What happens to a city's people when its industrial heart is stopped by a strike? Here's a close-up of the Battle of Windsor
WINDSOR, Ontario, has 120,000 population and more, than 40 industrial plants, but only one industry. When 20,000 auto workers went on strike, Windsor’s heart stopped beating.
Ford Motor Company workers alone lost $70,000 a day, five days a week. After two months the other half of the United Auto Workers, in 40 smaller plants, went out on a sympathy strike and the toll doubled. Altogether the strike cost Windsor about $5 millions in primary purchasing power.
What happens to its people when a town is hit like that?
. I was in Windsor when the strike had been on for 10 weeks, with then no sign of settlement.
“Every week I owe my grocer $10,” said a rank-andfile striker. “I spend $25 on food— that’s for me, my wife, four kids and my wife’s mother that’s sick. Union strike pay is $15.”
“And that’s just for food,” his wife added. “You ask me, pretty soon they got to help us with everything. Where we going to get coal? How the children going to get winter clothes?”
A foreman’s wife said, “We’re all right, of course; my man’s pay goes right on. But the other families are having it hard. The children are crying hungry, some of them.”
“My business is down 85%,” said the owner of a little neighborhood clothing shop, two blocks from the 1’ord plant. “A few more weeks of this and I’ll be bankrupt.”
In a bigger haberdashery on the same street, five or six clerks were sitting in a glum circle around (he cash desk when 1 opened the door. They jumped up, and one said: “(Jolly, a customer.” Their business was off about two thirds, they said.
Even grocers reported trade down 20% to 50% , and a good deal of what business was left was in somewhat dubious credit.
“We carry our good customers,” said a girl who kept the books in her father’s corner store. “People that didn’t pay when they were working, we cut them righl off the first week. And no new accounts, of course. Lately I’m getting kind of scared - some of our people have bills over $100, and we’re getting in debt ourselves to the wholesalers.”
Big business was hit too. Downtown department stores were far better protected than neighborhood stores in the strike area, for the higher income groups were still getting their salaries, but the outlook was gloomy for Christmas trade. Utilities were giving extended credit— no trustworthy customer had gas or light cut off—and that wasn’t painless. “We figure it’ll take us five months to pick up these back collections,” one official said.
It was economic war, with at the time I was there —no visible winners but plenty of losers. Nobody in Windsor believed it was any mere local skirmish, either. Both sides thought it was the opening engagement of a national struggle, one that may yet involve dozens of Canadian industrial communities.
“Ford’s fighting for all of us,” the owner of a small “feeder” plant said. And on the picket line a young toolmaker said, “It’s not just Local 200, it’s the whole labor movement we’re striking for. If the employers win here, they’ll smash unions all across Canada.”
The basic issue at Windsor is the basic issue throughout Canadian industry—“union security.” It stands for slightly different things in different cases and places, but it usually means some modification
of the Ford Union’s war crv, “Union shop and check* off.”
In a union shop agreement all employees must become and remain union members during the life of (he contract. I his is not the same as a closed shop. In a closed shop only men who are already union members may be hired. This gives control of employment to (he union. In a union shop the employer can hire anyone he pleases, but. after being hired the new man must become a union member and remain so or lose Ins job. Employers in Windsor believe that the United Auto Workers’ ultimate aim is the closed shop, and (hey say that’s why they’re fighting the union shop with such determination. They say it’s a threat to their freedom to employ whom they choose.
The other part of the strikers’ main demands (he checkoff is simply an agreement for the employer to deduct union dues from the pay envelopes, as he does with income tax, war savings, group insurance premiums and so on.
To an outsider it seemed odd that rank-and-file workers should care enough about these things to strike for them. They’re obviously important to union organizers, but their importance to ordinary wage earners isn’t so easy to see. And indeed, almost any Windsor employer would tell you “the men don’t know what they’re striking Continued on page 44
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for,” and that “they’d go back to work tomorrow if those agitators would let them.”
