DETROIT – On the first day of the Wayne State University’s (WSU) North American Labor History Conference, WSU Professor Todd Duncan shared excerpts from his and the late Kathryne Lindberg’s film, Detroit’s Unruined Voices.
The unfinished film is an oral history of black Communist and radical labor organizers in Detroit, giants like Quill Pettway, General Baker and the late Dave Moore who led the fight to unionize the Ford Motor Company and beat back racism in the plant, in the United Auto Workers Union, and in society at large.
Duncan said the intent of the project was to insure “voices from the past are not lost.”
Of the “Big Three” automakers, Ford was the toughest nut to crack. Moore, who passed away in 2009, quips that in 1938 Henry Ford boasted “hell would freeze over” before the plant would be unionized.
Hell might have become more than a few degrees cooler but Ford’s vicious campaign to keep the union out, one that included beatings and murder, was lost in 1941 when the UAW scored a huge organizing victory.
Moore, who had begun working at the plant in 1938, said seventeen thousand Black workers, most who were forced to work in the hot and physically demanding foundry, were a “sleeping giant.” The union could not win without also fighting for the rights of Black workers. “When you pull up the bottom, you pull everyone up,” Moore says in the movie.
The turning point came when union leadership admitted it had erred in not welcoming Black workers into the union. Those workers became the base for progressive politics that unified and helped grow the union. The Rouge, Ford’s huge plant with over 100,000 workers, was organized into UAW Local 600, becoming the largest union local in the world.
Pettway worked 28 years at the Rouge, becoming its first African American tool and dye maker.
In 1950, at the height of McCarthyism, he, Moore, Coleman Young and others organized the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC). Twelve hundred delegates attended the founding convention. Pettway said the NNLC “advanced the cause of democracy for Blacks, women and all who were oppressed.”
It won important victories against discrimination both inside and outside the labor movement and is considered the forerunner of today’s Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
In discussion following the film, Baker said the struggles of the past have lessons for the current fight, now being played out in a downtown bankruptcy court, to save the pensions of Detroit public workers.
“If you don’t know how you got it (pensions), you don’t know how to save it.” Local 600 was the first union to have pensions in their contracts. People should be more “passionate, indignant” about what may be lost said Baker.
Excerpts from Pamela Sporn’s Detroit 48202, Conversations along a Postal Route, were also shown. Like Detroit’s Unruined Voices, it tells a compelling story about life in the city from someone with a great vantage point, the letter carrier, Wendell Watkins.
Contrary to the usual mages of burned out neighborhoods and social problems, Sporn’s film follows Watkins as he interacts with and comments on all the changes, the bad but also the many good, that are taking place along his route. Like many independent film makers, she needs additional funding to finish the film.
The Labor Conference continues through Saturday. Its program can be found at http://nalhc.wayne.edu/Program.html
Photo: John Rummel/PW