Shortly after arriving in Detroit, I was driven to the Dodge Main personnel office. Benches filled most of the room where job seekers filled out applications and sat waiting to be interviewed. Across from us were the Personnel Department staff. They worked behind a counter and ceiling-high glass barrier, presumably put in place to protect them from acts of frustration by disappointed job seekers. Most of the applicants were black. There was little conversation. We kept to ourselves.
After some time, an older, white member of the personnel staff rapped on the glass partition. I looked up and noticed that he was looking straight at me. He motioned to me to come to a section of the barrier through which we could talk.
“What’s your name?” I told him. He looked through the pile of application forms and found mine. “I am going to do you a big favor. I am going to make you an inspector. Go ahead and sit down, you’ll get called up again soon.”
I don’t remember if I said anything in response, but I remember feeling, “What just happened?”
When I returned to my place on the benches, the black man who I was sitting next to me asked, “What did he just say to you?” I told him that he had said he was going to make me an inspector. My fellow applicant knew better than I did what was going on and quietly muttered, “Shit.”
I was hired and told I would be contacted “soon” about when I should report for work. When I left the plant, I slowly came to understand what had happened. Like production workers, inspectors work on the line and must cope with the long hours of standing and relentless tedium of performing the same set of tasks over and over again. Inspectors’ work, however, is much less physically taxing than production work: nothing heavy to lift, no giant welding guns to push into place, no pneumatic wrench to hold for hours on end. Not all the inspectors were white. That racial barrier had fallen a few years before I was hired. Yet the inspection department remained disproportionately white.
I understood none of this at the personnel office. If I had, I am not sure what I could, would, or should have done. Any applicant who would have said, “No thanks, I’ll take a production job” would be seen as either crazy or stupid. I might not have been given any job at all.
I talked about this with my comrades. A few teased me for getting a “white boy’s job.” But in general, their feeling was, “What’s done is done. Don’t beat yourself up about it.” I am still not sure that they were right.
Finally, I was called into work. My first job was on the day shift in an area called final inspection. The department was located outside of the plant’s main building. Cars would come off the assembly line and were driven into a large freestanding annex where we conducted one last check before the cars would be loaded onto trucks and shipped off to the dealerships. Since I was a low-seniority worker, my time working days was short-lived. I was soon bumped to “afternoons,” a shift that began at 5:30 PM.
A few weeks later, I was bumped again and reassigned to an inspection job in the body shop. This put me inside the main plant. Here I soon learned what longtime UAW leader Walter Reuther meant when he described the auto factories as “gold-plated sweatshops.” Auto workers were relatively well-paid and enjoyed fringe-benefits, such as health insurance, vacation, personal and sick days, along with pensions that many white-collar workers envied. Because housing in Detroit was cheap, workers who had enough seniority to have attained a degree of job security were able to buy pleasant, albeit modest, homes. A steady income allowed workers to hope for a better life for their children; if they did well at school, they could attend one of Michigan’s public colleges.
But even management would admit that conditions in the plants were inhumane. The body shop was at the start of the process of assembling an automobile. Here the cars’ frames were welded together. Then floors, quarter panels, fenders, doors, roofs, and hoods and trunk tops were welded and bolted to the frames. The shop was considered one of the worst places to work in the plant.
If you were merely standing in Dodge Main’s body shop, the first thing you might notice was how damn ugly the place was. If you had asked me what color the walls were, I would have shrugged and replied, “The color of grime.”
Since my shift began at 5:30 PM, there was little sunlight for most of the year, everything was bathed in the hideous glow of fluorescent lighting. Then there was the noise. The body shop was particularly loud because the banging, bolting, and welding of parts into place was done on empty car bodies. Unlike departments further down the production process, there were no seats or upholstery to muffle the din.
The next sense to be assaulted was smell. Welding is a big part of putting car bodies together; it generated a lot of fumes. The decades-old plant was not well ventilated. The air in the body shop was stale, smelly, and smoky.
Of course, no one was just standing. Production workers and inspectors alike were chained to the assembly line, which pulled cars to our workstations. Each of us had a set of tasks that had to be performed before the car bodies continued down the line to the next worker. The unceasing repetition took a physical and psychological toll. So much for the gold.
