Camera Rolls: 311:55-64
Sound Rolls: 311:31-34
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Victor Reuther , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 12, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Why don't we begin, where you had begun a moment ago with what your image of Detroit and Henry Ford was when you had heard about Henry Ford and Detroit, and how it compared with where you had come from? Does that make sense?
Well, most of what I knew about Detroit and Henry Ford I learned through my brother Walter, who went off from Wheeling, West Virginia, the home town in the mountains, and sought a new career in the big city. And of course, he was not alone in that. I remember as a child growing up in Wheeling, West Virginia, standing on a clay bank beside a glass factory and seeing trainloads of open cars, like you would haul gravel in, with blacks from the South being carried North like cattle for employment in the steel and the auto industries. And it was terrible shock to me, growing up even in a very poor, industrial town like Wheeling. Now, I knew poverty there. The steel mills had moved to Gary, Indiana. Many of the tobacco factories that made the famous Stogies, that [laughs] the Mississippi gamblers became famous for using, and the coal mines were hit hard by the Depression. And I went off for a year's training at the University of West Virginia. I didn't like the college atmosphere. It was so unreal. I didn't like the ROTC program and I organized a fight against it because there were too many serious problems for me and I needed a college education to help to solve them. And I would spend my free time wandering through the nearby mining camps like Scott's Run and seeing the pitiful shacks that coal miners lived in. And the company owned stores where they were constantly in debt. So I knew poverty. And when I heard about Detroit, Walter sent me pictures. What did he send me photos of? The marble library and the marble art museum, and he said, "We will live in walking distance from this." So, I had great hopes of this wealthy city of the north to which the unemployed and the homeless from all over the country were gravitating, looking for a bright, new life and a new world. And after one year at the University of West Virginia, Walter and I corresponded and talked together and we said, "Look, we've, we ought to work together and go to school together and plan our own future together. And so I went to Detroit in 1930, joining Walter who'd been there two years, already. And of course he'd gone up the ladder rather quickly. He was getting forty cents an hour as an apprentice toolmaker at Wheeling Steel, and he worked his way up to a dollar forty, in, in two years time in the Ford tool room. And the Ford Motor Company had invited Walter to take part in their new aerospace program. They were involved, you know, at that time, in experimental work with airplanes, and they had a special training program, and they wanted Walter to enroll in that. And I, I suppose if it hadn't been for all the problems that came with the Depression that couldn't escape us, not with the kind of upbringing we had, in a family where the father was a trade unionist and a Debs Democratic Socialist, we, we couldn't escape, we couldn't' dismiss these social problems. So, I found myself in Detroit. But, aside from the neighborhood where we lived in a little basement apartment...and I could, of course, walk to the marble library in the art museum, but I couldn't confine my walking to that because I knew there was more the Detroit. And while I couldn't get a job in the factory then, there were no jobs available, not even as a waiter anywhere could I get a job then. The city was full of homeless that were in search of some kind of meager livelihood, and I was competing with them. So, I kept house for three Ford workers and I cooked for them and I washed and ironed their clothes and I did the shopping for them and I even went out and met with farmers and got food wholesale and, and learned to can it because I learned that at home in Wheeling. So we had to pinch and scrape, but, scrape, and get by. But I used my free time to wander the streets of Detroit. And it was a shocker. It was an eye-opener. I, I had seen poverty close at home in Wheeling, West Virginia, in the coal fields, but Detroit was clearly two societies. There were the affluent and there was the rest of the people. The poor workers from the South. And they weren't all black. There were a lot of poor whites. There were the many immigrant communities, the Poles, the Yugoslavs, the Czechs. There were Germans and Irish and English, most of whom gravitated more to the skilled trades and not to production jobs. But it was a city divided in a way that I had not seen before. And when I walked the streets, Rush Street and Beaubien on the east side of Detroit and talked to the homeless in the down-river communities, where they had put up their tar-paper shacks near the big public dumps, close to the supply food for them, of course. I saw a Detroit I never dreamed of before, and it was a real shocker. And it was a shocker to find that in this great wealthy country we were two societies. And it was very painful. And I could not ignore it. I could not retreat into the books that I was studying at the college of the City of Detroit that is now Wayne University. But most of my fellow students were working their way through school, so I felt, I felt at home with the student body. They weren't from Gross Point. They weren't from the elite areas. They were people like Walter and I, working our way through school.
In your book, you have marvelous descriptions of people living in their shelters. You described them as people going to their, their holes in the wintertime, as cavemen, as hibernating muskrats, as, as somehow reptilian.
Yes. In the, in the down-river area of Detroit, near the most favorite dumping ground of the refuge of the city, there were Hoovervilles set up. And they, they called them that, the inhabitants of it. And I remember how shocked I was the first winter to see the, the hovels that the homeless had built out of tar paper and, and bits of, of metal sheeting and discarded pieces of timber. And they would scrape out a bit of earth so that part of it was covered by a mound of dirt, and then the tin and tar paper roof on it. And four or five men would share one of these hovels and they'd have a little um place to cook on the outside and an outdoor grill they'd put together themselves, and they'd cook their own one-pot meals. And they, they referred to themselves as groundhogs who were hibernating during the winter, because they were merely existing, waiting for the spring to come. And hopefully the spring would be an end to the Depression and offer jobs. But most of those who lived in those shacks had lost the hope of finding a job. They had spent so many days and so many nights out looking for work, that they finally accepted the realities, and they hibernated like groundhogs waiting for spring to come. And it was terrible to see humanity living under those kind of circumstances. But it, it sort of provided the fuel for Walter and me to determine to complete our studies and to do something to change these conditions, because that wasn't the way that human beings should live.
You had done some thinking about life and about industry and about capitalism and socialism at that point. When you arrived in Detroit, did it seem to you as though, as though society, or as though capitalism was collapsing, was really in danger of completely falling apart?
Well, I came out of a family where the question of where this society of ours is going was a frequent dinner table subject for conversation and Sunday afternoon debates after church service. My father was a trade unionist and he helped campaign for Eugene Debs, so he anticipated and often told us that there had to be a change in the structure of society. And he was a strong advocate of democratic socialism, which is not to be equated with any authoritarian state, because he was a firm believer in democratic society and a firm believer—
—in the hope for American society to change itself. And he saw the trade union movement and political action as the vehicle for working people to improve their own lot.
We're going to pause there, while we—
OK. Tell me about this [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] that was Detroit.
Oh, you're already now?
We are ready. We're rolling.
All right. When I arrived in Detroit in '30, there was no trade union movement to speak of much, or a few scattered, elitist, old AF of L unions. We did feel a camaraderie with the student body and we had our Social Problem's Club there and would bring prominent lecturers, but the outreach to the rest of the community drew us into close contact with ethnic groups. Polish organizations, Jewish Bund organizations, workmen's circle groups, Yugoslav groups, and, of course, they were an very important part of the industrial workforce, as well as those elements that were the beginnings of a civil rights movement. And hence we, we sought for kindred, we searched for kindred souls in the community who shared our concern about the homeless, the fact that there as no legislation to provide for, care for the unemployed. And we found a few, kindred souls in the religious community, but not too many. The churches, in a real sense, became followers later on of a more dynamic movement among the working class. But these ethnic groups played a very important roll in building a supportive climate for changing things in America and they also played a very important role in the coming organization of industrial labor.
Great. Let's change the point of view here. You're in Detroit. Over in Moscow there are people, Soviet planners, Soviet visionaries looking at America, and particularly looking at Henry Ford, and looking at the Rouge. Can you evoke for us what they may have seen? What, what, did, what did they see when they looked at the Rouge? And remember that this is the first time in the film that anyone will have heard that Russians even existed. Does this make sense?
