|[Editor’s Note: The following text is adapted from the libcom.org website but reformatted according to the 1972 Facing Reality Second Edition with some marginal corrections. The pamphlet from which this was taken also included a 1970 article by Glaberman “UAW Strongman: Reuther in Retrospect” which is not included here.]
“BE HIS PAYMENT HIGH OR LOW”:
The American Working Class of the Sixties
1. One-Party Unions
One of the confidential management newsletters, of which American businessmen are so fond, predicted last autumn that “The US labour movement is in for more and greater turbulence.”1 The reason for this is assigned to “a spreading rank-and-file revolt against union leaders.” This revolt goes deeper than gripes against union leaders and is “rooted in the impersonality of the factory assembly lines, the facelessness of modern life, the fear for one’s individuality.”
Two aspects of this forecast are of special interest. One is that it views the American working class as infinitely more radical than any wing of American socialism or radicalism believes. Socialism in the United States has so committed itself to varying concepts of the backwardness of the workers that it is unable any longer to grasp the reality. The second is that this management view is in fact more conservative than the actual situation.
“Most of the present generation of union chiefs are safe,” said this report. Yet David McDonald of the Steelworkers is already in deep trouble and seems on the way out of office.2 That he was challenged by his second in command, Secretary-Treasurer I.W. Abel, is indicative of both the widespread opposition to the union leadership and the difficulty of this opposition finding expression. In 1958 Donald C. Rarick, a local steelworkers leader, challenged McDonald for the presidency of the union. Although he seemed to have the overwhelming support of the big steel locals in the Pittsburgh area, he lost to McDonald by a vote of two to one. There was some doubt at the time whether Rarick had been voted down or counted down, since the election, by membership ballot, is supervised by the International Union. There seems to be a certain pertinence to that doubt: the authority of the International Union in elections is exercised through the office of the Secretary-Treasurer and McDonald’s confidence in that office was so slight (when the Secretary-Treasurer was running against him) that he introduced a motion to the Executive Board for an impartial outside agency to run the election. The Board voted against McDonald and there are those who are so cynical that they believe he lost his chance for re-election then and there.
The Steelworkers Union never had a strong democratic tradition. The United Auto Workers, however, is generally believed to be the most democratic and progressive of the large American unions. Yet even here the opposition is both general and distorted – distorted because the top union officers are practically untouchable by the rank and file (unless, as in the steel union, they fall out with each other). In 1961, in their hostility to the union’s policies and contracts, the auto workers imposed the greatest turnover of local union officers in the history of the union. The significance of these local elections was not lost on those higher up. A top UAW official noted that “The rank and file couldn’t get at us, so they took it out on the local union guys.”3 In 1963, once again, one-third of UAW local presidents were voted out of office.
That Reuther himself is untouchable and that a McDonald can be challenged only by an Abel is one of the facts of union life in the US. The days of vigorous union factions and a democratic internal life ended in the forties. What now prevails is the one-party state. A conservative professor of labour relations, Clark Kerr (he is also the President of the University of California who fought the Free Speech Movement at the Berkeley Campus and has served on the UAW Public Review Board) notes, without disapproval: “Unions and corporations alike are, with very few exceptions, one-party governments.”4 The only exception in the US is the International Typographical Union.5 Does this description have the ring of Stalinist totalitarianism? The parallel is not at all superficial.
... A study of seventy international union constitutions, the formal instruments that rule a membership of almost 16,000,000 workers, shows among other things that in most of those seventy unions power is generally concentrated in the hands of the international presidents, with few restraints placed upon them, that discipline may be enforced against union members with little regard for due process, and that opposition to the incumbent administrations is almost impossible.6
This is, of course, not true of all unions. But where dictatorial powers are not granted by the constitution they are exercised anyway in crucial situations. Joe Curran was not averse to using the New York City Police Department to retain control of the National Maritime Union, nor the assistance of the US Coast Guard in keeping radicals off US merchant ships. And Walter Reuther did not hesitate to suspend the officers and place an administrator over the Chevrolet local in Flint, Michigan, for the crime of devoting a whole issue of the local union paper to listing all the grievances (and their outcome) that were not settled at the plant level and were sent to higher bodies of the union for further negotiations.
