Auto Workers Strike
By Walter Reuther, An Article in The Student Outlook, (March, 1933)
Editor’s Note: Walter Reuther was one of the most prominent labor movement figures of the 20th century, leading the United Automobile Workers union for decades.
ONE YEAR AGO a complacent public was shocked by the news of the Ford Riot in which four workers were killed and forty wounded. Added to this tragic method of education comes the latest Briggs’ strike and the other related strikes which have all slowly and painfully had their effect in educating the public as to the true conditions in the auto industry.
The American Federation of Labor once made an effort to organize the auto workers through the Machinist’s Union, but because of craft limitations in a craftless industry, the Machinist’s Union did not scratch the surface of the nut it hoped to crack. Not until 1926 at their convention in Detroit did the A. F. of L. seriously consider the organization of the production workers of the industry. The hope that a militant and constructive program of unionization would grow out of the convention was shattered when the A. F. of L. strategists permitted their plans to degenerate into a plea to the “enlightened” capitalists to accept the leadership of a responsible labor group rather than be exposed to the dangers of radicals and agitators. The complete failure of the A. F. of L.’s attempt to organize the production workers resulted in its leadership voicing the attitude that the task of unionizing the auto workers was impossible.
The challenge to organize the production workers was taken up by the Auto Workers Union, which is organized on a broad industrial basis and is founded on the principle of the class struggle. At one time the union was affiliated with the A. F. of L., but its charter was revoked over a question of jurisdiction. During the years 1919 and 1920, when the auto industry was going through a period of rapid expansion, the membership in the union grew to 45,000 and many successful strikes were staged in some of the plants.
The success of the union, however, was short-lived, for the depression of 1921 so paralyzed the auto industry that the union was broken and it declined until in 1924 the membership numbered only about 1500. As the power of the union declined, the employers became more aggressive and wage cuts, speedups, and excessive hours were thrust upon the workers. The corporations, realizing that the union might come to life at some future date, inaugurated a period of personnel management and sham industrial democracy. The Chrysler Industrial Corporation, the welfare scheme of the Chrysler Corporation, in which the workers have a voice only in the management of the baseball team typifies the extent of industrial democracy afforded by this plan.
In the face of overwhelming odds, the remnants of the Auto Workers Union, under left wing leadership kept up an unceasing struggle to unionize the auto workers into a militant, class conscious industrial organization.
After years of constant and untiring propaganda work and agitation through the departmental committees, working secretly and under great pressure, and by selling and distributing small shop papers, such as the Ford Worker and the Briggs Worker, at the gates of the plants, the Auto Workers Union finally felt that it had sufficient strength and that the time was ripe for action. It called a strike at the Briggs Waterloo Plant. The strike, while it was consciously planned by the union was nevertheless the expression of the Briggs’ workers en masse against the starvation wages, long hours and further wage cuts which have given the Briggs Corporation the reputation of being the most vicious sweat shop and hell hole in Detroit.
Threatened with a twenty percent wage cut, 600 tool and die makers of the Waterloo plant struck 100 percent strong against the Briggs industrial aristocracy.
A strategic moment had been selected for this first strike as the tools and dies for the new Ford car were about seventy-five percent complete and production could not begin on schedule without their completion.
The strike so completely paralyzed the Briggs Corporation that after three days of picketing, the company was compelled to withdraw the wage cut, recognize the union shop committees and furthermore, to reinstate the former wage rate in the other three Briggs plants where the cut had already gone into effect. The solidarity of the Briggs’ workers in their successful strike caused the Hudson Motor Company to remove the signs in their factories announcing a ten percent wage cut and replacing them by notices announcing the withdrawal of the wage cut.
Instilled with confidence by the activities of the Briggs’ workers, fifteen hundred men from the Motor Products Co. went out on strike against a fifteen percent wage cut levied several weeks before. As a result the Motor Products Co. was also forced, after three days of strike activity, to rescind the wage slash, to recognize shop committees, to establish a minimum wage rate of thirty cents for women and forty cents for men on production. In many cases this meant an actual increase of fifty percent in wages.
Two successful and well-organized strikes within one week filled the workers of Detroit with a spirit of revolt against capitalist feudalism and paved the way for a rapid succession of strikes unparalleled in the history of the auto industry.
Fired with enthusiasm by the success of the strike at the Briggs’ Waterloo plant, and encouraged by the splendid display of solidarity among the ranks of the employed and unemployed, 10,000 Briggs’ workers from the Highland Park and Mack Avenue plants walked out on strike on January 23rd against starvation wages and the “dead time” policy. So low were the wages at Briggs that some of the woman workers claimed that their pay ranged from five cents per hour upwards, while men on production were getting from thirteen cents upward per hour. The “dead time” policy of the company was the source of much grievance as some employees were compelled to wait as long as three hours for material without compensation for “dead time,” the period they had to wait.
