• U.S.

National Affairs: Peace & Automobiles

9 minute read

At 6 o’clock one evening in Detroit’s Hotel Statler, John L. Lewis shook his bushy head and sat up in bed to take his medicine. His secretary put a spoonful in his mouth. Mr. Lewis swallowed and made a face. He had influenza. Shortly a man left the sickroom. Newshawks in the corridor crowded around him asking, “How are things going?” The answer was curt: “Things are getting hot.” To newshawks patroling the corridor all evening it seemed that the heating took a long time.

Visitors came and went. Midnight came, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock. The newshawks in the corridor tried to encourage one another by saying that they thought that the voices in the sickroom were not so loud. Someone even thought he heard laughter. Finally the door opened. Out came Michigan’s Governor Frank Murphy, his red hair awry, his face haggard. The Department of Labor’s conciliator, James Francis Dewey, followed, his plump jowls sagging with fatigue. General Motors’ Lawyer-Vice President John Thomas Smith emerged smiling. Newshawks trooped after them to the elevator, up to the presidential suite on the twelfth floor. Governor Murphy sat down at a desk and faced the press.

“An agreement has been reached under the terms of which the Union agrees to end the strike. The signing . . . at 11 a. m. . . .” Before he could finish his statement flashlights were popping, newshawks were rushing out to put the news on the wires. After eight days of almost uninterrupted negotiation in Detroit, the six-week strike, which had paralyzed General Motors and kept 135,000 men out of work, was over.

Morning came. The negotiators, except influenzial Mr. Lewis, appeared in the courtroom of Judge George Murphy, brother of the Governor. They waited till the judge concluded a case. Then court attendants arranged seats, floodlights and movie cameras were carried in. Spectators scrambled over the jury box looking for points of vantage. Governor Murphy took his seat between Wyndham Mortimer, vice president of the Automobile Workers, and General Motors’ Executive Vice President William S. Knudsen. The Governor borrowed a pen from Mr. Mortimer. He and Conciliator Dewey signed, next Mr. Knudsen—still with the Union leader’s pen— then Mr. Mortimer and other officials of the Union and General Motors. There was a hearty round of applause. Mr. Knudsen boomed: “Let us have peace and make automobiles.”

Quid Pro Quo? From coast to coast Labor and Industry perused the text to see whether great General Motors Corp. or the militant C. I. 0. of Mr. Lewis had taken a licking.

The agreement stipulated: 1) the Union would call off the strike; 2) General Motors would recognize the Union as collective bargaining agent for its members; 3) both sides would behave peaceably— no coercion, no Union recruiting on company property, no more court action by the company; 4) both sides would begin negotiations this week on the grievances of the Union, and production would be resumed at once.

Not a word did the agreement say about the Union’s original demand to represent all General Motors workers. Mr. Lewis was obliged fortnight ago to back down from that flat demand. By the terms of the actual agreement he gained virtually nothing that he could not have had when the strike began. But with the agreement went a letter from Mr. Knudsen to Governor Murphy, saying:

“The United Automobile Workers. . . state that they fear that … we might deliberately proceed to bargain with other groups for the purpose of undermining the position of this particular union. . . . We cannot enter into any agreement with anyone which can have the effect of denying to any group of our employes the rights of collective bargaining. . . . We undertake not to seek or to inspire such activities on the part of other groups for the purpose of weakening this particular union. . . . We hereby agree with you that within a period of six months from the resumption of work we will not bargain with or enter into agreements with any other union or representatives of employes or plants on strike in respect to … matters of general corporate policy . . . without first submitting to you the facts of the situation and gaining from you the sanction of any such contemplated procedure as being justified by law, equity or justice toward the group of employes so represented.”

Since 20 of General Motors’ 69 plants have had strikes, this promise in effect gives the Union the exclusive right to bargain for all the employes of such plants during the next six months, provided1) Governor Murphy makes no exceptions (not regarded as probable) and 2) the issues raised are “matters of general corporate policy.”

At Flint, Wyndham Mortimer read the terms of the settlement to the sit-downers before John L. Lewis was again taking his 6 p. m. medicine. When he read that General Motors would recognize the Union as bargaining agent for its members, the sit-downers grumbled. When he read Mr. Knudsen’s letter, the grumbling ended.

