion of action into the deadening channels of endless conferences and government boards and agencies which were promptly converted into instruments for the protection of the interests of the employers.

The Negotiations

From the outset, the progressives put forth the idea of direct negotiations between the elected committee of the strikers and the employers. They impressed upon the strikers the dangers of permitting the government to direct the terms of the strike settlement, or to allow other than those from their own immediate ranks to have final authority in negotiations.

The first move of the company had been to proffer counter-proposals to those contained in the union contract. These proposals were in effect the acceptance of company-unionism, the notorious “merit” and “proportional representation” clauses of the now defunct Automobile Labor Code, “conditional” promises of slight wage increases, all hidden behind neat sounding phrases. Francis Dillon did not arrive in Toledo until four days after the strike was under way. Even had he desired to, he could not have forced the company’s proposals down the strikers’ throat. For the time being he had to appear to go along with the sentiment of the strikers, in order to gain their confidence by a display of militancy and to seize in his own hands the leadership of the strike. At a mass meeting of the strikers, held on the day of his arrival, he urged them to vote down the company’s offer. This they did unanimously.

Conflict Sharpens

Once Dillon arrived on the scene, the conflict of forces within the union ranks, between the reactionaries and progressives, became more sharp. The company refused to deal further with the strikers’ representatives or to negotiate until the men returned to work. This left the situation in Toledo at a complete stand-still. It was obvious that the strategy of General Motors (and Francis Dillon, who was equally anxious to have the strike terminated) was to keep the strike isolated, undermine the morale of the strikers through propaganda and the threat of permanently closing the plant and starting operations elsewhere, demoralize them through inaction and subversive methods and, if possible, starve them out.

The next move of the progressives was to spread the strike. On the day of Dillon’s arrival in Toledo, a group of Chevrolet strikers had gone to Detroit where copies of Strike Truth were circulated at the Chevrolet plant there, and the office building of General Motors was picketed until the group was arrested by Detroit police. Although the closure of the Toledo plant threatened shortly to stop production throughout the entire Chevrolet Corp. because of shortage of transmissions, every effort was being made by General Motors and the press to keep news of the strike from reaching outside of Toledo. Francis Dillon had safely concealed and ignored for some time the vote of numerous auto union locals throughout the country in favor of strike action. The nation’s auto workers, speeded up and exploited to the hilt, wanted action. Telegrams had been sent by the strike committee to numerous other locals telling of the strike and urging them to take similar action.

Strike Spreads

Dillon moved north, following his first mass meeting in Toledo, to confer with the Detroit union officials. The strike committee and the Toledo union progressives went south, to Norwood, Ohio. They succeeded in persuading the workers in two General Motors plants there to strike, without benefit of Dillon. At the same time, plants in Cleveland and Atlanta, Ga., were shut down by company officials just prior to strike action. Other strikes threatened, involving important key plants. Each day reports of plant closures due to lack of parts were received. The next move of the progressives was to Flint.

While the representatives of Bill Green were moving in on the strike from the outside, there were numerous elements within the local union, particularly the executive board members and the business agent, Fred Schwake, who were opposing the progressives and attempting to undermine the influence of Jimmy Roland and the strike committee. Under the pressure of Dillon and T.N. Taylor, another of Bill Green’s organizers, they began to obstruct progressive moves. They withheld funds from the strike committee and prevented the further publication of the strike bulletin. In the mass meetings and on the picket-lines they attempted to edge the strike committee out of the leadership. A red-scare was started by Schwake who induced a small group of the more backward strikers to chase individuals distributing literature of other working-class organizations. Representatives of the Communist Party received the brunt of this attack, due in large measure to the stupidity and tactlessness of some of the statements: contained in an initial leaflet.

Welcome W.P. Literature

Members of the W.P. reported these reactionary actions to the Joint Action Committee which immediately sent a strong protest to the strike committee and the union executive board. The W.P. members continued to distribute leaflets in the name of our party which were widely accepted by the strikers and read with keen interest. The strikers shortly made a distinction between W.P. literature and that of other groups, and always welcomed the distinctive appearing leaflets of the W.P. which contained a positive program of action explained in clear terms and which fearlessly and factually exposed the policies and maneuvers of Dillon and his machine. Thousands of New Militants, containing uncompromising attacks upon Dillon, Taylor and Schwake, pointing out the correct tactics to be used, the role of the government, etc., were distributed on the picket lines and at the meetings. This literature of the W.P. had an incalculable effect in molding progressive sentiment and arming the progressives against the influence of the reactionaries.

During the second week of the strike, the company started to open its attack. It began the swift setting-up of a transmission plant to replace the Toledo one in Muncie, Ind., which the newspapers played up to frighten the Toledo workers back to work. A strike-breaking agency, hiding behind the spurious name of “Independent Workers Association,” was organized by the company officials and foremen. Government “concliators,” including the Department of Labor’s chief strikebreaker, Edward F. McGrady, were sent into Toledo.

The “Independent Workers Association” claimed to have sent a request to the G.M.C. officials, together with a petition containing the signatures of a majority of the Chevrolet employees, asking for a vote on the company’s proposals under the supervision of the Department of Labor.

Dillon’s First Trick

Dillon, persuaded by a superficial show of strength on the part of this strike-breaking outfit that a majority of the workers were in favor of returning to work, urged such a vote in hopes that the union forces would be outvoted and the strikers forced to capitulate in a manner which would not put the finger of betrayal upon him. After terrific pressure had been brought upon the strike committee, all but Roland and two others agreed to the vote.

