“Workers have to deal with their own reality and that transforms them”
by Martin Glaberman
C. L. R. James
I belonged to a group around C. L. R. James. James pioneered the idea of working-class self-activity. He rejected the concept of a vanguard party and the imposition of a party line on any mass movement.
Together with many others in the group, I moved to Detroit in the early 1940s. But moving to Detroit didn’t tell us what our relation to the working class should be. Without the working class, you can’t do anything. Whether the working class does it, or you do it as their leaders, was ambiguous.
Bunches of middle-class kids went into factories. What did they see? They saw dumb workers. I think it was James who gave us eyes to see different things. We believed in the revolutionary capacity of the working class even though nothing was visible.
In I956 in Hungary we were absolutely confirmed. You had a totalitarian dictatorship for ten years and then the thing blew. The whole working class, without any prior organization whatsoever, made a revolution. The same thing was true in France in 1968. Whatever organizations of the working class existed were opposed to what the workers were doing. The Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the trade unions, were all saying, “Keep this a traditional strike. Walk back and forth in front of the plant.” And ten million French workers occupied their factories.
The Steward’s Dilemma
When I moved to Detroit, I shared the common view of radicals working in industry that we should try to become union representatives. That was why we were here, right? To become big shots in the union. So you had to go to union meetings, you had to run for union office when you got the chance.
My colleagues and I came to question these notions. I had some personal experiences.
I was a committeeman at Fruehauf in 1946. It was a relatively small plant so you didn’t get off work full-time. What you got was all the time you needed for a grievance, but you had to indicate that you were working on a grievance, either researching or negotiating. I would go talk to the superintendent, and then, when we were done, he would say, “Well, you know, stay here.” And he would go off to do his managing. It was clearly a bribe. I didn’t have to go back to work. I could sit in this comfortable office. But I was goddamned if I was going to do that, and have everybody looking at me. So I just went back to work.
In 1953 I was hired in the Detroit Transmission Division of General Motors. I did a very simple operation on an engine lathe. The last day of my probationary period was a Saturday in the summer. I often quit before lunch and went to the lunch room maybe five minutes early. On this day, I was called in by the foreman to be told that I was fired. I asked for my committeeman (whom I had never seen in 89 days of work) and then be-came witness to a remarkable exchange. I tried to tell the committeeman my side of the story, but he didn’t want to hear it and simply assumed that all of the foreman’s charges were valid. He and the foreman went off into the plant and I was left sitting in air-conditioned comfort, wondering what my fate was to be. They were gone an hour. Then they came back, and the committeeman informed me that if I promised not to violate the rules any more, the foreman would not fire me.
What most impressed me about this experience was the fundamental argument used by the committeeman to win my case. He said, “We (that is, plant management and the union) had a meeting a few months ago, and we agreed we couldn’t run the plant without each other. What’s the idea of firing this guy and then I got to come in and defend him? What you should have done, if you see him going wrong, is call me in and I put my arm around him and say, ‘Hey, buddy, we don’t work like that here.’ I straighten him out, and you don’t have a problem, and I don’t have a problem.”
This incident gave me some insight into my own experience as a steward and a committeeman. Suppose I entered the toilet and found a worker asleep. I could ignore him, or I could tap him on the shoulder and tell him that if he were caught there was no way I could protect his job. How was this fundamentally different from the role of a conservative union representative? I am enforcing the contract and enforcing the company rules.
Johnny Zupan, UAW Committeeman
My experience with Johnny Zupan was important in shaping my views. I had a lot of respect for the guy. In fact I recruited him to the movement, and spoke at his funeral.
Zupan had come to Detroit from a town in Pennsylvania, where he worked at a zinc smelter. He had got his training and education from the chairman of his local. It was a relatively small international union and the chairman was an old Spanish anarchist. He would do things like follow the industry press. And if at any point the price of zinc went up, say, a penny a pound, the chairman would be knocking on management’s door the next day asking for a comparable wage increase. He also began to organize people in the local, including Johnny, to run for political office in the town.