Well, of course, there were an occasional lecturer who came through who would talk about events that were transpiring in distant parts of the world, including the Soviet Union. What the Soviets saw in Detroit as not what Walter and I saw then. They weren't looking for the homeless, they had enough of those at home. But they saw in Henry Ford, something we did not see at that time. At first, from the University in West Virginia and from Wheeling, Henry Ford looked like a very hopeful person. But once we got to Detroit and found out that he had a Harry Bennett running a private army with thousands of armed men in the plant, keeping law and order as he saw it, and, of course, discharging anyone who talked unionism, and considering any troublemaker a "damn communist", that Henry Ford was seen in a different light by the Kremlin leaders. Now, they had some previous experience under the czar with Henry Ford, because he had a modest operation in St. Petersburg, selling some knocked down cars that were assembled there and a modest beginning of a tractor operation. And they saw in, the Kremlin apparently saw in Henry Ford an enlightened employer. There was perhaps another reason. You will recall Henry Ford, during the days of World War I, embarked on a peace mission. He sent a ship over to Europe. He was going to, the was going to settle the war. And so there was this aura about Henry Ford being a peaceful man. And they opened discussions with the Ford Motor Company and sent over Charles Sorensen, the chief of production, and he negotiated directly with Stalin and Mikoyan for a deal. And what was the deal? After the Ford Motor Company finished manufacturing the Model A Ford—normally, when you finish a model, you scrap all the tools and dyes. They made an offer that Henry couldn't turn down. There were going to pay him for the tools and dyes that he was scheduled to scrap. And they would continue to produce, in a Soviet factory, in the city of Gorky, old Nizhny Novgorod, on the Volga, they would continue to manufacture the Model A Ford. Now, old Henry at first wanted to sell them on a more up-to-date model, but they weren't interested, and the Soviets were very wise there because the Model A was the perfect car for the Russian roads. When spring comes and the mud is up to your knees, you, you need a car that is built high off the ground. So it was a perfect car for them.
I'm going to—before we leave how they may have viewed Henry Ford, as Henry Ford represented the future to many Americans in the '20, a vision of the future, did he represent anything to the Soviets, a vision of the future that they might have?
Good point. I think the view from the Kremlin of Henry Ford was that he is not only an enlightened employer who came up the hard way, and was interested in peace. He fitted into their great plans for industrialization, and they knew that the automobile and a network of highways was almost as important as electrification to the success of the various five-year plans that Stalin and the regime had in mind. So Henry Ford fitted into their scheme of things very well. And part of the deal was not only to get access to the tools and dyes for stamping out the Model A car, but Henry Ford agreed to train 150 bright young Soviet technicians, and he brought them to the River Rouge plant for intensive training, and they'd become the cadre, the skilled force around which the peasantry, even from Central Asia, would be recruited and a work force of 50,000 workers in the Gorky plant was pulled together. It was an incredible plan.
We can come back and go over much of this material in a few minutes, but I think that as long as you brought up the subject—
So, the seventh of March, 1932, cold day, hunger marchers outside the Rouge. Where are the Russians, and what do they see, and what do they suppose? What do you suppose they think about?
The deal between the Ford Motor Company and the Kremlin went through, and 150 technicians were working in the River Rouge plant, a number of them in the same tool room where my brother Walter was employed. And on the outside a great demonstration was taking place. The homeless and the hungry, many who had been organized into unemployed worker councils, many of whom represented the political composition of the great ethnic groups in metropolitan Detroit and in the black community as well were marking in protest on the great River Rouge plant to protest their lot as unemployed—
Well, here were these Soviet technicians inside, working in the plant whose owner they idolized as a symbol of the new future that they might have in the Soviet Union, and here were demonstrators, quite a few of whom were prominent in the communist movement, demonstrating against their idol, Henry Ford. This must have presented them with quite a paradox, and I can only imagine what was going through their mind at the moment. I do know from Walter there was a deaf-mute in the tool room that Walter would talk to in sign language, and this deaf-mute detested the Ford police system and Harry Bennett's goons, and when he heard the shooting taking place by Ford's private police and others against the marchers, some of whom were killed in that demonstration, he signaled to Walter, "Give the sign for the revolution and we'll start." [laughs] Of course, Walter wasn't interested in any revolution at that time, but he was puzzled by what was going on in the minds of these Soviet technicians, how could their idol turn guns on the homeless and, and the, the demonstrators? How they explained this to themselves, I don't know. But I suspect those technicians were quite isolated in their American environment, that their whole life was the factory and the housing compound where they were. I doubt if they had any direct contact with political elements in the—
—U.S., including even officials of the Communist Party. I would think the Soviet state was very careful in keeping them quite isolated. They were here with a single purpose, "Get all the technical knowledge you could, bring it back home, and we'll put it to work."
I think you got that right. We have to change the film. That was fantastic. That was beautifully said.
That hunger march, what did that hunger march tell us about America, where America was in 1930? Is that a fair question? I'll take, just as the—
It was a dramatizing the plight of the homeless and the unemployed, not just in Detroit, but nationally. I don't think there's any question about it.
Let me have you start that—
The political motivation behind it was understandable. And it fitted in with the efforts to organize unemployed worker councils.
Let me have you do that again, 'cause I talked over you. Just again tell us that it represented something far more than just Detroit and just that little clash, in the fact that it was really an American thing that was being played out. Is that correct?
Yes. This march against the Ford Motor Company is not to be seen in any traditional and limited management-labor dispute, because there was no union there. It has to be seen as a protest with national importance and significance to dramatize the plight of the homeless, the plight of the unemployed, the need for national legislation dealing with full employment, with minimum wages, with eight hour legislation, and a host of other issues. It, it involved a social agenda, and I'm sure that those who organized it were very sophisticated political elements. Some were communists, some were socialists, some were proletarian party members, some were activists in Unemployed Worker Councils, which were very important as predecessors to the organization of industrial workers on a big scale. And hence I think the tragic events that occurred on Miller Road did dramatize to unemployed workers and sophisticated political elements in the country, the urgent need for the nation, as a whole, facing up to the fact that this cannot be tolerated to go on.
Marchers chose to march to Henry Ford. Could Henry Ford stop the Depression? This is the devil's advocate question, obviously, but I mean, why, why march out, why go out in Miller Road to the Rouge?
Well, the truth of the matter is that it probably would have made more sense, if one were trying to build support for that political agenda, to march on state legislatures or on the national capital, because
Henry Ford couldn't end the Depression by himself. But Henry Ford was a useful symbol
** to the unemployed, and his private police army there, Harry Bennett's so-called Service Department, was a good target also. And it was not only understood in Detroit, but it was understood down in Texas and every other place where there were Ford factories, because that network of corporate terrorism was understood across the country. At that moment, this was a good target to focus national attention on. And, of course, following the tragic events, you know there was a great, funeral march, a great to [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] and—
Were you there at the funeral?
Yes. And I—
Tell me what you saw and what you...?
Well, I marched in it.
Let me have you start that again 'cause I was talking.
Following the tragic events on Miller road, there was a great funeral march to pay homage to those who, who were killed in that peaceful demonstration. And thousands of Detroit citizens participated in that who were not members of unemployed workers councils, who weren't members of any ethnic political group, who certainly weren't communists or socialists. They, some of them may have been trade unionists, but there wasn't much of a labor movement then. I think the community was shocked that gunfire would be the answer to people in a peaceful demonstration, and I think they turned out in far larger numbers for the funeral than for the original march on Miller Road.
And I marched with them, because I thought this was a protest that the whole country should see and feel,
** because they, they didn't want to walk in the back allies, and they didn't want to walk on Brush and Beaubien Street and see how the blacks and the homeless lived. And if they weren't factory workers and didn't feel the brutality of the Ford service system, this was a way of reminding them of what the realities were that was going on and that as American citizens, they, they had to do something about it.
Is it possible to say that in the first person, that as an American citizen you felt you had to do something about it. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but is that?
