Commentary Magazine


“Grass-Roots” Union With Ideas:
The Auto Workers: Something New in American Labor

Recent years have been full of disappointments for those who believe that, if we are to have a strong progressive movement in this country, much of the needed fresh thinking, as well as motive power, must come from the ranks of labor. In this article, C. Wright Mills heralds a new force on the American industrial and political scene that he believes holds high promise.

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The most impressive thing about the United Automobile Workers union is the spectacle it affords of ideas in live contact with power. The ideas are neither new nor thorough-going. The power with which they are connected is considerable, but it is not great. At most this power is held by less than two per cent of the wage and salary workers of this country, and about seven per cent of the organized labor movement.

Nevertheless, the feel of this power and the tang of these ideas in their enthusiastic conjuncture at the last UAW convention, held in Atlantic City in November, was impressive and stirring.

This conjuncture occurs in the midst of an ideological slump on the political front in general, and particularly among New York intellectuals. The failure of the democratic Left all over the world, especially in the American labor movement, testifies to the tragic split between the radical intellectual and the rank and file of organized labor. In this situation, the UAW’s show of ideas and power seems like something out of another, more youthful epoch. Cynics may see here only Detroit’s lag behind the New York intellectual’s sophisticated hopelessness, but there is much more to the UAW than an ideological lag.

For better or for worse, this union is now the power center for labor ideas and the idea center for the American labor movement.

The meaning of the UAW is not necessarily best represented by Walter P. Reuther himself. The ideas that make it important stem from a team of young men around Reuther: a body of leaders in many ways unique in recent American labor history; they, more than Reuther, have the chance to give a larger political meaning to their electoral victory at Atlantic City. The power of this union resides in the rank and file itself, which is also a rather unique spectacle in American labor: these men are not only organized, many of them are also unionized.

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The rank and file of the UAW carries its disrespect for authority to the point of being principled about it. To see them in convention is to realize that this union is their creature. Underlying their collective mood is a common denominator: the basic psychology of the “wobbly,” the member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World of pre-World War I days. They disrespect authority, even when they have elected it and even when it is expressed quite feebly. Even in this latest convention, which was very tame compared to previous ones, one got the impression of vigorous rank-and-file democracy.

Several explanations of the vigorous democracy and alert tactics of the rank and file can be offered.

First of all, these men experienced the pivotal years of the big sit-down strikes, and they have come to use the conduct of men during these years as a kind of ideal model, a bench-mark of excellence, which they continue to apply to contemporary situations. “We were young and without firm roots,” explains one local leader, “and we had a taste of the real thing.” Back of their passage through these militant episodes lies the bitter fight-to-death attitude of the auto industry. The unionization of the industry took a long period of time: there was no one decisive battle. Instead of stabilizing union-management relations, each victory seemed simply a prelude to the next problem. The last giant, Ford, was beaten only in 1941.

Some of the auto workers are ex-miners, or—more important, perhaps—the sons of miners, which is to say, of union members. There are in America today very few new unions whose members have family traditions of unionism. The UAW is full of young members with old union traditions. That is a unique combination.

One notices, too, in many of the rank and file, a sort of bucolic roughness of appearance, and one is told: “Those hill-billy boys just don’t want to be told what to do . . . they already know what to do.” There is in this group the old populist mood of the frontiersmen from the Southern and Western border states. Many of them share with the miners’ sons and similar elements a certain release at being let out of the closed communities of their native places into the big industrial areas, and the frustrations and rejections they experience as Southern rural migrants to great metropolitan areas have been channeled into the union. Here, within the generous industrial framework of the new unionism, they have been accepted, and now they are sticking to the union.

Their origins, and the bitter fighting attitude of the auto corporations, as well as the treatment they afforded the workers, account in largest part for a deep insecurity among the workers. This insecurity also arises in part from the quasi-seasonal work rhythm in the change-over of car models; in part, from the fear of age: “The companies kicked out the old guys, and that is why we are so young.” Such statements, true or not, are a symptom at once of their insecurity and of the treatment they expect, as militants, from huge agglomerations of capital.

Victory through militant action feeds militancy. “In six or seven years we licked the biggest corporations in the world,” a delegate says. The auto workers are a union of men proudly amazed at themselves. Somehow, out of struggle and victory, they have managed to see themselves in a way that seems difficult for Americans to manage: they feel that they are a self-made union, rather than self-made men.

