The Story of The Searchlight, Part II

Influenced by the working class tradition of Eugene Debs, the pages of The Searchlight echoed with criticisms of supporting big business in their wars, as in "A New Year With Old Trim," one of the many poems that appeared in the newspapers pages.

A New Year comes, an Old Year goes
And with its passing all the woes
That ill-befalls the working class
Are passed in parcel to he who works
By grace of Greed and he who shirks
The pangs of toil or call of Brass.

The war was fought, the war was won
By those who made and used the gun
But all the spoils went to the few
Who beat the drum and waved the flag
And used the printed page to brag
Of how they'd made the world anew.

(Jan. 15, 1948, p.2)

Such sentiments were expressed in letters and articles as well. During W.W. II, The Searchlight carried a letter from a serviceman condemning the war:

God's on our side, they tell us. Well, that's good. I suppose he was the one that tore the head off a body I found yesterday. Without the head, and with most of the uniform gone, it was hard to tell at first that he was, or rather had been, an enemy. But God must have known, because, bam -- off went his head! (I don't know who takes the heads off our boys.)

Christmas, 1944, and here I am sitting looking down at a big brown stain at the bottom of my pant-leg, sort of wondering who it came from, and if whoever he was had a girl like Helen waiting for him, and folks like you and Dad and Mom at home.

(Jan. 4, 1945, p. 1-2, see also footnote 16)

Such sentiments appeared during the Korean War as well, as in this open letter:

You see, if it weren't for the PHONY WAR program, we wouldn't have to contribute so much to the upkeep of the bosses wholesale global murder. You then could also be fairly sure you weren't raising your kids for gun fodder in order to protect a lousey system that should have been put out of business long ago.
(Nov. 15, 1951, p.4)

And these same sentiments were conveyed in the poem "Of Wage Slaves and Caesars," published June 14, 1951:

Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet, said:
'Me thinks there never bloomed a rose so red
As where some dying Caesar bled!'
But down the ages since his time
Most other poets in their rhyme
Have sung of Caesars as sublime,
Whose warring quests they glorified
And praised the peons who bled and died--
But wars have filled no empty maws
Nor won the workers no holy cause.

Not only did The Searchlight open its pages to criticism of the policies of management and politicians, but it also took up to praise the brave deeds of the unsung heroes from its ranks. When militant unionists became seriously ill or died, they were eulogized in articles, as in these excerpts from the obituary of Jimmy Kiger:

Jimmy Kiger died as he lived. He fought heroically against a dreaded disease....On his death certificate they will write 'Death due to cancer.' We can truthfully say that Jim Kiger was killed by a social system that has outlived its useful purpose to man....It smashed at his physical body through the years with its crises, depressions and devastating wars. The most telling blow was the recent news of the death of his son, CALVIN, on the carnage fields of Korea. This dreadful report came while cancer was spreading relentlessly through his system....Thus died a Chevrolet Union militant who had served his brothers in Union struggles as an elected officer of our local....Even as a holder of many posts, Jim Kiger considered himself as a rank and file member of the labor movement....Jim denounced the Korean War before and after the death of his son. Jim Kiger could not be intimidated or silenced. He was not that kind of man.
(Oct. 18, 1951, p.3)

And the heroic deeds of the rank and file were eulogized in poetry, as in "The Curtain's Down:"

In all respects, let it be said:
The curtain's down, the act is o'er
The Reaper's played the final score
And many mourn because you're dead.

It's surely true the world's a stage
With each a part -- a chosen role
And time alloted for each soul
To play it's part and turn the page.

To those of us still in the show.
We'll not forget how well you played--
The Union Man so unafraid --
That boss-men knew how far to go.

The rebel cause was better served
Because of honest men like you
Without the honor they deserved.

(Dedicated to the pleasant memory of
Clyde Boone, a good and faithful unionist who passed the
"Great Divide" on May 30th 1963.)

(June 20, 1963)

By 1949, an important question being discussed in the U.A.W. was pensions.

