The Mechanics Educational Society of America and World War II

A brief introduction to the MESA and their experiences in WWII.

Submitted by Pennoid on April 20, 2014

Writing in the early 2000's, Nelson Lichtenstein argued that:

The New Deal provided a set of semi-permanent political structures in which key issues of vital concern to the trade union movement might be accommodated. Although the industry codes negotiated under the National Recovery Administration were declared unconstitutional in 1935, the Fair Labor Standards Act set new wage and hour standards three years later. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) established the legal basis of union power and a mechanism for its state sanction...


In the 1940's Walter Reuther, Sidney Hillman, and others in the CIO and AFL fought for and acquired a role in managing labor in the context of World War II, with hopes of retaining this privilege for the post-war period. This struggle was often regarded as getting a voice for labor in the political sphere. In the process, the CIO and the AFL signed onto a no-strike pledge for the duration of the war, which resulted in the leadership of these unions repeatedly putting down wildcat strikes by their members, in the name of a cross-class alliance. Many of the local union bodies that led a reform drive in the United Auto Workers – CIO to get rid of the No-Strike Pledge were formerly part of the Mechanics' Educational Society of America, a mostly skilled tool and die workers' union founded in 1933. In a 1934 editorial in The Nation, Secretary-Treasurer of the Mechanics' Educational Society of America, Matthew Smith, summarized the ideological core of the organization, “The M.E.S.A. refuses to accept the principle that the employers are entitled to profits at all costs; it demands that the men be paid decent wages and work fair hours, and does not worry about the employers. Its function is only to win for the workers; if the employers find their dividends on the down grade, that is their concern.”2 The MESA, even during World War II defense production, articulated a vision of direct, rank and file union control and strength through the use of economic or industrial action to make gains for members and establish an organization. Alongside this commitment to independent strike action, the MESA found itself more and more drawn into the representational politics of the CIO and War Labor Board, through a shared conceptualization of the political and economic spheres and their assumed disconnect.

While the strike tool was not foreign to the UAW-CIO or the workers in that organization, MESA founder Matthew Smith, a tool and die worker, was from Britain, and a former member of the syndicalist inspired shop-steward movement in the post World War I period. Smith placed special emphasis on the MESA's role as an industrial, not craft, organized entity, it's rank and file organizational philosophy, it's socialism, and it's commitment to local shop-floor power and autonomy.

The MESA's foundational strike occurred on September 21st, 1933, when machinists in plants at GM, Packard, and a number of other auto-manufacturers and tool and die shops in Flint, Detroit and Pontiac went out on strike for higher wages and recognition. Smith, assisted by labor lawyer Maurice Sugar, hoped to use the National Recovery Administration’s newly formed apparatus to bring the manufacturers to the table to bargain but they soon realized that the National Labor Board set up by the NRA was effectively useless. By October, the MESA had tried to meet with government and business representatives numerous times but business refused to show. On October 29th, after over a month on strike and awaiting negotiations, strikers formed a “riotcade” and attacked shops all over Detroit, burning tool blueprints, smashing windows and giving the police fake tips as to where they would strike next.3 By the next day, the riot had subsided, and by Nov. 2nd various shops began to concede to 5 cent wage increases as well as representation by the MESA. Fisher Body, Packard, and Hudson Motor conceded to representation in a town and industry where unionism had struggled to get a foothold for decades.4

The 1933 foundational strike of the MESA is the most commonly cited piece of it's history. Often regarded as a pioneering event in the Auto industry, it combined a swirl of historical forces prevalent in organizing unskilled workers at the time. Part of the MESA strategy was for the skilled tool and die makers who were essential for the unskilled mass production side of auto-manufacturing, to strike right before the new model of cars were scheduled to be released. This put extra pressure on the auto-companies as well as encouraged workers on the production side of things to join in the strike. The fact that it attempted to organize craft workers alongside production or unskilled workers was a big influence on the emergent UAW. It would be inaccurate to suggest that they spent their main focus on organizing production, but they never the less allowed for production workers full membership in the union at a lower dues rate, at first as a separate body, and latter alongside the craft workers.5 Not only that, but their strategy of applying skilled workers' strike activity strategically around production schedules is one the UAW would further exploit.

