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“We Had a Habit of Being Vocal:” James Justen Describes UAW Local Activism

Jim Justen was active union member at the American Motor Company plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which later became a Chrysler plant. An active member and leader of the United Auto Workers Local 72, Justen recalled that his local was a “rebel” local, more willing than the International to strike when they found working conditions or contract negotiations unacceptable. During the 1960ís and early 1970ís, the priorities of many locals, especially in the auto industry, differed from those of the international leadership. While international unions were more interested in wages and job security, many locals were more outspoken about health and safety issues on the job. As Justen recalled, such rank and file militancy often had a more direct and immediate impact on job or plant-specific conditions.

Listen to Audio:

JUSTEN: I didn’t go to a lot of union functions, except for our meetings as needed. As far as going to social functions, most of the time I avoided those. I did my job in the shop and was very avid as a union leader. I came from a rebel local, who was probably one of the most rebel in the UAW. Oh I can recall times in a contract when before the International would authorize us to pull a strike in the late 1960s and they were trying to negotiate something and it wasn’t to our liking and they were going to negotiate extended time. And we took the people out at midnight one night and announced to the International that we were on strike. And the International had no choice but to back us as a local and declare the strike or to lose us as a satellite local. So we were a little on the rebel side. We didn’t always answer yes to everything we were told to do.

I can recall one day having a problem with an individual getting injured severely and it was the second time it happened in week period, from a spring clamp that allowed the spring to slip out and explode in his face, caused stitches and I don’t recall if that was a broken jaw, or not, but it could kill somebody. And at that moment the second time one of our board members that I worked with quite a while asked, “What do you think?” and I said, “Shut it off.” We had a habit of being vocal and vocal would mean if we had to pull a strike we would shut the line off and tell the people you don’t go back to work until the problem is resolved. And normally when the line went off and we hit that button to stop the line, we got attention. One of the division heads from final assembly come down and we told him we’re not going back to work on that particular job. If you want to put a supervisor on that job until you get a safety clamp that is safe enough to operate, so that we will not have a dangerous situation with our employees, you can take your two supervisors off the line and put them on the job and we’ll run the line. They did correct the problem the next day. They had every engineer and every master mechanic was on to solve it. In our heyday I think we were around ten or twelve thousand and right now currently after the Chrysler Corporation shut the assembly division down were probably at would guess a thousand.

Source: Interviewed by Miriam Frank 6/28/96
Courtesy of Miriam Frank