Unions and 9/11-Baiting


At a May 2002 United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 600 polling-place near Detroit, two election opponents–a leading local officer and a former UAW international rep in his 70’s–got into a fight allegedly involving spitting and punching. In the same election, activist Judy Wraight and I had a less colorful but equally intense political confrontation with the local’s ruling caucus when that caucus chose to make Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan the most prominent election issues.


30,000-member UAW Local 600 includes workers at the historic Ford Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan, near Detroit, as well as at Visteon, Rouge Steel, parts suppliers, Henry Ford Health Systems, and other locations and employers. I had surprised the local union bureaucracy in 1999 with the first local-wide opposition victory in decades, running on a program of strike action, union democracy, independence from the Democrats and Republicans, and international labor solidarity. In the May 2002 Local 600 elections, I was an incumbent local-wide executive board member. My running mate, Judy Wraight, sought a similar position.


An April 2000 “Fortune” magazine story on our boss, Ford CEO and chairman, William Clay Ford, said: “With his disarming smile and his earnestness, [Ford] has charmed some of Ford Motor’s most ardent adversaries. He talks on the phone and occasionally lunches with Jerry Sullivan, president of UAW Local 600. Says Sullivan: ‘His concern for the people, for the community, for the environment–those are things you just don’t see in industrialists.’ ” Local President Sullivan argues that his lunches with “Bill” Ford–and naming a “family and learning center” after him–help protect members’ jobs.

Only restoring the UAW’s reputation for fighting the boss can reverse the union’s decline in membership numbers. But Judy and I oppose Sullivan’s politics as well as his business unionism. For example, the local leadership nationalistically blames steelworkers’ job losses on “the actions of foreign governments”, instead of proposing solidarity actions with unions abroad. Sullivan blasted liberal media for criticizing former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey’s Vietnam war record. Sullivan removed from Local 600’s walls reproductions of Diego Rivera’s world-renowned murals depicting life at the Rouge.

In Sullivan’s absence, the local’s leading body voted up Judy’s solidarity resolution against use of the Taft Hartley Act or U.S. troops against the ILWU struggle on west coast docks. But at the previous meeting, Sullivan had dismissed these dangers, saying with a chuckle that Bush has “other places” in mind for the troops (Iraq).


In the 2002 election, Judy Wraight and I campaigned for Local 600 strike preparation marches to nearby Ford World HQ. But from the start, we had also proposed that Local 600 oppose the Afghanistan war. Many Local 600 members live near the Ford plant and union hall in the nation’s largest Arab-American community, in Dearborn. Immediately after Sept. 11, we and a Local 600 African-American activist opposed repression of our Arab-American co-workers-on or off the job–in a letter published in Arab-American newspapers. We tried to get the local union to make a similar statement. We promoted a speak-out against racism and war at an historic Black church in Detroit. We helped broaden a protest initiated by one of the local’s units against the Detroit Police murder of one of its members. We proposed a Local 600 rank & file members’ statement against the Afghanistan war, like some members signed against the 1991 Iraq war (“Our enemy is here at home.! Our enemy is the same business interests who started this war…”).


We don’t disagree with the bureaucracy on everything. We applauded UAW organizing successes. We cited top Local 600 officers’ support for AFL-CIO-sponsored Jobs with Justice, death-row African-American journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the Charleston 5 dockworkers repressed for picketing waterfront scabs. But Sullivan’s ruling caucus attacked us in a leaflet for my opponent that said: “Judy and Ron: who do they speak for? …members were outraged at the publications put out by these candidates for UAW Local 600 Executive Board denouncing U.S. action in Afghanistan. No denunciation about the events that took place on September 11, 2001, just criticism of U.S. response. At every Executive Board meeting and General Council they announce when and where anti war meetings will take place. If they don’t believe in stopping the threat to the American Way of life and protecting American lives then what does that say about them? First and foremost of our concerns should be those who’s lives forever changed on 9/11, the fate of our troops in harms way defending our country and it’s citizens, those who lost their lives on 9/11 simply because they were Americans. From the world Trade Center, Pentagon and a desolate field in Pennsylvania, let their sacrifice be our guiding light. Let the courage and bravery of the firemen and police ! officers who perished trying to save lives be our strength. The 3 African American children and their teachers on board the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on their way to the west coast for winning scholarships our hope for a better tomorrow. If you want RON LARE and Judy Wraight to be your voice on the Local 600 Executive Board and your union representative in the community then vote for them…. If not, send a message on election day loud and clear, if you don’t want their brand of unionism or brand of patriotism.”