The MESA and the CUA in the War Years

In the latter war years and during the post-war strike wave, the MESA continued to make gains for it's members. These gains demonstrated the MESA's commitment to rank and file direct action and refusal to accept an “Equality of Sacrifice” that benefited employers at workers' expense. This was not an anti-war policy, though the MESA Educator condemned aspects of the war and pulled no punches in comparing politicians and bosses to Hitler and the Nazis. Cleveland worker Fred Tracy wrote in regard to a strike being carried on by MESA members at another plant, “Personally I hope and pray that we do not have a strike at the Bomber Plant during the war, but if such an occasion does arise as that of the present Cleveland Graphite-Bronze strike, here is one who will be a striker that is willing to stick until it is settled in the interest of the workers and not according to the arbitrary dictates of our Nazi-over-lords...”6 The union never engaged in strike activity or active sabotage for the sake of a political statement of opposition to the war, however some members wrote in to protest the war.
Fourteen-Year-old Peter Rettich Jr., son of Kelvinator Local 9 Secretary wrote in to protest the war:

Are we going to stand for this? Are we going to allow our boys to be killed or mutilated for the rest of their lives? Is this going to be...merely a prelude to more human suffering? Will the people of the world finally get wise to themselves...and realize that it's just a handful of men that are running this whole bloody mess? I doubt it! All that these men have to do is to slap a flag in our hands, stir up hatred for another country by fair means or foul and tell us that our very lives, liberty and country are threatened.7

It isn't clear that any strike activity happened in direct protest of the war however, with the Educator condemning fascism. When summoned in March of 1945 to Washington before a Senate Special Committee Investigating The National Defense Program Matt Smith explained:

The Chairman. Has your organization signed the nonstrike pledge?
Mr. Smith. Oh my goodness, no.
The Chairman. You haven't?
Mr. Smith. We would not, and we don't intend to refrain from striking, as we have not as yet met any employers that are worthy of being given that pledge. I am afraid they might be tempted to touch some of our members and discriminate against them, and if they ever do that, the full weight of our organization will be used, peacetime, wartime, in season or out of season to protect our membership.
Senator Ferguson. No matter what happens with the country, your membership comes first.
Mr. Smith. Listen, Senator, I come from a country that had 91 wars in 100 years. I am getting a bit cynical about them. I know we have always been right, but just expect me to be slightly disillusioned.


The ideological justifications openly criticized management and the social relations of capitalism, but expressed themselves in concrete, or economic demands. At another point in the Manpower Problems Inquiry, the Chairman pressed:

The Chairman. I am glad to have this theory of yours, and I want to pursue it just a little further with reference to the ultimate objective of your educational organization.
I can see from what you have said the you organize a plant and secure benefits for the workers, in better working conditions and in higher rates of pay, and then in usurping, if I understood you right, the managerial prerogatives-
Mr. Smith. (interposing). “Encroaching” is the word I used.
The Chairman. Yes-until you have absorbed them all.
Mr. Smith. Yes
The Chairman. Now, then, would you take us on from there a little? For instance, let us assume that we are now in a plant where your organization has met with such marked success as to have finally taken over complete control.
Mr. Smith. That cannot happen. Anything we do in out plants has a relationship to what is done in all other plants. Nobody is allowed to get that far in front, and I am not going to write a political blueprint for the future.
I haven't the slightest idea whether this system is going to develop into collectivism, or whether it is going to develop into a free-enterprise system with some of the guarantees usually associated with collectivism.
The Chairman. So you don't go any farther than that?
Mr. Smith. Study the history of Russia and find out...I am certain that it is inevitable that there will be an ethical revolt against people taking out, that don't make any contribution...whether we are going to have State control, Government control,...cooperative control, I haven't the slightest idea. I know the trend. The trend is toward guarantees.


Raises and vacation pay, work rules and scheduling were all the evidence needed that the MESA way was the right way, and were stepping stones toward a transformation in the economic system into one where workers had particular “guarantees.” But even common union demands for reinstatement or schedule changes aren't essentially economic “guarantees” in nature, as strikes at the Graphite Bronze illustrate.

On Monday July, 10th of 1944, MESA workers in Cleveland walked out after management tried to enforce a schedule change which saw a reduction in workers in a certain area of the shop. Laborers working at the pour-in and tip-up furnaces in the casting department at Graphite Bronze had been meeting with management to negotiate the change. Originally, there were four workers on the pour-in and three on the tip-up furnace with relief for both furnaces. Management wanted to shift to three workers on each spot with only one alternate, effectively eliminating two paid positions. The day management went to enforce the new schedule the workers walked off.
On July 12th, U.S. Reconciliation services intervened and ordered the striking workers back to work on the management's schedule for the next three days, in which time the workers were to negotiate again with management to resolve the conflict. If the conflict could not be resolved, it would go before the Regional War Labor Board for arbitration. Graphite Bronze workers resumed work, but came up with no resolution regarding the staffing of the castings department. The workers then decided that the old schedule of four and three workers plus two alternates would be worked until arbitration took place. Management refused, and the MESA workers decided to go back to work anyway and be ordered off the job. When they returned to work on July 20th, the bosses fired the first shift of workers, then the next, and the rest of the workers at the works walked out, refusing to work the new schedule.

