The Antipolitics and Politics of a New Left Union Caucus: "The Workers' Voice Committee of the UAW Local 6, 1970–1975" (page 6)

by Victor Devinatz

The Antipolitics and Politics (page 6)

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

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Reference List

Many of the references in this paper are based on archival material found in the Michael Goldfield Personal Collection (MG). Goldfield is currently a pro- fessor of political science at Wayne State University (Detroit, Michigan). The UAW Local 6 Office archives are currently located in the UAW Local 6 Office at 3520 W. North Avenue in Stone Park, Illinois.

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