Book review: Morris’ Built in Detroit A Story of the UAW, a Company, and a Gangster

This new book by Bob Morris is mainly about his father Ken Morris, a longtime UAW International Executive Board (IEB) member. But is also very much about the UAW and the City of Detroit and its automotive industry during the 1935-1958 period. Based largely on Ken Morris’ six oral histories and his handwritten personal notes and comments, this is a rich and detailed history of the formation and growth of the UAW, from the eyes and ears of an insider. We learn firsthand of the many internal struggles inside the new union.

In the period the author writes about it is a very different time for the UAW than now, with the auto industry growing rapidly and the UAW able to unionize the major auto companies, but of course not without a fight. UAW membership grew by hundreds of thousands in a few short years.
Part I is about the earliest efforts of auto workers to organize workplaces in Detroit in the 1930s. Much of the story is about the organizing of the Briggs plants, where Ken Morris worked when Briggs was non-union. Walter Briggs, who also owned the Detroit Tigers (the team played at Briggs Stadium) made auto bodies for the major manufacturers Ford, G.M., Chrysler, Hudson, and Packard. Briggs was famous for having the worst factory conditions and wages in Detroit, and for providing pay incentives to speed up production just before announcing unexpected layoffs. One of Ken Morris’ first jobs is in a Briggs plant and we see how it operates first hand—a pair of work gloves he puts on when newly hired has something in it, it’s another worker’s finger, Ken reports it to the man running the tool crib who tosses the finger in the garbage and gives him another pair.

The fledgling UAW is able to get a toehold in one of the smaller Briggs plants. A series of sit-down strikes and a successful picket line shuts down Briggs production for an extended period (despite an attempt by Detroit police to break up the picket line) thereby hurting Ford’s bottom line especially. This leads executives from Ford to intervene and force Briggs to offer a deal for improved wages and the restoration of laid off striking workers but the Ford brokered deal will allow Briggs not to have to recognize the union, this proposal is debated inside the UAW and they agree to it. It takes more sit down strikes to force Briggs to finally recognize the union and a new local 212 of the UAW becomes the official collective bargaining agent. Ken Morris eventually is elected to the E-Board of local 212.

Because Morris was a player in these organizing efforts, in the book we hear first hand of the many internal union battles that may center around political party affiliation (none, communist, socialist, etc.) but more importantly had to do with different views of what labor leaders should do, how they should organize, whether they should support other organizing efforts, how closely they should work with company leaders that want to make a deal and what kind of agreement is appropriate, whether they should seek to organize a substantial Detroit African-American workforce (or not risk alienating the many southern whites that had migrated to Detroit to work in the factories), what tactics should be used to organize a non-union company, etc.

There are attempts by UAW leaders to oust internal opponents from e-boards, for example a progressive International organizer and socialist Emil Mazey manages to oust and himself replace, in a recall vote by the membership, the Local 212 President Ralph Knox, because Knox refuses to show solidarity with other strikes or bring black workers into the UAW, and we learn from the inside the story of the rise and fall of the first UAW-CIO International President, Homer Martin, a gifted speaker whose authoritarian tactics and divisive approach lead to his replacement at the UAW-CIO national convention, at the insistence of national CIO leader John L. Lewis, so Martin attempts to set up a rival UAW-AFL union to compete with the UAW-CIO, which fails, finally he ends up on the payroll of Ford Motor Co.

Part II chronicles a takeover of Local 212 by a UAW International E-board member and Regional Director Melvin Bishop. The culture of the Briggs plant was one of protest. So even under the very aggressive Mazey leadership, members would simply stop work if something happened in the plant that they felt was unfair, they wouldn’t wait to go through the grievance process. This pattern continued after Mazey lost the local to a more moderate regime. The large Briggs Mack Plant, of 15,000 employees, was fraught with wildcat strikes of this sort, even during World War II when the UAW had signed a no-strike pledge at the request of FDR, as the Briggs plant and many others were in full war production mode. Thus Briggs became an embarrassment. Bishop decided to place the local under trusteeship and made public statements that he needed to rid the plant of all Mazey influence and supporters, as they were behind the strikes, though the evidence showed that the leaders of the strikes were not primarily in the Mazey camp at all and Mazey no longer held office.

Top supporters of Emil Mazey lost their jobs at the plant, including Ken Morris. When the trusteeship was lifted, Mazey’s slate won re-election to Local 212 top posts, but none of the fired Mazey officers got their jobs back and UAW IEB would do nothing to get them reinstated. But Bishop’s power did not last. Things got dicey as several Mazey supporters were badly beaten. Morris returned from the war and heard evidence from one of the victims that Bishop may have been behind the beatings. The evidence against Bishop was brought to the attention of the IEB but they did nothing.

Meanwhile Bishop joined Walter Reuther’s slate and ran for International VP at the 1946 convention. But just before the convention he was alleged to have beaten a disabled veteran—this appeared in the local press—and was an embarrassment to Reuther. Meanwhile Ken Morris was on a mission to defeat Bishop. Bob Morris writes: “As the convention approached, Bill Mazey, Ken Morris and a few others from local 212 were implementing their own plans. These men and many like them, mostly veterans returning from service, wanted a clean and democratic union. The UAW was considered one of the most democratic unions of its time, but the returning vets were tired of people like Melvin Bishop. They did not want the UAW to run like other unions that focused more on sheer power and not the needs of their membership.” Their plan was to nominate Emil Mazey for East Side Director, Bishop’s old office, even though Mazey was still stationed in the South China Sea!

In an upset in part fueled by the large block of Mazey delegates from Local 212, and the alleged beating of the disabled veteran by Bishop, Bishop lost for International VP, though his slate leader, Reuther, became International President. At the same convention, Bishop quickly decided to run for his expiring office of East Side Regional Director. But Emil Mazey easily defeated him: Bishop was now off the UAW board. And Ken Morris was elected International Recording Secretary. A few weeks later Morris wrote a story very critical of the Briggs executives in the union newspaper “Voice of Local 212,” accusing them of practicing Gestapo tactics on the shop floor — this was in response to a Briggs letter to all its employees urging greater cooperation in the plant, perhaps Briggs was fearful that their best friend in the union, Bishop, was out of the picture. Maybe in retaliation, Morris was then nearly beaten to death outside his home by two thugs.

Part III begins with the failed assassination attempts on Walter and Victor Reuther, and the rest of the book is concerned with attempts to find and bring the perpetrators of the beatings and assassination attempts to justice. A great read and a history lesson with materials never before made available.

Built in Detroit: A Story of the U.A.W., a Company, and a Gangster, iUniverse, Bloomington, IN, 2013. $26.95.

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