50 Years Since Detroit’s Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement

Ford River Rouge Complex, Dearborn, MI (Photo: Thomas Hawk, Flickr).

On July 8, 1968, a group of Black autoworkers led a wildcat strike that partially shut down Chrysler Corporation’s Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck, Michigan. The strike displayed a strong sense of solidarity among the Black workers at the plant, a deep mistrust of the existing United Automobile Workers (UAW) union, and a strong anti-imperialist sensibility. This was the very first strike action organized by the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), an organization committed to not only halting auto production for the day, but also to building a revolutionary movement capable of challenging capitalist exploitation, union complacency, imperialism, and state violence. By 1969, the Revolutionary Union Movement (RUM) model had proliferated around Detroit and a federation called the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was founded. The Black worker-intellectuals of the League developed a politics vital to the history of Black thought. It was a fusion of transnational revolutionary ideals and Detroit’s history of militant unionism. They were communists, internationalists, and proud Leninists, yet their politics grew out of their experiences in the Motor City, not Moscow. It is this history of the League that provides critical insight not only into the complex interconnections between capitalism and racism, but also the ways that a class- and race-based analysis of the world can help to build a transformative movement for Black freedom.

DRUM was founded by a cadre of Black Detroiters who had a long history of organizing and studying together. This history began at Wayne State University in 1963 when Luke Tripp, John Watson, and General Baker—future leaders of DRUM—founded the student group UHURU (Swahili for “freedom”). The group organized a trip to revolutionary Cuba as well as a protest against the killing of Black sex worker Cynthia Scott at the hands of the Detroit Police Department. As the group grew, they built upon their shared histories of migration. Many were either migrants or the children of migrants from the Deep South and were familiar with the traditions of rural southern organizing. These shared experiences developed into a strong interest in the politics of Robert F. Williams, a man infamous for his leadership of the Monroe, North Carolina, NAACP chapter that advocated armed self-defense.

DRUM flyer, 1969. (Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University).

But it was in the city of Detroit that this rural southern militancy combined with a series of different and original schools of Marxist thought. The thinkers responsible for these different strains of Marxism included Grace Lee and James Boggs. James Boggs worked at Chrysler from 1940 to 1968 and his 1963 book, The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, was widely read. The future DRUM militants also studied Marx’s Das Kapital with Martin Glaberman. Glaberman was associated at one time with the “Johnson–Forest Tendency,” a group headed by the great Black scholar-activist C.L.R. James. These different currents all emphasized the international aspects of capitalism and the importance of developing new theories that related racism to capitalist exploitation. By the mid 1960s, along with much of the Black freedom movement around the country, the cadre that would go on to found DRUM began to reject the assumptions at the core of integrationism as well as the liberalism of the mainstream civil rights movement. The ideas and organizations of the Black Power movement began to influence the militants of Detroit and would be thrust into the international spotlight during the 1967 uprising.

The 1967 Great Rebellion in Detroit was the most costly uprising in American history up until that point. And after the flames had been subdued, the spirit of insurrection did not flicker out; it merely changed form. The sections of the Black underclass that went back to work after the uprising made it clear that they viewed the plants of the Big Three auto industry corporations more like “plant-ations,” the contemporary equivalent of slave labor. The militant Black newspaper, The Inner City Voice, began publication in October 1967. The paper targeted the participants in the 1967 uprising: Black workers who found themselves struggling against the speed-ups on the factory assembly lines. In May of 1968, this anger erupted as the workers at the Chrysler Dodge Main plant walked out in a multi-racial unauthorized strike, the first in fourteen years. This work stoppage set the stage for the founding of DRUM less than two months later.

