Workers Vanguard No. 1045
2 May 2014
Capitalists Gut the Motor City
Detroit: The Rise and Fall of a Labor/Black Stronghold
We print below the second part of a presentation, edited for publication, given by comrade Barry James at a March 22 forum in Chicago. Part One was published in WV No. 1044 (15 April).
The 1967 ghetto rebellion and the rise of black working-class militancy shook the city rulers, accelerating the auto industry’s exit from Detroit and deepening state repression. Police commissioner John Nichols set up a special “decoy unit” called STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), which gunned down 21 black people between 1969 and 1972. In 1972, Nichols led a cop charge into Chrysler’s Mack Avenue Stamping Plant to arrest the leaders of a sit-down strike.
With the city polarized, the 1973 mayoral election pitted black Democrat Coleman Young against Nichols. Even as he campaigned against STRESS, Young joined Nichols in calling to put more cops on the streets. Young’s goal was to restore popular illusions in the police by dramatically increasing the number of black cops. Nonetheless, the Communist Party (CP), a host of other reformist “socialists” and remnants of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers gave open or backhanded support to Young.
Against such opportunists, the SL wrote: “Far from being a working-class victory, the victory of a ‘responsible’ black ‘progressive’ fits in nicely with the liberal bourgeoisie’s current game plan for siphoning off racial tensions by giving the oppressed minorities the illusion of political power” (“Black Democrat Defeats Cop in Detroit Elections,” WV No. 33, 23 November 1973). Expressing the outlook of Detroit’s capitalist establishment, department store magnate Joseph Hudson remarked: “The black man has the feeling he is about to take power in the city. But he is going to be left with an empty bag.”
After winning the election, Young oversaw the devastation of Detroit. Some 200,000 auto workers lost their jobs as the Big Three moved their operations out of the area. In 1974-75, Young laid off city workers by the thousands. Services were slashed, school funding cut and the streets were flooded with cops. He opposed a proposed ordinance to disband the Detroit “red squad” and busted a city workers strike to make the Motor City “safe” for the 1980 Republican Party convention. As Young’s capitalist masters had hoped, all this was carried out without any major protest.
Coleman Young was one of the most prominent of the black Democratic Party mayors elected after the ghetto upheavals of the late 1960s. What made him different was his experience as a CP sympathizer and a civil rights activist with a base in Detroit’s black proletariat. Young cynically campaigned on his having remained loyal to his original goals. In office, he put a lid on the city’s rebellious population and the multiracial auto workforce. Young exemplified the role of black Democratic Party politicians in containing the discontent generated by the capitalist rulers’ wars at home and abroad.
A measure of Young’s political journey was expressed in his attempt to ban a march against the Ku Klux Klan. Earlier in his life, he had fought the Klan. But in 1979, Young threatened to arrest auto workers who joined a November 10 SL-initiated labor/black mobilization to stop the KKK from coming to Detroit to “celebrate” the fascist massacre of five leftists and union organizers in Greensboro, North Carolina. An SL leaflet calling for the rally declared: “Mayor Coleman Young said we who oppose the Klan have no more rights than the KKK killers, that we should not show our faces on fear of arrest.”
The mobilization went ahead, and a special 16 November 1979 WV supplement reported, “500 at Detroit Labor/Black Rally Say: The Klan Won’t Ride in the Motor City!” Addressing the rally, SL spokesman Don Alexander said: “You know what Coleman Young is—the awful example of what selling your black political soul to the Democratic Party means. You sort of go morally and politically blind. After a while you can’t tell the difference between the guys in white sheets and the guys on the other side.”
Another sign of the times was the crazed actions of the United Auto Workers (UAW) bureaucracy. In 1973, the UAW tops blamed “reds” for unauthorized strikes over grievances that even the union bureaucracy admitted were legitimate. A 1,000-man goon squad, including UAW leader Doug Fraser and local officials, was composed to break a sit-down strike at the Mack Avenue Stamping Plant. This goon squad was turned loose on radical paper salesmen outside the plants. The Spartacist League and our supporters in the auto plants warned that this campaign against “outside agitators” was a prelude to attacks on the union membership.
