Archived Docs Home
Contact Archived Docs

The Antipolitics and Politics of a New Left Union Caucus: "The Workers' Voice Committee of the UAW Local 6, 1970–1975"

by Victor Devinatz

The Antipolitics and Politics (page 2)

A number of the African American workers who had taken part in this interracial strike met in a bar during this dispute to discuss the formation of an organization that would organize the African American workers “to fight the racial discrimination inside the (auto) plants and the overall oppression of the Black workers” (Geschwender 1977, 89). From this meeting, the first component of the LRBW the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) was formed.

The group issued a newsletter that presented DRUM’s program and criticized Chrysler, the UAW Local 3, and the UAW International for perpetuating the racist system inside auto plants in the Detroit area. After holding a rally of three hundred workers and meeting with the UAW Local 3 Executive Board, but feeling that their concerns were not adequately addressed, DRUM launched a three-day wildcat strike on 8 July 1968, which was honored by approximately seventy percent of Dodge Main’s African American workers. Although UAW Local 3 and Chrysler did not meet any of DRUM’s demands, no worker was fired for participating in the strike (Georgakas and Surkin 1975, 46–47; Geschwender 1977, 90–93).

This DRUM-led wildcat strike was the inspiration for the formation of two additional revolutionary union movements later in 1968: the Ford Revolutionary Union Movement (FRUM) and the Eldon Revolutionary Union Movement (ELRUM), established at Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant. Both groups began to publish their own newsletters and, at the end of January 1969, ELRUM led a wildcat strike of the African American workers that forced the total shutdown of the Eldon Avenue plant (Geschwender 1977, 94–95).

With more revolutionary union movements popping up at Detroit auto factories as well as other workplaces throughout the nation, a decision was made that a central organization was needed to coordinate the strategies and activities of the various components. Although the League had a central staff of eighty members and was strictly administered by a seven-man executive committee, the organization was not run on a hierarchical model. The League coordinated “general policy, political education and strategies” and acted as a forum for the discussion of ideas and tactics for its various semiautonomous branches, although it never issued directives (Georgakas and Surkin 1975, 83–85; Geschwender 1977, 95–96).

In terms of ideology, the League described itself as a Black Marxist-Leninist organization whose focus was to organize Black workers at the point of production. The constitution of the organization stated that it was interested in organizing Black workers not only in the United States, but wherever they were found throughout the world (Georgakas and Surkin 1975, 86).

The League considered unions to be both corrupt and racist and argued that it was necessary to have “an internal revolution” within the UAW. Specifically, it charged that the UAW tolerated racism in the auto plants and “had only token integration at decision-making levels.” Because of these problems and the feel- ing that the UAW did not represent the interests of the African American workers, the League called for the union dues of Afri- can American workers to be turned over to it so that it could set up a Black “United Foundation” (Geschwender 1977, 127, 130–32).

The League, however, was not a typical union caucus that only struggled to reform and achieve power in what it considered to be corrupt and racist unions. Rather, it had a loftier goal of transforming the underpinnings of advanced capitalist society:

The League of Revolutionary Black Workers is dedicated to waging a relentless struggle against racism, capitalism, and imperialism. We are struggling for the liberation of black people in the confines of the United States as well as to play a major revolutionary role in the liberation of all oppressed people in the world. (Geschwender 1977, 127)

Thus the organization was active in various forms of community organizing to supplement its primary focus of organizing Black workers at the point of production (Geschwender 1977, 138–52).

History of UAW Local 6, 1946–1970

The birth of UAW Local 6 began with the local’s decisive National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) 1942 election victory at the newly constructed Buick Aviation plant located in Melrose Park, Illinois (thirteen miles west of downtown Chicago). The local aggressively defended the workers’ interests in the plant from 1942 to 1945, although it folded when the factory closed at the end of World War II in August 1945. In November 1945, the International Harvester Corporation bought the plant from the U.S. government (Seidman et al. 1958, 92), and by the start of January 1946, the company began to hire workers, many of whom had been Local 6 members and had previously worked at the Buick Aviation plant. In April, the company established the assembly lines that were to produce diesel engines for industrial power usage as well as crawler tractors to be used in high- way/construction work and logging operations (Seidman et al. 1958, 92; Shier interview 21 June 1989; Stack interview 20 June 1989).

As soon as the production lines were up and running, both the UAW and the Farm Equipment Workers Union (FE) attempted to unionize the Melrose Park plant workers by establishing com- peting organizing committees. In the November 1946 NLRB election, UAW Local 6 defeated FE Local 103 by a three-to-one margin. By early 1947, the reconstituted local was in the process of negotiating an interim agreement with Harvester.

The relationship between Harvester and UAW Local 6 was contentious throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s. The local conducted strikes against the company in 1948 (sixteen days) and in 1952 (two months), while the UAW International held a nationwide ten-week strike against Harvester in 1950. Between these last two sanctioned walkouts, a wave of wildcat strikes swept the Melrose Park plant in 1951 and 1952, primarily over the company’s attacks on piece-rate prices and occupational clas- sifications. Due to a backlog of thousands of unresolved written grievances across all Harvester plants throughout the mid to late 1950s, the “New Look” procedure, an innovative oral grievance- processing procedure, was implemented in 1960.