During this same period, a debate over the virtues and criticisms of capitalism appeared in The Searchlight. In an article called "The Welfare State," the writer criticized that a "Socialist or what's worse, a welfare state" was growing up in the U.S. (See December 15, 1949). Carl Johnson's column in the following issue carried a response:

When union members find themselves in the wide disagreement indicated by Brother...'s article...on questions of vital importance to the future of Labor, it is necessary to debate those question.

Regarding the so-called Welfare State, when it provides unemployment insurance, health insurance, old age pensions, aid to education, etc., it is NOT giving labor something for nothing....It is not Socialism, but rather an attempt to give labor, to a limited extent, the social services it can expect from Socialism. It is promoted by non-Socialists not to bring Socialism, but to forestall Socialism.

(Dec. 29, 1949, p.2)

The author of "The Welfare State" article replied:

While I am aware of, and am opposed to, the enormous profits made and the abuses permitted under the free enterprise system, I am convinced the world had made more progress under the system than any other method that has been tried in over 26 civilizations that this world has seen....If we are to continue a free people here in America with its present standard of living, then there must be money to plan, to invest, to manufacture, to advertise and to sell, all creating jobs for countless millions.....The free enterprise system has transformed this country from a young poor country into the wealthiest nation on earth in spite of two world wars.
(March 9, 1950)

Others joined the debate.

Bert Boone, who had been the President of Local 659 from 1944 to 1945, and had returned to the shop when his bid for reelection was defeated, added his contribution. He wrote:

A few scissorbills (17) are alarmed at the Welfare State.

Those few alarmists have either heard some politician squeal that way or have read it in some of these wonderful unbiased dailies. Some defend the so-called Free Enterprise system. There is no such thing. Free Enterprise is as extinct as Democracy. We only have MONOPOLY CAPITALISM....As for the Welfare State, that is a deliberate lie. More than one half of President Truman's federal budget was earmarked for WAR, only 6 per cent for so-called welfare. It looks more like a military state to me.

(March 23, 1950, p.2)

His solution to the problem was the Wobbly ideal of one big Union:

Workers must liberate themselves -- the labor skates and politicians won't do it. They'll connive to cheat labor.

Let's build a real labor union and abolish capitalism. Let's leave Washington and Lansing to the politicians. We'll let them run the weather bureau while we run the works to make life abundant for us.

Boone had opposed the International union leadership's "No Strike Pledge" during his presidency, and the International had opposed his efforts to run for another term in office. When he was defeated in 1945, he appealed the results of the election citing 868 unregistered ballots that had appeared in the election count in excess of the local's membership. (18) Returning to the shop, he contributed articles for The Searchlight until his death on April 9, 1969. (19) Boone's term in office was considered by many to have set a model for open and above board leadership. (20)

Another columnist to jump into the "Free Enterprise" debate was George Carroll. He had served as the first editor of The Searchlight from 1942 - 1945. He criticized any favorable protrayal of "Free Enterprise" writing:

This article is not in any sense to be considered a brief for any ism, creed or philosophy, but if so-called "Free Enterprise" advocates do not soon curb their rampant rapacity, they will soon find themselves tottering on the brink of an economic grave.

No system can long endure which permits corporations to arrogantly boast of profits of more than half of billion dollars while in another section of the same country hundreds of thousands of American workers are reported to be starving and Veterans who fought to preserve the right to continued existence are forced to live in habitations little better than pens or dog kennels.

(April 6, 1950, p.3)

Carroll's column "Your Poverty Flat and Mine" appeared off and on (21) until his death in October, 1954. (22) He had been active in the early days of Local 659, during and after the Sit Down Strike of '37, serving as committeeman and then helping to establish The Searchlight in May, 1942. As editor during the war years, he was also an active member of Local 659 "draft dodgers committee" which worked to expose so that supervisors and company men did not get preferential treatment at their draft boards.

