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David Coolidge

UAW Gives Reuther Militant Mandate

Follow Through on GM Program!

(8 April 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 14, 8 April 1946, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Nearly two thousand men and women from automobile factories and shops, and representing their locals in the UAW-CIO, put in eight days in Atlantic City at the tenth convention of their international union, the biggest union in the world. Their great international had just come through a test of strength with the giant General Motors Corporation, part of the du Pont industrial dynasty in the United States. These men and women workers had aided their brothers and sisters in the longest strike ever conducted by their union. They had heard a new slogan in the trade union movement: “Open the Books.” They had been told that to go on strike for an increase in wages without having anything to say about prices, profits and production must become an outmoded procedure for the labor movement today. Labor must correlate a demand for a wage increase with the demand for no increase in prices, and labor must share in the profits not only of years past but of the year in which the labor has been performed.

These delegates also had seen their unions assaulted by the big corporations with a demand for “company security” and by the Truman Administration with a new “Little Steel” formula. They knew that there was an internal dispute among the top leadership of their international. Some of them knew that this dispute was concerned with what kind of program the union should have, whether or not the GM workers should have gone on strike first and how the strike should have been conducted. They knew furthermore that there was dissatisfaction with the leadership of R.J. Thomas and that a real contest was developing around the question of whether or not Thomas should remain at the head of the union.

Wanted New Program

These two thousand men and women workers came to Atlantic City to discuss all of these problems and exercise their democratic right to make decisions about them. Hundreds of these delegates really wanted to adopt a new program for the UAW. They did not want to go on in the old way. These were the genuine progressives and militants. Many of them went away at the adjournment of the convention, dissatisfied and disappointed. They had not had the opportunity, to discuss important resolutions which had been submitted for the consideration of the convention.

For instance, they had had no opportunity to discuss the two resolutions on Foreign Policy, one by the Resolutions Committee majority and the other by a minority composed of two Stalinists: Oliver and Ganley. They did not have the opportunity to discuss the resolution on So-Called Company Security. This was a very weak resolution, and if it had come to the floor the real progressives would have had the opportunity to trounce the leadership for its disgraceful and cowardly capitulation to the Ford Motor Company on this question. Furthermore, they would have had the opportunity to confront Leonard and chastise him for the disgraceful part he played in agreeing to the Ford proposals for “company security.” Also Reuther would have been forced to explain Whit position he had taken in the IEB when this Ford security question was up for consideration.

The leadership provided no opportunity for a discussion of the important question of political action. There were rumors and more rumors that there was a resolution on political action but it never reached the convention floor. There were some feeble and factional anti-Reuther remarks about support of the PAC. The Reuther faction attached a cryptic and incomprehensible paragraph to their programmatic statement. This was all. There were many other important resolutions which the convention did not get to. This sent the delegates away in varying degrees of dissatisfaction and disappointment. One could hear such expressions as: “This convention is a flop.” “We’re not getting anywhere.” “The 1944 convention was far better than this one.”

Something New Emerges

We can understand the attitude of the progressives and militants but we cannot agree with them. Despite what took place and what did not take place at this convention, it was not a flop, it did get somewhere and it was, in an extremely important sense, at a far higher level than the 1944 convention. In connection with the 1944 convention it is necessary to say something right here. At the 1944 convention a rank and file progressive group was in evidence and was the outstanding progressive force in the convention. This group had been organized before the convention. It had an excellent program, including a demand for the rescinding of the no-strike pledge.

The no-strike pledge was the real important concrete issue before the working class at that time. Progressives were able to make organizational and agitational headway with this issue during the war because the workers knew from their own experiences that they were being frustrated by this pledge which their leaders had given for them without their consent. At this convention, no leading officer of the union stood out above the others on this question or on any other. Reuther, like Thomas, was supporting the war and the nostrike pledge. This lack of any program by the leadership provided the opportunity for a rank and file leadership to assert itself and get a hearing from the membership of the UAW and the delegates to the 1944 convention.

This was not the situation at the Atlantic City convention. Something new had emerged before this convention convened: Walter Reuther, a top officer of the UAW, with a type of program and demand never before advanced by a trade union leader. We are not discussing right now whether or not the Reuther program was adequate, nor how Reuther defended and fought for his program. We are only saying that he advanced a new program with revolutionary implications. This is what is important at this point. Because the program was new, because of the feeble manner in which Reuther propagated the program and because of the mud slinging that went on in connection with the GM program, before and during the convention, it was difficult for rank and file militants and others to appraise the convention properly.

We say that something new had emerged by the time of the Atlantic City convention. Since programs are advanced by people and since Reuther was the protagonist of the Open-the-Books-Wages-Profits-Prices formula, he became the object of opposition by others in the leadership of the UAW, including Thomas and the Stalinists – Thomas for personal reasons and because of the fact that he could not understand what the GM program meant; the Stalinists for their own Stalinist political reasons and because Reuther is a sort of trade union social-democratic anti-Stalinist.

