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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 5)

The caucus also argued that things were different in the early years of UAW Local 6. The WVC stated that at this time Local 6 was “an independent local with its own strike fund” that engaged in “walkouts, strikes, slowdowns” as well as overtime strikes when it was deemed necessary (“UAW Business Union” 1971).

The internal political life of Local 6 was also one of rank-and- file democracy where union meetings had much higher levels of attendance and a number of the caucuses such as the PAC and the CBL6 had a few hundred active members between them (“Defeat the 3-Year Term” 1975).

According to the Committee, many of the UAW’s early lead- ers were Communists, as were the leaders of the UAW organiz- ing drive at Ford (“Scare Tactics” 1974). In addition, in its early years, the UAW “had many features of being a class-struggle organization” (“Defeat the 3-Year Term” 1975). At this time, grievances were handled on the shop floor between the shop steward and the foreman. If the workers felt that the grievance was not resolved to their satisfaction, they would “lay down their tools” and walk out of the plant (“Defeat the 3-Year Term” 1975).

The union’s militancy at this time was “due to the courage and dedication of the left wing.” It is clear that the WVC consid- ered the “left wing” to have been the U.S. Communist Party (CP), because the caucus proceeds to argue that the downfall of the UAW came after Walter Reuther purged “its left wing and militants, in the late ’40’s.” According to the Committee, this “vicious red-baiting, which made all militancy and attacks on the company suspect,” was the major force responsible for weaken- ing both the UAW and the class struggle occurring within UAW shops (“Defeat the 3-Year Term” 1975). The WVC is obviously referring to the purge of the CP beginning in the 1946 UAW elections when Reuther pursued a vicious anti-Communist campaign to defeat the rival Thomas-Addes caucus.

Continuing with its analysis, the caucus argued that the outcome of this purge forced Reuther to align “with many reac- tionary and pro-company elements in the UAW,” who were not interested in struggling for the workers’ rights. This established a trajectory in the union that brought it ideologically “closer and closer to the companies,” eventually agreeing to keep production going “at all costs.” This resulted in the UAW abandoning the one-year contract in 1950. Shortly thereafter, terms of office for UAW leaders were extended from one to two years. Other significant changes included the UAW giving up its right to strike during the collective-bargaining agreement as well as the right to engage in overtime bans or strikes. According to the WVC, this transformed the UAW into a “cop for the company.” The union had become more concerned with controlling the membership by ending work stoppages and ramming through unsatisfactory contracts than in fighting the companies (“UAW Business Union” 1971; “Defeat the 3-Year Term” 1975).

Because of these historical developments, the WVC argued that “an independent workers movement” had to be built at the Melrose Park plant in order to eliminate “UAW business union- ism.” Such a movement would place power in the workers’ hands rather than keep such power in the hands of the local union leaders and the International (“UAW Business Union” 1971).

The WVC after the ideological shift: Electoral activity and militant shop-floor unionism

Although the WVC did not become involved in the 1971 spring Local 6 elections during the caucus’s LRBW phase, after the group’s shift in ideology, the WVC became quite active in Local 6 electoral politics, viewing this activity as a supplement to its militant shop-floor activity. Although the League also participated in local union electoral politics, the electoral per- spectives of the LRBW and the WVC diverged to a significant degree. From 1968 to 1970, DRUM participated in three separate elections that included a UAW Local 3 trustee election, a Local 3 vice-presidential election, and a Local 3 officer/delegate (to the UAW International convention) election, by running its own candidates and slates specifically on LRBW platforms. When the League abandoned the running of its own candidates and slates in local union elections, its strategy shifted to supporting militant African American candidates who had, at a minimum, a nation- alist orientation (Geschwender 1977, 103–26). However, in con- trast to the LRBW’s electoral strategy, the WVC, for the most part, supported broad Left-front electoral coalitions within Local 6. This perspective was similar to the CP’s popular-front strategy

Medvedev gives the official figures for deportations in 1930–31 to distant regions as 381,000—close enough to Molotov’s figures utilized within the CIO unions from approximately 1936 through 1945.

