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The Atlantic City Auto Union Convention

(May 1946)

From Fourth International, Vol. 7 No. 5, May 1946, pp. 149–152.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

It is unfortunate that the central issue before the CIO United Automobile Workers convention, held March 23–30 in Atlantic City, found expression only indirectly through the struggle among the top leaders for posts.

Most of the basic questions were not discussed openly on the convention floor. This obscured the vital differences on program and policy which underlay and gave so bitter a character to the fight for the UAW presidency between General Motors strike leader Walter P. Reuther and the incumbent president, R.J. Thomas.

That more was involved than a mere conflict of personalities was indicated in part by the capitalist press, which paid extraordinary attention to the convention’s daily proceedings. Leading newspapers reported edition by edition the progress of the hours-long roll call vote for the UAW presidency and half-hour radio bulletins were flashed all over the country.

In the minds of the majority of delegates, the basic issue, though never clearly expressed, was the program and policies of the GM strike. By their majority vote for Reuther as UAW president, the delegates vindicated the GM strike and intimated their desire for the continuation and development of the program and policies implicit in that strike. In this sense, the underlying conflict at the 1946 UAW convention was a continuation and extension of the struggle that dominated the previous convention in September 1944. The 1944 convention, held at the height of the war, was wracked by the fight over the no-strike pledge.

For nearly three years the auto workers, like the rest of labor, had been caught in the vise of the wage freeze and wartime inflation. Their accumulated grievances had been buried under mountains of War Labor Board red tape. The corporations were violating contracts and committing provocations with impunity. The whole struggle of the auto militants was centered on breaking the shackles of the no-strike policy forged by their leaders.

Although the UAW top leadership had always been torn by factional differences, it nevertheless united against the ranks in defense of the no-strike policy. Reuther, it is true, attempted to cater to the militant sentiments by presenting a “compromise” proposal. But unable to straddle the fence on the issue, in the end he went down the line with the rest of the leadership.

Although the opponents of the no-strike pledge mustered some 35 percent of the convention votes, they could not swing a majority. Their chief obstacle, and one they were not ready to confront, was the fact that the auto workers in the main supported the war and Roosevelt’s war program. The convention delegates knew, and the leadership pounded home the fact, that to scrap the no-strike policy meant an open, bitter fight against Roosevelt and the government.

The majority were not prepared to make that fight. But neither were they prepared to accept the consequences of the no-strike pledge, which meant unconditional surrender to the arrogant corporations. They therefore left the decision inconclusive and finally voted to refer the issue to a membership referendum.

This referendum, however, in turn proved inconclusive. When the results were announced in March 1945, it was revealed that less than 20 percent of the membership had cast ballots. A significant third of the votes were for rejecting the no-strike pledge, but the majority of the relatively small number voting endorsed it.

Armed with this mandate, the UAW leaders proceeded to crack down on the union militants. The latter, having no officially recognized and effective means to resist the mounting corporation provocations, were goaded into one desperate and isolated “wild cat” strike after another. The leadership merely redoubled its strikebreaking efforts and retaliated with new threats and increasingly harsh “disciplinary” measures against leading local militants. The emboldened corporations, with the sanction of the International union leaders, fired not a few good union men and began a systematic campaign of provocations.

By the summer of 1945, prior to V-J Day, the UAW was blazing from one end to the other with “wild-cat” strikes. Like volunteer firemen in a dry summer, the UAW leaders were racing from one strike to the next trying to smother the flames. At one point, as Reuther admitted during one of his caucus rallies in Atlantic City, the UAW Executive Board confronted no less than 67 simultaneous unauthorized strikes.

The union was rent by an increasingly fierce conflict between the ranks and the leadership. The latter met the demands of the members for militant resistance to the corporations only by new bureaucratic expulsions, removal of local leaderships and similar suppressive measures.

This policy was climaxed during the bitter Kelsey-Hayes strike which lasted six weeks. This strike occurred in September and October 1945, following V-J Day, after the UAW Executive Board had formally renounced the no-strike pledge, already scrapped in practice by the membership.

Nevertheless, headed by R J. Thomas, the UAW leaders sought by every means of deception and intimidation to break the Kelsey-Hayes strike. In the end, the workers were forced back to work with several local leaders remaining fired. The local union was placed in the hands of an appointed dictator-receivership. This outstanding act of strikebreaking and bureaucratic practice cost the leadership a further tremendous loss of prestige.

