The Left in Michigan

by Sam Fauble

Historically the United States in general has been opposed to the principals of communism and socialism. There are multiple reasons for this rooted in our culture and institutions but not all regions have rejected these ideologies as wholly as others. Since the latter half of the 19th century the state of Michigan has been a major industrial base and during its earliest decades of statehood attracted many unskilled laborers from various parts of Europe (1). While the vast majority of these immigrants were assimilated into the prevailing ideological paradigm over the next 50 years, others spread far-left beliefs to the established population (2) which had a dramatic effect on the political and social development of the state. Despite being suppressed by the federal and state authorities, Michigan’s communist movement has played an integral part in the larger struggles for labor rights, social egalitarianism and establishing a more functional democracy.

It is widely accepted that communist thought is based on a worldview which emphasizes the roles that social class and labor play in society (3). This worldview became known to the people of Calumet, Michigan in the year leading up to the miner’s strike of 1913. Elements of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) appealed to communist imagery and ideals when publishing pamphlets and distributing flyers encouraging workers to unionize and strike for better working conditions and wages (4). This was an effective tactic because many working class communities at the time were largely comprised of first generation immigrants who left their home countries to escape economic hardships (5). The Western Federation of Miners simply had to illustrate to both the native and foreign born workers of Calumet that these hardships should not divide them and that they existed in all industrialized societies as a result of social stratification as well as the exploitative nature of wage labor (6).

In practice this belief materialized as printing pro-labor propaganda in multiple languages in addition to English (7). It can be inferred that this ideological narrative and line of action carried out by the WFM was intended to create a sense of common working-class identity among the miners which superseded individual and national identity thereby making cooperation between them easier. The year of organization leading up to the Calumet Miner’s strike of 1913 was a unique historical example of ethnic and cultural lines being crossed in the name of higher ideals and resulted in one of the first major labor actions in the state of Michigan.

Keweenaw Copper Strikers, 1913, Calumet, Michigan. Photo Credit: PBS Learning Media
Keweenaw Copper Strikers, 1913, Calumet, Michigan. Photo Credit: PBS Learning Media

While the strike itself was short lived and accomplished nothing directly, the ideals that inspired Calumet’s miners were refined further and became more overt in other parts of the state in the decades that followed. After being broken, many former miners dispersed to the major industrial centers of southern Michigan (8). Throughout the 1920’s and leading into the 1930’s automobile manufacturing quickly became one of the most vital economic activities in cities like Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and Lansing (9). The earliest chapters of the UAW had extremely active radical elements which advocated for walk-outs and strikes in far greater frequency than later more liberal labor organizations (10).

The far-left elements of the UAW occupied some of the most prominent positions in the organization by the mid-1930s. Self-proclaimed communist Walter Reuther was elected president of United Automobile Workers Local 174 in 1936 and oversaw the union activities of 100,000 auto workers (11). The following year Reuther and 40 other UAW members were engaged in a leaflet campaign in Dearborn, Michigan following in the footsteps of WFM labor agitators by encouraging loyalty to fellow workers and railing against the company with their slogan “Unionism, Not Fordism” (12).

Their efforts garnered so much attention from the Ford company that an internal security detachment numbering up to 60 men was deployed and proceeded to attack Reuther and his fellow agitators resulting in several severe injuries on both sides (13). This event became known as the Battle of the Overpass and set into motion a series of major strikes over the course of 4 years leading to the Ford company finally acknowledging the collective bargaining rights of the UAW in 1941 (14). This was a major victory for Michigan’s far-left. It showed sharp contrast to the events that unfolded in Calumet. The communist narrative that social change only occurs when the working class unifies, organizes and physically resists capitalist aggression was validated by the Battle of the Overpass.

Walter Reuther (fifth from left) Richard Frankensteen (sixth from left) and others at the Battle of the Overpass. Photo Credit: FDR Library
Walter Reuther (fifth from left) Richard Frankensteen (sixth from left) and others at the Battle of the Overpass. Photo Credit: FDR Library

The Second World War was a major turning point in the history of all far-left politics. After years of open antagonisms including those in Michigan, all of the power and influence won in the labor struggles of the previous decades were surrendered through various compromises with the federal government in order to aid the war effort (15).

Walter Reuther, President of the United Autoworkers Union. Photo credit: UAW Walter Reuther Collection
Walter Reuther, President of the United Autoworkers Union, 1946-1970. Photo credit: UAW Walter Reuther Collection

Walter Reuther himself relinquished his communist views entirely during this time, endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt and later worked to purge UAW chapters of all communist influence after the war (16). Due to many high-profile defections such as this, between the years 1949-1958 a series of criminal trials indicting communist party members under the Smith act were held across the country (17). One of the most famous of these was the trial of “the Michigan 6” which convicted the leadership of the Michigan’s communist party based out of Detroit of plotting to overthrow the federal government in cooperation with the USSR (18). FBI surveillance of labor organizations, especially those in the Midwest hit an all-time high during this period and arrests of labor organizers also rose proportionately (19). This directly contributed to Michigan’s communist movement nearly being snuffed out entirely by the end of the 1950’s. Without the union or party apparatuses to operate with, Michigan’s far-left was forced to adapt.