To advance class-struggle politics in the unions, the Spartacist League called for building caucuses in the UAW based on the Transitional Program (“The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International,” 1938) as expounded by Leon Trotsky. The purpose of the Transitional Program is to bridge the gap between the existing consciousness of the working class and oppressed and the necessity of the conquest of power by the proletariat. The task of the program “lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution.” Detroit was turbulent and full of all sorts of ostensibly revolutionary and “socialist” groups that rejected our programmatic approach. Rather, they supported one or another wing of the union bureaucracy or sought to bring the bourgeois courts into the union to unseat the misleaders.
Spartacist in Detroit
What kind of struggles did we intervene into? In November 1973, one month after the Yom Kippur War (also known as the fourth Arab-Israeli war), 1,500 Arab auto workers conducted a political strike against the UAW’s purchase of nearly $1 million in Israeli war bonds. Nearly every Arab worker on the second shift at Chrysler’s Dodge Main heeded the call of organizers to strike, shutting down all but one assembly line. Arab workers from Dodge marched 1,000-strong to downtown Detroit to demonstrate against UAW president Leonard Woodcock’s acceptance of B’nai B’rith’s “Humanitarian of the Year” award.
At the time, the Detroit area’s 80,000 Arabs were the largest such concentration in the U.S. Lacking citizenship rights, they constituted an oppressed layer of the population, one that was kept in desperate conditions. Arab workers, separated from their co-workers by a language barrier, were given the dirtiest, most difficult jobs. At Dodge, some 25 percent of the workforce was Arab. There were no Arab foremen or union reps.
Arab workers were brought to Detroit by Chrysler in 1968 in an effort to further divide the workforce, which was becoming militant. The automaker opened a recruiting office in Yemen, and racial/national divisions would soon supplement the divisive role played by black/white hostility on the shop floor. Many black workers resented the Arabs who, because they were desperate and vulnerable to deportation, accepted speedup by the foremen. Black workers were occasionally heard uttering that infamous line: “They ought to send them back to where they came from”...about the Arabs! We said that it was crucial to fight for black-Arab unity and against anti-immigrant oppression. We called for full citizenship rights for Arab workers and special programs under union control for their advancement and training, including special publications in Arabic, as well as programs to learn English.
Six years later in 1979, Chrysler was threatened with bankruptcy. Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca issued extortionate giveback demands to the union, which would prove the first wave of a government/auto industry attack on auto workers. In response, UAW head Doug Fraser drafted a nationalization plan for the automaker, while at the same time pledging to exempt the company from strike action. Nationalization of dying or bankrupt industries has been an option pursued by capitalist governments elsewhere to buy off working-class discontent and prop up failing enterprises.
We said that Chrysler workers had to fight to regain wage parity with Ford and General Motors and called on auto workers to demand equal pay for equal work, a fundamental trade-union principle. But we noted that Chrysler could go down the tubes due to years of shortsighted mismanagement. If Chrysler went into bankruptcy, the bosses would sell the company’s assets to other capitalists and pocket the money. We advocated the mobilization of workers in a sit-down strike to seize the plants. Should the plants have to be sold, the money should not go to the auto magnates and their bankers, but to the workers.
This proposal would have provided more to the workforce than any government bailout scheme and represented a radical attack on capitalist property rights. As Trotsky put it in the Transitional Program: “Every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is the boss of the factory: the capitalist or the workers?” Such a strike would point to the need for a revolutionary struggle for a workers government to expropriate the capitalist exploiters and direct the wealth of this country toward satisfying the needs of those whose labor produces it, not the profits of a few.
In the end, Fraser, Walter Reuther’s apprentice, settled for a seat on Chrysler’s board of directors and proceeded to implement givebacks that would undo decades of union gains and result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. With the UAW tops acting to keep the workforce in line for the capitalists, between 1979 and 1984 black Detroit was decimated. It was the givebacks extracted by the bosses with the complicity of the UAW tops at Chrysler in 1979 (under the Democrat Jimmy Carter) that began a wholesale assault on industrial unionism.
