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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

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EDITOR: Erwin Marquit (physics, Univ. of Minnesota)

MANUSCRIPT EDITOR: Leo Auerbach (English education, retired, Jersey City State College)


Gerald M. Erickson, April Ane Knutson,

Doris Grieser Marquit (BOOK REVIEW EDITOR)


Herbert Aptheker (history)

Jan Carew (African American studies, Northwestern Univ.)

Gerald M. Erickson (classical studies, Univ. of Minnesota)

Morton H. Frank (physiology)

Viktoria Hertling (German exile & Holocaust literature, Univ. of Nevada, Reno)

Gerald Horne (African American studies, Univ. of North Carolina)

Leola A. Johnson (communications, Macalester College)

April Ane Knutson (French literature, Univ. of Minnesota)

Jack Kurzweil (electrical engineering, San Jose State Univ.)

James Lawler (philosophy, State Univ. of New York, Buffalo)

Sara Fletcher Luther (political sociology)

Doris Grieser Marquit (literature, women's studies)

Philip Moran (philosophy, Triton College)

Michael Parenti (political science)

Epifanio San Juan (humanities, Wesleyan Univ.)

José A. Soler (labor education, Univ. of Massachusetts, Dartmouth)

Ethel Tobach (comparative psychology, City Univ. of New York)


VOL. 14, NO. 3 (JULY 2001) Sent to press September 13, 2002

Copyright © Marxist Educational Press, All rights reserved.

The relationship between the New Left and the U.S. tradeunion movement in the 1960s was marked by tremendous tensions and contradictions (Levy 1994). Although it was not monolithic in its attitude towards the labor movement, much of the New Left can be characterized in its early years as sharing “an anticlass perspective,” believing that terms such as “class struggle” and “class structure” were not useful in understanding the experience of U.S. workers (Levy 1994, 111). For them, U.S. workers appeared to be, for the most part, relatively affluent, satisfied with society, and largely uninterested in social change.

How can we define the New Left? According to Gitlin, the “New Left” was a term initially adopted by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1963 (1980, 293); the SDS itself had borrowed the term from the British New Left of the late 1950s. The New Left was “new” in the sense that it was different from the “Old Left” (it was neither Communist, Trotskyist, nor social-democratic in orientation), but it was clearly “left” in the sense that it was “committed to social equality, opposed to militarism and racism, and loosely socialist.” Breines defines the New Left in its infancy as comprising “the largely student and racially white social movement that emerged in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s” (1982, 8), although Gitlin includes the SDS and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as the two major organizations comprising the New Left in this period (1980, 294).

Much of the New Left, according to this analysis, initially rejected the Old Left’s belief in the “labor metaphysic,” a term coined by radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, which placed undying faith in the strategic roles of the trade unions and the working class in the revolutionary transformation of society. Mills did not believe in the “labor metaphysic.” He argued that wage workers were incapable of serving as agents of revolutionary change in advanced capitalism, and had no desire to do so. He also stated that the trade unions would be no more useful in this struggle because they had become increasingly ossified and conservative (Levy 1994, 112).

If the traditional proletariat was written off as the vanguard of social change, to whom did the New Left relegate this role? At first, serious consideration was given to an alliance between New Leftists and an “interracial movement of the poor” that is, the unemployed and the underemployed as a substitute proletariat to bring about social change. As the civil rights movement spawned the “Black Power” movement of the late 1960s, much of the New Left shifted its focus to the radical African American student movement as an alternative proletariat.

By the late 1960s, significant segments of the New Left had accepted the ideological analysis of the radical African American student movement that “African Americans occupied an objectively revolutionary” place in society because they were the “most exploited group suffering from both colonialism and racism” (Levy 1994, 115). According to this analysis, the slavery of African Americans was the foundation for the surplus wealth on which the United States was built. Even after the abolition of slavery and the transformation of the United States into an industrial giant, African American labor continued to be the basis of white capital because significant numbers of African Americans worked in the “modern steel forges, slaughterhouse yards, and automobile assembly plants” (Levy 1994, 116).

The New Left continued its ideological trajectory through 1968 and 1969, when many in the New Left adopted Marxism as an ideology and joined Marxist-Leninist groups (Breines 1982, 112), primarily with a Maoist orientation, such as the Revolutionary Union (RU) and the October League (OL) (O’Brien 1977/1978). According to Carl Oglesby, an SDS leader, the reason for adopting this ideology was apparent. In 1969, he stated,

The necessity of a revolutionary strategy was, in effect, the same thing as the necessity of Marxism-Leninism. There was and is no other coherent, integrative, and explicit philosophy of revolution. (Vickers 1975, 129)

With this shift towards Marxism-Leninism, many in the New Left realized for the first time the strategic importance of trade unions and of organizing the working class. And while there is evidence of ex-student New Leftists entering factories to organize and “colonize” the working class in the early to mid 1970s after the implosion of the SDS (O’Brien 1977/78; Klatch 1999), no studies have addressed the issue of how the New Left caucuses initiated by these activists actually functioned within U.S. trade unions.

