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The CIO Auto Workers Convention

(October 1944)

From Fourth International, Vol.5 No.10, October 1944, pp.295-298.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

American capitalism faces a new labor crisis in the period ahead. That crisis was foreshadowed last month by the stormy events of the Ninth Annual Convention of the CIO United Automobile, Aircraft and Agricultural Implement Workers of America. The UAW convention, representing over 1,200,000 of the most advanced and politically-conscious workers in the trade union movement, gave clear expression to those militant moods and ideas which in one degree or another are beginning to pervade the ranks of all labor.

Three decisive facts stand out from the events of the UAW convention. The first is that the organized American workers are emerging from the past period of enforced retreats and unfended blows with numbers not merely intact but increased, and with an undiminished spirit of confidence, militancy and resistance. That spirit lifted the UAW convention to its feet and ran roughshod over the conservative leadership which sought to harness it. The UAW delegates fought the defeatist moods of their leadership at every turn. If the auto workers are any indication – and they are – the American workers are getting ready for battle.

Secondly, the bitter struggle against the no-strike pledge, dominant conflict of the convention, signified that a decisive sector of the auto workers has passed beyond the stage of directing their discontent solely at individual anti-labor consequences of Wall Street’s war. In grappling with the basic issue of the no-strike pledge, the auto workers demonstrated their desire for a more fundamental solution to their problems.

The magnificent and still unconcluded battle to scrap the no-strike policy, waged by the ranks against both the entire top leadership of the UAW and CIO and the Roosevelt government, testifies to an advance in the political awareness of the auto workers. In seeking to dislodge the main prop of Roosevelt’s labor policy, the auto militants have embarked on a struggle leading inevitably into head-on conflict with the government and all the political agencies of capitalism. That struggle will pose ever more sharply before the auto workers the whole question of independent labor political action.

Thirdly, the UAW convention revealed that the coming general labor crisis will constitute a crisis as well for the labor bureaucracy. The conflict which raged at the UAW convention was a struggle between the ranks and the top leadership. The relationship between program and leadership for the first time received wide-spread recognition at this convention. This was demonstrated by the powerful beginnings of a newly organized rank and file group opposed to all the old leaders and factions and built upon an advanced, militant program. Making the first complete break from all old factional ties during the election for union president, the new group pointed the way to the coming struggle for union control against the present leadership on the basis of fundamental issues.

Unbearable Conditions

These major developments at the UAW convention have their roots in the conditions of American capitalist war economy. Less than three years of American direct participation in the imperialist war have sufficed to bring to the fore in potentially more acute form the basic capitalist contradictions which appeared to have been ameliorated by the monstrous expansion of war production. Elements of a new, devastating economic crisis are appearing.

Prices ascend, while wages remain frozen. Plants are being shut down owing to war-contract cancellations; cut-backs are eliminating overtime pay; the widespread practice of downgrading is reducing hourly wages. All this results in a steady decline of living standards. While the war is still in progress, the workers view the looming specter of mass unemployment.

The economic squeeze on the workers has found its reflection in the arena of open class struggle. Each year of the war has seen a progressive increase in strikes. During the past six months, save for a momentary slight decline following the invasion of France, strikes have been steadily increasing in number and scope. A large number of these strikes have been occurring in what. the capitalist press calls the very “strike center,” Detroit and Michigan, heart of the automotive industry and the UAW-CIO. These strikes symptomatize not only limited grievances but a growing opposition to the war labor policy of Roosevelt and his union lieutenants.

This new girding for battle and the beginnings of open class struggle by an undefeated, and intact labor movement in reality constitutes a serious setback for Wall Street in the attainment of one of its major war objectives. With the unleashing of its war for world domination, American capitalism unfolded its program for crippling and paralyzing the labor movement. “National unity,” the watchword of the entire bourgeois camp, meant above all unity between the conflicting interests within the capitalist class against a working class disarmed by its own leadership. Thus, under Roosevelt’s leadership, Democrats and Republicans collaborated in the furtherance of capitalism’s common war aims at home and abroad. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was the signal for labor heads to rush pell-mell to perform the shameful rites of surrender before Roosevelt, as the chief representative of American imperialism. CIO President Philip Murray was constrained to boast of this fact before the unresponsive UAW-CIO delegates, declaring that

“... on the 17th day of December, 1941, ten days after our country had become involved in the war ... without formal request upon the part of the President of the United States, we all voluntarily agreed to give our Commander-in-Chief, and through him to the people of our country our No Strike commitment.”

