Unions vs. Workers in the Seventies: The Rise of Militancy in the Auto Industry

Unions vs. Workers in the Seventies: The Rise of Militancy in the Auto Industry

On the morning of July 16, 1970 the Detroit Free Press featured on its front page a large picture of General Motors Vice President Earl Bramblett and UAW President Leonard Woodcock shaking hands as they opened negotiations for a new contract. The headline beneath the picture read: Negotiations Begin; Auto Talk Key: Living Costs.

The banner headline that morning, overshadowing the ritual start of negotiations, was: Ousted Worker Kills Three in Chrysler Plant Shooting; 2 Foremen, Bystander Are Slain. A black worker at Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue Axle Plant, suspended for insubordination, had killed two foremen (one black, one white) and a Polish setup man.

The timing of the events, was coincidental – but it was the kind of coincidence that lends a special insight. What is at issue – not only in the auto negotiations but in most relations involving workers, unions and management – is not living costs but living. Involved is not just dollars and cents, important as always to workers, but an entire way of life.

Take a close look at the union’s demands.

The UAW left out only one thing: the demand to turn the plants over to the workers. Apart from the usual wage increases and financial improvements, some of the issues raised by the UAW bargaining teams included: pensions after 30 years instead of after a specific age; restoration of the escalator cost-of-living clause to its original form; ending time clocks and putting production workers on salary; inverting seniority so that older workers could take the time off at nearly full pay in the event of layoffs; the problem of pollution, both in the plants and in the community; changing production to deal with boredom on the assembly line.

Many of these issues were raised purely for propaganda effect with little intent to bargain seriously over them.

But taken as a whole, they provide an interesting picture that reflects, if only in a distorted way, the extent of the worker’s concern for the nature of his workplace.

A technique in bargaining developed by Walter Reuther and being continued by Woodcock is the public show of militancy. It gives the public appearance of great militancy but if means something very different.

While the leadership of the union goes through the motions of accepting all the workers’ demands and pressing them on the companies, the tactic of publicly demanding almost everything that could be thought of at the beginning of negotiations is intended to get the workers off their backs and keep them quiet when the serious negotiating begins in secret sessions. It leaves the union leadership free to work out any settlement it thinks reasonable and to establish its own priorities in the negotiations. The range of union demands in the negotiations also reflects something else. It is a sign that unionism is reaching its limit. Not because they will win so little, but because they will win so much and it will prove to be so little.

It will not make the life of the black worker at the Eldon Avenue plant of Chrysler or the white worker at the Chrysler plant in Windsor one bit more tolerable.

That is one of the reasons that the union leadership has such a hard time with the new generation of young workers in the plants. They tell the workers about the great victories of the union in the past and what it was like in open shop days.

They tell the truth-those were genuine victories. But they have become transformed into their opposite by virtue of becoming incorporated into contracts and the whole process of what is called labor relations.

(Labor relations, it should be noted, has nothing to do with workers; it has to do with relations between company representatives and union representatives.)

The Detroit Free Press published the following report in August 1970:

Some 46 percent of General Motors’ hourly workers are below age 35. They have never known a depression, they have had more schooling than the man who lived through the last one, and they aren’t impressed by the old Spartan idea that hard, repetitive work is a virtue. They are less responsive to authority than even the men who seized the flint GM plants in the historic 1936-1937 sit-down strikes.

That is precisely the background against which discontent is surfacing throughout the industry today, discontent that has reached its most advanced stage in the auto industry.

The formation of the CIO in the 1930s settled once and for all the idea that owners or managers or stockholders had the right to run their plants any way they saw fit. Sit-downs, strikes, wildcats, direct on-the-job action, sabotage and violence established the power of workers in the plants. The tactics used and the extent of that power varied from plant to plant and from industry to industry. Sabotage and violence have long been a part of the auto industry. There were reports of the murder or disappearance of foremen at the Ford Rouge plants in the days before the union; the recent murder of two foremen at a Chrysler plant is not an especially new development.

