Reviewed by Roger Keeran

March 20, 2020

The Long Deep Grudge:  A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, Class War in the American Heartland by Toni Gilpin. Chicago:  Haymarket Books, 2019. $18.  Pp. 385.


I love this book:   from the title, a quote on the enduring legacy of Haymarket by the Chicago Communist Nelson Algren, to the end where Gilpin’s thanks the MLToday editors, Walter and Kay Tillow, for urging her to publish this work.   This is a masterly labor history, the story of class struggle at International Harvester (IH) from the beginning of the McCormick Workers in the 1870s through the struggles of the Farm Equipment Workers (FE) of the 1930s and 1940s, until the merger of FE with the United Automobile Workers (UAW) in the 1950s and the eventual demise of IH in 1984.

William Faulkner’s idea, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” could well serve as Gilpin’s major argument.   Gilpin contends that class struggle remained the central feature of labor management relations at International Harvester from the start, but that it achieved its apogee during the period of the Farm Equipment Workers.   The FE embodied the ideology and practice of class struggle unionism more perfectly than any other American union, and it continued to guide FE activists even after the union merged with the UAW led by Walter Reuther, a leader with a diametrical ideology.

The book’s importance resides not only in the story it tells but for the way Gilpin tells it.  She captures the drama and courage of struggle, the joy of victory and the heartbreak of defeat,  as well as the personal lives and personalities on both sides of the class line.  Not a dull sentence mars a page.  She places the struggles at IH within the larger context of labor, political and economic history.  Gilpin, who is the daughter of one of the FE leaders, DeWitt Gilpin, and the student of labor historian, David Montgomery,  bases the book on her dissertation at Yale University.   The book rests on an impressive array of research into books, dissertations, articles, newspapers, and unpublished archives, government documents, interviews, letters and union leaflets and publications, whose telling details enrich every page.

Gilpin divides the book into four sections.  The first covers the origins of IH and early efforts of labor activists that culminated in the so-called Haymarket massacre of 1886 and the subsequent execution of four innocent anarchists, including Albert Parsons, a martyrdom  that inspired the creation of International May Day.  The second section traces the roots and early struggles of FE.  Like many CIO unions of the 1930s,  the FE had two dissimilar roots, one resided in the employee representation schemes, the so-called company unions,  and the other resided in the Communist-led unions like the Steel and Metal Workers Industrial Union (SMWIU).  In 1935, the two roots came together to form the FE.  Gilpin notes, “Yet while it was not commanded by the Communist Party, the FE at all levels was profoundly influenced by it.”  In May 1942, a hundred years after IH started producing reapers and 56 years after Haymarket, IH signed its first contract with FE.  Four years later, after a momentous strike, FE secured a contract that provided for a hefty wage gain, dues check-off, plant-wide seniority, and a strong system of stewards mandated to do union work on company time.  The union called it “one of the biggest contract victories of any CIO union.”

The third section deals with the effects of the Cold War.  The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 required union officers to sign non-Communist affidavits.  When FE officers (as well as the officers of a few other unions) refused to sign, their unions lost the right to use the National Labor Relations Board and hence the right to defend themselves in representation elections against the incessant raids conducted by the UAW.   The Cold War also emboldened IH to attempt to weaken if not destroy the union.   Moreover, the Cold War gave rise to a new enemy within the labor movement itself, namely Walter Reuther the head of the UAW, who voiced his determination to rid the labor movement of Communists.    In 1949 Reuther engineered the expulsion of FE and ten other so-called Communist-dominated unions from the CIO.   In these years, as Gilpin says, the FE was “systematically isolated and beset by a host of enemies.”

While detailing this sobering onslaught, this section also contains the most inspiring description ever written of class struggle  by a local union, namely an account of how the Black and white leaders of Local 236  at Harvester in Louisville built a militant, bi-racial union in the heart of the South.  Among its many accomplishments, Local 236 spearheaded a bold campaign on behalf of Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party in 1948.  Led by the African-American Jim Wright and the white Kentuckian Jim Mouser, Local 236 created a model of biracial solidarity and struggle that changed the company, influenced the community, and transformed many Black workers into militant pro-unionists and many white workers into active anti-racists.   The union contract and vigilant stewards beat back a notoriously tyrannical management and transformed the IH plant into a place where, in the words of Louisville activist, Anne Braden, “people really enjoyed getting up and going to work in the morning.”

The final section describes the painful demise of FE caused by the UAW’s incessant raiding, by the constant anti-Communist attacks by the government and press, and the relentless determination by IH management to roll back every gain the union had made in preceding years.  By 1955, after an interlude of affiliation with the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), the FE leadership decided that maintaining any leverage with the company demanded a merger with the more powerful, erstwhile nemesis, the UAW, whose raids the loyal FE members had generally rebuffed.   With this, some FE militants departed.  Those who went with the UAW were forced to sever any ties with the Communist Party, which by then many had already done.  Nonetheless, the legacy of class struggle unionism never disappeared. The FE activists made the farm equipment IH section the most militant part of the UAW. As late as 1980, after a nearly six month strike, IH workers forced  management to retract all of its concessionary demands, including a demand for mandatory overtime, and to rehire all strikers who had been fired for misconduct.

