Introduction to When the UAW Was Young

— Charles Williams

THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW with Erwin and Estar Baur was conducted by Dianne Feeley on behalf of the ATC editorial board. Erwin and Estar met in Cleveland in 1937 at a dance sponsored by the Socialist Party. Estar was at that time a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, while Erwin’s involvement in socialist politics dated back to 1934 when he co-founded a high school socialist club in Struthers, Ohio.

From mid-1936, Erwin worked as a tool and die apprentice at the Brier Hill Works of Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company. He was a picket captain in the defeated 1937 Little Steel strike, and his dismissal and subsequent blacklisting in Youngstown forced a move to Mullins Manufacturing in Salem, Ohio.

At Mullins Erwin became skilled as a tool and die maker and learned the politics of democratic trade unionism under the guidance of Laverne Halsey, a member of the Mechanics Educational Society of America during the 1933 strike wave in the auto industry.

In 1936-37, Erwin also participated in the Trotskyist faction inside the Socialist Party. Estar became attracted to their ideas, and in 1938 both became founding members of the Socialist Workers Party after the Trotskyists were expelled from the SP.

After first moving to Cleveland, in 1942 Erwin and Estar Baur settled in Detroit, where Erwin went to work at Budd Wheel Company and quickly became a leader of UAW Local 306. He was elected steward and within a year became a committeeman and, subsequently, president of the local. Accordingly, Erwin was among the key figures who gave weight to the SWP presence in the UAW during and after the war.

Though party membership in the union peaked at roughly 110 members (Devinantz, 2005), in Detroit and Flint in particular the SWP played an important role building opposition to the wartime concessions endorsed in varying degrees by both wings of the UAW international leadership.

Notable in this regard is Erwin’s discussion of the wildcat strikes and his emphasis on the underlying organization provided by local officials, longtime militants, and political radicals outside the Communist Party. In general, the wildcats were a response to deteriorating workplace conditions imposed by the auto companies in the context of labor’s no-strike pledge made after Pearl Harbor.

Labor leaders (particularly in the CIO) embraced the semi-corporatist wartime system of national industrial negotiations, and workers (and local officials) were expected to maintain uninterrupted production while relying on the War Labor Board to address their grievances. In practice, the board was both overwhelmed with cases and inclined to uphold “managerial prerogatives,” allowing employers to reassert workplace control and ratchet up production standards while union officials helped to discipline their own members.

As the war progressed, the rank-and-file response to these developments involved huge numbers of workers. Over half of the UAW membership engaged in an unofficial work stoppage in 1944, up from one in 12 in 1942 (Lichtenstein, 1983). At times these strikes have been portrayed as a spontaneous response to workplace discipline, largely reflecting the alienation of new recruits to the factories and who were most removed from union traditions (see Glaberman, 1980).

Erwin’s account of the strikes’ organized character and the role played by the most politically and class-conscious sections of the membership supports the rival view that the wildcats were in many respects an extension of pre-war UAW militancy. His analysis also reveals the importance of informal work groups and the secondary union leadership as the basis for upholding shop-floor power and challenging the policies of the International (see Lichtenstein, 1983).

From Militancy to Reuther Machine

Estar’s comments on her time working at Dodge Main reflect the persistence of this militancy into the postwar period. The larger trajectory of the union, however, involved acceptance of a bargaining structure focused on company-wide wage and benefit negotiations at the expense of workplace control and attention to localized job grievances. Both the auto companies and government policies strongly favored this outcome, but it also reflected the consolidation of top-down control in the UAW following Walter Reuther’s election as president in 1946.

As Erwin notes, by 1947 Reuther was well on the way to establishing a one-party regime in the union, making heavy use of anti-Communism in the struggle to oust his opponents. In the political climate of the period, Secretary-Treasurer George Addes and other prominent officials associated with the “left-wing” caucus were swept from the executive board, leaving only a few pockets of regional and local opposition to the Reuther regime.

The traditions of political debate and factional conflict that had contributed to rank-and-file power in the UAW were greatly reduced, and the Reuther leadership was well positioned to co-opt or repress subsequent challenges to their authority.

Erwin remained a union leader at Budd Wheel until his retirement in 1977, playing an important role in promoting cost-of-living raises when the issue arose in the UAW after the war. He was also part of the “Cochran group” that split from the SWP in 1953 and published The American Socialist through 1959. In the late 1980s/ early ‘90s he became active in New Directions, an oppositional grouping that opposed concessions and supported Jerry Tucker’s run for UAW regional director.

Estar left her auto job in 1954 to attend college and went on to become a teacher and, later, a librarian, remaining a union and movement activist. In recent years both have been supporters of Solidarity.

Sources:

Devinantz, Victor. “The Role of the Trotskyists in the United Auto Workers, 1939- 1949.” Left History, 10, (2005).

Glaberman, Martin. Wartime Strikes: The Struggle Against the No-Strike Pledge in the UAW during World War II. Detroit: Bewick, 1980.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. “Conflict Over Workers Control: The Automobile Industry in World War II” in Working Class America: Essays on Labor, Community, and American Society edited by Michael H. Frisch and Daniel J. Walkowitz. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

from ATC 131 (November/December 2007)