The MESA called a mass meeting on Saturday, the 22nd and were gearing up to take a strike vote when a proposal from the Regional War Labor Board came forth to rule on how the department would be run until arbitration could take place. The workers agreed to meet the Board on Sunday, the next day and resume work on Monday the 24th. The panel set up by the board determined in the workers' favor that the old scheduling would be stuck with until arbitration could be carried through.10

This fight was emphasized in the Educator as a dispute centered on the company's refusal to follow contractual grievance procedure. Writing in the August 1944 edition of the Educator, Ernie Coken, National Representative reported on the initial dispute at Graphite Bronze, “The Company posted a notice stating that effective July 10, 1944 the furnaces would be operated according to the new schedule. Monday, July 10 the men walked off the job in protest. The walkout was not so much a protest against the proposed schedule as it was against THE VIOLATION OF THE CONTRACT BY THE COMPANY.”11
The staffing change and other economic reasons were hardly touched on, never the less this fits the case of a classic economic demand, with the boss changing conditions in the shop to the workers' detriment. Their response can surely be understood as narrowly self interested, in the same vein as presented by the MESA's August 1945 appeal to members on dues policy:

A Labor Union is a “Business”, a common law corporation, organized to sell “Labor Power” for the highest compensation. Dividends are to be found in the pay envelopes of the individual workers and in the working conditions in the shop or plant in which they work.
To carry on, the workers get together (theoretically) and all “chip in” to defray the expenses involved and form their “business” institution, the labor Union...


But at the same time the workers were asserting a political stance about what was acceptable social policy in the often circumscribed economic sphere. That the political constitutes in a major way the “economic” foundations of the workplace, is made all the more clear by the struggles of workers for “guarantees”. It's not clear from reading the Educator whether arbitration regarding the schedule change ever bore fruit, but by September it became a secondary issue. MESA workers showed that they weren't afraid to go further for guarantees that might be assessed to be more intensely political.
On September 1st, Elmer Torok, a tool and die worker, was fired for breaking a lock on his locker. Five days later the United States Army took over management at Graphite Bronze. In those five days, MESA workers at Local 5 engaged in strike activity calling out the five-thousand workers at Graphite Bronze. On September 6th, Roosevelt ordered the United States Army to take over the plant and the MESA workers agreed to return to work without Torok while the case awaited arbitration.13 The September 1944 issue of the MESA Educator points out that the National Administrative Committee had passed a resolution that if private management were to take control of the plant again without reinstating Torok, the entire MESA would strike, stating, “The delegates to the NAC accept the injury to our Brother at Graphite Bronze as an injury to all, and bind the organization to mass strike action, in their own defense, should such action become necessary.”14 The U.S. Army would retain control of the plant until November, thanks to delays in appointing arbitration as the MESA contested Cleveland's mayor being picked to appoint the third arbitrator. Democratic Mayor Lausche, who at the time was campaigning for governor of Ohio, ordered a 400 strong segment of Cleveland police to break the strike, unsuccessfully.15 By November, Torok had returned to work still pending arbitration, according to the Educator.16

While the workers at Graphite walked out when faced with what was effectively the elimination of certain positions in July which meant less work to pass around the workers, the full force of the MESA was used to threaten a strike in the case of Torok's firing. In contrast to the first case which might be classically economic, amounting to a cut in hours, or a wage cut by forcing the men to work harder, Elmer Torok's firing only affected Torok directly, leaving him jobless but the position and conditions of the work process itself untouched. While the other workers' jobs weren't directly threatened, the entire union responded more militantly to the firing. This dynamic on the ground, while placed in the language of a purely economic “guarantee” was at times conceded political. Fred Tracy, a worker in Cleveland wrote a letter to the Cleveland Press reprinted in the Educator, stating the following, “...That the 7,000 workers are willing to back up one man in his stand for human rights, is one of the finest demonstrations of genuine Americanism in every sense of the word, and the over-whelming majority of our soldiers now over there would back them up of they were told the truth, instead of being bombarded with editorials which make a false pretense of being fair.”17 The NAC and the entire organization promised to stop work in defense plants across Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland citing the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all,” and articulating that the threat of a firing was an urgent problem that threatened not merely the conditions of the shop but the political foundation of the labor movement. Sure, the firing caused an economic harm but that such economic harms were the result of a particular social relation with politics as part of it's economic foundation is clear from the context into which MESA placed such struggles. Recounting the history up to that point, the October Educator ran a history of the Torok case:

