Erwin Baur (1915-2016)

— Charles Williams

ERWIN BAUR, RADICAL trade unionist and founding member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), died on November 30 in Alameda, California at the age of 101. Unlike many veteran unionists of the 1930s generation, Baur made a youthful contract with revolutionary socialism that he never broke.

In the 1940s, he was part of a crucial layer of dissident local leaders in the UAW who for a time sustained the combative traditions of the union in the face of hostile UAW officials and the larger political shifts of the period. He remained deeply involved in the labor movement and revolutionary socialist organizations for the rest of his life.

Born in Hilden, Germany, Baur came to the United States with his parents in 1927. His father, an active socialist, had been a machinist working at the German steel firm Thyssen before moving to Allenport, Pennsylvania on the promise of higher earnings at U.S. Steel. Following his father’s death from tuberculosis in 1930, the family moved to Struthers, Ohio, next to Youngstown.

It was there in 1934 that Baur and a close family friend, Eugene Green, started a socialist club at their high school. The club had its most dramatic success when it organized a student strike to support two teachers fired for union activity, forcing the school to rehire the teachers.

Baur would later recall this experience as imparting fundamental lessons in how to defend union supporters from retaliation. More broadly, the club was remarkable in producing several future leaders in the steelworkers union and in launching both Baur and Green on careers in the labor movement (Green going on to become a labor lawyer).

After high school, Baur followed his brother into the Brier Hill Works of Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, taking a position as a tool and die apprentice in mid-1936. But his time at Brier Hill was cut short by the defeat of Little Steel Strike of 1937.

The strike followed an attempt by the CIO and Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) to reach an agreement with the “Little Steel” companies on terms similar to those just established with U.S. Steel. The smaller firms instead moved to crush the organizing effort, dismissing many union supporters and building up their private arsenals and ties to local police.

When the strike was launched at the end of May, workers were met with intense repression, including the infamous Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel’s South Chicago mill, where a number of workers were killed by police gunshots.

Baur had immediately joined SWOC Local 1462, and was active in the strike as a picket captain at Brier Hill. He fondly recalled picket duty on the midnight shift as time spent getting to know his future wife, Estar, whom he had first met at a Socialist Party dance in Cleveland. In Baur’s view, the strike defeat was caused by SWOC leaders putting their confidence in New Deal Democrat “friends of labor” in place of further worker mobilization.

Like many other workers, he was subsequently dismissed and blacklisted in Youngstown. This forced a move to Salem, Ohio, where Baur took a job at a pressed steel company, Mullins Manufacturing. There he would extend his education as a tool and die maker and trade unionist under the tutelage of Laverne Halsey, who had participated in the 1933 auto industry strike wave as a member of the Mechanics Educational Society of America.

Socialist and Union Activity

By this time Baur was also active in wider socialist political circles, first as part of the Trotskyist faction inside the Socialist Party (SP) and then, in 1938, as a founding member of the SWP after the Trotskyists were expelled from the SP. He was elected to the SWP National Committee in 1941 and  played an important role in the party throughout the 1940s.

Estar was also a founding member of the SWP, with her own political involvement dating to membership in the Young People’s Socialist League while she was in high school in Cleveland.

Erwin and Estar were married in 1938 and their first daughter, Sonia, was born the following year. After a period in Cleveland, in 1942 they moved to Detroit, where Baur went to work at Budd Wheel Company. A second daughter, Ingrid was born in 1944. Estar eventually joined Erwin in the UAW, taking a job on the assembly line at Dodge Main from 1950 to 1957 (after which she pursued a career as a teacher and librarian).

Baur quickly moved through the leadership ranks at Local 306, within a year becoming a committeeman and subsequently president of the local. It was here that he would play his most prominent role in the SWP, helping to foster a militant, rank-and-file resistance to the wartime labor regime along with a number of other socialists (SWP and otherwise) in the UAW.

The CIO embraced the wartime system of national labor relations. Among the key measures were the no-strike pledge and participation on the National War Labor Board (NWLB) in return for union security (maintenance of membership). Employers took the opportunity to reestablish workplace control, with the NWLB both unable to handle the volume of grievances and sympathetic to employers’ assertions of managerial authority.

To varying degrees, both national leadership factions in the UAW — the Reuther caucus and a Communist-influenced “left-wing” Thomas-Addes caucus — went along with these developments. Faced with deteriorating workplace conditions, auto workers responded with a tremendous outpouring of militancy as the war progressed. Over half the UAW membership engaged in unofficial work stoppages in 1944, up from one in twelve in 1942.

While this upheaval has at times been attributed to the spontaneous actions of alienated new recruits to the factories, local union leaders and political radicals played a substantial role in fostering the wildcat strikes. Under the banner of the “Rank and File Caucus,” they also forcefully contested the no-strike pledge and other policies of the International, compelling the Reuther-led faction to move to the left on these issues in a bid to gain control over the union.

The SWP was an important part of this mobilization, with estimates of up to 110 members in the UAW by the end of the war. Joining Baur as key figures in Detroit were Genora Dollinger and Ernie Mazey at Briggs Local 212 and John Anderson at Fleetwood Local 15, all of whom combined their political training with a considerable background in the labor movement.

Dollinger (as Genora Johnson) was 23 when she organized the Women’s Auxiliary and the Women’s Emergency Brigade during the 1936-1937 Flint sit-down strike at GM. Mazey had been the president of AFSCME Local 110 when he was just 19.

