Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers Union

From First to Third Gear

Sol Dollinger and Genora Johnson Dollinger. Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers Union. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.

Growing up in the not-so-fabulous fifties, the high school history I took included few labor stories. History in those days was the story of big-name white men, “giants” like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Washington. Now, thanks to pioneers like Herbert Gutman, history is being told from the point of view of the participants/actors, not just the “leaders.” Not Automatic is in this tradition. The book has several parts. Parts I and III are the reflections and analysis by Sol Dollinger of the beginnings and current situation in the UAW. The middle section, Part II, is a reprint of an extensive oral history of the late Genora Dollinger that was done by  Susan Rosenthal for an International Socialist Organization pamphlet published in 1996. Rosenthal interviewed Genora in 1995 shortly before her death. Together these parts give a rich history of the UAW.

The Dollingers both spent years working in auto plants in and around Detroit and Flint, Michigan.  Both were active in their union, sometimes holding elected office, sometimes not.  Both were leading members of the Socialist Party (SP) and, by the late 1930s, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).  Like other radicals and revolutionaries, they brought their politics to the assembly line and to union-building. In their book they focus on the contributions and dilemmas faced by comrades from their tradition during the founding decades of the autoworkers’ union. They detail the interplay between the SWP and other left-wing forces in the union—the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Workers Party, the Proletarian Party, the American Workers Party, and various splits from each of these groups.  Sometimes their history and reflections are meant to set the record straight. At other times the purpose is to explore in depth the differing tactics and plans of each of these groups for moving the union and the working class forward.  The SWP perspective is interesting because for the most part these comrades did not seek elected office beyond the local level. Many readers may wish to read Not Automatic alongside a host of other books written by contemporary revolutionaries (including those listed in its bibliography).  On its own, though, Not Automatic is a down-to-earth, accessible read.

Automatic lessons?

The autoworkers’ union was at the epicenter of the labor movement as it charted a new direction away from whites-only, exclusionary, craft-based unionism to the industrial, inclusionary unionism of the CIO. As former autoworker Bert Cochran put it in describing the UAW of the 1930s and 40s:

The formation and clash of opposing factions found their freest and fullest expression; the union practiced a democracy and was able to elicit a rank-and-file participation in its affairs that was only partially or episodically achieved by others; the history of the union was like a typology for sociological representation of underlying trends in blue-collar industrial unionism; and finally the postwar campaign against the Communists was fought earliest and most extensively.… (Cochran p. 108)

When the Dollingers began their work in auto in the early thirties the auto industry looked much like it does today.1  At the top of the pyramid were the major automakers: GM, Ford, etc. Workers in these companies did the final assembly, which included some foundry operations (casting engine blocks and body panels), welding parts to make the automobile/truck shell, painting the vehicle, assembling and installing the seats, dash, brakes, and engines.  Skilled trades were used to make jigs and braces for assembly (tool and die) or routine maintenance to keep the final assembly lines moving (electricians, pipe-fitters, millwrights). Beneath the final assembly giants on the pyramid were subcontractors large and small who made the brakes, wiring harnesses, lights, nuts and bolts that were used to put the car together.  The final assemblers called the shots to the subcontractors.  Both called the shots to the workers who were at the bottom of the power pyramid. Without a union, the major automakers and their subcontractors were firmly in the driver’s seat.

The previous decade’s efforts by small groups of leftists, mostly folks clustered around the CP-led Auto Workers Union (AWU), had not been able to build a sustainable organization, nor move the AFL to take up industrial unionism.  Moreover, “the superiority of [the AWU] program could not overcome the prejudice of workers toward left-wing leaders” (p. 5). On the eve of the 1937 sit-down strikes, even the UAW, now allied with mainstream labor, was small; its members almost exclusively class-conscious workers. In the early months of 1936 only 150 people had joined the UAW in the Flint area. Within days of the sit-down, which began December 30, 1936, that number jumped to 4,500, still remarkably small when measured against a 47,000 workforce. (Fine, p. 251).