But the problem goes much deeper than the question of formal democracy alone. The hostility of American workers is directed not only at particular union leaders but at “the impersonality of the factory assembly lines, the facelessness of modern life, the fear for one’s individuality” which the unions have come to represent. Even among unorganised industrial workers where union shop elections, conducted by the federal government, used to mean automatic victory for the unions, attitudes have changed. In the aerospace industry not too long ago both the United Auto Workers and the International Association of Machinists were defeated in such elections.
A number of observers of the American labour movement have begun to recognise that the unions are incapable of solving the most crucial problems which workers face. One perceptive commentator, Paul Jacobs, notes that “Automation and the particular unemployment it brings to a particular plant are problems obviously beyond the capabilities of union-management collective bargaining.”7 But that is only the smaller part of the problem. The heart of the matter is that the unions stand in the way of a solution to the workers’ problems.
Clark Kerr, in his defense of unions, put it this way: “The union is often viewed as a disturbing force in society; but it is also a disciplinary instrument. It sets rules of its own and joins with the employer in setting others.”8 Paul Jacobs, delicately weighing both sides of the question, says essentially the same thing:
Once the resistance of employers to unionisation ceases at the level of principles, the union, through its contracts, becomes part of the plant government, not only a force for justice but also an integral part of the system of authority needed to operate the plant.9
Daniel Bell states it more bluntly:
Less realised is the fact that, in the evolution of the labor contract, the union becomes part of the “control system of management”. He becomes, as C. Wright Mills has put it, a “manager of discontent”.10
A committeeman at a General Motors plant in Detroit once told a foreman the same thing – to quit trying to discipline workers and to let the union representative do it for him. (He won his grievance with that argument!)
With the statification of production impinging on his consciousness, Jacobs takes his point one step further.
“Since the war,” he says, “the political and economic role of the unions has been one of continuous and unquestioning alignment with the national authority.”11
A whole series of strikes and disputes had been interfering with production in the missile industry until Arthur Goldberg, the Steel Union attorney, became Secretary of Labour and was able to enforce a labour peace that the ordinary capitalist politician could not attain. (Perhaps it was for this service that he was elevated to the Supreme Court.)
It should be clear that the problem does not lie in the inability of the unions to find a solution to such problems as automation. They have imposed a solution on the workers. The first to do it was John L. Lewis in the dying industry of coal mining. He collaborated in the mechanisation of those mines amenable to it and ruthlessly cut off the majority of the union membership, not only from work but from the social benefits, such as hospitalisation, which they had earlier won.
“In the decisive coal negotiations of 1952 the Southern coal producers, owners mostly of smaller mines, offered to meet all the union demands if Lewis would order three-day production in the industry. The larger mechanised mines opposed this move since it meant higher overhead costs for unutilised equipment. Lewis, reversing a previous course, chose to line up with the large mechanised mines and their desire for continuous output. The decision meant higher wages for the men but a permanent loss of jobs in the industry.”12
In the ten years from 1950 to 1960 the employment of coal miners fell by three-fifths to under 150,000. The bulk of those cut off from the mines make up much of what is known today as Appalachia. The union, however, gets richer because Lewis, with typical foresight, pegged the fringe and welfare benefits to productivity. Instead of the usual form of payment into welfare funds of so many cents per man-hour worked, he adopted the unique formula of basing company payments on the number of tons of coal mined.
