Workers Vanguard No. 1044
18 April 2014
Capitalists Gut the Motor City
Detroit: The Rise and Fall of a Labor/Black Stronghold
The following is a presentation, edited for publication, given by comrade Barry James at a March 22 forum in Chicago.
The “Motor City” was the center of American capitalism’s principal industry and a stronghold of a powerful unionized black proletariat. Today, Detroit is the world capital of closed auto plants, with the world’s most skilled army of homeless. It was in Flint, Michigan, in 1937 that a sit-down strike brought the auto giant General Motors to its knees. Michigan now is a newly minted “right to work” state.
Detroit is a monument to the irrationality of the profit system—a system based on the private ownership of the means of production. When the city went into bankruptcy, government spokesmen and the bourgeois press pointed the finger at mismanagement by city officials and “exorbitant” union contracts, which were alibis for the perpetrators. The auto giants brought in waves of labor, including many black workers, to toil on the assembly line only to then toss them on the scrap heap when the plants became unprofitable. A proletarian revolution is necessary to rip the productive wealth of society from the capitalists and build a collectivized, planned economy where production is based on social need, not profit.
In recent years, Detroit’s population has fallen sharply, leaving an 82 percent black populace that the capitalist rulers consider surplus. The U.S. bourgeoisie presumes that it can starve the poor, gut pensions and impoverish working people without repercussions. This calculation, indeed the plight of Detroit, owes much to the role of the trade-union bureaucracy in suppressing labor struggle.
Barack Obama, a Wall Street Democrat who is overseer of racist U.S. imperialism, was hailed for bailing out the auto bosses. The 2009 bailout meant remaining members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) would work for less, if at all, to restore company profits. In return for allowing the automakers to shave billions owed the retiree health care trust, the UAW took equity stakes in the “new” General Motors and Chrysler—and one seat on the board at the latter. True to form, GM and Chrysler announced plant closures and workers were saddled with a no-strike pledge for six years. The UAW tops assured the automakers, including Ford, that wages and benefits would end up on par with foreign-owned plants in the open shop South! A newly hired autoworker at a remaining plant in Detroit would earn $14 an hour. This wage, adjusted for inflation, is three cents less than what Henry Ford was paying in 1914 when he announced the $5 day.
Current UAW president Bob King has promoted the bailout, turning a defeat for the union into a badge of honor for Obama, with the union bureaucrats pouring millions of dollars into Obama’s re-election. At one time, the UAW was the symbol of union power. Today, the UAW Solidarity House crew can barely choke out the words “working class,” let alone reference the class-struggle methods that built the union.
In the course of the decades-long withering of the trade unions, the UAW tops habitually unfurled the banner of poisonous protectionism: “American Jobs for American Workers.” King may oppose the Pentagon’s School of the Americas, which trains anti-labor death squads for repressive regimes in Latin America, but he can China-bash with the best. The role of the labor bureaucrats was explained by Leon Trotsky in his 1940 article “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”:
“Monopoly capitalism is less and less willing to reconcile itself to the independence of trade unions. It demands of the reformist bureaucracy and the labor aristocracy, who pick up the crumbs from its banquet table, that they become transformed into its political police before the eyes of the working class.”
Turning back the ruling-class war against the unions requires breaking labor’s political subservience to the Democrats and the capitalist order. A fight inside the unions is required to oust the current sellouts and install a class-struggle leadership.
Workers, Black People
Made to Pay
In the years prior to Detroit’s bankruptcy filing, former mayor David Bing ended city services, including road repairs, streetlights and garbage collection, to the parts of Detroit he deemed expendable. Meanwhile, the underfunded fire department adopted a “let it burn” policy. Unsatisfied, the Michigan governor appointed an emergency manager in 2013 to conduct a fire sale of city assets and slash costs, beginning with unionized labor. We oppose the devastating attacks on the pensions and health benefits of city workers past and present. We also oppose the privatization of the city water department to pay back the banks, higher utility service fees be damned.
