“Management has no right to exist”: On the militant Farm Equipment Workers union

Eric Dirnbach reviews Toni Gilpin’s The Long Deep Grudge

In the current debate about the declining union membership in the U.S., there is a lament on the left about the lack of militancy and democracy in today’s unions. We often look back to the struggles of the past for a guide to our future. For this, labor historian Toni Gilpin’s The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland provides a required case study.

This riveting book — part labor history, part family biography — recounts the rise and fall of the radical United Farm Equipment Workers of America (FE), and its relentless battles with the International Harvester (IH) corporation. Gilpin’s father, DeWitt Gilpin, was an FE staffer and Communist Party (CP) member who makes appearances throughout the story. I was hooked from the beginning when Gilpin wrote that the “clash between the FE and IH was punctuated by picket line free-for-alls, Communist Party machinations and anti-Communist hysteria, recurrent wildcat strikes, factory occupation, racial antagonisms and anti-segregation protests, and even — toward the end of it all — a sensational murder.”

Roots in May Day

IH began with the McCormick Works in Chicago, a huge farm equipment manufacturing plant. Gilpin brings us into the factory in the 1880s, which was staffed by skilled workers who were starting to organize. The Gilded Age is a fascinating period in U.S. history because it saw the development of a large, organized labor movement that struggled to deal with the growth of industrial capitalism, characterized by huge factories based on sweatshop labor.

The book tells the lesser-known backstory to the famous Haymarket incident of 1886. The powerful iron molders union was leading the organizing at McCormick, and when several workers were killed and wounded at a plant picket line, this led to the famous “REVENGE” flyer and the Haymarket rally and bombing the next day. This would form part of FE’s legacy.

Decades later, renewed labor unrest led the firm, now called International Harvester, to start a pioneering human resources effort which included Industrial Councils (company unions) at all their plants by 1921.  In a nice chapter, Gilpin describes what happened at these councils, using records of meeting minutes. The councils were set up to serve the company’s goals of “diffusing shop-floor discontent, and providing a pipeline for management indoctrination.” Unsurprisingly, little to no discussion of wage increases occurred at these councils during the very profitable 1920s. These meetings wasted the workers’ time for over a decade until some of the employee representatives in Chicago got tired of this and started organizing a union in 1933.

The FE is established

With some help from a CP organizer, the workers’ group joined the CIO and became the Farm Equipment Workers Organizing Committee, which scored a major victory against a reorganized company union in a 1938 NLRB election at the IH Tractor Works plant in Chicago.

Gilpin makes clear that “communist domination” of the FE was an overstatement, but the leadership was certainly influenced by the CP, and that includes her father DeWitt Gilpin, who came on staff in 1941. CP involvement gave the leaders a “grounding in Marxist analysis, a dedication to racial solidarity, and a belief in perpetual class conflict that would shape their worldview” Their affiliation made them “zealous and unflagging” and “sustained them and instilled discipline through what proved to be a drawn out, and frequently discouraging, campaign.”

The FE organized most of the rest of the company, competing against the AFL, which claimed jurisdiction, by winning a majority of subsequent elections. We see the fuller development of FE unionism. It fought hard and smart, using members as volunteer organizers. It prioritized organizing black workers and anti-discrimination policies, and was much more critical of the company. The union contract was signed in 1942, nearly 100 years after the company was founded, and over 50 years since the May Day events.

When World War II started, the FE officially supported the wartime “no strike pledge.” But in a fascinating chapter, Gilpin outlines how the union used the government’s arbitration system at the War Labor Board (WLB). Despite the pledge, the FE held hundreds of walkouts at IH during the war, mostly in a struggle over the company’s extremely complicated piecework system. In those years, FE members raised their wages by 80% and increased their control over how the work was performed and compensated.

FE growth

After the war, the FE was determined to expand its power on the job and push further against management authority, while the company wanted to regain control and cut costs. FE leadership reminded the members that the “McCormick workers in Chicago gave May Day to the world.” In 1946, 30,000 FE members struck 10 IH plants for 80 days. The FE believed that “a strong picket line is the best negotiator” and won the strike.