The identical pattern was followed some years later by that other notorious militant, Harry Bridges of the West coast longshoremen. He signed an agreement with the dockside employers allowing unlimited automation and mechanisation in return for a large retirement fund and a guaranteed 35-hour week for so-called ‘A’ members of the union. The second class ‘B’ members were left to fend for themselves (they used some of their idle time to picket the union13). The East and Gulf coast dockers, not so fortunate as to have the militant Harry Bridges at their head and belonging to what had only recently been one of the most gangster-ridden unions in the US, rejected this year, at least temporarily, a contract that only went part way toward the total disciplining of the workers and struck their ports for over a month.
In auto and other manufacturing industries the transition was not quite so blatant and abrupt. But the tendency was the same. The unions collaborated in the wholesale reorganisation of production and imposed their own discipline of the grievance procedure. In the early fifties Emil Mazey, Secretary-Treasurer of the UAW (another well-known militant), threatened the Chrysler Corporation with the ending of all overtime work if they did not meet certain demands. In 1958 and 1959, however, with automation and a depression both hitting Detroit, when unemployed Chrysler workers picketed the plants and the union headquarters to end overtime while Chrysler workers were laid off, the company was able to end the picketing with a court injunction based on the union contract and its no-strike pledge. Workers off the company payroll, some for over a year, were prohibited from picketing or interfering with production because they were held to be bound by the union contract. The union had voluntarily relinquished the right of the workers to refuse overtime work.
The whole problem of automation cannot be gone into. But most of what has been written, from the right as well as from the left, is based on ignorance and misunderstanding. It is concerned entirely with the question of unemployment and has given rise to all sorts of theories about the imminent disappearance of the industrial working class or to theories of a new type of class struggle between the employed and the unemployed. All of this assumes that capitalism can automate at will and can overcome the falling rate of profit and the shortage of capital. The actual decline in the size of the working class in the fifties was reversed in the sixties. The increase in productivity has been greatest in utilities and communications (with substantial automation) and agriculture (no automation at all but a great increase in mechanisation, chemical application and biological sciences) followed by mining (mechanisation rather than automation). The increase in productivity in manufacturing was slightly below the national average and even further below the increase in productivity that took place in manufacturing in the decade following World War I with the introduction of the assembly line and the endless-chain drive.14
The spokesmen for management argue that automation in the long run increases jobs. The spokesmen for labour argue that automation decreases jobs. And in this way both of them avoid any discussion of why capitalism, under any form of technological advance, produces, as Marx insisted, an ever-growing army of permanently unemployed. And what is more pertinent to this article, they avoid a discussion of what automation and other changes in the process of production do to those workers who remain employed. The workers take a much more practical view than the sophisticated engineers and sociologists. They do not assume that what is scientifically possible is therefore inevitable in the near future under capitalism. They have much less respect for the supposed technical efficiency of capitalism than that. Thy are fully aware, however, that what has been taking place is a profound qualitative reorganisation of capitalist production, of which what is technically known as automation is only a part. Without the intellectuals’ linguistic inhibitions, they call the whole process automation whether it involves computer operations, improvement in mechanical tools, transfer of work to other plants or simply speed-up. But the workers in the plants are as hostile to the process as a whole as the unemployed.
The favoured ‘A’ workers on the West coast docks have found that their newly automated work “was converted into a continuous, almost oppressive stream.”15 In the Buick engine plant in Flint the workers had established sensible production schedules which the management had been unable to touch for years. That went by the board when Buick redesigned its engine from a straight-8 to a V8and built a new engine plant in 1952 (not yet automation tut using more up-to-date machinery and techniques and retiming all the jobs). In plants where automation has been introduced the effect has been two-fold. The automated jobs are lighter physically but a much greater strain mentally. The un-automated jobs have been speeded up to pre-union levels to accommodate the increased flow of work. The great industrial concentrations, such as the Ford Rouge plant, have been reduced or broken up with new plants built on a decentralised basis. Rouge is down from a war-time peak of 100,000 workers and a peace-time peak of 65,000 to under 35,000 but there are a whole series of new Ford plants built during the last ten years (and General Motors and Chrysler) within a 100-mile radius of Detroit and others in other parts of the country, south, east and west.
