Chapter 5 - Delivering the Goods


 
Striking workers at Massey-Ferguson.
Courtesy of the CAW collection.

What made the prospect [of unionization] seem especially grim in those early years was the persistent union attempt to invade management prerogatives ... We have moved to codify certain practices, to discuss workers' grievances with union representatives, and to submit for arbitration the few grievances that remain unsettled. But on the whole we have retained all the basic powers to manage.

- Alfred P. Sloan, (former President of GM)

We are the vanguard in America, in that great crusade to build a better world. We are the architects of the future and we are going to fashion the weapons with which we will work and fight and build.

- Walter Reuther

Ever stop to think how we crawl here bumper to bumper, and crawl home bumper to bumper, and we've got to turn out more every minute to keep our jobs, when there isn't any room for them on the highway?

- Harvey Swados

The UAW was born on the shop floor, out of struggles to limit management's power to decide arbitrarily who worked and who didn't, out of conflicts over the pace and organization of work, and out of resentment over arbitrary rules and daily harassments. The war, especially in the United States, provided the transition to a focus on workers as consumers; that is, on how workers live outside the workplace. For the American UAW, this change came alongside two other transitions; one political, the other internal. The war turned out to be a passage from the heady days of the New Deal to the conservatism of the cold war. It was also a passage from a union divided along ideological-factional lines and fragmented amongst strong and independent locals, to a union that was highly centralized, both ideologically and administratively.

In this period, the UAW established its basic structures and direction, as well as its reputation as an innovative leader in social unionism. The Canadians played a secondary role in shaping these basic overall structures (ninety-five per cent of the members and a higher proportion of the industry were centred in the United States). But the Canadians did not simply inherit the American system. The process by which the American UAW structure and philosophy was translated to Canada involved both resistance and attraction. The outcome, as the fifties came to an end, was a Canadian section that was the same but different.

The Treaty of Detroit

From the beginning of the union in the thirties, the corporations' main concern was to retain complete control over production. Forced to recognize unions, the corporations insisted that the unions must also recognize management. The companies would remove some of their arbitrary practices, but management rights - the right to hire, lay-off, invest, choose products, schedule hours, and determine the methods, organization, and pace of production - would be written into the agreements and enforced by both the company and the union.

During the war, full production had allowed workers to resist this unilateral management power on the shop floor, and this resistance often created tensions with the top leadership of the union. But in the United States, the more lasting development of the war was the establishment, through government initiatives, of grievance procedures and arbitration boards to channel workers' frustrations away from direct action. Once the war was over, companies were more determined than ever to restore any management rights and control they had lost to workers and stewards during the war. Walter Reuther, who became head of the UAW's GM department in 1939, challenged the company's pricing policy in 1946 and insisted that workers and the public had a right to influence it. The management endured a 113-day strike to assert that it would not relinquish management rights either in the workplace (dealing with workers) or outside (issues of pricing, products, and investment). And GM won.

Immediately after the GM agreement was signed, large numbers of workers walked off the job to join demonstrations against the attack on labour launched by the Taft-Hartley Act. The act was introduced in 1947 to weaken labour, particularly its ability to engage in solidaristic actions. While making it easier for management to interfere in organizing drives, it reinstituted injunctions, outlawed mass and secondary picketing, and encouraged states to ban "union shops." It also denied services and legislative rights to any union whose leaders didn't sign affidavits rejecting support for or belief in communism. This denial proved to be the most divisive aspect of the act and was instrumental in undermining labour's overall attack on the legislation.

You work in the factory all of your life,
Try to provide for your kids and your wife.
When you get too old to produce any more,
They hand you your hat and show you the door.

Chorus:
Too old to work, too old to work
When you're too old to work and you're too young to die,
Who will take care of you, how'll you get by
When you're too old to work, and too young to die.

- "Too Old to Work Too Young to Die," Joe Glazer, inspired by a Reuther speech and the Chrysler pension strike in 1950

In response to the worker demonstrations during working hours, GM fired local leaders and activists and then entered into negotiations with the union over reducing some of the penalties. This tactic, of firing militants and putting the union on the defensive to bring the workers back, quickly developed into a basic corporate strategy for dealing with militancy; Ford and later Chrysler adopted its use. The companies were reinforced by the conservative times, the new labour legislation, and the backing from the labour boards and the courts. Workers were intimidated and the negotiated compromises, reinforced by the trade-off inherent in judgements like the Rand decision, committed the union to limiting further occurrences.

But as in the thirties, discipline was not enough. Stability would require both channelling union energy elsewhere and showing that there were specific benefits for workers ifthey moderated shop-floor militancy. In 1948, GM offered, and the union accepted, a quarterly cost-of-living allowance (COLA) over and above the wage increase, in exchange for a two-year agreement. The company hoped this term would lead to greater workplace stability. (Previous agreements were for only one year.) This turn of events set the stage for the 1950 agreement, which Fortune dubbed the "Treaty of Detroit."

The 1950 bargaining round with GM represented the most systematic attempt by both sides to shape a coherent and stable relationship. The company wanted a five-year agreement so it could plan production without concern over a national walk-out every year or two. In addition, it especially wanted to consolidate management rights and remove them from the union's bargaining agenda.

Had autoworkers since the mid-fifties been able, as a response to accelerating technology, to take one per cent of their annual two to three per cent increase in the form of reduced work-time, the four-day week - and tens of thousands of new job opportunities - would be here by now.

The trade-off GM offered, after listening to the union demands, included continuing the 1948 wage principle of both an annual improvement factor (AIF) and a quarterly COLA; negotiating a comprehensive health and insurance plan cofinanced by the company (any previous benefits were outside the agreement and unilaterally determined by GM); accepting the principle of a company-paid pension plan (recently won after a long strike at Chrysler); extending paid vacations (to three weeks after fifteen years of service); and expanding recall rights from two years to time-for-time (i.e., for each year of work, there is an additional year in which to exercise the right to recall if the company is hiring).

