When the UAW Was Young

Against the Current, No. 131, November/December 2007

an interview with Erwin and Estar Baur

ATC: Erwin, you said that you started out as a journeyman in steel, but got blacklisted after the Little Steel strike. How did you eventually become a skilled tradesman?

Erwin: I went to 10 different plants in order to learn to become a tool and die maker. I worked in all different kinds of small plants, including a toy plant, where I learned the most. In the toy plant there were all kinds of small, thin shapes and it takes reduced-sized equipment, but the theory is the same. So that’s how I learned the most, by quitting this job, that job, and moving to another. There wasn’t a subject in the tool and die trade that I didn’t learn something from somebody. I became an expert.

I wanted to go to Ford but they weren’t hiring at the moment, so I went to Cleveland and worked in General Motors, and came to Detroit in 1942.

ATC: How did the wildcats develop during the period of the World War II no-strike pledge? What were they about?

Erwin: People used to ask, “Wildcat? What does that mean? There’s no leadership, that’s what a wildcat is.”

I’d explain to them: That’s not true. Every wildcat had a leader or a group of leaders or it wouldn’t have come about. It doesn’t come about because a worker decides to quit. It comes about because workers are organized and going to take action as a group, even though you can call it a wildcat because no official seems to be in charge of the thing.

Usually they developed when some leaders in the local got disgusted and decided to do something about it. Workers don’t just walk out. The wildcats were organized by people who knew what they were doing. They were organized by workers who had experience, stewards or ex-stewards, or by radicals who had standing.

They were wildcats because they were unofficial. But they were not unorganized. They were about working conditions, seniority violations, the abuse by foremen; they weren’t about wages.

ATC: Were they about long hours?

Erwin: I don’t know of any strikes about long hours. In the plant I worked in we had experimental work. We had guys who worked around the clock — 24 hours straight! At least it wasn’t true in my unit, which was an experimental unit, a rocket experimental place.

Can you imagine having a Trotskyist — and a German! — in the most sensitive part of the American military materials?

When we went from my little place into the main building, where the services were, we had to put the material we were carrying in burlap sacks so others couldn’t see it. It was part of the secrecy of wartime.

ATC: Who organized and led the wildcats?

Erwin: During this period in the UAW there was still considerable democracy. It was generally people who were out of office but were leader-contenders of one kind or another.  Militant stewards, militant committeepeople or ex-committeepeople.

ATC: What proportion of those were radicals?

Erwin:You have to make a distinction. During the no-strike period the Communist Party was on the company side. The no-strike pledge people were socialists and radicals, Trotskyists or just proper militants who didn’t happen to be in the CP or radical.

When the Soviets were aligned with America, the CP was against wildcats, against militancy. In my own local union, precisely because of that we very quickly eliminated the CP caucus, which dominated my local union before I got there in 1942. But because of their position against the no-strike pledge, they lost their entire leadership.

Some of their members became SWPers, directly recruited from the CP into the SWP. We smashed the CP caucus. I shouldn’t use the word smashed: The militants believed in the radicalism that was associated with the CP. When the events showed they were no longer playing that role, we won them over. In my local the CP disappeared. Those who were genuinely radical came to our caucus.

In the Ford local the CP had larger forces and the CP was not wiped out. Nor did any genuine militant ever take over that local union. The Ford local had all the tendencies — socialism, communism, anarchism — but the CP was the largest.

ATC: How did this no-strike milieu develop?

Erwin: By experience. You couldn’t get an authorized strike. On the other hand, grievances kept piling up.The companies did as they damn well pleased. And because of the no-strike pledge, the union didn’t use its strike instrument.

When that happens the company gets away with murder. I have a written statement I wrote as president. I pointed out that because these grievances are piling up on the no-strike pledge, they have to find relief some way. Because there was a no-strike pledge they are going to find a way to break out of the straitjacket. And you have wildcats. You can just see the logic of it.

ATC: But others didn’t see the logic of it. The CP didn’t.

Erwin: Yes, but they were pro-war.

ATC: So they thought you just had to sacrifice for the war.

Erwin: Yes, that’s how they lost their membership in the other unions.