What is involved in industry after industry is not simply the replacing of men by automated machines but the discarding of men, the moving of others and the bringing of still others into the industrial working class and the reorganisation of the work process. Huge masses of capital have been destroyed. In the auto industry Packard, Hudson, Murray Body, large corporations by any standard, have gone under because they did not have sufficient capital to stay in the race. Whole areas of clerical work have become proletarianised. Stenographers, clerks, bookkeepers in larger offices and in banking and insurance have been turned into machine operators. It is a common sight to see rows of typists at their desks, with head-sets fastened to one ear, typing letters, reports, etc. from dictaphone machines. They no longer see the executives who do the dictating – only the forelady who sees that their breaks are not too frequent or too long and that they don’t dawdle at their work. Except for being cleaner and better lit it is indistinguishable from factory work.
3. New Forms of Struggle
Automation or mechanisation, any change in the process of production is carried out at the expense of the workers. The resistance to This process is indicated negatively by the increasing proportion of supervisors in American industry and by the increased disciplinary weight of the union, its contracts and its grievance procedure. And the resistance is to the process as a whole and therefore does not take the traditional forms of union factions or changes in union administration.
The first evidence of this came in 1955 when Walter Reuther won his precedent-setting demand of supplemental unemployment benefits (SUB) in which workers were compensated by the companies in addition to their governmental unemployment compensation when they were laid off. Like all of Reuther’s great victories it was granted by the auto corporations in exchange for labour peace, that is, union cooperation in keeping the workers quiet in the face of automation, speed-up and reorganisation of production. But the workers were having none of this. An unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes broke out from coast to coast precisely when the contract was signed. All of them were directed at what was called “local grievances”, that is, the assertion of workers’ power in the plants, in the process of production. Reports in the press at that time (as well as reports during the 1964 strikes) indicated thousands of unresolved local grievances. That implies a total collapse of the union as representative of the workers in the day-to-day life in the plants. If the grievance procedure, in which the worker is represented by his union steward or committeeman, cannot settle grievances then what can it do, other than assist in disciplining workers? In these strikes the workers moved to settle the matter directly without the intervention of the union.
Reuther learned his lesson. In the following contract negotiations in 1958, 1961 and 1964 he tried to incorporate the “local issues” into the national bargaining. The technique is simple. A national agreement is reached and announced but it is not signed until the locals reach their own agreements. Instead of having the national power of the union behind them, each local is on its own. A number of widely scattered, small, weak locals sign quickly. Then the International Union brings pressure to bear on the more recalcitrant locals which find themselves more and more isolated. They are, after all, holding up the national agreement and keeping many thousands of workers out on strike. The technique works with only moderate success. And that could very well be why Reuther, the great negotiator, won practically nothing in 1958 and 1961 – he could no longer guarantee labour peace to the capitalists. Reuther pretends that the settlement of local grievances during national negotiations is a traditional policy of the UAW, ignoring the fact that it was imposed on him by the workers.
Now the Steel Workers’ Union announces a similar policy for the 1965 negotiations. They apparently learned something from the great steel strike of 1959. The union had put forward its traditional demands of higher wages and fringe benefits. All reporters noted a widespread apathy toward these demands by the workers. The steel corporations mistook this apathy for weakness and counterattacked with demands to weaken the long-established work rules under which the workers set the minimum size of crews, safety standards and work pace. The result was a long and bitter strike in which the workers defended their right to impose a minimum of control over the process of production.