My first job was located near the end of the body shop assembly line after the bodies had been put together. I stood in an intensely lit area and inspected the car bodies for scratches, dings, and dents. I marked these with a felt-tipped pen indicating where repairs needed to be made before the car bodies could continue on to the Paint Department.
Even though this was a light job, eight or nine hours of standing left me exhausted. Despite my youth and good physical condition, the fatigue would build over the week. By the weekend I was spent. Things were much worse for the production workers whose jobs were much more physically demanding. They were plagued by repetitive motion injuries to their backs, shoulders, arms, and hands.
Then there was the boredom. There was no variety in the work. Because of the space between our stations and the incessant noise, few of us were in a position to converse with each other. The only escape was to retreat into our own psyches or to deaden our senses with alcohol or drugs.
I was not at Dodge only to earn a living. I was there to do political work, to put the IS labor perspective into action.
The way another comrade and I went about doing this and the degree of our success were affected by the racial dynamics in the factory. The IS had made the auto industry one of our priorities. We also decided to get hired at Detroit’s majority-black plants. These were the plants that had been the home of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement, and other affiliates of the League of Black Revolutionary Workers, an organized expression of black power on auto shop floors in the Detroit area, just a few years earlier in the late 1960s. We thought that they would be hot spots in the years to come.
In 1972, about 60 percent of the ten-thousand-strong Dodge Main workforce was African American. There was little in the life experience of most of the black workers that would give them reason to either like or trust white people.
The older workers had participated in the Great Migration; they had been born and raised in the Jim Crow South and headed north to secure work in the relatively well-paid auto industry. The younger workers were their sons and daughters. They had grown up in a highly segregated city with a history of racial tension over housing and the police. They were teenagers during the 1967 “riot” that resulted in forty-three deaths (mostly of black people) and over seven thousand arrests.
The Dodge plant was ancient; parts of it dated back to 1910. Blacks had worked there from the plant’s opening, but for decades were few in number and confined to the very worst jobs. Job segregation loosened during the labor shortage of World War II. Black labor was needed to fill jobs that had once been exclusively white. When black workers entered these positions, white workers often refused to work with them and would walk out of the plant. Resistance to the presence of black workers in the more desirable assembly-line jobs in the trim shop and final-assembly area persisted at Dodge into the 1950s.
Black workers’ resentment of racial discrimination fueled the formation of DRUM in 1968. Even then, blacks were overrepresented in the least desirable jobs, such as those in the body shop, and underrepresented in the better jobs, such as inspection. The skilled trades were lily-white. There were few black foreman and fewer blacks in higher management. Despite comprising a majority of the workforce, the leadership of the UAW Local 3, the union that represented Dodge workers, was white as well. Black labor, white overseers, as DRUM called it, a modern-day plantation.
Much of this was changed by the Black worker militancy of the late 1960s. Chrysler fired several of DRUM’s key leaders, but was canny enough to respond to DRUM’s complaints about the racial composition of its frontline management by hiring more black workers as foremen. It made a special effort to hire members of DRUM’s rank and file into these jobs.
The UAW Regional and International leadership, which had been vehemently hostile to DRUM, promoted those blacks who could be counted on as loyal to the UAW leadership to top positions in the local. When I was hired in at Dodge, Andrew Hardy had just been elected as the first black president of the local union. Blacks had made some important gains, but these were new and did not feel firmly established.
The remaining 40 percent of the plant was divided between whites and Arabs. As a general rule, whites had the better jobs. Despite DRUM, nearly all the skilled trade workers were still white. Whites tended to be older than blacks, so owing to seniority, the day shift was whiter than the afternoon shift. Whites were also overrepresented in the Inspection Department.
But this was only a general pattern. There were white workers in the body shop and in other less desirable jobs. Here and there, whites and blacks developed genuine friendships. But as a general rule, whites and blacks kept to themselves — not with overt hostility but out of long-engrained social habit.
Perhaps 1,500 Arabs worked at Dodge in the 1970s, almost all of them on the afternoon shift. They were the newest demographic element to the plant’s workforce. Arabs, Yemenis in particular, had been recruited by Chrysler to come to Detroit. This wasn’t because of a shortage of labor. Did Chrysler believe that the Yemenis would be more compliant workers than the native-born Detroiters? It would be fascinating to have access to the corporation’s internal communication about their decision to recruit workers from so far away.
