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UAW Delegates Face Key Issues

Uphold Democratic Unionism
in First Two Sharp Debates

(24 March 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 13, 30 March 1946, pp. 1 & 2
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J., Mar. 24. – Hot from the battlefronts of the greatest labor upsurge in American history, some 2,000 delegates of the mighty CIO United Automobile Workers have been meeting here at the Civic Auditorium since yesterday in their scheduled week-long 10th National Convention.

Dispensing with the usual practice at most union conventions, including the CIO, of wasting the delegates’ time with numerous wind-bag guest speakers and elaborate ceremonies, the convention got down to business quickly yesterday afternoon. Before the first recess it had acted on a number of important resolutions, including the plan for a big “Organize the Unorganized” campaign.

Key Issues

However, many of the key issues that developed out of the great strike wave, which was spearheaded by the General Motors workers, have not yet hit the convention floor. These include such questions as “company security,” government “fact-finding” boards and the launching of an independent labor party.

Much of the interest and attention of the delegates is being centered on the struggle for the presidency of the union, between Walter Reuther, UAW vice-president and GM strike leader, and UAW President R.J. Thomas. This issue will come to a head Wednesday, when the election of officers is scheduled.

This afternoon saw the first real outbursts of debate and controversy on vital questions.

The delegates vociferously and overwhelmingly voted down the unanimous proposal of the Constitution Committee to amend the UAW constitution to provide for the election of national officers every two years instead of annually.

The convention also referred back to the Constitution Committee a proposal to establish a Fair Practices and Anti-Discrimination Department after delegates insisted the proposal be strengthened to include provisions for greater representation for the Negro members in the top councils of the union.

Storm of Boos

As in previous conventions, the proposal to extend the terms of the top officers beyond one year was immediately greeted with a storm of boos and other strong expressions of disapproval. Shouts of “sit down” met the spokesman of the Constitution Committee, Ben Garrison of Ford Highland Park Local 400, when he tried to sell the convention the top leadership’s unpopular proposal – which none of the latter had the guts to openly and personally advocate.

After the chairman, Thomas, pleaded to “give the speaker a chance,” Garrison made a demagogic plea for the longer term in order to “limit politics” and because, he claimed, “if we permit continuation of internal politics we are not going to have a union.” Shelton Tappes of Ford Local 600, another member of the committee, who has been known as a close follower of Stalinist policies, also spoke for two-year terms in order to “eliminate politics from the union.”

Although the floor was flooded with the upraised hands of delegates, principally those who opposed the proposal, Thomas managed to give the floor mainly to those who favored the proposal. This brought loud and strident objections.

Voice of Ranks

One delegate, from Local 365, who clearly voiced the true sentiments of the ranks, pointed out that “if the officers do a good job they will be elected again without politicking. But if they don’t do their job we want to be in a position to eliminate them as quickly as possible.”

The call for the vote was soon made from the floor. The proposition was then voted down almost unanimously to the accompaniment of a great outburst of applause and cheers. This action reflected the mistrust of the auto militants, steeped in the tradition of union democracy, of any move that might help the top leaders to entrench themselves in a bureaucratic position over the union ranks.

The very next proposal of the Constitution Committee brought forward the question of providing representation for the Negro members, who constitute a sizable and very active portion of the union, on the top bodies of the UAW. This proposal has repeatedly been supported by most Negro delegates. They wish to protect the interests of the especially oppressed Negro workers, and to secure a demonstration by the union of its earnest desire to show the world it takes its no-discrimination policy seriously.

The debate arose after the Constitution Committee reported out its proposal for the establishment of a Fair Practices and Anti-Discrimination Department to be headed by the International President.

A proposal was made from the floor by Nat Ganley, Local 155, that an additional amendment be added to provide for the election of a Negro to the International Executive Board. This idea was supported by several representative Negro delegates, as well as several white members.

Examples Cited

Opposition was voiced to the representation proposal giving the stock argument that officers should be elected strictly on the basis of “qualifications” and that if you start with guaranteeing Negroes representation, then “every other group” will want special provisions. This argument evaded the significant factor that it is only the Negroes who lack, even in the democratic UAW, full and equal opportunity to gain key offices because of still remaining, underlying currents of discrimination.

Examples of this discrimination, as well as the failure of both factions of the top leadership to seriously implement the fine anti-discrimination resolutions passed at previous conventions, were cited by several Negro delegates, including Hodges Mason, of Local 208.

The Stalinists, whose spokesmen were Ganley and Hodges, had at previous conventions introduced this proposal. Their purpose has always been demagogically to exploit the sentiments of the Negro delegates in a factional maneuver against Reuther. They did this in 1943 when Reuther opposed their speed-up “incentive pay” plan. This maneuver was made possible because of Reuther’s incorrect position on this question and his catering to certain Jim Crow elements in his caucus.

Erwin Baur, Detroit Budd Local delegate, summed up the issue most clearly when he stated: “It is quite obvious from observing the action of the Negro delegates that they want to have more than what the Constitutional Committee proposes. This question can be solved here only in one of two ways. Either the two caucuses, neither of which has nominated a Negro candidate, must combine to elect a Negro to the top committee, or we must adopt an article to the constitution which will provide a post for a Negro representative.”

Real Situation

This statement brought out into the open the real situation. Neither the Thomas-Addes group nor the Reuther group has nominated and fought to elect some of the unquestionably qualified Negro members. In this respect both groups are catering to the more backward and prejudiced minority of delegates.

The convention voted to refer the committee’s recommendation back to the committee for further consideration and to bring back a proposal with “more teeth” and greater assurances of a sincere desire to give the Negro members proper representation.

The “keynote” speech of the convention was delivered by President R.J. Thomas yesterday afternoon.

His remarks created scarcely a ripple in the convention. He spoke in broad generalities about the problems facing the workers, briefly outlining the numerous attacks which the employers and their agents are aiming at the workers. His one positive point, which no one could possibly contest, was his plea for the organization of the unorganized in line with the big campaign being mapped by the CIO.

Thomas Skirts Issues

He skirted all the key issues, however, such as “company security” and government boards. Although he attacked Truman as “weak and spineless” and asserted “we must strengthen our political action,” he wound up by proposing the same old bankrupt policy of tying labor to the political parties of Big Business, simply pleading that “we must demand that both major political parties in this country have more progressive candidates.” The present reactionary Congress is made up of many of those “progressive” capitalist candidates whose election was hailed by CIO-PAC leaders as a “great progressive victory” in November 1944.

The real intent of the speech was factional, as was revealed when Thomas made an underhanded and concealed attack on Reuther, whom he tried by implication to link to a “plot” allegedly being engineered by AFL Ladies Garment Workers’ President David Dubinsky to swing the UAW into the AFL.

Thomas took a slanderous attack directly from the Stalinist Daily Worker and tried, without naming him, to smear Reuther. He sought to throw suspicion on the splendid contribution of $86,000 which the ILG made to aid the GM strike. Thomas referred back to the time in 1939 when Dubinsky is reported to have aided Homer Martin with $25,000 when Martin tried to split the UAW into the AFL. He said he “was worried about the situation” and by innuendo tried to cast doubts on Reuther’s CIO loyalty because the ILG, like many AFL unions, contributed to the General Labor Committee to Aid the GM Strikers, which was supported by both AFL and CIO leaders including CIO President Philip Murray.

Thomas’ speech was met by only a brief flurry of polite applause and widespread boos.

Reuther Rally

Reuther has the support, it is quite apparent, of most of the more militant and progressive elements. Last night his caucus held a “Reuther for President” rally, which attracted about 800 delegates.

Reuther, at this rally, spoke generally in defense of his leadership of the GM strike, which is the main reason for the support he is now receiving for the union presidency.

Although there is a tendency among a section of his followers to resort to red-baiting against the Stalinists, Reuther in his speech avoided red-baiting. He sharply assailed the underhanded secret deal of the Stalinist leaders of the CIO United Electrical Workers who violated an agreement with the UAW and settled the strike of 30,000 UE members in GM Electrical Division for less than the GM auto workers were demanding.

Reuther correctly attacked Thomas for his conduct during the GM strike, such as Thomas’ proposition to reopen GM parts plants during the strike, his attempts to settle the strike on less favorable terms, etc. Reuther went back to the wartime period of “wild-cat” strikes before V-J Day and accused Thomas of not having “the guts to take a stand” in support of the Kelsey-Hayes and other strikers.

Reuther admitted that the responsibility for so-called unauthorized strikes lay with the leadership for its failure to defend the interests of the workers. He also admitted that the huge pile-up of local grievances whose settlement has prolonged the GM strike came during the period of the no-strike pledge.

Reuther’s Own Past

Reuther, however, failed to recall his own support of the no-strike pledge and how he helped to enforce it. Reuther avoided discussion of many of the main issues growing out of the GM strike, such as the now-clearly false “one-at-a-time” strategy which he authorized and which the entire UAW Board voted to follow.

He also neglected to explain his capitulation on the issue of Truman’s “fact-finding” boards, in whose proceedings he participated, although he had previously denounced the “fact-finding” procedure as aimed to whittle down the union demands – which it did.

He referred pointedly to the fact that the GM contract contained no “company security” clause, a positive achievement of the GM strike, But he did not mention the fact that the UAW Board, with his participation, approved unanimously the original and worst proposal for “company security” offered by the UAW leaders to Ford Motor Company.

Reuther in his talk avoided the question of program. Because the meeting was conducted solely as a “hurrah” rally, members of the Reuther caucus who desired to, did not have the opportunity to make proposals on program. But, aware that this question was foremost in the minds of a number of those present, Reuther concluded by saying he would “discuss the question of program at another meeting.”

However, his program was released in a convention paper issued by his group following the meeting. Except for language and phraseology, it scarcely differs from the program of Thomas- Addes. It contains no proposals for action on such vital questions as “company security” and the withdrawal of union support from government wage-freezing and wage-fixing bodies like the “fact-finding” boards and Wage Stabilization Board.

On the question of labor political action, the key to labor’s most crucial problems, Reuther proposes “an aggressive program of political action to elect candidates pledged to this program within the existing party structure.” This means to back capitalist vote-catchers of the Democratic or Republican machines who give cheap pre-election promises to “support labor’s program.”

The need for a real political instrument of labor, a labor party, is recognized in a number of resolutions submitted by important locals to the convention. But Reuther does not propose any concrete steps whereby the UAW might advance the formation of a labor party now. He merely asks labor to “join hands with farmers, professionals, small business and other functional groups” to “build the base” for what he vaguely describes as a “new progressive party.”

It remains to be seen whether the convention will have the opportunity to come to grips with the major questions or whether, as has happened in previous conventions, the delegates will be sidetracked into preoccupation with a narrower factional struggle around posts.

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