Other forms of sabotage are less severe but nonetheless effective. On some assembly lines where the links are exposed, an occasional rest period or slow down is achieved by the simple (and virtually undetectable) tactic of putting the handle of a long open-end wrench into the chain to shear the pin and stop the line. Sometimes the light bulb that signals the line breakdown is unscrewed or broken so that an extra few minutes are gained before the stoppage is discovered.

Not uncommon is the sabotage of the product. Sometimes this increases the amount of the repair work coming off the lines. Sometimes this saddles a customer with a built-in rattle in a high-priced car because some worker welded a wrench or some bolts into a closed compartment.

The nature of violence and sabotage as a tool of workers provides an insight into the problems caused by the extensive technological changes of the past 20 years. Although generally called automation, something else is involved: the first and basic reason for technological change is the struggle against workers’ power by the, employers. Technological advance is designed, directly or indirectly, to eliminate workers or to make them more subservient to the machine. And most changes made in plants are made solely to increase production rather than out of any concern for the workers.

For example, Chrysler stamping operations are now centered in the Sterling Township Stamping Plant, about 15 miles outside Detroit. The plant now does, operations that were formerly done at the Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler plants.

Separating 4,000 or so workers from most of their fellows seriously reduced the power and effectiveness of the workers. The shutting down of old plants means that formal and informal organizations are broken up or abandoned.

And it takes time for new relations and new organizations to be worked out. Workers at Sterling have indicated that it took approximately four years for the plant to be transformed from just an accidental combination of workers to a relatively well organized and disciplined force.

In the early days of the union the power of the workers could be wielded more openly and more directly. Workers negotiated directly with the’ lower levels of management and were able to settle things right on the shop floor. How easily they were able to do this depended, of course, on their relative strength and the nature of the technology involved among other things.

As an example, the workers in the heat-treat department at the Buick plant in Flint had an especially strong position.

One time, shortly after the union was established, they felt themselves strongly aggrieved. But the early contracts did not rigidly define the grievance procedure. So instead of locating the violated clause and leaving their fate to a bureaucracy, they simply sent the steward to see the general foreman.

Since their interest in this discussion was very great, they accompanied the steward and stood around outside the foreman’s office while the discussion was going on.

The time they picked for this meeting was just after they had loaded a heat into the furnace. The heat was scheduled to emerge from the other end of the furnace 20 minutes. later. If the heat was not pulled at that time the damage to both the steel being treated and to the furnace itself would have been irreparable.

In the early stages of the discussion the foreman was adamant. He would not accede to the demands – “and you’d better get those guys back to work.” As the minutes sped by, the foreman became less and less adamant until, finally, with a couple of minutes left to go, he capitulated. The steward then signaled the workers standing outside and the heat was pulled.

That might be an extreme situation but it was not an unusual one. Workers are very aware of how their jobs fit into the total process of production.

To change the scale and to change the time: almost 30 years later, during a wildcat at the Sterling Stamping Plant of the Chrysler Corporation in 1969, the workers made clear their awareness of how their plant fit into the scheduling of Chrysler plants in Detroit, Windsor, St. Louis and elsewhere. They knew when and in what order the Sterling strike would shut down other Chrysler plants. The knowledge of the workers’ importance in the overall framework is both an instrument in the day-to-day struggle and the essential basis for a new society.

The instinctive assertion of their own power on the shop floor that workers managed in the thirties was extended in the forties when war production requirements and the labor, shortage forced the government and the corporations to make concessions to workers’ control. But that was also the period during which the separation of workers from the union structure began. The last major organizing success marks the turn to bureaucracy.

When Ford fell to the union in 1941, both the check-off and full time for union committeemen were incorporated into the contract. But the apparent victories only created more problems. Workers wanted full time for union representatives to get them out from under company pressures and discrimination. Getting elected steward often got you the worst job in a department and stuck away in a corner where you couldn’t see what was happening.