The year of 1968 was witness to insurgent and liberatory movements around the globe. The DRUM revolutionaries saw themselves as part of this global moment. To many DRUM participants, their movement represented a challenge not just to the conservative union bureaucracy of the UAW, but also to the foundation of U.S. imperialism itself. The global perspective of the DRUM militants was reflected in their first list of demands, publicized in July 1968. In addition to demands for union reforms, such as the demand to fire President Walter Reuther and replace him with a Black president, they also demanded “that the U.A.W. end its collusion with the C.I.A., the F.B.I., and all other white racist spy institutions,” a response to both political persecution of domestic radicals as well as CIA involvement in counterrevolutionary activity overseas. International solidarity also extended to Black workers at auto plants in apartheid South Africa. DRUM demanded “that our fellow Black workers in Chrysler Corp and its subsidiaries in South Africa be paid on an equal scale as their white racist co-workers.” The initial DRUM demands also expressed a strong opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam. They called on the UAW to organize a general strike to immediately end the war.

“General Motors; Employees; Strikes; 1970. Leonard Woodcock asks delegates to double union dues” (Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University).

The DRUM model soon spread to other plants around the city. The Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement (ELRUM) was founded at Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle on November 10, 1968. ELRUM held its first demonstration against the UAW on January 22, 1969, and on January 27th, they organized a wildcat strike. At the time, the Eldon Ave plant had a workforce that was 65% Black. The racist segregation within the plant meant that whole sections of the production process were worked by only Black workers. This meant that Black workers were able to shut down entire departments when they walked out. And during the January wildcat, 90% of the Black workers walked out. One leader of the movement explained the significance of this strike action, describing how “Eldon Gear and Axle plant… is the only gear and axle plant in Chrysler’s entire national operation,” meaning that “if you shut down Eldon, you shut down Chrysler’s motherf****** automobile and truck manufacturing operation.”

As militants around the city created more RUMs, a need rose for an organization to coordinate and expand the activities of the various locals. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was founded to fill this purpose, officially opening its office at 179 Cortland Street in Detroit in October 1969. The constitution of the League outlined their organizing strategy for Black revolution, a strategy they hoped would spread around the globe. They pledged to “help organize D.R.U.M.-type organizations wherever there are Black workers, be it in [CEO of Chrysler Corporation] Lynn Townsend’s kitchen, the White House, White Castle, Ford Rouge, the Mississippi Delta, the plains of Wyoming, the mines of Bolivia, the rubber plantation of Indonesia, the oil fields of Biafra, or the Chrysler Plant in South Africa.”

In addition to supporting the efforts of the various RUMs organizing within the auto plants, the League also expanded its efforts to include community organizing projects. These included support for the struggles of Black high schoolers as well as radical outreach efforts to white workers and the middle class through efforts like the Motor City Labor League. Yet by 1971, due to internal disagreements and harsh state repression, the League experienced a devastating split that led to the collapse of the organization.

Despite the organization’s brief lifespan, the movement remains a remarkable part of the story of the Black freedom movement of the mid 20th century. The DRUM militants’ efforts to combine diverse political ideas, from Black Power to Das Kapital, made possible dynamic organizing efforts that threatened both stable production in the auto industry and the political power of the entrenched union leadership. But today, fifty years later, decades of industrial decline has decimated the Rustbelt and the Black working class that lives there. Most of the factories in Detroit from which the DRUM militants waged their war have been abandoned, reopening in either the suburbs or the Global South. Despite this, the DRUM proposal remains relevant: an examination of the relationship between Black people and production under capitalism can point to important sites of struggle for the continuing Black freedom movement. It can help us explain the rise of mass incarceration as well as support the ongoing struggle against it; the collapse of urban infrastructure and the fight against gentrification; and the importance of examining the exploitation of Black workers by the economic titans of today. Fifty years later, the history of DRUM still provides a strategy for continuing their struggle: a struggle for a world free of both racial domination and capitalist exploitation.

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Duncan Tarr

Duncan Tarr is a graduate of Michigan State University (MSU) where he studied History and Jazz Studies. He is interested in black history and the history of rebellions against racial capitalism and state violence. He is currently working on the Mellon-funded digital history linked open data project “Enslaved: People of the Historic Slave Trade” at MSU.

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