We have been told that the matter in dispute is not an important one. To this we agree. It is our position that the matter is so insignificant that we cannot agree to a worker losing his job over it. We believe that if any punishment is to be meted out, the punishment should be no stronger than if Torok had broken a lock outside the shop...Torok has eleven years seniority...Over period of five years Torok's job will be worth about $10,000. We do not think a $10,000 fine is justice for breaking a two-bit lock.

Presented in the metaphor of a civil case outside the confines of the “economic” sphere of production, the punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime. In one sense, calling in the Mayor of Cleveland, not to mention the U.S. Army, to have a voice in the firing of a tool and die worker, could be seen as the point of politicization, as Lichtenstein might see it. But isn't the demand for reinstatement the animating dispute? Often expressed in the language of guarantees or rights, the inherently political struggle around shop-floor social life is only granted “politicization” where the force of government bureaucracy is so prevalent as to be conceived of animating the dispute and it's arbitration. The language of the above metaphor is convincing to the extent that one finds the circumscription of the right of management to hire and fire a valid political shift, and in the case of the schedule change, the political call advocated was one of contractual relations among unions and employers and their social enforcement, whether through direct action or government arbitration. The struggle to keep Torok in the shop was a struggle for political “human rights” in the language of MESA member Fred Tracey, and the broader union movement is often conceptualized as one solidifying and consolidating certain “rights.”18 But the struggle to attain and defend these rights or guarantees can play out in different areas of social life, on the economic or political field, and it's not clear at all that one sphere is ever actually disembedded from the other.

One could also argue that on the other hand, this was in line with the MESA's policy as a “business enterprise”, to protect it's membership, and that any failure to do so in the face of “discrimination against members” would cause the membership to loose faith in the organization and stop paying dues. Further, the fact that a union worker gets fired anywhere, does pose a threat as a figure of attrition to the rest of the union members. If Torok could get fired, what's to stop the bosses from firing other union workers? But this is precisely the place where an economic interpretation of the activity of the members can be seen to express a political position of keeping union workers in their jobs, or “encroaching” on management prerogatives of hiring and firing. In the same way, even the schedule change is ultimately a political question about who determines how the workplace is run and to what end. The traditional economic-political divide breaks down as the traditionally economic struggle is clearly being waged to constitute a new political reality on the ground, a social policy change regarding an aspect of wage relations, namely the boss' political right to fire employees, or manage schedules. That the MESA saw it's own efforts in contradictory terms, at times political and other times economic has to do in part with the challenges it faced in it's own period, and the political thought of the time.

This activity is mentioned in detail because it demonstrates at once the MESA's readiness to support it's workers in taking direct action during the war as well as the conflicting expressions outlining the political and economic spheres. In the 1944 September issue of the Educator, the MESA ran a column on the political vacuity of mayor Lausche: “There is a major lesson that we members can learn from Lausche's traitorous activities, if labor is to be represented on the political front, it will be necessary to form a party of its own and to elect men who represent labor alone, instead of phony politicians of the two major political parties...”19 The MESA advocated for the formation of a Farmer-Labor Party at different points, to intervene in the political sphere and make society wide concessions from capitalists, but little materialized.

The cases also show the bureaucratic state apparatus connected to labor disputes, with which the MESA engaged, in the conventionally political sense. Virtually all grievance procedures ended in War Labor Board arbitration, with the board being staffed by representatives of the AFL, the CIO, business, and “the public.” This pained Matthew Smith and the MESA who took up the cause of the unaffiliated unions throughout the war period, in attempts to gain what they saw as representation in the political sphere for their members. As labor had organized in the 30's, policy had been for various kinds of government board to arbitrate disputes in particular industries. While the MESA's organizational fight in 1933 had shown the real limits of such government bureaucracies there was still much effort put on pursuing representation, as the rise of the UAW-CIO and more managerial oriented bureaucracies emerged.