Anderson started as a metal finisher at Briggs in 1933, joining the IWW later that year and then moving to Fleetwood Fisher Body and the UAW in 1936. As Baur recalled in a 2007 interview with ATC, “the wildcats were organized by people who knew what they were doing. They were organized by workers who had experience, stewards or ex-stewards, or by radicals who had standing.”(1)

The SWP’s labor work in Detroit also recruited a number of Black workers to Trotskyism. In a history that remains too little known, approximately 100 African Americans joined the SWP by 1945, many of them auto workers won over by the party’s workplace militancy. Black leaders in the SWP, such as Ernie and Jessie Dillard, would then go on to help organize interracial sit-ins to integrate restaurants in downtown Detroit in the late 1940s.(2)

Baur was among those who sustained the regular “fraction” meetings of SWP auto workers that served as the primary organizational milieu for many of the party’s Black members. After the war he also sought to promote ongoing militancy in the UAW, for instance as an early proponent (along with other SWP members) of an automatic cost of living adjustment, or “escalator clause,” to be included in every contract.

Writing in The Militant in July 1946 under his party name of Al Adler, Baur reported on a meeting of over 1200 UAW officers, committeemen and stewards in Detroit where he spoke in favor of a mass demonstration in the city’s Cadillac Square as a step toward national action to defend workers’ standard of living in response to postwar inflation.(3)

Baur and Ernie Mazey also debated opponents of the escalator clause at an event sponsored by Briggs Local 212. Baur spoke well from the floor at large meetings, and it is easy to picture him winning over the Briggs workers with his knack for succinctly explaining complex union and political matters.(4)

By 1947, however, Reuther was moving to secure a one-party regime in the UAW, making heavy use of anti-Communism in the effort to oust his opponents. In the repressive political conditions of the period, the union’s Communist-associated rival caucus was ultimately marginalized, as were those anti-Stalinist radicals who were not co-opted into the Reuther leadership.

The result was a UAW with increasingly little room for the open debate and local militancy that had once advanced rank-and-file power in the union.

Postwar conditions also fostered a divide in the SWP, with Baur and much of the party’s trade union cadre ultimately expelled in 1953 as part of the “Cochranite” group led by Bert Cochran (who later wrote the classic Labor and Communism, 1977). From the Cochranites’ perspective the SWP was marred by sectarian politics and a commitment to building a vanguard party that made little sense in the postwar U.S. context.

In 1954 the Cochran group launched their own organization, the Socialist Union of America, with Baur among the core leadership. They aimed to foster radical regroupment and to creatively rethink socialist politics in ways relevant to the period. Baur was active in the Socialist Union-sponsored “Labor Forum,” a series of highly successful public meetings in Detroit featuring prominent dissident intellectuals.

Most impressive among the group’s accomplishments was their monthly magazine, American Socialist, mainly edited by Cochran and Harry Braverman. Published until the SU’s demise in 1959, American Socialist was especially notable for its analysis of the labor movement and the evolving U.S. economy, including Braverman’s pioneering work on automation and the labor process.

Rank-and-File Struggles

Baur continued to work at Budd Wheel until his retirement in 1977, after which he and Estar lived in Berkeley and then Alameda. He remained active in rank-and-file challenges to the UAW bureaucracy as they emerged from the late 1960s on. These included the United National Caucus that sought to unify grassroots local struggles in the 1970s, and the New Directions Movement that opposed concessions and “labor-management partnership” from the late 1980s through the 1990s.

Baur was also a strong supporter of Labor Notes. Among those to whom he was a source of inspiration in later years were rank-and-file militants Caroline Lund (at NUMMI in Fremont, CA), Wendy Thompson (at American Axle in Detroit, MI) and Gregg Shotwell (at GM and Delphi in Coopersville, MI), the authors of dissident shop-floor newsletters into the 2000s.

Reflecting his long commitment to rebuilding the left, Baur (along with Estar) was also a member of Solidarity in the Bay Area. In line with the best impulses of the Socialist Union, he did not seem to possess the factional instincts that others from his generation sometimes carried.

I am glad to say I was among a group of younger Solidarity members in Oakland and San Francisco, largely teachers and university employees, who benefitted from Erwin’s advice on trade union activism. His counsel to sink deep roots at work and take the time to really understand the issues, to recognize that there are no shortcuts to effective workplace organizing, helped a number of us to cope with the inevitable frustrations and our own errors in judgment.

Working alongside Erwin and Estar in Solidarity helped me understand the value of multi-generational socialist organizations as a counter to the loss of historical experience that has hindered a fragmented left.

Ingrid and Sonia Baur also embraced the political traditions they inherited from their parents. Sonia became a doctor at a time when the profession was largely closed to women. Ingrid was active in Students for a Democratic Society and the women’s movement in the 1960s. She then followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a machinist and an activist in “Washington Women in Trades,” subsequently taking up solidarity work in Nicaragua during the 1980s.

Erwin himself always stayed optimistic and active, an amazing example of how to remain a socialist despite the ups and downs of radical politics. The same questions of how to build a vibrant labor movement and a genuinely mass socialist organization are with us today. We can honor Erwin’s lifelong commitment to socialism by following his example and staying in the struggle.

Baur is survived by Estar, their daughter Sonia, and several grandchildren.

(For more on Erwin’s life as a radical, see the interview in Against the Current 131 and the video interviews conducted by Nelson Blackstock and Louis Proyect, starting with part one here: https://louisproyect.org/2015/02/11/erwin-baur-interview-part-one/)

Notes

  1. See Against the Current 131 (November/December 2007).
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  2. See the obituary by Alan Wald for Ernie Dillard in Against the Current 184 (September-October 2016).
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  3. The Militant, July 13, 1946.
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  4. Not surprisingly Frank Marquart, another Briggs leader and one of the speakers against the clause, later recalled that “Ernest Mazey and Erwin Baur are formidable debaters. Clampitt and I got trounced.” Frank Marquart, An Auto Worker’s Journal (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975).
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March-April 2017, ATC 187

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