ATC: What were the most militant locals during the no-strike pledge period?
Erwin: There was my local, Local 306, Local 212 with Ernie Mazey, Local 50, and a Chrysler local. At Local 600, there was a fellow by the name of Yost [in the aircraft unit], who was in the Socialist Party.

ATC: So you promoted the idea of the wildcat?

Erwin: You also remember we had The Militant (the SWP’s newspaper), which published this approach. In my local I couldn’t express fully what I thought, but I could express that we had to fight on the grievances. The Militant surely was an excellent tool that stirred it up for you. People read it.

Some people had subscriptions. Every now and then somebody sold it at the plant gate, and there were outlets around town. It was enough to get the ideas around.

Segregation and “Hate Strikes”

ATC: Were there places you could have political discussions?

Erwin: The SWP had meetings, but not many people would come to meetings of radicals in that period. It was the paper that did it.

We had a headquarters on Woodward Avenue in the early part. We moved to a much larger hall that we also used as a beer garden. It was open to Blacks, which was very important at the time because almost every other place was segregated. Here you could come and there were Blacks and whites. Black men felt at home here because we had a few Black women members, and because white women would dance with Black men. It was a big thing.

ATC: Detroit was a very segregated city then?

Erwin: Oh yeah.

ATC: Was that true at work?

Erwin: No, it was not. But at one stage Dodge had a strike where they physically threw out the radicals over the question of Blacks. At one stage there was a walkout where physically Blacks and radicals were walked out of the plant. One of the CPers was physically carried out because he was known as a radical, and he was friendly to Blacks.

It was reactionary. They did it twice. That’s one of the reasons that DRUM was born. (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the core of the Black workers’ insurgency that developed in the late 1960s — ed.)

ATC: The Klu Klux Klan was quite active in Detroit during the 1920s. Did it exist during World War II?

Erwin: In the 1930s the working class rose up and organized and that Klan connection got lost.

ATC: What happened during the race riot of 1943?

Erwin: In my plant nothing happened. It’s kind of strange. I drove down Brush Street and the Blacks were beating the hell out of whites in cars. And two streets over, on a street called Oakland, the whites were beating up Blacks. I drove right down where I usually drove and I had no problem. That’s all I know.

ATC: Were Blacks in the foundry afraid to come to work?

Erwin: They came to work; the foundry never shut down.

ATC: What was the role of the UAW?

Erwin: In Packard they were carrying people out of the plant. Once the UAW laid down the law, that they weren’t going to tolerate this kind of stuff, it stopped.

I think Dodge had some of it too, I’m not sure.

The fact that we always had 200 or more Blacks in the foundry made our local a little different than most other locals. It gave us a Black population under different circumstances than there might have been elsewhere. Also the Budd management was very tolerant. It was not a reactionary-type management.

From Shop Floor Power to Reuther

ATC: To have a viable caucus don’t you need to have somebody in some level of leadership?

Erwin: When I was president of the local we always had a caucus. I used to stir them loose so they’d raise hell in the meeting. Then I could have a little elbow room to get to the management and say “What makes you think I can control my membership? You ought to come to my membership meeting and learn what they think.”

At Budd Wheel I did very little work. Every now and then the superintendent would come in and say “Baur, that press over there, they can’t seem to get that split off that roof up there. Would you go over and see what the trouble there is?” He’d be very polite about it. Or, if he was really desperate he’d say, “Goddamn it, get off your ass.” I couldn’t complain.

I probably knew more than any superintendent they had. As a matter of fact, they let me roam anywhere. I used to go to the engineering department, where the new jobs were coming in.

I’d look at the prints of the new jobs and get it in my mind about what they’d need for this job. It was a job company so all kinds of things were coming in all the time. By the time they got to the first stage I’d have the templates ready for the work. I knew what was coming. From their point of view they never told me what to do. That gives you elbow room to do anything you want to do.

The opposition would complain to the superintendent and then finally to the plant manager. “How come Baur is walking all over the plant?” He’d have to explain that was part of my job. The opposition would complain to management; they couldn’t grow as long as I had the roam of the plant.

ATC: Did your caucus meet before union meetings?

