African American auto workers strike for union democracy and better working conditions (DRUM), 1968-1970

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Timing
Time Period:  
May
1968
to
May
1970
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Detroit, Michigan
Location Description: 
Workers from adjacent towns participated as well
Goals: 
DRUM sought to increase representation in company and union decisions, as well as to improve working conditions at Detroit automobile factories.
 

Detroit, Michigan had long served as a world center for auto manufacturing. A number of U.S. automobile manufacturers centered their operations in the city, including Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. For decades, as well, the city was a center of racial conflict in the country. Following World War II, a number of white soldiers had returned to Detroit to find their manufacturing jobs “taken” by women and, more so, African American men. A number of Black workers were forced out of their jobs, though many remained. In the factories and in the city itself, racial tensions arose, with industry, the police force, and the city on the side of whites.



In response to unemployment, discrimination, and hate crimes, to name just a few factors, a number of the city’s African American residents formed organizations to deal with white harassment and abuse, as well as to assert a voice in the city’s largely white-controlled political scene These community organizers were also rank and file labor activists working in one of many automobile factories in the greater Detroit metropolitan area. Following a series of violent race riots in January of 1967, African American autoworkers began to organize caucus-style discussions on police brutality, race, and labor in the city. Discussion members began to publish the Inner City Voice, a radical newspaper circulated in Detroit’s African American neighborhoods. Voice editors, comprising of a number of rank and file activists, began organizing more of their colleagues to take action.


Workers were interested in responding not only to the practices of the Chrysler Corporation, but also to those of the union that represented them. The United Auto Workers (UAW), at the time one of the country’s largest and most powerful unions, was also run almost entirely by white leadership. While the UAW itself had a history of militant tactics, it had grown bureaucratic and failed to represent the interests of the roughly 60% of African American workers employed at the company’s Hamtramck manufacturing plant, also known as Dodge Main. UAW president Walter Reuther, for example, would give retired workers a vote in union elections, effectively silencing the company’s more recently employed workers of color in favor of those who no longer had a day-to-day stake in the plant’s operation.



In the spring of 1968, Dodge management had instituted a speed up in production. In just one week, the plant had increased its hourly output from 49 to 68 units (cars). This required more rigorous, speedy labor from existing workers, whose increased demand was not compensated by management by either more co-workers or increased pay. In the first week of May, UAW leadership was over 600 miles away at a union convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. With the union’s white leadership away, African American workers and older Polish women workers organized a 4,000 person walkout: the first wildcat strike in 14 years to close Dodge’s main plant. 

(A "wildcat" strike is one that is not authorized by the union.)

The majority of the Hamtramck plant’s African American workforce was employed on the assembly line. Though a less highly esteemed position than other more skilled--though still automated--white-dominated jobs, the assembly line provided workers with the unique opportunity to seriously deter production by creating hold-ups. As operations at the plant slowed and eventually stopped, workers quickly organized a picket outside. Management sent photographers to document the strike, and used the pictures taken as evidence to fire seven workers, five of which were hired back shortly thereafter. Immediately following the strike, organizers formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) to clearly and militantly articulate African American workers’ discontent. One of those not hired back, noticeably, was General Baker, a major organizer of the strike who, also by virtue of being singled out by the company, took on a leadership role within DRUM.

DRUM began to publish drum, a weekly newsletter by and for African American autoworkers that circulated information within Dodge Main about union and managerial practices and DRUM organizational responses. It also pointed out UAW complicity with Chrysler’s abusive, oftentimes racist practices and conservatism. Early on, acting as a Black caucus at Dodge Main, DRUM called for a “dual unionism,” asking that African American workers stop paying dues to the UAW. On July 8, 1968, DRUM again called for a wildcat strike at Dodge Main, this time in support of list of demands regarding racist policies on the part of Chrysler and the UAW. Prior to the stoppage, soon-to-be strikers marched to and picketed the Local 3 headquarters, interrupting a meeting of the union’s Executive Board with speeches about their experience as employees and union members. It was here that DRUM presented UAW leadership with their list of demands. When officials did not agree, DRUM blockaded the Dodge Main plant and 4,000 workers walked out.