Since the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), a caucus that first emerged in United Auto Workers (UAW) locals in the Detroit automobile industry, had a Marxist-Leninist ideology and also stressed the centrality of African American workers in the revolutionary project (Georgakas and Surkin 1975; Geschwender 1977), it is not surprising that trade-unionoriented New Leftists were immediately attracted to this group and viewed it as a source for positive change in the bureaucratized trade-union movement. Although the LRBW may not have been an explicitly New Leftist union caucus, it did represent the beliefs of New Left activists enamored with militant rhetoric.

My purpose here is to discuss the emergence, politics, and activities of a New Left union caucus, the Workers’ Voice Committee (WVC), which was formed within the UAW Local 6 in 1970. Unlike the other political caucuses that had emerged in UAW Local 6 since its reorganization in 1946, the WVC was the first caucus to focus many of its activities around the shop floor rather than exclusively around the local’s electoral politics. Although the caucus’s activities and rhetoric from its formation in August 1970 through November 1971 were very similar to the Detroit-based LRBW, I will argue that as the caucus evolved (December 1971 through 1975), its vision of trade unionism became one that was consistent with the trade unionism of the Old Left, specifically with the Communist Party (CP)-influenced UAW of the 1940s before the defeat and purge of the CP from the autoworkers’ union beginning in 1946–1947.

The politics and activities of the LRBW will be discussed first, followed by a brief history of the early years of UAW Local 6. Next a treatment of the WVC and the evolution of its politics and activities will be presented. Finally, I will analyze the activities and politics of the WVC in the context of “Old Left” trade-union history.

The League of Revolutionary Black Workers

The League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), which was legally incorporated in June 1969 and survived until 1973, had its origins in the activism of radicalized African American workers in the Detroit auto industry (Geschwender 1977, 206). On 2 May 1968, four thousand workers participated in the first wildcat strike to occur at the Dodge Main (Hamtramck assembly) plant in fourteen years over a speedup in the assembly line (Georgakas and Surkin 1975, 24, 84).

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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)

The Antipolitics and Politics continued...

After accusing Local 6 leaders of working “hand and glove with the white shirts and the slave-drivers from IR,” as well as allow- ing “white supremacist discrimination in the skilled trades” to exist, the WVC reiterated that a union did not exist at Melrose Park. It defined what a union is and concluded that it was neces- sary to build such an organization at Melrose Park:

Finally got the news
How your dues are being used
Be bad, be bad, be bad, be bad, be bad!
Can’t do nothing if you ain’t bad!
(Georgakas and Surkin 1975, 138)

Finally, a third article, entitled,“Defend Ike Jernigan Free Ike Jernigan Hail Ike Jernigan,” sought to raise money for the legal defense of Isaac (Ike) Jernigan, and called for justice in his case. Jernigan was an African American International Association of Machinists (IAM) union member who in July 1969 shot and killed his foreman at the Lockheed Aircraft plant in Los Angeles, as well as the IAM Local 707 president and another Local 707 official. According to the article, Jernigan became active in the Lockheed Employees Unity Association, a group fighting for improved working conditions and for fair treatment for African American workers. Because of Jernigan’s participation in this group, both the company and the local union harassed him. The event that directly led to Jernigan’s killing rampage was his being fired “for wearing an African shirt to work” with the union refusing to defend him (“Defend Ike Jernigan” 1970).

The Ike Jernigan case is almost identical in its details to the James Johnson case, which the LRBW championed. After James Johnson, an African American working at the Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant, was suspended from his job on 15 July 1970 for refusing to take part in a work speedup, he returned later that day with an M-1 carbine hidden in his overalls and killed two foremen, one African American and one white, as well as one job-setter (Georgakas and Surkin 1975, 9–10).

Although Johnson was not affiliated or associated in any manner with ELRUM, the group published a leaflet several days after the shooting with the headline, “Hail James Johnson.” The leaflet provided biographical information about Johnson and dis- cussed in detail a number of incidents that occurred prior to the shootings. ELRUM’s analysis made it clear that the working conditions at Chrysler’s Eldon plant, as well as Johnson’s cumu- lative experience “as a victim of racism,” had led to the killings. The group put the blame squarely on Chrysler’s shoulders, although the UAW was also implicated because it did not fight to improve the working conditions at the Eldon plant (Georgakas and Surkin 1975, 10).

