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Walter Jason

Reuther Retreats in Ford Strike –
Discontent Grows

(31 May 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 23, 6 June 1949, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DETROIT, May 31 – The 24-day Ford strike has ended with inconclusive results, in terms of the immediate issue that caused it – the speedup – and with a moral blow to the prestige of the UAW and the Reuther leadership.

The Ford Motor Company insisted on two main points: (1) arbitration of the speedup issue, and (2) no talks on pensions or the contract until after the men went back to work.

Walter Reuther told the strikers a week ago Thursday that the union wouldn’t compromise with speedup, and (2) it would insist on pension negotiations during the strike.

The major retreat was made by Reuther. His statement proclaiming the settlement a union victory was disingenuous: “This is the first try. It was a hard clean fight. We won the first round. Now let’s go into the second round – contracts.” If the union wins the speedup dispute in arbitration, there will be some basis for Reuther’s claim. But the UAW suffered badly with regard to forcing the company into pension negotiations. Reuther backtracked in his demands; he accepted arbitration – he insisted on it as a means of ending the strike; and negotiations on the contract and on pensions now begin without any real spirit of victory or confidence among the Ford workers!

What “Victory”?

Whether Reuther outsmarted himself or was outsmarted by John Bugas (Ford’s labor boss) in the final days of the strike is secondary to the fact that the Ford Company conceded very little, and did succeed in making the Union reverse its proclaimed public policies and program.

When Reuther proposed arbitration he suggested it on the basis of a “loaded” question on speedup: Does a man have to make up work which was lost through no fault of his own? Secondly, Reuther had a deal fixed up in Washington where an arbitrator would be appointed who would probably rule in favor of the union. In that event the union would have won the first round, even though it accepted arbitration.

But Bugas and the Ford Company didn’t fall for that one. Instead they stalled, and finally forced the union, which was now committed to arbitration, to accept a formula that compromises the whole fight against speedup.

The Reuther leadership had to spend some time convincing the Thompson forces in Ford Local 600 to accept the settlement. Even then, Tommy Thompson (head of the local) told the settlement meeting that he was still against arbitration.

Although Reuther told the meeting “I think we will win because our claim is based on a specific contract clause,” his own lack of confidence in the results of arbitration were indicated when he said: “If we lose, then we still are in negotiations and we will have a good chance to change the line in the contract.”

If the union can lose the speedup issue in arbitration, as Reuther admits, where does the victory in the present settlement exist, except in the publicity release of the Reuther leadership?

How the Ford workers felt about the settlement was indicated by the attendance at the settlement meeting. Less than 4,000 showed up to vote on the proposal. Why show up? If the union accepted arbitration it was over, so why waste a day going to a meeting? For three days the newspapers had been saying that the strike was as good as settled. Reuther’s retreat was obvious to the most backward workers, let alone to the union activists.

Heat Under Reuther

The Stalinists put out a leaflet denouncing the settlement as a “betrayal,” but didn’t try to make a major floor fight: (It was one of those situations where confusion and bitterness makes any discussion futile; and the workers are still hostile to the CP, especially the Thompson forces who, while going along with the settlement, are doing a real job on Reuther as the man chiefly responsible for it.)

Reuther, in his speech, denounced the CP and ridiculed its flipflops, but failed to mention by so much as one word his own painfully obvious flipflops in this strike.

In the auto industry as a whole the fact that the UAW didn’t win this fight encourages the other companies to continue their drive on speeding up the workers. The struggle for a better contract and pensions in Ford is made much more difficult.

An indication of the present situation is revealed in the quietly ignored fact that at Chrysler, where the union can reopen negotiations on wages on June 15, Norman Mathews, UAW Chrysler director, hasn’t even issued a call for a national delegate conference of Chrysler workers to discuss the problem and work out a program.

The period of disillusionment with the Reuther leadership has begun among the Reuther followers. There is little indication that the CP will gain. The other anti-Reuther faction seems to be completely dormant or still punch-drunk from all the defeats it took in recent local union elections.

But in the Reuther ranks, dissatisfaction has grown and has become more vocal. It remains to be seen if it becomes strong enough to force some changes in the Reuther leadership at the next convention.

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