Not only did Reuther become the center of attack, veiled or open, by the Murray-Thomas-Addes-Stalinist bloc, but he became the center of attraction for militants and progressives. Virtually all of the progressives and militants, including the revolutionary socialists, aligned themselves with Reuther against the Murray-Thomas-Addes-Stalinist combination. The situation was different therefore from 1944. The militants with political insight and training understood far better than Reuther himself the revolutionary potentialities and implications of the GM program which Reuther had advanced. They knew that Reuther would not carry this program through. They had seen the manner in which he had conducted the GM struggle. It was the duty of the militants to enter the Reuther caucus and demand not only that the GM program become the center of the convention but that the program be extended to include independent working class political action: the formation of an independent Labor Party.

Issues Not Discussed

Neither on the convention floor nor in the Reuther caucus was there an opportunity to accomplish anything concrete and significant along these lines. The Thomas caucus was devoted to the most shameful mud slinging, filth, lies and clowning, particularly by R.J. Thomas.

The first Reuther caucus was a sort of burlesque in which Reuther was “drafted” for the presidency. At the next caucus Reuther advanced his program and refrained from the nonsense which he had uttered at the first caucus. For instance, at the first caucus meeting Reuther spoke about the necessity for keeping outside political influences out of the union. The union must be based only on trade union principles for the benefit of the “guys who pay a buck a month.” That is, Reuther appeared at the first caucus as a simple and politically backward trade unionist who believed that economic action alone could solve the problems of the working class. We say that this is nonsense, and Reuther knows that it is nonsense.

There was no opportunity for the militants to assert themselves on the convention floor. The most important resolutions did not reach the convention floor. The real issues involved in the contest for president were not discussed on the floor of the convention. Such discussion as was held around these questions took place in the caucuses of the two contending factions.

The trade union bureaucracy has learned how to handle conventions in which the rank and file is demanding to be heard and conventions in which the rank and file is likely to have harsh things to say about the leadership. Such a leadership simply organizes and conducts the convention in such a way that many of the most controversial questions are left over for the consideration of the Executive Board after the convention has adjourned. This is precisely what happened at Atlantic City.

A Struggle over Program

These are some of the reasons why many delegates went away dissatisfied. There are many things which these militants forget, however. One is that the convention was divided into factions and that these factions held caucus meetings. These caucus meetings were really an integral part of what can be called the convention. They were legal. They were open to the public. But most important of all it is necessary to realize that the two factions and the disputes between them were really around the question of what program the UAW should have. The contest for president was not a mere struggle for power and the caucuses were not mere “power caucuses,” as some delegates remarked. At the bottom of the mud slinging of the Thomas-Addes group and the timid, conservative and often bureaucratic procedure of Reuther there was a real struggle over program.

This struggle was concretized around the GM demands. It is correct to say that the election of Reuther was due in no small degree to his advocacy of a relatively advanced program for the union. It was the Thomas-Addes concern about this GM program which drove them also to concoct some sort of program in opposition to the Reuther program. It was the power of the GM program and its attractiveness to the militant workers which led the Thomas-Addes faction to its disgraceful and filthy anti-Reuther pre-election campaign. It was his disagreement with the GM program which led Philip Murray to give underhand support to Thomas in his speech to the convention the day before the election.

This important fact, that the GM program was the real focus of the convention struggle, gives this convention its character and its real meaning. Reuther defeated Thomas and it would be a very serious mistake to believe that the victory of Reuther can be attributed primarily to union clique politics, “power politics” or some of the other unsavory happenings at the convention. When one remembers the rah-rah manner in which Reuther proceeded in many instances, his fear at being booed in the convention and the downright skullduggery at times, it is not difficult to conclude that the majority of the delegates were prepared to vote for something new in the way of a trade union program over against the stand-pat, support-Phil-Murray attitude of the Thomas-Addes-Stalinist bloc.

Reuther’s Election

The fact that the advanced militants were not able to assume important leading roles in the convention or in the Reuther caucus says something about Reuther and also something about these militants. We have already discussed the fact that Reuther had already moved up forward as a trade union leader. He had a large and important following in the international. He was in combat with Thomas, who had a reactionary, programmatic position in relation to the GM program.

Reuther proceeded in a sort of one step forward! one step backward, then side-step movement. But the mass of the rank and filers supporting him were not ready to challenge this inadequacy on the part of Reuther. They were for him. There were thousands of these,average rank and file militants and only a few of the advanced militants with political understanding. There were not enough advanced militants to make themselves heard or to have any appreciable influence. The progressives who went away from the convention dissatisfied will have to learn what the correct program is for the union, when a program is not adequate, how to organize a correct program, how to organize around their program and how to carry on an organized struggle to get their program adopted.

They already have the beginnings. They have elected Reuther because they believe him to be a progressive and a militant. He has announced a program. But Reuther will not carry out that program, inadequate as it is, unless the rank and file progressives and militants in the UAW, in all the locals, keep pressing forward in an organized and persistent way. They must demand that Reuther carry out and fight for the program which the progressives voted for.

(David Coolidge will continue his analysis of the UAW convention in next week’s Labor Action. – Ed.)

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