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Black Detroit and the rise of the UAW

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The political alliance between the United Auto Workers and the NAACP-led blacks of Detroit blossomed with Walter Reuther's becoming a member of the board of the NAACP and marching with Martin Luther King. In retrospect it seemed to the matchmakers, like R. J. Thomas of the UAW and Walter White of the NAACP, like a marriage made in heaven. But Meier and Rudwick, who have written extensively on black issues, demonstrate that it was a relationship that was forged slowly and painfully through the organizing struggles of the New Deal and World War II. At first, black auto workers resisted unionization. Henry Ford had taken a paternal interest in them and given them more jobs, better pay, and better living conditions than any other employer. With their loyalty to Ford, suspicion of racist white workers, fear of the seniority system, under-representation in union offices, and concentration in the worst jobs, black workers were ripe to be used as strikebreakers. Working through his vicious Service Department (even arming black guards) and through the black ministers whom he had made his agents in the community, Ford was able to use the black workers to undermine the UAW organizing strikes. Gradually, black leaders came to trust union leaders and to realize that the union could be a better friend than Ford. And the UAW slowly began to go beyond expressions of sympathy for black needs and to take responsibility for restraining racism and ending discrimination. Still, their combined efforts were often undermined by racist companies (like Packard) inciting racist workers into ""hate strikes."" Ultimately, it was only when the government--acting through wartime boards--backed the union and forced management cooperation that progress was made. Even so, the 1943 riot about blacks living in the Sojourner Truth Projects was not even about integration, merely about black (rather than white) housing. Meier and Rudwick have used archival materials from all sides to piece together the tortuous path of race and labor relations. If the terrain is not unfamiliar (to readers of, e.g., Foner's Organized Labor and the Black Worker) the topography is new--and significantly revealing.

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The political alliance between the United Auto Workers and the NAACP-led blacks of Detroit blossomed with Walter Reuther's becoming a member of the board of the NAACP and marching with Martin Luther King. In retrospect it seemed to the matchmakers, like R. J. Thomas of the UAW and Walter White of the NAACP, like a marriage made in heaven. But Meier and Rudwick, who have written extensively on black issues, demonstrate that it was a relationship that was forged slowly and painfully through the organizing struggles of the New Deal and World War II. At first, black auto workers resisted unionization. Henry Ford had taken a paternal interest in them and given them more jobs, better pay, and better living conditions than any other employer. With their loyalty to Ford, suspicion of racist white workers, fear of the seniority system, under-representation in union offices, and concentration in the worst jobs, black workers were ripe to be used as strikebreakers. Working through his vicious Service Department (even arming black guards) and through the black ministers whom he had made his agents in the community, Ford was able to use the black workers to undermine the UAW organizing strikes. Gradually, black leaders came to trust union leaders and to realize that the union could be a better friend than Ford. And the UAW slowly began to go beyond expressions of sympathy for black needs and to take responsibility for restraining racism and ending discrimination. Still, their combined efforts were often undermined by racist companies (like Packard) inciting racist workers into ""hate strikes."" Ultimately, it was only when the government--acting through wartime boards--backed the union and forced management cooperation that progress was made. Even so, the 1943 riot about blacks living in the Sojourner Truth Projects was not even about integration, merely about black (rather than white) housing. Meier and Rudwick have used archival materials from all sides to piece together the tortuous path of race and labor relations. If the terrain is not unfamiliar (to readers of, e.g., Foner's Organized Labor and the Black Worker) the topography is new--and significantly revealing.

Additional Information

Author August Meier, Elliott M. Rudwick
Publisher Oxford University Press
Format Paperback
Pages 289
ISBN-10 No
ISBN-13 1-19-502895-3

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