The Story of The Searchlight, Part IV

In 1956, The Searchlight was again criticized for having violated the International's publication policy and a representative from the International's Public Relations Department "was appointed to examine all future articles before publication in order to elimninate antiunion material." (32) Once again, the man- date used by the International Union to justify this censorship was that of the 1951 convention.

In 1957, Carl Johnson's column hailed the lifting of the most recent censorship, elaborating on the need for the newspaper by the rank and file:

The release of The Searchlight should be hailed by the "Rank and File," as a rebirth of Democracy, not only to protect it from the racketeers and Bureaucracy, but to give the ranks an opportunity to express their opinions and aspirations politically. I say politically, because unionism alone though absolutely essential to avoid industrial slavery, cannot fulfill the needs of labor in an ever increasing capitalist monopoly system, which exists only by wars and production of armaments and increasing national debt.
(Sept. 12, 1957, p. 2)

Despite these efforts, by the early 1960s, articles critical of the policies of the International Union, or raising the broad issues confronting the labor movement appeared less and less frequently.

The battle had been fought for years, but as Jack Stieber notes in his book Governing the UAW, by the early 1960s, "Controversial articles of any kind are notable by their absence," (33) not only in other UAW papers, but in The Searchlight as well.

But at this time, the great gains that had been won by the UAW pioneers were also being summarized. "Each generation," wrote one of Flint's labor pioneers, "has to solve its own problems. The sit-down generation solved the problem of organization. The postwar generation solved the problem of pensions and inflation. Not entirely, but a good start was begun." (April 21, 1960, p.2) He might well have added that it was in fact the forum provided by The Searchlight that made it possible for the post war generation, as he calls it, to sort out and build the necessary theoretical clarity and organizational solidarity to win increased wages, cola, pension and insurance gains.

This writer, in his article, acknowledges though, that there are certain outstanding problems that were not solved by his generation. "The present generation," he says, "is faced with the greatest problems of all. They are Automation, Peace and Politics." (Ibid.)

The rank and file, in general, lost access to the rich variety of polemic and criticism that had been published in The Searchlight while it was "The Voice of the Chevrolet Worker." But one letter to the editor, published in the heat of the struggle against censorship summarized the lesson that the writer had drawn from the experience:

Brother, that is a gloomy picture, so I'll tell you the one thing in our favor. We, the workers, have a better understanding of these forces now at work and the forewarned are forearmed.
(Feb. 21, 1951, p.2)

And gradually, through the years, a tradition sprang up, alive until February 11, 1988, of celebrating the anniversary of The Great Flint Sit Down strike. In at least one issue a year (occasionally in more), in the issue falling closest to February 11, the anniversary of the victory of the Flint Sit Down of `37, the pages of The Searchlight were opened up to articles, poems, etc. about Flint's labor battles, and pioneer union builders and others were allowed to comment on and criticize the current direction of the labor movement as a commemoration of the rich and ongoing struggle of the auto workers.

A professor at the Harvard Business School, in an article in the Harvard Business Review called "Why History Matters to Managers" explains the importance of this Feb. 11 commemoration of the Flint Sit Down Strike in labor newspapers like The Searchlight. He acknowledges:

It is important for our students to know something about...the [General Motors] Flint Strike in Michigan in 1936-37. Why?....For many years, UAW journals and magazines commemorated it and carried accounts of the celebrations and speeches with which the unions have kept the memory of the strike alive. It is terribly important for our students to know this kind of stuff because they are going to have to deal with the heritage of disrespect that has grown up between unions and management.
(HBR, Jan.-Feb. 1985, p.82)

So The Searchlight, while it was the "Voice of the Chevrolet Worker" was the continuation of the "heritage of disrespect" of the sit-downers, by which they criticized and debated the policies and practices of their union, and thus continued their fight against management.

One editor of The Searchlight, during the fight against censorship, summarized the role the newspaper had played in the building of the UAW. He wrote:

Our paper, The Searchlight has been instrumental in building and maintaining this great Local 659,...commonly known as the father of the UAW....From the grassroots of our organization or the floor of the production lines and Machine Dept. came the private peeves or inequalities that were being per- petuated on our people. This privilege MUST be main- tained....From the "grass roots" of our organization came the contract changes including the Escalator Clause, which was cussed at, later adopted, cussed at and readopted, which is proof positive that we are not always wrong.

I ask you, the membership, this pertinent question: Should your paper The Searchlight be permitted to voice this disapproval of portions of the PENSION and five year plan or must we call it the answer to a 'maiden's prayer' until May, 1955 and then ask G.M. for a better one...Preserve your hard won HERITAGE The Searchlight.

(Jan. 25, 1951)

Thus, the story of The Searchlight is a very important story which helps to explain the seeds that gave birth to the U.A.W., and it was the U.A.W. that helped to nurture the growth and development of industrial unionism in the U.S. On the occasion of his retirement, another of the pioneers of Local 659 involved in the struggles from the early days of the union, stressed the importance of the younger generation of workers studying the rich history of struggle of the Flint pioneers. He wrote:

Our younger workers who are just entering industrial employ- ment and union membership must be encouraged to study labor history, and they must learn how to avoid the tragic errors of my generation and they must enlarge upon and profit from our triumphs....

Just as those of my generation stood on the shoulders of Big Bill Haywood, of the Haymarket Square Martyrs, of Eugene V. Debs and John L. Lewis, so will those of the present generation of workers stand on our shoulders and they provide the impetus for tomorrow's progress, security and happiness.

(Oct. 21, 1971, p.4)

The early Searchlight, as "the Voice of the Chevrolet Worker," provides those strong shoulders.

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