When Detroit White People Went Wilding On Black Auto Workers

Not this guy: WalterReuther.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

On June 6, 1943, nearly 30 leaders of the Packard Hate Strike in a United Auto Workers-organized plant in Detroit were suspended from their jobs. The culmination of a series of white supremacist wildcat strikes in the first half of 1943, the Packard Hate Strike shows the tenuousness of the white working class’s commitment to their unions. When we think about why the United States does not have the social welfare policies of Europe, understanding the anger of white workers when the idea of the nation as a white state became challenged is a critical part of the problem.

Labor was in flux during World War II. There was great anger over rising prices without an increase in wages. Workers both wanted to use their newfound militancy to improve their lives and be patriotic workers who worked to win the war. Union leaders had to walk a fine line between satisfying their militant workers and keeping them working while at the same time learning how to sit at the tables of power with those who hated everything unions stood for and government officials who despised the militant tactics that got them there.

This volatility was exacerbated by the migration of African Americans to defense plants during the war. The Great Migration of African Americans from the South began during World War I, but continued right on through World War II. Black Americans were looking to escape their own terrible labor and social conditions: sharecropping, exploitation, lynching. Between 1915 and 1970, approximately six million African Americans left their homes in the South for the cities of the North and, increasingly, the West. They were looking for good industrial jobs in the factories. Sometimes, white factory owners would recruit them explicitly as a union-busting tool, either as scab labor or to create racial tensions that would preclude organization. Fights on the factory floor were part of doing business, unionization was not. White labor was migrating from the South as well. This was especially true from Appalachia, as people left the impoverished coal fields of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee for the same jobs African Americans wanted. When Black workers arrived in the cities, they did generally find more opportunities than at home, but faced all sorts of problems, including a horrible housing situation, which only got worse because the strict boundaries of segregated neighborhoods did not easily grow when more Black people moved in, and thus overcrowding was a major issue.

All of this created an unstable stew of resentment in Detroit. The already existing white population in Detroit may not have had as defined and aggressive a sense of white identity as the southern whites, but they proved ready learners.

As companies had done for decades, the auto manufactures intentionally promoted Black labor in order to divide the union and the workers allowed their racial identity to trump their class identity. Or more specifically, racial and class identities were one in their belief of a white working class. Non-white labor was thus as great a threat as the worst boss or anti-labor legislation. This might not be “acting against their interests” in terms of how modern liberals think about working class people uniting with people who want to keep them poor, but people have many identifications and they choose among them to decide which is the most important. In this as in so many cases, many white workers believed much more strongly in their white identity than their class identity.

As Black workers moved into the auto plants during the war, white labor revolted. Throughout early 1943, about a dozen wildcat (unauthorized) strikes broke out. At times, Black workers walked off the job, sick of the discrimination they faced that extended into the shop stewards and other elected union leadership. The biggest white racial job action was at Packard. There, on June 3, 25,000 white workers went on strike when the company promoted three Black workers. Packard did this not out a commitment to racial equality, but to destroy the union from within. Packard’s personnel director, C.E. Weiss, was a horrid racist who talked about his inability to promote Black workers because they played dice on the job. Weiss also bragged about being the first executive to bring them north to bust unions, when he worked for Chrysler in 1917. Equally anti-union, Weiss decided to divide the United Auto Workers, having only recently established itself at companies such as Packard, through promoting a few Black workers. Racial division became a useful strategy in a post-National Labor Relations Act world when overt union-busting was harder to pull off.

Both UAW leadership and the federal government reacted very strongly to this racial walkout. The government was horrified at the loss of production that would delay the war machine from supplying the troops. UAW leadership, including its most powerful figure Walter Reuther, were committed to racial equality on the job, but the feelings of high-ranking leadership don’t necessarily have much power over the vast and deeply held racism of the membership. The UAW ordered its members back to work the next day, but thousands remained on the racist picket line. The UAW blamed Packard for this and went to Washington for help ending it. The War Labor Board sent a telegram telling the workers to go back on the job to “resume production of vitally needed war material at once.” The government sent out the message that it would fire anyone who did not go back to work. The combined opposition of the government and the union, two institutions most of these workers believed in very strongly, ended the strike. Thirty of the strike ringleaders were suspended on June 6 and the strike ended the next day. The UAW had already created tentative alliances with the NAACP and local Black organizations. Their strong response in favor of Black labor cemented that alliance, earning the union respect within the Black community and the national civil rights movement as a whole.

The Packard Hate Strike was just a foretaste of the racist feast to come that summer, when a mere two weeks later, the Detroit Race Riot of 1943 would break out, leading to 34 dead over three days, when all the white hatred over Black incursions into their jobs and neighborhoods spilled over. It took federal troops to put this down. Japanese propagandists began to use the racism in Detroit to try and convince Black soldiers to stop fighting.

Racial tension remained a major issue within the UAW for several decades after the war, something the union constantly tried to educate its workers on while not giving an inch on its overall program of graduated civil rights. The UAW would be the greatest union ally to Martin Luther King but on the shop floor, many white workers would remain committed racists, undermining the union’s campaign to build cross-racial solidarity around class.


August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW

David M. Lewis-Colman, Race against Liberalism: Black Workers and the UAW in Detroit

Thomas Sugrue, The Origin of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

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Erik Loomis

Erik Loomis is Associate Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. He's the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018).


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