Labor Disarmed

Through this conspiracy of Roosevelt and his servile labor lieutenants, the workers were deprived at one blow of their most effective weapon of union struggle, the right to strike. The disarming of the labor movement was further effected by compulsory arbitration through the capitalist government agencies. Soon, fortified by executive orders, the War Labor Board and other government agencies were imposing the demands of Big Business on the unions by decree, backed by the exercise of police and punitive powers.

The auto workers, like the rest of labor’s ranks, were largely stunned and disoriented by the initial impact of the war. They were without leadership and program which might have continued to keep them securely anchored to their own class interests. Thus, for the moment, they passively acquiesced in the surrender of the strike weapon, especially since they were solemnly assured that this was part of an “agreement” of “three parties, labor, management and government,” all carrying reciprocal obligations. Only gradually did the labor bureaucrats transform this “agreement” into a “voluntary sacred pledge” of labor alone.

Immediately, the corporations seized advantage of the no-strike policy to violate contractual obligations, ignore collective bargaining procedure and reinstitute onerous plant rules and conditions. The WLB became the repository and burial vault of workers grievances, small and great.

Within four months, Roosevelt felt the time was propitious for his program of extorting major economic “concessions” from the unions. Advancing behind a corporation-Congressional barrage against all overtime pay, Roosevelt “requested” the unions to give up “voluntarily” their contractual rights to overtime pay for week-ends and holidays as such.

There was immediate wide-spread resistance to this pro-proposal among the workers generally, and especially among the auto militants. The UAW leaders hastened to convene a national “emergency” conference in April 1942 to gain a semblance of formal endorsement for both Roosevelt’s new “request” and their previous acceptance, without membership consultation, of the no-strike policy.

At this conference, a stubborn but unsuccessful rank and file fight was waged against surrendering “premium” pay.

The entire top leadership, previously torn by unprincipled clique feuds, united in pushing through endorsement of the no-strike policy and ramming the President’s subsequent “request” down the delegates’ throats.

The decisive weapon used to beat down the ranks was political. The conclusive argument used to put over the surrender of “premium” pay was the roaring challenge of UAW Vice President Frankensteen: “Are you going to tell President Roosevelt to go to hell?” The delegates were further horn-swoggled by the leadership’s fraudulent 10-point “equality of sacrifice” program, whereby the auto workers were persuaded to give up immediately certain of their basic gains on the assurance that Roosevelt would control prices, limit war profits and executive salaries, tax the rich and give labor a “voice” through “labor-management” committees.

Before another four months had passed, the dissatisfaction of the auto workers rose to new heights. Roosevelt had enunciated his 7-point “equality of sacrifice” program as a cover for his introduction of wage “stabilization” – that is, wage freezing. The War Labor Board stalled all wage demands in the face of soaring living costs.

At the August 1942 convention, the UAW workers once more demonstrated their militancy, their mistrust of the leadership and their jealous regard for union democracy. They fought bitterly against ratifying the leadership’s resolutions on surrendering “premium” pay and “strengthening” the WLB. But after rejecting these resolutions and sending them back to committee for “teeth,” the delegates finally adopted “compromise” resolutions embodying the essential contents of the originals. The “teeth” were “demands” that Roosevelt enforce his “request” on overtime pay against all unions “impartially” within 30 days and that the WLB establish “regional boards” to “expedite” the handling of grievances.

Rising Discontent

Thus, save for a few voices, the auto workers directed their opposition largely against the isolated consequences of the war and Roosevelt’s anti-labor program. Only on the organizational issues of union democracy which they fully understood, did they overwhelmingly reject the leadership’s attempts to pass constitutional measures intended to give the officialdom greater bureaucratic powers.