A number of capitalist philanthropies are donating money to keep the Detroit Institute of Arts from being looted, dubiously claiming that they will make contributions to reduce the pension cutbacks, too. Outrageously, the plundering banks object to taking any “haircut” on their loans from which they have extracted massive profits. For their part, the Michigan public union tops, committed to a course of lobbying Democratic Party politicians, whine that the state constitution “protects” pension benefits. In early December, this protection was tossed out the window when a federal judge ruled that a bankrupt Detroit could wipe out city workers’ pensions, a precedent that has emboldened other municipalities in their efforts to gut pensions.
As for the cops and prison guards, they are not workers, but the repressive arm and professional strikebreakers of the capitalist state and we demand their ouster from the unions. The pensions of the retired thugs in blue who “made their living” terrorizing the black populace are no concern of ours. Police from the Detroit area, home to many Arabs, have also helped carry out Obama’s “war on terror.” A case in point is a 2009 FBI raid in which an imam who served the poor—not least hungry Christians—was blown away. He was shot 21 times and then handcuffed while the Feds’ wounded attack dog was airlifted for veterinary care.
The Ford Foundation has a vision of remaking the city into a young, high-tech, artistic-urban farm. Such “reimaginings” can only heighten the sense of siege in black Detroit, which is ringed by white suburbs that were called “sundown towns”—meaning if you’re black you’d better be out by then. In the 1950s, Dearborn mayor Orville Hubbard infamously said to an Alabama newspaper that a black man moving in to Dearborn would be responded to quicker than a fire. This is not simply ancient history. Last November, a 19-year-old black woman met her death by a shotgun blast to the face while seeking help on the porch of a Dearborn Heights home after a car accident.
Not a few of the city’s suburbs are affluent. Adjacent to Detroit is Oakland County, whose elected manager—an all-round retrograde and Ku Klux Klan defender—proposes to build a fence around Detroit and “throw in the blankets and corn.” With Detroit and several other Michigan cities in receivership and run by emergency managers, a wide swath of the state’s population, including a majority of its black residents, is subject to the diktats of unelected officials. Simply put, this is racist disenfranchisement.
The 1941 Strike:
Solidifying the UAW
The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the city’s relative proximity to the Mesabi iron range first spurred Detroit’s growth. The city produced railroad cars, stoves and other manufactured goods. It became the Motor City with the advent of Ford’s Model T in the early 20th century.
Shortly after, the “Great Migration” began, setting the stage for the economic integration of black people into industrial capitalism. During the labor crisis created by World War I, over half a million black people left the Jim Crow South for the North. A good portion of black Detroit “had roots in Tennessee, Alabama, western Georgia or the Florida panhandle because the historic rail lines connected those places during the Migration years.... Detroit’s black population would skyrocket” (Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, 2010).
Detroit has long been a city of sharp contradictions. Prior to the Civil War, it was a station for the Underground Railroad and a meeting place of leading abolitionists. Yet in 1863, it also was the scene of a major anti-black riot. Detroit at the beginning of the Great Migration was “the most Southern” of Northern cities, but at least black people could sit where they wanted on the trolley. In the early 1920s, 40,000 Klansmen lived in the city, and a KKK mayor was almost elected. In 1925, a black doctor, Ossian Sweet, moved his family to a white neighborhood. Armed with guns, the Sweet family defended themselves against racist mobs, killing one attacker. After trials and imprisonment, the Sweets were ultimately acquitted.
The mass unionization of black workers into the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) some seven decades ago was key to preparing the ground for common struggle with white workers against the bosses. But black workers first had to be convinced of the new CIO unions’ commitment to racial equality after decades of Jim Crow discrimination on the part of the craft-based American Federation of Labor (AFL). Moreover, Henry Ford and his ilk initially hired black people as a counterforce to unionism. Their toehold in northern industry was due to the capitalists’ desire for insurance against strikes.