I didn’t find this to be true. Not only union officials and shop stewards but the average striker on the picket line or in his home would say, quite unprompted, that wage increases could wait; the union shop came first. Without it they were afraid they’d lose all their gains.
“They’re going to lay off a lot of people anyway,” one picket said. “If they can they’ll lay off nothing but union men. We could lose three quarters of our membership that way; the union W'ould be busted.”
And the men want the union. “We got to have it, mister,” a Central European immigrant said. “1 tell you why.
“Mister, look at me. I work 20 years in Ford’s, and in that time I was good man, I could work good. Used to do hard job, lot of heavy lifting. Well, I got heart trouble. One day I fall down. They carry me out. I was home three months. When I got up 1 had to hold on the fence for walk along the street. But I got to have money, I got to go to work.
“My foreman said, ‘Hello, Joe, there’s your old job for you!’ I said, ‘I’m no good for that job no more, I’m wore out. Got to have easy job.’ He said, ‘That’s your job. You want it, okay; you don’t want it, go on home.’
“Mister, we had the union. I went to the plant doctor and got a transfer, and now I work on punch press, easy job. But if we don’t have no union I’d a been fired.
“We got to keep our union. No union, 1 got no job.”
His wife sat beside him as he talked. She was bitter and scared “We can’t stand this much longer,” she had said before he began his story yet she nodded agreement to everything her husband said. She wanted peace but not capitulation.
“I know only one guy who admits his wife is grijjing,” said a picket captain. And the grandmotherly lady who ran the union soup kitchen said, “Put it in your paper; the women are as strong for the union as the men are.”
They were feeling it all right, going on short rations, but nobody could say how long they could hold out.
Weekly strike pay—a voucher for groceries only— was $3 for a single man, $5 for man and wife, and $1 to $2 for each child, depending on age, with a maximum of $15 a week. To draw it a man had to produce a picket card, punched for at least five days’ duty a week, and his ration books to prove how many children he had. There was no means test if a man had saved a bit of money he wasn’t required to spend every cent before getting help.
Besides home relief the United Auto Workers ran a soup kitchen 24 hours a day. Coffee and sandwiches went to the picket lines halfway through each three-hour shift, and anyone could get a free meal at the kitchen itself by showing his picket card. That cost the union $ 100 a day. Home relief had gone up to $20,000 a week by mid-November. It’s hard to figure out how much the total cost to the union, but it must have been well over $100,000.
Where did they get the money?
Nobody seemed to know exactly. The local itself had no strike fund—it had gone earlier to buy their union hall. Local 195, the non-Ford workers, gave $5,000 at the start, but in spite of the
grumblings of Ford men the subsequent regular weekly contribution from Local 195 was only $1,000, and that ended Nov. 5, when Local 195 itself went on strike. International UAW headquarters gave a lump sum, variously reported as $10,000 or $20,000, but in either case it was no great proportion of the whole.
Windsor merchants contributed largely, knowing they’d be black-listed if they didn’t. Chain stores didn’t subscribe and were black-listed— placards at union headquarters forbade members to deal there.
Probably the greater part of their funds came from outside, in contributions from other unions and individuals. And these gifts must have been motivated by the conviction that the Ford workers were fighting all labor’s battle —that where they were today, other union men might be tomorrow.
This support wasn’t based on love for the UAW-CIO as a union. Even among labor people the United Auto Workers haven’t a good name. UAW discipline throughout the war was bad. With the strike, of course, irresponsibility increased. Strikers themselves grumbled about the arrogance of some union “police”—members appointed to wear arm bands and keep order on the picket lines.
“Some of these Brothers go on duty with too many beers under their belts,” a steward complained. It was true. Tavern keepers in the strike area reported no falling off in business.
Beyond mere indiscipline, there was deliberate intimidation. One young nonunion Ford man got a job in a clothing store when the strike threw him out of work. Two union officials called on his employer. “You wouldn’t like a lot of glass flying around your nice clean store, would you?” they asked.