DRUM was also critical of more conservative organizations and individuals. At a November 1968 awards ceremony put on by the Detroit Urban League to honor auto companies’ equal opportunity practices, noticeably uninvited DRUM members interrupted the luncheon in full, soiled work attire carrying signs and chanting slogans reproaching racist company policies.

Also in November of 1968, Workers at other Detroit-area plants organized their own RUM chapters, including ELRUM at the Eldon Axle factory and FRUM, at a nearby Ford plant. Another Dodge plant, Eldon produced gears and axles, crucial car parts that, if not produced on time (or at all), could seriously deter Chrysler’s overall car production in Detroit. On January 27, 1969, ELRUM called for and carried out its first wildcat strike. Chrysler fired 26 strikers in retaliation. As in the Dodge Main strike, management would eventually hire all those fired back, with the exception of strike leadership, in this case ELRUM president Fred Holsey.

ELRUM, in a plant with a higher percentage of Black workers than DRUM’s Dodge Main, organized two more strikes the next year in the spring of 1970. In April, workers in ELRUM held a three-day strike to protest the firing of John Scott, was accused by management of threatening to beat a foreman in self-defense. As a result of the strike, Dodge agreed to rehire Scott as well as to fire the foreman who had attacked him. In May, 22-year old jitney operator and Vietnam veteran Gary Thompson was crushed by a box he was helping to move, workers again struck in protest of dangerous working conditions, as well as the lack of UAW support for Thompson’s family following his death.

Following 1970, divisions emerged between DRUM’s Black Nationalists and Marxist-Leninists. Workers at other factories created a number of RUM chapters throughout the country, eventually forming the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. However, there existed little national infrastructure to coordinate national actions and organization. Ironically, as DRUM gained national prominence and grew more bureaucratic, it lost the support of the Black rank and file activists who had once formed its base. While the League would maintain operations for some time, its actions within Detroit would diverge from the wildcat strikes around which it had formed.

By forgoing both their employer—Chrysler—and the UAW, DRUM effectively forced management to respond directly to Black workers’ demands, rather than working through the white-dominated UAW. Admittedly, it remains unclear what concrete policy changes were implemented by Chrysler and the UAW as a result of DRUM’s actions. While the wildcat strikes themselves represented powerful actions, both symbolically and materially, the organization of DRUM and other RUM chapters itself constituted an action that gave African American workers in Detroit a voice in that would have otherwise been silenced.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Ahmad, A. Muhammad. "The League of Revolutionary Black Workers: A History of Study." History Is A Weapon. History Is A Weapon, n.d. Web. 3 Nov 2011. <http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/rbwstudy.html>.

Arnesen, Eric. "DRUM, FRUM, ELRUM." Encyclopedia of United States labor and working-class history. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, LLc, 2007. Print.

Brenner, Aaron, Benjamin Day, and Immanuel Ness. "The 1970s: Wildcat Strikes and Recession."The encyclopedia of strikes in American history. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 2009. Print.

Denby, Charles. Indignant Heart: A Black Worker's Journal. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1989. Print.

Glaberman, Martin. "Black Cats, White Cats, Wildcats: Auto Workers in Detroit, 1969."libcom.org. libcom.org, 25 Jul 2005. Web. 2 Nov 2011. <http://libcom.org/library/black-cats-white-cats-wildcats-martin-glaberman>.

Glaberman, Martin. "The Dodge Revolutionary Movement."libcom.org. libcom.org, April 1969. Web. 4 Nov 2011. <http://libcom.org/library/dodge-revolutionary-union-movement-martin-glaberman>.

Thompson, Heather Ann. Whose Detroit?: politics, labor, and race in a modern American city. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001. Print.

Tripp, Luke. "DRUM: vanguard of the black revolution." libcom.org. The South End, n.d. Web. 2 Nov 2011. <http://libcom.org/library/drum-vanguard-black-revolution>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Kate Aronoff, 07/11/2011