The Story of The Searchlight. The voice of the Chevrolet worker

By Ronda Hauben <> 1996.

Table of Contents

If the Labor press does not try to give Labor the whole truth, where will Labor get it? This, of course, raises the question: Who is right about Labor's destiny? Certainly we can't rely on the capitalist press to tell us, for it is obvious that their interest is the opposite of Labor's interest. But who, from the ranks of Labor? Let them all speak -- that's what Free Speech was intended for! Let them all present their view in a forum. From that the reader will have a fair chance to decide. (1)
from the column, "Only More Democracy Can Save Democracy," The Searchlight, Oct. 29, 1949.


In the years following their historic 1936-1937 Sit-Down strike, the Flint Chevrolet workers created a local union newspaper, The Searchlight (UAW Local 659-Flint, Michigan). (2) The masthead of the newspaper proclaimed itself "The Voice of the Chevrolet worker." (3) From its beginnings in May, 1942, and through much of the 1950's, members of the local were able to use the newspaper as a forum for the voice of the rank and file auto worker. (4)

Through the almost two decades that it managed to stave off suppression from the International Union, The Searchlight opened its pages to a wide spectrum of opinion from rank and file members. The newspaper printed articles, uncensored columns, cartoons, poetry, letters and shop news from a large number of contributors. (5) And during W.W. II, it printed servicemen's letters sent to it from all over the world. Also, periodically letters to the editor appeared criticizing the local union leadership for interfering with rank and file access to the newspaper. (6)

The discussion and debate filling the pages of The Searchlight helped the rank and file auto worker to clarify a number of important questions. The victory of the 1936-37 Flint auto workers' strike won the sit-downers a "freedom of the press" that they were able to exercise and guard throughout the 1940's and into the 1950's. Through The Searchlight, which was the newspaper of the largest of the Flint locals, the rank and file publicly debated their differences and criticized their foes. Not unexpectedly, with the suppression of the "Voice of the Chevrolet Worker" in the 1950's, the contribution of the previous decade was virtually blacked out. And the struggles and achievements of the Flint workers who produced The Searchlight have either been ignored by historians, or else maligned. For example, a paper, presented at a Labor History Conference, comparing workers from Flint, Michigan and Coventry, England, erroneously portrays the Flint working class after W.W. II as "conservative" and submissive to autocratic International leadership. (7)

What follows is an effort to tell the story of The Searchlight as "The Voice of the Chevrolet Worker," by drawing on a small sampling of the kinds of contributions that appeared in it until this voice was all but publically silenced.



Carl Johnson was one of the pioneers of industrial unionism in Flint. (8) From the early days of The Searchlight, until his death in 1958, Johnson wrote a column called "Only More Democracy Can Save Democracy." (9) In this column, he discussed questions of democratic socialism, criticisms of capitalism, and other broad social and economic issues. And his column helped to articulate the importance to the rank and file worker of a newspaper uncensored by local or International union leadership.

Johnson's column of March 23, 1944 explains how the "uncensored" local union newspaper was one of the major components of the program of progressive unionists in his day. He outlines the three points of this program:

A district meeting of editors from ten local union newspapers from Lansing, Saginaw, and Flint, was held at Local 659 in 1944. At this meeting the editors discussed "the uncensored colunn." "Such an item," the summary in The Searchlight explained, "would not only be valuable in telling the minority view, but by printing conflicting opinions side by side it would enlarge the reader's knowledge of his problem." (The Searchlight, Dec. 21, 1944, p.1) (10)

In his column of Feb. 1, 1945, Johnson elaborates on how open discussion serves labor:

If local union publications...provide the ranks with a freer discussion which alone can prepare the ranks for the fight which is sure to be plenty tough, then we need not worry too much, for American labor provided in '36 and '37 that it can move fast and furiously when it knows where to go."