With respect to the local union’s politics, from the late 1940s through the late 1950s, the two major caucuses were the Positive Action Caucus (PAC), led by the Shachtmanite Workers Party/Independent Socialist League, and the Committee to Build Local 6 (CBL6), led by the Communist Party. For most of this decade, the PAC controlled the local’s executive board and the shop committee, while the CBL6 was the major opposition cau- cus in the local. With the dissolution of the CBL6 by 1959 and the reorganization of the PAC in 1963, a number of “business union” caucuses dominated the local’s political life throughout the 1960s.

In 1970, Harvester’s Tractor Works in Chicago closed, leading to approximately nine hundred former Tractor workers entering the Melrose Park plant that year. These workers brought with them a more militant and aggressive shop-floor unionism, acquired from their years of FE membership that lasted until the union’s merger into the UAW in 1955.

Besides transferring the Tractor workers to Melrose Park, the company hired an addi- tional six hundred workers, many of whom were young and deeply influenced by the civil rights, and antiwar movements. This potent combination, which increased total employment in the plant to nearly four thousand workers, led to a renewed vibrancy (largely absent since 1952) within Local 6, and set the stage for the formation and subsequent activities of the New Left-oriented WVC.

WVC’s antipolitics: Ideology of the LRBW and DRUM

Although the Workers’ Voice Committee did not adopt this specific name until 1972, under the name Workers Action Committee (WAC), the caucus began to publish an opposition newspaper, the Workers’ Voice (WV), in the summer of 1970 (Workers’ Voice 1, nos. 1 and 3). Even though the group’s politics remained the same, the WAC briefly renamed itself the Melrose Revolutionary Workers Movement at the end of Febru- ary 1971 when the group decided to form “a revolutionary workers organization at Melrose Park” (“Fellow Wage Slaves” 1971). It seems the new name was directly inspired by the LRBW, which had politics similar to that of the WAC. By 1972, the group changed its name to the WVC, basing the group’s name on the title of its opposition newspaper, Workers’ Voice. (For consistency, I refer to the caucus as the WVC throughout.)

While the WVC was the first explicitly left-wing caucus in the plant since the CP-led CBL6 dissolved in the late 1950s, the WVC differed from the CBL6 in its orientation to union politics. Although the CP members in the CBL6 adopted Marxism- Leninism as their philosophy, the CBL6 based itself on the popular-front principle of forming a broad caucus including non- Communists, with the group’s work almost entirely focused on the local’s electoral politics. On the other hand, the WVC explicitly adopted Marxism-Leninism as the caucus’s guiding philosophy in its first (LRBW) phase and oriented its activities around shop-floor militancy.

The WVC was an interracial group composed of a majority of African American workers, a number of young white workers, and some Latino workers. The core of the caucus included “several dozen” people who worked on all three of the plant’s shifts (Goldfield interview 13 January 1990). Although the cau- cus had several nonindigenous white workers as members, such as Mike Goldfield, who served as leaders and had backgrounds in the SDS and/or other left-wing groups such as the (nominally Maoist) Sojourner Truth Organization, the majority of caucus members were indigenous African American workers. In addi- tion, the group received considerable support for its activities from other African Americans working in the plant who were not necessarily formal members of the organization.

In addition to rank-and-file African American workers, a number of older, experienced, and prominent Local 6 African American activists participated in caucus activities during the organization’s life. Jesse Gipson, a shop-floor organizer for the FE in the 1946 representation election campaign and a CBL6 activist, was a WVC leader throughout the group’s entire exis- tence. In addition, Murray Dillard, a PAC activist during the late 1940s, and Bob Jones, who was elected Local 6 president for one term (1957–1959) on the PAC ticket, supported the caucus (Goldfield interview 13 January 1990).

In the first issue of the Workers’ Voice, the striking similarity between the ideology of the caucus and that of the LRBW is clear. The caucus argued that, for all practical purposes, Local 6 members did not have a union to represent them in confronting the company. The lead article opened:

The problem at Harvester is that we don’t have a union to fight for our interests and defend us from the crap the company hands down. Now, some brothers here may think the statement that we don’t have a union here is nonsense. What about Local 6 they may say. Let’s face the facts. (“No Union at Harvester” 1970)
« 2 3 4 5 6 »

Reference List

Many of the references in this paper are based on archival material found in the Michael Goldfield Personal Collection (MG). Goldfield is currently a pro- fessor of political science at Wayne State University (Detroit, Michigan). The UAW Local 6 Office archives are currently located in the UAW Local 6 Office at 3520 W. North Avenue in Stone Park, Illinois.

Assembly Workers Show the Way Fight Back with Direct Action. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 14. MG.

Breines, Wini. 1982. Community and Organization in the New Left: 1962–1968. South Hadley, Mass.: J. F. Bergin Publishers.

Brothers Get Ready. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 12. MG.

