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GM Rejects Reuther’s Call to “Open the Books”: The Post-WWII Strike Wave

The end of World War II unleashed a new “war” at home—a war that pitted workers against employers. The year following V-J day saw more strikes than any other twelve-month period in American history: 4,630 work stoppages involving 5 million strikers and 120 million days of lost work. One of the most revealing of the postwar confrontations between labor and capital came in the November 1945 strike by 320,000 autoworkers against the nation’s largest corporation, General Motors. UAW leader Walter Reuther took a new and radical negotiating stance, arguing that GM could afford to increase wages without increasing prices. In the process, Reuther challenged what had been a fundamental corporate prerogative to set its own prices. GM sharply rejected his demand that they “open the books” and show why they couldn’t afford both lower prices and higher wages. That confrontation was captured in this transcript from one of the negotiating sessions.

Harry Coen (GM assistant director of personnel): Is the UAW fighting the fight of the whole world?

Walter Reuther [head of UAW]: We have been fighting to hold prices and increase purchasing power We are making our little contribution in that respect.

Coen: Why don’t you get down to your size and get down to the type of job you are supposed to be doing as a trade-union leader, and talk about money you would like to have for your people, and let the labor statesmanship go to hell for a while." . . .

Elwin Corbin (UAW official): Do you mean if we came in here with a 30 percent wage demand and offered to join with you in going before OPA [the Office of Price Administration] for a 30 percent increase in the price of your cars, you would talk business?

Coen: We don’t ask you to join with us on the price of cars It is none of your damned business what OPA does about prices.

Corbin: The hell it isn’t. I intend to buy a car. . . .

Reuther: But don’t you think to prices? It is constructive for us to relate our wage question.

Coen: Nobody else is doing that but you. You are the fellow that wants to get the publicity out of this whole thing, You want to enhance your personal political position. That is what the whole show is about.

Reuther: if I came in here and said we want 30 percent and we don’t care about prices, we don’t care about profits, that is your business, then you would say Reuther is being a trade unionist and not trying to build himself up politically. But when Reuther comes and there is what you say is an attempt to be a statesman, you think that is bad I think if I didn’t do if that way, it would be bad I think if we came if here on a selfish basis and said, “We want ours and the world be damned,” then you should take our pants off.

Coen: None of the other labor leaders have been taking the position you are taking.

Reuther: They don t care what happens to prices?

Coen: I don’t know whether they care or not. They haven’t coupled it up with their demand. I don’t think the people out on the picket lines care anything about wage theories, too. What does he care about GM books?

Reuther: He doesn’t care anything about GM books providing you . . . give him a satisfactory wage increase.

Coen: That is right.

Reuther: But if you say, “No dice, we cant give you a wage increase,” he says, "Let’s see your books to see why you can’t."

Source: UAW Minutes, quoted in Irving Howe and B.J. Widick, The UAW and Walter Reuther (New York: Random House, 1949).

See Also:"Word Has Just Been Received": Truman Speaks on the Railroad Strike