Erwin: The amount of time between caucus meetings varied. Sometimes it was monthly, but on special occasions we could meet almost daily. We kept an active caucus. And we even encouraged an opposition. We had a fellow named Cantor; he was a loose cannon. It was good to have him raise hell; it was good for my caucus to know there was someone to the left of them.

It’s always good to have someone to the left if you are interested in moving things forward. If they think you’re doing it then you become “the leader.” The next thing you know you’re not going to be leading anything except what one individual can do, and that’s never enough. You need a caucus.

ATC: What happened in the postwar period?

Erwin: I worked at the Budd Wheel Company on Detroit’s east side. My local union, UAW Local 306, was different than the others; I can’t talk about the others. We were just lucky enough that we didn’t have a right wing that could take over. What was out there on the left became part of us. And we had a foundry which was helpful: 200 Blacks. I had made a special effort with women. We had up to 400 women there at one stage. That block was so solid it was just unbelievable.

ATC: When the women were forced out after the war….

Erwin: Thew women in my plant all remained on the payroll. They were either laid off and remained on the payroll, or they worked. Reuther let a lot of them get fired: “The war is over, you’re no longer needed.”  Off you went and you didn’t fight the issue. But in my local management was told, “That’s a seniority issue. Go down the seniority list.” So we didn’t have a problem.

Some quit, but we had a couple hundred. Actually, the number went down. The membership went down from 6,000 to 2,000. Just down, down, down. There was no hiring of women, or men in the postwar period, except some skilled tradesmen. Packard closed, Hudson closed, Murray Body folded.

ATC: What was the feeling when these plants were closing?

Erwin: Well, there were other plants opening so there wasn’t any unemployment. The work force was expanding.

ATC: What about the 1945-46 GM strike that lasted 113 days? Nelson Lichtenstein writes about Detroit having a citywide strike committee that met daily to coordinate the picketing.

Erwin: I wasn’t involved; I didn’t participate in the picket lines. There weren’t that many picket lines. It just shut down. In Detroit when there was a strike you just shut down. There were pickets but it didn’t amount to much because no one was going to go scabbing anyway.

Workers just stayed home. Many of them didn’t bother from then on, they just picked up their strike paychecks, and after awhile they mailed them their checks.

ATC: It took Walter Reuther awhile to consolidate his power?

Erwin: It took him one year. The first year he had to content himself with whatever was elected. He was a minority on the exec board. But when that convention rolled around he got a majority right away, total majority.  Addes stayed on for awhile; he didn’t challenge him.

ATC: Was Richard Frankensteen a challenge to Reuther? What were his politics?

Erwin: He was a playboy. He wanted to be an actor; he wanted to be a stage manager. He drifted off on his own — he was not expelled. Reuther didn’t have to remove him. Politically he was an opportunist; a militant opportunistic type, and he was a southerner.

ATC: Frankensteen got 44% of the vote for mayor of Detroit in 1945. What would have happened if he won?

Erwin: I don’t know. I think he would have been just like another mayor. He would have adapted very quickly. There were a number of attempts and in some areas labor people got elected. But in this country they get absorbed. I don’t know of anyone who lasted anywhere.

The Bureaucracy’s Evolution

ATC: When would you say the transformation into a blind-alley bureaucracy began? Before or after Reuther’s death?

Erwin: And not immediately after either. The next president, Doug Fraser, carried on just like Reuther. He came out of the same tradition. And as a matter of fact Fraser was a nicer guy, more humane. He was not a machine type. I got along very well with him. (He also happened to be a neighbor of mine.)

ATC: What happened to the other Reuther brothers?

Erwin: Roy remained in Flint; I think as an organizer. Victor played international politics all the time. He was more European than American, and he remained that kind of guy all his life. Later on he became a friend of ours. He was better than Walter. He was a European-type social democrat and remained that way while Walter was doing what he wanted. Walter gave him money to get him out of his hair. He put him on the international staff and gave him a lot of money so he played politics in Europe with the social democracy, keeping up friendly relationships for Walter.

ATC: Was Walter Reuther a consistent socialist?

Erwin: He became a Democrat; the Democrats took him over. He was playing Democractic Party politics.

ATC: Why did Walter Reuther get involved in the civil rights movement?