The WVC, like the LRBW, argued that struggles within the unions must be directly linked to the fight against racism, capi- talism, and imperialism. The introductory section, entitled “Here’s Where We’re Coming From,” of an important document outlining the League’s ideology, declared its dedication to the “liberation of all oppressed people” (quoted earlier, p. 290).

The League pointed out that “the black liberation struggle is part of a worldwide struggle of oppressed against oppressor” and that the African American worker was determined to be “the most crucial element in the coming struggle.” Only certain Afri- can American workers, however, such as those who labored in factories and mines, were seen as occupying strategic positions, thus forming the core of the revolutionary struggle. These occu- pational groups were considered to be instrumental because of the large numbers of African American workers that they con- tained, the high percentage of employees in these occupations that were African American, and “the key position of factories and mines in the capitalist extraction of profit.” Thus, the League considered it necessary to build DRUM-type structures within the established unions to battle both management and the union leadership and fight to implement its program (Geschwender 1977, 129, 132).

Because of this ideology, the WVC provided coverage of labor struggles throughout the world to show Local 6 members that their struggles were related to those of workers in other countries. In the fourth issue of the Workers’ Voice, an article entitled “Know the Enemy” discussed the situation in Harvester’s South Africa plant. After providing some basic information about the apartheid system in South Africa as well as some rudimentary information about IHC South Africa, the article explained how Harvester’s policies in the Melrose Park plant and the South African plant were related:

Is IH upset about the slave-like conditions in their South Africa plant? Hell no! They are willing PARTNERS IN APARTEID [sic], because it brings them super-profits. Did you ever wonder why there are so few black workers in the skilled trades and higher classifications at Melrose Park? Why there are so few black foremen, engineers, and other salaried personel [sic]? ITS [sic] ALL PART OF THE SAME POLICY. . . .
   What’s our policy? . . . We all must unite to fight Harvester, this racist, imperialistic, greedy, inhuman capitalistic company. UNITED WE STAND. DIVIDED WE FALL. (“Know the Enemy” 1970)

In an article a few issues later, the WVC argued that the struggle of the Palestinian guerrillas against the reactionary government of King Hussein of Jordan was directly connected with “the struggle of the people of the United States against oppression and exploitation both in the community and at the work place” (“Why Civil War in Jordan?” 1970). In “Power to the People,” the WVC argued that one way of attacking capitalism and imperialism was to build support for a “revolutionary workers’ movement” at the Melrose Park plant. They stated that their struggle was not isolated, but was connected with workers’ struggles throughout the world:

All you brothers, Black, White, Chicano, or whatever, you are all workers. The only real enemy you have is the Capitalist, Imperialist pig Power Structure. The only real war to be fought will be between the haves and the have nots, which includes every worker around the world. The people who control the wealth of this country and 85–95% of the worlds [sic] wealth. These are the Motherfuckers I’m talking about. (“Power to the People” 1970)

And when HRUM (Harvester Revolutionary Union Movement), which was affiliated with the LRBW, was established at the Melrose Park plant, the WVC welcomed the new organization and stated that it would “support and ally” with all forces “to build a revolutionary union movement here at Melrose that will deal with all the conditions in the plant and fight for liberation and the rights of working people all over the world” (“Right On, HRUM” 1970).

Although the WVC was an interracial group, its analysis of the centrality of African American labor was virtually the same as that of the LRBW (see Levy 1994, 116). The WVC stated that the slavery of African Americans was the foundation “for the creation of surplus value or capital” that led to the establishment of “modern capitalism.” The Committee argued that African American labor was still the “backbone of the modern industrial proletariat” and that this “new slavery” was not fundamentally different from the old slavery because the African American workers have neither control nor a voice in the decisions that affect them (“Brothers Get Ready” 1970).

The WVC implied that white workers had barely more power than African American workers; each worker was expendable (especially at Harvester) because of the existence of the “reserve labor force of unemployed” that could be used as replacements. However, African American workers were more expendable than white workers due to racism in hiring within the job classifica- tions in the factories (“Brothers Get Ready” 1970). In terms of the UAW, the Committee argued that the union represented only a tiny fraction of the total number of African American workers in the union. In addition, the UAW willingly accepted “vicious racial discrimination against black workers in skilled trades jobs, upgrading, discipline and other areas” and currently “represented only a small segment of older white workers” (“Fellow Wage Slaves of Harvester” 1971).

