A Revolutionary in the Auto Plant: In Remembrance of General Baker (1941-2014)
After a long and debilitating illness, General Baker died of congestive heart failure on May 18, 2014. Six hundred people attended his memorial service--held at United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 600, his local--six days later. Among the speakers were half a dozen UAW officers, including International President Bob King and UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles.
Photo: Charles Ezra Ferrell
General Baker's family was part of the Great Migration. Over 4 million African Americans left the South between the First World War and the mid-1960s. His family came from Georgia in 1941, and he was born in Detroit just a few months later. The grandson of sharecroppers, he was delivered by Dr. Ossian Sweet, himself an earlier migrant north, who defended his home from racist attacks in 1925.
Although twice fired by Chrysler for leading wildcats at Dodge Main in May 1968 and blacklisted, General Baker later found work at Ford's Rouge plant under a phony name. When Ford discovered who Alexander Ware really was several years later, they fired him. He was fired three times by Ford.
Despite the fact that the UAW officials regarded him and the movement he helped found, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), as seeking to divide the working class along racial lines, they were forced to defend him. Part of the agreement that the UAW had with the auto industry was that anyone who gave false information on their application, but survived 18 months on the job without any problem, could not be fired.
Ford was forced to take him back, under his real name, but it took him 16 months as his grievance made it through the system. He worked in the blast furnace at Ford Rouge Steel (now owned by Severstal). He served as chair of that unit from the 1980s; he retired in 2003.
A genuinely kind and thoughtful person, "Gen" was a political troublemaker from his days as a student at Highland Park Junior College and Wayne State University. As a member of the student group, UHURU (a Swahili word for "Freedom"), he protested a range of issues, including police brutality and substandard housing.
He became involved in the Black liberation struggle, studied Marx's Capital in an all-Black study group with Marty Glaberman and defied the State Department to travel to Cuba in 1964. There he met Robert F. Williams and his wife Mabel, who had been forced into exile for defending their Monroe, N.C., community against racist attacks. (See Williams' "Negroes with Guns," 1962) His earliest interests encompassed both the colonial revolutions and the struggles within Detroit's Black community.
His first job was at Woolworth's Drug Store in downtown Detroit. Because he was Black, he was confined to only certain jobs on the night shift. Active in a number of community organizations over the years, he was first arrested when, after the Detroit City Council refused to pass an open housing ordinance, he booed the singing of the national anthem at a celebration of the city's bid for the Olympic Games.
When he was drafted into the US Army in 1965, General Baker composed a letter to the draft board indicting the US Army and the government it served for crimes committed against people of color, ranging from Birmingham, Alabama to the Congo and South Africa, Panama and Vietnam. His refusal ended with his commitment to fight for freedom:
Therefore, when the call is made to free South Africa; when the call is made to liberate Latin American from the United Fruit Co., Kaiser and Alcoa Aluminum Col, and from Standard Oil; when the call is made to jail the exploiting Brahmins in India in order to destroy the caste system; when the call is made to free the Black Delta areas of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina; when the call is made to FREE 12TH STREET HERE IN DETROIT!: when these calls are made, send for me, for these shall be Historical Struggles in which it shall be an honor to serve!Instead of being arrested and imprisoned as a draft resister, General Baker was declared a security risk and ignored. His longtime friend and comrade, attorney Buck Davis, presumed the Army had no interest in drafting someone who might organize Black soldiers against the Vietnam War.
Unable to find steady employment when he graduated from high school in 1958, Gen was one of the thousands of Black workers finally able to get auto jobs in the hiring wave of the early 1960s.
By that time, the Big Three had built sprawling one-story plants in the suburbs, leaving only a few multistoried and antiquated plants in the city. Instead of retooling these, management kept the outmoded plants producing through compulsory overtime and speed-up. In the summer, shop temperatures ranged from 110-120 degrees, while in the winter, the shops were freezing cold.
In 1963, General Baker was hired into Dodge Main, where Black workers were assigned the most dangerous and physically difficult jobs in the foundry, body shop, and engine assembly areas. While Black workers were the majority in the 10,000-strong workforce, the better jobs and skilled trade workforce were lily white--either Poles or Appalachian whites. Management's institutionalized racist practices, implemented by abusive white foremen and superintendents, went unchallenged as the local's safety and speed-up grievances piled up. Just as today, union officials cautioned patience and thought that workers--and especially Black workers--should just be grateful to be employed.
But when General Baker hired in, he already had under his belt a history of study and activism and a network of savvy political activists he could turn to. He worked to build a core of Black workers who could analyze the conditions they faced at Dodge Main and develop a larger perspective.
Central to his work were two figures: John Watson and Mike Hamlin. Watson, a longtime activist, began publishing the Inner-City Voice (ICV) in October 1967, just a few months after Detroit's Great Rebellion. As editor, Watson analyzed the explosive social conditions facing the Black community from an anti-capitalist, working-class perspective. Mike Hamlin was a Korean War veteran who worked as a truck driver, and was a skillful mediator. Because of the discrimination African Americans faced and the inability of the UAW officialdom to represent their needs, they concluded that Black workers would be compelled to take direct action on the shop floor.