The hurdles he saw facing labor were not only how to deal with wages, hours, etc., but also how to bring about fundamental social change. He wrote:

We must bear in mind the obvious fact that our education institutions, the schools, the Daily press, the radio, etc., are all controlled by Big Business -- by that small section of the population which suffers little from the hardships of depression and war. As a matter of fact, depression and war are the result of the part Big Business plays in our economy. Does it stand to reason therefore that their controlled institutions will teach us how to change it?
(March 1, 1945, p.3)

In 1951, Local 659 was preparing a convention challenge of the International Executive Board's interference with the editorial policy of The Searchlight. Johnson's column spelled out why the publication policy of a newspaper of the rank and file worker would inevitably come into conflict with the interests of the International leadership. He explained:

A paper controlled by the International, without the watchful eye of local shop-papers, would make it very easy for the top leadership to perpetuate themselves in office and form a bureaucracy. Such a situation would permit our top leaders to disregard the well being of the ranks even as far as unionism is concerned.

More important, from a long range standpoint, however, is the fact that International publications are limited in the extent to which they spearhead progressive change. They are apt to confine themselves to matters connected solely with unionism such as the Taf-Hartley Act. That might be all right if unionism were the end solution which, however, it is not. The final solution to labor's problems will not be reached until those who do essential work, hand and brain, are in control instead of that non-essential class which controls because of ownership. But because that concept has not as yet gained popular clamour, our leadership will not stick their necks out to speak for it in their publications....

The rank and file are in a different position. They have nothing to lose by advancing ideas and opinions which may, for the time being, be at variance with popular concepts. Moreover, a rank and filer with ideas of change which pro- mise greatly improved conditions for him as well as for his fellow workers has therein the necessary incentive to ex- press those ideas. It is important to understand, therefore, that the future welfare of the rank and file depends largely upon the part the ranks play in shaping that future....

(January 11, 1951, p.2)

Johnson also saw the need for a local union newspaper to monitor the activities of the union leadership:

The working Rank and File must have some means of knowing what is going on in the union. That is the philosophy behind the "Searchlight"....The publicity organ of the union such as the "Searchlight" must provide full freedom of expression and be under the control of the ranks....Free union papers may not seem important but they make good watchdogs and they serve to bring the grass roots into the realm of our solely wanting democracy.
(April 18, 1957, p.2)

The broad ranging polemics that Carl Johnson describes, as well as the debate over union demands and the overseeing of leadership filled the pages of The Searchlight during this 20 year period.

The end of W.W. II saw a rising spiral of prices, raising the question of how labor should deal with inflation. The question was taken up in The Searchlight. One columnist, explaining the problem, wrote:

There has been much discussion in Labor circles during these post war years about such things as 'roll back prices'; 'price control', 'ability to pay', 'escalator clauses', etc. in an effort to find a solution and a cure for Labor's economic ills.
(Jan. 15, 1948, p.7)

A series of articles appeared in The Searchlight exploring the relationship of wages to prices. "Do Wages Determine Prices?" one article asked. Appearing in a column called "Winning for the union," the writer explained:

Prices go up or down depending on market conditions. When the boss puts his product on the market he can't set prices to suit himself. But in the long run the price of any article depends on its actual value. That is, on the number of hours of labor workers had to put in on it. That is what determines the price, regardless of whether the wages we get for labor is high or low. The price of a product, therefore, does not depend on wages.
(June 5, 1947, p.3)

Referring to a recent wage increase, the writer observed that his rise in wages did not corrolate with an increase in prices:

In fact, when mass production methods were introduced in the automobile industry, the price of cars went down. This was because the labor time on each car was greatly reduced. Yet we automobile workers got higher wages through our union.

The article goes on to show how higher wages don't cause higher prices, but they do result in lower profits:

Wages don't determine prices, but they do affect profits. Both profits and wages come from one source -- the value of the goods produced by labor. This means that if pay is raised it must come out of profits. Likewise, if wages are cut profits go up. That is why employers never willingly give wage increases. They know it comes from their pockets. They know it is wages and profits that are tied together, not wages and prices....The fact that they raise such a fuss every time we ask for more money shows that they don't believe their own argument.

