MSCA Perspective - July 2001

BOOK REVIEW: Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the United Auto Workers
By Sol and Genora Johnson Dollinger
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000
Reviewed by Nan Wiegersma

In Not Automatic, Sol Dollinger and Genora Johnson Dollinger recount their story of union activism, which is also the story of other women and socialist trade union organizers who have been previously unrecognized in the written history of the United Auto Workers.

Industrial unionism began in the 1930s, when the industrial unions formed and national labor legislation institutionalized rules and regulations for organizing and negotiating. These rules continue to govern labor practices in this country, including those followed by our own union.

Not Automatic is an important story of the victories by a united front of left political groups (including Socialist, Communist, Trotskyist and several other groups). Once this fragile political coalition dissolved, union leadership weakened. The Dollingers belonged to the Socialist Party, and they continued with left politics, unlike the more famous Reuter brothers (Victor and Walter) who were also one-time members. From this critical perspective, the Dollingers attempt to restore a more accurate record of the political affiliations of the leaders of the industrial union movement and the political context of the 1930s.

In the first part of the book, Sol Dollinger discusses how the leftist union leadership worked to develop a "world view" among the rank and file membership. This focus on rank and file education provides a broader and deeper appreciation of the accomplishments of the new industrial union movement. In the period leading up to the successful and formative strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigan, Genora Johnson Dollinger taught groups of workers public speaking and helped form a workers library. She also helped organize the famous Women's Emergency Brigade that played such a critical support role in protecting the workers from the police during the Flint sit-down strike.

The book starts with a review of the history of unionization, and it becomes more direct and moving as the narrative turns to the couples' personal experiences. The last half of the book is very inspiring, when the reader gets the authors' first hand accounts of their involvement in the struggle and the incredible dangers of organizing. General Motors hired company thugs, who beat up Genora and Sol and others in union leadership. Pinkerton spies and the Mafia also acted as agents of the employer. Against these violent conditions, the black listings and firings were the least of the dangers union organizers faced during the Great Depression.

Genora's gripping story of organizing other women was written before her death in 1995 and was featured in the film With Babies and Banners. The book details the success and recognition that Genora received after her story became well known. Genora tells how police were poised to remove workers from Fisher Body Plant 2 in Flint as crowds of on-lookers were watching. Union members were by the gate with a loudspeaker and Genora was given the microphone. She implored the women to break through the police line to stand with their husbands, and they did! The police refused to shoot because of the women. The strike was settled soon after and the Flint sit-down strike of 1936 became recognized as a crucial beginning battle for the establishment of industrial unionism in this country.

Genora continued to organize after her heroic efforts in this strike, focusing on such issues as the homelessness caused by Depression era evictions. She and her fellow socialists pitched a tent city in the park in Flint with big signs saying "This is the Death Watch," and, "If you want to see people in the city of Flint die, here they are." This caused enough political flack for the federal government to send surplus food to the Flint people on relief.

Genora observed that the women who participated in the organizing for the strike "became a different type of woman, a different type than any we had ever known anywhere in the labor movement." They had confidence in themselves. Relationships changed because women and men cooperated in founding industrial unionism. And families changed too. With higher pay brought by unionization, families in the 1950s could eventually afford, for the first time, to send some of their children to college.

Genora remembered the time around the Flint strike as the best and worst times of her life. She had tuberculosis in her right lung and had to have treatments to collapse that lung. Her youngest son, who had been a poster-boy in a children's picket line carrying a sign, "My Daddy Strikes for Us Little Tykes," was killed in an automobile accident. Her older son died a few years later of multiple sclerosis. In addition, her first marriage to Kermit Johnson dissolved.

The reader comes away incredibly impressed with the amazing strength of this woman who, in the face of personal tragedy, blacklisting, and multiple firings, moved to Detroit and continued the struggle for unionization. There, applying for jobs as Genora Dollinger, after her remarriage to Sol Dollinger, she sidestepped the black lists and continued her union organizing among women who worked during the war effort. She reports on the harassment that the first women workers in these plants, which had been turned into munitions factories, were subjected to. Despite all of this successful organizing, Genora did not see herself as a heroine! She told an interviewer, that if the interviewer had been brought up in a company town and seen the terrible working conditions, then she would have done the same thing.

Genora did not, however, see women's rights to jobs from a feminist perspective. She assessed women's loss of jobs after the war as simply "all the people on war production were laid off because the plants were going back to regular industrial production" rather than gender discrimination.

Nevertheless, with incredible foresight and her long view of history, Genora has lessons for us, today. In 1995, at the end of her life, she was concerned that economic advantages won by the industrial union movement were being slowly legislated away. She believed that we (working people) should now organize politically with the same intensity as the workers organized unions when the unions were developed. This strategy seems, in 2001, to be even important now than it was when Genora stated it.

Nan Wiegersma is Professor of Economics at Fitchburg State College.