The subheading on Fortune's analysis of the agreement read, "GM Paid a Billion for Peace. It Got a Bargain." Although workers rebelled in 1953 and forced a wage reopener, the principles behind the 1950 agreement, especially that of longer-term agreements as three years became the norm, remained intact. GM president Alfred P. Sloan, looking back from the vantage point of the early sixties, observed in My Years With General Motors:

At the time I write this, it's more than seventeen years since there has been an extended strike over national issues at General Motors. To those of us who recall ... the thirties ... [this] record is almost incredible. And we have achieved this record without surrendering any of the basic responsibilities of management ... The issue of unionism at General Motors has long since settled.

In the mid-fifties a new wave of technology that integrated procedures developed during the war swept the industry. The trend was called "automation," and its introduction raised fears about replacing and changing existing jobs. The restructuring inside the plants was used to further reinforce management control and tighten production standards.

There was ongoing worker resistance to some of the changes. In response, the UAW tried to initiate a national debate on the social implications of new technology. Walter Reuther, in a pamphlet in the early fifties on the wide-ranging implications of automation, wrote that

An important step towards minimizing the potential social dislocations during the coming decades ... would be the reduction in the length of the workweek ... The reduction in the workweek to 35 or 30 hours in the coming decade can be an important shock absorber during the transition to the widespread use of automation.

PATTERN BARGAINING

In a relatively short period of time, the UAW and the companies had developed a tightly-conceived bargaining system and strategy referred to as "pattern bargaining." It was this strategy, as much as anything else, that reinforced and legitimated the centralized structure of the union and was generally credited for the UAW's collective bargaining successes. This strategy was put in place in the U.S. in 1950, with the Treaty of Detroit. Canada didn't completely follow suit until the late fifties.

Sectoral Bargaining

Postwar talk of a pattern for all the CIO unions died quickly. The UAW based its strategy on establishing a pattern at the Big Three. One company was targeted, while the others were left waiting. Striking only one company at a time, and threatening it with a loss in market share to the others, put competitive pressures on the target while also minimizing damage to the overall economy (especially ifimports were low). Once an agreement was established, it was taken to the other major companies and copied in detail. Then it was extended with some inevitable flexibility in smaller units - to the parts industry, aerospace, and agricultural implements.

Focus on Economics

The content of national bargaining focused on economic issues; these united the membership around common demands. Issues related to working conditions and work environment were negotiated locally. In the U.S., workers had the right to strike during the agreement's life over certain issues not specified in the collective agreement (production standards and health and safety) but these were also centralized in the sense that they required the prior approval of the international office in Detroit.

Long-Term Agreements

The original plan was for a five-year agreement, but after the members rebelled, the union moved to the three-year agreement of today. That longer agreement gave the union a chance to focus on other issues and agreements outside the Big Three, but it necessitated some provision for security against economic changes during the terms of that agreement.

Real Wages

At the core of the wage agreement were two principles: the right to share in technology/productivity, and protection against the erosion of wages to inflation. This formula seems to have first come from GM, though it was clearly a response to the militancy and expectations of its workers. The "right to share" led to the provision of an Aiftied not to the company, but to general trends in the economy. ifthe companies did better than that, which they normally did, they could use the excess for their own purposes or, as the union argued, increase benefits to workers and distribute it to consumers in the form of lower prices.
 Cost-of-living bonuses were first introduced during the War to limit the growing resistance to wage controls. Similarly, COLA, like the AIF, supported the union argument that workers were not to blame for inflation: COLA provided quarterly protection against inflation (only) after prices went up. The COLA originally represented 100 per cent protection against inflation (under ninety per cent today) and it=linked to other forms of pay - when workers work shifts or overtime, and get vacation or holiday pay, the COLA=added on and treated as part of regular pay.

Wage Differentials

The union-negotiated pay structure within each of the Big Three=relatively egalitarian (i.e., relative to other countries and other industries). Janitors get about 5 per cent less than assemblers and skilled workers get about twenty per cent above assemblers. The Aifwas briefly a fixed amount but quickly (it took longer in Canada) became a percentage increase. COLA (which has generated about two-thirds of wages since the end of the forties) remains the same for all workers and therefore represents a higher percentage for lower-paid workers. ifthe wage structure should get out of line with community standards for skilled workers, special additional increases are negotiated for the trades (i.e., the structure=biased to pinch differentials but there=flexibility in the system).
 When auto was first organized, women were either excluded from auto jobs or segregated into certain departments. But even when doing the same job, their wages were significantly lower. Such differentials for doing the same work did not disappear until the end of the fifties.

Paid Time Off

In both countries, the government introduced the principle of one-week vacations during the war. The union introduced paid holidays in the late forties and extended the paid vacation time in the fifties. While a standard demand of the union from its very beginnings, the union never made a pattern breakthrough beyond the forty-hour workweek.

Company-Paid Benefits

The costs of benefits (health care, income protection, pensions) were at first divided equally between the companies and the workers, but fully paid company plans became the general pattern on both sides of the border by the early sixties. Benefits like pensions (negotiated in 1950) and income security (negotiated in 1955) were integrated to government plans to make them both less expensive and more rational.

Pensions

The pension plans were based on a defined benefit per year of service and supported by a fund supervised, but not controlled, by the union. Improvements were negotiated during each round of bargaining and these included improvements for those already retired and not part of the workforce. Over time, the pension plans became more flexible and complex with the addition of benefits like early retirement and survivor's options.