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The vigor of the rank and file, to which all these factors have contributed, has an important effect upon the leadership of the union, and vice versa. No UAW president has been a dominating personality of the John Lewis type. Homer Martin, the first president, tried hard to build a machine and failed miserably: he and his apparatus were thrown out. R. J. Thomas, the second president, merely held together several contesting forces led by strong lieutenants. Thomas never really led the union, the “unity” achieved under him was based on a balance of other men’s power. Reuther, the third president, is not a one-man show, and is by no means strongly seated in the sense of having guaranteed tenure. The fact that two administrations have been completely overthrown in the UAW is remarkable when contrasted with the long tenure of office so typical of other unions.

During the late war the UAW leadership, along with other labor leaders, served and depended on the machinery of the state, and was integrated into the war effort. Yet during the war, in 1944, around forty per cent of the delegates to the national convention are said to have voted, against the persuasion of their top officers, in favor of rescinding the no-strike pledge. A leader of that “rank-and-file caucus,” Emil Mazey, is now number two man in the UAW; the pressure of the rank and file has been powerful enough to win it a place in the first unified administration in UAW history.

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But other unions in American history have had alert and militant rank and filers. There is another factor that is important in estimating the character of the UAW. One of the major clues to the politically disappointing history of American unions has been the absence of union-made intellectuals: men who combine solid trade union experience, preferably of a militant character, with the self-awareness and wider consciousness that are the qualities of the intellectual. The key fact about the UAW is that there is a group of such men around Reuther.

Most of them are still under forty. The typical member of this group finished high school in the early or middle 30’s, had perhaps a year or two of college, went into the automobile industry as a worker, and became involved in trade unionism in the Valley Forge days of the union. At the same time, he struggled for an education in the larger sense of the word: self-awareness and political consciousness. Minor political parties facilitated this education; he is likely to have served an apprenticeship in the Communist or Socialist party for a brief while.

These men combine trade-union experience with political sophistication; and it is the union that has supplied them with both. They carry the beginnings of a non-middleclass culture: from their most attenuated self-images to the casual songs they sing when they are together, they are workingmen and union men. Being with them, and remembering the dullness of most labor circles, one almost begins to feel that they are in conscious revolt against boredom in American labor.

These men are intellectuals without fakery and without neuroticism. They are eager talkers and ask questions of one another and of outsiders in an honest effort to get answers rather than to defend their own ignorance. They do not compete with one another in the small ways common to so many academic and other circles. In their lives, the gap between ideas and action is not so wide as to frustrate and turn them inward; their ideas are acted out—for better or for worse; unlike so many intellectuals, they are not just waiting and talking their lives through.

The potential role of such union-made intellectuals would be difficult to overestimate. For one thing, they serve as a bridge between the pure-and-simple unionists and the professional staff members—the intellectuals and experts brought in from outside to serve the union. They also link the political world of left-wing ideas and democratic ferment and the economic world of the unionists and the companies, and can become opinion leaders of the first order in both. Within the union they serve as leaven, lifting it beyond mere pork-chop contentment. Non-union intellectuals have already clustered in and around this union because of the union-made intellectuals in it. Here in the making is a center of identification for all intellectual elements in America who have felt themselves homeless and without power and without new avenues of fresh intellectual activity.

Other elements besides the militant rank and filers and the union-made intellectuals are in the UAW; and other elements are in the triumphant Reuther coalition. But there are enough of these two elements at the top and in the ranks to enable us to say that the victory of the Reuther slate is their victory, that the Reuther opportunity is their opportunity, and, above all, that the promise one sees in this trade union is based on them.

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Dwight Macdonald reported of the 1943 UAW convention: “The delegates did the talking, in five-minute speeches, with the officers for the most part limited to the same time. By the time it was over, some two or three hundred delegates had taken the floor, many more than once.” In 1947, by contrast, not more than fifty or sixty of the two thousand delegates gained the floor on nonprocedural questions, and, more important, the men on the floor were not presented with, nor did they insist upon debating significant questions.

The only important question put to the floor was whether or not the officers should sign the oath—that one is not a Communist—required by the Taft-Hartley law. Since this discussion preceded the election of officers, the issue served as a test of the men who were up for election. Undoubtedly there were delegates who were for the Reuther faction but against signing the oaths, and more perhaps who were for the Addes faction but for signing, yet they were handicapped and confused by their allegiance to the opposing leaders, and no independent caucus was formed for debate on the question itself. The oaths were signed, although few delegates were completely happy about the result.