Roosevelt formalized wage freezing on the basis of the Little Steel formula by executive decree. Congress followed through with the Smith-Connally anti-strike law and the 20 percent payroll tax, while brushing aside all bills to limit profits, executive salaries and prices.

When the October 1943 UAW convention opened, the delegates were seething with discontent. But again they were unable to hurdle the political obstacles and come to grips with the basic issues. Moreover, it was at this convention that Vice President Walter Reuther played most effectively his traditional role of “left” cover for the leadership. Because the most advanced militants were aligned with Reuther’s caucus, he was able to behead the struggle over basic issues, confining the opposition to a fight against the Addes-Frankensteen-Stalinist unpopular proposal to approve the speedup “incentive pay” system. Once “incentive pay” was overwhelmingly rejected, Reuther joined with the rest of the leadership in side-tracking the fundamental questions, such as the no-strike policy, in favor of an unprincipled struggle over posts between the two top cliques. Then the two leadership factions demonstratively resolved their “differences” by uniting on all major resolutions, including support of a Roosevelt fourth-term and the no-strike policy.

The best of the militants left the convention thoroughly disabused of any illusions they had held about Reuther, who had ended up in a programmatic embrace with the very elements he had fought against for posts. The point had at last been driven home to many thinking delegates that what was needed was an organized fight for a whole new leadership committed to a new, militant program.

Events leading up to the 1944 convention deepened the cleavage between the ranks and the leaders and accelerated the development of an independent militant grouping. Unsettled grievances were piling mountain high. Collective bargaining had broken down. The corporations, emboldened by the continued retreat of the union, began a campaign of open provocations to wipe out local militant leaderships and undermine the unions. Roosevelt and Congress at the same time were busy squeezing the workers tighter in the vise of wage freeze and rising prices.

The auto workers found conditions increasingly intolerable. They began to take what appeared to be the only defensive course left, strike action. By April and May 1944, so-called “wild-cat” strikes were occurring in one plant after another. The UAW International Board moved with all haste to smash these strikes. At its meetings, it demonstratively reiterated its policy of unconditional surrender to the corporations and adopted threatening measures for punitive action against striking militants. The companies, thus further encouraged, intensified their provocations. Strikes, however, particularly in the Detroit and Michigan areas, continued to increase.

The top leadership responded by expelling local union officials from office and establishing dictator-receiverships over the locals. The companies eagerly followed up these bureaucratic acts by firing leading local union representatives.

The most experienced militants increasingly realized that isolated, sporadic strikes, which seldom ended in gaining the objectives fought for, were not the effective solution. Not infrequently such strike actions resulted in the victimization of the best union fighters.

This final impasse directly stimulated the organization of the new rank and file caucus. The search for basic solutions brought the militants to an acceptance of the program originally advanced by the Trotskyists alone:

  1. rescind the no-strike pledge;
  2. smash the Little Steel formula;
  3. withdraw the labor members from the WLB;
  4. build an independent labor party.

Coincident with the emergence of this new militant UAW caucus, came vital developments on the political field. The auto militants provided the impetus and base for the formation of a third party in Michigan, the Michigan Commonwealth Federation, as an important step in the direction of organizing an independent labor party.

With the formal organization of a militant caucus, the auto workers were able finally to come to grips with fundamental issues. At a recent UAW convention, the new caucus appeared as a powerful force. No longer bound by factional loyalties to Reuther or Addes, the militants could proceed boldly to the preparation and conduct of a show-down fight against the no-strike pledge, a fight directed, in essence, at the whole cowardly policy of the leadership and the labor program of Roosevelt himself.

That conflict ensued for four days. It was waged against the whole top leadership of the UAW and the CIO, with Philip Murray drawn into the fray for the express purpose of wielding the whiplash of his prestige and CIO power against the recalcitrant delegates. One parliamentary maneuver, one shoddy trick after another, was attempted by the leadership to prevent, side-track or disorient the fight. But for the first time, the leaders were contending with an organized opposition, which had a clear-cut program and experienced leadership, and which would not subordinate its program to factional fights over “posts.”