I think Johnny left Pennsylvania because he wanted to get into a larger milieu. He came to Detroit during the war, got a job at Ford’s Willow Run plant, and very quickly became a steward and a committeeman. When Willow Run shut down at the end of the war, he was transferred to Ford Highland Park, where, again, he was active in the union and became a committeeman.
Stewards represented relatively small groups of workers, worked alongside them, and tended to be responsive to their needs. The steward represented fifty to a hundred workers whereas the committeeman represented several hundred.
The separation between worker and union official, which Zupan experienced almost from the start of his working life, but never understood, was intensified at Ford. Ford was the last of the Big Three in auto to recognize the union. When the settlement was announced it was claimed as the biggest victory of all. Ford gave the union (not the workers) all sorts of concessions to establish the union bureaucracy as a special caste in the plant. Ford was the first to establish the full-time committeeman.
The committeemen at Ford don’t work. They’re full time on union business. Each committeeman represents between 200 and 500workers. The committeeman’s only work is to service and administer the differences between the company’s demands and the workers’ resistance. Aside from that, they do nothing but sit in the committee room and have long discussions on the “backwardness” of the workers. Every time a worker goes in there, that’s the atmosphere he finds. The committeeman’s job is talk. Many workers refer to them as lawyers.
An ordinary lawyer will try to do the best for his client under the law. That is not the case with the committeeman. He is more a cop than a lawyer. He enforces the law. Workers have often said that what they want to know from the committeeman is what they can do, not what they can’t do. But what they get is a running lecture on what the contract doesn’t allow. The committeeman is the key to enforcing the contract and maintaining discipline in the plants.
Committeemen can and do leave the plant during working hours, with the company guards looking the other way. They also get the top overtime that any worker in their district gets, because a union representative has to be present if just one worker is working. Full-time status for the union committeeman, which began as a means of freeing the union representative from the pressures of management, became a means of freeing the representative from the pressure of the workers.
In the case of Johnny Zupan, there was no self-aggrandizement. There was none of this business of, “I’ve got to get off this machine so I’m going to run for office.” Zupan was militant. He was willing to take on the establishment, willing to take on the company. It was not a question of good or bad about Johnny Zupan, but that, if you become a committeeman you have an objective role, and no matter who you are, you are an alternative bureaucrat. There’s a certain objective reality to enforcing the contract that separates union officials from the rank and file. The role creates the person and how you have to function.
Leading from Below
Our group made no formal decision about whether or not to run for full-time union office. I suspect the feeling would have been, there was no problem about running for union office if you were in that kind of situation, but that wasn’t your object, and if you didn’t run for office it didn’t matter. Nobody said, “You’ve been there a year, how come you’re not running for steward?”
I remember that we had some people in Morgantown, West Virginia. There was a big issue nationally, and John L. Lewis simply said, “We have to accept it.” What this guy of ours did was to start a discussion which led to sending people to neighboring mines, and ended up in a national wild-cat. We felt proud that we could play a role in getting a massive undertaking like that under way. Our concept was not that we weren’t going to be activists or we weren’t going to be leaders, but it didn’t have to be formal leadership.
I had an experience at Buick. There was a packed union meeting (it must have been contract time). I’m a minor figure in the opposition caucus. The president of the local, who was chairing the meeting, made a ruling from the chair. If he had his way, there was no way that opposition to the contract could be expressed. I turned to a classic union goon who was my buddy, and one of the leaders of our caucus, and said, “Look, you gotta appeal that.” He didn’t see why, and he let it go.
I’m sitting there, and I finally decide, “To hell with it. I’m going to do it.” I appealed the ruling of the chair. The president had a couple of minutes to explain his point of view. I got up and explained my point of view. And by God, the chair gets defeated!
