Standing at the crossroads: The United Auto Workers and the way forward

United Auto Workers, Aramark workers carry strike signs while picketing outside the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant in Detroit,
United Auto Workers, Aramark workers carry strike signs while picketing outside the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, Sept. 15, 2019. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters)

By DEAN COHEN

The UAW seems to be standing at the crossroads, and like Robert Johnson’s protagonist from the song, the once rising sun now seems to be sinkin’ down. That sun seems to be setting on a great labor union, once the shining jewel of the CIO and the whole U.S. labor movement.

From the millions of dollars in fines, to the decades of jail time handed down in sentences, to the forced resignation of President Gary Jones, the scandals keep coming like punches to the head and body of a used-up prizefighter who appears to be in the ring way past his prime. Are there more to come? These blows have rocked not only the UAW membership, but also the membership of the entire union movement. They have definitely impacted the union’s ability to organize the transplanted auto plants like Volkswagen, Honda, and Toyota.

Perspective members have to be asking themselves, “Just what kind of organization am I being asked to join and give my dues money to?” Hanging over all this is the threat of government interference in the UAW, a move that would be a setback to the whole labor movement.

The roots of these crises have not just materialized out of thin air. It is the culmination of the undemocratic nature of the UAW’s top leadership. Called the Administration Caucus, it goes back decades to the successful attempt of Walter Reuther and his allies, following the Second World War, to impose a one-party rule, tame the union’s militancy, and drive any left-wing influence out of the union.

Reuther and the rise of the Administration Caucus

Walter Reuther was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, into a staunchly left-wing and pro-union family. His father was a union teamster, socialist, and strong supporter of Eugene V. Debs. Walter early on joined the Socialist Party (SP) and its youth organization, the Young Peoples Socialist League. By 1927 he had moved to Detroit to work in the growing automobile industry and obtained a job at Ford’s sprawling River Rouge Plant.

In 1932 he was fired from Ford for organizing a rally for the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate Norman Thomas. It was then that he and brother Victor decided to travel overseas. After three years they returned to Detroit, where the autoworkers were already on the march toward industrial unionism. Reuther helped organize a number of plants into Westside Amalgamated Local 174. This local would be his base for years to come.

It should be noted that the Reuther brothers were well known as members of the SP at this time. It was also well known that Reuther would work closely with members of the Communist Party (CP), though it wasn’t so much out of solidarity with other members of the left in the union. Walter, ever the opportunistic budding “labor faker” would work with anyone who he felt could further his rise in the union, and the CP represented a sizably force in the UAW at this point. This close relationship cooled around the time of the Stalin-Hitler Pact.

With the advent of World War II, and the union bureaucrats’ acceptance of the no-strike pledge, Reuther and the CP enthusiastically jumped on the no-strike bandwagon. With Walter, it was to solidify his position as an up and coming “labor statesman.” With the CP, it was at the behest of their Stalinist masters in the Kremlin following the Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941. But the CP went beyond the no-strike pledge, hysterically demanding support for the speedup and incentive pay in the UAW and other unions where the CP had forces.

The Stalinists made these demands for the duration of the war and beyond! These demands were extremely unpopular with the rank and file and tended to put “moderate” union hacks like Reuther between a rock and a hard spot! This situation came to a head during the UAW’s 1944 convention, where the membership actually voted down any continuation of the no-strike pledge. It took all the bureaucratic wrangling that Reuther and the CP could muster to thwart the will of the ranks.

By 1945, the union bureaucrats could no longer contain the anger of the ranks, who had seen many of the hard-fought gains of the 1930s rolled back by the no-strike pledge and the War Labor Board. This anger burst forth in the greatest labor upsurge in U.S. history. Walter Reuther, by this time a UAW vice-president and head of the union’s GM Department, backed a national strike against General Motors. He hardly had any choice!