Because of the centrality of the experience of the African American worker in the WVC’s labor ideology, it is not surpris- ing that the first demand in the group’s eleven-point program dealt with the problems of the African American worker in Har- vester’s Melrose plant. This lead demand, which was published in two separate issues of the WV, stated: “We demand an end to White Supremacy and Racism in the Plant” (“The Workers’ Voice Program” 1970; “Get It Together” 1970).

Specifically, the caucus called for ending discriminatory hir- ing practices such as the exclusion of African American workers from the skilled trades; ending discriminatory educational requirements that were applied to African American workers but not to white workers; and ending discrimination with respect to reference checking. Secondly, the WVC demanded an end to Harvester foremen’s racist treatment of African American work- ers, including discrimination in job classifications, timing rates, down-time allowances, and in reprimands, suspensions, and fir- ings. Thirdly, the Committee called for an end to racism in the medical department by requiring the presence of at least one African American nurse at all times so “that black workers do not get treated like animals.” Finally, the WVC demanded that Harvester disband its bowling and golf leagues that excluded African American employees (“The Workers’ Voice Program” 1970; “Get It Together” 1970).

The WVC’s program also called for changes in the daily practices of Harvester in a number of areas such as the hiring of women workers in the plant (none worked in the plant as of 1970), the immediate resolution of all grievances, an end to all suspensions and firings, the removal of all safety and health haz- ards in the factory, a major improvement in delivering medical services, and an end to piecework. However, the caucus presented four “maximum” demands: having employees work five hours per day for four days per week and calling for “the UAW (to) use its immense political and strike powers to call a general strike” in order to put an immediate end to the Vietnam War, to stop workers from having to pay any taxes (increases in both property and industrial taxes would make up the deficit), and to halt government repression against various groups such as African American militants, students, etc. (“The Workers’ Voice Program” 1970).

Versions of two of these last four demands also were con- tained in the League’s program. It called for the UAW to use its political power by conducting strikes to end the Vietnam War as well as to eliminate unemployment through the reduction of the workweek (Geschwender 1977, 132).

In February 1971, the WVC became even more similar to the LRBW when it put out a leaflet announcing the first meeting in order to build a “revolutionary workers organization” at the Melrose Park plant. The leaflet, addressed to “Fellow Wage Slaves of Harvester,” argued that the time was ripe for forming a “revolutionary workers organization” because of the steadily deteriorating conditions inside the plant. The Committee pointed out that major problems that had to be dealt with were speedup on the assembly lines, “dozens of firings, increased disciplinary actions,” dangerous and unsafe working conditions, and rampant racism. The WVC predicted that things were going to get worse, not better, under “the new flimsy UAW contract” (“Fellow Wage Slaves of Harvester” 1971).

The caucus claimed that the forming of this organization would be part of the “new labor movement” developing in U.S. factories, “led by revolutionary black workers, the most exploited, oppressed part of the workforce.” The WVC specifi- cally cited the LRBW, the United Black Brothers of Mahwah Ford (New Jersey), Polaroid Workers Revolutionary Movement (Boston), and the Black Workers Council (Louisville) as repre- senting the “first great wave” of this movement (“Fellow Wage Slaves of Harvester” 1971).

On 28 February 1971, the Melrose Revolutionary Workers Movement (MRWM) was formed at a meeting where the attend- ees heard Herman Holmes of the LRBW speak and saw the doc- umentary film, “Finally Got the News,” which chronicled the development of the League. The MRWM resolved to work both inside and outside the union and to do whatever was necessary in order “to solve the problems of workers at Melrose and workers everywhere” (“Melrose Revolutionary Workers Movement” 1971).

The Antipolitics and Politics continued...

While not representing all of the Local 6 shop-floor activists, the WVC appeared to be the organizational core of this move- ment in terms of articulating a coherent ideology of shop-floor politics as well as aggressively organizing workers at the point of production. Because of this focus, the caucus was a disciplined and organized force with which the local leaders had to deal on a regular basis. Jesse Gipson, a WVC activist, believes that its daily contact with people on the shop floor led to a high level of support within the plant and provided the group with its base of power:

And I think “The Workers Voice” group was the most powerful group to ever hit that shop that wasn’t elected to office. . . . They were very respected by all the workers and the workers would move when “The Workers Voice Committee” would tell ’em to move. . . . We had some wildcat, threatened wildcats, they couldn’t let it go too far because they knew how powerful we were. (Gibson inter- view 20 December 1989)

Because of its radical ideology, many of the local’s leaders throughout the 1970s viewed the WVC as an antiunion and pro- company group. For example, Joe Valenti, a former Tractor worker who was a Local 6 leader during the 1970s, stated:

And nine times out of 10, I always felt, I says (to WVC members), “If you were really a labor man and really a true union man and you really believed in something, why are you always anti? I never seen you were for something. You know, you have to be for something. . . . Sometimes I felt that they were company people, you know. And that’s what I feel about . . . all those radical movement groups. (Valenti interview 8 August 1989)

Ed Graham, an executive board member throughout the 1970s, expressed views similar to Valenti’s on the WVC:

In my opinion, . . . in the bulk of the times . . . the objec- tives were not union-orientated and that they (the WVC) sowed more seeds of dissension and division than . . . of unity. And then by virtue of that . . . they defeated the purpose of unionism if a program like his (Goldfield) was to be indoctrinated into this local. (Graham interview 2 August 1989)

Even Norm Roth, the leader of the CP-led CBL6 during the late 1940s and 1950s and one of the few remaining “Old Left- ists” in the plant, was critical of the WVC in its early years:

And they (the WVC) proclaimed themselves as Marxists and denounced capitalism and called for socialism and called for people to man the trenches. The revolution is here and made big plays about racism, you know, being the staunchest defenders of rights, of those who were victims of racism and chauvinism.
   They came out with . . . the call for immediate revolu- tion or a revolution the day after tomorrow. . . . And people like myself . . . were then called revisionists and betrayers of the class struggle movement. And we became enemies of the working class and the company got a free pass. (Roth interview 1 July 1989)

After several weeks of the caucus’s existence, the Local 6 lead- ers escalated their attacks on the WVC in the summer of 1970 after the caucus published and distributed several leaflets criti- cizing the local union leadership. At this time, the local’s leaders began to physically harass the WVC members while they were distributing caucus literature one morning before work. An issue of the WV described this incident in detail:

Union goons were out at the gates trying to keep workers and workers wives [sic] from passing out the Workers Voice. They chose to try to intimidate the revolutionary sisters, but they did not succeed. They threatened to run over the sisters and even went so far as to come within a few inches of them.
When one of the workers going on 1st shift confronted these goon-baboons and told them to stop pushing people around, he was told that the goons were officials of the union. In fact, said one, “I am a member of the executive board.” This same executive board member then threat- ened to “fix up this worker’s car.”
   Ain’t it nice to know what we pay our union officials to do to us? (“Chump Eagan. Calls Out the Goons” 1970)

The WVC during its LRBW phase: The practice of militant shop-floor unionism

While the WVC advocated that the Local 6 workers adopt a more militant shop-floor unionism, a number of shop-floor events provided the caucus with an opportunity to put its principles into practice. With the hiring of many younger work- ers in 1970, a larger number of stewards elected at the Melrose Park plant were young, militant, and aggressive. The company had only one labor relations policy for dealing with these mili- tant shop stewards firing them (Goldfield interview 13 January 1990).

When the first shop steward was fired at the end of August 1970, the WVC began to organize workers aggressively around this issue. Although Harvester claimed that it had fired Alan Fenske, the repair department’s young steward, for allegedly fal- sifying job-application information, the WVC argued that the real reason was that he had been leading a six-day departmental “overtime strike,” a job action in which all of the workers in a department (or factory) systematically and collectively refuse to perform any overtime work until there is a resolution to their immediate shop-floor problems, on both the first and second shifts (“Steward Fired” 1970). Harvester felt that it was justified in firing Fenske because conducting “overtime strikes” had been made illegal with the negotiation of the 1967 UAW-Harvester agreement.

The WVC placed no confidence in the contractually agreed- upon grievance and arbitration procedures in obtaining justice for Fenske. The caucus argued that there were structural limita- tions to both systems that prevented workers from obtaining fair treatment.

A special edition of the WV devoted to Fenske’s termination implicitly charged that Local 6 had collaborated with the com- pany. The only way to deal with this collaboration, according to the WVC, was to defend Fenske through direct action on the shop floor (“Steward Fired” 1970).

In its criticism of the grievance procedure, the WVC claimed that the formal structure of the process prevented workers from exercising their shop-floor power. However, the caucus argued that the union was complicit because it had collaborated with the company in agreeing “to forbid work stoppages, job actions and strikes between contracts and to rely instead on the grievance system (and arbitration) . . . in keeping production continuously going” (“Shop Report” 1970).

Instead of allowing the grievance to become entangled in the bureaucratic grievance and arbitration procedures, the WVC counterposed direct action as a strategy that shifted the power to decide grievances from union officials back to the shop floor. The caucus called for using “overtime bans, slowdowns, walk- outs, wildcats, whatever the situation calls for” in order to resolve grievances (“Shop Report” 1970).