The Confederated Unions of America was founded in 1942 with Matthew Smith elected president. Eventually getting up to eighty member unions in 1944, the CUA in part saw it's efforts not only as an alternative representational body, but as a competitor to the CIO.20 21 In this light, the CUA and the MESA fought jurisdictional battles in Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland and elsewhere with the UAW and the URW of the CIO. They also attempted organizing the skilled workers of several CIO shops out of their union and into the MESA. This was done in line with an ideology of labor union organizing that saw the CIO as structurally irredeemable.

In February of 1944 the MESA and the CUA led a strike that made headlines, accusing the CIO and AFL representatives on the War Labor Board of using their position to raid MESA organized workplaces. The CUA would declare at their national convention that same month a commitment to gaining representation on the War Labor Board nationally and regionally.

By June of 1944, the MESA had succeeded in getting the WLB to appoint Robert Haughton as special liaison on independent unions.22 Further, the 2nd edition of the June 1944 Educator reported that:

George White National President of the MESA and Executive Board Member of the CUA was appointed as a permanent member of the Tool and Die commission of the National War Labor Board...Hereafter, whenever an unaffiliated union has a case before the WLB Tool and Die Commission, Brother George White, will be the labor representative on the commission to consider the case...This victory is the outcome of the fight that was started by the MESA last February...


Also announced was the “...unbroken record of 15 NLRB election victories...” of CUA affiliated unions, against the AFL or CIO. By this point, beyond George White's representation of Detroit area tool and die workers, the CUA had gotten members onto War Labor Hearing Panels and Appeal Boards.24

The MESA consistently printed calls for the CUA to amalgamate along industry lines and stressed the representative power that the CUA had, as it was estimated that some three million workers were unaffiliated with either the AFL or CIO. From looking at the Educator alone it isn't clear what happened exactly regarding the MESA's call to integrate the CUA beyond affiliation besides failure. In June of 1945 the Educator reported that the Interstate Copper and Brass Workers Union affiliated with the CUA has recently used the services of two experienced MESA organizers and were considering closer association with the MESA, and indeed by September of 1947, the MESA had absorbed the then Interstate Metalworkers Union, representing ten-thousand workers.25 26 27 The 1946 February Convention of the CUA resulted in MESA Secretary-Treasurer Matthew Smith resigning from his position as President of the CUA, citing the lack of experience and dedication of the officers coming from affiliated unions. The MESA would later withdraw it's membership.28

MESA workers articulated a set of principles meant to keep the MESA independent, militant, and democratic. They refused the closed shop and dues-checkoff, the National Administrative Committee was made up of workers still working in shops, and paid officials got a salary no higher than the highest wages in the shop. For instance, the National President, George White was also an Executive Board Member of the CUA throughout affiliation, the permanent independent union Representative on the Detroit area Regional War Labor Board for the last year of the war, chief shop steward at Michigan Tool Co. and Secretary of Local 6. in Detroit.29 30 For the MESA the proof of the effectiveness of these policies were the results they got, which were consistently higher wages and vacation pay for workers when compared to CIO locals, or so they often claimed.

The MESA focused on making concrete gains in the shop, continually fighting for higher wages and vacation pay before the WLB in the war and post-war years. Often viewed as a kind of competition with the UAW-CIO and other unions, this activity was argued as only possible given their rank-and file democracy in structure and spirit, and their refusal to compromise on the issue of the no-strike clause. The June 2nd edition of the Educator carried a column reporting that MESA shops made 20 percent more wages over CIO and non-union shops in the same industry. The article states:

The general policy followed by the CIO has brought their members to a wage level below that paid to non-union workers...By making blind promises and shouting from the housetops, the officialdom of the CIO was able to corral millions of workers into their phoney organization...By giving away the gains of labor over a number of years, the CIO was able to get grants of maintenance of membership and closed-shop check off contracts to force these workers in line... By making speeches of objection and passing resolutions they have been able to pretend that they are opposing the government setup...The truth is...that CIO and AFL officials are part and parcel of these government setups.