This kind of experience makes you feel that you are invaluable to the working class, that the workers wouldn’t have done this by themselves. You have an independent power. You feel that without you, stuff wasn’t likely to happen, or didn’t always happen. That can be corrupting. Wow! Next thing I know I can be running for president of the goddamned local, because I beat the president in a vote of confidence on the union floor. You have to have a sense that holds you back.
There are always these narrow lines you have to walk. How do you get elected by saying, “If I get elected nothing too much is going to change”? Can you tell the voters, “I’ll give you honest representation. But I’m not going to make your work pleasant. I’m not going to be able to change the contract”? That’s hard to do.
My first contact with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was through George Rawick. He was teaching at Monteith College of Wayne State University in the late 19605. Johnny Watson and perhaps one or two other leaders of the League took classes with him. This was before DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) was organized.’ Through Rawick I met these League people, and eventually I taught a class on Marxism that included the entire executive committee of the League. There were about half a dozen people in it, all black. This was 1968 or 1969.
The members of DRUM and other groups founded by the League were alternative unionists, although they also extended their reach into the community. Their strength was that they were not a loyal opposition committed to obeying contracts and union constitutions. For the most part they did not run for office to replace the bureaucrats. They called strikes in their own name. The League’s biggest successes were at Dodge Main. A decade earlier; because of the introduction of automation, there had been a wave of strikes at Dodge Main. In fact there was a joke in Hamtramck, where the plant was located, that an optimist is a Dodge worker who brings his lunch box to work. Day after day, some department would wildcat, and by the middle of the day the plant was shut down.
A little-known fact is that the first strike the League was involved in at Dodge Main was started by white women. The women were pissed off and stood at the gate to keep people out. These black dudes came by and said, “Yeah, that’s cool,” and they joined them and shut the plant down.
The League’s attack on whites was not directed at their fellow workers. It had to do with the fact that Hamtramck is overwhelmingly Polish, and originally, the personnel in Dodge Main was overwhelmingly Polish.
The Ford Rouge in Dearborn, Dodge Main, and Buick in Flint were the three plants with foundries and heat treat. This meant that they always had a certain core of black workers, because blacks were hired (as in steel) to do the hardest, dirtiest, and most unhealthy jobs. By the late 1960s, there was probably a black majority at Dodge Main. But the executive board of the local union was still overwhelmingly Polish.
It didn’t affect in-plant jobs like committeeman, because retirees couldn’t vote for committeemen. But retirees could vote for president of the local. The union would send buses to bring them to the polls and outvote the people working in the plant.
DRUM ran against the UAW-backed administration at Dodge Main and lost. However, they forced the national union to take stock. The UAW wasn’t going to be able to keep people in check, and stop wildcat 5trikes, and maintain a Polish leadership in a plant with a black majority. Within a year there was a black president of that local, but he was an administration president. They made no concessions whatever to the League.
Dodge Main was one of the multi-storied plants from the early 1900s that simply didn’t work any more with automated technology. Eventually the outdated plants disappeared. I have a picture of the old Dodge Main with the caption, “Remember the Main.” There’s a huge square block just cast of Chrysler Jefferson which is basically a parking lot. That was Hudson Motors. On Grand Boulevard, on the East Side, you come across a plant that’s on both sides of the street with a walkway between. That was Packard.
In 1981 or thereabouts I went to Japan and spoke to dissident unionists in Osaka. This was when the talk was that the Japanese were wiping out the American automobile industry. I said that the problem was not Japanese competition. Packard disappeared, Hudson disappeared, Studebaker disappeared, long before there were Japanese imports. The problem was that these companies didn’t have enough capital to participate in the next wave of technological change. They went down the drain.
One of the most intriguing things the League did was to take over the Wayne State University newspaper. The year before, some hippie-I think his name was Johnson-became editor of the paper and changed its name from The Collegian or some such traditional title to The South End. The “South End” meant the south end of Wayne State, which was the Cass corridor; working-class, the place where new immigrants to the city came from the South. The following year Johnny Watson became editor for two years. Johnny went to one class, which made him technically a student while working in a plant.