The smashing of the strike by the PATCO air traffic controllers union in 1981, synonymous with the Reagan years, followed on its heels. As we said at the time, the Machinists and other airline workers needed to have walked out in solidarity with PATCO, defying Reagan and shutting down the nation’s airports. America’s rulers went on to demand giveback contracts in other industries and two-tier wages for younger workers. AFL-CIO bureaucrats obliged with a policy of concessions. Meanwhile, these labor statesmen turned a blind eye to the necessity to organize the open shop South. When forays into the South are made, the union tops’ loyalty to capitalist profitability has hamstrung organizing efforts. Such was the case in the recent stinging defeat for the UAW at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where anti-union forces peddled the grotesque lie that union wages and working conditions ravaged Detroit.
Poison for Workers
What accounts for the state of Detroit today? Faced with the declining profitability of the plants, the U.S. capitalists abandoned Detroit and turned the Midwest industrial heartland into a rust bowl. The employers junked the antiquated plants they had milked dry. The capitalists hoped to realize their former profit margins not by modernizing the old plants but by expanding into Southern “right to work” states to exploit non-union labor. Production was also shifted to East Asia and Latin America. Rather than retool a 1950s engine plant, for example, in 1983 Ford rolled out a union-busting strategy to build its new line of “economical” auto engines in Mexico, exploiting cheaper labor.
Previously, after emerging victorious from World War II, the U.S. had by far the greatest productive capacity of any capitalist country. But by the mid 1960s, Germany and Japan had rebuilt their war-ravaged industry. In many cases, the new plants embodied more advanced technology than in U.S. factories. American corporations found themselves facing stiff competition. The failure of U.S. industry to retool to make small cars in the wake of staggering oil price increases in the 1970s sent Japanese auto imports soaring and increased pressures for protectionism, particularly in auto. The U.S. economy was further weakened by the inflationary pressures generated by the long, losing imperialist war in Vietnam.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration cut taxes for the rich while expanding military spending to advance the anti-Soviet Cold War II. To finance the resulting government deficits, a large amount of new Treasury bonds were sold, mainly to the Japanese. Within the space of three years, the U.S. went from being the world’s largest creditor nation to the world’s largest debtor nation.
As the Big Three began to move out of Detroit in earnest, Fraser and the other UAW tops found it easier to blame Japanese and German workers for layoffs than to fight for jobs against the auto giants. A sign posted at the union’s International headquarters warned: “UAW parking reserved for U.S. and Canadian vehicles only. Please park imports elsewhere.” Economic protectionism created a poisonous climate of chauvinism that vicious anti-black, anti-union groups like the Klan thrived on. In 1982, a crazed racist auto foreman and his stepson beat to death Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man mistaken to be Japanese American.
The Rouge Militant Slate of UAW Local 600—a caucus formation in political solidarity with the Spartacist League, vying for leadership of the union—fought the anti-Japanese protectionism and collusion with the auto bosses of both local president Mike Rinaldi and the UAW International. During a 1980 union election campaign, the Rouge Militants wrote: “Fraser blames Japanese workers for U.S. unemployment. Rinaldi and every unit chairman jumped on the ‘Buy American’ bandwagon, singling out the Japanese in racist fashion. This campaign is dangerous. Trade wars lead to shooting wars. This campaign feeds the atmosphere that breeds the Klan and Nazi scum.” Rouge Militant candidates were known throughout Local 600 as leaders of an earlier campaign against a KKK-hooded foreman and as organizers of the November 1979 anti-Klan demonstration. (For more, see page 7.)
In subsequent decades, the union misleaders would in the name of advancing “workers rights” combine national chauvinism and protectionist filth with China bashing, abetting the imperialist drive for capitalist counterrevolution in that country. Albeit on different scales, both the UAW (as well as other unions) and the Chinese deformed workers state are the fruits of historic victories for the proletariat. One resulted from the formation of industrial unions in the U.S. during the 1930s, the other from the overthrow of capitalist rule in the 1949 Chinese Revolution.
Both must be defended unconditionally from attacks that seek to undo these gains, despite the fact that each is led by a bureaucratic layer that puts them in jeopardy. The trade-union bureaucrats with their pro-capitalist program must be ousted and replaced by a class-struggle leadership committed to the overthrow of the U.S. imperialist order through socialist revolution. The bureaucratic ruling caste in China with its nationalist program must be swept away by a proletarian political revolution to preserve and extend internationally the working-class property forms established after the 1949 Revolution.
Karl Marx Was Right!
