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Unions Have Been Down Before, History Shows How They Can Come Back

UAW’s success in building an interracial union in the 1930s offers much hope for movement-builders today.

The Janus decision by the US Supreme Court on Wednesday was another blow to the labor movement. It creates a financial incentive for public sector union members to leave the union while continuing their job.

Ever since the beginning of the 1980s clamp-down on the US left, signaled by President Ronald Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers to end their strike, the labor movement has been besieged by what billionaire Warren Buffett described in the New York Times as a class war started by his class. It’s not the first time this has happened in U.S. history.

Labor organized strongly and successfully in the period before World War I, so much so that the 1 percent led a fierce push-back in the 1920s that substantially lowered union membership. While touring for my book “Viking Economics” last year, some people told me we can’t get the Nordic model in the United States because the labor movement has been in decline, not realizing that labor has a history of ups and downs in this country. The 1930s became a period of tremendous union growth, so much so that progressive movements were able to achieve victories almost impossible to imagine in the 1920s.

Two ways we can honor unions at this time of trial are to ask others to join union picket lines and to learn from their innovations and successes for whatever campaigns we are committed to today. According to labor historian Sidney Fine, the union breakthrough in Detroit and Flint, Michigan, was “the most significant American labor conflict in the twentieth century.”

In some ways the struggle was more strategically sophisticated than many campaigns are today, which is why it offers important lessons on tactics, racism, using the spectrum of allies and sequencing the focus of organizing.

Labor Matches Innovative Tactics to Target in Giant Victory

Americans fell in love with the automobile in the 1920s. Factories in Michigan needed to grow rapidly to meet the demand. At the same time, black people from the South were making “the Great Migration” to northern cities, joining a flow into the workforce from Europe.

The auto industry was a giant in the U.S. economy and determined not to accept trade unions. Its influence on governments, both local and national, meant that law enforcement could be used to back up its network of private detectives and spies.

Early attempts to unionize failed, since the usual tactic — workers refusing to go to work and picketing the factory gates to keep out replacement workers — was broken by arrests and violence.

The United Mine Workers of America, or UMWA, moved into Michigan to give it a try. That union had already made great progress in another industry defended by violence: coal mining. The UMWA set up what became the United Auto Workers, or UAW.

However, automobile manufacturers had a back-up defense against attempts at unionization: racism. The largest of them, General Motors, hired only white workers for skilled jobs. That meant unemployed black workers would be easy to recruit as replacement workers in case of a strike, setting up race against race to divert attention from their common enemy, the economic elite. With both violence and racism on their side, how could the auto manufacturers lose?

Meeting in living rooms with the comparatively few black GM workers in Flint, UAW organizers told them the union would oppose Jim Crow, just as the Mineworkers had done in Birmingham, when they organized the steel industry there. To tackle GM as a whole, however, they would be publicly organizing the white workers.

While the slow, painstaking work of organizing continued, word arrived in spring 1936 about the French trying a different kind of strike. Instead of leaving their jobs and going home, almost 2 million workers were occupying their factories. This reduced the threat of replacement workers, who could simply be locked out by the occupation.

Flint workers decided to try it, calling it the sit-downs. Their families and friends mobilized to bring in food and supplies — no one knew how long the occupations would continue.

The GM executives refused to negotiate with the union, asking local political leaders (who they controlled) to use the police to expel the workers. GM also went to state court to get an injunction on the grounds that the workers were occupying private property.

After the workers repelled local police who tried to enter one of the factories, a state court passed an injunction against the sit-downs. That move added to GM’s pressure on the governor to intervene, using the National Guard.

The workers sent a message to the governor that the use of force would mean “a blood bath of unarmed workers” for which the governor would be responsible. They put him in a dilemma: follow the law as interpreted by the state court, with violent repression, or keep his reputation as a humane governor.

The governor stalled while making a decision. The occupiers understood the dynamics influencing his decision. According to Fine, “Though many workers saw GM as a mortal enemy and were inclined to inflict any available punishment on the company, an anti-sabotage committee prevented any significant injury to the machinery, the tools and the inventory stockpiles … they did not loot the captured management offices; they used seat padding as beds but did not keep the padding for permanent use.”

Since the governor was forced by the court’s decision to at least send the National Guard to Flint, he gave it the mission to prevent violence — including protecting the strikers from attacks by outside forces — and appointed, as commander, an officer he knew had a cool head and was less likely to use violence than the guard’s regular commander. The governor then pushed GM to negotiate with the UAW and get a settlement.

General Motors, the largest automaker, finally gave in.

