Uprising of the Black autoworkers

March 1, 2013

Lee Sustar tells the story of the alternative vision for the Black struggle put forward by the militants of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement.

MANY PEOPLE on the left take it as a matter of fact that political consciousness of African American workers is shaped only by racial oppression--and that the racism of white workers precludes any working class consciousness, let alone class unity, among both Black and white workers.

The Black struggles of the 1950s and '60s seem to bear this out. The most dramatic of them--from the civil rights movement in the South, to the massive urban rebellions of the mid-1960s, to the Black Power organizations like the Black Panthers--developed outside the trade unions, and were condemned by many, if not most, white workers at the time.

But by 1968, a layer of Black militants had become conscious of themselves as a part of a Black working class whose interests differed from those of the Black establishment. Across the country, radical Black workers organized union caucuses in opposition to both their employers and the union bureaucracy--and they turned to Marxist politics to guide their actions.

The most significant and politically developed of these caucuses was the Detroit-based Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). DRUM was not just a powerful network of militant Black autoworkers, but an explicitly revolutionary organization whose goal was workers' power.

The History of Black America

THE LEADERS of DRUM were first exposed to leftist politics in the early 1960s through small socialist study groups. They became active in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the "shock troops" of the civil rights movement, and were fairly experienced organizers by the time the first DRUM wildcat strike was organized at Chrysler's Dodge Main plant in May 1968.

The wildcat, sparked by a speedup of the production line, was supported by a minority of white workers. However, the target of the young Black militants was not only Chrysler, but also the United Auto Workers (UAW) bureaucracy. The UAW not only limited Black representation in the union hierarchy, but openly collaborated with the company in keeping Blacks out of skilled positions.

DRUM was an immediate success among Black workers who held most of the unskilled jobs at Dodge Main, an antiquated plant that was declared a fire hazard as early as the 1940s. Similar groups were established at Chrysler's Eldon Avenue gear and axle plant (ELRUM) and at Ford's River Rouge plant (FRUM). Within a few months, these RUMs formed the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

"DRUM's scope is not limited to the oppressive situation at Chrysler, nor all the plants for that matter," one member wrote in Wayne State University's South End newspaper January 1969, which became DRUM's mouthpiece after activists gained control of the paper. "Although most organizing activity will be in the plants, DRUM sees its long-range goal as the complete and total social transformation of society. This will take the effort of the whole Black community as well as other progressive sectors of society."

From the employers' point of view, the League was the most threatening workers' organization they had seen in years. The Wall Street Journal devoted a front-page article to DRUM soon after its first wildcat. One out of every six jobs in Detroit depended on the auto industry, and the auto industry was central to the U.S. economy.

The UAW bureaucracy was even more frightened of DRUM. Although the union had a reputation as progressive on the strength of its initial radical leaders' efforts to organize Blacks when the UAW was founded in the 1930s, this was sustained in the1960s only through verbal support for civil rights and the hiring of a few token Black officials. Union President Walter Reuther called DRUM "racist"; another UAW bureaucrat denounced them as "Black fascists."

But with success for the League came complicated problems. If the League was to become a genuine alternative to the UAW, it would have to end its Blacks-only policy and represent all autoworkers--a strategy that would mean negotiating with management and the creation of a new union apparatus.

Even to survive as an opposition union caucus, the League would sooner or later be forced to drop its revolutionary goals, since rank-and-file support for such demands would wither when the level of struggle declined.

On the other hand, the building of a revolutionary organization capable of surviving the ebbs in struggle would require a process of political debate and clarification that--in the short term--would attract only the relatively smaller minority of consciously revolutionary workers. Such a revolutionary organization would have to not only organize militant Black autoworkers, but be interracial, national in scope, and deal with all the political questions in society as it attempted to relate to radicals in the antiwar, student and women's movements.

The difficulties involved in resolving these questions meant that less experienced members, such as those in ELRUM, vacillated between denouncing other rank-and-file activists or supporting them uncritically. By 1970, it was clear to the League leaders that they needed a more politically coherent organization.

The League was soon polarized between those who wanted to "go national" and build a Black Workers Congress (BWC) that could unify all the Black caucuses developing across the nation--and those who wanted to build underground "cells" in a few key Detroit plants.

In 1971, the group split. The BWC was launched without the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, whose remnants founded the Communist League, a Stalinist group that viewed China and Albania as socialist.

For its part, the BWC never reached beyond the 400 or so who attended its founding conference. Open to all "Third World" (non-white) people, it was run by James Forman, a former SNCC organizer who angered the Detroit militants with his trips to China and North Vietnam. The BWC was dead by 1972.

In order to retain their focus on shop-floor organizing, several League members launched a Detroit branch of the Black Panther Party, providing an alternative to the Panthers' primary orientation on community issues and armed self-defense.

THE MILITANCY of autoworkers was still on the rise during this period. In the "wildcat summer" of 1973, Chrysler workers--Black and white-- struck at the three plants where the League had organized. In one instance, a squad of 200 union members, led by the UAW's vice president for Chrysler, Doug Fraser--later the head of the union--broke up picket lines and forced a return to work.

Clearly, at least a minority of white workers were prepared to take up the kind of struggles that DRUM had launched five years earlier. But according to the Stalinist-and Maoist-influenced views of DRUM leaders, the American Black "nation" or "internal colony" necessarily had to pass through a stage of struggle independent of the rest of the working class. Thus, the League made little effort to relate to white workers.

Although most white autoworkers held racist ideas, they also faced a conservative union bureaucracy, plus grueling conditions and mandatory overtime in the plants, which eventually provoked them to fight back. And when white workers did move into action in the early 1970s, they stood with their Black co-workers against the employers and union leadership, even without the experience and political understanding that the League could have provided.

Whatever mistakes they may have made, however, the Black militants of DRUM and its offshoots played a critical role in this period of the Black movement. Above all, they understood that political power flowed not from "the barrel of a gun," as the famous Maoist saying had it, but from control of production in a capitalist economy.

By focusing on the workplace, DRUM and its offshoots provided a model for militant whites, even those who were initially unsympathetic to the politics of Black liberation. Without the earlier efforts of DRUM, it is unlikely that the 1973 wildcats would have occurred.

DRUM's main achievement was to show the potential to build revolutionary organization based around working-class politics and activism--at a time when much of the left was dominated by liberalism or a romantic view of the "Third World" revolutions.

This article first appeared in the January 1988 issue of Socialist Worker.

Further Reading

From the archives