Without waiting for his employer’s decision the boy quit his job, and was out of work three weeks. Then he met a union officer on the street, who told him, “You can go back to that store job if you like.” The story had got around among other merchants, and was bad
publicity for union canvassers soliciting contributions.
This case was by no means unique. A union man boasted to me: “Yesterday our goon squad called on a guy who’d got a job just outside town. Guy was so scared he ran out in the woods and tried to cover himself over with leaves.”
Strikers could take part-time or even full-time employment if they got the union’s okay, and if they contributed one day’s pay each week to the strike fund. But “unauthorized” employment —as in the examples abovewas dealt with sternly.
Worst of all the admitted black mark against the United Auto Workers
was unreliable, indecisive leadership. Chief cause of it in the UAW, and chief reason why it may crop up elsewhere in Canada, is the influence of Communism in union affairs.
Real Communists are fewr in Windsor but they’ve power beyond theirnumbers. In union elections half the w'orkers don’t bother to vote-—especially in the non-Ford Local 195, which covers 40 plants. Some of them are six miles from the centre of town and all ballot boxes are located at Local 195’s downtown office. But distances meant nothing to the Communist workers. They turned out 100% to vote.
They cover their tracks well too. Many of their chosen men are not Communists at all but “front men”who have been promised Communist support in return for “co-operation.” Such a candidate needn’t join the LaborProgressive Party or have anything to do with it openly. All he has to do is act on Communist advice when an issue comes up.
Neither George Burt, regional director of United Auto Workers, nor Roy England, president of the Ford local, are Communists. But both owe their election to Communist support, and both know it. England appears to “co-operate” quite happily. Burt, a decent fellow, resents and dislikes Communist control but can’t help himself. Once, in his cups, a Communist bragged to Burt’s face that “we’ve got a rope around your neck.”
All the union’s extreme measures were backed, and probably initiated, by the Communists.
The first of these was the picketing of the Ford offices—completely illegal, since it barred Ford executives from a place where they had every legal right to go.
Second was the powerhouse strike. This was legal, but it broke the unwritten Queensberry rules of accepted strike practice. Powerhouse workers are maintenance men—when they quit the lights went out, the pumps stopped, storage tunnels flooded, steam pipes chilled, and a really hard frost might
have put the plant out of commission for the winter.
Third piece of extreme tactics was the notorious “blockade”—1,500 automobiles, commandeered in many cases from their owners, that blocked Sandwich Street for five blocks in front of Ford Plant No. 1.
Fourth and last of their tactical overreachings was the calling out of Local 195 on a sympathy strike, an action which defied the union’s own international executive.
It wTould be wrong, though, to think these measures had no popular support. With the exception of Local 195’s sympathy strike, all the UAW’s ex-
treme tactics appealed to the rank and file.
Of the illegal picketing, strikers would tell you they wanted to keep Ford executives away from their blueprints, so they couldn’t farm out retooling jobs to small plants out of town. But one chap blurted out with a grin another reason:
“Frankly it was plain cussedness on our part. We wanted to keep those soand-sos out—after all we’d taken from them it was a real pleasure to be dishing it out for a change.”
They Had a Reason
In defense of the powerhouse strike, even “moderates” in the union would argue that the Ford Company expected this strike and was ready for it, ready to wait all winter to starve the men out, and break the union once for all. By pulling out the powerhouse workers and threatening real damage to the plant, strikers thought maybe they’d stir the company or the Government to seek a settlement.
As for the auto barricade, it was the most popular of all. When union leaders finally bowed to Attorney-General Blackwell’s ultimatum and ordered the blockade removed, pickets were openly rebellious. Only with great difficulty, and at the cost of much ill feeling, did the leaders make stick their decision to clear the street.
Even among the general public reaction was not as solidly against the illegal picketing as you might suppose. Windsor police weren’t ordered to clear the illegal pickets at the outset. When the Police Commission did try to send a few of its 110 constables through, and thereafter called for provincial and federal police aid, it was responding to pressure not from the public but from insurance companies that stood to lose $22 millions if the unprotected Ford plant should catch fire.
