Workers Vanguard No. 1045
2 May 2014
Spartacist Supporters in Detroit Auto
The following are edited comments made by Matt, a Spartacist League supporter in the auto industry in the 1970s and ’80s, at the March 22 forum.
I arrived in Detroit in winter 1973. The Motor City: auto plants within miles of each other—smokestacks visible whichever direction you traversed—and hiring. The hours of work, speed of the line and blur of activity were a culture shock. Within the first few days, in my haste to eat a can of tomato soup during a short break I sliced open my thumb with the pop-off top of the can. Not even a work injury, but I felt I couldn’t screw the lug nuts onto the tires, so I stopped the line to inform the foreman. But before I could even call him, he was there with a relief man for my spot and restarted the line. He wrapped my hand with duct tape, and two cars later I was back fastening on the tires. I learnt quickly that the line doesn’t stop!
Spartacist supporters in the auto plants talked about a range of social issues. At that time, there was busing for school integration; the Hyde Amendment, which banned federal funding for abortion; and the economy, which was already spiraling downward, causing skyrocketing inflation along with the new phenomenon of gas lines everywhere. It had even become financially advantageous to pay the round-trip bridge toll and gas up in Canada. We became known as knowledgeable anti-racist, pro-union militants, always pointing out the role of the cops and the two parties of capital, the Democrats and Republicans.
In winter 1977-1978, a small band of Nazis began a provocative campaign of harassment and intimidation in a racially mixed west side neighborhood. These fascists kept reopening a bookstore after having been evicted by on-site protests and publicity, in which both the Spartacist League and its supporters in the auto industry participated. These events were unfolding in the shadow of the Ford River Rouge plant, where SL supporters had been raising the issue of the need for labor to do something about this scum. So the UAW Local 600 bureaucrats felt compelled to bluster about driving the Nazis out of town, and they formed a Labor-Community Council Against the Nazis.
At a steering committee meeting in February 1978, the Nazis brazenly showed up. After they had been identified by a trade unionist who appealed for immediate action, some of those present began to advance to deal with the greatly outnumbered fascists. However, the Council chairman handpicked by the Local 600 bureaucrats intervened to break up the imminent confrontation and permit the fascists to depart. The Nazis proceeded to set upon a Workers Defense Committee (WDC) supporter distributing literature outside. Coming to that person’s defense, another WDC supporter was slashed viciously with a razor, producing a ten-inch gash in her leg, which bled profusely. The cowardly Nazis ran off as SL supporters and others came running to aid the injured woman.
When the Nazis opened another bookstore, Spartacist supporters in the Rouge plant, including myself, wanted to drive them out of Detroit once and for all. At the next Local 600 union meeting, we raised the following motion: “That this unit of UAW Local 600 initiate a mass, labor-centered demonstration in front of the Nazi headquarters within 2 weeks around the slogan ‘smash the Detroit Nazi threat.’ We call on the general council, International and the Detroit area trade unions, black and other minority organizations and all other anti-Nazi organizations and individuals to mobilize and join us in this demonstration.”
We followed with a leaflet to the entire Rouge plant pointing out that workers should not rely on Mayor Coleman Young and his cops, who had been routinely terrorizing the black community while at the same time standing guard at the Nazi headquarters. We pointed out that the 40,000 UAW members at the Cadillac and River Rouge complexes were only five minutes from the fascist headquarters and had both the interest and power to act decisively. We were agitating for a working-class mobilization to drive the Nazis out of Detroit. Little did we know at the time to what extent this would define our future work.
The Spartacist League had another group of supporters in UAW Local 140 at Dodge Truck who also engaged in the anti-Nazi work. These militants argued against the union bureaucracy-supported 1979 government bailout of the failing Chrysler, which came at great cost to the workforce, proposing instead sit-down strikes and, if necessary, the seizure of company property to be sold to the benefit of the displaced workers. Tens of thousands of Detroit auto workers had already been hit by layoffs.
In 1979, Jimmy Carter—the millionaire peanut boss, former nuclear submarine commander and “born again” Christian—was president, preaching a “human rights” crusade to morally rearm U.S. imperialism following its historic defeat in Vietnam at the hands of the heroic Vietnamese workers and peasants. The American economy was tanking, and the fascists were again rearing their ugly heads. On September 27, two foremen at the Dearborn Assembly Plant (DAP) felt emboldened enough to put on KKK hoods and march up and down the trim line. Outraged at the sight, dozens of workers in the area immediately walked off the line. News of the incident spread through the entire Rouge complex instantly.
Not about to allow this racist insult in our “backyard,” SL supporters at Rouge initiated a petition demanding Local 600 mobilize to ensure that the racist foremen be fired and driven from the auto industry and that the threat of discipline against the workers who protested be dropped. The petition was instantly embraced by the workforce. Over 1,000 signatures were obtained with workers standing in line at the gates to sign, while in the plant the petitions were being passed hand-to-hand at lunch tables. Many workers voiced the sentiment that the issue should be “settled outside in the parking lot,” with others astonished that these foremen had made it out of the plant at all. The petitions were delivered to the union hall by an integrated team of Local 600 members, including both skilled and production workers from various units.