The following night, Sunday, Dillon went to the Buick local in Flint. This local had previously voted to go on strike the next morning at a meeting held several days before when a delegation of Toledo union militants headed by Jimmy Roland had visited the Flint local. Dillon influenced the Flint workers to postpone strike action until after the vote by misleading statements regarding the courage and strength of the Toledo strikers. The progressives, once the vote had been called for, started a drive to defeat the company’s proposals. A huge mass meeting of Toledo labor was held. Another issue of Strike Truth was published, under a different editor, somewhat weakened, but following the general form of the first one. When the vote was taken three days later, the union won hands down.

Turn Down Proposal

Dillon did not cease his stalling tactics. He came to an agreement with the G.M.C. representative, through the agency of McGrady, for another line of attack. The company agreed to meet with the representatives of the strikers for further negotiations. Dillon used the pretext of the negotiations to again restrain the Flint Buick local from striking until after the negotiations. During the negotiations all but one member of the strike committee refused to accept the company’s second proposal, which included only some minor concessions and no guarantee of union recognition or seniority rights. The one member of the committee who fought on the side of Dillon, McGrady and the G.M.C., was Ben Bonner. This is the same Ben Bonner whom the Daily Worker described on May 13, the day of the betrayal, as a leading “militant” and “progressive.”

The progressives began to organize the strike militants in preparation for the meeting on May 13, when the question of the company’s second proposal was to be presented. Dillon, breaking an agreement made with the strike committee, issued a widely featured statement to the press telling the strikers to accept the company’s proposals and, by indirection, denunciatlng the loyal members of the strike committee as “reds.” The newspapers put on an extra heavy barrage urging the strikers to follow Dillon’s advice. On May 12, A.J. Muste addressed an open meeting on the strike, in which he vigorously scored Dillon, Schwake and the other reactionaries, and urged the strikers not accept the company’s terms. Many of the leading strikers and picket captains attended the meeting.

The Showdown

So strong had the sentiment become against Dillon, that at the May 13 meeting the strikers first voted to refuse the floor for discussion on the company’s proposal to anyone but the strikers and members of the strike committee. Dillon went into a tantrum and stormed from the hall, loudly declaring that he would withdraw the union charter. The subsequent developments of the meeting, with its disquieting results for the strikers, can be attributed solely to the inexperience of the strikers and the inarticulateness of the members of the strike committee.

The executive members of the union local, fearful that Dillon had power to carry out his threat and still largely under conservative influences, induced Roland and the other committeemen, from the standpoint of union loyalty, “fair play,” “free speech,” etc., to secure a vote permitting Dillon to speak. Dillon spoke, using every device of cajolery, alarm and threat to induce the strikers to accept the company’s terms. He was roundly booed during the entire course of his speech, and it is generally admitted that his remarks carried insufficient weight to capture the strikers. But when Fred Schwake, whom the strikers considered one of their own and whom a great number still had confidence in because of his public appearance of militancy, spoke in favor of acceptance while the voting was going on, a great number of the strikers, who shortly thereafter bitterly condemned their own capitulation, became discouraged and confused and voted, against their own desires, for acceptance. The vote resulted in favor of acceptance and the strikers returned to work the next day.

Role of Parties

One of the important and significant phases of this strike was the role of the various working-class political parties. The Socialist Party was conspicuous by its complete absence from the strike. As Tim McCormack, one of the local S.P. leaders, exclaimed on the day of the settlement to the organizer of the Toledo W.P. branch, “Jesus Christ! The S.P. hasn’t done a goddam thing during this strike.”

The same can he equally said of the Communist Party. Aside from the usual passing out of leaflets which were largely illiterate and illegible and usually making suggestions on policy three days after the progressives of the union had already taken steps to put them into effect, the C.P. had neither direct nor indirect influence on the strike. Officials of the S.P. and C.P. came to representatives of the W.P. on the afternoon of the settlement and for two hours begged and pleaded with the W.P. for a “united front” When the W.P. pointed out that this was a rather belated step in view of the imminent crisis and that these other groups were in disrepute with the strikers and the W.P. was not, the representatives of these groups agreed that such a “united front” would act to hurt the progressives rather than help them.

The final consideration of the effectiveness of the organization of the progressives has come since the strike. The night following the settlement the Chevrolet union members again met in full force. There was no demoralization. Dillon and his machine were denounced by the entire body. Representatives of the Central Labor Union spoke at this meeting and likewise denounced Dillon.

Progressives to Meet Soon

Today the union is stronger than ever in the Chevrolet plant The progressives in the entire local are more influential and organizing more strongly than ever. A conference of auto union progressives from all sections of the country will be held definitely in the near future. Local 18384 passed a resolution last week, which all the locals in the country will be asked to adopt, demanding that Dillon be fired as an A.F. of L. organizer. Schwake’s star has dimmed and he will undoubtedly be deposed from his position in the union very shortly. The Chevrolet workers have conducted several inside strikes since their return to work, all of them completely successful.

The Chevrolet strike must be regarded as merely the preliminary skirmish of a greater battle to come. The progressive program, which the W.P. has been advocating, the militant policies, are becoming more strongly ingrained in the union. From the standpoint of the immediate gains secured in the strike, the strikers suffered a partial defeat. From the standpoint of the development of the progressive forces, the strengthening of the union, the splendid fight that is being made against the union reactionaries, the Chevrolet strike must be regarded as a magnificent victory.

Preis Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 24 February 2015