Income Security

In the debates over how to respond to automation in the mid-fifties, the opposition pushed for a longer-term solution of reduced work-time, but Walter Reuther channelled this demand into a program to achieve a guaranteed annual income to overcome the short-term cyclical nature of the industry. That program, which evolved into SUB (supplementary employment benefits),provided a top-up for those laid off for a period of time linked to seniority.

 
Striking workers at Massey-Ferguson.
Courtesy of the CAW collection.

Moreover, and in spite of progressive rhetoric suggesting further possibilities, discussion of sharing the ultimate benefits of the higher productivity was narrowed to wages and benefits. The option of dramatic reductions in work-time to correspond to the liberating potential of the new technology was largely ignored, even though the subject came up in popular discussions. Writing in Fortune, one of the best-read and most influential business magazines, Daniel Seligman noted in July, 1954, that "Most businessmen shudder at the thought, but the four-day week may be coming anyway - and sooner than you might expect. ifand when it does come, of course, it will create some 'insurmountable' problems. But remember, please, so did the five day week."

Through the fifties and into the sixties, the union expanded its negotiated programs and introduced new ones. The strategy of "pattern" bargaining served the union well as it took the price of labour out of competition amongst the Big Three. The authority that came with that pattern after it was won also spread, though unevenly, to the independent parts sector, aerospace, and agricultural implements. There were repeated protests against increases in the speed of the line and working conditions, especially after a renewed management offensive during the recession at the end of the fifties. But these protests remained largely invisible to the popular perceptions of the happy and complacent worker - until the workers themselves temporarily returned the issue to the agenda in the later sixties.

 
 Family Auxiliary in support of Massey-Ferguson strikers.
Courtesy of the CAW collection.

Reutherism

During the fifties and sixties, no name was more identifiable with social unionism than that of Walter Reuther. Future labour leaders and activists, in both Canada and the United States, remembered when they first met Walter and when his oratory and vision first moved them. Walter Reuther marched with Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez, befriended and dined with John F. Kennedy, discussed world affairs with the social democratic leaders of Germany and England, argued with the head of the Soviet Union on the merits and future of capitalism and communism, and relished public debates with the presidents of the largest companies in the world. The Sunday Times of London, after a Reuther speech to Britain's labour central, rapturously reported that "Throughout the Congress ... one man spoke like a ... prophet." In 1955, Time put him on its cover.

Walter Reuther was a first-generation American, the son of German immigrants. He was born in 1907 in the industrial centre of Wheeling, West Virginia, and, like his younger brothers Roy and Victor, he was clearly influenced by the commitment of his father to trade unionism and democratic socialism. At nineteen, he moved to Detroit, where he was active in socialist circles at work and at university, which he attended while he was a diemaker at Ford. In the early thirties, he and Victor travelled through Europe, visited China, and worked for eighteen months at an auto plant near Gorki in the Soviet Union. They returned in 1935 to witness, and participate in, the birth of the UAW.

Detroit was then seething with strikes and pressure from workers for recognition of elected stewards and the union. In 1936, Walter went to the crucial founding convention in South Bend, Indiana, and, confident and articulate, he emerged as a member of the UAW's executive board. He quickly built a base as the president of the powerful amalgamated Local 174 on the west side of Detroit, and in 1939, he became head of the GM department. In 1946, Walter Reuther was elected president of the UAW.

Reuther first attained national prominence during the war with his detailed plan for industrywide conversion of automobile plants to airplane production as a means for overcoming the early difficulties in moving to a war economy. As the war came to an end, he grabbed public attention with equally well-developed and well-publicized retooling and reconversion plans. One idea Reuther presented was the setting up of commando units of engineers, designers and skilled trades, to assist smaller firms in getting access to the available pool of technology, knowledge, and expertise. After the war, he gained notoriety by broadening the scope of union demands to include corporate decisions affecting the public. In 1946, he called on the automotive companies to open their books so their pricing policies could be challenged, and in 1949, he argued for the production of a fuel-efficient, nonpolluting, safe and affordable small car.

 
UAW Local 399 (Toronto, amalgamated) at educational in FDR-CIO camp in Port Huron, Michigan (Black Lake wasn't built until 1970).
Courtesy of Wayne State Archives.

The base for all of these gains was, of course, the UAW's achievements in bargaining. Led by Reuther, workers at the Big Three more than doubled their wages in the fifteen years after the war - an increase of over one-third after inflation. (To put this in perspective, hourly wages for American Big Three workers have increased by less than three per cent after inflation in the fifteen years ending in 1995.) The UAW's agreements with the companies modestly increased paid time off, introduced company-paid health protection for workers and their families, pioneered an income protection policy to deal with lay-offs, and developed pension plans to allow workers to retire comfortably. The UAW set the direction and standards for American, and also Canadian, labour.

When Reuther was elected UAW president in 1946, it was by the slimmest of majorities: less than one and one-half per cent. The executive board elected at the same time was overwhelmingly loyal to his opposition. That opposition was communist-led, and with the war over, the communists' militant line of the thirties had returned. The communists themselves made up a very small proportion of this postwar left, which included various socialists and many workers who were simply militant with no clear political orientation.

Reuther's victory was closely linked to both his role as the head of the GM department and the union's first test after the war, the 113-day strike at GM. From the perspective of the union's stated goals, the strike was a defeat. But workers' struggles, as Reuther then well understood, have a logic that is both more straightforward and more complex than checking off gains and losses. Workers were frustrated; they wanted someone to articulate that frustration publicly, and they were ready for a fight. Reuther showed that he was ready to lead, and he was rewarded for that insight and action.

