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Walter Jason

The Story Behind the News –

Ford Provoked Strike;
Reuther Faces Hard Test

(9 May 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 20, 16 May 1949, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DETROIT, May 9 – The United Auto Workers, CIO, face a major crisis in policy and 1949 strike strategy as a result of the strike at the giant River Rouge plant of the Ford Motor Co. Here is a strike which the Reuther leadership tried to avoid, but which the Ford Motor Company was determined to provoke, and it succeeded.

The full story of this strike, directly involving over 100,000 Ford workers, involves important revelations of the strength and weakness of the Reuther leadership, of the UAW ranks, and the stormy course that the 1949 economic struggles of the union are destined to run.

The background of the current strike is vital to an understanding of the crisis in which the UAW now finds itself – a crisis so evident in Detroit that only a sharp turn in events will change the present situation.

As most readers of Labor Action know, the Reuther strategy for 1949, as reported in various stories, was to concentrate on Ford for a $100-a-month pension plan, to be obtained by strike action in July if such tactics were necessary. Then Reuther planned to squeeze Chrysler and perhaps General Motors into a similar settlement.

This strategy was to unfold in a “favorable political climate,” since the Truman-Democratic administration was pro-labor and the Taft-Hartley Law would be repealed, and a new period of New Dealism, called “the Fair Deal,” would begin. At least this was the “blueprint” of Reuther’s thinking.

Within the UAW, the Reuther leadership was overwhelmingly supported and these ideas accepted. Nothing was going to upset the apple-cart.

To be sure, there were disturbing signs of speedup attempts in many plants, but that was an old story in the UAW, and it could be handled as usual. Some pressure here, a concession there, some slowdowns here, a walkout there: all this was secondary.

The major concentration was Ford in July.

What this overall campaign failed to take into account was (1) the illusory character of the “pro-labor” Washington administration, as everyone recognizes except the UAW leadership, which finds itself increasingly embarrassed by the failure of Truman to come across.

Ford’s Strategy

(2) The fact that the Ford Motor Company labor-relations boss, ex-FBI Agent John Bugas was not a simple-minded dope who would sit idly by while Reuther gained important concessions for the UAW ranks and won fresh glories as the up-and-coming labor leader in America. On the contrary, Bugas worked out a strategy to get the union on the run and keep it there. And it must be stated, candidly, that at the present time the Bugas plan has succeeded so far.

What the Ford Motor Company did was to join the drive which all major companies are carrying on to speed up the workers – not just in the usual fashion, which comes with every model change-over, but rather to press real hard against the workers.

At Ford the effect of the speedup would be twofold. If it succeeded. Ford would exploit enough extra labor from each man on the assembly line to more than make up for anything Ford had to give in the way of a pension plan in July. It would be a scheme to take the pension plan out of the sweat and toil of the Ford workers.

If the workers resisted and slowed down or refused to do extra work, Ford would provoke a series of wildcat strikes to get the union to dissipate all its strength this spring, so that when summer came the union would be too exhausted to strike for pensions.

Speeding Issue Hot

This last point was understood by the Reuther leadership, and the Ford Company knew that the Reuther leadership understood this. Thus the company knew what reaction the Reuther leadership would have to demand from the Ford workers for a strike against speedup.

Ford therefore refused to settle the debated speedup question in the B building, which is the final assembly line at this huge plant. After 40 meetings on the issue, the company still refused even to compromise. The issue itself is understood by every auto worker. In any normal production schedule of cars, allowance is made for breakdowns, bad stock, shutting down of the lines, etc. If the line is down for a half hour, for whatever reason, the men get a “break.” The Ford Company, however, wants the men to make up production. Of course it goes through the pretense of adding enough men to the line to give help, but that is never really done. So the men are speeded up.

The speedup is so universal in auto now that over 200,000 workers have been involved in disputes of various sorts with the companies on this issue. This is important to remember in view of what happened at Ford.

The heat from the ranks in the shop became so hot that Tommy Thompson, president of Ford Local 600, who only in October, 1948, denounced “demagogues and Communists” for exploiting the “speedup issue” (we can settle everything peacefully through negotiations, he declared) and his caucus which had recently won an overwhelming victory in local union elections, listened to the ranks and decided that they would support a strike against speedup.

At Ford Lincoln plant the speedup issue also became so hot that the officials demanded authorization for a strike from the international executive board.