A seminal event was the 1941 Ford strike, which brought 10,000 black members into the UAW. Taking on the “great white father of Dearborn” and besieging Ford’s giant River Rouge plant, then employing 100,000 workers, the UAW won recognition from the last of the Big Three automakers to be unionized. No longer did the black community bow down to the “king of the open shop.” The Rouge, known as Master Ford’s plantation, would become the home of UAW Local 600, a center of black union power. As the strike and its lead-up highlighted, breaking down racial barriers by fighting for black equality is essential to building strong industrial trade unions and advancing the struggles of the working class as a whole. In other words, labor and black struggles will either go forward together or fall back separately.
Years earlier, Henry Ford had bought off the small black middle class by pouring money into black churches. He also financed some services for a segregated slum known as Inkster. In return, his loyal black ministers screened job applicants for their anti-unionism. Ford’s racial “philanthropy” flowed from white supremacy. His paper, the Dearborn Independent, portrayed black people as beneficiaries of the “white man’s civilization” and warned against attempts by Jews to “Bolshevize the Negro.”
To do battle with Ford, the UAW hired several black organizers who had gained trade-union experience through the Communist Party (CP) and its National Negro Congress. Among its activities, the UAW’s Negro Sub-Organizing Department issued special editions of the Local 600 newsletter Ford Facts. Through such efforts, the UAW was able not only to neutralize anti-union sentiment but also to convince many black workers that it would defend their jobs—not by begging Ford but through collective action. When the organizing drive began, Ford countered by hiring black workers into his “Service Department” of anti-union thugs run by Harry Bennett.
The strike began on April 1 when Ford fired eight UAW committeemen. Practically the whole Rouge plant walked, though some black workers remained in the foundry and hundreds of others, recently hired to scab, slipped back in the next morning. At 6 a.m. on the second day, Bennett sent several hundred scabs and thugs out of the factory to attack the union pickets with steel bars and knives. At 9 a.m., another assault took place, but this time the picketers were prepared with baseball bats and sticks. The battle was brief and bloody; the union lines held.
There were few black workers on the picket line, and there were black scabs inside, making it possible to paint the confrontation as a racial conflict. Meanwhile, an ex-president of the UAW, working for the AFL, addressed 3,000 blacks in the ghetto to garner support for a back-to-work movement.
In response, the UAW appealed directly to black strikebreakers to leave the plant and urged black workers not to let themselves be used as scabs, pointing to the greater pay, job security and promotions from the seniority system that would be gained through unionization. The union reiterated that the UAW “permits no racial discrimination within its ranks.” The head of the NAACP youth group, who also was a Ford foundry worker, ignored the neutrality of the adult branch and used a UAW sound truck to appeal in the name of the NAACP for the strikebreakers to leave the plant. Such efforts were a counterbalance to the black ministers and defused the back-to-work movement.
On April 11, Henry Ford agreed to a National Labor Relations Board-supervised election. In May, the UAW won, although many black workers voted for the company-backed AFL union. But black hostility to the UAW dissipated after the elections because black workers received the same wages as the rest of the workforce, and they saw a black UAW organizer prominent on the contract bargaining committee. The part played by black UAW organizers was important to securing not only the union allegiance of black workers but also white workers’ acceptance of their black counterparts.
This victory for the UAW was partial—black workers were still segregated into the worst jobs, and auto companies would continue to play on the fears of white workers to keep the union divided. Henry Ford cut off money to Inkster and instituted an anti-black hiring policy at his plants. UAW president R. J. Thomas, in turn, ignored the fight to upgrade black workers to better jobs and the racism that remained in his own ranks.
Anti-Black Riot of 1943
The U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 brought another mass migration of Southern blacks and whites to labor-hungry Detroit. The thousands of new white workers from the South had not gone through the strike experiences with black co-workers. Together with second-generation Poles, they were, as a rule, hostile to black rights. Meanwhile, Detroit suffered an acute housing shortage, which exploded in the bloody riots of 1943.
