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Subject Toni Gilpin on Her New Book, The Long Deep Grudge
Date October 13, 2021 12:00 AM
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[Toni Gilpin’s The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital,
Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland details the
long conflict between International Harvester and Farm Equipment
Workers union.] [[link removed]]

TONI GILPIN ON HER NEW BOOK, THE LONG DEEP GRUDGE  
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Randi Storch
October 12, 2021
The Labor And Working Class History Association (LAWCHA)
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_ Toni Gilpin’s The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital,
Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland details the
long conflict between International Harvester and Farm Equipment
Workers union. _

Tony Gilpin, LA Progressive

 

_YOUR BOOK ON THE “LONG DEEP GRUDGE” BETWEEN INTERNATIONAL
HARVESTER AND THE FARM EQUIPMENT WORKERS UNION IS A RICH AND
MULTILAYERED HISTORY OF THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN LABOR AND
INDUSTRY WHERE HISTORY ITSELF PLAYS A RECURRING ROLE. WHY DID YOU
CHOOSE TO START YOUR BOOK IN THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY WITH CYRUS
MCCORMICK AND THE EVENTS OF HAYMARKET, AND WHY IS THE “LONG DEEP
GRUDGE” AN EFFECTIVE METAPHOR FOR UNDERSTANDING THE EPIC BATTLES FOR
LABOR RIGHTS YOU DESCRIBE IN THE BOOK? _

As labor historians we take it as a truism that present-day struggles
have been shaped by past conflicts. We also know that understanding
history, as it illuminates the mechanisms by which ordinary people
have improved conditions for themselves, is crucial to building and
sustaining working class power. But these things are not at all
self-evident to everyone else. How we might draw clearer links between
past activism and present possibility seems to me one of our more
important tasks, and that’s what makes so compelling the conflict
between International Harvester (IH), one of America’s founding
industrial empires, and the Farm Equipment Workers (FE), which emerged
in the 1930s with the rise of the CIO. Both the company and the union
remained acutely conscious of the past, though of course the FE
leadership and IH management clashed over the interpretation of it.
Moreover, as I argue in my book, “no other union was as animated by
its own history as was the FE, or more cognizant of how struggles from
distant decades laid the groundwork for later triumphs.” It’s thus
perceptive to say, as you do, that history is itself a recurring
character in _The Long Deep Grudge_.

Because I also believe it crucial to focus on capital as well as
labor, I wanted to explore the contours of class war from both sides
of the battle lines. American history offers up no better case study
for that than the bitter, deep-rooted contest between IH – once the
fourth-largest corporation in the world, controlled through its
existence by the McCormick family of Chicago – and the radical,
Communist Party-influenced FE.

FE leaders made frequent reference to the Haymarket martyrs throughout
the union’s existence. This cartoon illustrated an article in the
_Midwest Daily Record_, written by FE leader DeWitt Gilpin, about the
union’s 1938 breakthrough victory at International Harvester.

To get at the deep roots of this grudge match required a big sweep. I
thus took the story back to the 19th century, to the McCormicks’
pioneering first factory in Chicago and to the transformative events
that took place inside it, as skilled craftsmen were stripped of their
autonomy, and outside it, as revolutionary rhetoric rang through the
city’s streets. During the massive nationwide general strike that
had begun on May 1, 1886, it was police violence outside McCormick
Works that prompted a demonstration in Haymarket Square. Young Cyrus
McCormick II proved instrumental in ensuring that a group of anarchist
labor activists were executed for the bombing that took place there
that night. In the national crackdown following what came to be called
the Haymarket “riot,” the eight-hour day movement collapsed,
unions – including those at McCormick Works – were decimated, and
radical workers’ movements were utterly destroyed.

But anarchist August Spies, at his trial, vowed “if you think that
by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement, then hang us!
Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, and behind you
and in front of you, flames blaze up! It is a subterranean fire. You
cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which stand.”

