Dodge, Detroit and the Revolutionary Union Movement in 1968

After decades on the decline of the intro, the American labor movement is undergoing a massive revival with Starbucks, Amazon and Apple Store employees leading the way. Although the technology sector is only just beginning to bask in the new boom of collective bargaining rights, the automotive industry has long been the foundation of unionization. But the movement is not monolithic at all. In the excerpt below from her new book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Laborjournalist Kim Kelly recalls the summer of 1968 which saw the emergence of a new, more vocal UAW squad, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, coinciding with a host of wildcat strikes at the Big Three plants across the Rust Belt.

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Removed from Fight Like Hellpublished by One Signal / Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2022 by Kim Kelly.

From 2021 onwards, the US construction industry continues to thrive and construction trades are heavily merged, but not all of the nation’s builders have been so fortunate. The country’s manufacturing sector has declined sharply since its peak after World War II, as has its union intensity. The enclosed factories of the car industry and former jobs shipped to lower-paid countries and weaker unions have become a symbol of the declining American empire. But things were not always said. Unions once fought tooth and nail to establish a foothold in the country’s car factories, factories, and steel mills. When those workers were able to harness the power of collective bargaining, wages increased and working conditions improved. The American Dream, or at least the existence of a settled middle class, became an achievable goal for workers without college degrees or privileged backgrounds. Many more became financially secure enough to buy the products they make, boosting the economy as well as their sense of pride in their work. Those jobs were still difficult and demanding and carried physical risks, but those workers — or at least, some of those workers — they could rely on the union to have their backs when they were hit by injustice or disaster.

In Detroit, those who labor on the assembly lines of the Big Three car makers – Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors – could turn to the United Auto Workers (UAW), then known as the union ” main ”most progressive in the country with it. forced its way into the mid-twentieth century automotive factories. The UAW stood out as a sore thumb among the country’s much more conservative (and lily-white) unions, led by the likes of former socialist and industrial democracy advocate Walter Reuther and a strong history of support for the Civil Rights Movement. But to be clear, there was still a lot of work to be done; Black representation in the UAW leadership remained scarce even though its membership reached nearly 30 percent of Black in the late 1960s.

The Big Three hired a wave of Black workers to fill their empty assembly lines during World War II, often subjecting them to the most dirty and dangerous tasks available and racial discrimination at work. And then, of course, after white soldiers returned home and a recession had set in, those same workers were the first to be sacrificed. Productivity rose back in the 1960s, and large numbers of Black workers were once again employed. They grew to be the majority of the workforce at Detroit’s car works, but found themselves facing the same problems as before. In factories where the union and the company were used to dealing with each other without much fuss, a culture of complacency began and some workers began to feel that the union was more interested in peace with the bosses than in a fight for its greatest. vulnerable members. Tensions were increasing, both in the factories and in the world at large. By May 1968, as the struggle for Black liberation engulfed the country, the memory of the 1967 Detroit riots stayed fresh, and the streets of Paris paralyzed by general strikes, a nucleus of activists and car-conscious workers saw ‘ Black class an opportunity to press. the union in action.

They called themselves DRUM – Dodge’s Revolutionary Union Movement. DRUM was founded following a wildcat strike at Dodge’s Detroit factory, with a handful of Black revolutionaries from the black-owned anti-capitalism. Inner City Voice alternative newspaper. Hot LCI appeared during the Detroit riots of 1967, published with a focus on Marxist thought and the struggle of the liberation of the Black. DRUM members had experience with other prominent movement groups such as the Student Violence Coordination Committee and the Black Panthers, combining tactical intelligence with a revolutionary zeal associated with their time and community.

