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Albert Gates

Crucial Problems Face Workers at UAW Convention

(August 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 34, 23 August 1943, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On October 4, in the city of Buffalo, the United Automobile Workers will hold its eighth annual convention. In many respects this is the most important convention of the union, for it is confronted with issues of such a crucial nature that the very life of the organization is dependent upon a positive, militant solution of them – in the best tradition of the UAW.

The United Automobile Workers is the largest union in the country and stands near the very top of the honor roll of labor action and achievement. It was born out of struggle, it grew in struggle and its future depends upon the same spirit which gave it birth.

Before this country became a participant in the war, the United Automobile Workers was dominated by a more or less consistent aim: to build the union, to make it the largest union in the world, to make it the most democratic union, the most militant union, and a model of working class struggle and devotion to the cause of all the toilers in America and the world over.

Union Grew by Militancy

To a considerable extent, the union met its test by resolutely carrying out its main tasks. In order to build the union, the militant automobile workers had to break with the conservative, do-nothing unions of the AFL. Having rid itself of this head hand, which stood in the way of building a mass union in the auto industry, the UAW developed with giant strides. But it did so by its struggle against a band of rapacious, monopolistic automobile magnates who had, prior to that time, built a mass industry and “earned” enormous profits off the toil of an unorganized and severely exploited automobile workers, who suffered the most vicious speed-ups and “incentive” schemes invented by these same auto bourbons.

The wave of sit-downs and strikes let the world of labor know that here was a mass of workers, sick and tired of the old game, ready to organize themselves to defend their very life’s interest. The union won its fight and it grew to mass proportions. But every rank and file automobile worker knows that the union grew, not because it compromised itself or flinched before the terror of the auto plutocracy and its hired agents, but because it fought back hard and resisted, by its own organization and program, the organized forces of reaction.

It not only got recognition for its union, but it recorded tremendous gains for the auto workers.

The Effects of the War

With America’s entry into the war, the UAW faced a new situation and a series of new problems which affected the entire labor movement.

The conversion of the auto industry to war production, and the placing of the whole country on a war footing, exacted its toll of the labor movement in the same proportion that it enriched industry and the profit-bloated bosses.

What, then, are the main issues which confront the auto workers; as they prepare for their annual convention. They are several and they relate to the tasks of the union in relation to the industry, and the problems inside the union itself. As we see it, they are the following:

What the No-Strike Pledge Has Meant

1. Upon the insistence of Roosevelt, the labor unions, through their officials, and without consulting the rank and file, adopted the no-strike pledge. In the UAW this proposal was adopted, but only after a bitter fight made by the militant rank and file and on the basis of the following: The workers were PROMISED that in exchange for their cooperation, the Administration would give labor a “square deal.” Industry would not take advantage of the surrender of the strike weapon; it would conform to its agreements; collective bargaining would remain in force.

Moreover, the President PROMISED that there would be no war profiteering and no new war millionaires. He added that while the workers could not hope to take advantage of the war for nation-wide wage increases, he promised that the cost of living would be kept down mainly by preventing an uncontrolled rise in prices.

What has actually happened? Industry, that is to say, the bosses, gave up nothing. On the contrary, big business has enriched itself as never before as a result of the war economy. This is especially true of the auto industry.

Prices have not been controlled; the cost of living has risen steadily for the past three years. Wages have been frozen under the President’s hold-the-line order. Some workers have received wage increases, but in the main increased payrolls have come as a result of long hours of work, the increased length of the work week.

In addition, the bosses have taken advantage of the no-strike pledge to badger the unions and hinder collective bargaining. They have stalled on re-classifications, upgrading, and wage increases. They have sought under the conditions created by the war and the way the union movement has been hamstrung by its leaderships, to destroy the unions. This, then, is the greatest danger which faces the working class in general, and the auto workers in particular.

While the leadership of the union and the present leaders of the various factions in the union have joined in a common chorus of denunciation of John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers, it was the miners’ union which, by its militant action showed the way for all workers in this country. Little wonder, then, that the rank and file auto worker instinctively felt solidarity with the miners. He knew that the fight of the coal miners was his fight. And he was ready to give it support.

On Whom Should Workers Rely?

But the leaders of the union, as of the CIO, at the same time that they fear the actions of the rank and file, have little or no faith in the organized and independent strength of the workers. Thus, from Murray down, they have placed the fate of the union movement on their reliance on a hand-out from the president. On any pretext at all, they run to the White House to see the President. And Roosevelt, in turn, will, sometimes see them, and as many times not. Whether they cool their heels in his ante-chambers or stand with hat in hand before his desk, the net result is the same: nothing ever happens. They leave empty-handed and announce that the President has promised to do something for the workers.