The convention as such was neither good Drama—a ceremony inspiring the members in their collective aims—nor a good workshop in which policy was hammered out by democratic debate. The whole scene was dominated by the elections of the officers, by rollcall vote:

A man sits on the stage and in a sing-song monotony calls off the numbers of union locals and the names of men. He is answered by voices from the floor of varied pitch, emphasis, and timbre, voices from all over the auto-worker territory. It is a quiet chorus of power hooked up to the adding machine of democracy. Addes stands by the rostrum, the chairman presiding over his own defeat. Thomas, ejected as president a year ago and no longer a factor of consequence, slumps in a chair with knees out, toes in, mouth pouted, small eyes gently winking. The big hall shuffles and murmurs, full of the noise of serious business among the delegates assembled. After four hours a girl brings in the result on a slip of paper: Reuther 5,593, De Vito 303, Murphy 35. The Addes faction, despairing of the presidency, has concentrated its efforts on re-electing Addes to the office of Secretary-Treasurer. When the vote comes in on that office, the battle is over: Addes 2,572, Mazey 4,820.

After the voting is over, everything else becomes anti-climax. Throughout the convention there is no stirring speech over a large issue, and Reuther’s press conferences, unlike others he has held, seem always somehow broken off. He gets close enough to satisfy, for a moment and by contrast, your social emotions, but not your social intelligence.

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This tameness in floor action and the general lack of drama so disappointed some reporters that one of them even invented “fist-fights” and “wild” meetings. But the tameness is a revealing fact about the UAW today. It is when factions, and splinters within factions, come into a convention, that vigorous floor action is to be expected. Each issue that comes up has a different constellation of support and of opposition; and any man or team may win on one issue and lose on another. In a sense, factionalism permits a more direct expression of the mass will because support is more likely to be formed around issues than around men. It is this situation that has made UAW conventions so openly democratic and that prevailed so markedly at the 1946 convention, when Reuther was elected president but his opponents captured all the other national posts and the International Executive Board. The 1947 convention, in contrast, was neither steamrollered by a machine, nor fragmented by factions. The Reuther rule is now in the party coalition stage.

The political fights back of the formation of this coalition had gone on all over the auto workers’ territory for months before the convention. Ultimately, Reuther managed to get the support of some five major elements: the trade union progressives, who see him as an honest and effective unionist; the political followers, generally of socialist or independent radical persuasion; those Catholics who are organized in the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (though George Addes is himself a practicing Catholic); simple red-baiters; and a small number of the inevitable opportunists. This is the coalition that defeated the curious Addes caucus, which was composed largely of three groups: the more conservative trade unionists, who saw Reuther’s talk as “pie in the sky” and who are sentimental about the old-timers with whom they were associated in the days when the union was built; the machine politicians, pork-choppers, and opportunists, contingents which were naturally larger in the old majority than in the new one; and the Communists, who acted as the party whips of the Addes coalition and as an ideological influence within the union.

The pre-convention campaigning by the Reuther group was a bold operation. The Reuther men went into those locals in which the enemy was most strongly concentrated. They accepted debates, and, as is now clear, they won them. They fought on local issues and on local grievances. There were apparently very few “deals” made, though there was probably one in one region. On the whole, however, Reuther did not trade specific jobs to specific people in return for support; rather, it became clear that the smashing of the old machine would open up jobs.

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But basically the election was not a struggle between two machines composed of various elements. In a very real sense, Reuther’s victory represents a democratic rank-and-file revolt against a disintegrating machine. To be sure, he managed to inherit the push and drive of the rank-and-file caucus, which reached its climax in 1943 and 1944. This caucus was an unstable movement led by non-Communist leftists who attempted revolt against the officials of the union. Reuther’s rise is in large part due to his ability to capture the support of this quasi-spontaneous movement. It was Reuther who demanded that the books of a great corporation be opened so that a public relationship between wages, prices, and profits might be established. And, like so many other pivots of power within this union, it was primarily one strike which enabled Reuther to capture the workers’ political imagination: the General Motors strike of 1945, the most significant labor action of the postwar period.

There is no question that the general anti-Communist mood in the country formed an impressive backdrop for the successful campaigning of the Reuther men. Yet the errors and ineptitude of the Addes caucus were perhaps as important in Reuther’s victory as his own positive accomplishments or program. These stupidities are too numerous even to list; they include the high-handed merger with the Communist-controlled Farm Equipment Workers’ union attempted last spring, and the unbelievable smears on Reuther put out by a hired press agent. One can only assume that the Addes group had a basic contempt for the intelligence of the rank and file. At the same time, the international representatives who are supposed to service the locals, were in many instances inefficient apparatus men.