Oh, well, I could not have not responded to this demonstration with all of the concerns that I learned at my father's feet, and that I saw in the mining camps of West Virginia, and that I was experiencing myself. And we got as many fellow students and fellow workers as we could to, to join in this,
because we believed the nation ought to, ought to know about what took place on Miller Road and what was occurring in hundreds of cities across the lengths and breadths of this country during the depths of the Depression. So, this was a cry for help from people, and the country should hear it.
Wow. Great. You OK?
I'm fine. That was the cassette.
You're happy? Let's cut.
Spring of 1932, March of 1932, how does it look to you, Victor Reuther, as you look around America?
The early '30s in Detroit was a time not only of terrible economic depression but of psychological depression, of a feeling of hopelessness of the great dream of a future for all of us in America suddenly went very dim and looked very dark.
** I had enormous problems trying to find any kind of a simple job. True, I wasn't as skilled as Walter, but Walter finally was, was discharged, you know, and despite all the promises that Ford had made, and despite the fact that he was a foreman with eighteen or twenty skilled workers under his direction and he was still in his 20s, I mean, you would think that the future looked very bright then, but Walter and I couldn't sit quietly on the side roads with the country going up in smoke, so to speak, with the future looking so bleak, not only for those who were unemployed and homeless, but for those who still hung onto a job. Wages were being cut everywhere. There was incredible espionage of workers, even with Harry Bennett's long arm reaching into the private confines of the family and, and wives and mothers being threatened that if their husband went to a union meeting, he'd be fired and maybe wouldn't even come home, living under those kind of conditions. And then in the background of all this, the, the reports of the rise of Hitler and the terror that was beginning that was to occur in Europe was so unsettling and disquieting, and we wondered whether we'd live long enough to have a chance to change and reshape the future. And when the presidential election came along in '32, it wasn't Franklin Roosevelt that looked like the great, white hope to us. To us, at the beginning, he looked like just, just another Democratic candidate. It was Norman Thomas and the things that he was saying about the plight of the unemployed and the need to take care of the aged with the Social Security program. These were the things that excited us. And so we would spend our free time helping Norman Thomas campaign for the presidency, not expecting that he was going to win, but knowing that here was a chance to reach people and to talk to them about our problems in America and what could be done to change it. And we were determined to be a part of that change and not to sit on the sidelines. At first, we thought we'd be lawyers. Because we thought, you know, with a law degree, you could, you could speak with more respect to political figures, and so I would spend such free time as I had, when I wasn't taking Walter and the others on a weekend stay in a flop house of the homeless where we'd put on old clothes and be deloused along with the homeless in order to find out what it was like and to talk with them. When I wasn't doing that, I'd go to the criminal court system and I'd listen to lawyers joking out in the hall, how they put, how they put it over on the jury. And we thought, "My God, there's no ethics in that profession!" So, we decided we were going to prepare ourselves to build a union movement that might be able to make life better for working people and to bring some security into their lives. And that's what we began to train ourselves for.
I'm glad you did not go to law school.
We have to change film.
We're going to begin with, you know, you had heard about—where were we—you'd heard about Ford, a five-dollar day, in Wheeling.
the legend of Henry Ford, of course, was greatly embellished by his offer of five dollars a day. And the word of that penetrated the most remote mountain village in West Virginia and Kentucky and Tennessee, and the Reuther brothers heard about the five dollars a day and Wheeling, too. And I can tell you it, it looked mighty good
** and sounded good, and it wasn't until we got up to Detroit and we learned that, well, everybody was hired didn't enjoy the five dollars a day. It was only an elite few. And many thousands would be employed for a few months and then laid off, because, unless you passed the six-month probationary period, you didn't get the five dollars a day. So there was this incredible turnover of people who were hired from short periods, exploiting them for a few months, laying them off, bringing in a bunch of fresh workers. And, in, I mean, the, the disillusioning effect of having dangled this offer before them and never having really gotten it quickly, of course, turned this idol, Henry Ford, into a more realistic person who had some warts on him, who wasn't all he was cracked up to be. And despite the PR Department that he had, and despite his effort to corral a lot of black local preachers into a big PR program for him, the reality of Ford's labor policies came through in a harsh way.
Now, I think perhaps you and your brothers were a little more precise in your critique of the five-dollar day than most people, because isn't it true that that, the legend of the five-dollar day and the publicity of it lasted, I mean, almost until this day? Even up into the late '20s and '30s, almost, weren't, weren't, weren't, wasn't the legend of the five-dollar day still bringing people to Detroit? Is that something you can talk about?
Yes. The, the legend of Ford's generosity, the five dollar a day offer, for instance, that persisted over many long years and made it very easy for Henry Ford to recruit any number of willing workers to come at great distance, especially out of the hills of, of, of the South. And they'd, they'd work their way to Detroit in the hopes of enjoying that five dollars a day. And it persisted even years after it was quite obvious to many thousands that they would never enjoy it, because they were looked upon as a, a very convenient pool of willing workers, far larger in number than Ford's actual needs.
Clearly, Henry Ford had a lot of warts. What, are there, are there charitable things that one can say about Ford? Are there genuine contributions to what America was at the time that one can say about Ford?
Henry Ford's contribution to the industrialization and the growth of the industrial base and the economic base of American life is a most unique contribution, and he in a, in a very real way personified that great myth of America, that anyone can work their way up, from a simple little tool shop, into a do-it-yourself operation and become a great industrial magnet. And of course Henry Ford's identification with the cause of peace endeared him to many, many a person who never had a chance to see and comprehend what it was like to be an actual worker in the Ford empire. Henry Ford, of course, found this five dollar a day offer that was dangled before an expectant group of a potential industrial workers guaranteed him a good source of labor. It also helped sell Ford cars. And Henry Ford he was a crusty old guy who didn't want to play second fiddle to Wall Street bankers. He wanted his own source of financing, and making the Ford car popular and within the reach of even some in the working class guaranteed him a mass market that was unique to the success of the Ford Motor Company. You know, some people always talked about over-production. Henry Ford never worried about that, I'm sure, because he understood that if the income of the great mass of people could be increased, they would become potential customers and buyers, and the need in America and the rest of the world was inexhaustible.
Great. Great. I'm going to have you retell one story.
And then we're going to have you look at the photographs and then I'm going to turn it over to Lynn.
Tell me once again the story about what Walter experienced during the Ford Hunger March with the deaf-mute. You can imagine that you had never told it to me.
Walter knew that there were plans for a march on the Ford Motor Company. We were close enough to those forces that organized the march. We were organizing auto worker councils of the, for the unemployed, and we were deeply involved, of course, in the sort of left of center political movement that was in its infancy in Detroit in that day. And Walter was working in the tool room, looking out over Miller Road, when the great crowd of marchers moved towards the plant. And he and those who were inside the plant, including the Soviet technicians who were being trained there were able to look out and see the private police of Ford and the Dearborn police firing on the marchers. This, this had been a peaceful march, and you can imagine what a tense moment that must have been inside the plant. And I remember Walter's relating the story, that while the, the Russian technicians were almost frozen in silence, they couldn't imagine what was going on there. It must have been a terrible dilemma for them and a contradiction that their great hero, Henry Ford, could be firing on unemployed workers, but an interesting incident occurred. Walter had a close friend who was a deaf-mute, and Walter could only communicate with him, Walter learned the sign language for that purpose, because this was one of the individuals he was responsible for supervising. And this deaf-mute shared Walter's views about social questions and about the need for a trade union, and he hated the Ford-Bennett spy system, and when they looked out and they saw the police firing on the marchers, he motioned to Walter in the sign language, "Give the signal, Walter, for the revolution, and we'll start." Well, Walter was, of course, dumbfounded by that suggestion, he, he wasn't in any position to lead a revolution, nor was he thinking about that, but it showed what was in the mind of this deaf-mute who identified with the marchers, not with Henry Ford.
Great. Let's cut for a moment.