In essence, the WVC’s program called for a principled shop- floor militancy rather than resorting to militancy as a tactical weapon to be used as a last resort only after the breakdown of the grievance procedure. The caucus viewed the grievance and arbitration procedures as being structural impediments to indus- trial justice for the workers. Therefore, the group advocated using shop-floor militancy at all times to settle all grievances.

Fenske’s firing was the company’s opening shot in its attacks on the workers. Because of the plethora of terminations, such as the firing of the second shift steward council chairman (the second shift steward of Department 51) when he refused to weld over paint upon a foreman’s direct order, as well as the numerous suspensions and reprimands occurring throughout the summer and fall of 1970, by late autumn the WVC actively encouraged shop-floor militancy through the holding of job actions (“Harvester on the Rampage” 1970). Due to the WVC’s organization, by December, the workers in Departments 53 and 57 were in the midst of holding a three-week “overtime strike” (“Assembly Workers Show the Way” 1970).

Within six months of the outbreak of illegal “overtime strikes,” the WVC was actively organizing and leading actual plant walkouts over the extreme heat in the plant. These wildcat strikes (or “heat walkouts”) began in the summer of 1971 and were concentrated primarily on the plant’s assembly lines. The walkouts first occurred on the Medium Size Tractor Line (Department 53) and then spread to the Large Tractor Line (Department 33) and the Small Tractor Line (Department 45) (Goldfield interview 13 January 1990). Although there had been a number of illegal “overtime strikes” in 1970, these wildcat strikes were the first actual work stoppages in the Melrose Park plant since the wildcat strike involving twenty workers in April 1954.

These wildcat strikes provided a mechanism for the workers to vent their feelings over the unbearable heat in the plant, as well as other grievances that remained unresolved by the local plant management. Mike Goldfield, a WVC leader as well as a Department 53 steward, stated:

And while the walkouts were ostensibly over the heat, a lot of other grievances got thrown in. And often, in fact, when there were problems, walkouts over the heat, other grievances were in the hopper and management would sometimes try to resolve these to get people symbolically and literally cooled down. (Goldfield interview 13 January 1990)

Once these heat walkouts started in the summer of 1971, these job actions often took on a life of their own and workers participated in wildcat strikes even when the temperature was relatively cool, such as only 70 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside. Mike Goldfield recalls that during one week, his department (Department 53) struck on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday but not on Thursday, because it was payday. Once the workers realized that their paychecks would be extremely low because of all the work hours that they had missed during the first three days of the week, they decided to strike on Friday also because that week’s paycheck was already ruined.

The politics of the WVC: Ideology of the “Old Left”

Beginning in December 1971, through the written documen- tation on the group ending in 1975, there was an ideological shift in the WVC that continued throughout the remainder of the caucus’s existence. At this time, the WVC began to develop a theoretical analysis that it would be desirable to fight within Local 6 for a return of the UAW to its militant and independent status in the 1940s prior to the Reuther purge of the CP, when the autoworkers’ union exhibited high levels of shop-floor mili- tancy, rank-and-file democracy, as well as independence from the companies with which the union negotiated. This change in the caucus’s politics neither affected the quality nor quantity of the WVC’s shop-floor activities during this period, although the caucus did become involved in the local union’s electoral poli- tics with the adoption of this new ideology.

In its revised analysis, instead of claiming that there was “no union” to represent the workers at the Melrose Park plant, the WVC began to acknowledge that there was a union at the plant, only that it was a “business union.” The caucus argued that the UAW was no longer “a rank-and-file democracy” but had become a “business union.” The WVC stated that this was a “total change” from the days when the UAW and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were first organized in the 1930s. At this time, the UAW International “was a democrati- cally controlled rank and file movement” which “did not beg the companies for concessions” but engaged in “militant actions” such as wildcat strikes as well as the Flint General Motors sit- down strike during 1936 and 1937. The caucus also noted that the leader of the Flint sit-down was Bob Travis, a Communist (“UAW Business Union” 1971; “Scare Tactics” 1974).

According to the WVC, at this time rank-and-file democracy existed within the UAW because the union had one-year con- tracts and the leaders were elected to one-year terms of office. Because the union leaders had to be reelected on a short-term basis, they fought for the interests of the workers and they con- tinually mobilized the members for struggle. The WVC pointed out that there was a high turnover of union leaders when the UAW was in its early years, particularly in the late 1930s (“Defeat the 3-Year Term” 1975).

The Antipolitics and Politics continued...

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.

The Antipolitics and Politics continued...

