Erwin Baur (1915-2016)
by Herman Benson
Erwin Baur died in November last year. He was 101, the same age as me. We were both founding members of the Socialist Workers Party, but when I left the SWP with those who formed the new Workers Party, he remained in the “orthodox” Trotskyist SWP. And so in the years that followed he remained a defender of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state while I denounced its regime as a new exploitative bureaucratic social system. In the UAW, he supported the Addes-Thomas-CP bloc while I was an ardent supporter of the Reuther caucus. Still, I never ceased to be an admirer of Erwin Baur, who was, for me, a model radical trade unionist. For a full biography, see Against the Current #187 March/April 2017.
Erwin took me to my first union meeting. In the late 1930s, we took a one-day break from an SWP-educational conference in Cleveland to attend a meeting of a United Steelworkers local in a town in Ohio. Erwin was president of the local. It was a big meeting called to vote on ratification of a proposed new contract. It was an unpalatable contract with some givebacks and, as I recall, even a small wage cut. Erwin was local president and it was his job to convince his members to vote yes, to swallow these indigestible terms.
The Little Steel strike had just been broken, the Memorial Day Massacre, the union driven out of many smaller plants. Erwin explained that the economy was in recession. The company they worked for owned another nonunion plant, not far away, one that could easily fill orders if we went on strike. Under this pressure, he advised, it was best to give way and await better times.
He convinced me. Remember, this was the 1930s and I was in my most revolutionary Leninist frame of mind. He convinced his audience. With little opposition, they accepted.
Erwin was already a skilled tool and die maker when I first got to know him. And so when I decided to become a toolroom machinist because it was a fascinating trade which would allow me to work in any industry in any city, I turned to him for advice. He pointed me to the manuals and catalogues that enabled me to bluff my way into my first jobs: Lufkin, Brown and Sharpe, South Bend, Cincinnati Milling.
After the war, he ended in California; I, in New York. He and others of its founders were expelled from the SWP which veered off in a new direction. When the Association for Union Democracy was founded, he became one of our dependable supporters, and so he remained up to the time of his death.