When IH opened a new tractor plant in Louisville, KY, it hoped to escape the FE and operate non-union. But the FE soon arrived, along with the UAW and several AFL unions.  The FE alone prioritized interracial organizing, hiring a black organizer. The FE also had black representatives in its top leadership, which was rare, even within the CIO. The FE’s position was “The only way to beat Harvester’s low wages was to unite the Negro and white workers.” The FE won the election in 1947.

We might expect a new union at a factory to take its time and gradually build strength before the next fight with the employer. Not the FE — it struck the plant for 40 days right away. The issue was the southern wage differential, as workers were paid less than other plants in the North. FE workers refused to be “second-class citizens” and the union achieved a smaller differential. This interracial strike “defied the conventional wisdom about what was possible in Louisville.”

Troubles begin

In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act passed, which had many long-term, negative ramifications for the labor movement. Gilpin includes a great letter sent by IH to all company workers stating that FE leaders were “irresponsible radicals.” It mentioned that there had been 441 work stoppages during 1945-1947, with 375 at FE locals. This letter was enabled by the Taft-Hartley restoration of “free speech” rights of employers, which allowed anti-union communications, and IH was the first major employer to take advantage of this.

The Louisville win would be FE’s high water mark as Taft-Hartley began an era that would eventually crush the union. Initially, FE officers wouldn’t sign the anti-communist affidavits required for the union to take part in NLRB elections. They changed their mind after the UAW successfully raided the union’s huge Caterpillar plant in Peoria, when the FE was not listed on the ballot. The UAW tried to raid FE shops an astounding 40 more times in the next few years, but only winning a few small units. FE members remained loyal to the union despite all these attacks.

In 1948, the FE supported Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party in his campaign for President, and they were all red-baited. Afterward the CIO ordered the FE to join the UAW. Instead they merged with the United Electrical (UE) workers union and both left the CIO amidst its purge of “communist-dominated” unions. 

FE’s unionism

Gilpin skillfully outlines the philosophical differences between the FE and UAW at the time. UAW officials, led by Walter Reuther, began to support rising productivity and a ban on strikes during contracts. Codified in its landmark 1950 “Treaty of Detroit,” the union traded labor peace for rising wages.

In contrast, the FE wanted to wage a constant fight on the shop floor. Even though the FE also had a “no-strike” contract clause, it was much more willing to encourage work stoppages in response to company contract violations. To enable this, it had a much larger and more aggressive stewards network than the UAW had. The strike numbers are revealing — the FE had over 1,000 work stoppages at IH during 1945-1954, compared to less than 200 at UAW, with a similar number of company members.  Gilpin makes clear that for the FE, “the contract was no peace treaty; the brief document instead served as a weapon to be wielded in the 365-day-a-year battle with management.” And it got results, as FE members regarded their contract as superior to the UAW’s, and better enforced. Gilpin includes quotes from FE workers who had been at UAW plants discussing speedups and the lack of union power on the shop floor. 

Indeed, in a fantastic chapter, Gilpin provides details on FE shop floor walkouts and slowdowns in Louisville, often in response to company speedups. Interracial unity and militancy were necessary for these fights and were seen as a crucial part of the union’s culture.  This kind of solidarity also extended into the wider community: in the early 1950s, FE members challenged local city segregation with interracial visits to parks and hotels.

The 1952 strike

In the 1952 negotiations, the company demanded a new contract that had speedups, pay cuts and less steward power in the plants, and the FE brought 30,000 members out on strike. With terrible (but not coincidental) timing, the House Un-American Activities Committee opened hearings in Chicago during the strike, bringing in FE leaders, including Gilpin. This generated more red-baiting of the union.

As the strike progressed, the company mobilized 2,000 supervisors to get strikers back to work. FE members actively resisted this “scab-herding,” but the union was running out of money, more members were crossing picket lines, and the UAW continued raiding.

And about that murder. When a black scab worker was killed in Chicago, the FE was blamed in the media. A black FE local leader was arrested and charged with the murder. But luckily the union’s defense campaign to fight this “legal lynching” achieved an acquittal.

The FE gave up on the strike after 87 days, signing a contract that was very favorable to the company. The new agreement reduced the stewards’ power on the shop floor and took back management control over job changes. The union knew that would lead to speedups and pay cuts.