While the WVC did not run its own slate of candidates during the 1973 Local 6 executive board/shop committee elections, it did became active in these elections by providing what was, in effect, “critical support” for the candidates of the Solidarity Cau- cus (SC). Organized by Norm Roth, the SC was significantly to the left of the caucuses that he organized in the 1960s, although it was not nearly as far to the left as the CP-led CBL6 in the 1940s and 1950s. Besides the reappearance of a moderately left program, the SC ticket was noteworthy because it was the first time that Latino candidates ran on a caucus ticket in the history of Local 6 executive board/shop committee elections (“Walking on Water” 1973).

The SC offered a two-pronged program for handling the local’s problems. The portion dealing with shop-floor issues argued that it was necessary to “fight speedup; abusive disci- pline; discrimination; unsafe working conditions [and] excessive noise,” although the SC did not outline the strategy it would use to combat these problems. Concerning the UAW’s problems at the national level, the caucus criticized the union’s participation on Nixon’s Pay Board, arguing that the union would gain little because of industry representative domination (“Vote the Soli- darity Slate” 1973; “Walking on Water” 1973).

According to the SC, having the UAW International President on the Pay Board prevented the union from obtaining wage increases that would match the inflation rate. In defense of its position, the caucus argued that the United Mine Workers, which did not sit on the board, was able to win higher raises than the participating unions. Because of this, the SC demanded that the UAW International leaders get “off the Nixon Board!” (“Walking on Water” 1973).

Throughout the election campaign, the SC also focused on the current local leadership’s inability to resolve significant problems in the shop. These included Harvester’s firing of stew- ards and issuing dozens of reprimands to workers, as well as the continued proliferation of grievances (“Win With Solidarity!” 1973).

Of the caucuses competing in the election, the WVC’s sym- pathies clearly lay with the SC candidates. The caucus noted that Roth was “closer to the real issues concerning workers in the shop” than any of the other candidates. The group also praised Roth for having “taken some good actions” in defense of the workers’ medical treatment by the company physician, Dr. Welter. The WVC also stated that Roth had “a better position on discrimination” than the other two presidential candidates, although his position was not strong enough to affect Harvester’s discriminatory practices. The caucus also liked Roth’s opposition to the wage freeze; its major criticism of Roth was that he was “more concerned with going thru [sic] the legal and bureaucratic grievance procedure” than actively aiding the workers’ shop- floor struggles (“The Upcoming Union Election” 1973).

Although six runoff elections were required after the tabula- tion of the 15 June 1973 results, the SC fared well with three of its candidates Norm Roth (president), Clem Watts (vice- president), and Art Richardson (health and welfare representa- tive) qualifying for the runoffs. In the runoff elections, Richard- son was defeated by one vote; Roth defeated Egan, the current local president, who had a business unionist perspective, by a margin of 1151 votes to 1023 votes (“Results of Runoff Elec- tion” 1973). There is little doubt that the WVC’s critical support of Roth’s candidacy contributed to his victory.

In the 1974 UAW convention delegate election, the WVC fielded its first and only Local 6 electoral slate in caucus history. The Workers Slate (WS), the electoral vehicle of the WVC, focused its campaign around company discrimination against minority workers. The WS called for “making Company dis- crimination a strikable [sic] issue, starting with the racist hiring practices here at Melrose Park.” Other planks in the WS platform represented a combination of minimum and maximum demands. The caucus called for a contract reopener so that wages could be renegotiated significantly above Nixon’s 5.5 percent limits; for no restrictions on the right to strike, to cease work, or to hold “overtime strikes”; to have more minorities represented in “higher union bodies” such as the Harvester Council; to get rid of Woodcock and other procompany bureaucrats in order to return “rank-and-file” democracy to the union; “for a short work week with no loss of pay” and for the establishment of a labor party (“Who Is the Real Enemy?” 1974; “What the Workers Slate Will Do” 1974; “Come to the Meeting” 1974; “What the WORKERS SLATE Stands For” 1974).