All elected authorities in Windsor were against this use of outside police. Secretary of State Paul Martin, who sits for a Windsor riding, fought the move bitterly in Cabinet. It was regarded as an outrage by strikers and their sympathizers in Windsor.
This put the Government on the spot, where it often finds itself in major strikes.
There are three ways in which the Government can act to impose a settlement on this or any similar strike, and all were proposed at one time or another in the Windsor fight:
1. Pass an order making union shop compulsory. But after the postwar emergency labor again will be a provincial field, and the issue thus would be settled only temporarily.
2. Put in a controller, as the CCF urged in Parliament. The Government did give this idea a lot of study. But they found there was considerable likelihood that Ford of Canada would lose money on 1945 operations; if the state undertook resumption of these operations, who’d pay the loss?
3. Compulsory arbitration. This was twice suggested, but not insisted upon, by Labor Minister Humphrey Mitchell.
Government has a fourth, more conventional role in a big strike, the role of conciliator. The Cabinet felt that this was a case where conciliation was extremely necessary. They felt that if either side won, hands down, and carried all its points, it would touch off labor strife all over Canada. On the other hand they hoped that if a satisfactory compromise could be worked out it might avert struggle in other industries.
But it was just here, in conciliation, that the Government was most hampered by the swivel-minded leadership of the UAW-CIO. Thrice over it was
understood the union would accept a certain proposal. Negotiation would go on with the Company on that basis, and it all would blow up when the union would issue a press release saying the proposal was unacceptable.
Meanwhile Paul Martin had made a trip to New York. He has been a student of labor questions for years, and knows many international union leaders intimately. He talked to a few' of these, with the result that George Addes, international vice-president of UAW-CIO, was sent to Windsor to see what went on.
Addes has the name in the United States of being communistically inclined, but Messrs. Martin and Mitchell found him “just the opposite.” He and Philip Murray, president of the CIO, are in the CIO faction currently supported by the American Communists, but neither has any love for this section of their following. In Windsor Addes reported first thing that the Communists had been sabotaging every peace move.
When Addes and Pat Conroy, secretary of the Canadian Congress of Labor, took over conduct of negotiations for the union, the atmosphere changed. They persuaded the membership to restore the powerhouse to operation and to take the pickets off the Ford offices. This made it possible again to deal directly with the Ford Company, and may have paved the way to eventual settlement. In the meantime, though, Windsor workers had so completely lost confidence in their own leadership that the situation in the closing stages of the strike was pretty well out of control.
The Other Side
But if Ottawa was annoyed by some union leaders, it was no less annoyed by Ford executives. Months before the strike a federal conciliator had reported privately: “Windsor’s going to see a head-on collision between the worst-led union and the worst-led company in Canada.” In Parliament speakers from all Parties (including three Cabinet Ministers) blamed the Ford Company for the bad labor relations that led up to the strike.
In Windsor a similar feeling prevailed. Employers and businessmen speak of the CIO with a voltage of hatred that’s visibly bad for their blood pressure—but those I talked to had no good word for Ford’s personnel policy, either. Most described it as both harsh and stupid.
Bitterly resented is the Ford system of watchmen, the so-called “security police.”
“They’re spies, that’s what,” a shop steward said. “No matter how good a man is he’s not safe with them. Anybody has to take a little rest once in a while—if you’re a foreman, and
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know your men, you see a good worker taking a spell and you pay no attention. But these company police don’t know anybody by sight. If they see a man breaking a rule they report him, that’s all, and he’s suspended or fired—even though he might be the best worker in the shop.”
“We have a swell foreman in our department,” another steward said. “He and I got it fixed between us, nobody ever makes a formal grievance in writing. The man’ll speak to me, and I’ll speak to the foreman, and we fix it up among us. We know if we put a grievance in writing and it goes to the personnel it’ll get us nothing but trouble.”
