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Walter Jason

UAW Prepares for Action at Ford;
Ranks in Fighting Mood

(7 August 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 32, 8 August 1949, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DETROIT, Aug. 7 – Behind the big strike vote among Ford workers this coming week – and every sign points to a large strike vote – is a story of utmost importance to the labor movement as it reaches the crucial stage of its 1949 wage negotiations. For what is happening at Ford is largely an indication of the situation everywhere.

Even the Ford Motor Company now believes that the workers will vote overwhelmingly to authorize a strike by the United Automobile Workers (CIO) over the issues involved in current negotiations. This was demonstrated yesterday when Ford sought vainly to block the secret strike vote being held under the auspices of the state mediation board. A Michigan Supreme Court justice refused to grant Ford an injunction restraining the balloting.

If one recalls that only recently the strike vote taken by the UAW under its constitutional provisions showed a small minority of workers even participating in the balloting, the shift in the over-all situation is clear.

What has happened? What comes next at Ford?

Prepared for Action

Many months ago UAW spokesmen were saying that unless Ford granted a pension by July 16, Ford would be shut down. That was before the strike over speedup in May. That was before it was clear to even the dullest union bureaucrat that the Taft-Hartley Law would remain on the books. That was before Philip Murray, CIO president, insisted on a “responsible attitude” and a “unified strategy,” which meant the UAW tailing after the conservative steel union officials.

Nevertheless, the UAW through its convention did one very important thing to strengthen itself in the impending crisis at Ford. It was able to establish a special strike fund; it set up the machinery to collect millions of dollars if a lengthy strike occurred.

As a matter of fact, the delegates to the Ford national conference, held the day after the UAW convention ended, were told to get ready for the big events. They assumed that a quick crisis and strike were at hand, even though many of them were very worried because of the small strike votes and the lack of an overall strategy. Everyone knew that the average Ford worker felt that the 24-day strike over speedup was either inconclusive in results or was lost, in spite of all the insistence of the Reuther leadership that important gains were made.

Ford officials rightly interpreted this feeling as confusion and uncertainty in the mind of the workers, and they began to press for changes in the contract which were truly astounding. As for a pension plan or other economic objectives, the Ford officials either laughed at or just ignored, the union.

Meanwhile, the status quo was retained in the shop through a day-to-day extension of the contract. Likewise, the appointment of a fact-finding board in steel, which gave some hints of granting Murray and the steel union some concessions, caused the Reuther leadership to decide to take plenty of time before precipitating any showdown.

Since the UAW strike votes were so small, the union was exposed from another angle – it could not be certain that any strike it called would be popular. Besides, if it by-passed the revised Bonine-Tripp Law of Michigan, this danger would be trebled, for Ford could charge that the union was afraid of a secret strike vote held under state mediation board auspices.

Union-Busting Proposals

That is why the UAW executive board, reversing a stand they took in the Chrysler strike in 1948, announced they were filing intention to strike under the Bonine-Tripp Law. Actually, this was not a reversal, for the laws are two different things. In 1948, a union had to have a majority of votes of all employees, voting or non-voting, to call a strike. Under the revised law, it requires only a majority of ballots cast.

The constitutionality of the first was obviously questionable, while the objection to the present law rests on a different and more fundamental basis, even if it has to be complied with. The law represents an intrusion into the rights, functions and duty of the union. It should be repealed, just as the Taft-Hartley Law must be repealed. Meanwhile, the union movement must learn to squeeze whatever advantage it can from a disadvantageous set of laws.

Ford officials, knowing the state of confusion in the Ford plants, became overconfident once the UAW had announced it would comply with the Bonine-Tripp Act. Even among the better militants, the only interpretation that seemed possible of this action by the International Executive Board was that it was another retreat. (They failed to grasp the point that instead of a retreat, any other course would have been a disaster.)

Pressing their advantage, Ford officials, headed by ex-FBI Agent John Bugas, insisted on a set of outrageous revisions of the contract. A few examples:

On seniority: Bugas wanted Article 4, Section 7, revised to say that in all future layoffs and recalls, the basis should be on efficiency, rather than seniority!

In Article 8, Section 1, dealing with plant-wide seniority of tool-and-die, maintenance and other skilled classifications, the company proposed building seniority instead!

On transfers, in Article 8, Section 5, the company proposed to change the present clause to read that it would have the right to transfer any worker, to any job, at any time, in any building!

The company proposed to cancel seniority rights for employees on sick leave as now outlined in Article 8, Section 20.

The company proposed to eliminate shift preference for men with seniority. They proposed to tamper with overtime provisions. They wanted to lengthen probationary periods!

And all this time the company was issuing smooth statements in the press, telling how it was concerned with the employees’ welfare!

Fighting Mood Aroused

Last and by no means least, the Ford company was going back to the old policy of farming out work in smaller shops where lower wages were being paid, thus laying off many of its own employees!

In this situation there was no choice for Walter Reuther and the UAW. It was necessary to arouse the Ford workers to the grave dangers, to the real crisis in which the union found itself at Ford!

At a city-wide meeting of secondary Ford union leaders, committee-men and others, Reuther outlined the problems in negotiations, and sought to arouse the active unionists into a fighting mood. He succeeded easily, because his denunciation of the poor features of even the present contract coincided with the sentiments of the committeemen from the shop.

When pointed criticism was made from the floor about the policies which had caused confusion, and blunt statements were made that the ranks were in a poor frame of mind, Reuther did not jump on the critics. Quite the contrary: he endorsed some of the ideas and utilized the criticism to clarify issues better and get a more solid degree of militancy. In passing, it is interesting to note that among some of the top Reuther leaders the criticisms didn’t sit so well – the usual mutterings about “critics” were heard. But about this aspect of the UAW, more on some other occasion.