Through the turbulence of the 1960’s and early 70’s completely new tactics for the achievement of communist goals were conceived in Michigan. Opposition to the Vietnam war was the main reason for the formation of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and from that group splintered the Weather Underground on the campus of the University of Michigan in 1969 (20). Their goal following the factionalism which split the 1969 SDS national convention was the establishment of a new revolutionary communist party tasked with the overthrow of the US government through violent means (21).

Weathermen members of the SDS FBI Wanted Poster. Photo Credit: SDS-1960s.org
Weathermen members of the SDS FBI Wanted Poster. Photo Credit: SDS-1960s.org

The Weather Underground’s national leadership convened several times between December 27th –31st 1969 in Flint, Michigan for what they described as a “war council” (22). This council, perhaps invoking the same logic of those who celebrated what the Battle of the Overpass had achieved and possibly even remembering the failures of non-violence witnessed in Calumet, unleashed a wave of terrorism nationwide between 1970-1985 resulting in multiple fatalities (23). By the time these violent acts ceased, all of the original members of the movement had either defected or died (24). Some of the most extreme measures America has ever witnessed taken in the name of communism were conceived of and carried out by a small band of Michigan students whose tactics ultimately harmed the broader movement. It could be argued that Michigan was bound to be the place where such violent methods would be conceived due to the fact that this state was once at the forefront of leftist reform but entirely suppressed the peaceful institutions for enacting it.

Since the demise of the Weather Underground, Michigan has not witnessed any significant community mobilization following Marxist lines. In the United States at large the communist movement has been mostly fractured and dysfunctional ever since the major blows sustained during the 1950’s (25). Even so, the history of Michigan’s far-left was a history of diversity in tactics, major innovations and has become a huge part of our state’s culture. The deeds of Michigan’s communist workers and sympathizers still live on in film, song and other media. Their successes and failures are still felt by society to this day.

NOTES:

  1. Dunbar, Willis Frederick. Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1965.
  2. Goodall, Alex. “The Battle of Detroit and Anti-communism in the Depression Era.” The Historical Journal 51.2 (June 2008). Accessed December 1, 2016.
  3. Engels, Frederick. “The Principles of Communism.” The Principles of Communism. 1993. Accessed November 26, 2016. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/11/prin-com.htm.
  4. Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913. Directed by Jonathon Silvers. PBS. http://www.pbs.org/program/red-metal/
  5. Dunbar, Willis Frederick. Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1965.
  6. Engels, Frederick. “The Principles of Communism.” The Principles of Communism. 1993. Accessed November 26, 2016.
  7. Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913. Directed by Jonathon Silvers. PBS. http://www.pbs.org/program/red-metal/.
  8. Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913. Directed by Jonathon Silvers. PBS. http://www.pbs.org/program/red-metal/.
  9. Dunbar, Willis Frederick. Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.,1965.
  10. Goutor, David. “John Barnard, American Vanguard: The United Auto Workers During the Reuther Years.” Labour/Le Travail 60 (Fall 2007). Accessed December 1, 2016. http://go.galegroup.com.lcc.idm.oclc.org/ps/retrieve.do
  11. “Hall of Honor Inductee: Walter P. Reuther.” Accessed December 2, 2016. https://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/laborhall/1990_reuther.htm.
  12. Chinery, K. “Battle of the Overpass.” Walter P. Reuther Library. May 19, 2011. Accessed December 02, 2016. http://reuther.wayne.edu/node/7647.
  13. Chinery, K. “Battle of the Overpass.” Walter P. Reuther Library. May 19, 2011. Accessed December 02, 2016. http://reuther.wayne.edu/node/7647.
  14. Chinery, K. “Battle of the Overpass.” Walter P. Reuther Library. May 19, 2011. Accessed December 02, 2016. http://reuther.wayne.edu/node/7647.
  15. Haynes, John Earl. Red Scare or Red Menace?: American Communism and Anticommunism in the Cold War Era. Ivan R. Dee, 1995.
  16. Chinery, K. “Battle of the Overpass.” Walter P. Reuther Library. May 19, 2011. Accessed December 02, 2016. http://reuther.wayne.edu/node/7647.
  17. Clemens, E. “Communists, “Michigan Six,” Smith Act, Trial, 1953.” Walter P. Reuther Library (30532) Communists, “Michigan Six,” Smith Act, Trial, 1953. June 11, 2013. Accessed December 02, 2016. https://reuther.wayne.edu/node/10493.
  18. Clemens, E. “Communists, “Michigan Six,” Smith Act, Trial, 1953.” Walter P. Reuther Library (30532) Communists, “Michigan Six,” Smith Act, Trial, 1953. June 11, 2013. Accessed December 02, 2016. https://reuther.wayne.edu/node/10493.
  19. Maupin, Caleb. The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Communist Party. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
  20. The Weather Underground. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office. 1975. pp. 1–2, 11–13. Acessed December 3, 2016. https://archive.org/details/statedepartmentb00unit
  21. The Weather Underground. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office. 1975. pp. 1–2, 11–13. Acessed December 3, 2016. https://archive.org/details/statedepartmentb00unit
  22. Federal Bureau of Investigation. (1976) Weather underground organization. Acessed December 3, 2016 http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/weather.htm Foia.fbi.gov, pgs. 382-383
  23. Federal Bureau of Investigation. (1976) Weather underground organization. Acessed December 3, 2016
  24. Federal Bureau of Investigation. (1976) Weather underground organization. Acessed December 3, 2016 http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/weather.htm Foia.fbi.gov
  25. Maupin, Caleb. The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Communist Party. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016