Review of Toni Gilpin, "Left by Themselves: A History of the United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers Union, 1938-1955" Volumes I and II (Ph.D dss., Yale University, 1992)

From 1947 until 1955, Local 236 of the United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers Union (FE) at the International Harvester company’s plant in Louisville, Kentucky, exemplified a union run according to the Communist vision of trade unionism.

One of its officers, an African-American, James Wright, who subsequently served as an organizer for the United Electrical Workers (UE) and still later as a regional director of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), called the Local 236 "the closest to the most perfect union."

A case study of the Louisville local comprises part of Toni Gilpin’s dissertation on the FE, one of the most radical and militant unions in American history. Gilpin recounts the FE’s story from its founding in 1938 as an early part of the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO), through its organization of the leading farm equipment manufacturers, International Harvester and Catepillar, to its expulsion by the CIO in 1949 as one of the so-called Communist-dominated internationals and its dissolution and merger with the United Automobile Workers Union (UAW) in 1955.

The first volume consists of three chapters tracing the history of the FE, which by the mid-1940s represented 80,000 workers. The second volume consists of three chapters, a case studies of the McCormick Local 108 in Chicago and Local 236 of International Harvester in Louisville, and a conclusion.

Gilpin was a student of the labor historian, David Montgomery, and the daughter of one of the Communist leaders of the FE, DeWitt Gilpin. For her study, Gilpin not only drew on company and union papers and government documents, including extensive FBI files, but also on oral history interviews, including of her mother Mimi Gilpin and James Wright, previously quoted.

Even though many very good studies exist of the leftwing unions of the CIO and of Communist influence on the American labor movement, Gilpin does something that sets her work apart: she puts the focus on the Communist vision and practice of trade unionism and argues that this vision was "quite different" than the philosophy of "labor statesmanship" which dominated the CIO (and AFL) after World War II.

Moreover, her case studies provide concrete evidence of Communist trade unionism at the local and shop floor level. Gilpin contrasts the Communist vision of trade unionism in the FE to the vision of labor statesmanship developed by Walter Reuther and the UAW. Reuther began articulating his ideas during the General Motors strike of 1946. At first, Reuther passed off his views as a radical challenge to the corporations by arguing that General Motors could afford hefty wage increases without raising prices and that if General Motors thought otherwise it should "open the books."

Soon, however, the conservative essence of Reuther’s social democratic ideas emerged. He urged labor not to use its economic power to get a bigger piece of the pie but to strive to increase the size of the pie by working with management to reduce workplace conflict and increase productivity, enhancing both management’s profits and workers’ wages.

By 1948, Reuther called for linking wage increases to productivity increases and the cost of living, prohibiting strikes between contracts, lengthening the contract length from one year to five, and weakening the steward or committeeman system.

The Communist leaders of FE put forward a diametrically opposite vision of trade unionism. For them, the interests of management were opposed to those of workers, and ultimately workers could win higher wages and better conditions only at the expense of company profits.

Contrary to Reuther, Communists argued that workers needed to rely not on facts, and research and public relations but consciousness, solidarity and economic power to win and protect gains. The Communists prophetically maintained that for labor to follow Reuther’s path of reducing labor costs and increasing productivity and profits would ultimately lead the companies to use their increased profits to increase speed-up and eliminate work through automation. For FE, labor must fight for increased wages without relinquishing the control of speed of work.

Moreover, FE leaders believed that for labor to lengthen the duration of contracts and to replace job actions between contracts with arbitration would demobilize the workers and weaken the unions. FE supported contracts of one-year or at most two-years duration and announced its "unalterable opposition to peace-time no-strike clauses."

Whereas the UAW agreed to limit the number of stewards or committeemen and to restrict the time and areas in which they could operate, the FE fought for a large number of stewards, the right of stewards to an unlimited amount of time to handle grievances and the authority to investigate grievances any place in the shop.

The results were striking. In the FE contracts with International Harvester, one union representative existed for every thirty-five or forty workers and sometimes for every twenty-seven workers. With the UAW, one committeeman served 250 workers in General Motors, 300 workers in Ford, and between 200 and 500 workers in Chrysler.