Thus, during the period following the no-strike referendum, the UAW presented a disorganized and chaotic appearance. It had no leadership nor effective program. “Wild-cat” strikes, while reflecting the just indignation of the workers and their will to struggle, were an isolated and sporadic form of resistance and therefore ineffective. This was appreciated by the most advanced militants in the UAW.

In Detroit, 40 local union presidents came together in the middle of May, 1945 and formulated a program for the union. Already, the UAW was beset by cutbacks and increasing unemployment. The auto workers were feeling the pinch of the loss of overtime pay through the return to the 40-hour week. The demand was raised for a fight against reduction of take-home pay, concretized in the slogan “52 hours pay for 40 hours work.”

The June Regional Conferences

Then at a conference of 400 local union officers of the two largest UAW regions, 1 and 1A of Detroit, held June 14, 1945, against the opposition of the UAW top leaders, headed by R.J. Thomas, the delegates approved with only 20 dissenting votes a resolution calling on the UAW Executive Board to initiate an industry-wide strike vote “to guarantee success of their negotiations” for a “30 percent hourly pay increase.”

This resolution was in opposition to an official resolution, introduced by a hand-picked Resolutions Committee majority. The latter was virtually identical with the minority resolution – with the omission of the call for strike action. Thomas spoke heatedly against the minority resolution and against the union being “rabble-roused into a strike.” Richard T. Leonard, Director of the UAW’s Ford Department and later author of the notorious “company security” clause, was chairman of the meeting. He tried to call the minority resolution “out of order,” but was overruled by the conference. The well-known Stalinist John Anderson, of Detroit Amalgamated Local 155, was the only local union officer who opposed the strike recommendation from the floor.

Reuther alone among the top UAW officers appreciated the powerful sentiment for militant action. And he began to ride with the tide. In an evasive, but militant-sounding speech, he spoke of the need for “reevaluating the basic policy of the union.”

Two months after the Detroit Regional Conference, with the surrender of Japan, Thomas was forced to announce the formal end of the UAW’s no-strike pledge. But he accompanied it with a fearful admonition against any “rash of strikes” and threats against strikes “without authorization of the International President and Executive Board.”

Thus, even after the war had ended and on the eve of the greatest strike wave in American history, the Thomas-Addes leadership represented a conservative, weak and timid policy. They wanted to continue the policy of class collaboration, of reliance upon the capitalist government, which had reached its most disastrous point during the war years.

Reuther, on the other hand, seized hold of the situation. He began to give more and more positive leadership to the militant trend. At the General Motors Delegates Conference on September 15 he supported the decision for a corporation-wide strike “to take place within two months.” That titanic strike began on schedule, November 21, 1945.

The Thomas-Addes-Leonard faction never really supported the GM strike. They merely “went along” with it insofar as they could not prevent or derail it. What they subscribed to most readily was the weakest part of Reuther’s program, his “one-at-a-time” strategy. The major concern of the Thomas-Addes group throughout the GM strike was to prevent its spread to Ford, Chrysler and other companies.

It was the merit of Reuther that, by and large, he gave the GM strike aggressive leadership. He certainly weakened along the road, as when he yielded to Truman’s pressure and appeared before the administration’s “fact-finding” board after having condemned it. But he was a model of resoluteness compared to the conservative and timid conduct of Thomas.

The GM strike became the spearhead of the whole American labor struggle for higher wages. It inspired and set the pattern for the gigantic strike wave in January–February 1946 when nearly two million workers of entire basic industries, such as steel, electrical equipment, meat packing, fought simultaneously on the picket lines.

Above all, the GM strike set the example for a policy of militant class struggle as against class collaboration with the employers and their government. It showed the industrial workers the road to victory through fighting action.

Unique Program of GM Strike

Moreover, the GM strike was unique in other respects. Its program went beyond the question of immediate wage increases. The GM workers advanced new and important demands affecting the broadest economic and political issues. They posed the question of prices, profits and the control of production – matters which the capitalist owners of industry have always insisted are the exclusive “prerogatives of management.”

By contrast with the militant policies and advanced program of the GM strike, the Thomas-Addes-Leonard group pursued a conservative course, best exemplified in the negotiations with the Ford Motor Company.

They wanted to demonstrate the superior effectiveness of “labor statesmenship,” that is, a policy of collaboration with the corporations, as against strike action.