Of the twelve candidates running on the R&FC ticket for the executive board (and chairman of the shop committee) elections, four were African American, four were Latino, and four were white. An African American woman was slated for an executive board position for the first time since the World War II period. All three white candidates were members of left-wing groups; one was a CP member and the other two were affiliated with the (neo-Trotskyist) International Socialists (“Rank & File Coalition: Organize” 1975; “Come to the Union Meeting” 1975).

The RF&C’s program opened with a preamble reminiscent of the preamble of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World at its founding convention in Chicago in 1905:

It is our firm belief that the interests of the company and the interests of the rank and file, have nothing in common. We stand in opposition to all those forces which side with and collaborate with the company against the workers.
   One of our aims is to build the power of the rank and file. We pledge to fight for the interests of the workers. (“Rank & File Coalition: 3 Years Crushed” 1975)

The caucus’s election program outlined concrete proposals for increasing shop-floor militancy by fighting the speedup under- way in the plant, by implementing the right to strike in resolving grievances, and by forbidding overtime in any department if workers are on layoff. In addition, the R&FC called for eliminat- ing “racist and sexual [sic] practices in hiring, upgrading and the use of discipline”; transforming the Steward Councils into organ- izations “with real power”; and “to reopen the contract” calling for raising retirement pay, guaranteeing full Supplemental Unemployment Benefits pay throughout the entire period of a worker’s layoff, and instituting the six-hour work day for eight hours of pay (“Rank & File Coalition with Program” 1975). The R&FC’s major criticism of the current local union leaders was that they were not doing anything to actively oppose the speedup and layoffs occurring within the plant (“Rank & File Coalition: Organize!” 1975).

On 7 May 1975, the R&FC was badly beaten by its business unionist rival, the Positive Action Leadership (PAL) caucus in an election involving three slates. The R&FC failed to win a single race, losing to the PAL by large margins in virtually every race. In the two races that the PAL candidates failed to win, runoff elections were scheduled with the two PAL candidates compet- ing against candidates from another business-union-oriented caucus (“Results of Election Held” 1975).

Even with the WVC’s foray into the electoral arena, the caucus still focused the majority of its activity around militant shop-floor unionism. In addition to overtime strikes, sit-down strikes, shop-floor meetings during working hours, wildcat strikes and “heat walkouts,” the WVC led other types of shop- floor job actions from December 1971 through the end of 1975 over issues such as discipline, managerial harassment, and discrimination. Many of these job actions used the tactic of attempting to settle industrial disputes by confronting manage- ment directly at the point of production. A typical example of the use of these tactics occurred on 11 August 1972 when Harvester fired Department 53 steward Mike Goldfield, alleging insubordi- nation. At the hearing, the company refused to consider Goldfield’s arguments seriously since all of the witnesses were management representatives.

When the workers in Department 53 returned from lunch at 12:15 p.m. and learned that Goldfield had been discharged, they gathered at the time clock in front of the departmental office. Not a single departmental worker went back to work until Goldfield’s termination was rescinded. Even after Superintendent Al Pellegrini threatened to fire all workers who did not return to work within five minutes, all one hundred workers refused to budge from their original demand. A short time later, upon Goldfield’s reinstatement with back pay, all of the men went back to work. In spite of Pellegrini’s threats, none of the departmental workers were disciplined or fired (“Goldfield Fired” 1972).

From 1972 through 1975, other similar job actions at the point of production led by the WVC occurred for example, among Department 57’s second-shift workers after Murray Dil- lard, their shop steward, was discharged for insubordination (“Murray Dillard Fired” 1972) and among Department 45 work- ers after the termination of one of the department’s workers (“IHC Asks for Cooperation” 1973). In addition, workers of Department 53 stopped work when the foreman discriminated against an African American woman laborer in the department (“The Problems of the Plant” 1973).

Conclusion: Putting “Old Left” trade- union history into context

The role of the New Left in the U.S. trade-union movement in the 1970s is a history that largely remains to be written by future scholars. Although we know that the New Left and affiliated political groups entered factories to organize the working class in this decade, we have only a preliminary understanding of their role in strike-support work, in union organizing drives, and in forming union caucuses during this era. For example, a few of the more successful and notable efforts during this period were the RU’s work in establishing support committees during the Farah garment strike from 1972 to 1974, the OL’s help in build- ing the Brotherhood Caucus in the General Motors plant in Fremont, California, in 1973, and the (neo-Trotskyist) Interna- tional Socialists’ reform activities and efforts within the Teamsters Union (O’Brien 1977/1978). Besides these positive achievements, however, factionalism within the New Left in the 1970s harmed union organizing efforts among workers at the Duke Medical Center (Sacks 1988) and led to problems between the RU and OL working on trade-union activities in a unionized factory in Baltimore (Pfeffer 1979).