The impression that a Communist clique is a highly efficient machine is again shown false by the UAW experience. By now the selective process operating at each turn and twist of the party line has weeded out most of the really good men the Communists once had, leaving behind a cadre of inferior people. And these could not give the members satisfaction by merely servicing grievances, by slowing down attempted speed-ups, and so on. Reuther, on the other hand, could say with some justification that he couldn’t get the job done as president because of the obstructive tactics of the Addes group. The fact that the “mechanical majority” on the board did obstruct Reuther at every point was seen by many auto workers as unfair.

Democracy in a labor union is a delicate balance between the machine on the one hand and factional splinters on the other. The UAW’s history has been one of factionalism, some of the bitterest in American labor history, but now it is led by a unified majority coalition. The victory of the present coalition is amazingly clean-cut: men with ideas and with untied hands have come into power.

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The men around Reuther are fully aware that the meaning of their victory lies in its effects inside the union, in its effects on the relations of the union with the auto industry and its relations with the rest of the CIO and other unions, and on the role of the union in the larger American economy and in American politics.

Inside the union, the auto workers will undoubtedly get better union service, and many duplications of office will be eliminated by the unification that will occur down the line. The need to service the rank and file in a purely union way is so urgent that Reuther will think hard before making merely patronage appointments. The big job turnover now going on in the UAW is needed to make it function more effectively and efficiently as a union, besides serving an important political function.

But when does unity become domination? It may be that the “unity” will result in the building up of a machine which might speak democratic and radical phrases, but will operate for its own entrenchment and, to ensure that, limit itself to pure and simple material gains for its membership. I do not believe that such a trend is likely in the UAW:

  1. The solid Reuther man in a hotel room with solid Reuther men all around, talks like this: “You guys all know how hard I’ve worked for the redhead; for five years now.” And the others nod without smiling, “Yes, Joe, you sure have worked.” “But,” continues Joe, “if he gets out of line, I’ll personally throw the bastard out next year.” In defeating the “mechanical majority,” as he called it, Reuther has by no means created another one. Among the lieutenants there are many who just won’t accept the role of being anybody’s boy, nor the role all too usual among American trade union leaders: the broker of power between the business classes and the government, on the one hand, and the rank and file on the other.
  2. Any labor leadership has to pay off to the membership in order to stay in power. For a while Reuther can pay off simply by good administration within the union, and by supplementary actions such as the tie-in with co-operative purchasing, which is on the one hand a means of involving apathetic members in union affairs, but also provides considerable economic relief. But the membership of the UAW is far too sophisticated economically to believe that another nickel in the pay envelope or a set of co-ops is enough. They know, and the key ideologists in the Reuther camp will continue to educate them on the point, that today some sort of sound relation between profits, prices, and wages has to be established if they are to have a pay-off that means anything. And this means that the policies of the Reuther administration must go beyond pure and simple unionism and into the sphere of national economic policy.
  3. Reuther’s own power does not rest upon a carefully built patronage machine, but upon the programs he has put out. The delegate buttons read “support the Reuther program,” not just “support Reuther.”

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It may be said that Reuther’s have been merely the tactics of a minority opposition seeking office, and now that he is in the majority he will fall into the more usual trade union means of power. I do not believe this is probable in view of the nature of his ambition, the character of his coalition, and the situation he is up against. His course will be to continue to enlarge the sphere of union activity.

The real threat to the UAW as a vanguard of the democratic Left in America comes less from developments inside the union than from the possible reactions of the auto industry. The industry men are unhappy about the Reuther victory, which for the first time presents them with a unified union administration. Knowing that Reuther has to pay off his members in one way or another, they expect intensified pressure from the union.

If they take a belligerent bust-em-up stand, they will get a belligerent union, and a show-down battle. If this should happen, industry generally would strongly back up the auto companies and many unions would in like manner support the UAW. In this kind of development, there is little likelihood the UAW will go conservative.

But it may well be that, after a limited period of Taft-Hartley toughness, of trying to weaken the union, the companies will take the line of the sophisticated conservative: to set up amiable management-labor cooperation and make material economic concessions in return for the union disciplining the rank and file; in effect, transforming the union into a personnel department for the industry. That might be the unconscious temptation of Reuther: to become a “human enginèer” for some sort of state capitalism guaranteeing industry disciplined workers, and in effect, by drawing the teeth of the rank and file, making them easy prey to an American variant on the corporative set-up. This is indeed the temptation of many American labor leaders, and a far greater threat to labor than that presented by the policies of Tafts and Hartleys.