The UAW then began a series of local union, department and district meetings in the Ford setup which drew thousands of workers and which have been featured by very militant speeches by Walter Reuther, arousing the workers to defend their union. It was the old UAW preparing for action.

How much the atmosphere in the Ford plants has changed was shown Saturday at a Ford 400 meeting. When Reuther entered the hall a spontaneous cheer was heard. Throughout his speech he was interrupted by vigorous applause.

The UAW publicists have been doing a splendid job on leaflets and other material. Buttons telling the workers to vote yes on the strike issue have been worn by the thousands in the plants. (And in Ford plants buttons have a special symbolic value: no old-timers will ever forget the first day that UAW buttons were worn in the Rouge plants in 1941 before the big strike.)

Ranks Respond

Today, Detroit’s newspapers carry full-page ads by Ford urging the workers to vote no on a “long and costly and useless” strike. Over the radio there are spot announcements by the Ford company, telling the men to vote no. For the UAW, Reuther is speaking over various radio stations; his speeches are in his best oratorical manner and carry an irresistible appeal.

What is Reuther saying? Mainly he tells the workers what Ford wants to do to the union. He outlines the Bugas proposals. They alone are enough to create bitterness, anger and hostility toward the Ford Motor Company. Then Reuther reminds the workers of the pre-union days. He describes the shop without a union.

Reuther assures the workers: “No one wants a strike; we are exhausting every effort to bargain our differences.” Many workers cheer this statement. Then he tells them how last year Ford said no to everything until the NLRB election showed the workers wanted their union by voting for a union shop!

Reuther demands contract improvements, protection against speedup, and last, almost least – we repeat, almost least – a pension plan.

The UAW line, in a word, is “Defend the union. It is your only instrument of protection. It is your only hope!”

The response of the ranks has been overwhelming.

What comes next? In terms of the economic issues, the likelihood is that any pattern set in steel will have a big bearing on a settlement on that issue in auto. It is now possible to say publicly what has been said often in private. The outlook for a pension plan is dim. It no longer occupies the No. 1 spot in UAW publicity. Interesting? It doesn’t get the big applause among the workers. The major interest of Ford workers seems to be shop conditions and a better contract.

“Company Security” and Wildcats

Certainly if steel gets a package of from six to ten cents, as Edwin Lahey and other well-informed reporters insist, UAW ranks will settle for that, provided there are also improvements in the contract!

The big strike vote at Ford will, of course, strengthen the hand of Murray and the Steel Workers Union; fear of a “radical and militant” UAW busting loose on the national scene is obvious in Washington and will have a good pressure effect.

From the hasty shifts in policy of Ford officials, it is evident that they wish they hadn’t gone quite as far as they did, for now the contract is a real issue, and improvements in the contract are far more advantageous to the union than a cent increase, one way or another. Today, Ford says: Let’s not change the contract!

But there is one big and basic flaw in the present Ford contract about which very little if anything has been said, and which should prove consoling to the Ford company if it has to retreat on other things. “Company security” clauses are not one of the big issues right now. At the UAW convention, the resolutions committee unanimously adopted a strong resolution demanding that company security clauses be eliminated from all contracts. We don’t know if the convention adopted it.

But any real improvement in shop conditions depends fundamentally on eliminating this clause, for the key to answering speedup, the key to stopping abusive foremen, the key to keeping seniority rights rest in the ever-present THREAT of a walkout when the company gets out of line.

We are against “irresponsible wildcats”: they are too costly and often are over minor issues that could be settled with good bargaining. But we are for walkouts over speedup and other key issues. Not the least of the reasons why auto workers often walk out on what seem to be or really are minor issues is precisely because on some major issues they are impotent under the contract.

In one of his speeches Reuther blasted the slow Ford bargaining procedure, pointing out that some cases have been before the umpire and not settled for the past FIVE YEARS. If the company security clause were eliminated, the threat of direct action would quickly bring results from company officials.

Other Locals Help

The question of “discipline” and “observing contracts and going through bargaining procedures” should be an internal problem to be solved by the union itself. If you have good shop conditions, no speed-up and an adherence to seniority rights, the vast majority of workers would be satisfied and they would be able to handle any walkouts caused over trivial matters by a tiny minority.

Under company security, the UAW gives this right to the company. It abdicates its independence and authority. And when the union goes class-collaborationist (as one UAW official recently said: “I’ll back the company in firing any man involved in a wildcat”), then the results are the lousy conditions which prevail at Ford and are spreading elsewhere.

During the present Ford crisis, the UAW did something else which has helped. For the first time in over a year, every local union was called to help in the Ford vote, and many local union activists visited their neighbors who work at Ford to talk over the issues, in order to get a good strike vote.

If the UAW had called a city-wide meeting of all its activists and there had been the kind of discussion that took place at the Ford meeting we reported, even more cooperation and better results would have been possible.

The present crisis has again demonstrated that the strength of the UAW does rest in the rank and file, and exists basically only to the extent that the union leadership directly involves them in making their own destiny. For that is the basic democratic tradition of the UAW and it is the root of its militancy.

Meanwhile, at Chrysler, where negotiations are just moving along at a snail’s pace, the same kind of problems will arise after any Ford settlement, unless the UAW leadership quickly begins to repeat the techniques used so effectively at Ford. It’s about time the UAW quit “waiting for Walter,” for Walter Reuther can’t be everywhere at once nor is his strategy infallible.

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