Chump Eagan [sic] Calls Out the Goons on the Workers. 1970. Workers’ Voice, Special Edition. MG.

Come to the Meeting of the Workers Slate. 1974. MG.

Come to the Union Meeting! 1975. Labor’s Struggle, 7 August. MG.

Defeat the 3-Year Term. 1975. Workers’ Voice 4, no. 3. MG.

Defend Ike Jernigan Free Ike Jernigan Hail Ike Jernigan. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 1. MG.

Election Results. 1974. MG.

Fellow Wage Slaves of Harvester. 1971. Workers’ Voice 2, no. 3. MG.

Georgakas, Dan, and Marvin Surkin. 1975. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Geschwender, James A. 1977. Class, Race, and Worker Insurgency: The League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Get It Together  Right Now. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 11. MG.

Gilpin, Toni. 1988. The FE-UAW Conflict: The Ideological Content of Collec- tive Bargaining in Postwar America. North American Labor History Con- ference, Wayne State Univ., Detroit, Mich., 20–22 October.

Gitlin, Todd. 1980. The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press.

Goldfield Fired . . . Dept. 53 Walks . . . He is Re-Instated. 1972. Workers’ Voice 3, no. 6. MG.

Harvester on the Rampage  More Firings. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 10. MG.

IHC Asks for Cooperation from Melrose Workers; Harassment, Discharges, Discrimination, B.S. Continue; Workers Respond with More Job Actions. 1973. Workers’ Voice 4, no. 2. MG.

Klatch, Rebecca E. 1999. A Generation Divided: The New Left, the New Right, and the 1960s. Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press.

Levy, Peter B. 1994. The New Left and Labor in the 1960s. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Know the Enemy. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 4. MG.

McColloch, Mark. 1992. The Shop Floor Dimension of Union Rivalry: The Case of Westinghouse in the 1950s. In The CIO’s Left-Led Unions, edited by Steve Rosswurm, 183–99. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press.

Melrose Revolutionary Workers Movement. 1971. Workers’ Voice 2, no. 4. MG.

Murray Dillard Fired . . . 2nd Shift Walks Out. 1972. Workers’ Voice 3, no. 12. MG.

No Union at Harvester. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 1. MG.

O’Brien, Jim. 1977/1978. American Leninism in the 1970s. Radical America 11, no. 6/12, no. 1: 27–62.

Oppose 3 Year Term. 1974. Labor’s Struggle, 17 December. MG.

Pfeffer, Richard M. 1979. Working for Capitali$m. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Power to the People. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 14. MG.

Rank & File Coalition: 3 Years Crushed. 1975. MG.

Rank & File Coalition: Leaflet on 3-Year Term. 1975. MG.

Rank & File Coalition: Organize! 1975. MG.

Rank & File Coalition: Petitions A Success. 1975. MG.

Rank & File Coalition with Program and Candidates. 1975. MG.

Right on, HRUM. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 11. MG.

Results of Election Held May 7 for Executive Board Members and Shop Com- mittee Chairman. 1975. Union Voice. UAW Local 6 Office. 9 May.

Results of Runoff Election. 1973. Union Voice. UAW Local 6 Office. 29 June.

Sacks, Karen B. 1988. Caring by the Hour. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Scare Tactics. 1974. Workers’ Voice 5, no. 5. MG.

Seidman, Joel, Jack London, Bernard Karsh, and Daisy L. Tagliacozzo. 1958. The Worker Views His Union. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Shop Report: The Union Outlook Remains Status Quo. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 3. MG.

Stepan-Norris, Judith, and Maurice Zeitlin. 1991. Red Unions and Bourgeois Contracts? American Journal of Sociology 96, no. 1, 1151–200.

Steward Fired On Trumped Up Charges. 1970. Workers’ Voice, Special Edi- tion. MG.

The Problems of the Plant Are Growing, But So is the Struggle. 1973. Workers’ Voice 4, no. 2. MG.

The Upcoming Union Election. 1973. Workers’ Voice 4, no. 5. MG.

Workers’ Voice. 1970. 1, no. 1. MG.

Workers’ Voice. 1970. 1, no. 3. MG.

Workers’ Voice. 1975. 6, no. 4. MG.

The Workers’ Voice Program. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 8. MG.

UAW Business Union. 1971. Workers’ Voice 2, no. 10. MG.

Vickers, George. 1975. The Formation of the New Left. Lexington, Mass.: Heath.

Vote the Solidarity Slate. 1973. MG.

Walking on Water Would Be. 1973. MG.

We Finally Got the News about How Are [sic] Dues Are Being Used. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 1. MG.

What the WORKERS SLATE Stands For. 1974. MG.

What the Workers Slate Will Do If Elected. 1974. MG.

Why Civil War in Jordan? 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 7. MG.

Who Is the Real Enemy Faced by Workers at IHC? 1974. MG.

Win with Solidarity! 1973. MG.

The views and opinions expressed here are strictly those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, or position of the publishers.

© 1976-2007 MEP Publications, All Rights Reserved.