In Peoria, Rock Island, Aurora and Decatur, the economies depend on Caterpillar and John Deere. Working families’ lives are transformed positively or negatively, depending upon the United Auto Workers’ contract.
Few remember that the UAW’s heavy equipment roots were nurtured by a 1930s radical union, the United Farm Equipment Workers of America (FE). Nurturing rank-and-file power across racial boundaries, the FE constantly fought not just over wages, but shop floor control. Actual jobsite democracy motivated the FE, unafraid to unleash wildcat strikes and confrontations.
The Long Deep Grudge by Toni Gilpin, daughter of an FE activist and UAW staffer, recounts this radical story. She squarely positions the union’s legacy in 1886 Haymarket Square, where protesting workers gathered after union sympathizers were shot outside the McCormick Reaper plant. The anonymous bomber that night seared Haymarket into labor’s collective memory.
McCormick Reaper became adamantly anti-union International Harvester (IH). It was not until the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) 1930s mass union drives that workers won their first contracts.
Gilpin notes, “As the repeated invocations of Haymarket made clear, possibly no other union was as animated by its own history as was the FE, or more cognizant of how struggles from distant decade laid the groundwork for later triumphs.”
Without getting bogged down in details, Gilpin skillfully weaves the McCormick family’s anti-union machinations. The FE workers built their own shop floor solidarity, often led by committed Communist organizers. Rather than depending upon ponderous grievance battles, FE members walked out with any infraction. The union also nurtured African-American leaders and built a remarkable Louisville, Kentucky local that challenged local racial barriers.
The FE’s militancy also created its demise. When the CIO kicked out communist-sympathetic unions, the UAW began challenging the FE. In 1952, IH instigated a strike, offering higher wages but eroding shop floor control. While FE workers picketed, the House Un-American Activities Committee convened in Chicago to interrogate FE officers over alleged communist sympathies. With its treasury depleted, the FE merged into the UAW in 1955.
“The FE’s hyper-militancy, promoted by the leadership and practiced by the rank and file, was a key source of strength – until, it must be noted such militancy… began to undermine the union,” Gilpin writes.
There are valuable lessons in this book. Union solidarity nurtured an activist, loyal membership. FE members took that spirit to their neighborhoods, where they also fought for human rights in a racially-divided society. At the same time, corporate power ruled, constantly relegating labor to a junior role.
The Long Deep Grudge:
A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor & Class War in the American Heartland
By Toni Gilpin
Reviewed by Mike Matejka
Livingston & McLean Counties Bldg & Trades Council