With Racism, Strategy Means That Sequencing Matters

As in chess, or any game, being strategic includes estimating which move is best to take first, second and so on. Often we choose a smaller target then proceed to a larger, more powerful one. The reality of racism actually suggested the reverse order of sequencing in the auto union struggle, for a couple of reasons. This may be hard to grasp in today’s demand heard among activists for intersectionality as a moral, rather than strategic, stand. History helps us out here.

When the union took on the Ford Motor Company, taking advantage of the momentum from its victory with GM, it met a workforce with more black workers. That’s because Henry Ford saw an opportunity to hire black workers who would, given prevailing discrimination, be grateful for the job and, therefore, also loyal to his company and hostile to unionization.

Ford reinforced the loyalty by making many of the hires through referrals from black ministers, to whose churches Ford gave contributions. The result was that, by the onset of World War II, 12 percent of the Ford workforce was black.

Because UAW organizers chose the GM fight first, they gained credibility for tackling the mixed-race situation at Ford. Most Ford workers could see that being a union member would give more protection and a more promising economic future than not having a union. On the other hand, black autoworkers had experienced plenty of white racism and had little reason to expect a union to be any different.

When the UAW was formed the United Mine Workers was a consciously anti-racist union that, among other things, developed leadership skills in black workers and gave them leadership spots. Further, UAW knew that Ford would use divide-and-conquer tactics in order to keep the union out, in this case dividing blacks and whites.

Because of their principled anti-racism and understanding that success depended on unity, UAW organizers knew they had to somehow unite workers across racial lines. They developed a two-pronged recruitment strategy. Organizers recruited black members secretly to get some momentum before the issue became an open fight. And they invested in seemingly endless one-on-one encounters to convince white workers that, however strongly they might be prejudiced, they would need to contain it, instead of acting on it, for the sake of unity in the struggle.

It worked. Ford capitulated, the plants became union and the workers had their first experience of a degree of economic justice.

The bottom line was that the UAW was unwilling to let the racism of white workers prevent organizing at Ford. There were ongoing tensions between whites and blacks, some racially tinged physical fights, and initially a lower percentage of blacks than whites joined the union.

Nevertheless, the UAW became an interracial union. That doesn’t mean the UAW was free of prejudice and discrimination. But despite its flaws, it managed to be an instrument for economic justice for many black workers and also became a progressive force for equality on the national scene for decades after its founding.

A Lesson for Today: Dealing With Racism

UAW’s success in building an interracial union in the 1930s gives considerable grounds for hope for movement-builders today. The discouraged among us who think we should aim low and resign ourselves to incrementalist steps because racism will prevent large gains are wrong.

Instead, we need to learn from what worked for UAW and the mine workers back in the day. They did not focus on attitude, “unlearning prejudice,” or the psychology of individual change. They focused on struggling together for a win on justice issues that matter deeply to many people, regardless of race. We have many issues like this today: health care, low wages, poor public schooling, gun violence, wars without end, climate disasters, poor housing – I could go on and on.

For at least 50 years, academic race relations studies have found that when people of different races are placed together in equal-status situations (affordable housing, a good school, a work team, a military unit, a sports team, or performance group), white people experience prejudice reduction. Here again the strategic question of sequencing comes up: Will we make more progress by first waging the cultural fight about white supremacy or first changing the “facts on the ground” as people live their lives? Sometimes both can be done simultaneously, but sometimes we need to make choices, which is what strategy is about.

In other words, we could argue strategically that if the energy now going into white people probing their psychological depths to ferret out racism were instead focused through campaigns on changing the major policies that sustain institutional racism, it’s more likely that racism would take a major hit.

White people especially need to remember that the UAW gained credibility among black workers at Ford by the white workers’ success in taking on GM. In other words, white people who want people of color to see them as champions of racial equality can earn that trust by demonstrating their chops — by initiating direct action campaigns whose demands will improve the lives of actual people of color who are most hurt by injustice.

Another huge lesson from the Flint workers teach us the power that comes from self-discipline. Their choice to leave intact the plants they occupied limited the range of options the powerholders could use against the workers. General Motors wanted the governor to intervene violently and suppress the workers. But GM needed the auto workers to damage property in order to justify that level of force. The workers, by practicing discipline, prevented GM from getting its way.

Importing a tactic from another movement, in France, required thoughtfulness about how to adapt it to a new environment, analyzing how it would play out in the mind of the target/powerholders and those who could influence the outcome of the struggle. The more we learn about other movements’ successes, the more we learn about strategic choices for today.

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