In another article in the series, the writer discusses how prices are determined:

You may as well know it. There is no 'law' of supply and demand. Under competitive conditions it is value which will determine price over a period of time. Value is determined by the amount of necessary human labor required to produce the commodity under the latest technological development. Prices will fluctuate around value. When supply is below demand, prices will temporarily rise above value. If supply becomes greater than demand, prices will fall below value until production is reduced. That value is the basic deter- mining factor in determing price can be seen when we ask ourselves what the price would be when supply and demand are equal. It is obvious, price would then equal value.
(August 14, 1947, p.7)

The practical value of this discussion in 1947 was that there was a debate ongoing within the union over the appropriate contract demand. Based on their understanding that wages do not create inflation, but do lead to lower profits, the members of Local 659 put forward the "escalator clause" as the appropriate contract demand:

An escalator clause in every union contract whereby a sliding scale of wage increases will be granted for every percentage increase in prices. This is our answer to employer created inflation.
(March 27, 1947, (11))

After W.W. II Walter Reuther, head of the U.A.W.-G.M. Department proposed that the corporations open their books. Unlike the Flint workers' analysis that profits and wages were in opposition, Reuther maintained that workers and G.M. would both benefit from a common policy. He maintained that both profits and wages could be increased without raising prices or else he would lower the union wage demands:

We are prepared to settle this demand for less than 30 percent, providing you can disprove our contention that wages can be increased 30 percent without increasing prices and you can still make a profit. If you can prove we can't get 30 percent, hold prices, and still make a nice profit, we will settle for less than 30 percent.... (12)

When Local 659 and four other Flint locals promoted a resolution in favor of an escalator clause in the upcoming 1948 contract talks, the International union leadership opposed the resolution, arguing that an escalator would freeze the standard of living of the workers. And a radio talk made by the President of Local 659 in January, 1948 in support of the escalator clause was criticized by the International union leadership for breaking "union discipline" and weakening "union solidarity" on the eve of crucial negotiations, by making public pronouncements in defiance of official union policy." (13)

When the cost of living was won in 1948, Reuther claimed G.M. was responsible for introducing the idea of an escalator into the 1948 contract talks. This served to hide the real history of how local unions like Local 659 had fought for and won the cost of living (COLA) over the opposition of the Inter- national union leadership.

While the contributors to The Searchlight were able, to some degree, to solve the problem of inflation, they had less success on the political front.

In 1944, they had been active in the efforts to form the Michigan Commonwealth Federation, based on the Canadian Model of a labor party. In 1946, they again made an effort to contribute towards the formation of an independent political party to represent labor and working people.

The 1946 election was seen as a defeat for labor's policy of supporting the so called "friends" of labor (the CIO-PAC, i.e., the Political Action Committee). One columnist, analyzing the lessons of the lection, wrote:

After the battle comes the critique--as the military men say. And it isn't a half-bad idea. A review of our fight with a critical eye and a bit of speculation as to how we might have improved our position.

Our position now is that we, the American people, have suffered a defeat in the elections by a so-called "Republi- can land-slide"....The people are fed up with the Truman administration and its betrayal of the New Deal....Generally speaking, the voters had little to vote for other than to protest a deal from the bottom of the deck. The public is the victim of a "bipartisan coalition"...The proof of what the people want is the victory of a third party in New York, the American Labor Party.

