Blacks & Unions

Blacks & Unions

BLACK DETROIT AND THE RISE OF THE UAW, by August Meier and Elliott Rudwick. New York: Oxford University Press. 289 pp. $15.00.

This book has many virtues. It is a well-documented, well-written and lively study of one of the crucial periods in modern labor history: the triumph of the UAW-CIO over that citadel of the open shop, the Ford Motor Company, and the domination this company had over the black community in Detroit. It is an authoritative review of the men and the events that molded the city of Detroit in this period of race and class violence. The authors restore to prominence some of the forgotten black and white militants who undertook the dangerous task of unionizing Ford.

Above all, the authors have succeeded in presenting a balanced appraisal of the relations between blacks and the UAW, which is in marked contrast to the many biased studies that have flooded the market in recent years. Their conclusions, in my opinion unassailable, are worth quoting:

The entire history of the relations between black Detroit and the UAW have been characterized by a striking amibiguity. On the one hand, the union has protected seniority rights, fostered greater economic security, and aided the blacks’ movement into production and assembly line jobs outside the foundry. On the other hand, the constraints placed upon the international leadership by the white rank and file often inhibited implementation of the union’s constitutional provisions prohibiting racial discrimination, and blacks from the beginning waged protests against the union’s failure to eliminate job bias and the lack of representation in the highest councils of the organization. Although by the 1960’s the warm relationship between rank-and-file black auto workers and the UAW international leaders on the one hand and between those leaders and the national black protest organizations on the other hand would deteriorate, the Alliance had endured so long precisely because the UAW had been in the vanguard of the labor movement and indeed of the larger American society in its support for black aspirations. The tensions between the UAW’s principles and what the union actually delivered were crucially important. Nevertheless, with the possible exception of the packing house workers, the UAW had done more in the factory and in the larger civil rights struggle than any other trade union. It was thus because the UAW had been in the forefront of the struggle for economic and social change that Detroit blacks had found it to be such an indispensable ally.