The prelude to the riots occurred in 1942 at the Sojourner Truth Housing Project, built to accommodate the influx of thousands of defense workers. The night before it opened, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross at the project, which was located in a mainly white area north of Polish Hamtramck. Tenants moving in were attacked. A UAW presence with sound trucks and black Local 600 members helped prevent a racist riot. However, hundreds of black people were arrested (and only a handful of whites). Local 600 and the UAW International issued statements defending the black tenants but failed to follow up with further union action. Three months later, black families moved in with the support of government housing officials acting to get critical industry up and running for the war profiteers.
Ominously, a series of reactionary strikes had erupted in the early 1940s in the auto plants. The KKK had a presence at Packard, where years of anti-black actions culminated in May 1943 with a walkout by 25,000 white workers protesting the upgrade of black workers to the assembly line. The plant manager agitated for workers to join a company union. Facing a threat to the union’s existence, UAW president Thomas—with the backing of the federal government—announced that all workers who struck against black labor would be expelled from the union and fired. Thirty whites were dismissed, and at an NAACP meeting Thomas blustered that if the Klansmen “want to fight the union on this issue, we are ready and willing to take them on” (August Meier and Elliott Rudick, Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW, 1979).
Two weeks later, the riot began. By the time it was over, 25 black people lay dead—most of them killed by the police. While not lifting a finger to stop the lynch mobs during the riots, UAW leaders trumpeted that none of the bloodshed had entered the plants! But the then-revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (SWP) fought for a mobilization of union militants to defend the black masses. The Trotskyist SWP’s Militant newspaper (3 July 1943) wrote:
“The labor leaders must do more than deplore these attacks...do more than order their members to stay off the streets and appeal for grand jury investigations. They must summon their membership to take determined and organized action against the instigators and organizers of these lynch mobs. The unions of Detroit could have repulsed this threat to their very existence as they repulsed General Motors in 1937 and 1941. Detroit would be far different today and the native fascists would be cowering in their holes, demoralized instead of triumphant, had the union leaders called out the veteran flying squadrons to defend the Negro people.”
With the country awash in patriotic war fervor, the SWP pointed out that “because of their no-strike pledge and slavish subservience to Roosevelt’s labor policies, the CIO and AFL leadership have completely failed to provide the workers with any program of resistance to the encroachments of the capitalists.... That is the reason why fascist demagogues and preachers of race hate and violence are able to receive a hearing from some workers” (Militant, 3 July 1943). The pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy’s support to imperialist wars abroad has as its corollary support to the wartime suppression of union struggle at home.
Postwar Anti-Communist Purges
The New Deal put labor in bed with its liberal class enemies in the North as well as the Dixiecrats, who terrorized black people and the unions in the South. It is a myth that Roosevelt’s New Deal pulled the U.S. out of the 1930s Great Depression. The economy did not return to its pre-1929 level until the interimperialist slaughter of World War II set the war industries running in high gear. As opposed to the CP, the SWP supported none of the imperialist combatants, whether “democratic” Allies or the Axis. At the same time, the Trotskyists continued to stand foursquare for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union.
The U.S. was the only imperialist power to emerge from the war with its industrial infrastructure intact. It also was the unchallenged military power of the capitalist world. The triumphant U.S. ruling class heralded the “American century.” When the largest strike wave in the country’s history broke out in 1946 amid postwar austerity, the bourgeoisie, rolling in profits, pieced off workers with wage increases and talk of the “American dream.”
At the same time, the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany and the Red Army’s liberation of much of Central and East Europe was a boon for the USSR. Communism had more prestige despite the anti-working-class crimes of Stalin’s bureaucratic rule. As the industrial-military powerhouse of the non-capitalist world, the Soviet Union was the main enemy of the bourgeoisie. The U.S. rulers turned on their erstwhile ally with a vengeance, launching a Cold War against the Soviet degenerated workers state. In its domestic reflection, the unions were purged of reds and other militants who had led the major organizing struggles of the 1930s.
