Detroit Labor’s Rich Legacy

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Marty Glaberman

Working Detroit
By Steve Babson, with Ron Alpern, Dave Elsila, John Revitte
Adama Books, 1984, 246 pages.

THIS IMPORTANT and valuable book fills a gap that has long existed. It is a history of labor in Detroit that goes back to the beginnings early in the nineteenth century. It documents the changes in the industrial structure of the city and, above all, it documents working-class struggles from the earliest times through the rise of the auto industry and then the formation of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW).

Although the story of the auto workers dominates Working Detroit, the book covers much more than that. Especially important is significant material on Black struggles and women’s struggles.

The book is large-size and handsomely illustrated from archival sources. (Some of the pictures are not reproduced with the greatest clarity–Is that poor printing or the problem of reproducing very old photographs?) The format, however, poses something of a problem. It has some of the characteristics of a coffee table book: large size, lots of pictures and a running text that is supplemented by boxed little articles on specific events or people.

I assume that the reason for the format is to make the book attractive to workers and people who ordinarily don’t sit down to read through a “serious” work. At the same time, the book is based on significant scholarship and clearly intends to be used as a basic source on Detroit’s labor history. But the format tends to jumble up information so that events are out of context.

One example is the material on Father Coughlin, the fascistic radio priest of the late 1930s and early 40s. One box (p. 56) presents Coughlin as pro-labor and pro­Roosevelt in the early 30s, without any attempt to indicate what he later became. A second box (pp. 100-101) deals with Coughlin’s move toward an extreme right­wing, anti-semitic position, but also has some information on the Catholic Workers Movement and the ACTU (Association of Catholic Trade Unionists) with a picture of an Archbishop who was pro-labor and opposed Coughlin’s anti­semitism.

Not mentioned is the fact that the Church did not try to restrain Coughlin until he began to support Hitler in World War II. To take isolated bits and snatches of history and feature them does not contribute to a fundamental understanding of that history.

Bias Toward Bureaucracy

The book is “fair” in that it reports opposing points of view. But it seems to me to suffer from a bias that tends to feature union leaders as opposed to the membership, to endorse the bureaucratization of unions (within limits, of course) as opposed to rank and file militancy. Some of this, no doubt, is not particularly support for union bureaucrats but, rather, simply a superficial view of events.

For example, writing about the 1920s, the authors talk of “mechanization and declining demand for coal undercut the Mine Workers.” (p. 50) Ignored is the major role of John L. Lewis’ expulsion of whole sections of the union, to get rid of militant and socialist opponents, leaving him with the shell of a union but absolute control of the executive board.

Writing about the period of the sit­ down strikes, they say that “The image [of spontaneity) only partly fit the reality, for in the earliest and biggest sitdowns, key groups and individuals planned much of what happened in advance … Underlying the Spirit of 1937 and the spontaneity in many smaller sitdowns was this disciplined, organized assertion of union power.” (pp. 87-88)

This also fits reality only partly. “Key groups and individuals” were most often rank-and-file leaders. Missed in this analysis is the fact that the top leadership of the UAW (“left” as well as “right”) resented and opposed these rank-and-file initiatives, spontaneous or not. Their problem was that they couldn’t do very much about it and had to go along and support strikes that were started without their OK.

The authors seem to be made nervous by “uncontrolled militancy.” “… uncontrolled militancy might also touch off a blaze that would jeopardize bargaining, forcing both sides into do-or-die battles for survival.” (p. 113) They seem oblivious to the basic character of post­World War II unionism which even relatively conservative labor historians such as Foster Rhea Dulles and Melvyn Dubofsky have recognized: the so-called social compact in which the unions won financial and fringe benefit rewards for their members in exchange for the union’s cooperation in disciplining workers on the shop floor.

For example, they refer to “union­initiated grievances over health and safety work assignments, discipline, and countless other issues all steadily multiplied, rising from 106,000 a year at GM in 1960, to 250,000 by 1969.” (p. 183) These grievances were “union-initiated” only in the technical sense. They were worker initiated and they rose so drastically because the union bureaucracy resisted every effort of rank-and-file workers to deal with these grievances. The result was growing alienation from the union, and wildcat strikes.

In discussing the 1973 contracts negotiated with the auto companies (p. 187), they report the tremendous pressure exerted by the rank and file against a leadership that was ignoring the basic concern for shop floor working conditions. One of the major issues which were imposed on the leadership was the problem of compulsory overtime. “The national contracts the UAW subsequently negotiated that year with Chrysler, Ford, and GM took the first steps towards addressing, if not eliminating, these problems. The new contracts gave workers with a perfect attendance record during the week the right to refuse overtime on Sundays, on every third Saturday, and on any day they had already worked nine hours.” (p. 187)

That is rather deceptive: there were two problems. The workers’ problem was compulsory overtime. The companies’ problem was absenteeism. What the union leadership did was to use one to help solve the other. That is, a very modest limitation of compulsory overtime became a weapon to limit worker absenteeism.

Also ignored is the fact that there was a time after World War II when the auto companies could not force workers to work any amount of overtime. It was the union that had accepted compulsory overtime in the first place.

Too often in the book, when something positive happens, it is credited to an ambiguous “union.” When problems appear, such as undisciplined militancy, ethnic divisions or craft divisions, they are attributed to “workers.”

Divisions Neglected

The important thing is not how this or that event is interpreted. There is always room for differences. But an historical analysis should not totally neglect the fundamental and growing division between union leaders and members. It is not enough to complain about the “apathy” of union members and their “failure” to participate in an institution that gives them less and less room to maneuver.

The book notes that “the UAW officially discouraged such ‘Jap Baiting’ by stressing the import strategies of U.S. car companies, and by having the head of the Japanese Auto Workers Union address UAW conventions.” (p. 233).

That is a bit much. The parking lot at Solidarity House, the UAW national headquarters, had a sign, widely reported in the press: “Park your foreign car in Tokyo.” The unions also departed drastically from the historic UAW policy of opposing attacks on auto workers elsewhere by demanding import restrictions.

The fact that the UAW had a notoriously pro-management Japanese “union leader” speak to UAW conventions did the UAW no credit. Had the UAW invited Japanese auto worker dissidents to their conventions they would have gotten a much different picture of the Japanese reality (different than the misinformation that is repeated on p. 228).

There are a few errors in the book that hopefully will be corrected in the event of future editions. Rosa Parks was not Secretary of the Montgomery local of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (p. 163).

Writing about the 1960s, it is wrong to assert that Rev. Cleage had long advocated Black separatism (pp. 169-70). Before the outbreaks of the ’60s, Cleage was head of one of the most conservative and bourgeois Black churches. It was transformed into the Shrine of the Black Madonna in the ’60s. And it is hard to understand how Walter Reuther can be credited with coming from a “rural” background, coming from the steel city of Wheeling, W. Va. (p. 148).

Despite these criticisms, Working Detroit is an important and useful book. It stands alone in presenting a narrative history of the development of unionism in the city of Detroit. It captures some of the excitement and romance of the times that it describes. It has information that would be difficult to find in any other form. And it is clearly sympathetic to the struggles of workers, Blacks, women-the oppressed. These days, that counts for a lot.

September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

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