“In our shop,” said a worker for another automobile company, “we settle grievances in a couple of days that in Ford’s would drag on for three months.”
There seems in Windsor to be a kind of chronic ill will between employer and worker, or rather between employer and union member. Contrary to popular belief it seems to be more prevalent among employers toward their men than the other way round.
Anyone you meet in the “better” circles will tell you how many “foreigners” there are in Windsor—but in fact 60% of the people there are of British origin, nearly 20% are French. You’ll hear a good deal, too, of how well paid the auto worker is. But the census shows two thirds of wage-earner families with a family income below $2,000. Of large incomes there are very few—less than 600 people in Windsor earned more than $4,000 at the time of the 1941 census.
One mill owner said to me: “You’ve seen workers in other places, don’t you think our workers here are a low type?” This man wasn’t a bad sort, either, and his own labor relations were fairly good.
When I said no, Windsor workers looked very much like average Canadians to me, he seemed astonished.
Other employers who used to pride themselves on their labor relations, before the union came, now show hostility toward the men. They take it as a kind of base treason that their men voted for the CIO.
But I did find one employer in Windsor who still had the old, cordial relation with his workmen.
He won’t have his name used, so we might call him Jack Wagner. Like every other in Windsor his plant was closed by the sympathy strike, but I noticed a sign in the cashier’s window: “BOWLING TONIGHT.” Had it been left there from last week, before Local 195 struck?
“No, it means tonight,” Mr. Wagner said. “We bowl every Friday. The boys on picket duty tell me they’ll be there.”
Had he had any trouble with the pickets?
“Trouble? Why should I? When I came to work the boys said, ‘Come on, Mr. Wagner, you’ve got to walk the picket line with us.’ I said, ‘Go on now, I’ve got work to do if you haven’t.’ So I just walked around the circuit with them once, and then came on in.”
Had he ever had a strike originate in his plant?
“Yes, once. Lasted four days.”
What was it about?
“I never did find out,” Mr. Wagner said. “The union was just getting organized and the boys were kind of excited. Somebody yelled, ‘The plant’s on strike,’ so the boys went out and started to picket. I came out and asked what was up, and they said, ‘We’re on strike.’ I said, “What for?’ and the
head of the line said he wasn’t sure, they’d just walked out and they hadn’t had a meeting yet. ‘Well, when you find out what you’re striking for, let me know,’ J said, and went back to the office.
“Well, that was a Wednesday. They came back to work on Monday, and I never heard any more about it.”
He showed me, with great pride, the new locker room he was building tiled showers, heated lockers to dry work clothes, tuckshop, lunchroom, and a committee room for CIO meetings.
“I like to see men enjoy themselves,” he said. “Once I had a fellow here from Detroit who has the same kind of plant as mine. We went into the hammer room. One gang was taking a spell, sitting on a bench and smoking. They
didn’t move when I came in—they used to jump up, but I bawled them out for it. They don’t have to pretend to me. I know what they’re doing.
“Well, sir, this fellow’s eyes popped. Back in my office he lit into me—how did I expect to have any discipline when the men didn’t even stand up when I came along? I pulled out my production file. ‘Look here,’ I said— ‘on that hammer in your plant you produce 350 units a shift. Here with the same hammer and the same size gang 1 get 500 units. So long’s my boys keep on making 500 units they can sit down all they like.’
He thought the United Auto Workers were being ruined by the internal fight for control between Communists and moderates, but his idea of remedy
was unorthodox for an employer. His idea was that more men ought to join the union, and work harder at union affairs, to wipe out the Communist advantage.
“These Red Apple Boys (he was the only employer I ever heard use that union term for a nonjoiner), they let the radicals run the union and get them into trouble, then they come bellyaching to me about it. I tell ’em it’s their own fault. Why don’t they take the control of the union away from these other fellows?”
But he didn’t mind bargaining with a union, instead of directly with the men, as he used to do?
Mr. Wagner looked over the top of his glasses. “Not a particle,” he said. “Collective bargaining’s here to stay.”