The Inner-City Voice didn't pull any punches when it came to the unwillingness of the UAW officialdom to tackle racism within the union. Read this full issue here.
The group Gen cultivated met at the ICV offices, and by Spring 1968, they began distributing leaflets at the plant, condemning both Chrysler management and UAW officials for "demoralizing the integrity of the Black individual." On May 2, more than 4,000 workers wildcatted Dodge Main over speed-up. Both Black and white workers didn't return to work after lunch.
Seven workers, identified as "leaders" were fired. This included General Baker and Bernie Tate along with five white workers. The white workers got their jobs back, while the Blacks were left out in the cold. Gen responded with an open letter to Chrysler in the June issue of ICV, indicting the company for its injustice and racism.
The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement was born out of this wildcat. DRUM continued to organize at Dodge Main and the surrounding community. It called for a boycott of two nearby bars that were patronized by Black workers, yet did not hire Black employees. The owners quickly settled.
That July, DRUM held a rally in the parking lot across from the plant, attracting more than 300 workers. They marched to the local union hall two blocks away and forced the executive board to listen to their demand for an end to all forms of discrimination. Unsatisfied with the lackluster response, DRUM announced they would close the plant the following day.
DRUM asked Black workers to honor the picket line that Friday morning and approximately 3,000 stood outside, effectively halting production. At noon, DRUM read their demands and, seeing the police mass, sent all but 250 home. These were then organized into car pools and dispatched to Chrysler headquarters in Highland Park, where they read their demands once more.
On Monday morning, picketing resumed until the police served injunctions. At that point, DRUM tore up their injunctions and ended their action. They threw up a picket line at Solidarity House, the UAW headquarters. They organized demonstrations and rallies, and passed out weekly leaflets where they commented on conditions in the plant and the do-nothing attitudes of UAW officials.
By September, DRUM ran Ron March, a member of DRUM's core organizers and a Vietnam vet, for the local's trustee position. Finishing first out of 27 candidates, March ran on a platform that called on Black workers to stop paying union dues. But in the run-off election the following month, Regional Director George Merelli arranged for a large bloc of retirees to get to the polls. Defeated, March nonetheless won 40% of the total vote.
At a number of plants across the country, Black autoworkers organized themselves into similar formations. Within a year, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was formed to unite the movement and its supporters, including high school students. For their part, UAW officials worked to undercut DRUM by appointing Black workers--from their business-friendly "administration caucus"--to leadership positions in the union.
A classic scene from the Newsreel-produced documentary on DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, "Finally Got The News" (full video available here).
Through a combination developed to defeat radicals and communists in the post-World War II period, these officials launched a two-fisted campaign of co-optation and repression. By 1970, many League members had been disciplined by management with the cooperation of the union. Its base withered and the League splintered from political differences and personal antagonisms.
But some of their demands were met--the UAW officials saw the need for more Black elected and appointed officials, some Black workers were able to move into the apprenticeship program, and management began to hire Black workers as foremen and superintendents. Of course, the demand for worker control over production went unanswered.
Gen remained an organized socialist. He was a founder of the Communist Labor Party and later the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. He ran for public office, once as a third-party candidate and once as a Democrat, nearly winning each time.
As a featured speaker at a number of national and international gatherings, Gen was willing to admit shortcomings in movements in which he was a participant. For example, he'd point out how the League had drawn in capable women, but then failed to support their development. He also admitted to calling for 50,000 people to show up at his induction--but when only a handful came, he'd covered up his bravado by informing the commander that he'd decided to bring just a delegation. A giant of a man, he had a delicious sense of humor.
For General Baker and the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, automation profoundly altered the site of struggle. Instead of Black workers being the source of the cheapest and most productive labor, and therefore capable of making change at the heart of the productive process, Black people--under automation--were no longer needed by capitalists as workers. The question then became: how is it possible to survive without jobs? While still supporting working class struggles, the League turned its focus to mobilizing working class communities to demand a decent life, even if there are no jobs.
Always involved at his worksite and interested in political issues, Gen helped to organize a 200-car caravan to the coal fields during the 1989 miners' strike and was one of a few hundred arrested during the Detroit newspaper lockout in the mid-1990s. While sympathetic to UAW dissidents who opposed concessions and called for union democracy, he did not endorse their work. After he retired, and when his health permitted, he attended Autoworker Caravan pickets at the International Auto Show.
He and his first wife, Mary Ilene Neal, had three daughters. They divorced, and in 1979, he married Marian Kramer, an activist with Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. The two were active around a broad range of welfare rights issues. They raised five daughters and, several years ago, after their children were grown, assumed responsibility of caring for a niece and nephew. They remained active in the Highland Park community where they lived, a town Chrysler deserted years ago.
Dianne Feeley is a retired autoworker in Detroit, an editor of Against the Current, and a member of Solidarity's National Committee.