So my book details how those embers, tamped down after Haymarket,
blazed up again in the 1930s when the FE organized International
Harvester, which the McCormicks’ business had by then morphed into.
The title of my book is in fact a reference to the legacy of
Haymarket, borrowed from Chicago author Nelson Algren, who wrote in
1951 of “the dark grudge cast by the four standing at the gallows’
head, for the hope of the eight hour day,” and of “the long deep
grudge borne for McCormick the Reaper.” The FE leadership frequently
invoked the Haymarket martyrs throughout the union’s history, to
remind union members of the debt owed those early radicals and to
stoke righteous resentment against the cold-blooded McCormicks.
Acknowledging that workers carry deep – though sometimes inchoate
– grudges against their employers, and finding ways to meaningfully
address them, was central to the combative, class-conscious unionism
the FE modeled.

_AFTER WORLD WAR II, INTERNATIONAL HARVESTER OPENED A PLANT IN
LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY WHERE MUCH OF THE EVENTS IN THE SECOND HALF OF
YOUR BOOK UNFOLD. WHY LOUISVILLE? WHO ARE SOME OF THE MOST INTERESTING
PEOPLE YOU STUDIED IN THE LOUISVILLE LOCAL, AND WHAT ARE SOME OF THE
MOST INTERESTING EXAMPLES AND FINDINGS YOU UNCOVERED ABOUT THE CULTURE
OF UNIONISM THE FE CREATED? _

IH joined the wave of capital flight that began after World War II, as
corporations flocked toward the low-wage, and far less unionized,
South. But the FE made the jump across the Mason-Dixon line as well,
and began organizing in Louisville well before Harvester began
production there. In its organizing drive the FE – as opposed to the
other unions that were competing for recognition at the IH plant –
made clear that it would fight equally for Black and white workers, a
risky strategy, given that Louisville was then still segregated and
85% of Harvester’s employees there would be white, many of them then
dyed-in-the-wool racists. But the FE’s commitment to interracial
unionism was personified by the two men who led the campaign: Vernon
Bailey, a white CP member and veteran of numerous union drives
elsewhere, and Fred Marrero, a Black Louisville resident and outspoken
advocate for the African American community. Precisely how Bailey and
Marrero crafted their organizing drive, and won the battle for
recognition in 1947 by a whopping majority, is detailed in my book.

The FE maintained an extraordinary commitment to interracial unionism,
especially since the membership was about 80% white. The solidarity
engendered through continual workplace struggle encouraged deep
personal ties, as this FE picket line photo suggests.

But that was just the beginning, as Local 236 in Louisville came to
represent, I argue, “the most perfect embodiment of the FE’s
ideology.” Part of this was quantifiable, as the radical FE’s
commitment to shop-floor militancy, including a liberal reliance on
walkouts to win grievance disputes, was on full display at the IH
plant in Louisville, where “wildcat” strikes became commonplace.
But it was also evident in Local 236’s adherence to what could be
called “lived solidarity” – the belief that day-in, day-out
collective struggle against management, involving Black and white
workers together, was essential to undermine racism and forge the
class cohesion necessary to take on rapacious capitalists. The
combative, and extraordinarily united, Local 236 membership, moreover,
took their fight for equity beyond the plant gates and into the
community, challenging segregation in Louisville’s parks, hotels and
hospitals. I illustrate all this through the stories of various
Louisville FE members, including Jim Wright, who was Black, and Jim
Mouser, a white man; both became leaders within Local 236 but also
close friends who regularly spent time together outside of work, often
with their families, at a time when interracial socializing in
Louisville was a rarity. How the FE’s linkage of workplace militancy
and antiracism succeeded at transforming Harvester workers in
Louisville, often in profoundly personal and heartfelt ways, is a
moving – and timely – story, I’d say.