The “labor statesmen” finally came out with an agreement for an 18-cent an hour raise. This raise was actually won for the Ford workers by the GM strikers. But in hastening to accept Ford’s 18-cent offer, the UAW Ford negotiators headed by Leonard, seriously undercut the 30 cents-an-hour wage demand of the GM workers, not to speak of the 19% cents they might have won on the basis of the government’s own recommendation.

Moreover, the UAW Ford representatives acceded to the Ford Company’s demand for “company security,” that is, the right of the company to fine and fire workers for so-called unauthorized strike action. Only widespread membership opposition forced modification of the “company security” clause in the final contract. But it was retained in principle.

This unprecedented concession to the corporation was designed, both from the standpoint of the company and the union officials, to lay the basis for eliminating the best union militants from the plants. Remembering the “wildcat” strikes for which they themselves were responsible, the Thomas-Leonard-Addes group determined, in collaboration with the employers to establish a method of curbing the militants through empowering the companies to victimize strikers.

At the same time, they sought to hasten the end of the GM strike through proposals for impermissible concessions. Such was Thomas’s proposal to reopen the GM parts plants during the strike. Later, he wanted to end the strike without settlement of the extremely important local plant grievances.

Furthermore, the Thomas-Addes-Leonard group sought the intervention of CIO president Philip Murray in order to take the negotiations out of the hands of Reuther and the elected nine-man GM negotiations committee. They directed a persistent underhanded attack at Reuther and his aggressive methods in an effort to destroy his prestige with the GM workers. This attempt to undermine the GM strike and discredit Reuther largely failed, as the recent UAW convention proved.

Thus, what was on the order of the day for the convention was the question of endorsement or repudiation of the General Motors strike, its general policies and program. And with the examination of the GM strike, should have come a thorough consideration of those key issues which arose out of the whole auto negotiations and struggle. Two of these key issues were “company security” and the “fact-finding” procedure of semi-compulsory arbitration.

But the delegates were denied the opportunity to discuss” the GM strike and the related issues. Certainly the Thomas-Addes-Leonard-Stalinist caucus was anxious to avoid any open discussion. This was made abundantly clear when they wiggled out of a proposed debate between Reuther and Thomas through slick parliamentary maneuvering in spite of the majority demand of the convention.

As for Reuther, aside from his demonstrative challenge for a debate, he made no real effort to bring the issues on the floor.

In this sense, the leadership of the Reuther caucus were as much responsible for the muddled and inconclusive character of the UAW convention as their factional opponents. They fixed their eyes mainly on posts and played narrow, so-called “straight” politics. In order to win votes they catered to the more backward and conservative elements, made “deals” with unsavory individuals and skirted the questions of principle.

Responsibility of Both Caucuses

The issue was boiled down to the question of “For Reuther” or “For Thomas” – for the endorsement of the GM strike or against it. The delegates could not go beyond this point into the elaboration of a program based on their decision. There was no movement in the ranks prepared to push a third alternative to the two presented by the main divisions of the convention.

Reuther played conservative at the convention. He concentrated on the “backwoods” vote by stressing matters of organizational procedure and policy, as well as emphasizing his desire for “responsible” leadership in contrast to his alleged “radicalism.” While the main base of the Reuther caucus consisted of the most progressive militants, Reuther’s intimate machine included many questionable and reactionary elements. Reuther, hell-bent on election, decided he could not alienate any votes. That accounts for the conservative, “statesmanlike” nature of his convention campaign.

A typical example of Reuther’s unprincipled deals with unsavory elements was his support of Melvin Bishop, discredited director of Region 1, Detroit, for first vice-president running against R.J. Thomas. Bishop was thoroughly despised by the workers in his region. He had played ball with the corporations during the war to the extent of going to the managements and having them fire militant workers. He had done this against popular militants at both Hudson and Briggs, two of the principle locals in his region.

When it came to a choice between Bishop, whose name symbolized conspiracy with the corporations, and Thomas, the entire Briggs delegation with one of the largest blocks of votes reluctantly determined to vote for Thomas. Their vote swung many others, and Thomas was elected by a sizable majority.

An especially bad aspect of Reuther’s policy was his catering to Jim-Crow elements. Most notorious was his alliance with Richard Gosser, regional director from the Toledo, O., area, who had been repeatedly condemned for his policy of discrimination against Negroes. Richard Gosser, regional director from the Toledo area, still maintained backward prejudices against Negroes inclined toward support of Reuther. But the very important, influential and militant section of Negro delegates, who should have been with the main stream of militants in Reuther’s caucus, largely supported the conservative wing.