The Communist vision of trade unionism produced an FE membership that was active, enthusiastic and loyal even when located in conservative areas of the country and even when confronted with attacks by employers, politicians and rival unions.

The real power of Gilpin’s study resides in her demonstration of what the Communist vision of trade unions meant at the local level by the case study of Local 236. Local 236 was organized at the International Harvester plant in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1948. With nearly 4000 members, it was the largest local in a single factory in the state.

In its first strike in 1948, a contest that lasted forty days, the Local took on and defeated the so-called "southern differential," the corporate policy of paying workers less in the south than it paid workers doing the same job in the north. Between contracts, the Communist leaders of the international and the local believed that workers had to defend the collective bargaining contract every day on the shop floor otherwise management would whittle away gains made at the bargaining table.

Local 236 developed a sophisticated critique of the practice of relying on arbitration to settle grievances and used quickie strikes and slowdowns to enforce the contract. The Local took the position that union officers were not responsible for ending wildcat strikes and that directing the workforce was the job of management. 

In 1948, the Local engaged in at least thirty-eight work stoppages (mostly short departmental stoppages), more than any other Harvester plant. Even a decade later when within the UAW, the local had a reputation of encouraging members to file grievances.

Another notable feature of Local 236 was its principled and groundbreaking struggles for racial equality. With a membership that was 14 percent Black and with white members drawn largely from the rural south, Local 236 operated in a still segregated city.

The Local put the struggle for racial equality in the forefront of its ideology and activities. Through its local paper and meetings, the Local ceaselessly drove home the point that southern wages and living standards were worse than in the north, because employers successfully divided Blacks and whites, and that discrimination against African-Americans violated simple fairness.

The Local established an integrated leadership, an integrated Women’s Auxiliary and sponsored such integrated events as dances, which provided for many members the first occasion in their lives for socializing across racial lines. The local fought for and achieved an integrated cafeteria and locker rooms as well as equal wages and job and promotional opportunities for African American workers.

Moreover, a decade before the civil rights movement, the African American and white members of Local 236 engaged in "guerilla" actions aimed at integrating the parks, hotels, and bars of Louisville. This involved white and African-American union members going together into legally designated white and black places of business and recreation, tactics that in white places invariably met with police violence and arrests.

The local also helped to lead a successful state-wide petition drive to desegregate the hospitals in Kentucky. Local 236 also supplied the backbone for the Progressive Party campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948. Though Wallace was badly beaten in Kentucky as in the country as a whole, the campaign provided many workers with their introduction to progressive, bi-racial political work.

Above all, Local 236 demonstrated the potential effectiveness and influence of a small Communist minority. Gilpin perceptively argues that the distinctive composition of the workers in the Louisville International Harvester plant in the late 1940s and early 1950s—largely young, single, ex-GIs from rural backgrounds — made them sympathetic to the Communist vision of trade unionism.

Still, whatever the reason, the history of the Local demonstrated that a very small number of Communists mainly in the leadership of the international could successfully communicate its vision to thousands of workers in a local whose members were not themselves Communists but who willingly embraced the vision as their own.

In 1947, just before the successful representation election, the effective Communist organizer of Local 236, died suddenly, and a year later, the Communist president of the local also died unexpectedly. From that time on, apparently no Communist Party member existed in the Local. Eventually, the dynamics unleashed by the Cold War put an end to this model of Communist trade unionism.

Before then, however, the inspiration of its founders and a close working relationship with the international, made Local 236 an avatar of the Communist vision of trade unionism in a way that few others would equal. Such influence made the Communists of the FE a minority like those praised by Eugene V. Debs, namely "the minorities who have made the history of this world." Decades ago, only academic researchers typically had access to dissertations like Gilpin’s.

Today, however, any interested reader in the instructive story of FE can get a free copy of Gilpin’s dissertation from interlibrary loan or can purchase a hardcopy by contacting University Microfilms in Ann Arbor, Michigan and using the following information and websites: "Left by Themselves: A History of the United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers Union, 1938-1955. (Volumes I and II)" by Toni Gilpin, Ph.D., Yale University, 1992, 638 pages.

Available from: AAT 9315189 http://www.proquest.com/en-US/products/dissertations/disexpress.shtml or here http://disexpress.umi.com/dxweb .

January 19, 2013