Yes, these are some, personal photographs that I took in the spring of 1931 as I wandered through the east side of Detroit and the down-river areas where the unemployed and the homeless lived in shanties, in hovels, and in slums. And, of course, in the black area, this is a typical photo here of—
You can actually, you don't have to show them to us.
I don't have to...of a, a black unemployed worker pulling his little hand cart. Now, he's, he's not a part of the refuge removal system of the city of Detroit. He's scrounging around for material to help him and fellow unemployed workers put up little shanties [coughs off camera] so he's collecting pieces of tin and discarded bits of lumber to help build their dugout where they lived like groundhogs, during the winter months, at least. Well, these are typical shots of two young black boys who, many of whom wandered the streets with the homeless, scrounging for what they could find in dumpsters and in, in garbage cans, to eke out an existence. Sometimes they were in school and often they were not. There wasn't too careful policing of that. Of course, I came across many family groups that were living in little shacks right in heart of Detroit, just off—
—John R. or Beaubien Street on the east side. And some of them were, like this group of, of family people, were living beside their few family belongings. They had been dispossessed, even from those shanties. And, of course, down-river, next to the big—
Stop before we change the film.
Where were we? Back in the spring of 1931—
On the streets of Detroit.
Well, you know, long before Martin Luther King came along, back in the '30s, there was a degree of integration, but in the slums. And I would often see clusters of black and white youth, playing together, hanging out together. They're mostly young, Polish kids because the Poles took their turn as more recent immigrants in sharing it with the black ghettos, and later Italians would come in larger numbers, too. And, of course, there wasn't much evidence at that level and in that area of antagonism or discrimination among them. Down river and the outskirts of Detroit near where the big dumping area was for the refuge of the urban areas,
the homeless set up numerous Hoovervilles
** adjacent to the big public dumping area. Why there? Well, it was public land, and they established squatters' rights and they would scoop out a hovel, so that part of their living area was underground. They did that for warmth in the winter and piled dirt up around it and then put a sheet of corrugated tin or wood on top and like groundhogs they would hibernate in that during the winter.
** And, on the outside, they'd have an old oil drum or something which they could use as a cooking stove and make a one-pot dish, which they had scrounged from the camping ground. And next to it, oh! I will never forget, it was a very modern dog pound built of beautiful material. The city was taking far better care of homeless dogs and stray cats than the homeless human beings. Yes, of course, every, in every slum area there were some old rattle trip Tin Lizzies, the old Model Ts. Mostly, they had been stripped down and were being used for parts. There weren't many big car junk areas where you'd find a large number of cars and where parts were sold. This was entrepreneurship in the urban areas. The unemployed found some useful work by doing that. And, of course, as I wandered the streets of John R. and Beaubien, there were those who plied their trade as prostitutes, seeking out an existence. I remember talking to this one fourteen-year-old and the older woman with her. She called her sister, but she could have been her mother and they were plying their trade. I was surprised they talked to me, because I wasn't a potential customer. I, I really didn't have the money for that, nor the urge, but I, I wanted to talk to them about their life and why they got into this. And, of course, some had worked as waitresses and weren't able to keep that job, and they had to keep body and soul alive, so they sold their bodies. And it was a bit of a shock for a somewhat cloistered young fella out of the hills of West Virginia. This was big city life which I had not experienced before. But it added a new chapter to my social concern about not only the unemployed, but those who were forced to find employment in that field. It was a common sight, of course, in the back allies of east Detroit, not so much in the white, immigrant areas, but in the black areas, where men would be pulling these little push carts, collecting anything that was resalable or usable in constructing a little hovel on the outskirts. And they found that as a useful way of employment, accumulating these odds and ends.
I think that's plenty.
That's it, I think. That covers them.
We can cut.
OK. So tell me about the Victor Reuther of 1936. How have you changed, what are you feeling at this time?
Oh, by 1936 I had, acquired something far, far more important than my college training. I had been to many countries around the world and had come to know personally people who would come to play a prominent role in changing the whole political character of Western Europe and some emerging nations, like the Soviet Union. I came into personal contact with the political leaders and trade union leaders of Great Britain, of France, of Scandinavia, of Germany and Austria, and then moving on into the Soviet Union, having the incredible experience of working with, a mass of workers who came out of peasantry and required technical knowledge and became the power and the motivating force in industrializing what was a continent, not a country, the Soviet Union. And then travelling through, Asia and seeing the poverty of China and the emergence of the war lords in Japan, who, along with Hitler, would some day terrorize the world. This was an eye-opener that was something I could not have gotten from textbooks. And I returned with a feeling that the ills that beset the world and our country, the homelessness, the unemployment, the insecurity of the aged, these were man-made problems that couldn't be blamed on the good Lord. They were something that man could change. And I learned in Western Europe, especially, that the trade unions and their democratic political allies had the instrumentality to change their own social structure, to find a way through these, horrendous social and economic problems. And it, it inspired us to do something about it. And, of course, we resolved by '36, that, if we could anything at all, it would be by building an industrial trade union in the auto-industry. And, of course, there were the encouraging developments, some of which took place before I returned to Detroit in '36. There was the rise of the beginnings of National CIO, in which a few trade union leaders had the courage to break with an outworn trade union structure of craftism [sic], which served only the interest of the elite, and to provide a trade union structure that would embrace even the unskilled factory workers in steel, in auto, in rubber, in textile, in shipbuilding, and on the high sea, and to forge them into not only a great economic organization that could offer hope to those who worked in the factories, mines and mills, but to become a powerful social force influencing the kind of social legislation that our country desperately needed.
Let's go—it's a wonderful introduction. Let's go now to a few simple concepts. Let's look at what, what's wrong with the AFL then? Why are industrial workers frustrated with the union?
Well, the old AF of L was content to serve the needs only of the highly skilled, the elite in the workforce, those who'd gone through long apprenticeship programs, the electricians, the carpenters, the pipe fitters, the plumbers, the metal finishers, et cetera. And they were content to be the spokesman of that elite force. And even as late as when the AF of L-CIO was formed in later years, one George Meany said of, of the migrant farm workers, "Why organize them and put them in a union? They don't earn enough to pay union dues." We learned from the European experience that industrial unionism was needed in vast, new industries, where the skill of a few workers may be important, but justice to the great mass of workers who worked on assembly lines and who were reasonable for the finished product, this was a need also. And unless their income could be increased to the point that they could become consumers of the products they produce, there would be no healthy basis for economic growth and prosperity. And we set as our goal building one union for all who worked in the same industry, and we set a more specific goal in the west side of Detroit where several hundred thousand auto-workers were employed, but only a handful unionized.
But if you're looking as an industrial worker at that time, would you say that as the New Deal is progressing, as we're having, you know, changes in government, that, that these workers are still essentially disenfranchised, that they still are without, you know, their rights? Would that be a way to describe them?
Well, even, even as, late as 1936, while there was much hopeful news coming out of Washington and while the New Deal had clearly identified itself with the needs of the working class, we hadn't seen much in the industrial areas to be terribly enthusiastic about. The trade union was an instrument that was important, not only once every four years when you were going to elect a President, or once every couple of years when you elect someone to the US Congress, the union was there every day. And when you punched the clock, you were there eight or ten or twelve hours a day, and if you could influence changes that take place in your life everyday, that had real meaning. And what we were really suggesting is: wasn't enough in America to have political democracy. We needed industrial democracy, where the people who were a part of the industrial society could help shape it and influence it to fit their own needs. And that's why the trade union work was much closer to the workers and they quick, they more quickly responded to it, than to a call to vote for a certain candidate.
In organizing industrial unions, what's at stake for both the workers and for management?