The Stalinists, who were allied with the anti-GM strike, “company security” faction of Thomas-Addes-Leonard, were principally responsible for keeping the support of the Negro delegates for the conservative caucus.

The Stalinists were able demagogically to exploit Reuther’s weakness on the Negro question. They took the lead in proposing the establishment of a post on the Executive Board for a Negro representative.

Both the Reuther and Thomas-Addes-Leonard caucus leaders opposed this proposal. Indeed, the most vicious speech against it was made by Ben Garrison, of Ford Highland Park Local 400, the man who made the presidential nominating speech for Thomas. But the fact that the Stalinists, who conspicuously and vigorously supported Thomas, initiated the fight for a Negro Board member played an important part in cementing the support of many Negro delegates for the Thomas-Addes-Leonard clique.

A small section of the most progressive elements in the Reuther caucus also backed the proposal for a Negro board member. These militants, however, pointed out the failure of both caucuses to nominate any of the well-qualified Negro delegates for a top UAW post.

The Outstanding Event

The positive aspect of the outstanding event of the UAW convention, the election of Reuther over R.J. Thomas, was its implicit endorsement of the GM strike. This fact stands out above all others and remains as the unique achievement of the convention.

The majority of delegates voted in favor of precisely those policies which the capitalist press, and the conservative UAW and CIO leaders, so vigorously condemned. These are the policies which Thomas called in one caucus meeting “socialistic experimentation.”

They are, in truth, far from “socialistic.” But they do represent a policy of militancy and a program aimed at resolving the broader and deeper-going issues of the American scene. As one delegate expressed it to this writer, “Reuther wants to do something about inflation and profits and housing. He wants to fight.” That, at least, is what the majority voted for in voting for Reuther.

At the same time, they were voting against something. They were voting against timidity and conservatism and bureaucratism.

To the superficial observer, it might appear that the net outcome of the UAW convention has been, with the exception of the change of presidents, to maintain a continuation of conservative leadership. That is what seems to be the case since the top officers and executive board are composed of a conservative majority.

But it would be incorrect to conceive of this leadership as fixed and unchanging in its policies and line-ups. More than once in the history of the dynamic, democratic and militant UAW, the pressure and movement of the ranks have forced significant shifts and changes on the top.

It need only be recalled that Reuther himself, the most progressive of the UAW leaders in 1946, was the chief spokesman in 1941 for the right wing tendency which sought to bar “communists” and which advanced a pro-war policy.

In evaluating the role of the various top leaders and tendencies in the coming period, the militants will have to keep in mind the possibilities of shifts and changes. The tactics of the most advanced and progressive elements must be based not on preconceived evaluations, but rather on an exact analysis and appreciation of the new factors that are almost certain to arise.

All the issues left unresolved by the past convention, will recur in sharpened form. New issues will break to the surface.

The auto workers in particular, and the labor movement in general, will not face a quiet, placid existence in the next period. In their drive to organize the unorganized, particularly in the South, the CIO and UAW will confront a tremendous reactionary opposition. The question of “company security,” of collaboration with the government “fact-finding” procedure, of militant struggle versus dependence on government agencies, will arise repeatedly.

The political aspect of the labor struggle will come to the fore. Political issues, which have played so important a factor in the great strike struggles, will take on an ever more compelling character.

Big Business is conducting a tremendous inflationary drive to wipe out wage gains and augment huge profits. A new period of intensified reaction is being prepared as part of American imperialism’s program for another World War to destroy the Soviet Union and to achieve undisputed rule of the world.

A crucial period of political crisis is imminent. It will pose sharply before American labor the key question of a break with the policy of political collaboration with the capitalist class and its government.

Already one notes a significant and growing sentiment for the formation of a party of labor independent of the Democratic and Republican parties of Wall Street. There were reflections of this growing sentiment in the vague expressions of both Reuther and Thomas during the course of the UAW convention for a possible “progressive third party.”

The abysmal and shameful weakness of American labor on the political arena was borne out repeatedly during the strike wave. Time and time again the mighty organized power of labor on the economic arena has been nullified on the political field. Experience has been hammering that fact home to the American workers.

It is safe to assume the likelihood that the September 1947 convention of the UAW will see many of the unresolved issues of the past convention express themselves in dominant form. And these issues will extend in no small degree on to the decisive political plane.

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