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Working For The Union
At a time of crisis for American labor, an organizer looks back on the turbulent fifty-year career that brought him from the shop floor to the presidency of the United Automobile Workers.
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
Seventeen—eighteen. In the early 1930s I worked at Bryant’s. Bryant was the brother of Clara Bryant, who was Henry Ford’s wife. He had a salesroom out on Warren Avenue near River Rouge, and in the back he had a machine shop, and I got fired from there for trying to organize a union. Then I went to a heating company that made hot-water heaters. It was a shop of about three hundred and fifty people, and I also got discharged from there for union activity. Then I went to work for Chrysler on December 8, 1936. I was a little short of twenty. I started over at Dodge Main, because they had a school for metal finishers and torch solderers. Then I went on to the DeSoto plant as a metal finisher and welder.
Why were you a union advocate at such a young age?
My dad was. He was a member of the Socialist party in Scotland, and he was the secretary of his branch, and we always talked about the union. Before the birth of the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations], he had to struggle for a while to decide if he was for a crafts union or an industrial union. He finally came down on the side of an industrial union and became involved with the UAW.
When did you get a union at DeSoto?
With the sit-down strike in the Chrysler plants. It lasted about nineteen days. I was still over at Dodge, but my dad was in the sit-down. I used to go over and visit him, and I used to pass a few things to him through the fence. Like a lot of revolutions, it was basically the young people who were more willing to put it on the line. My father was probably an exception to the rule, and I remember he came home and told my mother the risk involved, about how he could lose his job if it didn’t work out, and she told him, “You do what you have to do.”
How did you rise in the union?
First, I ran for chief steward on the second shift. Got elected. After that I ran for steward on the first shift. Got elected. Then I got elected president when I was twenty-six. I think now of what I didn’t know when I was running for president! We were all young and aggressive, and we got by and we learned. We were a little wild, but I think you had to be in those days.
Then how did you get on the union staff?
I was appointed. I had done a short stint in the Army and come back and got elected local president again. Then I went on the union’s Chrysler staff. In the 1951 Chrysler strike, which lasted 104 days, I was with Walter Reuther constantly. After that strike he asked me to work for him as his administrative assistant. I stayed with Walter for eight years, and I really loved working for him. You could get things done. Then the regional director on the west side of Detroit was in a plant one day giving a speech and dropped dead. I had no great ambition to be regional director, but I started thinking about it, and I thought, being on the board, I could help make union policy. So I decided to run. In January 1959 I was elected regional director. Very quickly after that, in 1962, we created a position called executive board member at large, and what we wanted to do was get a black on the board. Walter asked me, “Why don’t we have three board members at large? And you become director of the Chrysler Department.” I had liked being regional director—you’re close to the locals—but he persuaded me that I had an obligation to do it. Then I was elected vice-president.
Walter Reuther’s been dead now for fifteen years. What kind of person was he?
He was not as doctrinaire as a lot of people thought he was, particularly as time went on. When I went to work for Walter, I was pretty doctrinaire, and he taught me flexibility. I remember chatting with him shortly before he died. I forget what issue it was, but he said, “You know. I’m not convinced that our friends are right, that the solution to every problem is nationalizing.” He said there was a lot to be said for competition in the marketplace. And I think he’s right. Pluralism is the best answer, where the private sector can discipline the public sector, and the public sector can discipline the private sector. The Tennessee Valley Authority is an example.
Walter also was a magnificent phrasemaker. For instance, we had an OPA [Office of Price Administration] rally right after the war ended, and we shut down all the plants in Detroit and had a massive rally in Cadillac Square. This was before Walter was president. The internal union friction had already begun, so they put Walter last on the program. R. J. Thomas spoke, and George Addes [then union secretary-treasurer and a Reuther foe], and they were making the point that it was not the farmers that were benefiting from these high wartime prices, it was the middlemen. I will never forget Walter getting up. He made essentially the same point but said it this way: “I was in Minnesota last week, talking to some farmers, and for the first time I realized that you can make more money milking a farmer than you can milking a cow.” Everybody remembered that in the shop the next day.
Walter was an extremely bright man. He was always presented as a fiery redhead, but he was also a man of considerable culture, a great follower of the symphony. But I think the thing that most people never saw was really the fun, that’s the only way I can describe it, the fun we used to have just talking and laughing, ribbing each other.