Under capitalism, industrial development requires maintaining what Marx called a “surplus population” or “industrial reserve army” to facilitate the expansion of production during boom periods and to hold down wages through competition for jobs. The capitalists enlist the ranks of the industrial reserve army to fill dangerous and dirty jobs and to scab on strikes. During the period of black chattel slavery, the Northern capitalists recruited a surplus population from among former tenant farmers driven off their land in Ireland and later migrants from East and South Europe as well as Asia.
Black emancipation in the Civil War meant the bourgeoisie had a new source for its industrial reserve army in the black population. With the dawning of the epoch of imperialism at the end of the 19th century and later the first interimperialist war, the working class was polarized into a heavily black industrial reserve army at the bottom and a predominantly white, craft-skilled, job-trusted “aristocracy of labor” at the top. This division of the U.S. working class along race lines is a prop of the bourgeois order and obstacle to the forging of a unified proletarian vanguard.
From the mid 1960s on, the weight of manufacturing in the economy plummeted, devastating unionized industrial jobs—the fragile economic base of black communities. As a result, the capitalist rulers could no longer afford improvements in the economic conditions of the working class at the very moment the liberal-led civil rights struggles came North, running up against the discrimination in jobs, education, housing and health care that is deeply rooted in U.S. capitalism. Plant closures, which had a disproportionate impact on the black working class, only made matters worse, a reflection of the intertwining of black oppression and capitalist exploitation. Anything that could be construed to be addressing the needs of the black population became a target.
As deindustrialization gathered steam in the late 1970s, for every place lost on the assembly lines, one was added in the prisons. The “war on drugs” launched by the Feds in the early ’80s became the preferred method of social control of what the capitalist rulers considered an increasingly expendable layer of black youth for whom capitalism in decay offered no productive employment. The anti-drug crusade, which black Democrats like Jesse Jackson promoted, was enforced through cop occupation of the ghettos and barrios and mass incarceration. From its outset, we have insisted that the racist “war on drugs” is a war on black America. We say: decriminalize drugs!
The racist state terror and impulse to genocide marking the “war on drugs” is on display in Detroit and elsewhere. Witness the 2010 death of seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was killed in her home in a military-style raid by a Detroit police Special Response Team. It was no aberration, as WV observed at the time, but a stark example of the state of siege that defines life in black Detroit.
The TV series The Wire graphically captured how a whole swath of the population, mainly black, is surplus and has no future in this system. The creator of the show, David Simon, wrote in a Guardian article (7 December 2013) that the “social compact...between labor and capital that actually allowed people to have some hope” is now frayed. According to Simon, the notion that “profit is the metric by which we’re going to measure the health of our society is one of the fundamental mistakes.” He went on to observe that Karl Marx was right “diagnostically” in that Marx accurately described the processes that devastate large numbers of people under capitalism. But he opined that Marx was wrong “clinically,” i.e., that Marxism has nothing to offer for the future. Citing Marx to defang Marx is de rigueur.
Well, Simon is wrong, and Marx is right. Marx provided the analysis and tools to change the world. Profit is the fundamental “metric” of capitalism. There is no social compact between labor and capital. Despite the rulers’ one-sided onslaught on working people today, Marxism teaches that powerful social struggles will erupt, which the history of the U.S. has shown numerous times. That’s why we look at these formative struggles in Detroit and seek to learn the lessons of history so that we will be better prepared next time. Capitalism destroys, but it also creates again its own gravedigger in multiracial strongholds of workers social power in transport, longshore, manufacturing. And black workers remain proportionally the most unionized sector of the labor force.
The working class is not just one more victim of capitalist austerity within the “99 percent” as today’s populists would have it, or part of the middle-class as the trade-union leaders would have it. Instead, the working class continues to occupy a unique role in the process of production; through its exploitation the capitalists derive their profits. Concentrating workers in large factories and urban centers, the capitalists have created the instrument of their own destruction as an exploiting class.
Socialist revolution, in which black workers will play a vanguard role as part of the proletariat with the least to lose and the most to gain from a fundamental reshaping of the existing social order, is the only means for delivering ourselves from capitalist wage slavery. Will there be a multiracial communist leadership, tested in struggle and based on the program of revolutionary integration, to intervene in future sharp social struggles to change the course of history? We in the Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League, are determined that the leadership will be there.