The very fact of the struggle and the primary position it occupied in the convention deliberations was of profound political significance. This issue swept aside the plans of the leadership to place the emphasis of the convention on preparations for the CIO-PAC campaign for the reelection of Roosevelt. That matter was dealt with almost in passing, largely as an apathetic reflex of past political conditioning.

The attack of the leadership against the insurgent ranks contained the usual flag-waving appeals, pleas to patriotic sentiments, exhortations for loyalty to “our Commander-in-Chief.” But, except for the speeches of the discredited Stalinists, who invariably were booed as soon as they took the floor, there was a significant restraint in the exposition of these types of arguments. There was no red-baiting, no slanderous references to “Hitler agents.”

The most effective arguments advanced by the leaders were those which appealed to the union sentiments of the delegates and their desire to safeguard their organization. Thus, from Murray on down, the leaders sought to arouse the fear of the delegates that to rescind the no-strike pledge would bring an avalanche of reprisals against the union and place its existence in jeopardy. The delegates were solemnly warned that if they scrapped the no-strike pledge they would “provoke” new Congressional anti-labor legislation, “isolate” themselves from the rest of the CIO, invoke the enmity of the soldiers, turn the “great majority of unorganized common people and middle class against you.”

But even these arguments, the most potent the leadership could muster, could not beat the militant opposition into submission. For what stood out especially in this convention was that quality which is so uniquely and highly developed in the UAW ranks – the consciousness of their own organized power, their confidence in their own united strength. It was this superb awareness and confidence in their own power which the leadership sought in vain to shatter and destroy.

In an attempt to disorient the fight, Reuther again played his shabby role of “Judas Goat” to lead the militants back into the slaughterpen of the no-strike policy. But it was a measure of the development of the auto delegates and the principled firmness of the new caucus, that Reuther could trap no more than a relative handful into support of his treacherous “compromise” resolution of the no-strike pledge.

Reuther presented his resolution with the obvious intent of preventing the introduction of a resolution calling for immediate unconditional scrapping of the no-strike pledge. His purpose was to confine the debate to a “majority” and “minority” resolution both reaffirming the no-strike pledge. This move was frustrated on the very first day of the convention, when the aroused delegates compelled a revision of the rules to permit the introduction of a “super-minority” – which almost proved to be a majority – resolution against the no-strike pledge.

Reuther’s miserable efforts to divert and circumvent the issue were thoroughly exposed. He was ground between the millstones of the right-wing Addes-Frankensteen-Stalinist faction and the new Rank-and-File Caucus. His reputation as a “militant” was considerably tarnished.

It was only after the Rank-and-File Caucus rolled up an impressive 36% of the convention votes to scrap the no-strike pledge and the majority resolution for reaffirmation had been defeated, that Reuther combined with the rest of the top leadership to push over a motion for reaffirmation by a shyster trick. Seeking to get a formal vote reaffirming the no-strike pledge on any basis, the resolutions committee majority, composed mainly of Stalinists, and joined by Victor Reuther, Walter’s brother, proposed a “procedure” to “resolve” the “impasse.” They put a motion to vote “up or down” a straight statement unconditionally reaffirming the no-strike pledge to be followed by a vote to hold a membership referendum within 90 days on the no-strike issue.

By means of a deceptive “explanation” on the part of Victor Reuther, who deliberately fostered the impression that a vote for reaffirmation was tied with a vote on the referendum, a 60 percent majority vote was finally secured to reaffirm the no-strike policy. Reuther joined with the whole leadership in supporting this motion. Then the Addes-Stalinist spokesmen stepped forward with a surprise motion not to hold a referendum.

The storm which broke loose from the delegates was a demonstration of rage at the attempt to trick them. They proceeded to throw the issue full-blown once more into the hands of the membership by an overwhelming roll-call vote in favor of a referendum. For the ranks at least, the motion to reaffirm, put over by deceit, did not settle the question; it merely brought the issue forward with renewed force.