American workers today have seen the great industrial unions of the thirties become the one-party states of today. They have seen the seniority that was won to protect them against discriminatory firing and promotion become the means to keep the young and the Negroes out and to keep the semi-skilled from working their way up to the skilled trades. They have seen the union dues check-off16 change from a means of organising all the workers in a plant to a means of removing the union from dependence on the workers. They have seen full-time status for union steward or committeeman change from freeing the union representative from the pressures of management to freeing him from the pressures of the workers.17 They have seen the union contract and grievance procedure change from the instruments which recorded the gains of the workers to the instruments under which workers were disciplined. They have, in short, seen the unions turned into their opposite, from representatives of the workers to an independent power that imposes its discipline over the workers in the period of state capitalism. The result has been that the workers have rejected the unions as the means of any further social advance and have gone their own way. The 1964 auto contract negotiations and strikes are an indication of this. Reuther was aware that he finally had to make some gesture toward solving the problem of local working conditions, that is, workers’ control. He hit upon the question of relief time for its headline-catching appeal. The union demanded 54 minutes of relief time in an eight-hour shift and settled for 36 minutes, a gain of 12 minutes over the previously established 24. The workers weren’t sold. Relief time is only one of many aspects of working conditions. Even within the framework of relief time, the number of minutes allowed is relatively minor. Equally important is whether the company can make up the time by increasing the speed of the line. As important as how much is the question of when: the relief men begin making the rounds early in the shift. If a worker’s turn for relief comes near the first or last hour of the shift or close to the lunch break it is of little use and still does not give him the time or the right to get a drink of water or relieve himself when he needs to.
There was general hostility to the contract – but it was considered “their” contract and the workers showed little interest. Among skilled tradesmen at the Ford Rouge plant and at the Dodge plant in Hamtramck (in the Detroit metropolitan area) there were wildcat strikes. Dodge Local 3 rejected the contract. At the Ford Wixom plant (about 20 miles from Detroit) the local agreement was voted down. A little democracy, someone has said, is a dangerous thing, the cure being more democracy. So the union held another vote. Obviously two votes are twice as democratic as one. But the workers again rejected the agreement. Well, the UAW is nothing if it is not democratic – so a third vote was held and this time the agreement was accepted by 150 members out of a total union membership of 4,000. The workers had roasted the union over the spit long enough to give notice that it was “their” contract, let “them” live with it. The attitude was spelled out in a handbill distributed at the plant which concluded with the following in question and answer form:
“Q: Do we have to accept this Local Agreement that we have voted down twice?”
“A: 1. With four members of the Bargaining Committee having already signed our Local Agreements
2. With our International servicing rep, Jimmy Watts, having signed our Local Agreements
3. With the company saying they already have a signed Local Agreement and they are not going to plus it
4. With the International UAW Solidarity House requesting their money back for the financial assistance
5. With the majority of the Bargaining Committee saying, A) You have the best local agreement in the country; B) They don’t know what they are going in to ask for; C) They will not waste their time. Could you see yourself walking the street with people like that bargaining for you?”
“WHAT DO YOU THINK?”
At American Motors Corporation the last three contracts (1958, 1961, 1964) have seen at least one key local rejecting the agreement and holding it up until successive votes were held to secure final ratification. The workers have no use for the contract and no illusions that contracts can be improved. They have turned to doing their own “negotiating” on the shop floor, If Reuther’s 12 minutes of relief time do not mean much, the workers have found ways of making their own relief time. Assembly lines have a way of breaking down – and who is to say that the bolt which jammed the line was not dropped accidentally? Who is to know that the warning lights which signal the stoppage of the line were not burned out but merely unscrewed to add a few minutes to the time it takes to repair the line?
More and more, workers deal directly with supervision, either singly or in small groups, to settle specific problems without involving the union. To the extent possible, they determine their own production pace and force the foremen to go along. In a smaller plant in Detroit (not an auto plant) the management was aware of the fact that they did not really know how long it took to run any particular operation and they did not trust their foremen to tell them. So they introduced a system of IBM cards and time clocks for the workers to punch out at the completion of each operation. The company designated time for each job is set by time-study engineers (the workers call it the dart game – they ridicule the gross inaccuracy of the times set by claiming that it can only be done by throwing darts at a haphazard chart of numbers on the wall). In the past the bad times were averaged out by the good times and the company got a reasonable amount of work. Now, however, no one will cut short on the favourable time estimates (since that would inform the company) and so management knows less than it did before. Even the foremen play this game by taking cards for operations that are skipped (unknown to the engineers) and using them to cover up their mistakes on other jobs.