Erwin: He had a conscience about Blacks and he had a social democratic world view. He didn’t confine himself to the UAW; he had ambitions for the whole world labor movement. He was a very ambitious man. And I think he would have become a world-type labor leader later on.

Women Workers, the Reality

Estar: We, in this house, have a division of labor about work. Erwin talks about what a wonderful job he had. I had a terrible job. I was a production worker.

ATC: When did you go to work in the auto industry?

Estar: The company came to the union and said:  We’re short of people on the production line. Would you like to have us hire women or Blacks? And the union said they’d rather have women. That’s how I got my job on the line at Dodge Main.

The Blacks who hired in later got heavier jobs. They went to work at the foundry. We never used to see them. It was a big building and we were on the 7th floor. Sometimes I felt like jumping out of the 7th floor window; it was so awful.

I worked in trim, that’s where they stuck women. Then I found out I’d be much better off with a man’s job: men’s jobs are easier.

I had a job working on the production line. I was putting up roof posts. You don’t have roof posts anymore; they used to have wiring in the car that would go all the way around; there would be a switch you’d turn on and off and a light in the middle that would go on. They gave the women those jobs because you had to be fairly agile and very small.

It was a very hard job. I had a stool and I did every seventh job. I had an apron with screws in my pocket and a drill that was hung onto the overhead wire. Later on it was every fourth job.

When I first started it wasn’t so bad because there were good union conditions and production was so low we worked a half hour on and a half hour off. That wasn’t bad. Then it got to be 40 minutes on, 20 minutes off. Then we got two 15-minute breaks. Towards the end the union was disappearing.

I had two children at home. I worked the afternoon shift. I’d come home late in the night, running down the streets scared to death. I said to myself I’m so tired these days, I can’t even read a newspaper. My older daughter encouraged me to go to college even though I hadn’t finished high school.

ATC: What did you see as the difference between working conditions when you came to work at Dodge in 1950 and what it was like as you were leaving, in 1957?

Estar: In 1950, because the union had been so strong and there had been all those walkouts, conditions were tolerable. Production was low. When production gets high, there’s a very strange thing that happens. They have these time-study men around, and the slower you try to go, the faster you do it for some mysterious reason. Production just got so high.

They used to have slowdown strikes. I was involved in one. The line started at the end of the building and went half-way through it, and then it would go down the rafters to the floor below, to the 6th floor. The bosses came around and said to me, “If you wouldn’t talk so much you could be faster.”

So I put a big piece of tape over my mouth and jumped in there with my stool and worked at a very slow pace. I slowed down the whole line. I was getting very near the hole when my co-workers at the back of the line stopped the line, and I didn’t go down the hole. That would have been disastrous! But I was determined.

I had another interesting experience. Once the trim shop  was short of people to put arm rests in the cars. There’d be about 10 little ladies sitting in a circle. These arm rests would come down and you would be covering them up. I didn’t last long. I was like Charlie Chaplin. Did you ever see that movie, “Modern Times,” by Charlie Chaplin?

They sent me but they didn’t keep me. The women who did it didn’t find the job hard, really. They got very adept at it.

ATC: When you were there, what was the percentage of the workforce that was female?

Estar: Just about 10-15%. Most were on these little itty bitty jobs, which I tell you were harder than the hard jobs.

ATC: When women came into the plant after the war, did anything change?

Estar: It didn’t change much at all. We’d just go to the old pattern. It changed with production; when the union got weak.

Just before I came there Dodge had a big strike. They were the leaders of the left.

Hard Times

ATC: Why was Dodge Main the place where DRUM was born?

Estar: They hired in new Black workers, who weren’t going to take shit. The conditions were bad.

I’m going to tell you a story. There was a CP member who worked at Dodge in the trim shop, the same place where I was. I didn’t know all of this was happening but it happened before I got involved. It was during the McCarthy era and the workers were anti-communist and they walked him out of the plant for being a communist.

ATC: Why were they anti-communist?

Estar: The times.

Erwin: The whole press, the radio, the whole city was anti-communist. They created a furor. Some of these workers picked it up.

Estar: A lot of communists were thrown out of the unions. And the workers walked him out. And like a good communist he walked right back in the next day. He wasn’t going to let it bother him. Then they walked him out again, and he didn’t dare come back.