This rapid influx of members did come at a price. “After the UAW victory the union had a huge influx of mugwumps who sat on the sidelines to see which side would win. Fisher Body had an influx of less socially conscious members who voted their more conservative beliefs. A few months into 1937 in an election for convention delegates the CP and their supporters suffered defeat by the conservative supporters of Homer Martin.” (letter from Sol Dollinger to Elly Leary, 9/3/98)  The relative isolation of the activists from the more conservative base “nurtured the roots of ‘popular bossdom’ that set in from 1947” (Jeffreys, p. 23), a style of leadership¾progressive views on many social questions, but ruling the rank and file with a firm hand — that most rank and file autoworkers say still characterize today’s UAW national and regional leadership.2  Not Automatic recounts the efforts of the left to counter these tendencies as they struggled to build a democratic, class-conscious organization.

Life on and off the job for autoworkers and their families in the early 1930s was not pretty or easy. “Conditions were terrible inside the plants, which were notorious for their speed-ups… Workers had no rights when they entered that plant… And practically all foremen expected workers to bring them turkeys on Thanksgiving and gifts for Christmas and repair their motor cars and even paint their houses” (p. 126).  Women workers had even more to fear. In one department alone every single woman had venereal disease, all traceable to one supervisor. The auto companies had spy systems, Pinkertons, goon squads, and community allies geared to maintain a fearful, authoritarian, union-free, workplace.  Except during WWII, job insecurity was ever-present and turnover constant. Workers suffered from poor diet and little medical care as well as substandard housing.

Racial and gender discrimination were core features of the management structure. The few women who worked in auto, exclusively in the parts sector, received as little as one-fourth of the men’s wages, even when they worked alongside each other. Autoworkers were almost entirely white — southerners who had migrated north, and Eastern European immigrants.  The skilled trades were native born and immigrants from Western Europe. Only Ford hired African Americans, but management segregated them in the foundry, the dirtiest and worst work. As Dollinger points out, the Ford organizing victory was possible only because of the support of black workers. Yet the union “failed to address successfully the larger issued of racial equality. Union leaders in effect retreated from the most volatile of societal pressures, and thereby failed to confront a capitalism that practiced division and deception by pitting one group against another on grounds of race or politics” (p. 70).  Indeed the skilled trades remained lily white until black workers, independent of and in opposition to the UAW leadership, launched an assault in the late 1960s to open them up.

Leftists in today’s labor movement are all too familiar with these challenges.  Thus the Dollingers’ account of how revolutionary local and shop floor leaders approached such problems has lessons for us today. Several episodes in their book are especially revealing.

United Fronts: The Toledo Strikes


The heart of the parts sector of the automobile industry was located in Toledo Ohio, a short drive from Detroit. “When the large companies sneezed, the auto parts companies caught pneumonia” (p. 6).  So when Toledo’s largest employer, Willys-Overland, folded in 1932 it took many other businesses with it, including one of the city’s largest banks. In 1934 unemployment in Toledo stood at 80%. This did not deter workers at Electric Auto-Lite, the lynch-pin of the parts industry, from joining the AFL and going on strike, bringing with them workers from three sister parts companies.  Activists from the Unemployed League, a project of the Musteite American Workers Party (AWP), and the smaller and considerably less influential CP-led Unemployed Council immediately joined the struggle since most of them were laid-off autoworkers. Workers from Toledo Chevrolet Transmission, the site of a major strike the following year, organized soup kitchens, plant meetings and leafleting. Matters soon escalated. The possibility of a Toledo general strike was real. Business interests and government negotiators blamed everything on outside agitators, and not without reason. National leaders of both the American Workers and Communist Parties came to town. Amid pitched battles between police and thousands of workers (mostly unemployed), the AWP and the CP put out scores of leaflets calling workers to action and urging the strike to spread, pointing to strike actions around the country, and in general giving timely updates from the workers’ point of view.