Reuther had positioned himself to steer a particular course through an increasingly conservative America. Having preempted the media, business, and the state from red-baiting the UAW by leading the attack on communists himself, he tried to carve out a space that would achieve concrete gains for the union's members while simultaneously resurrecting the broader progressive New Deal agenda that had faded in wartime. His underlying vision was to build a progressive alliance, with the organized working class in the lead, to win the material and liberating benefits of mass production and its accelerating technology. For very powerful reasons, this strategy led him to focus on democratizing consumption.

With the end of the war, the inevitable focus on material well-being dominated working class demands. For almost two continuous decades that included the deprivation of the depression and the disruption of the war, Americans and Canadians had made sacrifices. Now that they were on the winning side of the war, they wanted to share in the benefits and promises they were owed by that victory. The public longed for a normalcy most had long forgotten or never known, and the people looked to their unions and politicians to deliver it. In contrast to an emphasis on the workplace itself, the focus on compensating workers as consumers for selling their labour presented, from Reuther's perspective, three further advantages.

First, any focus on management rights would inherently shift power to the locals, while Reuther was instead trying to centralize the union. Given the unevenness and sectionalism in the union, a decentralized strategy could fragment and weaken the union's potential influence. For example, some locals might be strong enough to oppose management in the plants or win special wage gains, while others were not; some local battles might have their own logic but undermine broader strategic goals of the union as a whole; and workers were divided by race, ethnicity, and occupation. Reuther wanted to concentrate on those national issues that would mean common gains for all workers and would therefore unite the membership.

Second, a focus on increasing workers' purchasing power and benefits was a less radical demand since, unlike an emphasis on management rights, it didn't challenge private property rights. Rather, it channelled militancy towards making gains within the system and was therefore less likely to isolate the union. Moreover, this strategy could even be articulated as a progressive weapon in the cold war: the most effective way to undercut communist arguments was to show that America delivered on its promises of greater benefits for all.

Third, and perhaps most important, it was becoming increasingly clear that fighting over management rights would mean an all-out battle with very uncertain chances of success. American management emerged from the war conscious of the profitable opportunities that lay ahead. Not only was productive capacity back on its feet, but the war had also left companies with a backlog of technology and had expanded their assets, making them hungry for new opportunities. Their primary concern was that they be free to manage production - free, that is, from union interference.

The United Electrical Workers (UE) had been the third largest CIO union, behind the autoworkers and steel, and one of the most militant. The American UAW participated in the subsequent raids of UE. In Canada, when UE was similarly expelled and other unions were called on to support a raiding drive, the Canadian Council of the UAW - by the narrowest of margins - voted to stay out of that campaign against UE.

Companies such as the Big Three didn't expect to eliminate unions altogether. They had learned to live with the unions during the war and certainly didn't want to risk reviving the battles of the thirties. Instead, companies wanted a particular trade-off: "We'll recognize you, but you have to recognize us, which means our right to manage and plan production with some stability". Reuther was fully aware of both America's potential wealth and the corporations' fundamental desire for a measure of labour stability. He set out to take maximum advantage of that situation.

The eighteen months following Reuther's initial election saw an intensification of the internal battle for control over the union that had, in one form or another, dominated the union since its inception. Reuther came out of this infighting as the undisputed leader of the union, winning reelection in 1947 and sweeping his allies along as together they took eighteen of twenty-two executive positions.

That triumph was the result of both successful organization and the exploitation of the increasingly anti-communist environment in America. Even without a majority on the board, Reuther had been able to retain control over the departments of education and communications - crucial areas in an emerging organization. He combined this control with exciting ideas and plans for the future direction of the union. But he also reinforced the red-baiting that was seething in American society and used it to isolate both the left and many of those who refused to "choose sides" and denounce communists.

Once he had the levers of power, Reuther acted quickly and ruthlessly to solidify his hold. Seventy-five staff members, as well as the head of the legal department and dozens of support staff whose loyalty to Reuther was in question were fired. Many of these people had made vital contributions to the struggles of working people in the past and still had much to offer. (There was some attempt to justify the firings on grounds of "economy," but in the following decade, membership rose only fifteen per cent while the number of staff members reached levels fifty-five per cent higher than those before the mass firings.) With the staff under control, the next step was to crush locals that remained under the leadership of either communists or those labelled "communist sympathizers." After 1949, the caucus was tightened and essentially became another instrument of Reuther's executive board.

... those who sought to combine principled anti-communism with an on-going commitment to democratic radicalism in the union were overwhelmed in a tide of repression that sharply narrowed the spectrum of legitimate debate in labor circles.

- American labour historian Robert Zeigler

Reuther then turned to the CIO, playing an active role in expelling unions which had democratically chosen to retain its left leadership. Of the thirty-five CIO unions, a dozen had been labelled communist-dominated and another half-dozen were labelled communist-sympathetic. Irrespective of the struggles these unions had earlier led and their membership now faced, Reuther and the CIO leadership picked out eleven of these unions, representing twenty per cent of the CIO membership, and began to implement plans to raid them.

It was one thing to defeat those on the left; it was another to target the total destruction of the opposition. The climate created as these witch-hunts were unleashed throughout the union led to the expulsion of many experienced and talented activists. It brought out the worst in the membership and undermined the ability of the union to later carry out progressive work at its base. Furthermore, this preoccupation diverted attention and resources from the crucial need to bring unionization to the South, where the communists had established some links to the black community. And the leaders generally emphasized loyalty over ability and commitment, encouraging the growth of bureaucratic tendencies. (This charge does not apply to the loyal and exceptionally talented "brain trust" around Reuther himself.)

The prevailing atmosphere stifled debate, closed off any fundamental questioning of American foreign policy, and guaranteed that the eventual merger of the CIO with the less-than-progressive AFL would, as Reuther later experienced, be on the AFL's terms. Even though the rank-and-file retained the ability to challenge the leadership on some issues, those challenges could only be marginally effective and certainly couldn't be sustained without a coordinated opposition or alternative mechanisms to give them weight. In spite of its later achievements, the union paid dearly in the long term.