_YOUR FATHER, DEWITT GILPIN, PLAYS A SIGNIFICANT ROLE IN THIS HISTORY.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU FACED RESEARCHING AND WRITING A
HISTORY WITH SUCH PERSONAL CONNECTIONS?_

As I indicate in the book’s preface, when I was growing up my father
was a UAW staffer, and I knew only dimly about his previous role in
the leadership of the FE. He died when I was in college, and sometime
after that I began researching the FE, for a senior thesis in college
and then as the subject of my dissertation which I completed in 1992.
So while my father was the impetus for my interest in the FE – about
which little had been written before I took it up – I hadn’t
talked directly to him about his experience with the union while he
was still alive. Of course there are a thousand questions I now have
that I wished I had asked him, but ironically it’s quite likely that
had he lived longer I might not have focused on the FE at all. He was
a man of strong opinions and direct knowledge of the history I covered
and I’m not sure I could have written about something so close to
him while he was around to review it.

There are privileges attached to being personally connected to a
subject, especially because, while papers related to the FE can be
found in various archives, no repository expressly devoted to the FE
exists. My father was not a packrat and my family lived in a Chicago
apartment, so alas I found no treasure trove of old documents stored
in an attic or anything of that sort. But he had saved some literature
from his FE days which didn’t exist elsewhere. Because of my family
connection I was also able to conduct interviews with former FE
leaders, some of whom, particularly those with Communist Party ties,
would not have talked to anyone else. Many of those people also shared
with me their own documents related to the FE, which proved critical
in constructing the union’s history. Fairly early on I also
requested my dad’s FBI and military intelligence files, and also had
his file from the Chicago Police Department’s “Red Squad,” one
of the longest on record. So my personal FE connection proved
invaluable in those respects.

I went to grad school right after college, when I was still pretty
young and uncertain about many things. My dissertation hued to
standard form and I strove to make it as “objective” and therefore
as impersonal as possible. I didn’t pursue an academic career and so
never had my dissertation published. When I decided, many decades
later, that the FE’s story really needed to be told, I intentionally
set out to craft something quite different, and so rather than
distance myself from it, in _The Long Deep Grudge_ I embraced my
personal connection to the subject. I weaved much more of my
father’s story into the narrative, and found that freed me to be
more expansive about the many others – FE officials and rank and
filers but also McCormick family members, politicians, civil rights
leaders, judges, jazz musicians and more – who were involved in the
rather epic story I’ve told. The crucial biographical details and
the amusing anecdotes that I included not only make _The Long Deep
Grudge_ a better read; I believe they make the history more tangible
and thus more “true.” So if there are young scholars hesitant to
take up topics they have personal connections to, I’d say: go for
it. There are particular difficulties to navigate, but that’s the
case with anything we choose to investigate. All historians carry a
passionate interest in their subjects; it would otherwise be
impossible to put in all the work necessary to produce the articles
and books. A personal connection to the material simply makes more
up-front the reason for that passion.

_THE CIO PURGED THE FE FROM ITS FEDERATION IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE
TAFT-HARTLEY ACT FOR BEING LED BY COMMUNISTS. WHAT DID IT MEAN, ON THE
GROUND, TO BE IN A LEFT-LED UNION DURING THE HEATED MCCARTHY PERIOD?_

The FE’s combative ethos found expression in the high number of
walkouts engaged in by union members; from 1946-1954 there were over
one thousand work stoppages at IH plants represented by the FE. Here
FE members in East Moline, Illinois, react unfavorably to an effort to
cross their picket line.

Just what it meant, on the ground, to be a member of a
Communist-oriented union is one of the main themes of my book. For a
long time, the assumption among scholars, regardless of their
political leanings, was that the high-level dispute in the post-WWII
era between the left and right wings of the CIO had no particular
bearing on those things, like collective bargaining agreements, that
affected union members on a daily basis. But what I contended years
ago in my dissertation, and have expanded on in my book, is that the
Marxist framework FE leaders embraced in fact directly affected the
contract terms they fought for and the shop floor ethos they promoted.
The FE leadership’s bitter feud with the United Auto Workers’
Walter Reuther was jurisdictional on its face but ideological at its
heart, as Reuther promoted the “politics of productivity” – the
notion that labor and management could cooperate to achieve mutually
beneficial economic growth. FE officials had a different idea: “the
philosophy of our union,” one of them said, “was that management
had no right to exist.” The FE leadership thus sought to limit,
rather than augment, corporate profit-taking in ways that found
expression in the union’s collective bargaining objectives:
opposition to no-strike, productivity pay, and cost-of-living clauses;
a preference for short agreements; and most critically, FE contracts
provided for exceptionally large steward bodies (as opposed to the
UAW’s agreements in the same era) empowered to address workers’
grievances immediately, which in real terms meant frequent work
stoppages. For FE members at International Harvester, this translated
into high pay rates, but also more control over what sort of work they
did and how fast they were required to do it to earn top dollar. But
exerting this sort of authority also necessitated continual agitation
and shop floor disruption. On the other hand, Reuther and the
anti-communist labor establishment conceded that pricing, profits and
production standards were solely “managerial prerogatives.” In
exchange for that loss of control, UAW members experienced less
turbulent workplaces along with good pay and benefits. The real costs
of that bargain would only become clear by the late 1970s, as the
inexorable drive to bolster the corporate bottom line brought on
relentless speedup, plant closings, and the mounting immiseration of
working class communities.