The foregoing summary of the contents does not begin to do justice to the book’s strengths, particularly for labor activists or anyone interested in understanding the ideology and practice of class struggle unionism, the decline of American unions, and how this decline might be reversed.  Gilpin provides a lucid explanation of the two ideologies that for a moment vied with each other in the American labor movement, that of labor-management cooperation championed by Reuther and that of class struggle championed by the Communist and other leaders of FE.  Of course, Reuther’s view prevailed and became the dominant ideology of American labor.  It is crucial to understand its beguiling appeal at the time as well as its ultimate danger.  It was a poison pill, delicious but deadly.  As Gilpin says,  it was a “clever swindle, the kind where the con artist has long since left town before the marks realize they’ve  been had.”

The con involved fostering the idea that labor could benefit forever from labor-management cooperation.   Labor would grant management’s right to a profit and “management’s right to manage.”  Labor would avoid such demands as a say in technology or plant location or shorter hours for the same pay.   When DeWitt Gilpin defended this latter demand,  Reuther dismissed it as a Communist scheme designed to aid the Soviet Union.  According to Reuther, labor should grant the employers long contracts, a weak steward system, and uninterrupted production. Indeed, according to Reuther,  stewards must enforce the contract against workers who went on strike during contracts (wildcats).  In return, labor would ask and would get a share of economic growth and increased productivity.    Wages would  increase every year by what Reuther called an “annual improvement factor,”

an increase linked to productivity.

Opposed to this was the Marxist view of the Communist and FE leaders. For them growing profitability  and productivity signaled not a herald of economic growth and general prosperity beneficial to workers but an indication of growing exploitation and surplus value, “the crucial mechanism by which management maintained its ongoing power.”  Every increase in surplus value aided the capitalists’ accumulation of staggering wealth,” and their ability to increase their ongoing power over labor by employing new technology, hiring industrial relations experts, influencing the press, buying political favors and so forth.  The workers meanwhile were “purposely shortchanged every minute of every day they were on the job.”  Capital would never cease its relentless pursuit of cost cutting, longer hours, more intense work, and workplace control. Labor contracts could ameliorate but not end this inherently exploitative and conflictual relationship, only a change in economic systems could do that.   Reuther’s idea that management has a right to exist fostered a fundamental misunderstanding of what workers faced; an accurate understanding led to the view enunciated by FE leader Milt Burns:  “management had no right to exist.”  In the worldview of FE, unions must engage in ceaseless resistance over contracts and between contracts.  They must aggressively seek to improve workers material lives not only for its own sake but to reduce the surplus value and hence the power and control of the capitalists.   Unions must ceaselessly educate and mobilize their members.   Between contracts, unions must use a strong steward system, wildcats and slowdowns to protect workers.  In the words of one FE leader, unions must see “every grievance as a cry for justice.”

Reuther’s ideology prevailed in part because it fit with the prevailing anticommunist ideology and in part because the postwar economic growth permitted Reuther’s formula to work.   It worked until it did not work.  It stopped working in 1979.  The economy faltered.  Foreign competition increased.  Capital demanded concessions. Then, the labor leadership had no framework to understand or to fight the employers’ demands for givebacks and freezes, or to oppose the transfer of factories to the South and abroad.  If management had a right to profits and a right to manage, labor had no recourse but to accede.  From that point on, labor membership steadily declined, as did wages and benefits.  As Gilpin says, since 1979 productivity has grown but “only the fortunate few have reaped the benefits:  incomes for those at the top increased exponentially, as have corporate profits, but the bottom 90 percent of all wage earners have seen their compensation stagnate or decline.”   A direct line exists from Reuther’s ideology to the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party and from there to the decimation of unions and working-class conditions and to the triumph of Trump.   As Gilpin suggests, the best antidote for this catastrophe remains the class struggle ideology of the FE.

Among the many positive features of this book, another deserves mention.  A great but  unsung contribution of the Communist Party to American labor, and indeed American life, was its recognition that African-Americans had suffered from special oppression and that American workers white and Black suffered because of racism and racial division,  and that unions must address this by “a constant campaign” against discrimination by the employers and on behalf racial solidarity and Black leadership in the unions and in the community.  Gilpin fully appreciates this contribution.  She notes that the FE leaders “were quite willing to risk alienating” their members by showing “a genuine commitment to all-inclusive unionism” and challenging rather than conforming to the prevalent racism.  And this “risk” paid off.  The FE “transcended what comes from the isolating ‘where’s mine?’ school of unionism that makes no demands on its members.” The result was not just the enhanced strength of the union and the better lives it was able to win for its members but it was also, as Frank Mingo, one of FE’s African-American leaders said,  the creation of a union that “the rank and file loved.”

My adult life has been spent teaching, reading, and writing about labor.  If I could recommend just one book to aspiring labor activists, it would be Toni Gilpin’s The Long Deep Grudge.