General Gordon Baker, an experienced activist and assembly worker at Chrysler’s Dodge Main, started DRUM with a series of mysterious meetings throughout the first half of 1968. By May 2, the group had grown powerful enough to see four thousand workers walk out of Dodge Main in a wildcat strike to protest the “acceleration” conditions at the factory, which saw workers forced to produce dangerous speeds and work overtime to meet impossible quotas. Over the course of just one week, the plant had increased its output by 39 percent. Black workers, along with a group of older Polish women who worked at the factory’s outskirts, closed the plant for a day, and soon the wrath of management became greater. Of the seven workers fired after the strike, five were Black. Among them was Baker, who sent a furious letter to the company in response to his dismissal. “In today’s times of cruel oppression being harvested from the backs of Black workers, the leadership of the wildcat strike is a badge of honor and courage,” he wrote. “You’ve made the decision to fight, and that’s the only decision you’ll make. We are will decide the arena and the time. ”

DRUM led another strike of thousands of wild cats on July 8, closing the plant for two days this time and attracting several Arab and white workers as well. Prior to the strike, the group had printed leaflets and held rallies that attracted hundreds of workers, students, and community members, a strategy that DRUM would go on to use liberally in later campaigns to gain support and support. spreading his revolutionary message.

Men like Baker, Kenneth Cockrel, and Mike Hamlin were the public face of DRUM, but their work would have been impossible without the work of their female fellows, whose contributions were often overlooked. Hamlin admitted as much in his book-length conversation with longtime political activist and artist Michele Gibbs, The Life of a Black Revolutionary in Labor. “My deepest regret,” writes Hamlin, “is that we could not restrain, much less convert, documentary behavior and the chauvinist attitudes of many of the men.”

Black women in the movement persevered despite this discrimination and disrespect at work, and they found allies in unexpected places as well. Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American Marxist philosopher and activist with a PhD from Bryn Mawr, met her future husband James Boggs in Detroit after moving there in 1953. She and James, a Black activist, writer (1963’s The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook), and a Chrysler auto worker, play a part in Detroit’s radical Black circles. They naturally fall in with the DRUM kernel, and Grace fit in perfectly when Hamlin organized a DRUM-sponsored book club discussion forum to attract progressive white and more moderate Black sympathizers. Interest in the Marxist book club was surprisingly strong, and grew to over eight hundred members in its first year. Grace stepped in to help guide her discussion groups, and allowed young activists to visit her and James in their apartment and talk through pointed philosophical and political questions until the early hours. She would go on to become one of the nation’s most respected Marxist political intellectuals and a lifelong activist for workers’ rights, feminism, Black liberation, and Asian American issues. As she told an interviewer before her death in 2015 at the age of 100, “People who recognize that the world is always created new, and we are the ones who have to do it – they are making revolutions. ”

Further inside DRUM’s orbit, printer Helen Jones was the driving force behind the creation and distribution of their leaflets and publications. Women such as Paula Hankins, Rachel Bishop, and Edna Ewell Watson, a nurse and friend of Marxist scholar and former black panther Angela Davis, undertook their own labor organizing projects. In one case, the trio led a union campaign among local hospital workers in the DRUM cohort, hoping to create a place for female leadership within their organization. But these expansion plans were eventually dropped due to a lack of full support within DRUM. “Many of the male leaders acted as if women were sexual, thoughtless, emotionally unstable, or invisible,” Edna Watson later told Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin about their Detroit: I Think Dead. She claimed that the organization had a traditionally patriarchal black view of women, where they were expected to focus and support the needs of their male counterparts at the expense of their own agenda. “There was no lack of roles for women … provided they accepted subordination and invisibility.”

By 1969, the movement had spread to multiple other works in the city, birth groups such as ELRUM (Eldon Avenue RUM), JARUM (Jefferson Avenue RUM), and outliers such as UPRUM (UPS workers) and HRUM (healthcare workers). The RUM groups then combined different forces, forming the Revolutionary Black Workers Alliance. The new organization was to be led by the principles of Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism, but the alliance was never an ideological monopoly. Its seven-member executive committee could not fully coordinate the different political tendencies of its board or its eighty-member deep internal control group. Most urgently, there was a difference of opinion on what form, if any, further growth should take.

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