But while FE members enjoyed better quality of life on the job, as the
Cold War got hotter being in a left-led union also meant being subject
to an intensifying anti-communist assault from business elites, the
press, the government, and the labor movement’s establishment. After
WWII Walter Reuther claimed jurisdiction over the farm equipment
industry and commenced a series of “raids” on FE locals, and thus
the UAW expended considerable resources attempting to organize workers
who were already organized. Remarkably, however, despite the
red-baiting barrage aimed at the FE by the much bigger and better
funded UAW, Harvester workers remained doggedly loyal to the FE,
rejecting the UAW’s advances time and again. Despite that
endorsement from workers, the CIO expelled the FE, along with a dozen
or so other unions, in 1949. One of my chapters is entitled “The
Shrinking Realm of the Possible,” as by the 1950s FE leaders and the
rank and file found their options increasingly limited. But you’ll
have to read the book to see exactly how that played out.

_EVEN THOUGH THE FE AND INTERNATIONAL HARVESTER NO LONGER EXIST IN ANY
MEANINGFUL WAY AS THEY DID IN YOUR HISTORY, THE HISTORY OF THEIR RISE
AND FALL SPEAKS DIRECTLY TO TODAY. WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS
FOR TODAY’S LABOR MOVEMENT._

When, in 1952, IH announced its intention to move one of its
facilities from Chicago to New Orleans, meaning the loss of nearly 900
union jobs held largely by Black workers, both men and women, FE
members responded with a sit-down strike and and physically resisted
the company’s efforts to remove machinery from the plant. That
confrontation led to the arrest of dozens of FE members, including
this one, who required a host of Chicago Police officers to get him
into the patrol wagon.

I was motivated in large part to write _The Long Deep Grudge_ because
I do believe the FE’s story has relevance for those seeking to
revitalize the labor movement. I hope that activists will see
connections to their work throughout the story I’ve told, and in the
book’s conclusion I underscore what there is of value to be
extracted from the FE’s brief existence, so I’ll touch on a few of
those thoughts here. One, drawing on what I said above, is that the
ideological orientation of a union leadership makes a difference, and
by that I don’t simply mean a propensity toward toughness or
militancy, as labor leaders of varying political leanings can possess
those characteristics – think John L. Lewis, Jimmy Hoffa, or, on
many levels, Walter Reuther as well. Yet as opposed to the post-WW II
labor establishment, which had shackled itself to the notion that
increasing productivity was universally beneficial, the Communist,
Marxist FE leadership embraced an understanding of surplus value that
made resistance to corporate profit-taking, both during contract
negotiations but also every day on the shop floor, an imperative. Thus
the union combated management efforts to speed up work and acted on
the principle that every worker’s grievance represented “a scream
for justice.” The FE could also offer an aggressive challenge to
capital flight, as when in 1952 the FE staged a sitdown strike, and
battled with police, in response to an IH plan to move a plant from
Chicago to New Orleans. So ideology matters, and has both short and
long term consequences for union conduct.

Notoriously anti-union International Harvester, which pioneered many
union avoidance tactics that remain standard business practice today,
made no effort to hide its antipathy toward the Communist-influenced
FE leadership. The company ran ads like this in newspapers around the
country during the violent three-month long 1952 IH-FE strike.

