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Jack Wilson

Progressives Triumph at
Auto Workers Convention

Dillon-Green Machine Receive Smashing Defeat;
Plan of Action Drafted

(9 May 1936

From New Militant, Vol. II No. 18, 9 May 1936, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

SOUTH BEND, Ind., May 2. – A resurgence of the labor movement in the auto industry that has wide possibilities can be expected following the progressive actions taken here this week at the second convention of the United Automobile Workers of America.

Similar in many respects to the rubber workers’ convention of last fall, the sessions brought forth many manifestations of what the thousands of auto workers are thinking, what unrest is sweeping through the factories and what course might be traveled in the coming period.

A decisive victory against the stupid and criminal policies of William Green, A.F. of L. president, who defended craft unionism at the convention, marked the opening session.

So well remembered were the two years of splitting, betrayal, autocratic control, and the other policies which nearly destroyed the labor movement in the auto industry for which Green and the majority of the executive board of the A.F. of L. were responsible, that the 215 delegates were unanimously opposed to Green’s appointed president, Francis J. Dillon.

Green and Dillon Trounced

A lame defense by both Dillon and Green of their policies met with no sympathy or response. Every delegate was prepared to battle at any cost a continuation of the antiquated craft union policies. In face of such bitter opposition, Dillon and Green withdrew while the delegates cheered and cheered. The two men left repudiated, disgraced, failures in their effort to organize the auto industry because of their false policies.

It was highly significant that Green and Dillon made such a serious retreat, one that further impairs the already badly damaged reputation of the craft union dominated executive board of the A.F. of L. It indicates that their position has become so weak among workers in basic industry that they fear to make a fight for it!

Jubilant progressives and the other delegates shouted and cheered in a wild scene of enthusiasm as Homer Martin, vice-president, took the platform to act as temporary chairman. The union had won its autonomy!

Tasks Before the Convention

Two major tasks confronted the convention after the retreat of Green and Dillon; adoption of a progressive program which would afford a basis for building a powerful union and the selection of good leaders to carry out that program.

A program had been drawn up by a caucus of 140 delegates held a month previous to the convention. A steering committee of 12 was chosen at that time to lead the fight for its approval.

The program of this essentially progressive bloc who were advised by the Committee for Industrial Organization included: (1) the ending of the probationary period of the union with Dillon as president; (2) establishment of an industrial union within the confines of the A.F. of L. with the jurisdictional question to be carried to the A.F. of L. convention; (3) amalgamation of the independent unions such as the M.E.S.A. and the former Coughlinite-influenced union with the United Automobile Workers; (4) approval of a democratic constitution allowing all political liberties to membership; (5) and the Gorman Labor Party resolution which the Stalinists naturally had foisted upon the delegates; (6) an immediate organization drive.

The program carried in its entirety. Without an understanding of how each issue was carried, however, the program lacks much content in so far as accurate analysis is concerned.

The seating of the 37 militant Toledo delegates was the first question considered. Since the Dillon opposition was the main problem and he had left the convention, these delegates had little difficulty in obtaining recognition. Dillon had claimed Toledo had no charter and was an outlaw union since it refused last fall to bust the powerful union of 16 plants into separate locals. It had paid up its delinquent per-capita tax.

Although nearly all the delegates acted in a progressive manner by opposing the previous craft union minded administration, the second test of their development showed definite weaknesses which can not be ignored.

Election of Officials

So strong was the desire of many delegates including the progressives to obtain offices that instead of fighting out differences on basic issues and then electing men on their stand, it was decided by the steering committee that election of officers should come first.

Martin, a compromise selection of the progressives, was chosen president. Previously Wyndham Mortimer, of Cleveland, one of the strongest leaders of the progressives, was favored as candidate. He became first vice-president. Ed Hall, secretary-treasurer, although bitterly opposed by progressives from his own territory, Wisconsin, was given second vice-presidency, in a deal. Wells, of Detroit, known as a middle-of-the-road man, became third vice president, and George Addes, of Toledo, by no means a thorough progressive, was chosen secretary-treasurer.

The caliber of the officers is very reminiscent of the rubber workers’ officials selected last fall. Only the test of a class struggle will show clearly where each stands. Some of the rubber worker progressives turned reactionary in the Goodyear strike.

The Red Scare

A company-inspired red scare through issuance of a fake leaflet branding Martin and Mortimer as “communists” did not affect the elections.

In bitterness over the election results, reactionary delegates introduced a resolution to expel all known “communists” from the convention.

A two-hour debate ensued with militant Socialist delegates taking the best stand and putting up the strongest opposition to the resolution.

Instead of fighting the battle to a finish and defeating the resolution once and for all, the progressive forces passed a motion to refer it back to the constitutional committee where it was forgotten.