Given its association with the Russian Revolution and its influential position in the CIO, the Communist Party became the chief target of the witchhunt. As a result of its all-out wartime support for the Allies, the CP had upheld a no-strike pledge and quashed struggles for black rights, betrayals that further isolated it from union militants. The success of the purges helped consolidate an anti-Communist union bureaucracy committed to U.S. imperialism and class peace. Anti-labor laws like the Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes and demanded “loyalty oaths” from union officials, were passed at this time. The Cold War leaders of the AFL and CIO—George Meany and Walter Reuther, respectively—denounced such slave-labor legislation but complied with it.
Social democrats like the UAW’s Reuther were the spearhead of repression within the labor movement. He had tried to ban Communists from elected union office as early as 1941. In September 1948, Reuther moved to purge Coleman Young (later the mayor of Detroit) and other CP supporters from the Wayne County CIO. Local 600, where black workers and the CP were concentrated, was the last holdout. One authoritative account gives a picture of Walter Reuther working in tandem with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to put Local 600 in receivership in the early 1950s: “He described the local’s anti-Korean War stance as a response to the dictates of the Communist party and suggested that an aerial picture of the River Rouge plant printed in Ford Facts was evidence of espionage. At the end of the lengthy meeting, the executive board voted unanimously to take control of Local 600 and soon dismissed or suspended many of its leading Negro caucus activists and their white progressive allies” (David M. Lewis-Colman, Race Against Liberalism, 2008).
As the witchhunt escalated, Communist workers were beaten up and fired, and attempts were made to evict “reds” from public housing. Particularly in Detroit, CP supporters who were victimized were heavily black. As Lewis-Colman observed, Reuther became “concerned about the race issue in the union. Like many liberal anti-Communists, Reuther believed that racism had become an effective issue for Communists.” Specifically, he wanted to clean up the image of racist U.S. imperialism to neutralize CP influence and to bolster the Cold War drive against the Soviet Union. As such, he would later support Martin Luther King’s liberal pacifism in the South. At the same time, he allied himself with the racist and FBI-linked Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. As the International Affairs Director of the UAW, Reuther’s brother Victor spent CIA money to split Communist-led unions in postwar Europe.
Walter Reuther’s 1950 auto contract, touted as the “Treaty of Detroit,” gave union members a cost-of-living adjustment but tied wages to productivity. The UAW tops agreed with the slogan attributed to GM boss Charles Wilson that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” To maintain labor peace in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Reuther and his lieutenants crushed revolts by radicalized black workers.
In earlier years, the New Deal alliance that Reuther lauded had crippled key labor struggles. For example, in 1946 the CIO announced a campaign to organize the South, grotesquely called “Operation Dixie.” This vital task ran head-on into Jim Crow segregation. The fight for integrated unions would have aroused a vicious backlash from Dixiecrats and their Klan auxiliaries, blowing apart the New Deal coalition. In the face of the Cold War witchhunt, CIO leaders, fearing the prospect of black workers falling in with Communist labor organizers, scuttled the effort after only two years. The working class is still paying for this crime. The open shop South remains a bastion of racist reaction and a “sword of Damocles” hanging over labor’s struggles.
Black and Red
The intervention of Lenin and Trotsky’s Communist International was crucial in driving home the centrality of the fight for black freedom to the American proletarian revolution. James P. Cannon, a leader of the early CP in the U.S. and later the founder of American Trotskyism, emphasized that Lenin and the Russian Revolution “contributed more than any other influence from any source to the recognition, and more or less general acceptance, of the Negro question as a special problem of American society—a problem which cannot simply be subsumed under the general heading of the conflict between capital and labor” (“The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement,” in The First Ten Years of American Communism ).
