Martin Harvey

Detroit Strikes Show
Need to End “Pledge”

(6 November 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 45, 6 November 1944, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Two events in Detroit have demonstrated the crying need for the labor movement to rescind the no-strike pledge. These were the strike of the six hundred rubber workers at the U.S. Co. plant and the walkout in all Kelsey-Hayes. A comparison of these two strikes will provide a valuable lesson to the rank and file of labor.

The strike at U.S. Rubber resulted from a cut in piecework rates. The specific issue of the strike, however, is not what is important in this connection. What is significant is the way in which the international union reacted to the attempt of the membership to protect its rights.

At the recent convention of the United Rubber Workers a powerful minority pressed for the removal of the no-strike pledge. The progressive minority, however, was not powerful enough, and with two-thirds of the delegates backing the administration, the no-strike pledge was reaffirmed. As a result of this the confidence of the dictator-minded president, Sherman Dalrymple, badly shaken by the mounting wave of opposition to his administration, was restored. The need for consulting the membership could now be put off for another year. Dalrymple could now continue to appease the rubber bosses without let or hindrance.

“Simple Sherman” at Work

And then, as if to underscore the arguments of the minority at the convention, Dalrymple takes action in the rubber strike in Detroit. He fined each of the six hundred strikers $12.50, a total of approximately $7,500. Only the vote to reaffirm the reactionary no-strike pledge and sustain the policies of the Dalrymple administration at the rubber workers convention made such a vicious response to the demands of the Detroit rubber workers possible. “Simple Sherman” did not inquire whether the grievance of the workers was justified. He did not promise in any way to settle that grievance. There was a strike – and Dalrymple simply cracked down. Not, heaven forbid! on the rubber barons, but on the workers in his own union!

The strike of workers in the Kelsey-Hayes unit of the big West Side Local 174 of the United Auto Workers, CIO, took place at the same time as the rubber strike. There the company had arbitrarily cut out paid lunch periods – which the workers correctly protested as a wage cut. But again, the specific issue of the strike is not what we are considering. How did the international act in the situation?

The auto union leadership of R.J. Thomas, Walter Reuther and George Addes is no less interested in upholding the no-strike pledge than is Dalrymple. They, too, have a long record of cracking down on the militant rank and file. They did not hesitate in the past to suspend two Detroit locals when the membership refused to let their grievances be side-tracked by the War Labor Board. But today they are faced with a different situation.

At the UAW convention in Grand Rapids, under the leadership of the Rank and File Caucus, the delegates overwhelmingly called for a referendum of the membership on the nostrike pledge. And then, to show what they thought of the Thomas-Reuther-Addes leadership, they prohibited them from using their offices or union funds to carry on any propaganda for retaining the pledge. In other words, Thomas, Reuther and Addes were NOT given a vote of confidence by the convention. And they have to tread lightly. They are not worried about the fine points of democracy in the union. But they ARE worried about how the membership will vote in the coming referendum.

So what did these gentlemen do in the Kelsey-Hayes strike? Thomas, who never lost an opportunity to publicly attack workers who struck to settle their grievances, kept his mouth shut this time. A distinct gain to the labor movement. It was left for Addes to do the dirty work in cooperation with the Reuther leadership of Local 174. They threatened drastic action, but ended up with pleading and cajoling the workers to return to work.

Meaning of the Pledge

There is a clear lesson in this for the auto workers – and the rest of the CIO, too. When the no-strike pledge was given, labor gave up the only weapon it had to settle grievances and bargain for better wages and working conditions. But that is not all that was lost. Lost in addition was the control that the rank and file could exercise over the actions of their leadership. Before the no-strike pledge the final power of the union was. the united action of the rank and file. No matter what the leadership, no matter how it finagled, the workers had final power in their own hands – strike action.

With that power gone, the bargaining power of the unions rests on secret and semi-secret negotiations at the top. The members cannot any longer press for new demands, for improved conditions in contracts. That’s all settled by the big boys at the top. Even the most minor plant grievance can’t be settled any other way.

What all this boils down to is that the final authority over the working conditions and daily lives of the workers in the shops is now the top leadership of the union. The next step – and a short step it is – is control over the union itself. For if the ONLY bargaining, method is negotiation at the top and the workers are eliminated from the bargaining process, the leadership sets itself up as experts and demands a free hand in its secret deals.

And how are the workers to object when the issue at stake is no longer the relative strength of the union and the corporation – which the workers can see for themselves – but how slick the union negotiator is as compared to the company representatives and so - called public members on a government board? And finally the top union leaders have the full power of both the government and the corporations to back them up against the membership, in support of the agreements reached at the top.

What Labor Surrendered

In the final analysis, when the labor movement gave up the right to strike it gave up not merely its power to oppose the employers but lost, in addition, the final control the rank and file had over the labor leaders.

The proof of this is the increasing number of dictatorial actions against the membership by the top CIO leaders. The latest action of Sherman Dalrymple against the Detroit rubber workers is a prime example.

The first step toward returning the unions to the rank and file was taken at the UAW convention with the decision to hold a referendum vote on the no-strike pledge. Even the decision to hold a referendum vote on the no-strike pledge. Even the decision to hold the referendum has brought results. The big boys at the top are relatively quiet now. But the next step must be taken. The no-strike pledge must be rescinded in the UAW referendum. The auto workers can return their union to the membership and provide a beacon light to the rest of the labor movement. They must not fail.

Last updated on 29 June 2020