The new and growing presence of Arab workers was resented by black and white workers alike. These newcomers were taking valued job opportunities away from friends, family members, and a younger generation, many said. The blacks frequently referred to the Arabs as “camel jockeys.” When they were out of the earshot of their black fellow workers, whites often called the Arabs “sand niggers.” As a sign of disrespect, many of the black and white workers would deliberately mispronounce Arab as AY-rab.
The Arab workers typically spoke little English. They kept to themselves. But when they needed to, they employed the little English they knew to stand up for themselves. If an Arab worker was called a motherfucking AY-rab, he (all the Arab workers were men) would respond in kind, “Fuck you, motherfucker.”
One of the most unusual relationships I had with a black worker was with an older man who was a member of the Nation of Islam. He made a habit of visiting me once a week during his break time. We argued politics, but the conversation was always respectful, often fascinating. When he had to go back to work, he handed me the latest edition of Mohammad Speaks and I reciprocated with the most recent issue of Workers Power, the IS publication.
I was also friendly with some of the Arab workers who were fluent in English. One was a Palestinian from Jerusalem. I came by his workstation one night for a visit. I don’t know how the topic came up, but he asked me if I was Jewish. This was no time for a “yes, by birth, but no by conviction” kind of answer. I just told him that I was. His face lit up and he threw his arms around me. Then he introduced me to as many of his workmates as he could find: “See, this is what I have been telling you. I am not anti-Jewish; I am anti-Zionist. This guy is a Jew and he is my friend.”
Once I had passed my ninety-day probation period, I along with five or six other workers and comrades met and decided that we should start putting out a monthly newsletter. We called it Strikeback!
The masthead featured a multiracial fist smashing through Chrysler Corporation’s star-in-a-pentagon logo. Each issue contained five or six short articles. A typical story would highlight an instance of management’s mistreatment of its workers and the passivity of the union.
We made sure that each edition of Strikeback! included an article that went beyond the day-to-day issues in the shop. We were careful to make sure that everyone associated with our group was comfortable with us taking “radical” positions.
For example, when the union’s stewards went around the shop asking workers to contribute to the UAW’s Political Action Committee, we advocated a boycott. The money was only going to be used to support Democratic Party hacks who could never be counted on to represent the working class’s interests. Instead of supporting capital’s second party, we argued, the union should engage in independent political action by building a labor party.
The newsletter was well received. We distributed it at the plant gates and the workers never hesitated to grab a copy as they hurried into the shop. When I asked people what they thought of Strikeback! I always got a positive reaction: “It’s cool.” “Righteous.” “Let the truth be told.” The appreciation was real but passive. If we called on workers to attend a union meeting to press for action on some issue, nine times out of ten no more than a handful would respond.
Things were quiet at Dodge, frustratingly so. But in the summer of 1973, it looked like the IS’s expectations about worker rebellion were not so unrealistic.
On July 24, during the day shift at Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue assembly plant, two black workers locked themselves into a wire cage that contained the main power switch controlling a welding assembly line. They flipped the switch and shut down an entire department. Within minutes, the cage was surrounded by hundreds of supportive workers, both white and black.
The workers had three demands: first, that a particularly vicious and racist supervisor be immediately fired; second, that none of the workers who participated in the action would be subject to discipline; third, that the plant supervisor agree to the first two demands in writing in the presence of the workers taking part in the action.
The response of the local union leaders followed a well-worn script. They urged the workers to return to their jobs. They insisted that the only way to resolve the issues that had sparked the job action was through established procedures. This was their line earlier in the year when workers in another department at the plant had walked out.
But none of the issues that had sparked that job action had been resolved. The local union leaders had lost credibility, and the Jefferson workers refused to back down.
Soon, production throughout the entire plant came to a halt. When the second shift arrived later that day, hundreds more joined the protesting workers. Around 7:00 PM that evening, Chrysler management agreed to all of the workers’ demands.
We put out a special edition of Strikeback! praising the audacity of the Jefferson Avenue workers. Our leaflet resonated with the widespread admiration the Dodge workers felt for their Chrysler coworkers. The overwhelming sentiment was “those Jefferson workers have got it together.”