Soon bedlam broke out in the plants. Wives in automobiles pulled up to the plants sounding their horns continuously. Magnesium flares burned in the streets, movie cameras ground as the sit-downers stood up and marched out.

“We will march out as a victorious army, in a glorious crusade for a better life,” bellowed a Union leader. A jubilant parade marched past the factories and through the streets of Flint.

Who Won? While C. I. O. men shouted in triumph, General Motors men held their peace. Not so William Green, head of the American Federation of Labor, long on the defensive against Mr. Lewis and his C. I. O. Said he: “So far as recognition of the Union is concerned, the situation is practically the same as it was before the strike was called. As regards the closed shop principle, the defeat is complete.” “Then you consider it a defeat?” asked a newshawk.

“Well—if you go on strike for one demand and press it for 40 days and give up, what would you call it?” Plain fact was that on the basis of the agreement, Mr. Lewis had been badly beaten. But Mr. Knudsen’s supplementary letter had reasonably saved Mr. Lewis’ facein spite of his fundamentally weak position: that only a minority of General Motors employes supported the striking Union. Whether the qualified acknowledgment by General Motors that in 20 plants it would deal with no other union for six months was a substantial gain for Mr. Lewis and the Automobile Workers, only time could tell. Insofar as that acknowledgment is a gain for Mr. Lewis it is also a setback for Mr. Green and the A. F. of L. For six months Mr. Green’s craft unionists in 20 plants cannot bargain with G. M. unless Governor Murphy lets them.

By the time the agreement was signed, Mrs. Lewis had arrived at her sick husband’s side. Two days later his doctor allowed him to pick up his bed and talk.

Said he, “The situation boils down to this: Seven weeks ago General Motors would not deal with or recognize a labor union—it never had and it had publicly proclaimed that it would not do so in the future. Now, after seven weeks, it has made a contract that is entirely satis-factory and that paves the way for an adjusted relationship in the industry that is rational and constructive. . . .

“Part of the terms of settlement provides that members may wear their union insignia. Previously men had been discharged for doing so, and this made for confusion.”

Asked whether he was now ready to call a steel strike, he grinned: “I abhor strikes, as you know.”

Homer Martin, president of Automobile Workers, likewise talked of new fields to conquer: “We understand that Mr. Ford has had removed all of his electrified fences and other barricades. A representative of the Ford Motor Company has informed us that union men will be allowed to wear their buttons in the Ford plant and that no union man will be fired for union activities. Protection or no protection, when the men are organized they will collectively bargain with Henry Ford.”

Credit. Little difficulty had anyone in assigning credit among the peacemakers. None of it went to Madam Secretary of Labor Perkins. Her box score was three times at bat, three strike-outs swinging clean: .000. In announcing the strike settlement, Governor Murphy at onceacknowledged the “wise counsel and assistance” of rotund James F. Dewey, who is rated the ablest of the Department of Labor’s conciliation commissioners, who stayed with the peace negotiations from beginning to end. But a lion’s share of the praise and congratulations went to Governor Murphy himself and it was soon apparent that the first vehicle to roll off General Motors’ revived assembly lines will be a bandwagon labeled “Frank Murphy for President in 1940.”

Calvin Coolidge got the Presidency by way of the Vice Presidency and the Vice Presidency by way of the Boston Police Strike. If Frank Murphy got to the White House by way of the General Motors strike, history could not be accused of repeating itself. Coolidge did not settle his strike, but Murphy did settle his. Coolidge called out the National Guard to preserve law & order. Murphy, although he called out the Guard to preserve order refused to let the Guard enforce the law as represented by Judge Gadola’s injunction ordering the sit-downers out of plant in which they were trespassing. Early aboard this vehicle was the American Irish Historical Society which called Gov ernor Murphy to Manhattan to receive a gold medal for “eminent public service’ (as Mayor of Detroit and Governor General of the Philippines).

Money. A higher wage scale was not part of the strikers’ demands in the General Motors sit-downs. Day of the settlement, however, General Motors announced a general wage increase of 5¢ an hour This was followed next day by a 5¢-per hour raise by Packard, both coming closely; on the heels of Chrysler’s announcement last week of a 10% increase. All three companies had made previous wage increases, Chrysler 5% last June, Packan 5¢ and General Motors about 5¢ an hourlast November. As a result of these wage increases General Motors estimated it will pay out about $55,000,000 more a year in wages, Packard $3,250,000, Chrysler about $20,000,000.

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