B.J. Widick and the UAW

Against the Current, No. 137, November/December 2008

Nelson Lichtenstein

“B.J. WIDICK, 1910-2008,” Alan Wald’s account of the life and political journey of the veteran socialist and labor figure, appeared in our previous issue, ATC 136. We also asked historian Nelson Lichtenstein to discuss Widick’s career in the United Auto Workers and as a writer on the labor movement – The Editors.

B.J. WIDICK WAS among those men of the left, including the influential group who came out of the “Shachtmanite” Workers Party, for whom the post-World War II United Auto Workers became the institution into which they poured their passion, intellect and organizational energies. For at least two decades the UAW filled the vacuum once occupied by the socialist or Trotskyist commitment that had formed their politics in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

For some, this engagement with America’s largest and most powerful trade union eased the way to an accommodation with a tepid brand of labor-liberalism and often to a set of politics far to the right even of that. As the writer Harvey Swados once put it, the problem with the UAW leadership, and the circle of formerly leftwing intellectuals who sustained it, was that they “did not take their own politics seriously.”

Widick shared an emotive fixation with the UAW and the leadership stratum that made Walter Reuther an icon of postwar liberalism. But if Widick saw the UAW as standing at the center of progressive politics for many years, he remained for much of that same time a sharp critic of Reuther and the bargaining regime over which he presided.

As chief steward at Chrysler Local 7 from 1947 to 1959, Widick had the best possible vantage point from which to observe both the devolution of the UAW and the economic and racial transformations which would make Detroit the “city of race and class violence” he described in his 1971 history of the auto capital.

Widick was a friend and collaborator with many of the former socialists and Trotskyists who would later play influential roles in the UAW research department and in the Reuther “brains trust.” But Widick himself never took a permanent post within the UAW apparatus, opting for an on-again, off-again career at Wayne State and at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business in the years after 1959.

Looking at Walter Reuther

Widick’s critique had three aspects that emerged out of his writings and political engagement: his analysis of the rise of the Reutherite bureaucracy in the UAW; his views on the transformation of the union’s role in the shop-floor work regime; and his engagement with postwar racial and urban politics in the UAW and in Detroit itself.

Although Widick spent the war years in military service, he supported the Reuther caucus in their epic factional battle against those unionists whose political coloration was often shaped by the support they took from the sizable Communist group in the UAW. This perspective is found in the influential book, The UAW and Walter Reuther, which Widick authored with Irving Howe in 1949.

The authors celebrated the role of the wartime Rank and File Caucus, a group whose political guidance was often provided by the Workers Party, but the authors also offered Reuther and his circle of ex-socialist supporters an equivocal appreciation. This was apparently not enough for the Reuther partisans in Solidarity House, who failed to give the book public notice in any UAW-controlled publication.

In their portrait of Reuther, Howe and Widick found “a distinct quality of improvisation” in his recent political thinking; indeed Reuther has “slipped into the character mold of the American managerial type.” They found a “disturbing distance” between the ultimate ideas tucked away in the back of his head and his immediate actions.”

With C. Wright Mills, Howe and Widick thought that a new economic crisis might well shift the Reutherites to the left once again, including moves toward formation of an independent party of labor, but in the meantime the drift to bureaucracy went unchecked.

This criticism became far sharper in the pages of Labor Action, in which Widick’s pointed reportage appeared in the early 1950s. When the Reutherites put the big Ford Local 600, a sometime node of Communist influence, under an administratorship, Widick complained, “It’s amazing! Walter Reuther points out a thousand times in a thousand speeches that Stalinism cannot be defeated by force alone — superior ideas and better program for the workers is the only answer! Yet in the UAW today, the only answer to Stalinism is bureaucratic force!”

Widick’s Labor Today: the Triumphs and Failures of Unionism in the United States (1964) reflected his critique of bureaucracy and political devolution throughout the entire union movement. In contrast to the expectant mood projected throughout The UAW and Walter Reuther, Widick now saw the industrial relations system as a fixed, if stolid, part of the body politic.

