The Story of The Searchlight, Part III

In 1949, the International leadership recommended that the rank and file vote in favor of the Union Shop during the upcoming election. Articles like "Union Shop Vote: Chevrolet Local Aims for 100% Union Shop" appeared in the paper listing 21 reasons why members should vote for the union shop, quoting from a UAW General Motors Department publication.(Dec. 29, 1949)

In the January 26, 1950 issue, a rebuttal was printed titled "21 Or Bust." (27) In it the writer listed 21 questions and their answers warning of the consequences of voting for the "Taft-Hartley Union Shop." Among the objections he listed were:

1. Is the Union Shop something new in the Chevrolet? Certainly not, the management gave you one in the '30's. Brought your membership cards to you in person and let you vote for representation on their own line. Homer Martin, in his heyday, tried to sell you one to offset any opposition.
2. Will the Taft Hartley Union make our union stronger? In numbers, yes, economically no, because all the power will drift to the top. Management and Union boys will get married so to speak, and quit their clandestine courtship....
6. Why do the top Union officials want a Union Shop under this plan? Because it is the easiest way out and it will become an automatic union where the boss will not only collect the dues but do the organizing, too, and you'll never know you have a union only when you see the deductions on the pay stubs....
11. How does labor history show that union and closed shops were gained? Not by the politicians paternalism, nor by the bosses' bountiful goodness, but by hard-fought years of class struggle. Not by collaboration and collusion.

The writer of "21 or Bust," realizing that he was bucking the tide in putting forward these sentiments appealed to his readers to give him a fair hearing: "So my fellow union workers, in voicing my personal experiences, observations and beliefs in opposition to this crucial question, I am only asking you to bear in mind that there is always two sides to any issue and both should be heard without any malice or mayhem, without fear or favor. Let the truth be found in the balance of reason. That's democracy...." (Jan. 26, 1950, p.1)

The publication of "21 Or Bust" was met with both praise and condemnation. One article, "Do We Want a Union" by Bert Boone defended the author of "21 Or Bust" writing:

Certainly every worker with one bit of human morality wants a Union. A GENUINE ONE, TOO! However, militant union people prefer to build a union and not secure one through paternalism as seems to be the pattern of the shroud that had been cut for our union today.... The writer of '21 or Bust' expressed my sentiments 100 per cent. I am in favor of every worker joining the union through the program of the workers and not the employer.... Beware of a gift from the boss.
(Feb. 23, 1950, p.4)

Another article, appearing in the column "State of the Union," explained that the writer had only recently come to agree with "21 Or Bust." In this article "Chiselers and Pork Choppers Attempt to Raise Dues", the columnist explained:

Some time ago during the Union Shop election, a brother... pointed out that once we got a Union Shop we would become goats for the unscrupulous leadership to exploit as they pleased. I disagreed then, but now in view of the twelve dollar assessment we just paid and the proposed dues in- crease, I'm beginning to wonder if maybe the brother wasn't right.
(Sept. 7, 1950, p.1)

Condemnation of "21 Or Bust" appeared immediately. For example, in an article called "I Don't like It" (Feb. 9, 1950), the writer argued:

That piece in the union paper ["21 Or Bust" - ed]... said we shouldn't vote for the Union Shop sure made me mad.... I think everyone should be made to join the union, even if they don't believe in it. We should make them pay their way.

In response to these condemnations, Coburn Walker in his President's column, reviewed the anti-censorship policy of The Searchlight which had been passed by the membership in 1948. He wrote:

As President of the Local and ex-officio member of the Publi- city Committee,I feel that unwarranted attacks have been made on the Publicity Committee by a certain group within the Local for having permitted Brother ... the right to voice his views on the Union Shop.
(Oct. 19, 1950)

Walker then referred to the anti-censorship resolution passed September 12, 1948, which in part reads:

Whereas: Chevrolet Local 659 maintains a paper published twice monthly for the express purpose of the exchange of ideas and thoughts of said members; and

Whereas; The membership of Local 659 has on numerous occa- sions defined the duties of The Searchlight staff as being EDITORS and NOT CENSORS and to reject only those articles that are libelous or not in good taste, and UNDER NO CIRCUM- STANCES WERE THEY TO REJECT ARTICLES MERELY BECAUSE THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED DID NOT COINCIDE WITH THEIR OWN.