This factionalism among New Left union caucuses in trade- union activities, as discussed by Sacks (1988) and Pfeffer (1979), indicates one potential problem with adopting Marxism- Leninism as the guiding philosophy of union factions. With each of these union caucuses viewing itself as the kernel of the van- guard party, their focus could become the recruitment of workers into their organizations as opposed to building broad left-wing union groups having a real effect on mobilizing workers in com- bating capital on the shop floor and in reforming the union. Such recruitment activities can be highly destructive if workers become disillusioned with the behavior of such groups and aban- don all types of shop-floor and union activity.

So how should we evaluate the effectiveness of the New Left WVC’s activities in UAW Local 6? The WVC was quite effec- tive in providing leadership in the organization of shop-floor actions because the caucus tapped into the frustrations over daily problems experienced by a significant number of the plant’s assembly-line workers. The group’s acceptance by these workers is indicated by the fact that a number of WVC members were elected to lower-level union leadership positions as departmental shop stewards and assistant shop stewards after working a rela- tively short time in the plant.

The caucus’s record of electoral activity within the local, however, is mixed. Certainly, when the WVC ran its own slate of candidates in the 1974 UAW delegate elections, the caucus fared rather poorly. However, when the WVC united with other left- wing groups in the local in a broad Left front, the WVC experi- enced considerably more success. For example, as I have attempted to show here, the WVC’s critical support of the SC in the 1973 local elections may have been the crucial factor in Norm Roth winning the presidency of the local that year. Its probable support of the R&FC in the 1975 local elections surely helped the caucus’s chances even though it ultimately lost in every race. Finally, when uniting in a broad Left front with the R&FC in opposition to the extension of the terms of office, the WVC was successful in defeating the three-year term.

The WVC’s strategy utilized in the local after its LRBW phase was similar to the CP’s popular-front strategy in organiz- ing and leading a significant number of the CIO unions from their formation in the mid to late 1930s until the end of World War II. Unfortunately, the onset of the Cold War and the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in the immediate postwar era put the CP on the defensive in the trade unions, eventually undermining the Party’s popular-front strategy within the CIO.

What happened to the CP trade unionists in the UAW after 1947 occurred on a larger scale when the eleven CP-led unions in the CIO were purged from the federation in 1949–1950. This purge caused a rupture and a vacuum of politically progressive leadership within the remaining CIO unions. Since CP-led unions negotiated superior contracts to those of non-CP-led unions that is, they were more “prolabor” in the sense that they were better able “to undermine the sway of capital within production” (Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin 1991, 1151), and since CP-led unions were more likely to have had a more activist ori- entation on the shop floor than non-CP-led unions (Gilpin 1988; Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin 1991; McColloch 1992), this change of leadership in the CIO had a negative effect for many rank- and-file workers. And this homogenization of the CIO silenced not only the CP trade unionists but other labor radicals and union opponents of business unionism throughout the politically con- servative, if not outright reactionary, 1950s. The merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955 only further solidified the conservative direction of the U.S. trade-union movement.

Nevertheless, in spite of the 1949–50 purge of the CP-led unions from the CIO, the Party still retained the largest, albeit a significantly diminished, organized left-wing presence in the U.S. trade unions during the 1970s. Although the CP leadership admitted at this time that it did not have a strong rank-and-file base within the unions, the Party had achieved influence over a broad base of primarily lower-level trade-union officials through decades of dedicated and committed work. This influence was reflected in the numerous endorsements, even from national offi- cers of some unions, of the Party’s organizing of the Rank and File Conference in June 1970, out of which emerged the Trade Unionists for Action and Democracy (TUAD). Approximately 875 union members attended this event, over a third of them African American (O’Brien 1977/1978).

With a significantly reduced progressive voice within the U.S. trade unions for nearly two decades, it is not surprising that this gap was filled by the New Left entry into the unions in the 1970s. But, as I have argued here, the New Left caucus organ- ized in UAW Local 6 in 1970 jettisoned its earlier ideology in favor of one that viewed the Old Left (primarily the CP) as hav- ing been a role model in the UAW of the late 1930s and 1940s. The WVC tried to reform Local 6 and model it after the UAW as it had been before its purge of the CP trade unionists in 1947. If these purges of the late 1940s had not occurred, however, the WVC’s reform effort might not have been necessary.

Department of Management and Quantitative Methods
Illinois State University
Normal, Illinois

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.

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

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