What is at stake obviously for the workers is the immediate prospects of a significant improvement in their work life, bringing better working conditions, safer working conditions into the workplace. Increasing, as in my case, within a ten day short strike, my wages increased from 33 1/2 cents an hour to a minimum 75 cents an hour. And the woman working next to me who, because she was a woman, and even though she was more efficient than I was, was only paid 22 1/2 cents an hour, but we won a minimum of 75 cents for her through the first union organized by the UAW in the factory where I worked in Kelsey Wheel on the west side of Detroit. Now that was an immediate gain. We got seniority for them. We got a steward system where they could elect a representative who would meet periodically with management to handle grievances and complaints. The fact that tenure became important. The length of time they had worked was considered in time of lay off and you didn't fire somebody who'd been there much longer and, and keep a temporary worker on. Your, your work experience meant something. It gave you a degree of job security. What did it mean for the employer? Well, my employer that paid me 33 1/2 cents an hour didn't go bankrupt when they paid me 75. When they paid me 75, I was able to buy more groceries and more clothing and maybe make a down-payment, eventually, on a used car. So, we, we expanded greatly the consumer market which was an enormous contribution to the market for employer goods. And it, it of course increased the profitability of the employer considerably.
I need to cut.
By the fall of '36, the auto industry was beginning to pull out of the depths of the recession, and many of the companies started hiring additional workers. And I got a call from Walter. I was working for the Quakers then, you know, down east, and he said, "They're beginning to hire." And I rushed straight out to Detroit and hired in on the second shift at Kelsey Hayes Wheel on the west side of Detroit. It was a parts plant that made wheels and brake drums, not only for Ford, but primarily, also for the other two Big Three. And, of course, the influence of Ford over its parts plants was enormous. The long arm of Harry Bennett reached into the Kelsey Wheel Plant with their terror against worker [sic] and their surveillance of them, and the speed up was strictly of the Ford system. There were 5,000 workers in the two Kelsey Wheel Plants, quite a big concentration. I doubt if we had more than 15 union members signed up in the fall of '36. We only had 78 in the whole west side of Detroit out of three or four hundred thousand. Obviously, with the Ford surveillance system we knew that there was no possibility of just a gradual growth in union membership through meetings, because we had to meet in secret in people's basements. If you got more than five or six together, there's bound to be a, a Ford serviceman or spy in the midst of it. So, an incident occurred in, in the break down department where I was working, department 49. The woman working next to me, a young mother of two children, she fainted, and, I mean, the speed up was terrible, the pressure of the work, the noise was horrendous, the heat was terrible. I suspect she was worried about her two children at home, because she had, on occasions at lunch break, mentioned her concern about whether they were properly cared for. Anyway, she fainted. And the expression on the faces of workers in department 49 when that happened was, "My God, has it gone this far? Are we all going to have to drop in our shoes here, you know? Or are we going to get some relief from it?" And yet nothing happened. Work went right on. And we brought her to a meeting of the union. She was signed up. She was a good union person. We went met in Walter's little basement house, and Walter reviewed the situation, and he said, "We must do something dramatic. We can't, we can't wait years. Henry Ford won't let us. We got to do something dramatic." And he finally turned to this sister who worked next to me, who had fainted. He said, "Do you think you could faint again?" She said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I mean faint on schedule, just before the beginning of the second shift. We'll get our members from the second shift to come in a little early, and we'll have to do something dramatic." So, "OK", she said, "I'll do whatever you say." And it was scheduled for the following Tuesday. We had Monday to check with our members and alert them. And so I was on the second shift, and I came in early enough. And sure enough, she was working days that week. She fainted about ten minutes before the end of the shift. She fell over in a dead faint, all of which, of course, was planned. And I left my job, turned my own press off, walked over and pulled the main switch in the department, which shut all the machines down. And as they ground to a halt, there was fear and awe on the faces of all my fellow workers. They had never been in the plant when it was silent. They didn't realize the power they had to shut 'em down, to stop them. And it filled them with a new sense of power and awe. That was the beginning of our sit-down strike. Naturally, the superintendent came pounding down, demanding we get back to work, cursing us. I said, "There's only one person who can get us back to work." "Who's that?" "Walter Reuther, the president of our union." And I gave him his telephone number. Well, he called Walter.
Meanwhile I was up on the soapbox telling him we got to organize a union. I was standing on a big box of parts. And they called Walter. Walter was, a car was sent over to pick him up, brought him into the plant. And when Walter came in, I introduced him, and he continued where I left off making my union speech. And the superintendent grabbed a hold of Walter's trouser leg, and says, "Hey Reuther, you're supposed to get 'em back to work." Walter says, "Gotta organize 'em first." And that was the beginning of our ten day strike. But, we won an incredible victory in just ten days.
What did you win in the ten days?
We won a signed agreement all on one page that recognized our union, that set up a representative system of elected shop stewards to handle our grievances, that provided for seniority, and black workers out of the foundry who could never exercise their job security in the rest of the plant were given the right to do something besides working as chip pullers and sweepers, in our first contract. Women workers, the woman who fainted, who was getting 22 1/2 cents an hour, while I was getting 33, don't ask me what that half cent was about, we both of us went to 75 cent minimum in that ten day strike. Do you realize how much of an increase that is? Incredible! Unbelievable! So this was an amazing victory. I know why we got it. Because Ford was getting revved up for a big production season. They didn't want to be delayed by a costly strike, and it was pressure from Ford that finally settled. But it was great, because this was on the eve of the great 1937 sit-down in Flint and elsewhere in General Motors.
OK. Let's stop for a second.
OK. What did all this mean? And, and, and, and why was, how did this help build the momentum of the CIO?
We settled Kelsey's strike on Christmas Eve in 1936. I can best describe the jubilation of the victorious strikers, but equally the jubilation of the community. Number one, peace had come. Number two, they could go back to work and start earning wages. Number three, their outlook on life had suddenly changed, and it had changed because something they did. All this talk about democracy had been so remote. It was something in Washington or Lansing. Now democracy is something they can grab a hold of and do something about with their own strength. It was the most exhilarating experience I could possible imagine. The jubilation is comparable to the freeing of a people at the end of a war, literally. People came from all parts of Detroit and, and environments to join in the celebration of this. It was more than a narrow trade union victory. It was a liberating force set loose that was infectious and spreading across the country. Steel workers were engaged in strikes and winning, rubber workers in Akron, garment workers in the South who had never really won a victory before. Seamen on the high seas all captured the spirit, and school teachers organizing in CIO unions, mind you. Incredible! But it was infectious, because a form of unionization was suddenly made available to them which disregarded the old prejudices that separated us, the skilled from the unskilled, the blacks from the white, the women from the men. The industrial union structure was the epitome of democracy. And it was infectious. And the immigrant workers who were here as part of the first generation, the blacks who had come from the South, who came with prejudices against the old kind unionism, found this was different, and they embraced it. And it was so infectious that I couldn't go to sleep at night and get a good night sleep because the phone would ring, and even workers working in a tobacco factory rolling cigars would call up and say, "Hey, send us soup and sandwiches, we're sitting in." They all called the UAW. Neisner Five and Dime workers went on a strike and called the UAW for help. It was that infectious.
Why was, I mean why did, why did it spread? What does a sit-down, you know, mean?
Well, number one, it was a participatory movement in which they could all play role. It wasn't a leaders' movement, it was a rank and file movement. Number two, the goals and objectives were so clear and tangible, so urgent it, it offered an end to the speed-up. Their memories of the long Depression were such that they wanted, they wanted to move up in the wage scale, they, they wanted some greater job security so that they'd be guaranteed to be called back if ever a slump came again. They wanted seniority.
Can I have you hold on for one moment? Instead of saying "they" all the time, is it possible—
—the workers, the industrial workers.
Of course. Excuse me.
It'd make it sound specific. Yeah.