For the eight delegate slots, the thirty-five candidates in the field were divided among five slates, combined with a handful of independents. The WS did not perform well. The WVC’s slate finished in positions 20, two tied at 21, 24, and 28, with only the Militant Action Slate, affiliated with the (Trotskyist) Spartacist League, faring worse (“Election Results” 1974).

Early in 1975, much of the Left regrouped within Local 6, forming a new caucus, the Rank & File Coalition (R&FC), con- taining elements of the SC as well as New Leftists not affiliated with the WVC. The R&FC was an interracial caucus and a broad Left grouping that attempted to gain support from African Amer- ican and Latino workers, as well as workers who wished to adopt a more aggressive posture toward the company (“Rank & File Coalition with Program” 1975). The R&FC’s basic program was very similar to that of the WVC: fighting racism and sexism in hiring, promotion, and discipline; the right to engage in strikes and overtime bans in order to resolve any grievance; and the launching of an unmitigated struggle against the speedup at the Melrose Park plant.

Shortly after its formation, the R&FC became allied with the WVC in a campaign to prevent the extension of the term of office for both shop stewards and shop committeemen from two to three years. The campaign within the local was initiated because a resolution had been passed by the Woodcock adminis- tration at the 1974 UAW Constitutional Convention extending the term for all union offices from two to three years. However, the terms of the shop stewards and shop committeemen could be limited to only two years through a local union membership’s vote (“Oppose 3 Year Term” 1975).

The campaign against extending the terms of shop stewards and shop committeemen began with a petition drive that demanded a membership vote on this issue. Nearly five hundred members signed these petitions, which were given to the local union officers at the February 26 executive board meeting. Bob Stack, the Shop Committee chair, made a motion at this meeting to “receive and file” the petitions. The motion was approved, meaning that no action was taken on scheduling a vote (“Rank & File Coalition: Petitions A Success” 1975; “Rank & File Coali- tion Leaflet” 1975).

The major forces supporting the term extension were mem- bers of both the executive board and the shop committee, led by Bob Stack. The WVC called for a defeat of the three-year term in order to “strike a blow for union democracy” in Local 6. The caucus argued that extending the term of office occurred because of “the rapidly accelerating pro-company movement of the UAW International in the last three years” (“Defeat the 3-Year Term” 1975). The WVC pointed out the contradictory pressures placed on shop-floor representatives and argued that a longer term for these officers was not in the interests of the workers:

By having a 3-year term for local officers, the Interna- tional and the company, not the rank-and-file will control our local leaders. We must all recognize that there is a lot of pressure on stewards and committeemen to be pro- company, and not be fighters. The company can make things difficult for the steward or committeeman who organizes his or her constituents for struggle, who fights the company, and does not “get along” with the boss. A steward or committeeman elected every year will feel the hot breath of the rank-and-file on his or her neck, along with this pressure from the company. A steward or com- mitteeman elected every three years can get the boss off his back by hopping in bed with the company for two-and- a-half years before he or she has to appeal to the ranks to get re-elected. (“Defeat the 3-Year Term” 1975)

On March 9 more than three hundred members came out to the local union meeting to hear discussion and to vote on this contro- versial term extension. After the issue was placed first on the meeting’s agenda, the membership heard three speakers argue for and three argue against extending the term of office. Increas- ing the term of office to three years was voted down by approxi- mately a three-to-one margin (“Rank & File Coalition: 3 Years Crushed” 1975).

Although the WV ceased publication with the issue announc- ing the defeat of the three-year term in early spring of 1975 (Workers’ Voice 6, no. 4), the WVC still remained a major force within the local, continuing to organize around both worker dis- crimination and shop-floor issues for several more years. Never- theless, in the 1975 local union elections, the WVC did not field a slate as it had in the 1974 delegate elections. However, the R&FC did field a complete ticket of candidates for these local elections, a slate that was most likely supported by the WVC because of the similarity between the basic beliefs of these two caucuses.

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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.

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