But full time for stewards did more than relieve union representatives from company pressure-it ended up by relieving representatives from workers’ pressure. The steward is less available than he was before, and you have to have your foreman go looking for him should you happen to need him .

The check-off produced a similar situation. Designed to keep the company from pressuring weaker workers to stay out of the union even though they were sharing in its benefits, the check-off ended up reducing worker pressure on the union officials.

No longer does the steward have to listen to workers’ complaints each month as he goes round collecting the dues. Once a month the dues are delivered in one huge check from the company to the union and the worker never sees his dues payment.

World War II finished what the Ford contract had begun. The top layers of the union leadership were incorporated into the government boards and agencies that managed and controlled war production. In return certain concessions were made in terms of union organization.

Union recognition was often arranged from above without the participation of the workers in strike or other action. At this point in time the lower levels of the union leadership were still pretty close to the workers and very often local union officials participated in and supported the numerous wildcat strikes that took place.

This process of bureaucratization was completed with Walter Reuther’s victory and his substitution of the “one-party state” in control of the union for the democratic kind of factionalism that had been the norm in the UAW before.

And with the Reuther administration the union moved to participate directly in the management and discipline of workers in production. All through the fifties, with intensive automation and decentralization going on in the auto industry, the union collaborated in crushing the numerous wildcat strikes, in getting rid of the most militant workers, in establishing labor peace in the industry.

In the other industrial unions the pace of bureaucratization was much more advanced. In steel, for example, Phil Murray kept a tight and undemocratic hold on the Steel Workers Organizing Committee until after the basic contracts had been negotiated with United States Steel. It was only then that the Organizing Committee appointed from the top was replaced by an autonomous union which could vote on its own officers or contracts. Any worker can illustrate the bureaucratic history of his own union.

The grievance procedure became virtually worthless to the workers. In 1955 at the terminati6n of a contract presumably designed to provide a grievance procedure, there were in some GM plants as many as 10,000 unresolved grievances.

The situation has not improved since then. GM complains that the number of grievances in its plants has grown from 106,000 in 1960 to 256,000 in 1699 or 60 for each 100 workers.

What are these specific local grievances? They involve production standards: the speed of a line, the rate on a machine, the number of workers assigned to a given job, the allowable variations in jobs on a given line. They involve health and safety standards : unsafe machines, cluttered or oily floors, rates of production which prevent the taking of reasonable precautions, the absence or misuse of hoists or cranes, protection from flames or furnaces, protection from sharp, unfinished metal, protection from welding or other dangerous chemicals or flames, the right to shut an unsafe job down until the condition is changed.

They involve the quality of life in the plant: the authoritarian company rules which treat workers like a combination of prison inmate and kindergarten child, the right to move about the plant, the right to relieve yourself physically without having to get the foreman’s permission or the presence of a relief man, the right to reasonable breaks in the work, the right to a reasonable level of heat in the winter or reasonable ventilation in the summer. And on and on.

The grievances that crowd the dockets of General Motors and of other companies cover the total range of life in the factory. The fact that they are called grievances helps to conceal what they really are-a reflection of the total dissatisfaction of the workers in the way production is run and of the des ire of the workers to impose their own will in the factory.

The UAW and the Ford Motor Company recently have been discussing the problem of boredom on the assembly line. The only reason they are discussing it at all-it is by no means a new development-is because more and more workers are refusing to accept factory discipline as a law of nature.

And it is not boredom but power which is at stake.

The same worker who for eight hours a day attaches belts to a motor and can’t wait to get out of the plant will spend his weekends tinkering with his car and consider it rewarding work. The difference is in who controls the work.

It might be worth noting a couple of things. All workers are exploited to one degree or another. But office workers on the whole do not have to walk past armed guards going to and from work and have a certain amount of freedom in scheduling their work on the job. The coffee break is not a blue-collar institution.