It is obvious that the hope of the worker lies not in his reliance on a crumb from Washington but upon the united might and will to struggle for his union, upon a rejection of the no-strike pledge which has become a straightjacket on labor.

The question of rescinding the no-strike pledge is a life and death question for the union movement, especially for the UAW. It is not merely a matter of safeguarding the immediate interests of the American working class. There are far larger perspectives involved: the maintenance and strengthening of the existing union movement in the post-war period.

Make no mistake about it, fellow workers, the no-strike pledge has become a weapon of tremendous power in the hands of the bosses to render the trade unions helpless, in the hope that they can eventually be destroyed.

Organization and Equal Pay

2. Another decisive issue before the convention is the extension of the UAW to the unorganized fields, to bring into its ranks thousands of Workers qualified to belong to it. This is especially true of aircraft, where the workers are the victims of low wages while the bosses are having a profit-jag on, aided by the fact that the government has built for their use hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of plants, which guarantee them profits through the contractual system of cost-plus.

In connection with the need for an extended organization drive, there is the necessity for establishing and winning “equal pay for equal work.” Unless this is effective, the bosses will use it as a wedge to divide the union and the workers. And this would be in accord with their aim of destroying the UAW.

The auto worker must remember, too, that his industry is now on a total war footing. In the post-war period, in the economic dislocation which will certainly come, and with the additional employment problems created by reconversion, the future of the auto worker is bleak enough.

The unorganized workers will be used as a wedge by the bosses to destroy the standards won by the UAW. This would make it mandatory, if only as a measure of self-defense, for the UAW to organize the whole industry, including aircraft.

But, with the acceptance of the no-strike pledge, such organization has been made doubly difficult. In addition, adherence to the President’s hold-the-line order makes it difficult for the union to employ its most attractive feature – the auto workers’ wage scale. This is one of the main reasons why some of the leaders of the union are pushing incentive pay. Having failed to stand up for the rights of the union movement and having accepted the hold-the-line order, there is nothing left for them but to embrace incentive pay as a means of getting a little more for the men. This is most dangerous for the UAW, as we shall soon point out.

Wage Increases and Prices

3. Therefore, the union must take a clear-cut stand for wage increases and for the abolition of the hold-the-line order and the WLB which enforces an order admittedly unfair to labor. The hold-the-line order has worked effectively in keeping wages down.

In contrast, however, nothing seriously has been done to control prices, to establish genuine price ceilings or to roll back prices. Nothing has been done to limit salaries and tax all war profits and salaries. The interests opposed to increasing wages, to establishing price ceilings and to rolling back prices are dominant.

Washington has been flooded with dollar-a-year men, i.e., big business or its hirelings, and it is they who run the war economy for their own benefit and at the expense of the workers. All the promises made to the workers up to now have not been worth the paper they were written on. All the promises made now that this time, “seriously,” there will be a roll back of prices can be taken at the same value as all previous promises.

For on the meantime, during the past three years, the workers having been paying through the nose, they have borne the burden of the war economy not only through low wages but through taxes and a hundred other ways. They will continue to bear it so long as big business runs the show.

Beware Incentive Pay

[4.] To offset the legitimate demands of the workers for wage increases, big business has begun a campaign for the widespread introduction of incentive pay into industry and thus reintroduce their glorified speed-up and piecework system which the workers succeeded, after heroic struggle, in defeating.

Behind the campaign of the bosses stands the Administration. Helping it is the Communist Party. These considerations alone should make the proposal for incentive pay suspect. But already leading labor leaders, including Murray, have joined in the movement for incentive pay. So far as they are concerned, it offers them a way out of their own impasse, their failure to fight for higher wages and their complete subservience to the Administration.

The cry that incentive pay would increase production and by increasing production raise wages is the biggest lie of all. The workers have increased production ENORMOUSLY in the past three years. The fact is that they have not shared in the wealth they have produced. Only the bosses have profited from the skill and enterprise of the workers. And only they will or can profit from the introduction of this new speed-up and piecework system called incentive pay.

Another invention to win workers to this monstrous fraud is that such wage increases would not be inflationary, since it would merely mean that the workers would get more pay for increased production, providing there is no increase in the costs of production. But since the production could not and would not mean an increase in the production of consumers’ goods. There would still be the lack or low level of production in consumers’ good.