The SWP tirelessly fought for black rights and equality during World War II and subsequently made headway recruiting black workers, including in Detroit. When Cannon wrote this essay from semiretirement in 1959, though, the Southern civil rights struggle was polarizing American society and had brought to the fore differences in the SWP on the black question. Cannon was addressing this debate by inference when he observed that the “expansion of the communist influence in the Negro movement” in the 1930s happened despite the CP’s call for self-determination, which invented a separate “black nation” in the Deep South. Cannon continued: “In practice the CP jumped over this contradiction. When the party adopted the slogan of ‘self-determination,’ it did not drop its aggressive agitation for Negro equality and Negro rights on every front.... It was the CP’s agitation and action under the latter slogan that brought the results.”
A “Freedom Now” resolution adopted at the SWP’s 1963 Convention codified a wholesale embrace of black nationalism and was accompanied by a policy of abstention from the Southern civil rights struggle. This abstention meant an entire generation of black youth was lost to the revolutionary movement. In a matter of a couple of years, the degenerating SWP would descend into full-blown reformism.
The SWP’s rejection of Marxism over the black question did not go unopposed. Richard Fraser, an SWP member who addressed American black oppression and struggle in his lectures and written documents in the 1950s, was a key figure. By 1963, Fraser was in opposition to the SWP majority, and his tendency submitted a resolution on revolutionary integrationism. The Revolutionary Tendency (RT), forebear of the Spartacist League, supported the basic line of that resolution in a “Statement in Voting on the Negro Question” while giving its own explanation that black people “are not a nation; rather they are an oppressed race-color caste, in the main comprising the most exploited layer of the American working class. From this condition the consequence has come that the Negro struggle for freedom has had, historically, the aim of integration into an equalitarian society.”
Objecting to the SWP majority’s abstentionism and view that “inevitably ours is a white party,” the RT called on the party to “expend significant material resources in overcoming our isolation from Southern struggles.... A successful outcome to our action would lead to an historic breakthrough for the Trotskyist movement.” As the RT put it in the 1963 document “For Black Trotskyism”: “The Negro question is so deeply built into the American capitalist class-structure...that only the destruction of existing class relations and the change in class dominance—the passing of power into the hands of the working class—will suffice to strike at the heart of racism and bring about a solution both real and durable.” The leadership of the RT, representing Marxist continuity, was expelled beginning in December 1963 in the rapidly rightward moving SWP’s first political purge.
The SWP’s abandonment of the perspective of building a multiracial vanguard party impacted the development of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit. Some of its founding members had been around the SWP, while others came from a Maoist background. Comrade Don Alexander has recounted meeting one of them, John Watson. According to Watson, he was among a number who had attended Friday night Militant Forums and been impressed with the SWP. But the SWP was chasing the pacifist preachers and black nationalists and had nothing to offer them, except to advise them to form a separate black party. So they concluded: why not? And that is what they did.
Dead End of Black Nationalism
Detroit in July 1967 was witness to one of the last, and bloodiest, of a series of ghetto rebellions sparked by racist police as well as job and housing discrimination. National Guardsmen and federal troops poured into Detroit as the inner city was turned into a war zone with tanks rumbling down the streets. However, when the majority black 82nd Airborne was sent to Detroit to quell the rebellion, military hardware was soon mysteriously finding its way to the besieged ghetto, illustrating how in times of social upheaval a heavily working-class and minority army will not always remain loyal to the capitalist rulers. As punishment, the 82nd was sent back to Vietnam.
Soon-to-be Democratic mayor Coleman Young had joined his former antagonist, Walter Reuther, in calling on President Lyndon Johnson to send in federal troops. By the time the rebellion was suppressed, 43 black people had been killed, hundreds injured and over 7,000 arrested. Young and Reuther enlisted in the bourgeoisie’s “New Detroit Committee” aimed at saving the Motor City for the Big Three.
