The Distinct Perspective of a “Little Leftist Union”
By Jonathan Kissam, UE News, February 10, 2020
Feb 12, 2020 - 10:41:12 AM
In a new book, The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland (Haymarket Books, 2019), historian Toni Gilpin recounts the history of one of these unions, the Farm Equipment Workers union (FE).
In 1949, the UE national convention voted to withhold per capita payments to the Congress of Industrial Organizations until the CIO, of which UE was the third-largest affiliate at the time, took steps to stop other CIO unions from raiding the UE. The CIO responded by expelling UE, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and nine smaller unions for supposed “communist domination.” Like UE and the ILWU, the other unions expelled from the CIO refused to engage in anti-communist witch-hunts against their own members.
In a new book, The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland (Haymarket Books, 2019), historian Toni Gilpin recounts the history of one of these unions, the Farm Equipment Workers union (FE). Like UE and the ILWU, the FE practiced a militant and democratic form of unionism that contested the boss’s power on the shop floor as much as in contract negotiations. Indeed, FE Director of Organization Milt Burns declared that “the philosophy of our union was that management had no right to exist.”
The Long Deep Grudge is, above all, great fun to read. Gilpin makes stories of union organization, shop-floor struggle, strikes and contract bargaining read like a great adventure novel. There are also colorful episodes of the sort one encounters less frequently in labor histories: a frame-up for murder, a scandalous high-society divorce, and a touching story of interracial friendship in the segregated South. And it is a personal story — the author’s father, DeWitt Gilpin, was FE’s director of publicity and education.
Throughout the book, Gilpin makes a compelling case that the aggressive shop-floor struggle conducted by rank-and-file FE members, and the majority-white FE’s deep commitment to racial equality, was inextricably connected to the left-wing views of the union's leadership. “The resolutely class-conscious FE leadership viewed the accumulation of profit … not as a pathway toward general prosperity but as the crucial mechanism by which management maintained its ongoing power.” This “generated a different conception of what effective day-to-day union representation looked like,” one which challenged management at every turn and earned the “fierce and sustained loyalty of FE’s rank and file.”
“More powerful than the voices you are strangling today”
The “long, deep grudge” of the book’s title refers to the deep and long-running hostility between the FE and International Harvester, the corporate behemoth built on Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper — the machine that made modern farming possible.
International Harvester and the McCormick family were virulently anti-union, and their determination to rid their workforce of all traces of unionism put them at the center of one of the most storied conflicts in labor history: Haymarket. On May 1, 1886, as workers throughout Chicago and the nation struck for the eight-hour day, half of the workers at Harvester’s vast McCormick Works walked off the job, reviving what had been a failing strike for union recognition. Three days later a bomb went off at a protest in Chicago’s Haymarket Square and eight anarchist labor leaders were arrested for murder, despite no evidence that any of them threw the bomb (most of them weren’t even in the vicinity when the bomb was thrown). Cyrus McCormick II, now president of the company his father had built, organized a committee of Chicago businessmen to press for a guilty verdict. All of the “Haymarket Martyrs” were found guilty, and four were hanged.
The Haymarket Affair gave rise to the celebration of May Day as International Workers’ Day, but it held special significance for the workers who finally brought union organization to International Harvester in the 1930s. A month after the FE won its first contract at Harvester’s Tractor Works in Chicago, union members marched in a May Day parade under a banner inscribed with the last words of Haymarket martyr August Spies before he was hanged: “There will come a time when our silence is more powerful than the voices you are strangling today.”
Rank and File Organization
That first contract, and the eventual organization of the rest of the company, was hard-won. The United Auto Workers won their first national contract with General Motors in 1937, US Steel agreed to a contract with the Steelworkers less than two months later, and UE secured a national agreement with General Electric in 1938. Harvester, which did not sign a national contract with FE until 1942, was one of the last major US manufacturers to be organized by the CIO.
CIO President John L. Lewis called organizing at Harvester “the hardest job I know of.” Cyrus McCormick II, since ridding the McCormick Works of unionism in the 1880s, devoted much thought and many resources to “weeding out the bad element” among his workforce (in other words, getting rid of union supporters). He would grant economic concessions, but refused to engage in anything resembling collective bargaining. “I shall only treat with these men as individuals,” he proclaimed in 1886. In order to forestall real unionism, he created works councils in his factories, which Gilpin describes as “a model of docile company unionism.”
Gilpin details how a small core of committed unionists, many of them influenced by (and some of them members of) the Communist Party, slowly built the union at Harvester’s Tractor Works through “the tedious but indispensable tasks involved in organizing, gradually expanding their network one conversation at a time.” By 1938, these workers had won a union contract and established FE Local 101.
The organization of the remaining Harvester plants, Gilpin writes, relied upon the FE leadership’s “long-view strategy and the patience required to make progress, incremental though it may have been,” and the union’s use of volunteer rank-and-file organizers rather than paid staff. Also crucial to the successful organization of the remaining Harvester plants was the reputation the FE’s commitment to racial equality had won for it in the African-American community.
After World War II, and an 80-day strike in 1946-47 that resulted in big gains for workers, Harvester attempted to escape the FE by building a new plant in Louisville, Kentucky. Gilpin’s account of the organization of FE Local 236 in Louisville in 1947 is in many ways the heart of the book. FE organizers “built a commitment to racial equality into the DNA of the local,” and the local quickly adopted FE’s tradition of shop-floor militance. Less than two months after winning a recognition election, Local 236 struck for 42 days to eliminate the “Southern differential” — workers in Louisville were paid less than at any of Harvester’s shops in the North. While they didn’t succeed in completely eliminating the differential, they did win “75 to 80 percent”of their objectives, according to Local 236 President Chuck Gibson.
Local 236 not only forged interracial unity in the plant (and on the picket line), they carried it into the community. Gilpin writes that “[p]erhaps the most profound impact … of the FE’s combative conduct could be assessed not through walkout statistics or wage increases but in the personal transformations such militancy effected within the workforce.” She profiles the deep friendship that developed between two Local 236 leaders, the white Jim Mouser and American-American Jim Wright, “only one of many that developed among Black and white workers in Local 236,” and how Mouser, Wright and other FE members waged a “constant campaign” to integrate the city’s parks, hotels and hospital.
The Price of Principle
The same anti-communist hysteria that was used by employers, the government and other unions to try to destroy UE in the late 40s and early 50s was also turned against the much smaller FE, with devastating effect. The much-larger UAW had attempted to raid FE as early as 1945, competed with FE during the organizing drive in Louisville, and took one-quarter of FE’s entire membership when they successfully raided the massive Caterpillar plant in Peoria, IL in 1948. In 1949, the FE affiliated with UE, becoming the “FE-UE Farm Equipment Council,” with FE plants retaining their original local numbers and the same autonomy as UE locals.
The attacks did not prevent FE-UE from continuing to engage in aggressive struggle. In 1952, members of FE-UE Local 141 occupied the McCormick Twine Mill plant in Chicago for 24 hours after the company announced plans to move over 800 jobs to New Orleans. The occupation and strike were unsuccessful in preventing the plant closure, but the attention garnered by their action helped win severance and preferential hiring at other McCormick plants for laid-off workers. While the UAW continued its attempts to raid FE plants, they had little success among the Harvester locals, whose rank and file were uninteresting in trading shop-floor militancy for the “labor peace” promised by the UAW.
However, after a disappointing 1952 contract settlement, FE’s remaining International Harvester locals decided in 1955 to leave the UE and merge into their old adversary the UAW, which by that point represented at least as many International Harvester workers as the FE-UE. It’s a chapter that is hard to read for those of us in the UE today, but makes it understandable why FE’s leadership felt that they had no choice. Though as Gilpin notes, “some salesmanship was required”:
When Jim Wright first pitched the proposal to the Louisville rank and file, “they really didn’t want to do it,” he said. “They really wanted to take their chances. … I had to tell them you got to go into the UAW because I don’t think FE can make it anymore.”
Despite the dire predictions of the FE leadership (“the UE is dying”), the UE of course did not die, and not all FE locals left the UE. Three Chicago-area locals (151, 189, 190) survived into the 1990s, and Local 151 at Aetna Bearing remained in existence until the plant closed in 2018. Then-Western Region President Carl Rosen, who came out of Local 190 and helped negotiate the severance package for Local 151, told the October 2018 Western Region council meeting that most of the remaining members at the time of closure were at or beyond retirement age — a testament to the last FE local’s ability to negotiate and maintain working conditions that made their worklife tolerable, perhaps even enjoyable.
“The bottom has fallen out of the system”
Gilpin opens her book with an excerpt from a 1974 Newsweek article which quotes her father, by then the legislative director for UAW Region 4, commenting on a glass factory in Illinois laying off a fifth of its workforce. “It just kind of seems like the bottom has fallen out of the system … and no one’s doing anything about it.”
The kind of unionism embraced by the mainstream of the CIO after 1947 was able to deliver gains for working people as long as the economy was expanding and corporations were willing to tolerate unions. However, when big business launched a counter-offensive in the late 70s — one foreshadowed, perhaps, by mass layoffs at an Illinois glass factory in 1974 — most of the labor movement was unprepared to respond. It wasn’t just that they weren’t doing anything — they had no idea what to do.
Gilpin writes that her father’s “foreboding,” and his ability to foresee the coming decimation of the US labor movement, came from “the distinct perspective he’d developed many years back, during the time he spent with that little leftist union: the FE.”
The kind of left-wing ideas that informed the FE’s leadership were also deeply influential on our own union, and they led the UE in the 1980s to challenge, not capitulate to, demands for concessions, and to put up real fights against plant closings.
Some of this militancy and willingness to challenge management’s prerogatives remained at International Harvester locals even after they joined the UAW — they conducted a successful anti-concession strike in the winter of 1979-80. However, they were unable to prevent the collapse of the company in the mid-80s and, unlike UE, they did not leave behind an organization capable of bequeathing their vision of militant unionism to future generations and workers in other sectors of the economy.
Gilpin writes in the preface that “what the FE leadership thought about wealth—where it comes from and how labor can get more of it—is relevant to the critical contemporary debate regarding the evolution of capitalism, the nature of work, and the trajectory of inequality in twenty-first-century America.” At a time when the working class is demonstrating an increasing willingness to challenge capital on the picket line, in the streets and at the ballot box, The Long Deep Grudge is a timely reminder of the power of our vision of militant unionism and the importance of left-wing ideas to that vision.
Source: Ocnus.net 2020