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 3)
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).
Many of the references in this paper are based on archival material found in the Michael Goldfield Personal Collection (MG). Goldfield is currently a pro- fessor of political science at Wayne State University (Detroit, Michigan). The UAW Local 6 Office archives are currently located in the UAW Local 6 Office at 3520 W. North Avenue in Stone Park, Illinois.
Assembly Workers Show the Way Fight Back with Direct Action. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 14. MG.
Breines, Wini. 1982. Community and Organization in the New Left: 1962–1968. South Hadley, Mass.: J. F. Bergin Publishers.
Brothers Get Ready. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 12. MG.
Chump Eagan [sic] Calls Out the Goons on the Workers. 1970. Workers’ Voice, Special Edition. MG.
Come to the Meeting of the Workers Slate. 1974. MG.
Come to the Union Meeting! 1975. Labor’s Struggle, 7 August. MG.
Defeat the 3-Year Term. 1975. Workers’ Voice 4, no. 3. MG.
Defend Ike Jernigan Free Ike Jernigan Hail Ike Jernigan. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 1. MG.
Election Results. 1974. MG.
Fellow Wage Slaves of Harvester. 1971. Workers’ Voice 2, no. 3. MG.
Georgakas, Dan, and Marvin Surkin. 1975. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Geschwender, James A. 1977. Class, Race, and Worker Insurgency: The League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Get It Together ￼ Right Now. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 11. MG.
Gilpin, Toni. 1988. The FE-UAW Conflict: The Ideological Content of Collec- tive Bargaining in Postwar America. North American Labor History Con- ference, Wayne State Univ., Detroit, Mich., 20–22 October.
Gitlin, Todd. 1980. The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press.
Goldfield Fired . . . Dept. 53 Walks . . . He is Re-Instated. 1972. Workers’ Voice 3, no. 6. MG.
Harvester on the Rampage ￼ More Firings. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 10. MG.
IHC Asks for Cooperation from Melrose Workers; Harassment, Discharges, Discrimination, B.S. Continue; Workers Respond with More Job Actions. 1973. Workers’ Voice 4, no. 2. MG.
Klatch, Rebecca E. 1999. A Generation Divided: The New Left, the New Right, and the 1960s. Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press.
Levy, Peter B. 1994. The New Left and Labor in the 1960s. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.
Know the Enemy. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 4. MG.
McColloch, Mark. 1992. The Shop Floor Dimension of Union Rivalry: The Case of Westinghouse in the 1950s. In The CIO’s Left-Led Unions, edited by Steve Rosswurm, 183–99. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press.
Melrose Revolutionary Workers Movement. 1971. Workers’ Voice 2, no. 4. MG.
Murray Dillard Fired . . . 2nd Shift Walks Out. 1972. Workers’ Voice 3, no. 12. MG.
No Union at Harvester. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 1. MG.
O’Brien, Jim. 1977/1978. American Leninism in the 1970s. Radical America 11, no. 6/12, no. 1: 27–62.
Oppose 3 Year Term. 1974. Labor’s Struggle, 17 December. MG.
Pfeffer, Richard M. 1979. Working for Capitali$m. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Power to the People. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 14. MG.
Rank & File Coalition: 3 Years Crushed. 1975. MG.
Rank & File Coalition: Leaflet on 3-Year Term. 1975. MG.
Rank & File Coalition: Organize! 1975. MG.
Rank & File Coalition: Petitions A Success. 1975. MG.
Rank & File Coalition with Program and Candidates. 1975. MG.
Right on, HRUM. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 11. MG.
Results of Election Held May 7 for Executive Board Members and Shop Com- mittee Chairman. 1975. Union Voice. UAW Local 6 Office. 9 May.
Results of Runoff Election. 1973. Union Voice. UAW Local 6 Office. 29 June.
Sacks, Karen B. 1988. Caring by the Hour. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.
Scare Tactics. 1974. Workers’ Voice 5, no. 5. MG.
Seidman, Joel, Jack London, Bernard Karsh, and Daisy L. Tagliacozzo. 1958. The Worker Views His Union. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Shop Report: The Union Outlook Remains Status Quo. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 3. MG.
Stepan-Norris, Judith, and Maurice Zeitlin. 1991. Red Unions and Bourgeois Contracts? American Journal of Sociology 96, no. 1, 1151–200.
Steward Fired On Trumped Up Charges. 1970. Workers’ Voice, Special Edi- tion. MG.
The Problems of the Plant Are Growing, But So is the Struggle. 1973. Workers’ Voice 4, no. 2. MG.
The Upcoming Union Election. 1973. Workers’ Voice 4, no. 5. MG.
Workers’ Voice. 1970. 1, no. 1. MG.
Workers’ Voice. 1970. 1, no. 3. MG.
Workers’ Voice. 1975. 6, no. 4. MG.
The Workers’ Voice Program. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 8. MG.
UAW Business Union. 1971. Workers’ Voice 2, no. 10. MG.
Vickers, George. 1975. The Formation of the New Left. Lexington, Mass.: Heath.
Vote the Solidarity Slate. 1973. MG.
Walking on Water Would Be. 1973. MG.
We Finally Got the News about How Are [sic] Dues Are Being Used. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 1. MG.
What the WORKERS SLATE Stands For. 1974. MG.
What the Workers Slate Will Do If Elected. 1974. MG.
Why Civil War in Jordan? 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 7. MG.
Who Is the Real Enemy Faced by Workers at IHC? 1974. MG.
Win with Solidarity! 1973. MG.