To protest Bert Boone's election defeat under very questionable circumstances, Carroll resigned as editor of The Searchlight. Summarizing his term as editor, he wrote:

The Searchlight is the only (local union) paper which has ever been damned by the heads of General Motors in the Public press, and the only paper ever blasted by name on the convention floor by R.J. Thomas. And all simply because I thought it was my duty to keep our membership informed in regard to matters which concerned them, which I did and for which I have no apologies to make.
(March 5, 1945, p.1)

Not only did The Searchlight take on the social, political and economic problems confronting the rank and file union member (24), but it also took up its obligation to debate and criticize the policies and actions of union leaders.

By 1949, a bitter feud had developed between The Searchlight's policy of maintaining an uncensored press and Walter Reuther's efforts to consolidate his control of the U.A.W. Reuther had negotiated the first U.A.W. Pension Plan with the Ford Motor Company. Local 659 had wanted:

  1. Pension Plan for all GM workers with 20 years service or 55 years of age, whichever comes first.
  2. Health, hospitalization, medical and life insurance paid for by the corporation.
    (Dec. 1, 1949, p.3)

The pages of The Searchlight bristled with criticisms and resolutions opposing the inadequacy of the Ford agreement. (25), The text of the plan was printed as well as accounts of the International Union's letters and meetings to try to curb its Flint opposition. Walter Reuther was the subject of some harsh criticism printed in The Searchlight. One article complained:

Due to his miserable settlement with Ford, President Walter Reuther has suffered a severe loss of prestige among the UAWA ranks and local leaders. If you wonder why, read the Ford agreement.
(Nov. 3, 1949, p. 3)

Another article predicted that Reuther would followed in the former U.A.W. President Martin's footsteps:

I was just wondering if the Ford Motor Company is planning on giving Buster (26), Reuther a good position when he is defeated for reelection at the next UAW Convention.

If I remember correctly, this was done to Buster Homer Martin, the ex-preacher and former President of the Auto Workers....The Busters in General Motors have struggled along with these lousy contracts that Buster Reuther has been getting but that Pension Plan at Fords has brought the curtain down on his ACTS.

(Nov. 3, 1949, p.3)

Throughout this struggle over the Ford Pension Plan, issues of local union autonomy and the right to criticize union leader- ship were repeatedly reaffirmed by rank and file members.

Coburn Walker, president of Local 659 during this period, and a former Reuther supporter, had taken up active opposition to the Ford Plan. Letters in The Searchlight applauded this opposition as representative of the rank and file. One letter in the January 26, 1950 issue said:

Coburn Walker stated his position in The Searchlight so the entire membership could understand that which was supposed to be the pattern for the rest of us who toil for our daily bread in the Auto Industry. THAT was the proper thing for our President to do. He is our servant (not our boss) and it's no secret that the entire membership has certainly criticized the Ford Pension.

Another letter in the January 12, 1950 issue complained about the attacks by the U.A.W. International on Walker.

I think he [Coburn Walker -ed] has done a fine job and I feel he had every right in the world to criticize the Ford Pension Plan without being attacked by our Regional office.

And in "The President's Column," which appeared in every issue during this period, Coburn Walker charged that the 40,000 letters sent to all Flint members of the U.A.W. by the International Officers criticizing opposition to the Ford Plan was a violation of Local Union Autonomy. He wrote:

Since under the International Constitution we are guaranteed local autonomy, and since we are obligated by the mandates of our local union to carry out the policy and program as laid down by the rank and file, we feel it is most regrettable that the International Executive Board should have taken the action which they did and which is confirmed by the letter dated December 1. On the other hand, it may be prompted by some individual member of the Executive Board who had more interest in the future and the perpetuation of his job than the membership whom he represents....If and when the proce- dure becomes such that a Local Union cannot voice its posi- tion with resolutions or in their local publications, then we feel it is high time the International Constitution be changed so that such will be permitted...Shall we retain our local autonomy or are we just a dues-collecting agency?
(Dec. 15, 1949, p.3)

 Table of Contents
 To next section
World History Archives Gateway to World History Images from World History Hartford Web Publishing