Yes. Of course. Yeah. All right. It's, it's awfully hard for me to find another way of describing the workers', the industrial workers' response to these early CIO strike victories in auto, in steel, in rubber, excepting to describe it as a very infectious form of industrial democracy. It was something that was rooted so in their daily lives that they could play a very significant role in it themselves. Our meetings were learning experiences. When we started we had to depend upon a few CIO experts sent in who came out of the mine union with a long history, or the garment workers. But within weeks, literally, workers who had known little or nothing about unionism were getting up at meetings, talking about problems in the shop, what ought to be done about it. Soon they were going out in the community—
—telling others about what they were doing in their own shop, and they became teachers of industrial unionism to a much wider number of industrial workers.
Did they feel that they were able to break through the, the barriers that they had felt kept them down before? Did it give them any kind of power?
If there were barriers, they were looked upon as the barriers of the corporate structure and the anti-unionism of the Harry Bennetts and their private police. But once they realized that if they took control of their own lives, if they had the power to shut it down, they had the power to determine under what conditions it would be started up. And that's what was so exciting to them because they learned what power was within their own grasp.
I'm going to ask you again now, instead of "they" can use "workers" or "we"?
OK. OK. All right. What was so exhilarating was that the industrial workers, the unskilled along with the skilled learned what power they, as workers themselves, had within their own grasp, and they learned how to use it. They learned how to participate democratically, in discussing problems, and in searching for solutions. This was not something which CIO leadership handed to them on a platter already predigested, because we were writing our own rules, we were building an industrial union far more democratic than what the CIO leaders themselves had in mining and in the garment unions. And that's what was exhilarating about it. And you had a younger generation taking council from old-timers, in, of other earlier struggles, but improvising themselves and learning as they went along. And, in a sense, writing a new chapter in industrial labor.
Great.. Tell me what—OK. Change tapes, very good.
You gotta change tape again.
OK. All right. Let's begin again with the end of writing, say about writing a new chapter.
Well, in the early history of the auto industry, as well as steel and rubber, there was never a serious effort to organize all of the workers in the industry. The old AF of L, with its orientation solely to the skilled crafts, wasn't interested in organizing the great mass of industrial workers, so that when the CIO came onto the scene in '35 and '36, this was the first attention that the great mass of industrial workers ever got in terms of unionization. And, of course, there was a lot of uncertainty as to whether they would respond or not, and what was so gratifying was the tremendous exuberance and enthusiasm with which the industrial workers in auto and steel and rubber embraced industrial unionism. It was, it was a liberating experience to them. It, it set realizable goals, it wasn't something of pie-in-the-sky, and it wasn't something distant and remote that some trade union leader sitting in a panelled office conceived of. It was a shop floor organization in which the rank and file played the most crucial role. They made the, they discussed, they made the decision once we were unionized as to what the union's program was going to be. And it, it was an exhilarating, a learning experience in industrial democracy to see this great mass of industrial workers, who had never before experienced this participatory role in shaping their own future and their own lives, how quickly they learned to become leaders. And they were not only spelling out the constitutional provisions of the union they were going to manage, but they were going out in the community spreading the gospel of industrial unionism to workers in five and dime stores and those who worked in hotels and restaurants. And it spread like wild fire. It was, it was infectious. And it seemed like everywhere we went across the country, they were on strike and they were moving towards this form of industrial democracy. It was an exhilarating period and it gave one new faith in, in what we call democracy. Because democracy is not restricted to voting for someone for president once every four years. If it something that you can utilize and be a participant in, where you work eight hours or ten hours a day, that kind of democracy is especially meaningful, and we were experiencing it.
Great. I'll pick up with that then?
OK. I want to know why is this happening. Why are people feeling, experiencing the, the, the change through the, the organizing of the CIO? What is it?
A combination of many circumstances. The, the Depression was finally ending, people were getting a couple of pay checks under their belt, were feeling a little more self-confidence. The political climate was changing in Washington with a newly elected president who talked about the New Deal and identified himself with the well-being of working people, and at his side was a wonderful lady called Eleanor Roosevelt who had the chutzpah and the courage to even come to union meetings and talk to unemployed. And it was exhilarating time. And, you know, it's one thing to be, to be moved by ideas and hopes, and it's another thing when an industrial union comes along with a program in which you can take part, and it's yours. That's what was exciting. And all the talk about the New Deal and the bright new future that is possible took on more significance because the union was right there on the shop floor and they could do something about it themselves. That's what was exhilarating and hopeful.
OK. Great. Tell me about John L. Lewis.
Well, John L. Lewis, until, until the CIO had more of a presence in Detroit and—
I'm sorry, I want, let's, let's—
No. Further than Detroit. Let's not just stay in Detroit.
What did you think of John L. Lewis and how did he change and what did Walter Whitman do?
Well, you know, Walter and I came out of West Virginia where John L. was better known as the President of the United Mine Workers. It was before CIO, and he wasn't a very attractive figure to us as a leader of what was supposed to be a democratic trade union, because he hand picking a lot of regional directors and he was fighting some insurgent good trade union types in Illinois, and we weren't particularly enamored with the image of John L. Lewis. It wasn't until 1935 Walter, Walter made a journey to the AF of L uh convention in the hopes of trying to get the AF of L to give an international charter to the auto workers and give us the freedom to elect our own officers, because William Green, in old AF of L fashion, was naming the president of our union. And we wanted some freedom and independence. And Walter goes there, and while he's at the AF of L convention, this conflict between the old line craft union forces represented by Bill Green and, and Hutchinson of the carpenter's union, and the new forces of the CIO of industrial unionism represented by Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman, and John L. Lewis, and, and Haywood of the typographical workers, it came to a head. And Hutcheson had used some curse words against John L., and John L. in typical minor fashion gave him a right one to the jaw and sent him flying. Well, no speech that John L. could have made, so dramatized the fact that there was a break in the labor movement coming and that those who advocated one union for industrial workers were going to do something about it. Well, they formed the Committee of Industrial Organization, where upon Bill Green kicked them all out of the AF of L, and they had no choice but to change the Committee of Industrial Organization to the Congress of Industrial Organization, keeping the letters CIO. But they were then on their own, and it was clear the old mine unions were going to declare war on us. And they tried. But we set as our goal, the whole CIO did, all across the country it sent the call out, and it sent some of its best and most experienced organizers. Why did Walter and I suddenly look at John L. in a different light now? It wasn't just the punch of Hutcheson. John L. turned to people whom he had kicked out of the mine workers because they were too much rank and file leaders, too democratic, like Powers Hapgood and, and Adolph Germer, and John Brophy, and he brought them back and said, "Hey, we need you in the CIO." He didn't bring 'em into the United Mine Workers, he was still running that in a rather authoritarian way, but he turned them loose in the CIO. And they came out to distant places. They came to Anderson, Indiana. They came to Michigan, to California, to Flint, to the South—
—all around as advisors helping these new fledgling industrial unions, the steel workers, the auto workers, the rubber workers, get off the ground. They were senior advisors. They didn't tell us what to do, they encouraged us. And that's all we needed. We, we didn't have a little piggy bank even to work under. Walter had to hitchhike his way to South Bend to the first convention.
There's maybe a little bit too much detail on that.
That story. Let's go on—
That, that it was, that he brought in, you know, in generically, not specific people, but he brought in the people that were, the good organizers.
The other thing that helped change our attitude about John L. Lewis, he not only turned to those who had been dissidents in the United Mine Workers and said, "Hey, you know something about organizing, we need you now, the CIO." But he didn't have any blind spots about those, some of whom were known communists, some of whom were identified with the Socialist movement or other dissident political movements, many of whom were involved with years of work in helping to organize the Unemployed Workers Councils. They were experienced organizers. They knew how to work with ethnic groups in the community, many of which brought with them a political and trade union experience from the Old World, which was of industrial unionism, which was vital to the formation of the CIO, because in mining and in auto workers, there were great numbers of Poles, of Czechs, of Yugoslavs, they weren't all Irish and British, and there were Scandinavians and there were Germans, and there were Italians in the garment industry, especially. All of these ethnic groups, before there was an industrial union movement, were involved in political action, and in some social service activities through Unemployed Workers Councils and the political groups, whether they were communists, or Norman Thomas Socialists or what, were deeply involved also in that kind of organizing. And John L. recognized and was not blinded by the name-calling, wasn't frightened away from using the considerable organizing talents of all of these people.