Victor Reuther, who headed the union's education department at that time, later captured one aspect of the implications in a 1986 interview cited by Eric Mann in Taking on General Motors:

You know I am proud of ... the accomplishments of what is known as the Reuther years. But I am seeing one mistake we made ... The administration caucus ... was maintained many years after that battle was over. Essentially a great deal of authority got concentrated at the top. The vehicle of the administration caucus is [now] used to prevent open debate in the union.

The impressive success in gaining a share of the wealth for UAW members was not matched by the growth of the broad social alliance Reuther had worked and hoped for. The main reason for this lack of growth was that the American labour movement would not move in any serious way to lay the foundation for any permanent new politics. Reuther himself had, in the early thirties, assumed that significant social change simply couldn't happen without a socialist party based on the working class. In August, 1940, he could still bring workers to their feet at a UAW convention by raising the issue: "Some day in this country people are going to lose confidence in the existing political parties to a degree that they will form their own party." Even in 1946, Reuther joined other prominent liberals and social democrats in the call for a National Education Committee for a New Party.

But the idea no longer seemed inevitable. Victor Reuther had raised the idea of a radical popular alliance well before the war was over, outlining the need to start preparing for such a new political alliance, and a postwar conference did occur. The labour movement was, however, too divided to generate the necessary momentum for such an initiative; these divisions stemmed from competition between the AFL and CIO and from right-left conflicts. Even more important, it seems, was the fear of losing links with the Democratic Party and wandering alone in the woods for an indefinite period.

A poll in 1947 amongst CIO officials showed that a significant base favoured setting up a labour party. One out of four officials wanted to create a new party in the next two or three years, and half looked to the founding of a new labour party within the next ten years. But confronted with the immediate choice between working towards such a party and risking the defeat of the Democrats in the upcoming election, the labour leadership stayed with the Democrats. By the early fifties, the idea of a third party was, for Reuther, dead and buried. At the Detroit Economic Club in 1953, he stated: "I felt in 1932 ... that it [socialism] might be a better way to do things. I have long stopped believing that Socialism is the answer."

Reuther continued to place consumer-oriented demands on the bargaining table, arguing for union input into the price of cars, the responsiveness of cars to the environment, and car safety. But this focus naturally brought the debate back to overall management rights. Companies were not going to concede at this level, having generally blocked the union's challenge to management's rights in the workplace. And the union could not force their hand given that it had neither the support of a political movement to take on the companies, nor any prospect of making these issues a priority amongst the membership. Workers could not be expected to fight over these challenges with management since they had not been mobilized to fight management over more specific workplace issues.

In 1943, a Michigan group inspired by the near victory of the CCF in Ontario formed the MCCF (Michigan Cooperative Commonwealth Federation). It received no substantial support and soon disappeared.

In 1945, the Flint local, with support in other GM locals, endorsed the idea of a third party.

In the 1948 election, both the United Electrical Workers and Mine Mill broke ranks with the CIO (and paid dearly) to support the candidacy of Henry Wallace, former vice-president under Roosevelt. Disenchanted with the direction of the Democrats, Wallace was running for the Progressive Party.

Reuther never stopped lobbying for more general benefits for all citizens; the UAW was a leading force within the United States for a national health care plan and for the expansion of public pensions. But, unable to achieve European-style social benefits, the union drifted towards establishing a "parallel (or private) welfare state" for its members through collective bargaining. As a result, autoworkers, having met their own needs, became less and less interested in joining others to fight for universal programs. A disappointed Reuther remarked, in 1968, that "I have been much saddened by the fact that the American labour movement has not played the decisive role which it must of necessity play."

 
Male Choir at Ford Local 200 performing along with the Harmonettes Female Choir at Ford Local 240 (office) at the installation of officers of Locals 200, 240, and 195 at the Vanity Theatre in Windsor, 1947.
Courtesy of Wayne State Archives.
 

For the American UAW, the postwar period was the golden era. Led by the charismatic Reuther, the UAW established its reputation as a progressive force in a conservative period and made enviable gains to bring to their members a middle class level of consumption and benefits. But that effectiveness outside the workplace stood in contrast to, and sometimes came at the direct expense of, the union's ability to deal with life in the workplace. Furthermore, the collective bargaining gains were not matched by the development of an independent politics; negotiated gains and the union itself remained vulnerable to future changes in the economy and in society.

That vulnerability raised uncomfortable questions about the union's future. Would this union, so dependent on its leader's powerful presence, be the same after Walter Reuther moved on? Would this union, which emerged in the toughest of economic times and was structured to make gains in good economic times, be able to mobilize workers when the bad economic times returned (as they would in the seventies and eighties)? With the opposition crushed, with locals increasingly dependent on UAW headquarters, with the bureaucracy growing, and with the spirit that gave birth to the union fading, the "best of times" seemed to bear the seeds of the "worst of times."

Canada: The Same but Different

Developments in the United States inevitably had an impact on Canada; the Canadians worked for the same employers, confronted an increasingly integrated continental economy, faced similar pressures, had many of the same needs and, of course, remained tied to the American UAW.

The American headquarters influenced both the bargaining direction and politics of the Canadians. Sometimes, as in the case of the Flint sit-down, this influence was indirect and came by way of positive examples of what workers could achieve. Other times, it was more direct and based on the resources and supportive pressures the UAW could bring to fighting the companies. But on a significant number of occasions, this influence took the form of Detroit, with support from sections of the union in Canada, imposing its perspective on the recalcitrant Canadians.

