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 4)
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).
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.
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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.
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Know the Enemy. 1970. Workers’ Voice 1, no. 4. MG.
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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.
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Oppose 3 Year Term. 1974. Labor’s Struggle, 17 December. MG.
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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.
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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.
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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.