The end of the FE

The failed strike was the beginning of the end for the FE. Interestingly, Gilpin mentions that the strike caused some dispute between the FE and the CP, as the party wanted to keep the strike going longer. FE leaders started leaving, and IH fired many FE activists. Under the harsher work rules, senior workers started quitting, and many members stopped paying dues. The company made it harder for stewards to do their jobs.

The UAW was successful in several more plant raids. The parent UE was also under attack, as it lost an incredible 90% of its members during the 1950s. The FE saw reality and agreed to merge with the UAW in 1955, just in time for the next IH contract negotiations.

Many FE leaders went on staff at UAW and encountered an alienating bureaucracy.  But FE leaders and members at IH brought their aggressive militancy and instigated a successful 1955 company-wide strike. However, workers’ shop floor struggles were increasingly replaced with grievance paperwork.

IH closed a number of plants over the next decade, and started to demand concessions. The UAW had a successful six-month strike in 1979 to fight mandatory overtime and other give-backs. IH officially went out of business in 1984, selling off some assets and renaming the remaining company Navistar.

Lessons of the FE saga

I find the combination of aggressive union leadership and membership militancy very impressive. The union’s philosophy of uncompromising shop floor direct action required intense solidarity and deep participation of the members. And the union’s commitment to interracial struggle was rare for its day, and inspiring. But Gilpin’s account of the loss of FE, and its style of unionism, highlights a number of issues that would haunt the labor movement ever since. 

Constant FE wildcat walkouts, hostility to managerial authority, and militant picket line activity demanded much of its leaders and members. It’s reasonable to ask how difficult it would be to revive this kind of struggle on a mass scale today and whether we need to.

Certainly the labor movement has long settled into a pattern that involves “labor peace” during the contract, with a mobilization of members around negotiation time, represented in Gilpin’s book by the UAW. The apparent attractions of this model are clear – it feels easier to not fight so hard all the time. Labor leaders are often tempted to think that establishing “partnerships” with employers guarantees organizational stability and is the responsible unionism that is needed. This is closely related to the labor movement’s ideological choice to accept management authority and cede having a strong role in running the economy 

But the drawbacks to this approach reveal themselves over time, as the membership can become disengaged. This can feed a dysfunctional cycle as union leadership becomes convinced that members are apathetic. Less is asked of members, they don’t have the opportunity to develop their confrontational skills and confidence, and the union is eventually unable to fight hard. Simply put, if a union doesn’t pick enough fights, then members never become good fighters. All of this makes unions too often ill-equipped to fight for better contracts or organize more workers, and also to resist plant closures, automation, layoffs, outsourcing and corporate restructuring. 

In contrast, for the FE “management had no right to exist” and the union didn’t want to just “act tough at contract times,” as Gilpin recounts. It believed that the day-to-day struggle on the shop floor was essential, viewing “every grievance as a scream for justice.” 

According to Gilpin, the widespread, continuous participation and enthusiasm of FE members shows that their militant model is possible and keeps unions strong at all times. Moreover, to maintain this militancy, it helps for union leaders to have an anti-capitalist attitude. Gilpin summarizes the dynamic of union leader ideology and member militancy very well:

Assessments of the left-led unions have often argued that the ongoing allegiance of their memberships sprang not from any identification with the national leadership’s ideology but was instead rooted in the respect commanded by officials at the local level, most of whom were not card-carrying communists. But one was a necessary prerequisite for the other. Certainly Harvester workers held the FE in high regard because their local officials represented them so aggressively, but that conduct was made possible by the precepts of proper trade unionism as defined by the CP-influenced national leadership.

Reviving FE-style unionism would require a combative stance at all times and unions would need to build this militancy by strengthening participatory democracy with constant internal organizing and member education. Gilpin discusses these ideas in a recent interview. And of course, the recent public school strike wave raises some of these issues and is very encouraging.

FE’s unionism was a unique combination of mainstream practices (NLRB elections, signed contracts), Marxist political economy, and Wobbly direct-action. Unfortunately, it couldn’t find a way to survive with few allies in an increasingly hostile labor relations world, and its demise represented a radical road not taken by a labor movement that was growing more conservative. Its legacy could certainly inform current discussions about the necessary revival of labor militancy and democracy. Gilpin’s fantastic story will be of interest to everyone in labor who is engaged with these critical issues.