The workers of the Waterloo and Meldrum Avenue plants soon followed the action of the other plants and pledged their solidarity and agreed among themselves to go back to work only after their rights were recognized and their grievances settled. The strikers met, endorsed the leadership of the Auto Workers Union, outlined their demands, elected their department representatives to the general strike committee and immediately began the picketing of the various plants.
Insofar as the strike paralyzed all four Briggs’ plants, the strike was one hundred percent successful. The workers instead of returning to their jobs, joined the others in the fast growing picket line, despite the fact that the press carried headlines to the effect that the strike was settled and urged the strikers to return to their jobs.
As a whole the strike was most orderly except for a few instances where strikers molested scabs who were leaving the plant and sent several of them to the hospital. In one case when bodies from Briggs were being transported on trucks, a group of strikers demolished the bodies. Further shipments ceased.
All day and all night the picketers marched in front of cold winds, disregarding their empty stomachs. The sight of these thousands of hungry and poorly clothed industrial workers carrying their protest banners; the inspired sound of their chants, urging the workers to “organize, unite and fight” had the usual effect upon the already frightened owners of industry who feared greatly this latest revolt of their machine-tenders. The police were there in full force. Dearborn’s mounted of Ford Riot fame, Detroit’s riot squads, Highland Park’s police, Wayne County scout cars, and Governor Comstock’s state troopers were all on the spot, equipped with guns, tear gas and clubs. As many as 250 of them were stationed at one plant. Aside from arresting a few picketers, the police were very conservative in their activities. They did not seem eager to become violent with a crowd of desperate strikers. Perhaps they had learned their lesson from the Ford Riot.
At first the strikers were quite hostile toward the police, but soon became quite friendly with them (for they didn’t desire violence either), and the picketers began singing to the effect that after they had won their own strike, they would organize the cops. Many of the “workers” in uniform stated they had already had too many salary cuts and would welcome a union that could secure for them a decent living.
Production at the Ford River Rouge plant, crippled by the Briggs’ strike, was shut down completely. Workers were notified that they could not return until the strike at Briggs was over. Ford’s strike-breaking role was one more demonstrated when he shut down his tool and die rooms which were not dependent upon production at Briggs. Ford’s giving notice to his workers that it was the Briggs’ strike that was responsible for their layoff was but another attempt by Ford to break the strike by making his workers and public antagonistic to the strikers. So interested was Ford in breaking the strike that he even closed his Highland Park Store.
The Murray Corporation using tactics similar to Ford’s, and demonstrating along with Ford, capitalist solidarity with the Briggs’ concern, locked out approximately 4,000 production workers in an attempt to break the strike`, but to their surprise the tool and die division went out on a strike in support of the Briggs’ strikers and the locked out workers.
In the meantime the Auto Workers Union had been carrying on a great deal of propaganda in the other auto plants in an attempt to secure the support of all auto workers. Through the formation of inside groups, 3,000 body workers of the Hudson Motor Body plant at Connors and Gratiot Avenues walked out on strike “against wage cuts and working conditions” as one of the workers’ committee expressed it. While this committee which represents the Hudson strikers claims that their strike is independent of the Briggs’ strike, it is quite evident that their strike was planned by the same union that called the one at Briggs. As a result of the Hudson walkout, both of the Hudson plants are shut down completely.
At the Mack Avenue plant of Briggs’, one of the most encouraging features of the entire strike occurred when several thousand unemployed formed a picket line across the street from the picketing strikers and demonstrated their solidarity with their fellow workers.
As in many other present day strikes, the students also played their part. About twenty students from the College of the City of Detroit (both Communists and Socialists) marched in line with the Briggs’ picketers, singing and carrying signs reading “City College Students Unite With Strikers.”
The tremendous effect this cooperation from the “respectable young intellectuals” had in breaking down the antipathy of the bystanders and minimizing the “red scare” can best be illustrated by the fact that during the first few critical hours of the strike when it was most difficult to get the workers to fall in line with the picketers, this group of students through their songs and general militant activity aided in swelling the numbers of the picket line from fifty to four hundred in but a few hours. So effective was the work of the student group that it was not long before the company ordered the police to take the students off the picket line. The police surrounded the group and took them inside the plant for questioning. The school authorities were notified and a general attempt was made to intimidate the students. But the reply was a larger group of students on the line the next morning.
The present strikes in the automobile field are the most significant and encouraging developments in the history of the industry. The union claims it has the key men in the body plants organized 100 percent and production cannot be resumed without them. If the workers win it will be the beginning of a new era in the struggle of labor to emancipate itself.
Source: Reuther, Walter, “Auto Workers Strike,” The Student Outlook, Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 15., (March, 1933). http://newdeal.feri.org/misc/reuther.htm. New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org (May 30, 2014).