What they did was to print about 20,000 copies. They’d give out a thousand on campus and give the rest out at plants, and use it as an organizing tool. It was fun. I remember a masthead, “One Class-Conscious Worker Is Worth A Thousand Students.” Finally the administration cracked down. Ever since, the editorial board has been restricted in what it could do, and who could be picked was restricted as well. It became a lousy paper.
The League ended in a peculiar way. They had a national convention which was no longer just auto workers. There was a demand for reparations from white churches. After that, the leadership scattered. Johnny Watson, for example, went underground. By the middle 1970sthe thing was falling apart.
What forms are available to the working class? The union movement ii not a force for revolutionary change. I do not think it can be transformed Mostly workers boycott and ignore unions: they do not go to meeting they do not vote in union elections. Occasionally they will vote a contract down. They will occasionally, but rarely, participate in opposition caucuses. Whether the workers become revolutionary or not does not depend on what the union leadership does.
This means that the course of future developments in the workplace has to be sought outside the unions. Caucuses and factions will still be built and, here and there, will have temporary and minor successes. But the explosions that are still to come are likely to have the appearance of new revolutionary forms, organizations that are not simply organs of struggle but organs of control of production.
My understanding of Marxism is that it is based on the reality of the “working class. Practical tactics, whether we like it or not, have to come from that.
If I work in a GM brake plant in Dayton, Ohio I have a certain amount of power; and therefore a certain amount of militancy. I go out on strike and within two or three weeks I have two-thirds of General Motors shut down. But if I work in a plant making nuts and bolts, and there are ten other plants making nuts and bolts, I’m not going to be very militant. I could shut the place down, and stay out forever; and starve to death. This little company I work for is not going to make any concessions because if they did, they could not compete.
We have to respect that. Some people say, “Oh, these workers are back-ward.” They’re not backward: they understand what’s going on in the world. The point is, theory is important but it can’t be imposed on workers or on particular situations.
I think self-activity is the response of working people to the nature of their lives and work. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s quiet. Part of the reality is that we’re going through a considerable technological revolution, which means that experiences, even jobs, that people depended on and know about, begin to disappear. To expect workers to say, “Yesterday, they automated my factory; today, I know exactly what to do about it,” is Utopian. It takes a while. It takes a generation. Workers will learn.
And the one thing that I think is an absolute given: workers will resist, because work sucks. Until someone can tell me that work has become real nice under capitalism, whether in the United States or anywhere else, I say that is the fundamental basis of our theory and our practice. Work sucks. and sooner or later workers are going to resist it in whatever way they can.
One of the things George Rawick said is, “Unions don’t organize workers. Workers organize unions.”2 Workers’ self-activity does create organizations create unions and other institutions, which may become bureaucratized and turn against the worker. Unions are not a secret plot designed to fool the workers. Workers organize them and then they get out of control.
Marx believed that the conditions of life and work of the proletariat would force the working class to behave in ways that would ultimately transform society. In other words, what Marx said was: We’re not talking about going door-to-door and making workers into ideal socialists. You’ve got to take workers as they are, with all their contradictions, with all their nonsense. But the fact that society forces them to struggle begins to transform the working class. If white workers realize they can’t organize steel unless they organize black workers, that doesn’t mean they’re not racist. It means that they have to deal with their own reality, and that transforms them. Who were the workers who made the Russian Revolution? Sexists, nationalists, half of them illiterate. Who were the workers in Polish Solidarity? Anti-Semitic, whatever. That kind of struggle begins to transform people.
1. The League included organizations in specific plants, such as DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) in Dodge Main, and ELRUM (Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement) in the Chrysler Eldon Avenue plant.
2. What Rawick wrote was: “The unions did not organize the strikes; the working class at he strikes and through the strikes organized the unions.” George Rawick, “Working Class Self Activity,” Radical America, V 3, no. 2 (Mar.-Apr. 1969), reprinted in Workers’ Struggles, Past and Present: A “Radical America” Reader, ed. James Green (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), p.145.