Let's talk about Roosevelt and what he meant to you and industrial workers.
Well, if it took us some time to get over some of the early apprehensions about John L. Lewis, the same was true of Franklin Roosevelt. When he first ran in '32, we looked upon him as just another Democratic politician. Walter and I were out campaigning for Norman Thomas. But just as John L. Lewis stood like a Rock of Gibraltar at our side in the great sit-down strikes and wasn't easily intimidated by the corporate threats nor some intrigue that was contemplated from the White House, so Franklin Roosevelt stood firm, too. He was, for a short period, tempted to authorize the troops going into Flint, and fortunately he had put some stalwart people on his cabinet, among them the Secretary of Labor Madame Perkins, and Ickes, the Interior Secretary. These were people who had feeling for the deep social problems that existed across the country, and he knew that they couldn't be solved at the point of a bayonet, and that Franklin Roosevelt shouldn't take on that role of using troops to tip the scales in behalf of the corporate structure. In American labor history, troops have been called in often in coal mines, in textile strikes, and the troops have always been used against the strikers to help bail out the, the corporate interests. And, well, John Lewis was right when he finally threatened, when that suggestions was made, he said, "I will go and stand beside those sitting down in the plant, and when the bullet strikes my chest and my body falls, you will hear the echo of it." And the Governor Murphy, who was a very decent person and didn't have to be pressured, responded properly.
The troops did come in, but we learned from that, that FDR stood on our side of not using the troops against us. We didn't ask him to use them for us, and John Lewis stood by us as a Rock of Gibraltar, and the credentials of both of them rose enormously in the minds of industrial workers all across this country, not just auto workers. Steel workers took heart from that, clothing workers did, even seamen on the high seas did.
But what, what did Roosevelt symbolize to you?
Well, he symbolized a brighter economic future. He symbolized that democracy was something that went beyond just voting, that there had to be an industrial policy that was rooted in democracy. Working people had to have a say in shaping their own lives, and hence institutionalizing the structure of trade unionism was important.
But does he change the, the relationship between all of sudden feel, workers, that there is different relationship between working people and their government?
When Roosevelt refused to use the troops to break the strike, and when he alluded, if he didn't say so in so many words, that if he were working—
And, what FDR meant to working people and how to role of the changing relationship with people in the government—
Well, for industrial workers, whether they were in auto or steel or textile, the Depression had been a harrowing experience. And FDR's coming to political leadership brought hope that the policies of this country would be so altered that we'd never be subjected to that kind of a harrowing experience again. And the fact that so soon after Roosevelt's coming to political leadership CIO was born, industrial unionism, which brought an incredible new dimension to the average worker, industrial worker's concept of what democracy meant. It wasn't just government. That participating in a union that could so better their working conditions and their living standard was a terribly important new dimension to their concept of democracy. And FDR identified himself with the right of workers to unionize and with the lawful procedures of collective bargaining, the establishment of special panels to deal with industrial relations and with cabinet members who were sufficiently sympathetic to unionization, and that they would appear at union meetings and conferences and rallies. This endeared FDR to the rank and file industrial worker, whether they were in steel or in auto. And when he broke a historic pattern of the use of government troops as strike breakers, and refused to use them in that kind of a partisan way, further endeared him, too. They felt, we've got a president on our side now. And it was long before Hitler came along. He didn't have to have the flag waving of a war time challenge to endear himself to the industrial workers. His social policies had offered hope to them.
Great. Who was left out of the labor movement? Did, I mean, I know, it's, certainly in certain cases,m,, the CIO reached out to black workers, but was it, were they included, or was it still a struggle that would take another time period to get to?
The official posture of the CIO from its inception was one union with equal rights for all members, black or white, male or female, immigrants or native-born. And it tried its level best to hew to that. Naturally, in different areas of the country because prejudices in the South was much deeper, and in some unions the historic prejudices were stronger than in others. But where the union was a new institution, as in auto and steel and in rubber, we were able successfully from the first day onward, the very first strikes, the first collective agreement signed, we wiped out many, many years of discriminatory practices. As I mentioned in Kelsey Wheel, the black workers had the right to exercise their seniority not only in the foundry and not only sweeping and chip pulling but on any job that they were able to do. And we ended the age-old discrimination in the minimum hiring rate for women, although the disparity of women wages, at higher levels a continued and still does throughout American industry. But this was an accepted part of the faith of CIO and hence its educational apparatus went into full gear. Fighting against discriminatory practices and advocating a civil rights policy which predated, of course, the civil right movement itself and I, I'm firmly convinced the eventual success of the civil rights movement may have come into question if it had not been for the active role which the trade unions, much more so than the religious organizations, played in brining massive support to the civil rights cause.
Naturally, not everyone who worked in, in auto or steel, were quick to flock into membership of the union. But I can tell you that in the Kelsey Wheel plant out of 5,000 workers, at the end of that very quick ten-day strike, we signed up 2,800 members. We were a majority in the plant, and gradually then, over the years, even without a close shop agreement obligating all workers to become members and share in the benefits, we had an overwhelming majority of them signed up voluntarily in the union. I think that's a good practice to rely upon it in the initial stages as a voluntary membership. There's some who maybe on religious grounds didn't want to join. There are, there's some who may have been elitists of the old AF of L type who didn't like this upstart of a new union and held back. And we did have difficultly with some of the skilled trades for a while. The old AF of L tried to hang on to the little cells that it had inside the parent organization. Whatever the reasons were, it was quite clear, and the records of the—
—National Labor Relations Board will show that in all of the government supervised elections in which a recognition of the union was at stake, the union established itself by an overwhelming majority far greater than ever demonstrated itself in the political field. It was customary in many political fields with less than 50 percent of the electorate voting if someone got 26 percent they were elected and called it tremendous victory. We never won NLRB elections that way.
OK. Actually, we're still kind of getting off a little bit.
The change, what, because this is a significant change from the 1932 that you're talking about.
Indeed. Indeed. Whatever personal reservations I may have had about which side Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on when it came to my commitment to the trade union movement and my concept of political democracy, they were certainly ended with the tremendous support which we got from Franklin Roosevelt and from his cabinet in the middle of the great General Motors strike. To my, my experience, that was life and death for the whole industrial labor movement. When, when the auto-workers took on the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, with its private army, with its secret deals with the Pinkerton Agency, with its political power at the highest of levels, it, it was a real life and death battle and if, if—
—the president of the United States at that time had done what presidents traditionally had done, called out the National Guard and used them to save the companies and turn against the strikers, we would have lost. And the defeat of the whole CIO would have spelled disaster for American democracy, because nothing, nothing has so given real substance and meaning to the whole broad concept of American democracy as has the growth of industrial unionism which reaches down into the factories, mines, and mills and to all of the families of the workers, because it made the whole democratic process come to reality, come to life. And it identified government with them and their cause and nothing is more—
You said identified the government with whom?
It identified Washington and the national government and some state governments, like Governor Murphy in Michigan, it identified them with the cause of individual industrial workers and their unions and their hopes and their aspirations. They said, Hey, we've got an ally now, in Washington. We, the industrial workers, ordinary people who work at the factory bench or dig coal in the mines knew then they had a friend in Washington.
How does the CIO and industrial unionism affect the hopes of people for their future? Do they have a different expectation of the future for themselves and their children?
It elevated their hopes to think way beyond improvement in their wages and working conditions in the shop, because they began talking in their union meetings about Social Security. When you're too old to work and too young to die, who will take care of you? They started talking about the quality of education. What can we do to see to it that the schools, the private school system is improved? What can they do about housing? Early in the life of industrial unionism, we began identifying ourselves with the development of interracial cooperative housing, supporting national legislation for it. So the agenda of industrial workers became the agenda of the nation. And to this day there is no force in the country, no private organization whose agenda is as broad and all-embracing as that of industrial unionism. You name the national issue and it's on the agenda of auto-workers and steel workers and others.
