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Walter Jason

New Strategy at Ford Announced by Reuther

(22 May 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 22, 30 May 1949, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DETROIT, May 22 – “They had Reuther over a barrel, but now he’s got them over the barrel.”

This pithy comment of a Ford worker, after hearing Walter Reuther’s speech outlining the new program and strategy of the UAW in the Ford strike, summarizes accurately the great change in the character of the strike now that the Reuther leadership has made a drastic turn in policy.

For what Reuther did was to combine the strike against the speedup with the struggle for the UAW 1949 economic objectives, including the pension plan. He has “shot the works” and the UAW is now engaged in the first great strike struggle of the labor movement in 1949.

How did the rank and file react to this militant program? In spite of a heavy rain and windstorm, between 15,000 to 20,000 Ford strikers came to a mass meeting of Ford Locals 600 and 900 to hear the Reuther speech. They came in a belligerent, bitter mood. They left inspired and determined to win.

How did the Ford officials react? John Bugas, ex-FBI agent and boss of Ford negotiators, not only lost his smooth and urbane manner in negotiations, he also lost his temper.

For Bugas recognized that he is no longer up against reasonable “labor statesmen,” controlling a subdued rank and file. Ford is up against the kind of UAW ranks and leadership that built this union through great strike struggles.

Recovering Their Stride

Credit for the turn in UAW policy belongs primarily to Reuther, Emil Mazey and Leonard Woodcock, the regional director from Muskegon, who is high in Reuther circles as one of the few progressive leaders. The rest of the Reuther leadership kept floundering around until the new line was worked out and presented.

What was required was a coldblooded analysis of the trap into which the Ford Motor Company had led the UAW unless it transformed the strike over the immediate issue – speedup – into an all-out struggle for everything, including a. new contract and the pensions. It required a recognition of the futile character of the previous strategy in the Ford strike. It required some willingness to take the kind of chance Reuther took in the 1945–46 General Motors strike. Any retreat would be disastrous, any status-quo policy would be fatal to future plans – so the choice was full speed ahead.

Besides most of the other Reuther leaders, the anti-Reuther forces were stumbling around in the narrow conservative approach, typically “trade union,” which precluded them from having any program capable of meeting the necessities of the situation. Rather interesting that the “socialists” and ex-socialists of the Reuther leadership had the imagination and courage to work out a new strategy.

When Mazey opened the mass meeting, and he began to give the kind of talk on speedup which many Briggs Workers had heard him make before, it was clear to the ranks that something different was going to happen. Mazey’s declaration that the union would not compromise with speedup at Ford drew the first real response from the ranks.

The reporters, who had taken the meeting as another “dull union meeting to cover on a nasty night,” began to sit up and take notice.

The atmosphere was set for Reuther’s report, the main speech of the evening.

Reuther ridiculed the latest Ford demand that all workers except those in the B building go back to work. He urged the rank and file to vote against the strikebreaking proposal. The meeting began to warm up.

Then came the analysis of the speedup question. Reuther was not “investigating the facts, since they were in dispute.” He excoriated the company’s speedup policies, and told the ranks: “We’ll never go back to those days.” This was what the ranks were waiting for. The confusion of the past began to disappear. The workers were listening intently.

What about the men who had been discharged – the 21 secondary leaders? “We all go back or nobody goes back,” Reuther told the cheering strikers. By the way, this is not exactly the easiest thing in the world to accomplish. But Reuther’s pledge was categoric.

Next came a sharp attack on Henry Ford II and on the whole Ford philosophy, and a call for some “sharing of the wealth which your toil and sweat created.”

And then the announcement that the UAW was demanding immediate discussions and negotiations on the pensions and on the contract! (The reporters scurried from their seats to the phone booths. This was NEWS.)

“You can talk all you want about making a democratic world, but if you can’t make democracy work in this, the richest country in the world, it will fail everywhere.”

“We will fight together, work together, stand together and win together.”

The response to the summons for a real fight was what you could expect. The UAW was on the march again.

The Reuther leadership is now in a position to exploit the “elbow room” it has created in the situation by making all-out demands now. If the company, threatened with a demand for pensions and a new contract now, retreats and says, “Let’s settle the speedup issue,” and the UAW wins on the speedup issue, then the union has won the first battle at Ford. This would not yet win the war, but it will have demonstrated that the union can fight and win. The vast majority of Ford Workers would be confident they could win the rest of the demands, and Ford would be negotiating the pensions and contracts under the knowledge and certainty that the UAW was prepared at any time to hit the bricks again.

Besides, in this strike, as in every struggle, many inactive and inexperienced union cardholders become active union men and strike veterans. For thousands of Ford Workers this is their first big strike. The veterans of the 1941 strike have obtained a real refresher course. Ford Locals 600 and 900 become better and more spirited local unions because they go through this struggle.

If the company doesn’t retreat, the spirit and determination of the UAW members increases because the strike issues – the 1949 demands – directly concern each of them as much as the speedup issue itself has done. Reuther proposes negotiations on the speedup, the discharges, the contract and the pension plan now. “If they won’t talk on all of them beginning Monday, we won’t talk on any of them.”

What a pity a photographer didn’t get a picture of Bugas and Reuther on Friday morning when Reuther, accompanied by Mazey and others, presented the new demands of the UAW to Ford officials. All pretenses of amiability and “reasonableness” were missing. The hostile, angry atmosphere was more in keeping with the differences of basic approach and outlook between the UAW and this giant corporation than previous pleasantries.

Reuther rubbed Bugas even more when he announced that the UAW would file an unfair labor practice charge against the Ford Company if it didn’t negotiate on pensions. No longer was the company arrogantly issuing ultimatums to the union. Now the union was taking the offensive.

Anti-Reutherites Missed Bus

The whole change in the strike situation emphasizes over and over again how powerful the UAW is when it sticks to the kind of progressive policies and militant actions which built and strengthened it. This needs to be underscored precisely because the UAW was getting “soft and flabby.”

Another important lesson already shown in this strike is the role and bankruptcy of the anti-Reuther forces. We have mentioned the blundering of the conservative Reuther followers. Now is the time to speak of the anti-Reuther factions.

Just before the mass meeting, the pro-Stalinist leaders in Ford Local 600 came out with their program for victory. What was it? (1) Win the speedup fight at B building. (2) Make the general council the strike committee. (3) More strike bulletins. (4) Call a rally at Cadillac Square in support of the strike.

These self-styled “left-wingers and progressives” missed the bus completely, They were lost in routine unionism at precisely the time when a bold strategy for an all-out struggle was demanded. They looked like the conservatives they really are compared to the Reuther tendency!

In fact the Stalinists look so ridiculously conservative with that kind of program that we venture a prediction they’ll try to make another comeback by mouthing some ultra-radical phrases. It’s about time for them to dig up the “down with a one- at-a-time strategy” nonsense, and call for ‘“an industry-wide strike” for pensions.

The future of Stalinism is being decided on the Ford picket lines just as much as it is in Judge Medina’s courtroom. The verdict of the test of events in the Ford strike is infinitely more important to the labor movement than any decision by a capitalist court. This is a question to which we will return time and again as the Ford situation develops.

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