It is clear that historically bosses never thought that workers would work without the severest external discipline and control. And they still don’t.

In addition, no matter what all the theoreticians of capitalism may say, workers are treated very differently from anyone else. The industrial Division of American Standard has a plant in Dearborn, Michigan which manufactures industrial air conditioning. The company places ads in trade journals urging employers to air condition their facilities.

The office section of the facility is air conditioned. The plant is not. The only thing that makes this situation unusual is that the company manufactures the equipment. But even that isn’t enough to get them to provide for blue-collar workers what office workers, engineers, managers and professionals now take as a matter of course.

The reorganization, technological change and decentralization that characterized the fifties and culminated in the depression gave way to a new expansion which brought significant numbers of young workers into the industry in the U.S. These are workers who couldn’t care less about what the union won in 1937. They are not more backward (as the union bureaucrats like to pretend) but more advanced. They are attuned to the need to change the nature of work, to the need of human beings to find satisfaction in what they do. It is this new and changing working class that was the basis for the new level of wildcat strikes, for a doubled rate of absenteeism, for an increased amount of violence in plants. It is a new working class that no conceivable contract settlement can control or immobilize. Both unions and industry are aware of their problem to some degree. “The UAW believes,” says the Free Press, “that a better-trained corps of union stewards would be better equipped to cope with these issues and with gut plant problems like narcotics, alcoholism, loan-sharking, weapon-packing, pilfering and gambling. ‘A bunch of armed guards isn’t the only answer,’ said one committeeman.” After 33 years of unionism, they have suddenly discovered that armed guards are not the answer. To put it plainly, they have suddenly discovered that armed guards are not enough.

The slowdown of automation in the sixties (a consequence of the shortage of capital) has led to a relative stabilization. That is, workers in new installations and in old ones that have been reorganized have now bad a few years to work out new forms of organization. The complaints against the young workers who make up a crucial force in the factories indicate that the wildcats of the past may be replaced, or at least supplemented, by something new.

The tightly knit structures of the big industrial unions leave no room for maneuvering. There is no reasonable way in which young workers can use the union constitution to overturn and overhaul the union structure. The constitution is against them; the money and jobs available to union bureaucrats are against them. And if these fail, the forces of law and order of city, state and federal governments are against them.

If that were not enough, the young workers in the factories today are expressing the instinctive knowledge that even if they gained control of the unions and reformed them completely, they would still end up with unions – organizations which owe their existence to capitalist relations of productions.

The impossibility of transforming the unions has been argued by a number of observers. Clark Kerr has noted, without disapproval, that “unions and corporations alike are, with very few exceptions, one-party governments.” That is the phrase usually reserved for Stalinist or fascist totalitarian governments. But it is not overdrawn.

Paul Jacobs has documented this in the case of the unions:

A study of 70 international union constitutions, the formal instruments that rule a membership of almost 16,000,000 workers, shows among other things that in most of these 70 unions power is generally concentrated in the hands of the international presidents, with few restraints placed upon them, that discipline may be enforced against union members with little regard for due process, and that opposition to the incumbent administration is almost impossible.

And all of this is what young workers are revolting against.

That means that the course of future developments in the factories has to be sought outside the unions. Caucuses and factions will still be built and, here and there, will have temporary. and minor successes. But the explosions that are still to come are likely to have the appearance of new revolutionary forms, organizations which are not simply organs of struggle but organs of control of production. They are a sign of the future.

That means that the course of future developments in the factories has to be sought outside the unions. Caucuses and factions will still be built and, here and there, will have temporary and minor successes. But the explosions that are still to come are likely to have the appearance of new revolutionary forms, organizations which are not simply organs of struggle but organs of control of production. They are a sign of the future.

First published in Society, November-December 1972.
Republished in Martin Glaberman, The Working Class and Social Change (pamphlet), 1975.