B.J. Widick Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Walter Jason

UAW Up Against Fact That Pension Issue
Lacks Appeal for Men

(30 January 1950)

From Labor Action, Vol. 14 No. 6, 6 February 1950, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DETROIT, Jan. 30 – The contrast between the present Chrysler strike, already involving more than 125,000 auto workers, and the May 1948 strike which broke the “no wage increase” front of Wall Street reveals the change in the over-all situation in the labor movement, and is a key to grasping the essential character of the current walkout.

In 1948, the United Auto Workers leadership refused to accept the defeats and retreats of the rest of the CIO as its “pattern.” The Reuther leadership consciously prepared to strike Chrysler unless a satisfactory wage offer was won in negotiations, and the ranks of the union were readied for the struggle. Even the absence of Walter Reuther, who was hospitalized from the murder attempt failed to slow down the UAW. Once the UAW hit the bricks at Chrysler and prepared a General Motors strike, industry capitulated, and even the steel workers received a wage increase, previously denied them.

The fact that Ford and steel in 1949 gave pension plans (with a strike in steel, to be sure) led the UAW leadership and ranks to believe that getting an acceptable pension plan at Chrysler would not be too difficult. They expected this corporation would follow the “pattern.”

Likewise, the bitter and prolonged struggle of the coal miners for concessions, without any victory, added to the feeling and fervent hope that things would be settled peacefully at Chrysler. The Chrysler negotiations, depending on the Ford and steel settlements, were supposed to conclude the “mopping up” operation for the 1949 pension program. The UAW leadership had its eyes focused on General Motors for 1950, where the contract opens this spring. The GM crisis was to be preceded by a victory for a union shop at the NLRB polls.

Instead the UAW finds itself – unless there is a quick and unexpected settlement – beginning its 1950 fight at Chrysler, and for a program which was supposed to be concluded before the GM fight. The Chrysler contract, which expires in August 1950, was supposed to come up for improvements after a victory at General Motors this spring.

Pensions Lack Glitter

At the present time it appears that the UAW leadership has recovered its balance, or more exactly recovered from its surprise at Chrysler’s die-hard resistance, and the union gives many indications of preparing for a combined struggle on pensions, health insurance and the contract. Chief stewards’ meetings have been called to discuss proposed improvements, in line with the action of the national Chrysler UAW conference to broaden the present fight’ to include contract improvements, which may be done after the strike lasts five days.

Basic to any victory in a long struggle on the Chrysler front is the need to make the ranks feel that they personally will benefit by whatever settlement is made. No pension plan based on the $100-a-month pattern will do that, for even if a satisfactory plan (with those financial limitations) is obtained, the pension directly benefits so few workers now at Chrysler that dissatisfaction with the settlement is more than likely.

As a matter of fact, one aspect of the pension plan idea which UAW leaders, as well as others have ignored, is that the very raising of that slogan is bound to cause more dissatisfaction, i.e., radicalization in the thinking of the workers; for in thinking about the future, the men in the shops can see clearly what a barren future they have. Very frequently the reaction to the pension-plan idea is, “My God! I must spend 25 years in the shop to get one!” Who wants to spend 25 years in an auto shop? The dream of most workers is to get out as soon as possible. The contrast between a “world safe for democracy, with real peace, security, and freedom,” which is the theme of many of Reuther’s speeches, and the miserable if necessary settlements made on a trade-union level after strike struggles, is the source of the growing dissatisfaction in the UAW ranks. The contradiction between the dream and the reality is painfully apparent, and really painful.

Rough Waters

Out of this comes the “conservatism” of the ranks in this strike. UAW ranks now know the limitations, through many experiences, of trade-union struggles. Everybody in Detroit knows that the UAW won’t win much more than the Ford or steel package, for the very simple reason that the Chrysler Corporation won’t give it, and there is no way the UAW can make a really tremendous gain on the economic front during a period when the rest of the labor movement has settled either for a dime pension package, or for nothing – and at a time when the coal miners are in a life and death struggle.

Another section of workers has become “soft.” They think in terms of the union getting them something for nothing. The “union” is something apart from them.

This description of the realities in the present Chrysler strike show what a vital and acute job lies ahead for the UAW to re-create and develop a new social and union consciousness which may well turn out to be the real victory in the present struggle. “Unionism as usual,” even of the UAW variety, is in rough waters.

The Chrysler strike, as well as the coal miners’ crisis, brings this to the fore.

B.J. Widick Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 8 March 2023