Faced with this “hot potato,” the Reuther leadership sought to put pressure on the Ford Company by authorizing the Lincoln plant strike, but withholding authorization from Ford Local 600, representing 65,000 workers.

Of course this incensed the ranks in Ford Local 600, above all the secondary leaders in B building where the speedup issue was burning everyone up.

On top of this, the Reuther leadership issued a truly incredible (not to say stupid) statement on the Ford 600 situation. “Since there was a dispute in facts” between the local union and management on the speedup question, the international union selected a committee headed by Emil Mazey to go into the plant and investigate.

Leaders Fell for It

This was a blunder. Of course its real purpose was to give the top leadership a chance to stall off a strike and to see if things could be settled by negotiations – a worthy objective, of course, but it failed to take into account the reaction of the secondary Ford union leaders and the ranks. For these people were not let in on the “higher strategy.” This was something just for the “elite.”

Now everyone knew there was a speedup issue at the B building. Thus the statement of the Reuther leadership was a direct insult to the shop committeemen and ranks. They blew up. When Mazey and the other international officials came into the plant they were given a rather rough reception. And the whole shop committee in this plant resigned in protest over the action of the international!

More than that, the ranks joined the secondary leaders and walked out of the plant!

What especially burned up these workers was the fact that they knew that Ford would be smart enough not to have any speedup the day the union officials were investigating. And naturally things were okay on the line until Mazey and others left. Then the same old speedup policy was renewed.

Thus Ford successfully played the international union leadership against the workers in the plants, and the Reuther leadership fell for it. In justice to Mazey it must be said that, he was maneuvered into heading the committee, and both the Reuther devotees and the Thompson faction are concentrating all blame and abuse on him. (Reuther did not go into the plant that day.)

The irony of Mazey’s position is emphasized by the fact that at Briggs, which he strongly dominates, the local union carries on a good campaign – including walkouts – against speedup, and it defeats the company time and again.

What is also very significant about the events in B building is that this is the Reuther stronghold in Local 600. The shop committeemen and the unit president who resigned are all pro-Reuther. Later they were talked into repudiating their action. This was a revolt of the Reuther secondary ranks against the confused, uncertain and hesitant policies of their own top leaders.

This fact has been a major disappointment to the many capitalist journalists who rushed to Detroit to uncover a “Communist” plot at Ford. It has been and remains a source of embarrassment with the Reuther leadership. It has left a deep impression on many UAW activists.

Local Decided on Strike

Of course, Tommy Thompson (who broke his recent deal with Reuther – Reuther supported Thompson for reelection over the protests of many Reutherites) wasn’t going to get himself into such an uncomfortable position. Therefore, when the company

arrogantly refused to negotiate seriously with the union on the B building issue (in fact, it fired 14 committeemen but this was kept from the rank and file because everyone knew that nothing could prevent an immediate strike if that was known in the shop), Thompson and his strong majority on the general council at Local 600 set a strike deadline – last Wednesday.

How stupidly the Reuther leadership was handling this crisis, which was far deeper and more acute than is recognized, was shown by the fact that at the time of the council meeting debate on the strike motion, Joe McCusker, regional director and a Reuther man, told them: “This will be a wildcat. It won’t be authorized.” A very unpopular position both in the Thompson forces and among the Reuther supporters at Ford!

As a matter of fact, the Thompson forces knew that the international would have to go along with them on strike action if a decent settlement wasn’t obtained quickly, for the ranks were demanding results, and anybody who stood in the way was bound to lose rank-and-file support.

Walter Reuther knew this as well as the next man, and the strike was authorized, with a postponement of one day while Reuther tried last-minute negotiations. Bugas was as arrogant as ever, the negotiations failed and the strike began!

A day later, Bugas threw more fuel on the fire by making the public announcement of the discharge of the 14 men in B building. Other workers had been disciplined in other departments for staging brief demonstrations of sympathy.

Attempts to mediate were turned down by the company. They blasted the union, ridiculed the charge of speedup and over the weekend poured more salt on the wounds.

Legitimate Issue

In the face of these blows against the union, the Reuther leadership reeled like a man given a one-two punch. All they could see for a few days was that “Walter’s strategy is ruined, and Thompson’s to blame.” (No doubt Thompson should have kept the ranks in a firm iron grip, according to the conservative Reutherites, and if the ranks threw him out later, that would be all right too, for wasn’t he anti-Reuther?)