In 1959, the UAW conducted a trial of members of the 1955-56 GM bargaining committee who were accused of consulting, during those negotiations, with communists. Other than George Burt, the trial committee consisted entirely of Americans: UAW top officers from Detroit and an American lawyer. Amongst those charged was Cliff Pilkey of Local 222 in Oshawa, who had run against Burt for president. Pilkey and the other local leaders were all exonerated for lack of sufficient evidence. Pilkey was subsequently elected to the provincial parliament as an NDP member and later became president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.

 But Paul Siren, a long-time member of the UAW staff, was found guilty and fired from his position. He had previously refused to go into Toronto-area locals and join others to eliminate the opposition. He did not consider that to be the proper role of the staff. The recently established Public Review Board (an independent board set up by the union in 1957 to give members a court of final appeal against arbitrary internal decisions) ruled in his favour. Siren refused to return given the circumstances and went on to play a central role in the building of the actor's union (ACTRA).

In 1947, when Reuther fired many staff members, seven candidates for termination were Canadian. In that earlier period, Canadians voiced resistance to these political firings, and, pushed by the Canadian Council, Director George Burt confronted Reuther. A compromise, while embarrassing to Burt and the Canadians, was negotiated. By the end of the fifties, however, Burt himself had joined the investigation of local leaders and a staff member for "consorting with communists."

Similarly, when the Americans signed the Treaty of Detroit in 1950, Oshawa and the Canadian Ford and Chrysler committees refused to discuss a five-year agreement. Yet by 1958, the Canadian agreements were virtually indistinguishable from those of the Americans in terms of dates, wage changes, and benefits. By the end of the fifties, it therefore seemed that any lingering differences between the directions of the unions in the two countries had disappeared.

Concentrating on the similarities of the unions on both sides of the border at that time would, however, overlook crucial differences. Emphasizing these differences isn't simply a matter of clarifying the record. They are, rather, the key to comprehending central developments in the history of the union, including the Canadian union's eventual split from the American union. Unions are more than the sum of their daily achievements. At least as important, ifnot more so,is the transition from one point to another. It's that process that shapes the culture and soul of a union - its decision-making procedures and principles, its leadership's views of the membership and of the union itself, and its potential to survive future struggles and achieve success.

After the war the Canadian section of the union was confident and aggressive. The 1945 Ford strike for union security had sparked similar successes in other sectors, and in 1946, Canadian workers, like workers in the U.S., engaged in a militant push for postwar wage increases. Within the Canadian UAW, Chrysler workers led the way in a 126-day strike while the rest of the union, especially outside the auto majors, made sure that no other agreements were signed that might undercut the Chrysler workers' efforts. The main victory in that strike, apart from wages, was the winning of three paid holidays.

The recently elected American leadership attempted the same kind of "housecleaning" in Canada that Reuther had introduced in the U.S. But it would take much longer in Canada and be less thorough because the left within the UAW had a much wider base of support amongst activists. Within this left grouping, communists in fact formed a small minority; the remainder consisted of many committed members of the CCF, and as in the U.S., solid militants outside any left politics.

 Largest Unions in Canada, 1950  
 
 1. UAW (United Automobile Workers)*  
60,000
 2. USWA (United Steel Workers of America)  
55,000
 3. Carpenters/Joiners (United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America)  
38,000
 4. Pulp, Sulphite, Paperworkers (International Brother- hood of Pulp, Sulphite, and Paper Mill Workers)  
33,000
 5. CBRT (Canadian Brotherhood of Railway & Transportation Workers)*  
33,000
 6. IAM (International Association of Machinists)  
27,000
 7. UMW (United Mine Workers of America  
26,000
 8. Mine Mill (International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelting Workers)*  
25,000
 9. UE (United Electrical Workers)*  
25,000
 10. Carmen (The Brotherhood of Railway Carmen of America)*  
22,000
 *Now in CAW  

This left subgroup had a number of advantages that didn't exist in the United States. It had the credibility of its record of defending the membership during the war. The Canadian left could also, in any fight with the American leadership, appeal to not only rank-and-file democracy, but also democracy linked to nationalism and Canadian autonomy. In addition, the Canadian Council acted as a mechanism for responding to or resisting Detroit. The relative compactness of the Canadian union at the time, being essentially restricted to southern Ontario, simplified the logistics of communication. And the Canadian state was not, like that of the United States, leading the international fight against communism; consequently, it was less aggressive-repressive than the American state in its attack. (Canada was of course still linked to and part of that American crusade; the preference of the Canadian state was, however, that labour be left to do the dirty work itself.) Together, these factors provided the Canadian locals with a shield their American counterparts, picked off one by one, did not have.

Although we now look back with nostalgia to the fifties, these years were not blissful, even for the organized sections of the working class; two-thirds of workers then, as now, had no union. The mid-fifties saw a significant downturn in the economy which, combined with the growth of automation, hit auto particularly hard.

Between 1953 and 1960, the Canadian market for vehicles increased by fifteen per cent but output fell by fifteen per cent and employment fell even faster. The apparent contradiction lay in the changing relationship with European industry. The revival of Europe's productive capacity reduced Canadian overseas auto exports one-quarter while imports into Canada quadrupled. In the U.S., the overseas import share rose to about ten per cent; in Canada it rose to well over twenty-five per cent. When Local 707 in Oakville joined the Ford strike in 1955, more than two-thirds of the workers were already on lay-off.

 
After the home of a fellow Local 222 member (Clarence O'Connor) was destroyed by a fire, the other workers in his department, Body Shop 9 at GM, Oshawa, came to build a new one for/with him. Early 1950s.
Courtesy of Wayne State Archives.