While the AWP and the CP both came to aid the workers, they did not cooperate with each other. Even though each was committed to industrial unionism (organizing into one union everyone in the industry regardless of job type or skill), the CP attacked the Musteites as “left social fascists” in part because they would not break with the “official” union movement and join the new CP-led labor federation, the TUUL (Trade Union Unity League).  The CP’s left baiting and sectarianism made it virtually impossible for the much larger number of AWP cadre in Toledo to help build the AWU (the TUUL union for autoworkers), even though they agreed with its principles, especially the drive for industrial unionism.  Thus these Toledo radicals believed there was no other option than to hook up with the conservative AFL who had steadfastly denounced industrial unionism.

Ironically, this was a major breakthrough for the AFL.  The stunning events in Toledo in 1934, consolidated the following year with the Chevrolet strike, were a turning point in how leftists related to and impacted mainstream labor. Within a year, CP comrades abandoned their strategy of creating a new left-led labor federation. From here on out, leftists would have to work within a more mainstream framework in bringing their ideas of unionism to workers. The unanswered question is: What if left-sectarianism had not been a factor in Toledo; would the TUUL have taken the place of the CIO as the messenger of industrial unionism?

Challenging Sexism and Using the Media: The Flint Sit-down

The Flint sit-downs/plant occupations cemented industrial unionism as the new strategic orientation of the U.S. mainstream labor movement; they abound with lessons.  Notable is the lesson that when there is true collaboration between major political organizations amazing feats can be accomplished.  A lesson less discussed is how women successfully challenged the longstanding male-dominated leadership patterns of the left and union movements. While union leadership remained (and continues today) a mostly male game, from that time on women were not automatically given strictly support roles nor did they limit their horizons to such roles. Shortly after the Flint victory the UAW had women organizers on staff.

The breakthrough at Flint had everything to do with Genora Dollinger. A young mother, wife of an autoworker, and leading organizer for the Socialist Party, Genora was a sophisticated and media savvy strategist and tactician. She was well aware of the obstacles to becoming a leader of both men and women. First was women’s relative isolation. “Before the strike, the women didn’t have the opportunity to participate in any activities. The small neighborhood churches were the only places they had to go.… The men had the beer gardens and talked to other men about shop problems” (p. 124).  Fear and isolation drove many women to the picket lines threatening their husbands to “quit this nonsense or else” (p. 129). It was routine for women to be told that the union was none of their business. Nor was it uncommon for women to be called prostitutes or dykes when they came to the picket line or got involved in union affairs.

Yet the deepening crisis brought on by the GM counter-offensive made most men grateful that the women-run and -organized Auxiliary was easing their burden at home. At the time, even in the left, the suitable role for women leaders was to organize food and childcare, important and valued work to be sure, but women’s work nonetheless. The CP, the largest political group among many left groups in Flint, organized the major undertaking of feeding the workers of Flint. Women from the SP took on childcare and set up public speaking and labor history classes.  All worked together in a seamless web.

But Genora knew that women were ready to do more. Playing to their accepted role as wives and mothers, she first tested the boundaries by the masterful organizing of the children’s picket line, photos from which appeared all over the world. But her real innovation was the Emergency Brigade.  Organized on a “military basis,” the Brigade, with its red armbands and berets, was a paramilitary arm of the struggle, assembling “every time there was a threatened battle” (p. 134).  If things checked out, they immediately called in Women’s Auxiliary members who would “talk to those workers about labor history and about what we were trying to achieve” (p 138). The Brigades, while still part of the auxiliary, acted independently, not necessarily checking first with the UAW leadership. The Brigade was front-page news around the world and soon these all-women Brigades were formed throughout the GM empire.