During the war, the CIO had negotiated maintenance of membership policies as well as automatic dues checkoff policies with the employers and the government, in exchange for giving up the right to strike. This meant that dues came out of the workers' paycheck, like an income tax, and that workers would be members of the CIO unions throughout the contract. Often this is referred to as a closed shop, where workers can only leave the union in a particular window when the contract is renewed. It also meant that as more workers joined for heightened war production they would be automatically enrolled into the unions.32 While seen as a capitulation of the shop-floor power and independence of the workers from the view of the MESA, this was in line with the ideological conception of the union movement as an appendage to political maneuvering, dominant in the CIO. The MESA explicitly criticized this viewpoint:

The present move by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to make political action the major weapon of labor, is a dangerous move. It is a move that is welcomed by the barons of industry inasmuch as it weakens their greater fear, the shop union. While some concessions can be made through political action, the basis of our economic system is the private ownership of the means of production and distribution and the use of those means through the exploitation of labor...The possibility of labor protecting it's interests and making further gains is dependent on labor's strength on the industrial front and not on what kind of deals can be made with politicians.


As MESA organizers pointed out at the time this was a kind of labor conscription which created a disconnect between the salaried union officials and the members. The MESA raised figures like George White up as examples of the organization's commitment to the workers in the shop and how in touch the administrative body was with it's base.

The MESA was still drawn into some form of political action in it's pursuit of representation on the different permutations of the War Labor Board, out of a necessity to see it's disputes between workers and employers fairly represented. As Lichtenstein points out, the CIO was indeed fully committed to putting down wildcats in it's unions, in Detroit heading off a reform movement which called itself the Rank and File Caucus which sought to rescind the no strike pledge and push the union to the left, organized in part by the dissident-Trotskyist Workers Party. The reality on the ground that caused the “bureaucratic imperative” in the CIO and the contradictory politics of the MESA was in part a common understanding of the political sphere as the state bureaucratic nexus. This is the social sphere where the MESA could advocate for a Farmer-Labor Party, pursue Board representation or the CIO could fund a Political Action Committee to give to Democratic candidates. While the MESA viewed it with considerable skepticism, the fact that the government now had constituted a body to manage and intervene in the economic sphere in the form of the War Labor Board but also the National Labor Relations Board, meant a concrete change on the ground for workers everyday. The state's policy could be said to have shifted from one overwhelmingly reliant on injunctions and the support of business through physical force in the late 19th and early 20th century, to one of government management of labor alongside organizations who contracted with employers.34

The government appeared to “give it's blessings” in the form of the National Recovery Administration which set out industrial codes for arbitrating labor disputes, but as in the case of the MESA's formative strike, this body was effectively toothless, eventually replaced by the Wagner Act with the NLRB. Even the NLRB and WLB responded to bargaining on behalf of the CIO and the AFL in the form of adopting the no-strike pledge, political campaign contributions to the Democratic Party, and lending the force of labor to the national war time cause. The formulation of the NIRA or the NLRB as “giving their blessing” or “sanctioning unions” is itself superficial and suspect. It isn't the case that the government even-handedly administered the law regarding all cases of unionization. As in the case of the NRA Industry Codes, it could hardly be said to have administered the law at all.

Nelson Lichtenstein articulates his vision of the interaction of state and class politics in the period:

The political economy of World War Two is embedded within a larger New Deal order that stretched from the early 1930s to the late 1970s. This was an era characterized by Democratic party dominance, Keynesian statecraft, and a trade union movement whose power and presence was too often taken for granted, not the least by historians of "state development." Industry-wide unions sustained both the dominance of the Democratic party and a quasi-corporatist system of labor-management relations whose impact, far transcending the realm of firm-centered collective bargaining, framed much of the polity's consensus on taxes, social provision, and industry regulation. The system of production, distribution, and social expectations that characterized both union strength and business enterprise was uniquely stable, resting on both a well-protected continental market and a technologically and ideologically dominant mass-production model.
In this context, the economic power wielded by American trade unions was by its very nature political, for the New Deal had thoroughly politicized all relations between the union movement, the business community, and the state.


For Lichtenstein, it is in a particular historical context that the relations between the union movement, the business community and the state become politicized, namely, when they are politicized! Though this takes the form of an elongated truism in Lichtenstein, the trouble is to make the case as to what changed in those periods to make certain actions or spheres of action become “political” and that means facing what changed about the definition of the political. The MESA's fight for political representation on the WLB and more economic “guarantees” demonstrates the link between the political and economic in the historical sense, why a conceptualization that obliterates their connection creates blinders. Later in his essay, Lichtenstein waxes somewhat nostalgic over the same organizations he provided much criticism for:

All across the business spectrum, from brass hat conservatives on the right to corporate-liberal statesmen on the left, postwar executives sought to privatize and ghettoize bargaining relationships and economic conflict. The abolition or devaluation of the war era's mobilizing bureaucracies: the War Labor Board, the NLRB, the OPA, and the FEPC, stood near the top of the postwar Republican/business agenda. Conflict over the degree to which the unions could still enlist the state in recalibrating the relation ship between capital and labor constituted the heart of so many of the celebrated struggles of the postwar era: the 1946 strike wave, the subsequent fight over OPA, enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, and the battle over company paid health insurance and pensions during the 1949-1950 collective bargaining round.30 By the 1950s, the divorce of the collective bargaining system from American politics was far greater than in any other industrial democracy. Although mid-century strike levels remained comparatively high, the industrial relations system of that era was so "free" that liberal Democratic political victories in 1948,1958, and 1964 had virtually no impact upon this increasingly insular collective bargaining regime.


Rather than the bureaucracies being recognized as the stultifying and politically charged force that they were, they retain a character within a “mobilization dialectic” a concept not entirely clear, but that appears to attribute to the bureaucracies the power of social mobilization. An examination of the political content of the ideology of CIO leadership and workers and their dynamic cannot be replaced with a conception of the state-apparatus as a tool to be used, whether by Democrats “for” labor or Republicans “against” labor, because in either case a particular politics is being advanced, a particular activity engaged on concrete issues involving the ownership and control of the means of producing society and effecting workers in organizations that formally advocate for conventional political activity, or those that advocate for the classically syndicalist industrial or economic action. Both spheres are intimately bound, as writers from the political Marxist historians have pointed out, with seemingly political issues constituting in part what 2nd International Marxists and historians in the Orthodox Marxist tradition often regarded as the economic base of a society. Property relations were ratified and upheld in the halls of government and they have a concrete economic effect.37 38

Efforts to parse out the meaning of periods of considerable political-economic change must take great care to get past classical notions of a clean divide between the political and the economic in order to better understand the ideologies of historical actors, and the material conditions limiting their actions, derived in part from the political conditions.

  • 11Nelson Lichtenstein, “Class Politics and the State during World War Two,” International Labor and Working-Class History, No. 58 Wartime Economies and the Mobilization of Labor (Fall 2000), 261-274
  • 22 Matthew Smith, “Militant Labor in Detroit,” The Nation, Vol. 138, No. 3593, 560-562
  • 33Christopher H. Johnson, Maurice Sugar: Law, Labor and the Left in Detroit 1912-1950 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988) 140
  • 44 Harry Dahlheimer, A History of the Mechanics Educational Society of America in Detroit From Its Inception In 1933 Through 1937 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1951) 13
  • 55Ibid. pg 16
  • 66Fred Tracy, “Untitled-Letters to the Editor,” MESA Educator, September 1st ed. 1944
  • 77Peter Rettich, “Civilization,” MESA Educator, May 2nd ed. 1944
  • 88Hearings before a Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program: Pt. 28, Manpower Problems in Detroit, 79th Congress, (March 9, 10, 12, and 13, 1945) (Testimony of Matthew Smith, Secretary-Treasurer of the Mechanics Educational Society of America) 13247
  • 99 Ibid. 13257-13258
  • 1010 MESA Educator July – August 1944
  • 1111Ernie Coken, “Coken Reports on Graphite Strike” MESA Educator, August 1944, emphasis theirs.
  • 1212“Do You Pay Your Dues When Due?” MESA Educator, August 1944
  • 1313Manpower Problems in Detroit, 1945, Testimony of Matthew Smith.“Mr. Smith. “...We have automotive plants in Cleveland; the Eaton Axle, which is the biggest plant. We have the Cleveland Graphite Bronze, which make 80 percent of the bearings in the country.” No discussion concerning 1944 the plant seizure was had, however.
  • 1414“N.A.C. Resolution On Graphite-Bronze Strike” MESA Educator, September 1944
  • 1515Ibid. “Government Acts When Mayor and Company Fail To Break Strike”
  • 1616“Torok Reinstated At Graphite Bronze Two bit Lock Case Ends In Victory” MESA Educator, December 1944
  • 1717Fred Tracy “Untitled-Letters to the Editor” MESA Educator, September 1st ed. 1944
  • 1818ibid.
  • 1919“Lausche A Strikebreaker,” Ibid.
  • 2020“14 Unions Affiliate Shipyard Alliance Joins With 90,000 Members,” MESA Educator, July 1944 2nd ed.
  • 2121 “CUA on the March” MESA Educator August 1944
  • 2222“War Labor Board Action Unacceptable as Substitute for Representation,” MESA Educator June 1st ed. 1944
  • 2323“WLB Appointment Puts M.E.S.A. in Position To Protect Independents,” MESA Educator, June 2nd ed. 1944
  • 2424 Ibid.
  • 2525“Independents Move Toward Amalgamation,” MESA Educator July 1945
  • 2626“U.E.-C.I.O. Doesn't Like Interstate-M.E.S.A. Merger,” MESA Educator, October 1946
  • 2727“Interstate Metal Union Amalgamates With the M.E.S.A.,” MESA Educator, September 1947
  • 2828“M.E.S.A. Secretary Resigns As President of C.U.A.,” MESA Educator, April 1946
  • 2929“President of M.E.S.A. Worker at Tools of Trade,” MESA Educator, June 1st ed. 1944
  • 3030“Who's Who In the M.E.S.A.?” ibid. See picture
  • 3131“20 Percent Over CIO and Non-Union Shops in Area,” MESA Educator, June 2nd ed. 1944
  • 3232Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor's War At Home: The CIO in World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 78-81
  • 3333“Politics-A Poor Substitute For Unions,” MESA Educator, July 2nd ed. 1944
  • 3434Christopher L. Tomlins, The State and The Unions: Labor Relations, Law, and the Organized Labor Movement in America 1880-1960
  • 3535 Lichtenstein, Class Politics and the State During World War II
  • 3636Ibid
  • 3737Ellen Meiksins Woods, “The Separation of the Economic and the Political in Capitalism” New Left Review I/127, May-June 1981. This is a clear formulation of the political Marxist theoretical approach. Wood writes: “These considerations again raise questions about the sense in which it is appropriate to regard working class ‘economism’ in advanced capitalist societies as reflecting an ‘undeveloped’ state of class-consciousness, as many socialists do. Seen from the perspective of historical process, it can be said to represent a more, rather than a less, advanced stage of development. If this stage is to be surpassed in turn, it is important to recognize that, in a sense, the so-called ‘economism’ of working class attitudes does not so much reflect a lack of political consciousness as an objective shift in the location of ‘politics’, a change in the arena and the objects of political struggle inherent in the very structure of capitalist production.”
  • 3838Robert Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe” Past and Present, No. 70 (Feb. 1976) 30-75 This is the generally accepted as the genesis of the political marxist school.