The Reuther landslide may be viewed as a threat to Philip Murray, CIO’s president, who while he endorsed Reuther’s own candidacy did not explicitly endorse the Reuther slate. The UAW is twenty per cent of the total CIO membership. Murray’s position as a broker of power in the CIO requires him to be openly enthusiastic only for men on top or obviously about to be. He cannot easily take the initiative, and cannot afford to antagonize the administration of an important union. But there is nothing to keep Reuther from taking the initiative. In the end, however, the effect of Reuther’s victory upon other CIO unions will depend not so much upon maneuverings with their leadership as upon what Reuther is able to give his own members. This, it seems to me, is the very best kind of competition between labor leaders.

By the elimination of the Communists from their participation in power in the UAW, the Reuther landslide has greatly strengthened all the anti-Communists in the CIO. It strengthens James Carey’s hand against his opponents, and it makes Murray more responsive to the pressure to act against the Communists. It helps break the monopoly of the Left that the Communists have tried so desperately to win. That is why it is so important that the Reuther attack was itself from the constructive Left, and not merely anti-Communist. The effect is probably clear to the automobile manufacturers, of whom it is said that they might prefer to bargain with the Communists rather than with Reuther.

Of the CIO’s big three—steel, automobiles, and electricity—steel and automobiles are now anti-Communist. Reuther’s victory is a dramatic climax of the anti-Communist trend in the CIO. In January 1947 some 41 per cent of all CIO members were in anti-Communist unions; in December 1947, the figure was 62 per cent.

With the weakening of the Communists as an important element of the left-wing forces in American unions, foreign policy loses its priority, and domestic political issues upon which there is a chance for meaningful action can now be discussed on their own merits, rather than on the basis of whether or not they conform to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union.

Reuther’s own political line at the present time is in favor of a “basic realignment of political forces,” and an extreme criticism of both major political parties as “two hodgepodges of contradictory elements.” He is, however, against the formation of a new party now, for he believes that it would be “a sectarian affair without any chance to win.” In his circle, however, the socialist tradition is strong, and individual leaders like Mazey would not hesitate to begin work for such a party immediately. The issue of a labor party may well be decided in the UAW. In the meantime it provides the most important arena for agitation for a labor party.

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Given Reuther’s biography and ambition, I think it safe to say that he wants to do something for the American democratic Left as well as his own auto workers. His training and the character and training of the men around him are such that they combine honest trade unionism with a view of the labor union movement as the natural instrument for the economic liberation and political unification of the underprivileged. Moreover, they know that they form a center within the labor unions with which many homeless left-wingers identify, and they feel some responsibility to these people. They are already at the top of their own hierarchy: the union. Still young men, they are already in the same class of power as men twenty years older. Their energies will not be satisfied by mere unionism.

On February 22 of this year, in an address to the first annual convention of the Americans for Democratic Action, Reuther clearly indicated his lines of political attack. He said:

“In every reach of industrial activity, large corporations are making public decisions privately. We must end that. We must end the game of collective bargaining in the dark. Labor, management, and the consumer are partners in the national enterprise. Labor and the consumer are primary, almost identical. They must have access to the facts that hold the key to wise policy, to the equitable relationship of wages, prices, and profits. The time for unilateral action in these areas is past. We must create and apply new techniques for economic democracy, develop a new institutional framework that will make the large corporation responsible to the community, end the powers of monopoly, and bend bigness to the practices of abundance.

“We can plan, without throttling freedom. We can get off the treadmill of boom and bust, we can pull ourselves up into a new era of plenty without throwing political liberties overboard. We can raise our sights, draw a bead on tomorrow, and bring the good life down where ordinary folks can taste it. . . .

“Our watchword must not be: back to the New Deal, but forward from the New Deal.”

The test of the UAW as the vanguard force in labor and in leftward politics is not only what these young men will do, but: (1) whether or not this union continues to generate a broad stratum of unionmade intellectuals, and (2) whether or not these home-grown radicals will find or will be able to create channels upward to the executive board and downward and outward to the shop stewards and the rank and file. Such men are, in the end, the only guarantee that the UAW will be the vanguard union long enough to provide results, not only to its own members, but to all who hope for a radical shift in American politics.

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