We should not underestimate, however, how rocky the going has been,
and will be, for those unionists who adhere to the concept of class
warfare. My book emphasizes how narrow the path forward for left-wing
unionists became, in part because of the concerted opposition they
faced from anti-communist labor leaders like Walter Reuther. But make
no mistake: all CIO unions, even the most conservative ones, were at
best only grudgingly accepted by the ruthless and cunning captains of
American private enterprise. I centered my book around the deep-rooted
grudge between International Harvester and the FE for a reason, to
underscore that capitalists – not other union leaders – have been
and remain the real enemy of the working class. The McCormicks were
among the most effective of the lot, and organizers today reading my
book should have many “ah ha” moments as they recognize that many
of the union-busting techniques utilized by today’s corporate
behemoths, like Amazon, were introduced long ago by International
Harvester. If we want to understand how class conflict really plays
out, and how labor might gain an advantage, we must pay close
attention to managerial strategy and how those practices have evolved
(or simply been rebranded) over time.

In the ongoing class war labor has one formidable weapon at its
disposal. The FE’s story – and the long struggle that preceded its
founding – underscores the primacy of that core union tenet:
solidarity, meaning all-encompassing and regularly-practiced
solidarity. The FE’s experience in Louisville demonstrates that even
in supremely hostile environments it is possible to break through
racist barriers; to do so organizers must be unwavering in their
commitment to equality while being both relentless and patient with
workers. Not an easy task by any means, but in the FE white and Black
workers not only walked picket lines together; they developed deep and
abiding friendships that served as the union’s source of strength.
African American Frank Mingo, the vice-president of one of the FE’s
Chicago locals, said that “the rank and file loved that union.”
Solidarity experienced this way – as a marrow-deep sense of class
consciousness and communal spirit that overcomes the divisions sown by
capital – can have mighty consequences. It has before.

_NOW THAT YOUR BOOK IS PUBLISHED, WHAT BOOKS ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD
TO READ?_

I have a lot of catching up to do on recently published labor history,
and since noteworthy books keep coming out, that’s a challenge. I
also like reading histories that are popular with general audiences,
as well as historical novels, as for one thing I am interested in the
methods such authors use to keep readers engaged. But I’m also now
turning my attention to something that doesn’t involve too much
reading: historically-based video games. I’ve never been a game
player myself, but my daughters are, and my oldest is employed as a
video game producer. Gaming is now the biggest entertainment industry
by far, yet when historians – myself among them – consider how
popular culture shapes perceptions of the past, we tend to talk about
movies or music or television. But students are more likely to have
played _Call of Duty_ or _Red Dead Redemption_ than they are to have
seen _Schindler’s List_ or _Deadwood_. So at the moment I’m diving
into big-budget AAA games like _Assassin’s Creed III_, centered on
the American Revolution, and also indie games, like the creative Czech
game _Svoboda 1945_. I’ve been surprised by various things – a
good portion of the dialogue in _Assassin’s Creed III_, for
instance, is delivered in Mohawk (Kanien’kehá:ka), translated by
Indigenous linguists, and thus players are immersed in a language very
few will have heard anywhere else. There are problematic aspects to
video games, even the better ones, to be sure, and much that is
undeniably silly (rappelling up buildings was not, to my knowledge, a
common way of getting around colonial Boston). But I believe we need
to familiarize ourselves with games and take them seriously, if for no
other reason than this is where an awful lot of people are getting
their ideas about history. That’s my rationale, at any rate, for
flitting through the virtual past when I could be reading history
instead. I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do with this,
though I’ve tapped into networks of scholars (mostly outside the US)
interested in the political, cultural and moral questions raised by
historical video games. Currently there’s very little labor history
to be found in video games, furthermore, but the Uprising of 1877 or
Haymarket or the sitdown strikes of the 1930s, just for starters,
offer tantalizing possibilities.

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Randi Storch is a professor of history at the State University of New
York, in Cortland. She received her PhD in 1998 at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

 

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