Detroit’s Marxist Black Auto Workers
About the Project
Having focused on leftist movements and labor activism in the 20th century for most of my academic career, I was fascinated by the bold grassroots effort led by the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) of the late 1960s to early 1970s. Discovering the extensive collection of newsletters circulated by DRUM in Pitt's Archives and Special Collections, I set out to document the social conditions which spurred the movement, DRUM's successes, and its legacy for Black labor activism.  I also sought to examine the Marxist nature of the organization and its influence on parallel leftist groups in Detroit and beyond. Forged under the dual oppressions of racial animosity and worker exploitation, the short-lived DRUM demonstrated the tenacity of America's downtrodden and their strength to dare for a better, socially just future.
 DRUM, Box 1: FF 97-106, American Left Ephemera Collection, 1875-2015, AIS.2007.11, Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System
Detroit, Michigan is perhaps best known as the auto capital of the United States, home to the principal production plants of the mythical “Big Three”: General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford. While the auto industry promised a path to the middle class for some, it also embodied institutional racism and ruthless worker oppression for many of its Black workers. In 1968, some 60-70 percent of the workers at Chrysler Corporation's Dodge Main assembly plant were Black, also relegated to the lowest paying, most physically demanding, and most dangerous positions of the plant compared to their white supervisors.  In May of 1968, Black workers at the Dodge Main plant formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), a grassroots organization which advocated for workers’ rights in the face of rampant discrimination. To promote the movement, DRUM created a publication which was distributed by hand at the plant and in nearby communities to support efforts to strike, elect representatives, and instill revolutionary social change in Detroit’s auto industry and beyond. Seen here is the first edition of DRUM’s publication, detailing the unwarranted dismissal of Black worker Willie Brookins out of prejudice. While the United Auto Workers (UAW) union was meant to protect all auto workers, the UAW often ignored cases like Mr. Brookins, incentivizing the creation of a group like DRUM to champion the rights of non-white workers as well. The title of this edition is “Wildcat Strike”, referring to one of a series of strikes DRUM organized without the UAW’s approval. By stopping the production line, Dodge lost an immense amount of revenue, forcing management to address DRUM’s demands. DRUM’s publication subverts the notion that national unions in the United States were not susceptible to racial bias and discrimination. In addition, DRUM helped to expose the collaboration between the UAW and auto industry management which lead to crackdowns on Black workers who demanded equality. In examining labor relations, it should be clear that Black workers have and continue to be treated differently, and often worse, than their non-Black peers. In different conditions, there are different needs. Despite all the plant workers sharing the same basic class interests, the UAW and management utilized racial divisions to ensure white workers would ignore or even demonize their Black counterparts in DRUM, for fear of losing what little autonomy they had.
At first glance, the amateur quality of the publication is evident in the frequent typographic errors, mistakes in formatting, the quality of the print and paper, and its unabashed use of profanity. These elements are also the publication’s strength. It demonstrates DRUM’s urgency in its brevity, rudimentary visuals, and its use of blunt, everyday language to promote their grassroots campaign. Ephemera usually consists of printed materials like this publication, meant for immediate use with no concern given for preservation, meaning many of such items are cheaply produced and fragile. In the case of DRUM’s publication, this meant it was possible for the organization to distribute the pamphlets easily, inexpensively, and independently to auto workers and their families on a large scale. The evolution of DRUM’s ideology becomes apparent in this series of publications, beginning first as a movement addressing specific grievances in a single Dodge auto plant to the application of a Marxist-Leninist framework to free racially oppressed workers nationally. Ending with “this is the type of bullsh*t that will eventually lead to violent revolution right in the plant”, it is clear that DRUM was driven by necessity to enact its own change.
 Martin Glaberman, “The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement,” International Socialism, 1, no. 36 (1969): 8–9, https://www.marxists.org/archive/glaberman/1969/04/drum.htm.
As DRUM gained influence within the Hamtramck assembly plant, both management and the United Auto Workers (UAW) began a crackdown on the organization while denying that there were racist conditions in the plant. This issue of the publication argues that DRUM would not need to exist if there truly was racial equality. Furthermore, had management and the Union used the energy of their crackdown to instead address Black worker grievances, many of the plant’s issues may have been alleviated and DRUM likely would have adopted a far less militant stance. By this time, DRUM’s mission had evolved to encompass far more than the racial oppression displayed at the Hamtramck assembly plant. Recalling the despicable murders of Detroit’s Black residents at the hands of the Detroit Police Department, DRUM’s frustration and urgency are clearly sourced in the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion. Rather than an unthinking and spontaneous riot, these events in 1967 reflected systemic failures to promote the civil liberties and socio-economic reforms Black activists and the working poor had demanded for decades.
