From the Archives: “Crisis at Chrysler: Wildcat Wave Hits Detroit”

Democratic socialists have been fighting to transform the United Auto Workers for decades, a project that is finally starting to bear fruit.

Just before going to press, we learned that Shawn Fain, the presidential candidate of the UAW Members United reform movement, was all but guaranteed to become the next president of the United Auto Workers union. This is a major breakthrough not just for reformers and activists in the UAW, but for the US labor movement as a whole. The UAW was in decline for decades, and its old leadership was engulfed in a major corruption scandal leading to fines and jail time for former union officials. When he is officially declared the winner, Fain will become the first UAW leader not from the historically dominant Administration Caucus, which ran the union since Walter Reuther became president in 1946. This victory couldn’t come at a better time. With reformers also at the head of the Teamsters, there is a real possibility that the country’s two most important industrial unions could strike their biggest employers – UPS and the “Big Three” automakers – later this year.

Democratic socialists have been part of the fight for UAW reform for decades. Here, Socialist Forum digs deep into the archives to republish an article by union activist Roger Robinson originally published in 1973 in Newsletter of the Democratic Left, the house organ of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, one of DSA’s predecessor organizations. In the article, Robinson reports on a wave of wildcat strikes that swept Chrysler factories in Detroit, and how they revealed the already yawning gap between many UAW members and their leadership. Fifty years ago, Robinson concluded that UAW leaders could “try to contain events, like those at Chrysler, or they can begin anew to build, department by department, plant by plant, a disciplined, militant rank-and-file which is capable of fighting the corporations like the activist trade unionists and socialists who built industrial unionism in America.” Here’s hoping that the incoming Fain administration can finally make good on that vision.

We have taken the liberty of editing some outdated language concerning mental illness contained in the original piece, which can be read along with the rest of the issue here.

“There are only thirteen unresolved grievances in that plant,” said Doug Fraser, UAW vice president and head of the union’s Chrysler Department. Reacting to the Chrysler walkout, Fraser admitted that he was “stunned,” saying he “couldn’t understand why our people do nothing about these conditions.” Later, on a tour of the Chrysler Detroit Forge plant, Fraser said conditions were horrible and “I’m prepared to authorize a strike if these conditions are not corrected forthwith.”

This followed the second of three separate work stoppages in Detroit area Chrysler plants. Each stoppage must be considered as a separate development; each stoppage was over real issues and points out that the old union-management safety valves do not work. There are three main players in these events: the Chrysler Corporation, the UAW, and the new radicals. The problems that caused the stoppages, i.e. outmoded, unsafe work places and around-the-clock overtime production, must be laid at the Corporation’s doorstep.

The UAW leadership at least in these instances was not in touch with what was happening in the shop. The radicals, revolutionaries and “zealots” of various stripe, did exploit these conditions and issues in Chrysler plants. Their behavior in two of the three walkouts was completely irresponsible; that is, their basic anti-union, anti-UAW positions prevent them from having a significant base. This does not mean that they should be ignored. It does mean that they are

bucking most workers’ fundamental loyalty to their union. Still, the radicals did give leadership on issues that the union should have been out in front on. In Local 7, a weak local union leadership was outflanked by two “socialist revolutionaries,” who shut off the power to the line, demanding that a supervisor who used racial slurs be fired and that they receive complete amnesty, in writing, for their action. The foreman was fired, and the two men were back on the job the next day. It must be noted that prior to the shutdown, two hundred forty workers had signed a petition asking for the ouster of this supervisor.

The second walkout was at Local 47, Chrysler’s Detroit Forge Plant. It was a true wildcat. Black and white, young and old, many were anti-leadership, but they were not ideologically anti-union. The conditions were terrible; the local union, again, not very forceful. The void was filled by activists maintaining that they acted under union principles by refusing to work under hazardous circumstances. It took a week to get the Local 47 members back to work-and then only after Doug Fraser gave his personal commitment to authorize future strikes and requested a return to work so that the UAW could bargain to clean up the Detroit Forge Plant.

The third and last plant closing, the Mack stamping plant of UAW Local 212, was an all-around tragedy. Local 212 has a strong, good local trade union leadership. It also has a strong regional director. Yet there everything came unglued. The zealots in this plant were members of the Progressive Labor Party. They shut the plant down, then staged a sit-in after leadpiping two plant guards. The UAW leadership, in an incredible overreaction, organized a one thousand man flying squadron of union loyalists to open the plant, against a dozen or so pickets and pamphleteers. Ninety five percent of the workers showed up for work, excluding the fifty who were fired for participation in the sit-in. The result: two injured plant guards, fifty unemployed auto workers, and a wave of anti-radical union loyalists popping up at various plants in the Detroit area to discourage the distribution of left-sectarian literature at plant gates.

Many have zeroed in on the antiquated facilities at Chrysler as an explanation for the recent unrest. There are other, more important factors: a workforce largely under thirty has less than five or six years seniority; the grievance procedure encumbered with red tape allows the company to hold the worker guilty until the union can establish innocence; rank and file leadership is devoid of union training and principles. There is a general deterioration of unions at the local levels. Self-proclaimed revolutionaries in the shops mislead the cream of the young working class activists into untenable situations where they will be easily picked off by the company. These student Lenins and Trotskys have the luxury of leaving the wreckage behind them.

The UAW leadership, by inaction and distance, allowed these zealots to take leadership on the day-to-day issues at these Chrysler plants. How is it that the Frasers, Mazeys and Bluestones, representatives of the best in the industrial labor movement, could let this happen? Why is it at Lordstown, at a new GM plant, that the UAW leadership was able to harmoniously move with the demands of young militant workers to the point where at times it seemed as if Bluestone was able to turn the strike on or off? The answer has to do with the rank-and-file leadership at Lordstown – an activist and young pro-union leadership decided to take the company on over basic issues. They organized for a fight and asked the UAW leadership for help. The problem is that most local rank-and-file union leaderships are not so militant or committed. This leaves it wide open for the zealots to give direction to the normal rank-and-file demands. Fundamental changes are needed in the UAW: an activist education program is called for, and mandatory training for all candidates running for union office.

Advocates of industrial democracy such as Fraser, Mazey and Bluestone must put more social content into their union’s programs and take proper leadership over the militant and human demands that are developing in the rank and file. The UAW has clear alternatives. They can try to contain events, like those at Chrysler, or they can begin anew to build, department by department, plant by plant, a disciplined, militant rank-and-file which is capable of fighting the corporations like the activist trade unionists and socialists who built industrial unionism in America.