Much confusion has been sown among Ford workers in other plants by the fact that, for some time, the Reutherites have been stressing the point that anything which upsets the strategy is terrible and a defeat for the union.

The leaders of both factions have made irresponsible statements about the others and have permitted “leaks” to the press; and this has given the company a chance to describe the situation as “due purely to union politics.” This is nonsense, for in reality what is involved is a legitimate debate over policy in which contending leaders seek to prove that they are better qualified to lead the workers. As long as the UAW has a democratic structure and maintains its tradition that the various leaders seek to win rank-and-file support by fighting for their demands, so long will the union make progress, and “freshen up” its leadership – and this crisis shows it needs to do this today.

The Detroit Free Press, as well as the Ford Motor Company, bewails the fact that the UAW is not controlled bureaucratically like the Steel Workers Union and wishes Reuther would place an administrator over Ford 600 just as Murray does among the steel workers.

UAW’s Dilemma

What is the real dilemma of the UAW? What should it do? Every effort to find what answer the Reuther leadership has, or what anyone else proposes, has ended up in failure. One listens to speeches at rallies, hears Reuther spokesmen at union meetings, asks questions of anybody and everybody, and it is clear that for a week Reuther had no “line” – no real policy, just anger at the company for not being as reasonable as it should be, according to Reuther’s thinking, and bitter feeling against the Thompson faction for the problem that it presents to the Reuther forces.

Today George Edwards, acting Detroit mayor, sought to get Ford and Reuther together. Behind the scenes many efforts are being made. (It’s really terrible how much like his grandfather Henry Ford II has become. Somewhat disappointing to many people, don’t you know! The epoch of enlightened capitalism is having a retarded development in auto, we fear, in spite of Reuther’s theories and hopes to the contrary.)

More easily than many of his followers, Reuther is beginning to recover his balance, and is making moves calculated to retrieve a messy situation. Surely, if the UAW wins this speedup strike quickly, the Ford strike is a good dress rehearsal for July 16 contract deadline. If it gets any satisfactory compromise the leadership can probably play up the action as a real dress rehearsal, and UAW people will be told that Reuther had it planned that way all the time.

But the adamant attitude of the corporation suggests that maybe there is no choice but “shooting the works.” Negotiations on the pension plan can begin next Sunday, although Ford says he won’t meet with the UAW while it is on strike now.

Certainly, the confusion and hesitation in other Ford locals would end if the UAW went all-out for the program overwhelmingly adopted at the recent Ford national conference. It means making the big strike now.

Reuther’s dilemma consists in the fact that in order to do this he has to take on the whole “world,” as he did in 1945–46 in the GM strike. Already all the “friends of labor” in Washington are screaming that the UAW is upsetting the whole possibility of “repealing the Taft-Hartley Law.” This fake argument, we think, is taken seriously by Reuther. (If only labor would be reasonable – submit to a speedup – take a no-strike pledge – abandon wage demands, the Taft-Hartley Law would be repealed. Of course! Why have a Taft-Hartley Law on the books if the labor movement turns’ itself into a company union, and its leaders into watchdogs over the rank and file?)

Test Is Beginning

If Reuther doesn’t strike out boldly he loses both national and UAW prestige. After all, he has promised to deliver the goods. The UAW does have a united leadership on top. They can’t blame “the Communists.” They are out in the cold, even in Ford Local 600, where everyone hates them. (The men on the picket line resent the popular notion that the CP has been running their local for a long time.)

If the speedup strike alone remains the issue and is prolonged, hardly anyone thinks the UAW can call another strike in July. If the union exhausts itself in a purely defensive struggle, it signifies giving up the economic objectives of 1949. Small wonder that Reuther is on the spot!

Even some kind of face-saving compromise now, rather than a real victory, simply postpones the showdown and the crisis confronting the UAW. For if the Ford Motor Company is this “tough” now, and the whole Washington administration and all the “friends of labor” are exerting conservative pressure on Reuther now, think how much greater that pressure will be in July! (And meanwhile, it is a safe guess that the Taft-Hartley Law will remain on the books until after the 1949 wage negotiations, including steel, coal and auto, are over.)

It is going to take a bold, dramatic and courageous all-out fight on the part of the UAW to win anything in 1949. The real test of the Reuther leadership has just begun. The future course of the Ford strike will decide its future.

Once again the UAW concentrates in itself the problems and struggles of the whole labor movement.

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