(Oct. 19, 1950)

But it was not just the "certain group within the local" referred to by Coburn Walker, who were disturbed about the publi- cation policy of The Searchlight. In response to the article "Chiselers and Pork Choppers Attempt to Raise Dues" which had appeared in the Sept. 7, 1950 issue of The Searchlight, one of the officers of the International Union wrote a response printed in the October 19, 1950 issue of The Searchlight. He complained:

Although the author of this scurrilous article didn't have the courage to use my name it is quite obvious that the union officer he had reference to was me.... I resent being called a "Chiseler and pork chopper."

The "State of the Union" columnist retorted:

I did not and do not lack the courage to use the... name. The truth is that I was referring to statements made by some of his "Yes Men" of the FDR-CIO Labor School in Port Huron. However, if...[the-ed] foot fits the shoe, I have no objec- tion to his claiming the title of "Chiseler and Pork Chopper."

(Oct. 19, 1950, p.1)

The columnist then went on to call into question the various expenses of the International Union, pointing out that the purported rationale for the dues increase was to build up a $25 million strike fund to 'prevent as many strikes as possible' but that the recently signed 5 year contract in fact ruled out strikes for the foreseeable future.

In 1950, the International leadership had sent out a letter to local newspaper editors informing them that an International Union publications board would review their publications for pos- sible libel and conformity with International policy. (29) On the morning of December 12, 1950, at 8:30 a.m. a telegram addressed to Coburn Walker, President, was delivered to the Local's office. The telegram read:

The International Executive Board is requesting that you appear before it on Wednesday, December 13, 1950, at 4 p.m., room 808, Book Cadillac Hotel, Detroit, Mich., to show cause why the policies and stories carried in the "Searchlight", publication of 659 are in violation of the policies of the International Union, UAW-CIO.
(Dec. 14, 1950, p. 1)

The telegram was signed "By Order of the International Executive Board."

When Local 659's officers and The Searchlight's Editorial Board appeared as requested, they were told that the International Executive Board had reviewed issues of the newspaper from October, 1949 to November, 1950 and had found the content of the newspaper to be "anti-union."

The Local was ordered to change the editorial policy of the newspaper and to print a copy of the International's condemnations in The Searchlight.

The Executive Board's statement to be printed in The Searchlight said in part:

Specifically, the "Searchlight" has consistently been in violation of UAW-CIO policy in that (a) it made repeated attempts to sabotage and weaken the Union's campaign for a union shop in General Motors, and (b) in attempts to sabotage collection of emergency strike assistance which had been approved by an overwhelming majority of the Convention, and (c) in many other cases too numerous to mention.... The Board has further ordered the officers of Local 659 to cease and desist publication of material which, by impartial judgment, would be anti-union in character.

The Officers of Local 659 are also asked by the Board to make every attempt to eliminate false, misleading and biased material from the 'Searchlight'; and to include, wherever reasonable or possible, points of view which differ from those of the local Officers or editors of the 'Searchlight'.

The Board specifically stated that nothing in its action should be construed to limit or impair in any way the right of the membership, the local officers, or the 'Searchlight' to criticize, differ or oppose.

(Dec. 28, 1950, p.1)

After reviewing the International Executive Board's condemnation of their newspaper, Local 659 filed a grievance to be heard at the U.A.W. Convention in April, 1951. They prepared a defense, citing the U.A.W. Constitution precedents on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and local autonomy.

During this period, The Searchlight's pages carried rank and file expressions of consternation and opposition to the interference with their newspaper. One article compared the actions of the International Executive Board with those of Hitler. The article called "What Do YOU Want?" said:

The enemies of "The Searchlight" Editorial Staff have been laying down a continual barrage of words by which they expect to conceal their real intentions. In spite of all their fog and mist of words, they have not been able to obscure the real issues, which is: [Will - ed] 'The Searchlight' be able to continue its policy of free and open discussion, or will it forget those things and devote its pages to Walter Reuther and the International Executive Board?