In the 1960s, the unemployment rate for black people and youth in Detroit was sky-high. Working conditions in decrepit auto plants were horrendous. Tens of thousands of black workers in the plants were excluded from the skilled trades and trapped in the dirtiest, hottest, most backbreaking and dangerous jobs. The largely white UAW bureaucracy was hostile to its black membership. Racist foremen, speedup and industrial injuries were common. The title of the book Detroit: I Do Mind Dying came from a Detroit blues song of the ’60s that starts, “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.” The book documents the period and the development of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
After the 1967 ghetto upheaval, black nationalists at Wayne State University coalesced around a community newspaper, the Inner City Voice, to form a “black Marxist-Leninist party.” Many black workers hired into the plants in the late ’60s scorned the appeals for “nonviolence” pushed by Martin Luther King and the liberal leadership of the civil rights movement. These militants recognized black workers had some social power at the point of production but did not draw the conclusion that the multiracial working class uniquely could strike real blows against racist American capitalism. Inner City Voice cadre made contact with just such black militants at the Dodge Main assembly plant and formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM).
A May 1968 wildcat strike over speedup that involved both black and white workers resulted in racist disciplinary actions. In response, DRUM initiated a boycott of nearby racist bars, another three-day wildcat and a rally of 3,000 workers in the plant parking lot. Word of DRUM’s audacity spread. ELRUM was formed at Eldon Ave. Chrysler, as were a number of groups at other plants. Based on this growth, the Inner City Voice activists formed the League in early 1969.
In 1970 at the Eldon Ave. Chrysler plant, a black worker who had been fired shot dead two foremen and a white co-worker. Ken Cockrel, a lawyer and founding member of the League, defended him. Blaming the deaths on horrific conditions at Chrysler and the worker’s lifetime experiences of racism, Cockrel took the jury to the plant so they could see the conditions. In the end, the worker was found not responsible for his acts and awarded worker’s compensation for company-inflicted injuries.
DRUM correctly called for rehiring fired workers and opening the skilled trades to blacks, opposed speedup and unsafe conditions and denounced the betrayals of the UAW tops. But many of their demands were unsupportable: hiring black foremen, general foremen and plant managers; that “a black brother be appointed as head of the board of directors of Chrysler Corporation”; and that “50 percent of all plant protection guards be black.” Such demands would simply put “black faces in high places” and had nothing to do with mobilizing class struggle. That DRUM considered a black director of Chrysler or a black security guard to be a “brother” speaks volumes about the political bankruptcy of black nationalism.
Some white workers respected DRUM picket lines and wanted to work with the group, but DRUM avoided organizing them. They lumped white workers together with the white racist rulers and the trade-union bureaucracy. Especially in Detroit at that time, while there were conservative white workers, there also were young white workers who hated the Vietnam War. However, the League had little interest in politically engaging these workers. In this vein, a supporter of the Spartacist League who had led an effective wildcat strike against Michigan Bell was turned away from their door.
The League’s nationalism also rendered it incapable of building a united class-struggle opposition to the racist, pro-capitalist union bureaucracy typified by UAW secretary treasurer Emil Mazey, who vilified DRUM as a “black peril” more dangerous than the “red peril” of Communism. Instead, the League threatened to pull black workers out of the UAW. Typical was a poem that came out of the DRUM struggles, which concluded: “U.A.W. is scum/OUR THING IS DRUM!!!!”
The League itself split in 1971. The community-oriented wing of Ken Cockrel moved quickly into Democratic Party politics, giving support to Coleman Young. Its more workerist wing—represented by General Baker among others—joined the Stalinist Communist League with its ludicrous theory of the Negro nation in the Deep South and formed the Communist Labor Party. Despite the anti-UAW rants of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Baker became a UAW bureaucrat, receiving a union award in 2011, for those who “exemplify the teaching and life” of Martin Luther King.
[TO BE CONTINUED]