But when I got my first teaching job at Highland Park High School he was there. Quiet as a mouse; he was really cowed. And I’m still walking around like I’m the cock of the walk. And this man just actually blossomed. We organized the union there, and he ended up president of the local. There was a young guy as well; the three of us — we were a triumvirate!

Erwin: Was he actually a member of the Communist Party? I never asked him.

Estar: Yes.

ATC: Did he remain a member?

Estar: No. I think he had a wife and two kids, and it was too much pressure for him. He called me once here (in California), at Christmas. He said I made him a new life.

ATC: Was he the only person you ever knew who got walked out?

Estar: Yeah. [But there were other radicals at the plant.] Mary Ann Charlevoix was a member of the Socialist Party was there too. But she behaved in a different way. She knew how to handle herself. She was there until I quit. And so was Edie Fox. She was a shop steward. She spent a lot of time there, at “Dodge Local 3-1/2.”

ATC: What’s 3-1/2?

Estar: The bar across the street. She made good friends. She was personally very friendly. She became “one of the guys.” She hung around a lot while I was a housewife with a couple of kids. She made good friends; she was active in the union. She was in there quite awhile until it got so bad.

Edith Horn was a Communist Party member, but she was very quiet. Edith ended up being such a good Reutherite that they put her on the payroll in the UAW national office.

Erwin: Ernie Mazey was prominent as a Trotskyist. He was president of a small local at Huck Manufacturing,, within the amalgamated Local 212. Even though his brother was then International Secretary-Treasurer Ernie, a friend of ours, was a consistent oppositionist at UAW conventions, Being Emil’s brother helped Ernie in city politics and access to the media, giving him a certain “acceptable” status and standing as a spokesperson for radical ideas.

He was also an important leader in the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union. When he joined it had about 23 members; he worked at building it until it was a membership organization of 10,000. This transformed the whole national ACLU into an entirely different, more activist, organization.

Estar: I was not a good communist in the sense that I really put my kids first. Erwin was very involved in the labor movement, and from the get-go I was conditioned — this is my working-class hero — that his union demands came first. It’s true. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I got my own life, that I realized I have a life.

Erwin didn’t want me to go to college. He said, “You’re just getting known in the union. You just spoke at a union meeting. Why are you quitting now?”

When I worked at Dodge, I worked in a corner of the assembly line. It was so terrible in there if you dropped your tools the whole line would go down. For example, when it was hot. At Dodge when the heat went up we went out. Nobody had to tell us to go.

Erwin: Today that attitude no longer prevails. Bourgeois ideology has got the upper hand, not union ideology.

Employers Get Smarter

ATC: I think it would take a success to turn that around, just like PATCO (the air traffic controllers’ union destroyed by the Reagan administration in 1981 — ed.) was their success.

Erwin: The PATCO defeat had enormous influence everywhere. But a new generation of workers comes in, there’s always someone who, sooner or later, gets sick and tired of it, and does something about it.

One of the things we forget is that employers have learned in the meanwhile, too. The employment offices are now very aware of what they must do to ease off pressures, and they do it. A lot of complaints are made, even an angry worker, and they do nothing. But the message gets to management. They think it through. They are much more conscious these days than they used to be.

In an earlier time they would have said, “Well goddamn, we hired them, let’s make them work!” These days they talk them into working. The message has changed.

These days the employer is much smarter. It’s not just that workers have gotten less militant, it’s also that the bosses are that much smarter.

ATC: And they have both the carrot and the stick.

Estar: Then they suck them in with this cooperative work, improving the jobs, like they do at NUMMI (the GM-Toyota plant in California —ed.). They have them working on how to improve your job, who’s going to be the leader of this group, and the company pays them to be the leader. I think they have more contact than the union does. You go to the company training and you might get something.

Erwin: You no longer have foremen who order you to do something; they have to lead you to do something.

ATC: And you’ve got peer pressure.

Estar: It’s just different. Management has gotten very smart and workers have gotten very disorganized. Instead of workers uniting, it’s management that’s united.

Erwin: Workers haven’t kept up. And we don’t have a left-wing group. The CP is no longer there. The Trotskyists as a large, organized group in auto are no longer there.

from ATC 131 (November/December 2007)