The answer to the problem of consumers’ goods is to demand complete workers’ control of production and union control of rationing! Take it out of the hands of big business! And take the OPA out of the hands of big business!

But, by all means, the UAW must defeat incentive pay proposals. Otherwise, the struggles of the auto workers over the past years against speed-up and piecework will have been in vain. Once the bosses succeed in introducing incentive pay, the struggle to abolish it again will be all the more difficult.

The Factional Struggle

[5.] The auto workers’ convention faces a deep internal struggle for leadership. It is not merely a struggle for leadership, however. Involved in the present fight is the matter of program, and the question of program is crucial for the union.

In following articles we will analyze the programs of these groups, especially the Reuther-Leonard and the Addes-Frankensteen (which the Stalinists support) factions and show not only how limited they are, but how they fail to respond to the essential interests of the auto workers.

Stalinism – Threat to Labor

6. Finally, the auto workers face the problem of the Stalinist cancer in their union. This is a well organized, wholly conscious group whose interests lie, not with the American working class and the auto workers, but with the Stalin regime in Russia. The principle which dominates their program and conduct is: we shall do whatever is necessary for the good of Stalin and his rulings group in Russia.

On the face of it, this element in the union can do the UAW the greatest harm. It is the Stalinists who champion incentive pay. It is they who paralyze the workers and seek to prevent a struggle for their most elementary rights. It is they who oppose independent political action of labor. It is they who would destroy union democracy and make a shambles of the UAW. Given half a chance, they would introduce totalitarian methods, for which they are so notorious in Russia and the world over, into the union.

For a Labor Party

7. Despite the efforts of the CIO and AFL officialdoms to head off the growing movement for independent political action of the workers, the former by setting up a committee whose principal task is to prevent the formation of a political party of the workers, and the latter by adherence to its age-old and dangerous policy of “rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies,” the need of a Labor Party is being felt by increasing thousands of workers.

The American workers know how they stand insofar as their bosses are concerned. That is, they understand economic action. They are now learning, through actual experience, that the workers cannot have the slightest interests in the Republican and Democratic Parties, since these are both parties of the bosses.

The lessons of the past several years show clearly that if the working class and the labor movement continue to rely upon the “good wishes” and “friendliness” of the professional political servants of big business, they will get it in the neck.

The present Congress, one of the most reactionary in history, can best be described as a viciously anti-labor body. The passage of the Connally-Smith bill is the best evidence, if any were needed, of this fact. Those labor leaders who argue that this bill was passed because of the magnificent fight of the United Mine Workers and John L. Lewis are not merely misleading the workers, but are helping to paralyze the whole union movement to boot.

This bill was in the making for several years. It would have been passed whether or not there was a coal strike. To say that the coal strike brought on the bill is the same thing as saying that the working class should not fight for its rights, which in the present period means fighting for its very life, because reaction might step on it. It means that the workers must do nothing except look to some non-existent Messiah.

The Smith-Connally bill was not a bill designed merely to halt strikes in this period it is a weapon aimed at destroying the union movement. Who passed the bill? Congress! Who was behind the bill? The whole boss class through its organizations, the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States Chamber of Commerce, its congressmen, its press and all its allies in and out of the Administration, and the dominant forces in the Republican and Democratic Parties.

The Union Can Do It

What should such a situation dictate? The organization of an independent party of the workers, a wide-awake Labor Party!

Does the union movement have the strength to build such a party? It is the easiest thing to do it. It has a mass base for such a party in the union movement of 13,000,000 workers. It has tremendous allies in millions of others, unorganized workers, agricultural laborers, middle classes and the youth.

Such a party, embracing and representing the interests of the overwhelming majority of the people, would go a long way in defending and extending the interests of all who toil. More than that, it would strike fear in the heart of all reaction.

This too is of the deepest interest to the auto workers and the workers in general. But in this case, if the auto workers took the lead with a clear-cut demand for the formation of a Labor Party and then proceeded with the initial steps, the whole union movement would be dragged in its wake. It could not be otherwise.

In taking the lead in the organization of a Labor Party, the United Auto Workers would render the greatest possible service to the American working class – just as it was the spark to the organization of the CIO through its mass sit-downs and strikes which broke the resistance of the auto bosses.

On a number of these most important issues which face the convention, the rank and file has already indicated what are its views. At the Michigan State CIO convention the gulf that separated the militants from their leadership was wide indeed. We are certain that so far as the membership of the UAW is concerned, if unhindered by the union bureaucracies, it would have no trouble finding its way to a correct, union-building, pro-working class program. We shall return to this question of program in succeeding articles.

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