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The New International, January 1946


Martin Harvey

Lessons of the Detroit Elections

The Class Forces Involved


From New International, Vol.12 No.1, January 1946, pp.17-18.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Detroit municipal election, in which a United Auto Workers Union vice-president, Richard T. Frankensteen, ran for mayor against Mayor Edward Jeffries, Jr., attracted nation-wide attention and interest. Workers throughout the country and the capitalist press gave careful scrutiny to the progress of the campaign and the election results. The interest aroused by the Detroit election was entirely warranted by the importance of the event and the issues involved.

A full understanding of the Frankensteen campaign will help materially to arm and train the politically advanced workers in the political struggles of the working class. To reach this full understanding we must examine first the general background and context of the election and the class forces in operation. Otherwise the contradictory factors in the situation will result in a fog of confusion instead of providing the key to understanding.

The Frankensteen campaign is part of the total picture of the working class and can only be understood in its relation to the whole. In Detroit the organized labor movement, despite the minor defection of the AFL officialdom, rallied to the support of the PAC-endorsed slate in the election headed by Frankensteen. The backbone of the campaign was the powerful and militant UAW, which dominates the city. It took place during the major strike wave that swept Detroit and the nation almost immediately upon the conclusion of the war. It was part of the general offensive of labor and was itself an indication of the depth and power of that offensive. But it was not merely a part of the specific union offensive during which it took place. It was integrally connected with the striving of the working class in this whole period to break out from the restrictions placed upon it by the conditions of capitalist decay and disintegration.

The workers of Detroit supported Frankensteen and the PAC candidates. In this they demonstrated their readiness to strike out along independent class lines. This was only the latest expression of what Leon Trotsky called “the instinctive striving of the American workers to raise themselves to the level of the tasks imposed on them by history.” This striving is indicated in the formation of the American Labor Party in New York State, in the formation of the CIO Political Action Committee and in a dozen and one other direct political manifestations during the last decade. Not merely Republican and Democratic Parties, but Franklin Roosevelt himself became increasingly unable to arouse the direct support of the working class. The workers were looking for new roads, new paths. To say that the ALP and PAC were organized to block those paths, to lead the workers into the camp of Roosevelt, is to say at the same time that the working class is traveling in a new direction and that thus far progress in that direction has been hindered by the perfidy of the labor leadership.

Reflects Basic Problems

This striving is only a reflection of and a result of the problems which the decline and crisis of capitalism forces upon the working class. What are these problems, these conditions? Essentially they revolve around the questions of security, decent living standards and imperialist war – jobs, wages, peace. Capitalism cannot provide the minimum needs of the people. Regardless of its political forms, whether Roosevelt New Dealism or Hoover conservatism, American capitalism presents to the working class and the people as a whole only the prospect of continual crises, permanent unemployment, insecurity, degraded living standards, fascism and imperialist war.

The workers, increasingly conscious of the depths of the crisis, strive instinctively for a way out. They have demonstrated, time and time again, their willingness to struggle, their desire for independent class action, only to find themselves blocked and thwarted by the official labor leadership. The Detroit election demonstrated both forces in operation. To the extent that it indicated the willingness of the working class to embark on independent political struggle, it indicated the perfidy of the labor leadership in confusing, distorting, and thwarting that struggle.

From the very start of the campaign, the PAC leaders in Detroit tried to prevent any indication of a “labor” campaign. They rushed about frantically looking for a respectable candidate to support against Jeffries (who, although at one time endorsed by the UAW, had made an outstanding record for himself in labor-baiting and Negro-baiting.) They canvassed a whole list of hack Democratic politicians but none was available. PAC was just about reconciled to being neutral in the election or to endorsing the conservative Friel when the startling word came that Frankensteen’s name had been entered in the primary at his request. Put on the spot, the PAC leaders had no alternative but to endorse him. But they, with the active cooperation of Frankensteen, continued in their efforts to keep the “stigma” of labor from being attached to the campaign. Constant repetition of “Frankensteen is the candidate of all the people,” attacks on “wildcat” strikes, and the failure to present any kind of program beyond a few insignificant municipal reforms such as cleaning out the alleys and improving bus transportation characterized the campaign. An indication of the lengths to which Frankensteen went was his charge that Jeffries was to propose an increased fare for the city-owned transportation system and his contention that only through an increased fare could service be improved. A labor candidate for higher bus and street car fares.

Dodges Race Issue

On one of the major issues of the campaign, the Negro question, Frankensteen spent his efforts decrying the introduction of the issue by Jeffries. The problem of discrimination and segregation, of racial tension is more acute in Detroit than in any other northern city. It was made the core of Jeffries’ campaign with the most vicious campaign of slander and vituperation against the Negro people and appeal to the lowest and basest prejudices of backward whites. Instead of taking the offensive and proposing a program to end discrimination in the city, Frankensteen opposed the introduction of the issue and through his refusal to take a stand helped to confirm the existing prejudices of the whites. This was clearest on the all-important housing question. The terrible overcrowding in the Negro sections of Detroit is recognized by everyone. Even Jeffries’ own Housing Commission has openly admitted that new housing for Negroes can only be built in areas that are not segregated to Negroes. There is just no room in the Negro neighborhoods. Jeffries took a clear-cut stand that he was opposed to changing the racial characteristics of any neighborhood and therefore refused even to attempt a solution of the Negro housing crisis. What did Frankensteen say? When asked directly where he stood on the questions of bi-racial housing and changing neighborhood racial characteristics he replied, “I think the main problem is inadequacy. We need modern housing for everyone in Detroit, and in the Negro sections particularly.” In the Negro sections where no new housing can be erected!

Democrats Endorse Frankensteen

There is no need to go into greater detail on the campaign itself. It is clear that the labor leadership rejected independeni working class politics. This re-jeciion served to disorient the workers. An incident reported in Labor Action of October 15, 1945, indicates the extent of this discrimination. Labor Action reported that

“... several CIO members wearing Frankensteen sweaters were discussing the Detroit election. Frankensteen’s election, they held, would greatly benefit labor. ‘Why if Dick becomes Mayor of Detroit, the next step would be to run him in the Democratic primaries for Senator or Governor’.”

This disorientation was the necessary result of the Detroit election campaign. To insure it was the conscious policy of the labor leadership and the capitalist politicians. A report from the Washington correspondent of the Detroit News noted that Democratic National Chairman Robert E. Hannegan was concerned with the shift of labor away from the Democratic Party. He therefore instructed the Michigan Democratic organization (of which Frankensteen is a leading member) to give full support to Frankensteen in the campaign. This was subsequently done.

On this basis it was impossible for a revolutionary socialist to extend any support to Frankensteen and the PAC slate in the Detroit elections. While we must not lose sight of the basic movement of the working class in Detroit and in the nation, we must recognize that the Frankensieen campaign was a brake on that movement. If we understand that Detroit workers are moving toward independent labor political action, we can aid and intensify that movement only by exposing as a fraud the campaign of the labor leadership and the Democratic Party for Frankensteen. Frankensteen was not an independent labor candidate. But we can say with equal certainty that the working class will brush aside these phonies and misleaders and move with irresistible force to great independent class actions. The decay of the capitalist system assures it.

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