Some people are going to a lot of trouble to peddle the propaganda that criticism of those in office is worng -- that we should do just as we are told and not complain about it. That maybe things aren't perfect now but they will somehow or other get much better. That criticism of Reuther and the Executive Board will create disunity and disruption and is therefore to be considered as Union treason....

This is just the same line of baloney that Hitler sold to the German people; that above all they should not beef or gripe about those who are in positions of authority.... The first thing he did when he came in power was take away the right of free speech, free press, and adjustment of grievances where the people might register a complaint.

(Dec. 28, 1950, p.2)

Another contribution to the paper, defended in verse the constructive role played by criticism:

Sometimes I pan the Company
Their Supervision too
I also pan our Local, But,
Right now I'm panning you
Please tell me Mr. Ruether(sic)
'Bout the freedom of the press
But that must be for other folks
And not for us I guess....

The contract may be very good
But do you think it fair
Altho' there's points that I dislike
My gripes I cannot air?

After two other verses, the poet ended his refrain:

And now I'll end this little rhyme
But tell me if you can
When a little criticism
Ever hurt an honest man.

(Dec. 28, 1950, p.2)

The article "Labor Fakirs Protect Interest of Capitalism!" was also printed in the December 28, 1950 issue of The Searchlight. It proposed an economic analysis of the International Union leadership. The article explained:

It has become a problem of the industrial employing class to create a buffer class at the economic boundary between itself and [the -ed] industrial working class. This problem is well on its way to a solution which is contained in the develop- ment of the leadership, officialdom and bureaucracy of the conservative labor organizations....

These labor fakirs develop a vested interest in perverted authoritarian 'Unionism'. Like any exploiting class, they find it necessary to build special organizational machinery within unions to serve their interests. This is manifest by cliques, machines, undercover operators, stool-pigeons, hatchet men, and goon squads.

Added to the direct corruptive influence of this kind of 'Unionism' is the attraction it offers to the worst types of opportunists, crum-seekers, and working class traitors.

To the workers, these imposters, brazenly or with hypocritical modesty as the circumstances require, credit themselves with being fighters in the class struggles ... with being necessary for the conduct of future struggles. On this basis they justify their fat salaries and tenures of offices....

Workers must abolish the buffer class within Unions. Meaning the abolition of the reasons for the existence for this buffer class.

The article offered the following recommendations to deal with the problem it had outlined:

The rates of pay of all officials must be kept equal to or below the average wage rate of the workers they represent.

The source of all authority within the Union must come from the exercise of the workers. 'Authority must not be delegated.'

Nothing more than function should be delegated.

Function should be delegated only to members subject to recall at all times; whose activities are subject to open scrutiny by other functionaries and by membership generally; who must make detailed reports at frequent intervals to the membership to whom they are responsible. Tenure of office must be short.

The article ends with the call for the membership to take control of the union.

A membership meeting of the local, attended by an "overflow crowd" protested the International Executive Board's actions, and a petition was circulated and signed. Other criticisms -- cartoons, articles and letters make up the pages of The Searchlight up to the April, 1951 International Union Convention.

One letter was written by Ed. Cronck, a rank and file leader of the '37 Sit-Down. Titled "Honest Criticism Hurts No One", the article reviewed the history of the Reuther brothers. The writer addressed Walter Reuther with an indictment:

Do you remember how you and your brothers used to tell us ... how every local should have its own Local autonomy, and their own Local paper?
(March 8, 1951)

The letter goes on to defend local trade union autonomy.