UAW-GM workers enthusiastically flocked to the picket lines on Nov. 21, 1945, and held the line for 113 days. But barely 90 days into the strike, the Stalinist-controlled United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), which had contracts covering workers at GM electrical divisions, announced they had cut a deal with GM behind the backs of the UAW. This undercut the UAW’s bargaining power and earned the Stalinists the undying hatred of UAW militants.

Reuther was able to use this justified hatred to consolidate his power. He allied with the anti-communist Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU) and went after the CP in the union, putting CP-led locals like Ford Local 600 in receivership. Next to be targeted was any left-wing opposition. You were given a choice—get on the Reuther bandwagon, and cushy International jobs awaited. Don’t play ball, and there’s the door!

The UAW constitution never had a provision for direct membership election of top officers. Top officers were and still are elected by delegates at the International Convention. This made the job of taming the union easier: Control the hiring of International Staff and control the selection of delegates. The Administration Caucus was born!

Opposition begins

The first opposition to Reuther’s complete domination coalesced around former President R.J. Thomas, Secretary-Treasurer George Addes, and Vice President Richard Leonard at the 1947 UAW convention. The Thomas-Addes-Leonard caucus attracted many of the union’s most militant elements, who were concerned that democracy was slipping away from the rank and file. But that caucus suffered a big defeat at the ’47 convention and very soon disbanded.

The prosperity of the 1950s and early ’60s was not very conducive to the formation of opposition in the UAW. Secure employment, relatively high wages and good benefits kept the ranks contented. Except for small groupings centered mostly in Detroit, the Revolutionary Union Movements (RUMs), the UAW bureaucracy remained unchallenged by the type of national opposition movements that formed in other large unions in the late 1960s and ’70s, such as the Teamsters (Teamsters for a Democratic Union), Mineworkers (Miners For Democracy) and Steelworkers (Steelworkers Fight Back).

In 1986, the New Directions Movement emerged, led by Region 5 assistant director Jerry Tucker. But not too long after Tucker’s failed bid for the union presidency, New Directions faded.

Present crisis & “Unite All Workers for Democracy”

Given the present crisis in the union, it is not surprising that an opposition movement has emerged. An opposition caucus, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), was founded in mid-2019. According to a supporter of the caucus, the UAWD seeks to “return the UAW to its militant roots.”

On its website, UAWD lists a number of goals. Among them are better contracts, more transparency, better organizing and community outreach, all fine goals. However, UAWD’s main goal is limited to having as many locals as possible sign on to a call to force the union leadership to call a “special convention,” as per Article 8, Section 4 of the union’s constitution, in order to pass a resolution changing the constitution to allow for direct membership election of top officers (one member, one vote). As of this writing, some 20 locals have signed on.

While the direct election of top officers will be a step toward greater democracy in the union, this will not, in and of itself, “return the union to its militant roots.” As UAWD’s website points out, direct membership election is not an outlandish demand. Other unions, such as the Steelworkers and the Machinists allow for one member, one vote. Yet that has not made those unions militant, fighting organizations.

It will take a militant, fighting program to return the UAW to its roots. In order to win better contracts, one demand has to be to dump the union’s long-time strategy of striking only one auto company at a time. This strategy arose with Reuther as a way to put pressure on the struck company by allowing their competitors to keep making and selling cars. As we have seen with the most recent GM strike, this strategy is a dead-end loser. A militant, fighting union, led by a class-struggle leadership, would have shut down ALL the auto companies! Only by shutting down the entire industry will it be possible to win good contacts.

Top on the list of any opposition caucus must be the call to decisively break from the bosses’ political shell game. A break from the Democrats and Republicans by the UAW (and the rest of the labor movement), and the formation of an independent, working-class political party, is a must if labor is to move forward.

Just recently, disgraced former President Gary Jones was indicted on charges of embezzling more than $1.5 million of union funds. As the scandal deepens, the possibility of a government takeover of the union grows. We know from recent history how badly that worked out for the Teamsters union. Another top demand of a militant opposition must be no government interference in the union!

A nationally organized opposition caucus within the UAW, built upon a militant, fighting program, will be a step forward toward returning the union to its militant roots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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