The 1958 recession was very severe, aggravated by the reversal in auto trade: Canadian auto exports were falling while imports were rising dramatically. Plant closures, and especially plant relocations, were increasingly common. (Bob White, then a local president in his mid-twenties, was put on the organizing staff on a temporary basis to deal with these plants.) Then, at the end of the fifties, came Black Monday. The Canadian government cancelled production of the AVRO Arrow in response to American insistence that Canadian defences use the U.S.'s Bomarc missiles. Virtually overnight, 14,000 aerospace employees were left with no place in Canada to apply their skills.

The Canadian economy and society were continuing to move towards greater integration with the United States and greater reliance on resource exports. Massive public projects, such as the Trans-Canada highway, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and pipelines, were introduced to facilitate that integration and reliance. Similar public intervention to build the social infrastructure of the Canadian welfare state wasn't yet on the agenda, and trade unionism was endorsed as long as it was moderate.

 
Local 200 baseball team, c. 1950.
Courtesy of Wayne State Archives.

During the fifties and into the early sixties, Canadian workers fought the companies, their international union office, the government, and occasionally each other. The Canadian UAW lobbied and demonstrated against the relocation of plants and organized a cavalcade of unemployed workers to take their demands for jobs to Ottawa. Workers fought internally over the future direction of the auto industry and its integration with the United States, and presented no less than four briefs to the royal commission on the future of the Canadian industry. They went on strike against some company attempts to implement American UAW directions in Canada, but they also went on strike to copy and catch up to other American achievements that the companies refused to implement in Canada.

Key Canadian locals resisted longer agreements, opposed profit-sharing, fought management on production standards (e.g., the speed of the line), and argued for reduced work-time instead of SUB (supplementary unemployment benefits). As the Toronto Telegram reported on 14 January 1958: "Clifford Pilkey (Local 222) said the local's delegates ... will press for higher pay and the shorter day. The Oshawa stand opposes that of President Reuther who said yesterday the union will NOT seek a shorter day but will demand part of the auto companies' profits above 10% [also opposed was Detroit's Local 600, the UAW's largest local]."

 
Women's softball team, McKinnon (GM), St. Catharines.
Courtesy of CAW Local 199 collection.

In 1950-51 Ford workers were involved in a battle that included thirty-four wildcats in a matter of weeks and the firing of one-quarter of the elected steward body. Workers held wildcats over attempts to speed up the line at Chrysler, Ford, GM, and Massey-Harris in the early fifties, and over discharges at the trailer manufacturer Fruehauf after plant-gate protests against employees working overtime in spite of lay-offs. While Ford and GM in the U.S. were in the middle of a relatively peaceful decade as far as nationwide strikes were concerned, Canadian workers were on strike in 1954-55 at Ford for 109 days, Massey-Harris for eighty days, GM for 148 days, and de Havilland Aircraft for 155 days. There was turmoil within GM as the Oshawa local elected a group of young militants who refused to enter into the GM master agreement. And even after stability was achieved at the end of the sixties, Chrysler workers held a week-long strike to protest production standards and to reduce the term of the agreement to two years.

 
Members of Local 200 involved in various kinds of recreation at their hall in the fifties.
Courtesy of Wayne State Archives.

In some cases, the Canadians were able to establish better practices than the Americans. Workplace conditions were generally superior in Canada; there was less overtime; GM workers managed to get one more holiday than their American counterparts; Ford workers won paid medical benefits seven years ahead of the U.S. union; and Canadians retained across-the-board increases, which were more egalitarian than percentage increases for a longer period of time.

The secret to the Canadian difference didn't, however, lie in such specific achievements. The Canadian UAW was shaped by several factors: distinct domestic economic conditions, a different role in the world and therefore a different kind of nationalism as compared to that of the U.S., a state that postponed effective bargaining rights until the end of the war, the creation of lasting democratic structures such as the Canadian Council, and the survival of a left opposition. This combination of factors affected the union's spirit in Canada; Canadians were putting up resistance, fighting back, refusing to wait patiently for change, rejecting partnerships with the corporations, and debating issues and directions even at the risk of internal division. The Canadian UAW was challenging the stereotypes of Canadians as polite and passive. The union culture reflected Canadian culture, but in a quite distinct way, linked as it was to the experiences of the working class and this particular union.

The UAW and the CCF

The political battles between the left in Canada and the Reuther forces were tied to the conflicts over the CCF. The CCF believed that it could not have a base in the Canadian UAW until the communists were ousted; therefore, it was very sympathetic to, and worked closely with, the Reutherites, who were on the same track. In 1947, when Reuther won his second term, George Burt was part of the left, and the Reuther supporters in Canada ran against him. David Lewis, national secretary of the CCF, indicated the extent of the Reuther-CCF ties in a letter to Walter Reuther on 10 December 1947 saying: "I am only sorry that our people were unable to deliver a victory in the Canadian region. My impression is that it is only a matter of time now."

In the CCF's surprise showing in 1943, all three provincial seats in Windsor went to the CCF. The Windsor Star reported that "No matter what the sentiment in the rest of the province, the victory here belonged to the CIO (UAW)."

Although the CCF was founded in the early thirties and exploded onto the electoral map in Ontario in 1943, the Canadian UAW did not officially endorse the CCF until December, 1948. The barrier did in fact relate to the CCF-CP conflict over influence within the union. The communists called for an alliance between all "progressive forces," which included the CP-based Labour Progressive Party (LPP); the CCF refused. The CP, with its credible base within the Canadian UAW that went back to the thirties, was able to rally other activists - including many who weren't particularly supportive of the CCF and some who argued for a labour party - against support for any one party.

 
Local 397 float in Labour Day parade, Brantford, 1946
Courtesy ofCAW collection.