DRUM highlights the economic inequality it sought to dismantle and how the class conditions of Black Americans were intrinsically tied to race. The 1968 Poor People's March on Washington is mentioned, an effort for achieving economic justice for the working poor, which was brutally suppressed in Detroit by the police along its journey. Adding insult to injury, UAW leader Charlie Brooks openly supported the police’s actions. Further anger is leveled at racist profiling of workers who are regularly searched or given harsh penalties for striking, this being in contrast to their white peers and supervisors. Returning to economic exploitation, DRUM reminds its readers that alleged small-scale theft at the plant is not a principal problem but rather the large-scale looting by corporations like Chrysler-Dodge in garnishing workers’ wages, overworking laborers to their early deaths, and treating their workers as subhuman. This issue ends with the poignant line "I have a dream (crossed out) gun", reflecting the need for alternative avenues for justice particularly in the wake of the assassinations of prominent Black human rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton, and Malcolm X. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had passed under tremendous international and domestic pressure, this era was one of harsh state repression for Black worker activists, embodied in entities like the FBI’s clandestine and illegal Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO).
Hoping to secure their rights formally through the union, DRUM fielded their own candidate named Don Jackson. DRUM complained about the long line of union leaders who did little for Black workers while pocketing their dues as mere UAW lackeys seeking a more comfortable and lucrative position within the plant’s exploitative hierarchy. A target of particular vitriol by DRUM was the Black union leadership which cooperated with management to the detriment of the workers they were supposed to fight for. DRUM makes explicit allusions to the plantation dynamics which stratified domestic and field working enslaved people, the plantation being a common point of reference for the inequalities at the plant at large. It is in this context that Jackson stands out as a figure of integrity to the Black worker community of the plant. Sold as “hard line, ass-kicking, Black-loving, and brilliant”, Jackson is said to be willing to risk his life and his job for candidacy, a very real commitment given the consequences that Black workers faced in standing up to management and the union.
As is now unfortunately commonplace in these publications, DRUM recalled yet another incident of wrongful firing of a Black worker. DRUM purports that it, unlike the UAW (which is disparaging labeled Unite All Whites), will support fired Black workers and encourages them to picket. There are also frequent references to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers which was the umbrella organization that all of Detroit’s Revolutionary Union Movements united under, including a branch at the Eldon Avenue plant (ELRUM) as well as Ford (FRUM) and United Parcel Service workers (UPRUM) subsidiaries. This issue ends with an invitation to a rally to hear Jackson speak on how he will end racism and exploitation of Black workers at the plant. Facing the same conditions as other DRUM leaders like Ron March, Jackson was unsuccessful but represented a call to action which mobilized workers to fight for their grievances to be heard.
It is apparent that at all levels of the automobile production process, from raw materials to market, workers are exploited by their supervisors, particularly the Black proletariat. This issue tackles a variety of problems, including the false promises of the Hoover Road training plant and the fact that Black welders are denied skill trade classification and top pay due to racism. The alliance of the UAW and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters is met with skepticism as Black workers’ demands were merely paid lip service to by the Alliance to gain influence in Detroit. DRUM notes the Teamsters' Mafia affiliations and the imprisonment of their leader Jimmy Hoffa due to fraud and jury tampering in tandem with UAW President Walter P. Reuther’s deceptions as a performative ally of Black workers. Reuther paid huge sums to organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League, groups DRUM derides as “Uncle Tom”, and made public appearances at Civil Rights marches while continuing to support the exploitation of Black workers.
Explicit mention of international worker solidarity and a desire to seriously reform or rebuild American governance shows an expansion of DRUM’s socialist vision. At times DRUM’s message was myopic, understandable given the harsh conditions its members faced daily. With limited resources and under the constant threat of violence or job loss, DRUM labored to spread a basic message of Black worker solidarity which eschewed the abstract verbosity of Marxist-Leninist intellectualism for the immediacy of action. DRUM called on Black workers to mobilize in response to racial oppression and economic exploitation which affected not only their wages and working conditions in Hamtramck but those of the working poor in the entire world. The mission of DRUM and other American labor organizations is clearly ongoing; much of what is read from these pages from fifty years ago rings true today. But theirs is also a message of defiance and solidarity whose banner is still carried to this day and will be into the future.
About the Creator
Liam Sims is a fourth-year student majoring in History and Political Science with a minor in Portuguese language hoping to pursue a career in archives after graduating in April 2021.
I would like to extend my thanks to my library and archivist mentor Ben Rubin, my faculty mentor Dr. Gregor Thum, and all of the wonderful University Library System and Office of Undergraduate Research staff who have made this year's ASRA possible: Jeanann Croft Haas, Laura Nelson, Patrick Mullen, and Gesina Phillips
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