Michigan labor reflects on its history

DETROIT — The Michigan Labor History Society held its annual meeting May 19 at the hall of Local 22 of the United Auto Workers union here.

One of the recent accomplishments of the society has been the establishment of the Michigan Labor Legacy Project, which resulted in the building of the “Transcending” monument in downtown Detroit as a memorial to labor’s past struggles.

During the regular business meeting part of the agenda, a report was made on the Labor Day Mobilization Lunch and the Labor Day Parade.

Dave Elsila, one of the society’s officers, reported that he had encountered several South Korean union brothers and sisters viewing “Transcending.” He learned they were in the U.S. to negotiate with Delphi Corp. to try to stop a plant closing in their country, as Delphi and other multinational corporations now consider South Korea to be a “high-wage country.”

Better coordination between U.S. unions and unions from other countries was suggested by several speakers.

An additional purpose of this year's meeting was to commemorate more than seven decades of labor struggles, including the 75th anniversary of the Ford Hunger March; the 70th anniversary of the Little Steel Strike; the 70th anniversary of the “Battle of the Overpass,” where Ford thugs attacked union supporters; and the 70th anniversary of the Flint Sit-down Strike.

Marc Stepp, retired vice president of the Chrysler Department of the UAW, spoke about the Flint strike, describing the difficulties the workers faced in establishing the union in the heart of the General Motors empire and the opposition of the Flint city officials to the unionization drive. The workers adopted the sit-down tactic so the corporation would not be able to hire scabs to break the strike if the workers were to walk out.

Stepp mentioned that the early organizers of the union were socialists and Wobblies (members of the Industrial Workers of the World). He also gave credit to the pioneering work of Wyndham Mortimer, first vice president of the UAW, and Bob Travis, another union leader, both of whom were Communist Party members.

Mortimer and Travis, along with Roy Reuther, a socialist, were instrumental in obtaining a one-page contract with General Motors recognizing the union as the sole representative of the GM workers. This important first step was a breakthrough, and made it possible for other unions to get recognition in the auto industry.

One important fact that was not mentioned is the existence of a Communist Party club in the GM plant at that time, which helped to give leadership to the sit-downers.

Responding to a question about the pending negotiations between the UAW and Chrysler and the threat to weaken health care for GM, Ford and Chrysler workers, Stepp suggested the auto companies should join the labor movement in promoting national health care, because the health care crisis cannot be solved at the bargaining table.