The Communist Party and the Autoworkers’ Unions by Roger Keeran, New York, International Publishers, 2021. ISBN #9780717806293 $19.99
Reviewed by Chris Townsend
March 21, 2021
All serious students of the U.S. labor movement will recall that the birth of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) is frequently attributed to the Flint, Michigan, sitdown strike. Spanning five weeks at the end of 1936 and start of 1937, the General Motors (GM) sit-down and sit-in strike electrified the industrial union wave then sweeping the entire country.
And this would be correct. But, like much of the historical record of the U.S. labor movement, it would only be partly correct. The state of labor history education for the membership of the unions today – let alone for workers unconnected to a union – is practically nonexistent. Were it not for the works and labors of left-wing writers and academics over the past decades there may not be any historical record or interpretation of events left for anyone to learn from or utilize. Such is one of the primary and disastrous problems of the current U.S. labor movement.
Several auto unions had started and been crushed by the employers in the more than 30 year period before Flint; each time the efforts were led by communists, socialists, and other radical elements. Roger Keeran’s book, “The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions”, is now back in print after a gap of 35 years, and provides a valuable glimpse into the work of communists, the Communist Party (CP), socialists, and other leftists and militants in the early pulling-together of what eventually became the UAW.
With the Communist Party established on a more-or-less permanent basis by the mid 1920’s the work to organize the key auto industry fortress was restarted in earnest. Keeran’s book lays the foundation for an understanding of the desperate situation faced by these early organizers – and he documents many of their practical challenges. This meticulously researched and documented volume then proceeds to walk the reader though the amazing transformation of the scattered early auto union efforts into what became the UAW at its 1935 founding.
For the reader this is a walk through the formative years of the UAW; the explosive growth of the new union; the wartime changes, challenges, and experiences; and then the postwar period where the Communist Party and other left leadership were systematically destroyed. The rightward movement of the union – like so many others of the time – can be traced to this period which is covered extensively in the book. For new and younger union radicals and activists this book is required reading.
A better understanding of that history is required by all who are active in rekindling the left spark in our labor movement today. This is especially so for the new union organizers in the workplaces today. Many lessons will be found here which can help enlighten and guide the current difficult work underway in some of the unorganized corporate citadels of today. Keeran’s book stands along the classic literature documenting the foundation and early years of the UAW, which includes the volumes by UAW founders Henry Krause, Bill McKie, and Wyndham Mortimer.
I commend “The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions” to all. I first read it in the early 1980’s after it was gifted to me by a founding member of the UAW – and a lifelong communist. Keeran’s book fills a critical section of the historical record about this key industrial union, its formation and early evolution. There are also many valuable lessons for today in its pages.
-Chris Townsend is the retired Political Action Director of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) and is currently the new organizing director for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU).