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Workers confronted state repression

Published May 13, 2007 11:04 PM

PARTS: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

In today’s political climate, many union activists are focused on 2008 and “taking back” the White House for the Democratic Party, cleaving to the premise that the Democrats are the party of the working class.

Others more critical of the current Democratic Party leadership, who want to take “their” party back, clamor for a return to the New Deal “democracy” under Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was president from 1933 to 1945.

However, a closer look at the role of the state during the Flint sit-down strike and the whole labor upsurge of the 1930s shows a different picture.

Unquestionably, the Roosevelt administration enacted a huge number of bold progressive measures, but as Workers World Party founder Sam Marcy pointed out in a 1995 article in Workers World newspaper, “Roosevelt was able to do this based on the virtual breakdown of the capitalist system. The context for his initiatives and imaginative legislation was an insurgent working class. The working class was beginning to assert itself in an unprecedented way, and was entirely in accord with the revolutionary working-class struggles in Europe. Roosevelt’s politics reflected the need to deal with the urgency of the economic situation and the militancy of the workers.”

The National Recovery Act, the cornerstone of New Deal politics, could not by itself hold back the violence of the capitalist state against the working class. Scores of striking workers were murdered by police or by extra-legal goon squads while the police looked on. Untold numbers were beaten, shot at, wounded, arrested and fired, and even their young children were terrorized. The worst violence occurred in 1937, the year of the sit-down victory, during the Little Steel Strike. Eighteen pickets were gunned down, including 10 who died in Chicago during the infamous Memorial Day Massacre.

During the Flint strike itself, the unarmed workers faced a military alliance of General Motors (GM), the city administration, the judges, the police, the National Guard and armed vigilantes whom the city manager had deputized. During the Jan. 11 “Battle of the Running Bulls,” retreating cops managed to shoot and wound 14 strikers and supporters. Union leaders Bob Travis, Victor and Roy Reuther, Henry Kraus and three others were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and malicious destruction of property, charges which were later dropped. A Feb. 2 injunction not only demanded the eviction of the strikers inside the plants but banned peaceful picketing outside.

GM strikers in Anderson, Ind., had to conduct their struggle in a total police state atmosphere. The “Citizens League” of 300 local businessmen told organizer Hugh Thompson to “get out of Anderson, and do it now, while it is still safe.” A Jan. 25 union meeting had to be canceled after League threats. Later that night GM foremen beat up union supporters, and a pro-company mob laid siege to the union hall. Thompson, 13 other adults and a four-year-old were escorted out by police and sheriffs and taken to jail, from where Thompson fled the town.

Union leaders were beaten up and driven from Saginaw, Mich., in a similar fashion, with GM foremen again recognized among the goons who attacked them.

Where were the Democratic friends of labor? Why could they not take legal action against government agents who were violating First Amendment rights? Is it not illegal for government to deny a group of people their constitutional rights?

Later, when the sit-down wave subsided, only a handful of Democrats in Congress opposed a 1938 bill making the sit-down tactic illegal—a bill that Roosevelt signed. That same year, Democratic Rep. Martin Dies from Colorado began hearings of the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, denouncing the sit-down strike as Communist-led. Four days of testimony attacked even Michigan Gov. Frank Murphy for “treasonable action” in failing to enforce the above-mentioned injunction.

Murphy is one whom sit-down historians generally portray in a favorable light, calling him a “peacemaker” or even a “man of principle.” The governor played the key role of mediator in this historic showdown between labor and capital. It was undeniable that Murphy was under tremendous and conflicting pressures: on the one hand from the insurgent workers’ movement that had just elected him and on the other from “the lawful owners” of industry and their money-fearing subordinates in Washington. His personal sympathies may well have been with the workers. Yet by February Murphy was finally prepared to order the National Guard to evict the strikers from the plants they had occupied since December 1936. He had secretly shared with Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) head John L. Lewis a letter to that effect.

There was no order to fire. On Feb. 9 Lewis informed the governor “that when you issue that order I shall enter one of those plants with my own people ... and the militia will have the pleasure of shooting me out of the plants.” Earlier, Murphy had received a telegram from the strikers informing him that they would disregard an injunction ordering them out by Feb. 3. “We fully expect that if a violent effort is made to oust us, many of us will be killed,” the telegram read. “If this result follows from the attempt to eject us, you are the one who must be held responsible for our deaths.” It was not the strength of Murphy’s supposedly tortured conscience but the strength of the determined workers, personified in Lewis’s defiance, that stayed the hand of the capitalist state and brought GM to the bargaining table.

Praise belongs not to the peacemakers who only mediate the conditions of exploitation, nor to the politicians who make concessions in the heat of battle. It belongs to those courageous workers who put their lives on the line for the betterment of their class.

E-mail: [email protected]

PARTS: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10