In that connection, a speech by Rose Pesotta, of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, speaking as a guest that afternoon, spiked the reactionaries on the red scare. She gave an eloquent plea for political democracy in unions which was cheered by virtually everyone. After her talk the issue never came to the surface again.

Flays Craft Union Regime

Then came the memorable speech of Richard Frankensteen, an observer for the independent industrial union which Coughlin had influenced. He scathingly denounced the craft union policies of the Green regime. He criticized the ignorant attacks of many labor papers against his union pointing out that at no time in the past two years had any attempt been made by the A.F. of L. or any group to bring them into the federation. He declared the A.F. of L. conduct in the Motor Products strike where Dillon led scabs into the factory under the A.F. of L. banner a disgrace to unionism. Then he made a stirring plea for unity and pledged to bring the union into the autonomous United Automobile Workers while the delegates gave him a tremendous ovation. Anderson of the M.E.S.A. likewise took a similar stand in his talk.

It was clearly established that two main ideas were in the auto workers’ minds – an expression of what the thousands of workers in the huge factories think. Those were UNITY of all unions under the banner of INDUSTRIAL UNIONISM.

Unity Probable Soon

Immediate plans for amalgamation including the seating of an independent union leader on the general executive board were made. It is therefore highly probable that unity will be established among the auto workers.

In this matter the Committee for Industrial Organization was praised by Frankensteen and Anderson. Frankensteen openly declared that the discussions with the C.I.O. representatives, Adolph Germer and others, had brought them to the unity position.

It can be said generally that the C.I.O., because of the very nature of the problems confronting the auto workers, played a more progressive role than in the Goodyear strike where more basic questions were confronted.

Labor Party Resolution

However, the credit for much of the progress made must be given to the active group of young militant Socialists. They supported and fought for every point of the program previously mentioned both in numerous caucus meetings and on the convention floor, except the Labor Party resolution and that deserves special mention.

Although Stalinist-influenced progressives expected a hitter fight and considerable doubt was entertained about the passing of the Gorman resolution, the resolution was supported without any voice of opposition, without any debate.

(Since the writing of this article the press reported the carrying of a resolution endorsing Roosevelt for re-election. This motion was put and passed as a rider to the resolution urging the formation of a Farmer-Labor party following a speech by President Homer Martin, who appealed to the delegates not to cross the C.I.O. which is definitely committed to back Roosevelt in 1936. – Ed.)

It seemed that no one except the Stalinists took the resolution seriously. The S.P. delegates appeared confused in their position and some voted for and others apparently abstained from voting.

A Significant Observation

As a Toledo delegate remarked after the vote:

“What we are vitally interested in is building a powerful progressive industrial union. The Labor Party isn’t going to help. If we can bring in 450,000 auto workers after a real struggle against the auto magnates that will mean something to the workers.”

As a matter of fact, a careful survey led this writer to the opinion expressed above that the auto workers are a hundred-fold more interested in building a union by direct class struggle than in any Labor Party.

It hardly need be pointed out that such a struggle for elementary rights will necessarily take on revolutionary aspects because of the forces against which the workers battle. Many of the militants appeared to realize this too, and expressed that opinion.

The delegates have no illusions about the ferocity of the struggle that will he waged against them. Speaker after speaker told of the spy-systems, the intimidation, the blacklists and other weapons brought into play to crush unionism. But the great advance of the United Rubber Workers left a definite impression and built up a new determination in the auto workers. “If the Goodyear strikers did that much, we can do the same,” a Detroit delegate said.

It was in that temper that the delegates adjourned, returning to the 40,000 workers they represent to begin an intensive organization drive backed by the C.I.O. to unionize the 450,000 auto workers.

However a speech by Charles P. Howard, secretary of the C.I.O., and president of the Typographical union, indicated the limitations such aid would take.

“We believe that the worker should obtain more of a share of the product produced. The automobile workers deserve higher wages. We must fight to maintain the American standard of living to give us continued life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The employer must learn it is good business to pay higher wages ...” Howard said, at a mass meeting.

Support of Roosevelt also was urged. In other words, a class collaboration policy will be pursued by the C.I.O. when obviously only the most militant struggle can bring any victory, as the Goodyear strike proved.

In conclusion, it must be said that the number of young militants at the convention offered real hope that the United Automobile Workers would base their fight for unionism on a class struggle policy. In clashing with the powerful auto magnates only such a policy offers the correct program for victory.

As in the rubber strike, irrespective of any particular leader or groups of leaders, future battles in the auto industry will assume such magnitude and the auto workers such a militancy that one can safely predict the development of cadres of class-conscious, revolutionary-minded militants by the very nature of the struggle.

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