I believe that we who work in the plants have a right to our Local. That is the only way we have to tell you when we think you are wrong. Do you remember Walt, when you told us that no officer of our Union should stay out of the plant over 2 years because he forgets all about the worker in the plant? You should go back in the plant and run for Committeeman so you could find out what you and your friends gave us in the G.M. Contract to bargain with. I think that you would leave the country, you would be so ashamed of yourself.... I believe you have given away everything that we ever did have on the bargaining.
(March 8, 1951)

Other letters published in The Searchlight during this period helped to clarify what the rank and file felt was at stake in the fight. One said:

Under the five year contract we are not supposed to have to worry about keeping the union organized and should be able to spend out [sic] time in educating and organizing our member- ship.

What's been done? The contract is almost a year old and instead of the International coming out with a large educa- tional program which they should be able to afford in view of the facts that the Union Shop and Dues Checkoff should enable them to cut way back in their organizing staff and direct the money saved there into building a stronger and more militant Union, ruled by the membership.

Instead it seems the five years is to be spent in building a political machine so strong that the little man will be unable to raise his voice in objection of any kind. Already this machine is responsible for the five year contract with its company security clauses which take away the only real bargaining power that the working man has (that is to strike if the Company won't bargain). The contract also contains the waiver clause which prevents the Union from bargaining on any unforeseeable condition that may develop in the five years.

Now, this machine wants to increase the dues to $2.50 and to have the convention every four years and to have four-year election of officers. At that rate we won't have anything more than a dues collection agency, which we will pay high dues for the privilege of working in a sweat shop which is exactly what the Assembly Plant is and what the company is trying to do in its other plants.

(Feb. 22, 1951, p.3)

Not only were letters from members of Local 659 printed, but The Searchlight also received and printed letters from other UAW locals supporting the fight and asking for copies of the newspaper to distribute in their areas. For example, from Chicago:

The story of your fight for Local Union autonomy and free expression has recently been brought to my attention. It is for this reason that I am taking this opportunity to express my admiration, respect and agreement with your position.... Under Reuther opposition of a genuine nature is 'verboten'. Much of the rank and file knows that everything is run from the top down and feel that protests are of no avail.... Our union must be restored to its previous course of rank and file control.
(Feb. 22, 1951, p.4)

And from Local 742, UAW-CIO:

I would be interested in distributing 500 copies of your January 25 issue, or any further issues exposing censorship of your splendid paper.

I am certain that the story of the attempt to abridge your right of free press would arouse support for your efforts among the membership of my Local, Local 742, UAW-CIO.

(Feb. 22, 1951)

In April, 1951, the UAW convention convened in Cleveland. Article 28, Section 8 of the UAW Constitution was used to justify the International's suppression of The Searchlight:

Local publications shall conform with the policies of the International Union.

An editorial from Ford Facts reprinted in the April 19, 1951 issue of The Searchlight describes what happened at the convention:

One of the most serious things that took place at the UAW convention in Cleveland last week was something which re- ceived little notice in the newspapers.... We are referring to the action of the convention in its condemnation of the "Searchlight"....

In this particular instance our leaders have chosen to interpret any criticism of themselves or their ideas as being in violation of Article 28, Section 8. This, they apparently think, gives them a license to muzzle any publication which has the temerity to question the wisdom of their program or policies.... The 'Searchlight' was spanked by Reuther's con- vention and the majority of the delegates faithfully obeyed their master by granting the International Union the authority to crack down on any local union publication that does not follow union policy -- as determined by Reuther... and Company.

The Searchlight had lost the battle at the convention, but it continued the fight locally. Its resistance had been far from extinguished. In its pages it continued to defend local autonomy and an uncensored local union press.

The skirmishes with the International and the struggle of The Searchlight to repeal the suppression continued for a number of years. In July, 1951, issues of The Searchlight were barred from the CIO School. (See The Searchlight, July 12, 1951.) In 1952, a resolution was passed by the membership of Local 659 welcoming rank and file criticism of union officers. It read in part:

be it further
RESOLVED: Any member of this Local may submit articles criticizing or acclaiming any officer on the conduct of his office.
(Jan. 24, 1952, p.1)

In reading through The Searchlight after 1951, there are periods of lively debate and then periods of only praise for the International. In 1954 the International put Local 659 into receivership and 14 members were brought to trial on charges, some for articles published in The Searchlight. (31)

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