Wyndham Mortimer: Organizing the UAW

I’m not saying that I know all the ins and outs now, but having just finished Wyndham Mortimer’s book Organize! My life as a union man, I have a much better idea. And I know he has been a hero to many before me, but he is ranked at the top of those I love and admire. To stumble across people like that is always an unexpected joy in a country that seems to pride itself on rubbing out their memory.

It is a beautiful, powerful, hell-raising sort of book. Mortimer started working at the age of 12 in the coal mines, went on to organize unions in coal, auto, and parts manufacturing. He wrote of the 1890’s that “It was during this era that the Nebraska farmers decided to raise more hell and less corn.” He was one of the key people in breaking the open shop in America, a  founder of the UAW, and he stood for a broad definition of syndicalism, a union led by its members for its members, an anti-capitalist vision for the future, the equality of all races in the movement and the country… And so if you want to know just what the hell happened to the union movement in the U.S., this will tell you, and break your heart while doing it.

After organizing his own auto plant, he left for Flint to build a broad-based industrial union. Here is what happened when he arrived:

Early in June, 1936, I went to Flint, the center of General Motors operations and power. I registered at a cheap hotel (The Dresden) obtaining a room costing twelve dollars a week. I had barely time to remove my coat when the phone rang, A voice said, “You had better get the hell back where you came from if you don’t want to be carried out in a wooden box!”

“How would you like to go to hell?” I shot back, but the person had hung up. I was fifty-two years old and nobody had taken me out in a box yet; I’d be damned if this was going to be the first time!

Here he is, second from your left, marching on Cadillac Square in 1937

Wyndham Mortimer

He was there of course, at the founding of the CIO. Here is the historic moment in his own words:

Hutcheson having protested the chair’s permitting Thompson to speak, Lewis observed to him, “I think it is pretty small potatoes when the President of a great international union takes advantage of parliamentary rules to prevent a working delegate from telling us of the problems confronting his people…”

Hutcheson replied sarcastically, “I eat small potatoes, that is why I am so big.”

Lewis stood glaring at him. “I would think you would be ashamed to do this sort of thing.”

Hutcheson then called Lewis a “dirty bastard.” These words were scarcely uttered when Lewis struck Hutcheson on the jaw, knocking him over a table. The Carpenters’ chief landed on the side of his face, which was badly skinned.

The convention was in pandemonium. Sitting across from me was Wharton, President of the Machinists. Picking up his folding chair, he shouted, “Kill the bastard!” … Our entire union delegation moved over to the side of the Miners, prepared to do battle, if necessary.

His feelings on labour and government, written in 1949 and long since proven true:

A ‘Labour’ government, committed to the policy of ‘gradualism’ cannot come to power. It can only come to office.

And this piece of amazing writing on race, from his Newsletter #7, 1950

The fact is–and the top leadership knows it–that the Negro will never receive recognition without pressure. When discrimination is abolished, it will be time enough to think in terms of merit, not before. It took terrific pressure to abolish chattel slavery. It required pressure to have the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to our Constitution adopted. It has required pressure from our unions before many employers would even hire a Negro…

In a white man’s world, the Negro worker has every problem of the white worker–plus one more: he has the problem of color. No person of the white majority can ever possibly understand what this means. The claim that our Negro membership is adequately represented by an all-white Executive Board is a piece of brazen, chauvinistic nonsense, advocated by those who see nothing really wrong in racial discrimination and do not understand the harm it does the American labor movement.

It is an amazing book from an amazing man. And it is the best and the worst of the American labor movement, its brilliant spark of promise before that was crushed through red-baiting, fear, and greed.

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