Trade unions, he reported “are a permanent feature of society,” as functional to industrial capitalism as management itself. But the cost was enormous, for the unions were no longer a dynamic force in American life. Widick thought the prospects “not very bright” that a still-ambitious figure like Walter Reuther could escape “the small role to which he had been restricted.”

Even while he served as chief steward at the big three automaker in which stewards retained the greatest shop-floor power, Widick proved a prescient observer of the ways in which the increasingly rigid and all-encompassing UAW collective bargaining contract constrained the capacity of the union to defend its members in their chronic daily battles with shop management.

“Our contracts are becoming such legalistic documents as to be unworkable in terms of real, genuine labor relations,” he asserted as early as 1954, “and we are getting this whole new body of law which is just fantastic.” The shop steward, complained Widick, has become a “Philadelphia lawyer. It’s embarrassing.”

Shift of Focus

For more than 20 years, such shop issues and the UAW’s capacity to resolve them would stand near the center of Widick’s politics and his increasingly prolific writing, largely in the pages of Dissent and The Nation. Indeed one might say that his socialist vision shifted from the grand politics in which the UAW was celebrated as a “vanguard” of the American working class, to a much more constrained world in which issues of grievance handling and quality of working life became, if not more central, than at least somewhat amenable to reform.

This era ended abruptly in the mid-1970s when issues of job loss and deindustrialization marginalized efforts to humanize the assembly line. Thereafter the “reform” of the shopfloor work regime became largely a project of management, as publications such as Labor Notes have demonstrated in such convincing detail.

Indeed, by the 1970s Widick’s own steward-centered solution to these problems had been partially eclipsed in his own thinking by a more psychologically attuned critique of alienated labor among industrial workers. This perspective is apparent in Auto Work and Its Discontents, a 1976 collection of essays which Widick edited.

Although Widick had been teaching at Columbia since 1969, most of the contributors to his volume, including Bill Goode, Patricia Sexton, and Al Nash, were, like Widick, veterans of the Workers Party who had spent a number of years as stewards and activists within UAW-organized factories. Funded by the Ford Foundation, the Widick study came at the very end of an era of industrial stability in which laborite intellectuals of the center-left could seek to resolve these problems, if only in a reformist fashion.

Although Howe and Widick had defended the Reutherite approach to racial issues within the UAW in their 1949 book, Widick soon became a critic of the UAW’s inertia and outright racism.

In 1943, when the Reuther caucus had opposed Communist efforts to create what we would today label an “affirmative action” program for moving Blacks onto the UAW executive board, Widick agreed with the Reuther brothers that this was “reverse Jim Crow,” a violation of color-blind socialist principles. But the intractable quality of racial discrimination in the auto industry and UAW soon pushed Widick to adopt positions once advocated by his Communist opponents.

When Reuther ignored a report on racial problems in the UAW authored by Widick in the mid 1950s, he allied himself with the postwar generation of Black militants who formed the Detroit chapter of A. Philip Randolph’s Trade Union Leadership Council. Widick served on the TULC executive board, wrote speeches for Horace Sheffield and other Black leaders, and campaigned to put an African-American unionist on the UAW executive board. It finally took place in 1962.

Widick also played an important role in supporting the successful mayoral candidacy of Jerome Cavanaugh, a racially progressive reformer strongly supported by the TULC but opposed by most Detroit UAW leaders.

Any optimism Widick might have held for the state of race relations in Detroit was shattered by the riots of 1967, after which he published Detroit: City of Race and Class Violence.

Although Widick was rather disdainful of the radical Black workers who had organized such militant groups as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the first edition of the book put forward the thesis that Detroit might well become a Black metropolis, a vibrant center of Black political and economic power. But by 1989 when he published another edition, Widick could see little hope for a city undergoing radical deindustrialization and increasingly bitter racial polarization.

As an academic and labor intellectual, B. J. Widick was a synthesizer more than a truly original thinker. But his authority as writer and teacher was rightly enhanced by his rich engagement with a generation of shop militants and union leaders, which he deployed to frame and popularize for postwar labor-liberals key issues facing the unions in an era of racial tension, industrial conflict and urban decline.

ATC 137, November-December 2008