On the sixth day of the convention, the leaders were finally able to focus their attention on their chief concern, getting back into office. That aim they achieved, but not because of any secure and loyal support from the ranks. Indeed, the suspicion, disgust and hostility of the ranks toward the leadership, individually and collectively, had been repeatedly demonstrated.

While the new militant caucus had been able to rally tremendous support of a fundamental issue, it recognized that a large section of the delegates was still unprepared to reject the old leaders. The time was not yet ripe for an all-out fight for the leadership. Many of the delegates would hesitate to throw out the old leaders, despite their program and record of betrayal, in favor of still largely unknown and untested new aspirants.

The Rank-and-File Caucus therefore deliberately confined itself merely to a single demonstration projecting the idea and laying the basis for a future struggle for leadership, elected not on narrow clique grounds but because it represents a genuine fighting policy and program.

The caucus supported the candidacy of Robert Carter, President of the Greater Flint Industrial Union Council, who ran for president on a program of opposition to the no-strike pledge and for withdrawal of labor members from the WLB, against R.J. Thomas, who had been reelected five years in a row without opposition. Carter received the unexpected backing of almost 20 percent of the convention. That vote constituted clearest evidence of the trend of the auto workers – toward a complete repudiation of the old leadership and the creation from the ranks of a genuinely new type of leadership, militant fighters for a program of struggle against the corporations and against the capitalist government.

That the auto militants were still unable to defeat the no-strike policy decisively and secure a new leadership at this convention is due, in the final analysis, to the political contradictions which remain the most formidable obstacle in their path. Their disillusionment with Roosevelt is profound, but not yet complete. They still support the imperialist war, although with increasingly sharp misgivings concerning the aims of the war rulers and the anti-labor consequences of the whole capitalist war program.

Moving to the Left

Politically, the auto workers are in a transitional stage, moving steadily to the left toward a complete break with capitalist politics, but still confused. That confusion was reflected in the fact that a large section of the auto workers are prepared to come into head-on collision with the capitalist government on a basic labor policy, but not to challenge the political power of the ruling class from which that policy stems. Thus, except for the most advanced section of the militants, the auto workers who fought against the no-strike pledge did not do so by resolving their political contradictions. While reconciling themselves to these contradictions, they tried to interpret them in favor of their own class interests. That, however, is but a step removed from a final definitive turn from the old capitalist parties and politics on the road to their own class party, a labor party.

No small indication of the political development of the auto workers is reflected in their wholesome rejection of Stalinism, which received further discreditment at this convention. The Stalinists, who in the formative stages of the UAW exercised tremendous influence, have been steadily losing ground, especially since their 1941 turn to the extreme right.

They remain a force in the UAW only in so far as they can hide behind the cover of the official leadership. Each time they sought to assert themselves independently at the convention they were roundly rebuffed. They lost considerable ground in the top leadership, when their West Coast UAW director and International Board Member, Michener, was placed under charges before the convention. A scandalous picture of Stalinist malfeasance in office was presented to the convention. Not even their own spokesmen could offer a defense. The convention voted against the election of a board member for the region and established a committee to take over the organizational conduct of the West Coast organization. This was a major setback for the Stalinists.

The coming period of increasingly acute economic dislocation can serve only to deepen the cleavage between the ranks and the leadership and accelerate the political development of the auto workers in the direction of independent labor political action against all the capitalist parties and leaders. The no-strike issue is bound to merge with the struggle for a new political program. The UAW leadership already is aggravating the hostility of the ranks still further by maneuvers to prevent or stall the no-strike referendum in brazen violation of the clear cut mandate of the convention. The pre-election political finagling of Roosevelt around the question of the Little Steel formula is adding its weight against the remaining balance of the auto workers’ illusions about the “friend of labor” in the White House.

The time is not far distant when the auto workers will be taking their rightful place in the vanguard of a new, great upsurge of American labor. The impending struggle will not be limited to the “economic” field. It will raise fundamental political issues and be fought out under political slogans and by political means.

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