10 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Pennoid on April 21, 2014

I'll clean this up in like 1 hour, promise!


Lemme know if there are any errors!


10 years 1 month ago

In reply to by

Submitted by fnbrilll on April 21, 2014

Thanks for the work. Important information.


10 years 1 month ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Pennoid on April 21, 2014

Yeah, I might edit it up and just try and focus on recounting the history of the MESA without all the weird historiographical arguments or just leave it up there.


10 years 1 month ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on April 22, 2014

Great stuff, thanks!

Denise Lockwood

6 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Denise Lockwood on November 26, 2017

Fascinating. My grandfather, Harold Donlon, was the secretary/treasurer for MESA during this time. I'm a journalist and would love to write a book about this. I have written a little about him on my news website just as an editorial about him though.

Thank you for doing such a fabulous job on the research. Would love to learn more.


6 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Pennoid on November 27, 2017


I'm happy it was helpful! Check this link; I was able to upload some pdf scans of the MESA's paper a few years back, but the hard drive they were on is fried. If you can get access to a university library, you should be able to get a reel of the papers and scan them yourself and see if your grandpa is mentioned at all!

Here's what I've uploaded here:

Feel free to message me or comment here with any other questions. I'd recommend some of the texts cited for a background on the war (Lichtensteins "Labor's War at Home" and Marty Glaberman's "Wartime Strikes in Auto" the latter of which can also be found on this website).


6 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on November 27, 2017

Denise Lockwood

Fascinating. My grandfather, Harold Donlon, was the secretary/treasurer for MESA during this time. I'm a journalist and would love to write a book about this. I have written a little about him on my news website just as an editorial about him though.

Thank you for doing such a fabulous job on the research. Would love to learn more.

Way cool. MESA was one if the few principled unions to stick around for a while. And it's early years were in an inspiration to dome if us who radicalized in the early 1970s.

Hat tip to your grandfather and other principled unionists of his generation


6 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on November 27, 2017

Pennoid, do you have an author name we could credit this article to?


6 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Pennoid on November 27, 2017


I'm the author. I'm not sure how to put my name as an author on there. It wasn't published anywhere besides here, and it was based on a grad seminar final assignment. You can add my handle here as an author, no?