Join the union. [laughs]
OK. Let me just figure out. I keep stop—
That's All right. The camera isn't running while you're stopping, all right.
If you don't feel, if you don't know it personally, let's try to think of saying it another, another way, because many times we start getting into they then it feels very distant. So, I want to get kind of I—
Oh, it's very, it's very easy to make that part very personal. I can do that very easily because I had a commitment to a social movement before the CIO came along.
OK. Let's talk, tell me about it.
Well, as you, as you well know, I had very strong social commitments to an interracial democracy, to a democratic society that provided not only job opportunities for people but decent housing hopefully health care, because I set that as the goal of an enlightened society. So I embraced a very broad social agenda that wasn't necessarily identified with any political set of—
Well, I came out of an immigrant family that knew poverty, and I from early family days on, as well as my religious background, I felt a kinship with others who were immigrants, and I felt a, a kinship with those who had experienced slavery and had been liberated but still not freed, not freed from the continuing prejudice and discrimination against, not freed economically. And so I embraced at a, I presume at a very, very early age, a social agenda that went considerably broader than traditional union agendas. Fortunately, the agenda of industrial unionism became from its outset as broad as the social agenda that I longed for, and so I embraced industrial unionism and the CIO, as did I think many industrial workers who were suffering from so many of the same social concerns that I was disturbed with, whether they were black or white, whether they were recent immigrants or old-timers, it did not matter. They wanted answers to these questions and when CIO came along with an agenda that was something broader than simple trade unionism of an extra nickel in the pay envelope and a little more suction on the job, I embraced it with great enthusiasm, as did my fellow workers in auto and in steel and textile, because this was an agenda, not just for them personally. It was an agenda for the nation. And they were given hope when they saw that that was an agenda of a national organization.
Instead of "they," "we", OK? And we're talking, going into, and I think it's important what you're getting into about the CIO being a national organization and the power that it had because of that.
So, so when national CIO adopted an agenda that was that broad to encompasses our social goals and our hopes and was pragmatic enough to provide a mechanism that permitted us as industrial workers to participate in the decision-making process, as industrial workers we said, "This is our program. This is for us but it's for the country as well."
I'm going to stop for a second.
You had the strength of the CIO behind you. Can you tell me that?
Yes. Industrial workers, those who were a part of huge workforce, and the thousand and hundreds of thousands knew, that they had to have power to deal with the employer and they had to have power to correct the injustices of society.
I'm sorry, I'm going to stop again. Can "we", you're still part of that again, right? I'm sorry to keep doing this.
That's all right. You're, you're absolutely right.
But I'm listening and I'm just saying—
You're absolutely right.
The industrial workers in this country knew in order to correct the ills that confronted them, that we all had to have power in our own hands through the trade union and we had to be able to participate and develop our own agenda. Of course, we also knew that we were up against very powerful adversaries who had access to positions of power in Washington and in state capitals as well as Wall Street. And when CIO was built, we had the feeling that it had a national presence, it could talk to the president of the United States. It could reach the governor. It could reach the courts of this land and correct the injustices. And we did not feel alone. We had this powerful arm at the national level. And, it wasn't just auto workers dealing with an auto company. It was in harmony. It was a solidarity with steel workers and textile workers and shipbuilding workers and electrical workers, and all across the lengths and breadths of this land. And that gave us a tremendous feeling of self-confidence. We were no longer alone against a powerful adversary.
Great. Good. Stop for a second. Let's move on to the—
When I learned about the Memorial Massacre in Chicago, I couldn't believe it. It was a horrendous, shock. It was a nightmare.
I couldn't believe it, because we had been so victorious in auto against the most powerful adversary in the whole country, the symbol of entrenched wealth and power. And to have the steel workers suffer this kind of a bloody defeat and reprisal was, it sent shock waves across the whole country
** and we felt the pain of it, as did the steel workers themselves. And it caused, it caused a great deal of, of self-examination at every level. Rank and file workers were discussing this all over. "Could this happen to us in Kelsey again?" "Could it happen to us tomorrow in Flint?" Because we, we realized then that there still existed tremendous corporate arrogance in the country that was determined to end this, this the upspring of a new organization CIO. And, quite frankly, there were some elements in the old AF of L that were quite prepared to conspire with corporate units to see us defeated. So, it was a nightmare on many fronts, and yet I think it forced us to reexamine our own sources of rank and file strength to make sure that we kept close with the rank and file and that we strengthen, wherever possible, even further, the far-flung aspects of CIO's strength. So, it was a, a defeat, but it steeled us in our determination to persevere.
Did, you can stop for a second? While—
The, the terrible—
We're on camera right now.
Oh, well, we looked upon it as a very significant setback but we were, we didn't feel that the very existence of CIO was endangered. We felt strong enough in enough of their sectors across the country that we would prevail. Now, by then, we had won enough victories in enough separate unions that the base of national CIO was quite secure by then.
—your father, you know, being fired and how that was the next, that he was a Neanderthal. Tell me about Girdler.
Well, Tom Girdler was a big steel executive and well-known in the Ohio Valley where our family grew up. And my father had been the victim of the steel company's reprisal. He had been discharged. Many of the early efforts to organize steel workers in Pennsylvania and down through the Ohio Valley had led to bitter strikes that were broken. And, oh, by the time we were up in Detroit and experiencing victories over General Motors, to have a Tom Girdler, a sort of Harry Bennett type—
OK. So we're to have a Tom Girdler who's a throwback.
Well, it was a bit of a surprise to have a Tom Girdler who was a sort of Neanderthal, anti-union type, suddenly surface and, and try to smash, a union at a time when CIO was victorious all across the country and we though there had finally been an acceptance of the idea of recognition of industrial unionism. So it was a bit of a shock. Fortunately, the, the challenge was handled OK. But it was a painful reminder of darker days.
OK. I want to go back to just a couple of things in our last few moments.
What was, what, what message did the sit downs give to corporate America?
I think the greatest message was to the employers of the country that the working people have to have their needs addressed, and if the corporations can have their Chambers of Commerce and doctors can have their medical associations, workers should have the right to have their associations, which were called unions, which can peacefully settle problems which arise, and in a democracy they do arise. And it took, it took at show of strength to convince corporate America that the workers have the power to shut the industry down, and before they start it up again there's some things that have to be talked out and straightened out and that America will never be the same again because of that. That's an important lesson that we learned then. Now, we haven't forgotten it today, although there's some who might want to go back.
OK. You had said also, that, that the CIO gave people a chance to smell and taste democracy. They felt that in their, kind of in their hearts.
I've always felt that
for democracy to be understood and meaningful, it has to be a participatory democracy. You have to have a role in it yourself. Now voting once every four years for a president in Washington or every two years for a Congressman is very important. But it is equally, if not more important, to be able to participate in determining under what circumstances you will sweat it out every day in the shop for eight or ten hours and what you'll be paid for it, and when you're too old to work and too young to die, whether you'll have a little something to take care of you. That kind of participatory democracy is equally important,
** and it took the CIO and industrial unionism to add that chapter to American democracy. Because democracy has to stand on two feet. One is political, the other is
** industrial and economic.
** And we put it on two feet.
When the CIO was born, it was nothing short of a total upheaval in an industrial relations. And there was no turning back to the way things were before. Once the workers had occupied the plants, once the corporate side had signed an agreement with them setting forth specific conditions of work and benefits, et cetera, and a respect for the worker and their rights, there was no turning back to the old way of just the boss giving orders and if you didn't like it, you'd be fired. There was a new chapter written in American democracy and in industrial relations.
And once the workers tasted that freedom, they were resolved never to give it up.