Sol Dollinger, 1920-2001

Against the Current, No. 98, May/June 2002

Dianne Feeley

TIME RAN OUT on Sol Dollinger, who died September 12, 2001. Battling prostate cancer, he knew he had only a limited amount of time left and he wanted to complete his history of the United Auto Workers. By early 2000 Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers’ Union was published by Monthly Review Press.

The first eleven chapters told the story of the UAW from the Toledo Auto-Lite Strike of 1934 through the first years of the Reuther administration. (Chapter 11 was based on an article Sol wrote for Against the Current, which appeared in the May/June 1996 issue.) Chapter 12 was Genora Johnson Dollinger’s oral history of the Flint sitdown and the period through World War II.

In the last two chapters Sol Dollinger attempted to “set the record straight,” refuting what he felt was the rewriting of UAW history. Finally, in his brief epilogue, Dollinger summed up the problems the UAW has faced since the post-World War II period.

Once the book was out, Sol went on a book tour, visiting UAW locals from Flint to Toledo and touching base with old friends. He was pleased to be able to talk with today’s generation of autoworkers about the problems they faced.

Sol Dollinger, born October 7, 1920 in Brooklyn, New York, joined the Young Peoples Socialist League when he was fifteen. As a high school socialist activist, he supported the Oxford Pledge against war and became active in the Unemployed League.

Trotskyists analyzed the coming war as an imperialist one which was primarily about recarving the world. Many draft-age Trotskyists shipped out in the merchant marines. It was an alternative “defense” job and one where they could use the time at sea to recruit others to socialist ideas.

At first Sol worked on the Great Lakes and while in port he met Genora Johnson, who had recently separated from her husband, Kermit Johnson. All three were members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

Both Genora and Kermit had been leaders of the 1936 Flint sitdown strike — he as a strike leader from Chevrolet, she as the organizer of the Women’s Auxiliary. The auxiliary organized a child care center at the union HQ, set up a first-aid station, made house calls to see that every family had enough to eat, gave advice on how to handle creditors, organized public speaking classes, and formed an Emergency Brigade to mobilize women for any emergency. The brigade wore red berets, red armbands and carried wooden sticks — to indicate they were “ready for action.” (136)

Blacklisting and Beating

While the strike had been a high water mark of Genora’s life, during it she had also been suffering from TB. After the strike she spent six months in a sanitarium but still ended up losing one lung. Her younger son died in a car accident, later her older son died of multiple sclerosis.

Genora was blacklisted so completely in Flint that she didn’t feel she could find any work there. She and Sol married and moved to Detroit. In her first job in a Detroit factory, she was fired. Feeling that the blacklist would follow her around she told Sol, “Sol, I’m going to start using your name now. I’ve worn mine out.” (152)

As the war heated up in 1942 Sol shipped out on the Murmansk run. His vessel was one of thirty torpedoed. Forced to abandon ship into a lifeboat, he suffered frostbite and ended up spending six months recovering in a Soviet hospital.

Meanwhile Genora got into Briggs Corporation, a plant that was producing the B-27 planes. She soon became the Chief Steward of Department 15, representing 500 workers, primarily Hungarian, Italian and Polish women. She was one of six members of the SWP working there. When the plant closed down for retooling after the war, Genora worked on the UAW’s campaign to run Richard Frankensteen as mayor of Detroit.

In October 1945 two men broke through the back door of the Dollinger’s apartment. Since Sol was an autoworker in Flint and the organizer of the SWP branch there, he was usually home only on the weekend. But this particular night he was in Detroit.

As the men burst into the bedroom and attacked Genora with a lead pipe, Sol managed to put his arm over her head. Although she suffered a brain concussion, a broken collarbone, nerve damage to her face and was paralyzed on her right side, she might have been even more permanently injured had it not been for Sol.

Genora Dollinger’s beating was the fourth UAW members at Briggs had suffered. The local union formed an investigating committee, which discovered the company had given an important scrap contract to Carl Renda, son-in-law of Santo Perrone, head of the Detroit Mafia. But when the committee presented the UAW International with the information — and asked that a reward be established –they found their idea rejected.

In 1948, in separate incidents within a month of each other, Victor and Walter Reuther were shot. As a result, Victor lost an eye. The International then posted a $200,000 reward and hired Ralph Winstead, a detective with a national reputation.

In 1951 Estes Kefauver Special Senate Committee held hearings in Detroit. Building on the findings of the 1948 local Grand Jury investigations, they substantiated the link between Briggs’ management and the Mafia, but no charges resulted. By 1957, after eight years of investigation, Winstead’s body was fished out of Lake St. Clair.