("The People's Mandate", Nov. 21, 1946, p.2)

The Presidental election was followed by anti-labor political initiatives like the Callahan Bill and the Taft Hartley Act. How was labor to deal with this political crisis? A number of articles appeared in The Searchlight proposing independent political action as the needed solution. One such writer explained:

Today every demand of the workers is shunned by the employers to their agents in Washington. The whole government is arrayed against labor's interests....Just as labor must conduct a militant, independent struggle on the economic field, simultaneously it must wage an independent political struggle aimed at winning government power. It is time to break once and for all with company unionism in the political field now.
("To End Wars and Depressions," Aug. 28, 1947, p.3)

There was considerable debate over what form this independent political action should take. On this question, probably more than any other, the influence of the various radical groups over their sympathizers in the local was particularly apparent. The followers of Trotsky placed special emphasis that the party formed be strictly a "labor" party. While the Communist Party and its sympathizers opposed a "labor" party per se, and insisted instead that the proposed party be a "third" party, i.e. not restricted to labor. (e.g. See "We Need a Labor Party, Not a Third Party", Aug. 15, 1946, p.7; "Only a Fight for Democracy Can Save Democracy," Aug. 14, 1947, p.3; and "The Truth Shall Make You Free," Jan. 27, 1948, p.8.)

By 1948, one columnist declared that the effort to form an independent political party had failed. Citing a lack of democratic procedures at the local's labor party committee meetings, the columnist explained that a successful labor party "can never come from an already existing minority party." Though this columnist didn't feel the minority parties could lead a labor party, he felt they should be included.

"Of course," he wrote, "all parties should be embraced, but none should control it. It would have to be controlled by labor itself." He also cautioned against trusting the words of the union's International leadership. "Some of our educational committees are sure off the beam," he commented, "when they say R. J. Thomas [then UAW President-ed] is out for a labor party." He has been a vice-president of the National CIO for the past eight or ten years, and PAC, the political branch of CIO, has never come out for a labor party yet." This writer proposed that there was only one avenue toward resolving the problem of creating the needed party. "It is a dead cinch," he concluded, "that if a labor party is ever born in this country, it will have to come from the grass roots of the working class." (15)

Another columnist who was a sympathizer of the Socialist Party [of Debs-ed] advised that the form of the party was not significant. Citing divergent beginnings of the British Labor Party and the Canadian Commonwealth Federation, he argued that any beginning would be adequate as long as there was "rank and file participation and education."("Addes and a Third Party," Nov. 7, 1946, p.8) In an earlier article, this columnist had explained that an uncensored local union newspaper was the pre- condition of the rank and file worker for supporting any labor party sponsored by the officers of the International Union. He wrote:

The conditions...that I would go along [with-ed]...on a party built by organized labor and led by its officers are that at the same time that a resolution is presented at the convention, that embodied in that resolution shall be a clause stipulating in most plain and emphatic terms that every local union must have some sort of rank and file organ of opinion and that that organ of opinion be open to all shades of political opinion as to what rank and file interests are.
(Carl Johnson, "Only More Democracy Can Save Democracy: Political Action From Top Down Or From Bottom Up", August 3, 1944)

Besides the debate over the form a party should take, some (like Wobbly sympathizers in the local) felt an independent political party would be a harmful diversion from developing the labor union. As one such contributor explained:

I used to be of the opinion that workers could win concessions through politicians who professed to be friends of labor, but now I know better. What the workers need is a strong union that refuses to sell them out to the bosses or politicians. But we don't have one....

In closing, I appeal to you to forget the political par- ties, the red-baiting campaigns and all other drives that are detrimental to the Union. Let's combine our forces to restrain the Murrays, the Reuthers...and all others of their ilk from hoodwinking us (the dues payers) into forgetting our Union issues and degrading ourselves into personal attacks or some other issue that lies outside the union.

("How Many Strikes Before You're Out?", Oct. 7, 1948, p. 6)

Along with these polemics, the local formed a labor party committee, ran candidates in Flint local elections, held meetings, and passed resolutions asking the International union to promote a labor party. After the failure of the 1948 Progressive Party campaign with Henry Wallace running for President, however, the question of an independent political party for labor receded into the background, unsolved.

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