Not everyone was so enamored. While Chrysler management and the UAW leadership played down the significance of the action, managers at Ford and General Motors told the press that a bad precedent had been set; this would only encourage more workers to take things into their own hands. They were right.
On August 7, the midnight shift at Chrysler’s Lynch Road forge plant refused to enter the plant, initiating a “wildcat” strike, a strike unauthorized by contractually agreed-to procedures. The plant had been operating seven days a week for months. The workers were exhausted. Chrysler neglected the maintenance work needed to maintain minimal health and safety standards. The forge workers were fed up.
This time, Chrysler management did not acquiesce. It obtained an injunction that threatened the striking workers with legal action, including jail time. Telegrams were sent to fifteen of the workers that Chrysler thought were the strike’s ringleaders, informing them that they had been fired. UAW vice president Doug Fraser stepped in to support the local union leadership in their effort to get the strikers back to work. A week later, the combined pressure from management and the UAW officials had broken the strike.
The day after the Forge workers returned to work, a sit-down strike began at Chrysler’s Mack Avenue stamping plant. The underlying issues at Mack were similar to those at Jefferson and the forge: hazardous working conditions and abusive foremen. And, as at Jefferson, there had been several walkouts at Mack earlier in the year.
This protest was ill-planned. It began when a worker who had been fired the previous day snuck into the plant and sat on a conveyor line. He declared that he would not leave until he was reinstated. Chrysler sent two security guards to oust the fired worker. He fought them off.
Soon a group of workers gathered to support him. Although the number of participants was small, never more than a hundred, and didn’t threaten work in other parts of the factory, Chrysler management responded by sending all of the plant’s workers home. This was a savvy move; it isolated the protestors from the rest of the workforce.
UAW officials, once again, pressed the workers to leave the plant and trust that the union would resolve their problems. The workers in the plant vowed to stay inside unless they were assured that they would not be fired. No assurances were offered.
By the early morning, the strikers’ isolation had demoralized them. The group had dwindled to about thrity-five. They decided to leave the plant together and joined up with several hundred supportive Mack workers who greeted them at the plant gates.
The workers now marched to the union hall where they demanded that the local union call a strike over working conditions. The union officials said that they could not initiate a strike without a proper vote of the membership. When pressed on a date for such a vote, they refused to set one. They were only clear on one point: Chrysler won’t negotiate with us until you go back to work.
The UAW leadership made sure that work resumed at Mack the following morning. The protesting workers had planned to picket the factory gates in the hope of keeping the strike going. When they arrived, they were met by a “goon squad” of some one thousand UAW officials and staffers who assaulted them, ripping up their picket signs and pushing them away from the gates.
Most of the day-shift workforce had arrived expecting to be turned away by the picketers. Instead, they encountered UAW brass who were telling them to go to work “if they knew what was good for them.” The union had busted the strike.
In retrospect, two of the three job actions that occurred in the summer of 1973 were defeats. But they didn’t feel that way to us, at least not at first. We IS members believed that the rebellious spirit of the late 1960s had been rekindled.
We made an effort to build on what we thought was a rising tide of rebellion. We won the support of the half dozen rank-and-file groups in the Detroit auto plants we were active in to hold a joint meeting, to organize some form of coordinated campaign. The groups put out a leaflet to the plants and got what seemed like a good turnout of perhaps 250 workers. There were rousing speeches, but we failed to coalesce around any specific ideas about how to move forward. Lacking strategic direction, the gathering was no more than a feel-good rally.
The end of the Mack strike marked the end of a brief period of rebellion. In September, the UAWs contract with Chrysler expired, and the union struck the company. Labor-management negotiations in the auto industry took place on two levels. There was company-wide bargaining that dealt with issues such as wages and fringe benefits. There was also local bargaining that dealt with issues in the plants and could have been an opportunity to address problems with working conditions that had fueled the unofficial strikes.
The rank-and-file groups took the position that the UAW should not reach agreements with Chrysler until local negotiations successfully resolved the issues related to working conditions and also agreed to rehire the workers fired during the summer strikes. Instead, the UAW leadership quickly reached a settlement with Chrysler, and we were back to work a week later.