Reuther’s Machine in A Postwar UAW

As head of the GM department within the UAW, Reuther carried out a militant 113-day strike against GM. SWP autoworkers like Sol had supported the 1945-46 strike. At the UAW convention, which was held shortly after the strike’s conclusion, Walter Reuther won a paper-thin victory for president over R.J. Thomas. Immediately after Reuther’s election, he nominated Melvin Bishop for vice president.

This first attempt to establish a one-party UAW regime failed. Prior to the convention, eastside Detroit Reuther-supporting delegates had informed Reuther that they would not vote for Bishop if he were nominated for vice president. These militant delegates took this position because of Bishop’s wartime support of the company when it discharged workers involved in wartime wild-cat strikes.

As a consequence, Thomas received a larger vote for vice president than Reuther had for president. The angriest delegation came from Briggs, Local 212, where its three caucuses united to give Thomas a 160-vote advantage.

Thus in 1946 Reuther gained the presidency — but did not have the majority of the Executive Board.

Dollinger maintained that it took Reuther ten years to consolidate his power. Reuther’s methods included utilizing his staff of 700 for factional advantage, pretending to stand “above the fray” of the political battle while actually controlling the debate.

For example, Reuther downplayed his criticisms of the Taft-Hartley Act and allowed his supporters to claim that while the act was unconstitutional, the union was forced to comply with it. Detroit witnessed the largest union demonstration in history as over 250,000 marched into Cadillac Square on April 24, 1947 to oppose Taft-Hartley. But 150 officers from the most militant locals found themselves penalized for carrying out Reuther’s own orders to mobilize!

In 1947 inflation had wiped out the gains autoworkers had made under the previous contract, and many economists predicted higher inflation ahead. Trotskyists had been proposing tying wages to the cost of living by an escalator clause, and a number of locals had passed resolutions to that effect.

In Flint Sol worked with Jack Palmer, president of Local 599, to bring together the five Flint UAW presidents representing 40,000 GM workers to support a sliding scale of wages. Solidarity resolutions poured in from locals representing a quarter million workers.

Although the Communists did not support the escalator clause, Reuther launched a red smear against Jack Palmer, insinuating that Palmer took his orders from the CP. Reuther declared he was bound by a UAW conference decision of half a year before and that those who didn’t obey the decisions agreed upon by the majority would have to be dealt with. Reuther’s hardball tactics successfully squelched
the issue.

But in 1948, after Walter Reuther was shot, GM proposed a sliding scale of wages, similar to that proposed by the five Flint presidents. With only a few changes that proposal has became known as the cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) — attributed to GM, not to the five Flint presidents who first put it forward.

In 1946 the SWP leadership urged its autoworker comrades to join the Reuther caucus. But the leading autoworker militants, including Sol and Genora, felt it was necessary to work with Reuther’s opponents, including members of the CP.

Communists were no longer advocating speedup and piecework — as they had during World War II<197>but were adopting more militant tactics. On the other hand, Reuther was turning into a red-baiting bureaucrat. This debate foreshadowed a two-year political debate within the SWP, ending with the expulsion in 1953 of one-third of the party’s membership — particularly its leading trade unionists, and including the Dollingers.

Known within the SWP as the Cochranites (after Bert Cochran, one of their theoreticians), the grouping saw the postwar period as opening a new era. While internationally that meant the end of colonialism and the rise of revolutionary movements, within the United States the consolidation of the labor bureaucracy and the reality of the Cold War were serious obstacles to developing a socialist consciousness among the working class.

The Cochranites formed the Socialist Union as a vehicle for a possible regroupment of the U.S. left and put out an excellent monthly magazine, The American Socialist.

Within a couple of years of their expulsion from the SWP, Sol and Genora decided to pull up roots and move to California. They built a new life in Los Angeles, raised their son, Ron, and remained in touch with other Socialist Union members. Sol became a professional fundraiser for an Israeli university. I remember his remarking to me that he’d been blind to Zionism — particularly before the 1967 war.

Sol and Genora were always eager to share their experiences particularly with autoworkers and students, and supportive of the current generation in their struggles. I believe Genora’s oral history reveals this openness, as do her reactions in the documentary, With Babies and Banners.

When I visited Sol at his home in Los Angeles, several years after Genora’s death (in 1995), I found him to be a warm and gracious host. The garden was filled with roses and Genora’s sculptures decorated the house.

Sol was someone for whom history was important, but I never had the feeling that he lived in the past. For example, he saw the necessity of labor to break with the Democratic Party, hailing the formation of the Labor Party. His old friend and comrade Frank Fried recalled that for Sol history informed the present, and it was the present with its possibilities of change that appealed to him.

from ATC 98 (May/June 2002)