We replied that, like the UAW International, we had “deplored” Sept. 11. But the ruling caucus “distorts our record by confusing Sept. 11 with the Afghanistan war”. We pointed to the range of anti-war views within the UAW, from the Detroit Labor Committee for Peace & Justice that sometimes meets at a UAW Local, to UAW Region 1A Retiree News that printed U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee’s speech against the war and prints anti-war and anti-capitalist editorials. However, “There does not appear to be a range of views among the ‘Jerry Sullivan Unity Team.'” We acknowledged that we are socialists and quoted Walter Reuther against red-baiting (while of course not claiming he would have supported us).


The real reason the bureaucracy attacked us was our proposals like strike action over the deaths of 6 Rouge Plant workers in a 1999 Powerhouse explosion–instead, the UAW agreed to shield the bosses from legal action. We want democracy, like continued distribution of executive board minutes to the larger governing body-instead, the board eliminated restrictions on where the board invests dues money. But militants are not well-organized. They come together against Ford’s in-plant arrest and firing of an African- American officer for yelling at a foreman, mid-contract increases in health care co-pays, etc., but there isn’t an ongoing opposition caucus. By contrast, the ruling caucus has huge resources for voter-turnout and name-recognition among the local’s 15,000 active and 15,000 retired members, spread over 31 units and 50 miles. Our reply to the last-minute attack got to only a few hundred members. A successful African-American independent candidate told us after the! election, “Members weren’t voting against you because of the war. They voted for the in-crowd because you made them campaign local-wide like they never did before.” Still, I received 2881 votes to my opponent’s 5197.


The attacks on us weren’t surprising. In 2000, I asked fellow executive board members not to put my name on Al Gore literature, because I supported Ralph Nader. The rest of the board answered by taking my name off the local letterhead stationery, and off all local union literature, including the Charleston 5 fundraiser leaflet they had me write (while keeping their own names on it). But we wrote that the attacks on us were small compared to: “…the problem of how to promote a fighting spirit against union members’ common enemy, William Clay Ford and Company. The Administration Caucus ‘party line’ seems to be that we’re all one big happy family with the company, except those of us in the union who don’t agree with that ‘line.'”


Judy Wraight still holds offices from earlier elections in one local “unit”, showing that workers may indeed vote for anti-war candidates whom they know well. Although they did not oppose the war in their 2002 election literature, it’s encouraging that other progressive candidates did well. One took the assembly plant presidency, something unparalleled for decades. A former international rep and local financial secretary came out of retirement to run with a local presidential candidate on their own reform ideas and gain impressive vote totals.


In the early 1980’s, a Local 600-wide opposition was inspired by broad UAW reform forces, by the Black Liberation movement in the auto plants (such as DRUM), by the movement against South African apartheid, and by socialists from 1960’s movements who went into auto plants in the 1970’s. That Local 600 opposition collapsed in the 1980’s layoffs. In the early 1990’s, a local opposition combined Victor Reuther’s and Jerry Tucker’s national UAW-New Directions reform movement with international issues including opposition to the Gulf War. Only national movements can sustain widespread local opposition and compete for power. But Teamsters for a Democratic Union remains the only national reform success story in a U.S. union.


Today, a new Local 600 “union reform/ global justice” alliance might stretch from members opposed to invading Iraq, to supporters of the new UAW Solidarity Coalition, to the national “Labor Notes” newsletter, to members who think strikes are not out of date or who just want to see everything in UAW contracts before they vote on them. The year 2003 could see both the shop floor and the internationalist sides of such an alliance revived, as the Big 3 auto contracts expire and war on Iraq begins.

POSTSCRIPT: At the Nov. 2002 Local 600 General Council meeting, President Sullivan said Bush’s war with Iraq could “destroy the Middle East” and even the U.S. Perhaps he is responding to left pressure. Or is concerned about the weakness of the Democrats’ Me-Too War Party congressional campaigns. Whatever his intentions, we’re looking for unity in action with union officers and members against the war.

RON LARE is a former executive board member, UAW Local 600 (Ford Rouge and other plants). He can be reached at: RonLare@aol.com.