This led to a dramatic change in how women interacted with the union. Women started to attend union meetings. When UAW organizers asked for volunteers, women were accepted as equals, going on emergency missions in other cities to help shore up strikers in the midst of anti-union violence. By the end of the strike, “the autoworker became a different human being. The women that had participated actively became a different type of woman, a different type from any we had ever known anywhere in the labor movement.… They were not only mentally different, but physically different…” (p. 144).  Several months after the strike ended, the UAW hired its first women organizers, who, like their male counterparts, had much independent responsibility for organizing major sections of the auto industry.

Genora’s uncanny ability to construct gender-stretching projects that were sure-fire media winners allowed women the cushion and inspiration they needed as they created their own space and independent voice within the UAW.

Party-Union Relationships: World War II and the Equality of Sacrifice program

The U.S. is currently in the beginning stages of the “war on terrorism.”  As in the past, the outbreak of war has always caused problems for the labor movement.  Workers, and their leaders, are at once patriotic yet painfully aware of outrageous employer profits and the economic hosing and exploitation they suffer in the war effort. 

For the past century, there has been no war in which all parts of the labor movement have been unified on what position to take. In an October 8, 2001 full-page ad, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney stated, “We’re standing behind our President in the counterattack on terrorism”; but he also asked Congress for legislation to extend unemployment and benefits to 140,000 laid-off aviation industry workers. At the same time petitions are circulating in the labor movement that oppose the military response: “We fear that blind anger and violent retaliation will only result in further loss of innocent lives, both American and foreign, and perpetuate a destructive cycle of violence that has already gone on too long.”

During WWI, the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) principled antiwar stance made them targets for intense repression essentially ending their effectiveness.  WWII created a similar dilemma for the labor left.  Days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt called an emergency meeting with labor leaders. He outlined his Equality of Sacrifice program that rested on wage concessions and a no-strike pledge from labor and pleas for business to limit salary increases and profits. “The Program seemed egalitarian, with the leaders of labor wanting to graft planning, wage equality, and profit-sharing¾identified with the Soviet system¾onto the carcass of the foremost capitalist country in the world. In fact, the absurdity of this effort was so obvious that hardly a whisper of protest or criticism was uttered by the supporters of capitalism” (p.74). The CP were major supporters of the program who “joined in this agreement with an enthusiasm that would make the most conservative manufacturer blush” (Goode, p. 66).
Both the AFL and CIO signed on to the program, especially the no-strike pledge. Philip Murray, the new head of the CIO, was especially vocal in his support of Roosevelt’s war program.  The UAW national leadership, a coalition of the CP and SP and their allies, supported the no-strike pledge but differed on wage concessions such as suspending overtime pay and instituting piece work.  Local leaders, many of whom had a national following (including those in the various Trotskyist organizations), were adamantly opposed to the no-strike pledge. The UAW yearly national conventions during the 1940s were a showcase of how heated these disagreements would become. Left groups who a few years before had collaborated on winning sit-downs and first contracts were now throwing punches and mercilessly red-baiting each other on the convention floor. Caucuses, a feature of the UAW from its very beginning, formed and reformed with lightning speed. Former enemies were now partners; former partners enemies. Local leaders were overwhelmed in their efforts to introduce principled debate about the Equality of Sacrifice program. Yet on the shop floor workers and local leaders “demonstrated that the class struggle had not ceased” (p. 81). As exploitation, long hours, reduced standard of living, and speed-ups took their toll, wildcat strikes climbed. By 1944 half of all autoworkers participated in a wildcat (Keeran, p. 242).

The internal strife in the UAW over war policy took its toll. No one was a bigger loser than the CP, clearly the dominant political group. Their public campaign of “everything for victory” after vehemently opposing the war during the Hitler-Stalin pact years opened the door after the war for the right-wing forces whose support was welcomed by Walter Reuther (p.106).  Theory that situated unions as “transmission belts” to the party and denied unions an independent space led many in the CP to make some critical mistakes. While recent scholarship shows that not all CP comrades followed these practices, many CPers did fail to defend the most basic of workers’ rights and be leaders against exploitation.  With mountains of printed material to point to about the CP’s wartime policy, it’s little wonder that rank and file workers caved to conservative cold war ideas and programs. Even the CP’s exemplary “commitment to defending the rights of African-American workers and their successful efforts at building the most racially egalitarian organizations” (Goldfield, p. 31) could not overcome the mishandling of WWII. As Dollinger shows, the left purge was made possible by more than just bad theory and practice.