Workers, immersed in the cooperative labor process in the factories, form the groups and organisations, usually informal, to correspond to their needs. The radical reorganisation of production over the past decade has resulted in adjustments by the workers. New workers are taught the realities of life in production by their workmates. New groupings of workers are formed. Workers find more sophisticated techniques to exercise a measure of control over the more sophisticated instruments of production. The wildcat strike remains one of the basic weapons in the struggle, a weapon that rejects the union by its very nature. In industries such as public utilities workers were faced with a substantial degree of automation. The telephone monopoly (American Telephone and Telegraph Co.) boasted that automation had made it strike-proof, that telephone service could be continued indefinitely with only a handful of supervisory personnel. The nature of the work and the job security tend to make utility workers among the most conservative. Yet, in response to the needs of the situation, recent strikes among telephone and gas company workers in the Midwest have been attended by the destruction of company property – telephone lines cut, gas company installations dynamited. Utility workers still have in reserve that old weapon of the sit-down strike (against which no company is strike-proof) which has been expanded and developed by the struggles of Negro Americans. Miners in eastern Kentucky conducted a long violent war against scab mines. They were opposed by the mine operators, the government and the union and they went down to defeat. But violence has been a recurring element in certain kinds of strikes.
The workers are engaged today in a process of reorganisation, corresponding to the capitalist reorganisation of production, in a search for new forms of organisation that are adequate for their needs. It is a process that bursts out regularly in wildcat strikes such as those at Chrysler and Ford plants which accompanied the 1964 contract settlement. It is a process which takes advantage of every weakness that appears in the union structure, such as splits within the leadership or the vulnerability of local union officers. It is a process in which workers are learning and testing themselves and their workmates in new conditions and new factories. Most of it, like the proverbial iceberg, is buried deep in the day-to-day life in the plants and mills and offices and mines and is not visible to any outside observer or even fully conscious to the participants themselves.
It would be simple to deduce from the nature of the workers’ activity and demands that they are no longer seeking to reform the unions. As only one example: the mass turning out of office of local officials of the UAW was not directed at Reuther supporters but at all incumbents, pro-Reuther and anti-Reuther alike. But such deductions are not necessary. One has only to listen to workers’ discussions in the large shops to hear of the need for new types of organisation, to hear the union rejected in toto. It should not be necessary to note that what is being discussed by the workers is not a retreat to pre-union forms but an advance to something new.
To place this process in a fundamental and international context it is only necessary to point out that it bears a marked resemblance to the activity of Hungarian workers in the summer of 1956, activity that proved to be the preparation for the revolution in October. The testing of workmates in short sharp struggles against local managers, the elimination of spies and provocateurs from particular factories, the struggle to determine more reasonable rates of production (much of it underground, some of it in the open) laid the groundwork for what became the Workers’ Councils.
The impression is not intended that American workers are moving from victory to ever greater victory. Whether workers win a particular struggle or are forced to retreat or manage to hold their own varies considerably with time and place and the particular relationship of forces in each factory. What remains constant throughout, however, are the struggle itself and the search for new social forms.
The time the process will take and the form of the explosions to come cannot, in the nature of things, be predicted. Only its general outline can be seen from the nature of the workers’ demands and the vast gulf that separates them from the union structure and leadership. It can only lead to the class as a whole imposing its own will on production and on society and casting off entirely the bureaucracy that stands in its way.
American workers are the highest paid in the world. They are also among the most exploited. They have built unions that are among the most cohesive and powerful in the world. In their industrial structure and in their industry-wide powers American unions have set a pattern that unions in other countries seek to emulate. But it is their very all-embracing nature that has sharpened the conflict between the unions and the rank-and-file workers. In their struggle to assert themselves directly and to remove what has become a burden perhaps the American working class will provide for the world a sign of its future.