Initially, the racists who comprised Ford management took no action. The union leadership acquiesced by allowing one foreman to continue working in the trim department, while the other foreman beat a hasty retreat and had not been seen in the plant after the incident. But he was not fired! This backroom maneuvering to bury the KKK provocation came to an end after a front-page article in the Detroit News kicked off a barrage of newspaper, radio and TV coverage. Under pressure, Local 600 president Mike Rinaldi and the head of the union’s Ford department, Ken Bannon, realized they were sitting on a powder keg. Both ended up supporting the demand for the firing of the foremen and—with puffed chests and mock bravado—verbally threatened a strike by the 4,500 DAP workers if any of those who had walked off the line were disciplined.
The victory electrified the Rouge complex and gained us authority. For the first time in years, workers at the plant had a sense of what the union could do if it relied on its own power. But the union leaders eventually backed down, allowing the foremen to be transferred out of the DAP instead of being fired. The almost universal response was “I hope they transfer them to my department, they wouldn’t last five minutes.”
The struggle also shed a glaring light on the various fake-left oppositions in the plant. Supporters of the Communist Party at Rouge predictably did nothing to help circulate the petition. In fact, after having voted to table our motion concerning the Nazi bookstore, they cravenly assisted and supported the Local 600 bureaucracy in trying to thwart our efforts at every step. Supporters of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) at Rouge grudgingly signed the petition, but none of them helped circulate it, issue statements about the racist outrage or do anything to assist in driving the foremen from the plant. One SWP supporter even opined to a petitioner that the bosses had “already fired these guys, why don’t they lay off?” Another grouping, the Committee for a Militant and Democratic UAW, affiliated with the Revolutionary Workers League, stood on the sidelines throughout the entire event as well.
At the next union meeting, there was anger over the company’s transfer of the two foremen and the failure of the union misleaders to block it. That same night, as we were leaving the union hall, news of Klansmen massacring five communists and union organizers in Greensboro, North Carolina, was on the radio and TV (see article above). The Spartacist League responded immediately. In the union, our experience at Rouge and our understanding of the role of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucrats allowed us to not waste time waiting for the union and black misleaders to take action after the Klan announced it was coming to Detroit to celebrate Greensboro. In fact, during our subsequent efforts in the auto plants to build a labor/black demonstration against the fascist killers, these same misleaders joined in a slanderous chorus against “extremists,” meaning us, not the Klan.
A November 4 AP article reported on the DAP resolution that we had put forward, quoting one Spartacist supporter who called on the UAW to hold an anti-Klan demonstration. The mayor joked that he’d watch it on TV and then proceeded to ban both Klan and anti-Klan marches. On November 7, the UAW executive board rejected the demand for a demonstration and later wrote to President Carter and the U.S. attorney general to protest violence on all sides.
But 500 people did come out to stop the Klan three days later. Workers in auto and other industries throughout the city participated, the result of years of principled programmatic struggle by SL supporters in the auto industry. It was an impressive and historic rally, labor and black, youth and unemployed, led by union militants and a revolutionary organization with a shared class-struggle program.
I want to emphasize that this was not a one-note campaign against the Klan/Nazis. All along, we brought up the nature of the state as the repressive apparatus of the class enemy, the need for the unions to maintain strict independence from the capitalist parties and the need for workers defense guards. We also argued for a sliding scale of hours and wages to provide work and income to all, the concept of revolutionary integrationism to combat black oppression and the importance of addressing the special oppression of women, all pointing to the need for a workers party to fight for a workers government. In short, we campaigned on and argued for a revolutionary program.
Our success in bringing together hundreds of Detroit area workers to stop the KKK led to the formation of the Rouge Militant Slate (RMS) in the ensuing union elections to the UAW International Convention. The RMS candidates made an impressive showing. These results reflected a real base of support for our program. During these elections, the Big Three threw thousands of workers onto the streets with new announcements of plant closings and shift shutdowns. The RMS fought the reactionary smokescreen of anti-Japanese protectionism and the nationalist, racist “Buy American” campaign initiated by the UAW International. We called for a shorter workweek with no loss in pay along with sit-down strikes backed by labor solidarity when the companies closed plants or axed entire shifts.
An electrician in the Rouge plant at the time, Bob King—the current UAW president—was well known to us. In fact, many times he was responsible for maintaining the electrical panels powering my various welding guns in the white metal department. He always adopted and defended the position of the bureaucracy. We were wary of him. I read recently that he wanted his legacy to be the unionization of a Southern auto plant. His real legacy can be drawn with a straight line from his time in Local 600 to now. Indifference toward the Klan/Nazis, acceptance of mass layoffs, the introduction of the two-tier system of wages that vitiates the concept of equal pay for equal work, the wholesale dismantling of the ranks of the UAW and, of course, Michigan becoming a “right to work” state.