The UAW had changed in terms of age, character, and union experience since 1937. Barely union-conscious, the new recruits returning from the war lacked class consciousness. They had not been hardened by the Depression; hunger was a distant memory. As Army recruits, they were taught to obey authority; with shelter, clothes and meals provided, they believed and obeyed government propaganda. (p. 113)

The new conditions were no more forgiving for other radicals.  Even those who had opposed wartime concessions, like the Trotskyists, were targeted by the Reuther-led leadership.

A Left Labor Project for Today

The struggles of an earlier generation of leftists recounted in Not Automatic are all too real to the left in labor today.  Recently, a multi-racial, multi-tendency, inter-generational group convened a broader meeting of the labor left. Inspired by the Black Radical Congress, the project seeks to overcome past sectarianism, develop a common analysis, do joint practical work, and put into practice a vision that breaks decisively from business unionism, even in its militant version. As this project struggles to find its bearings and create a movement that is international, situates the struggle against white supremacy at its core, builds organizations that depend on the strategic thinking of members, and develops leadership from new forces and voices, surely those that went before have something to tell us. But learning those lessons is not automatic. The Dollingers’ reflections are part of the road we make.


Cochran, Bert (1977). Labor and Communism: The Conflict that Shaped American Unions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fine, Sidney (1969). Sit-down: the General Motors Strike of 1936-1937. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press.

Goldfield, Michael (1997). “On Reuther: Legends and Lessons,” Against the Current, no. 31

Goode, Bill (1994). Infighting in the UAW: The 1946 Election and the Ascendancy of Walter Reuther. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Jeffreys, Steve (1986). Management and Managed: 50 Years of Crisis at Chrysler, Cambridge. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Keeran, Roger (1980). The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

Review by Elly Leary
Vice President and Bargaining Chair
United Auto Workers Local 2324


1. The vertical integration of the automobile industry, especially GM, Ford, and Chrysler, began in the early 1960s and ended in the early 1980s when the industry began its current restructuring. At that time, U.S.-based automakers took their lead from the Japanese auto industry with its structure of tiered subcontractors, just-in-time delivery of parts, and team concept. For more on this see, Kim Moody, Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy (London and New York: Verso, 1997).

2. The 1980s saw an upsurge in rank and file rebellion, mainly centered in the New Directions Movement (NDM).  NDM helped focus and organize the rank and file who were angry about concessions, restructuring, especially labor-management cooperation (the Quality of Life programs referred to in the Epilogue section of Not Automatic), and the iron-fisted methods of the International leadership in dealing with members’ attempts to openly discuss the union’s new strategy.  One tactic of the insurgent forces was to challenge these anti-democratic methods at the UAW’s Public Review Board, the group of non-UAW labor professors and clergy that has been set up to hear cases between union leadership and members.  The Public Review Board described (and let stand) the UAW as a “one-party” ruling system. This decision is widely known among autoworkers and is to this day referred to in shop floor flyers.  Here’s a recent example: “The UAW’s leadership has been a rigid, single party political system for the last twenty years with its presidency passed on to self-appointed successors. Therefore the UAW is not the democratic union it was originally intended to be by its founders. Today the UAW is governed by a Dynasty, a select group that bars all others from participating, save those of the same ilk. Yokich is the Dynasty’s current appointed dictator.”  Traitors in the UAW , Doug Hanscom, UAW Local 239, Baltimore (GM final assembly plant), October 15, 2001.

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