“The Bottom Line Isn’t the Whole Thing”: Detroit, Anti-Racism and Labor History

Mike Ermler has been a long-time activist in Detroit and he has decades of experience in labor, anti-racist and anti-fascist organizing. He has been a member of several organizations and networks over the years. New Beginnings interviewed Mike in the summer of 2006, covering a range of topics about workplace and community organizing from the perspective of working class self-organization.

NB: You began organizing in early 1970s Detroit. Could you talk about what the labor situation was like when many in the Left turned toward workplace organizing during this period?

Ermler: Part of the Left came out of SDS and the Black Power formations. As people know it was a sizable movement. But people were trying to figure out how to further the transformation of society and ways to find mass forces to do it. People have to understand the period though. So let’s take an arbitrary date when this really started to pick up speed, which was post-1968, but really after 1969 there was a tremendous amount of ferment and struggles going on in industry and among the working class. Many began relating to workers, particularly the more oppressed ones. So we have the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) phenomena, the United Black Brothers at Mahwah Ford and many more; so this period was one of transformation going into the early 1970s.

In labor more broadly you had union-led struggles, like the one month General Motors strike in 1970 or 1971 to restore the cost-of-living allowance, which was important because prices were skyrocketing because of the Vietnam War and people’s standard of living was being cut. This caused state intervention and the union bureaucracy collaborating with price controls where you had the heads of certain unions, like Leonard Woodcock of the UAW, on the wage-controls board.

You had a major and long strike of largely Mexican workers in the Texas borderlands at the Farrar company making jeans. You had various wildcat strikes because of speed-up as well as mass absenteeism because of the pace of the work and forced overtime. You had mixed rank-and-file with some liberals and union bureaucrats coming together against the gangster Tony Boyle regime in the United Mine Workers. So you saw a rank-and-file movement that came together that busted up the hold of major bureaucracy.

There was the massive postal strike that involved about 600,000 people that was forced by the ranks on the leaders. There were many teachers’ strikes. There were also factory seizures here in Detroit. Industries like auto were still central, but they were beginning to make the turn toward the decline. But they could still make a big impact on society by any action. All this type of thing was going on from around 1968-1972. There was a tremendous amount of ferment. A lot of it from below; some union-led; some of a mixed character.

NB: Could you describe some of the Leftist tendencies that were trying to make the turn toward workplace organizing at this time?

Ermler: There were the Maoist trends like the Revolutionary Union, which was the forerunner of Revolutionary Communist Party. There was also the Progressive Labor Party. You had the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninists) that no longer exists, as well as other tendencies. These groups went into the workplace with a sense, unlike the Weather Underground, that you could organize “the people” into a broad army—not in the literal sense—but that they would no longer be people isolated from the masses.

What the Maoist groups took from Maoism was summed up in the phase “Live with the workers, cohere the workers, organize the workers.” There was almost like a priest aspect to it and it is no coincidence that internationally some major Maoist players had been Catholic youth activists coming out of social Catholicism.

It appeared that there was a “from below” aspect to Maoism. China at this time was still in a confrontational stance towards the U.S. and supporting various struggles around the world of people of color. The rightwing nature of Maoism’s political positions hadn’t become evident yet to many. The Maoist tendencies had size because of the reputation of China as what people saw as the main enemy of U.S. imperialism. Some middle-class youth made the turn to the factories through this trend. Many of these youths were middle class in the sense that they had gone to college but they came from working class families. You also had youth coming through from the black nationalist and Puerto Rican nationalist trends. There was also some veterans of the Vietnam War. For a radical Left grouping it was substantial.

You also had the Trotskyist trend. It was a mixed thing. There was Spark and the International Socialists (IS) coming together in 1969 with various “Third Camp,” “from below” groups sympathetic to Trotskyism, but not orthodox Trotskyists. They made the turn to the workplace. The other Trotskyist group (although they rejected it later), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), was also doing some of this.

Of course, one of the reasons many joined the Maoists was because the SWP ran the whole bureaucratic wing of the anti-war movement for the liberals and trade union bureaucrats. The more militant anti-war activists grew to hate them and as a gut-level reaction ignored many of the political principles behind Stalinism and Maoism and instead hated Trotskyism. Also the Trotskyist intellectual tradition had an attraction for those who liked to stay debating and was a little more campus-centered. So the Trotskyist move into the workplace was much more uneven than the Maoist move. I was part of the IS tendency.

NB: What were some of the other difficulties of the IS making the transition?

Ermler: I don’t know that I saw the difficulties at first. I came in not being able to swallow the Stalinism of the other parties. I knew what the history of Stalinism and all its variants were and I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. The IS turning to the working class I thought was good and I wanted the more militant approach.

At this time there started to be debates about how to carry this turn out. Now at this time in the labor movement there was the ferment with various caucuses and national formations. Many were based in certain sectors like auto. There was the United National Caucus (UNC), whose main movers were older skilled tradesmen who had come out of the Left and had championed the skills of the tradesmen. But they were in a faction fight with the conservative workers among this set who were hostile to production workers, which also included a racial divide between white skilled labor and people of color production workers. Even so people in the UNC weren’t necessarily radical anymore, but at the same time they wanted a union that fought more and they had a base in many of the shops. They created opposition to the bankrupt policies of the central union bureaucracies. Many were dissident local union leaders who joined this too.

The IS came big into this. Those of us in the IS who began to question this orientation weren’t opposed to supporting such groups, but we wanted to more actively talk about the limitations of it. Part of our perspective, which was also for the entire labor movement, was that it was necessary to champion the cause of those workers who weren’t in such unionized areas.

For instance, in Detroit Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets (STRESS) campaign—the police terror that was killing people—was going on. We thought the UNC should take an active role in denouncing STRESS and pressuring the UAW to do so. So what had to happen was not just trade union demands, but also broader democratic and anti-racist demands. The idea was to bring this multi-faceted revolutionary politics and not just what a lot of these union oppositions brought. They were leftwing economist perspectives that were only concerned about union democracy.

So the faction fight in the IS was happening at a time when members were making the turn to various industries and out of this came the Revolutionary Socialist League, which I was a part of. We counterposed whether we should be the best builders of the leftwing of the union reform movement—which included dissidents from the bureaucracy—or whether there was something new in the working class.

We had the view that the black movement, world events and developments in the workplace had created in the working class a revolutionary layer. We wanted to support things like the Miners for Democracy in the UMW, to break the power of the rightwing union bureaucrats. But we also saw that we had to build formations that cohered what we called an “advanced layer.” It became evident to us that the IS was a reformist organization despite its revolutionary rhetoric and intentions.

In the early period of the RSL, we had some people in auto. We had a lot of people handing out publications like Revolutionary Autoworker, Revolutionary Steel Worker, Revolutionary Garment Worker, and Postal Action in the workplace. In that period we all gained a lot of experience. I was working in an AFSCME local. But it didn’t have backing strategically. A lot of us were waiting to get into those targeted industry jobs. Our contacts in auto were with the people who were handing out the literature.

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