- Historic Sites
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
How strong was the Communist party in the UAW?
Very significant at one time. They had complete control of a strike at Allis-Chalmers and destroyed the union there for a while. At the Ford Rouge plant the party was a tremendous influence. There’s a story guys tell me who were party guys, that you couldn’t get elected a committeeman in the stamping plant unless you were a party guy. The party people had tremendous influence. But they destroyed themselves, and I’ll tell you why. I remember at Local 51, the old Plymouth local, when I was out at Chrysler. I don’t know if the president of the local union, Pop Edlan, belonged to the party, but if he didn’t, he was cheating them out of dues. He followed every twist and turn of the party line. We were at a union council meeting, this in a period during the Hitler and Stalin pact, and Local 51 sent in a resolution: “The Yanks are not coming. Let’s not get involved in imperialistic bloodbaths. Roosevelt the warmonger!” These were the slogans. Then comes June 22, 1941, and Hitler invades the Soviet Union. It happened in between meetings. So the Plymouth local sends in another resolution about the sacred crusade against fascism, calling for a second front. The president of the county council says, “Read that resolution from Local 51,” and they read the resolution that said “bloodbath,” and then they read the other resolution from Local 51, “the sacred crusade against fascism.” The president turns to Pop Edlan, who was sitting out in the audience, and he said, “Now, Pop, which one do you want?” The party did things like that, and they lost credibility. But still a lot of guys stuck with them. And I can remember guys sticking with the party right until the invasion of Hungary. But I would argue that most of them were not there for purely intellectual reasons. They were a product of the misery that they experienced when they were kids. They left the party because of the twists and turns of the party line, and the absolute obedience required.
But the Communists were well trained, they were good speakers, they had a sense of how to organize. That’s how they got in the local unions and took over. We were no match for them when we were kids, but I think we got a little better than they did because we weren’t hampered by their rigidity of thought. They would just blindly follow the party line and didn’t have much imagination. But they made a substantial contribution.
Why did strong feelings and hatred toward party members continue for so long? Why was the fighting so vicious?
They hated Walter because he was so effective. He was a tough fighter and a tough anti-Communist. And Walter exploited those issues. When I look back I think there were a couple of things we shouldn’t have done. We might have gone overboard. But the Communists hated Walter with a passion because he was effective.
Did he hate them too?
No question about it.
Let’s talk a bit about why the merger in December 1955 between the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations took place. The AFL was moderate; the CIO was more militant and had done much to organize the manufacturing industries in the 1930s and 1940s. Why did the groups join, and why did Walter Reuther accept the AFL-CIO vice-presidency, with George Meany getting the presidency?
The simple truth of the matter is that Walter had no choice. If he had resisted, Dave McDonald, president of the United Steelworkers of America, and a couple of others would have left the CIO, and they put enormous pressure on Walter. Walter held out as long as he could for an ethical practices committee and a lot of other things that Meany didn’t want. Walter was willing to concede the presidency, and what Walter got out of it was the formation of the IUD, the Industrial Union Department, of which he was president. But Walter’s bargaining position was eroding.
I think, in a way, the competition was good. I think the existence of the CIO changed the AFL’s traditional positions in many areas—on the economy, on civil rights, on a whole variety of domestic issues. We weren’t able to manage anything on foreign policy. In fact it got so that the ClO guys sort of adopted Meany’s hard line. But I would argue that the AFL became a better institution because of the merger. It became more progressive.
The image of unions in America is often a negative one. Why?
For a couple of reasons, some of our own doing. Corruption is one reason. Corruption affects only a handful of union people, but it sticks. When there is corruption, everyone gets tarred with the same brush. We also were hurt in the old days by people taking the Fifth Amendment.
There are two other reasons, neither of them valid. We are blamed for the inflation [of the seventies], which is certainly not the case. It was caused by the oil shock, more than anything. We also are perceived as a special interest group. There are some unions that are special interest groups concerned only with their own issues. They don’t give a damn about what’s going on in the rest of the world. We are not a special interest group. But we get in trouble with our membership because often we are not satisfied to just cozy up with our enemies and take care of only our members.
We would be more popular if we weren’t involved in civil rights and other causes. We supported a tax increase in Michigan. That kind of stuff is often not DODular with our members.