These circumstances led to a spectacle in the 1945 Ontario election: the UAW endorsed three candidates in Windsor, who were in turn endorsed by the LPP and the Liberals, while the CCF ran competing candidates. The UAW slate included George Burt, the president of the union; Alex Parent, the communist president of the second largest local in the UAW (Local 195); and Art Reaume, the former conservative and mayor of Windsor who had supported the Ford workers in their fight for the Rand formula. In the previous provincial election, the CCF had won all three seats on the basis of UAW support. Now the party lost by a small margin in each seat; of the three UAW candidates, only Alex Parent won. The other two narrowly missed election because of a split vote. The resulting bitterness remained on all sides for years.

 
Autoworkers prepare a cavalcade to protest unemployment during the 1958 recession. Standing in the middle is Charlie Brooks, president of the Chrysler local and later the Canadian Council. Brooks was assassinated in 1977 by a frustrated worker when the union failed to get the worker's job back after a third discharge.
Courtesy ofCAW collection.

The left's strength in the union waned, and Burt himself shifted away from the CP after Reuther's ascendancy was clear and the cold war intensified. The union thus moved steadily towards the CCF. By the early fifties, the UAW, along with other key unions such as the United Steelworkers of America and the Packinghouse Workers (now part of the United Food and Commercial Workers), became the organizational backbone of the party. But that support remained at the level of leadership and staff and was not reflected by the general membership. With the Liberals making some concessions on progressive programs and, more important, the union making crucial social gains in collective bargaining, the need for a third party became less urgent. The locals did not affiliate with the CCF until after it was revived in 1961 as the NDP (New Democratic Party). In fact, as late as 1957, de Havilland Aircraft workers comprised the only UAW local affiliated to the CCF.

There were two implications of this relationship between the Canadian UAW and its eventual political arm. First, the union never limited its definition of politics to electoral activity. The UAW developed and maintained an emphasis on independent lobbying in a number of ways. It sent cavalcades to Queen's Park and Ottawa, organized the unemployed, and buttonholed MPs (i.e., it sent staff and council delegates as teams to meet and lobby members of Parliament). It also worked with the rest of the labour movement on campaigns for labour legislation, met with mayors of auto communities to garner support for tariff and taxation policy, and established solid community links through union-led services such as co-op housing and community health clinics.

The creation of the NDP in 1961 was a response to both the failure of the CCF to make a breakthrough in popular support and the merger in 1956 of the TLC and the CCL to form the Canadian Labour Congress. The merger forced a discussion of the relationship to the CCF which the CCL had supported and the TLC had not. Out of that discussion came the agreement to work towards the creation of a rejuvenated social democratic party (the NDP) with close ties to labour.

Second, even as ties with the CCF/NDP grew, a healthy level of skepticism prevented the relationship from being reduced to one of unconditional loyalty. The union would, when necessary, challenge the party's direction. This independence became more evident in later periods when, at critical times (usually at a new stage of economic restructuring), the NDP went in one direction while the union went in another (wage controls, free trade, the "social contract"). But even in the fifties, as the NDP moved towards a "social democracy that reflected giving up on socialism," there were hints of such differences. In March, 1952, George Burt, addressing and apparently reflecting the mood of the Canadian Council, wondered whether the move shouldn't instead be to reaffirm earlier social democratic touchstones: "Unemployment ... can only be solved by ... planning our economy to develop ... the utmost use of our resources. This means the exercise of government control over our natural resources and the resources of industry."

By the early sixties, the American section of the union had remained relatively stable for fifteen years, and observers began to note an emerging bureaucratization. In spite of Reuther's eloquence, the UAW's education programs (including the use of radio and TV in a way that American and Canadian unions today would envy), and the development of many superb pamphlets on automation, production standards, health and safety, democracy, and the failures of capitalism, an ill wind was blowing. Harvey Swados, a writer who had worked in an auto plant and who was sympathetic to the union, reflected on the UAW in Dissent in October, 1963. He observed the link between ongoing struggles and the potential of the working class:

... struggles themselves function as educational forces for the participants - and the leaders. It is when struggles are postponed or aborted that the fabric of democracy must deteriorate. It is when people are in motion, and are led towards an ethical goal, that they are most receptive to challenges to receive wisdom; more than that they themselves become innovators and discover that they are capable of an inventiveness and an intellectual audacity of which they themselves could scarcely conceive in less adventurous times.

Walter Reuther, looking back at the UAW two years before his death, was also sensitive to the dangers of the American labour movement's drift into complacency. At a 1968 UAW convention, he noted: "A labour movement can get soft and flabby spiritually. It can make progress materially and the soul of the union can die in the process."

The Canadians shared in the gains made by the Americans and fought struggles of their own. They couldn't escape the pressures the Americans faced - when necessary, the Americans made sure of that. Yet, different circumstances and past experiences influenced the Canadians as they shaped their own union culture. The Canadian section of the union had emerged from that same fifteen-year period differently, ifonly because it endured greater turmoil and the stable UAW pattern did not settle in until the late fifties. There was therefore less time, before the greater disruptions of the sixties, for the establishment of any bureaucratization.

Even by the end of the sixties, after Burt had moved ideologically towards Reuther, and the remaining opposition to Reutherism in Canada had suffered both electoral defeats (for example, it lost control of the Oshawa local) and collective bargaining defeats (it was forced to accept the American pattern), an oppositional base remained within the union and key locals. That opposition got a new lease on life with an upsurge of Canadian nationalism that was based on the reaction to the growing American dominance over the economy and on the in-plant rebellions of the sixties.

The fifties were a mixed blessing. Unions and workers were invited "in" but at a price: they had to develop the proper table etiquette and leave their "bad" manners outside. The issue to come in the sixties, in both Canada and the United States, was whether unions were still a leading force in the movement to challenge the status quo.

Chapter Four / Chapter Six


Print Print  Send to a friend Send to a friend  Feedback Feedback