The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

60 years ago:
Walter Reuther begins to gut the union

Jun 26, 2006

Sixty years ago, at the 1946 UAW Convention, Walter Reuther became president of the United Auto Workers. One of his first goals was to consolidate his own position by getting rid of all the militants who had done the work of building the union in the 1930s.

For the most part, it was communists, socialists and other radicals who had worked to organize union locals, fights and strikes. It was the leftists who pushed for an industrial union of all the workers, forcing people like John L. Lewis to form the CIO – the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

This militant activity played a key role, as the working class organized broadly in the 1930s. Even during World War II, when the labor bureaucrats had made a “no strike pledge,” workers still fought, carrying out thousands of wildcat strikes.

The year after the war ended, 1946, workers carried out the largest strike wave the country had ever seen – 4,600,000 strikers engaged in 4,985 strikes. The working class was feeling its strength – and it pulled along many of the bureaucrats like Reuther – but it was the work of the radicals in the labor movement that had led the way.

The corporations and the government wanted to get rid of the radical leadership that had made these fights possible. People like Walter Reuther were only too happy to help them do it, as a way to gain positions themselves.

In 1949, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, a wide-ranging set of anti-labor laws that included a requirement that union officers swear loyalty to the U.S. government. At first, Reuther and the UAW, along with the CIO as a whole, made a show of denouncing the act; but very soon, they turned around and enforced it in all their unions, using it to root out and remove as many militants as they could. Reuther, especially, demanded that all UAW officers sign a loyalty pledge, using it to consolidate his own control over the UAW.

Between 1947 and 1953, thousands of militants were tossed out of the UAW and other CIO unions. Whole unions – local or national – were “reorganized” – taken away from the local leadership that had built them – or completely kicked out of the CIO. The UAW leadership used thugs to march into factories and remove worker militants by force – doing the companies’ dirty work for them.

Some workers resisted this attack. In 1952, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings targeting UAW Local 600 at the Ford Rouge plant; the Local fought back.

Right after HUAC finished its hearings, Reuther removed the local officers and placed the local under an Administrative Board. Ford workers resisted. That August, they overwhelmingly rejected the Administrative Board’s candidates for local office, and returned the officers who had been removed by Reuther just a few months before.

In most places, though, Reuther and his crew were successful in driving out the radicals who had built the union. It was a defeat that the UAW and the workers’ movement more generally has still not recovered from.

Walter Reuther and his successors may have rewritten the UAW’s history. But the fact remains that unions today require a new generation of militants as determined and devoted as those who led the struggles of the 1930s.