Free Men at Work
|Illustration by Harry Devlin, p. 37|
Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers and an influential labor leader, submitted a story set in 1960 about his visit to Russia after the fall of the USSR.
From Collier's magazine, October 27, 1951, pp. 37, 102:
FREE MEN AT WORK
By Walter Reuther
As our train rounded a curve, the old city of Nizhni Novgorod, surrounded by its stone wall, stood high above the palisades overlooking the river where the Oka slips into the arms of the Volga.
In czarist times Nizhni Novgorod had been a bustling outlet for trade in the Hanseatic League. Under the Soviet regime, Nizhni Novgorod came to be called Gorki, in keeping with the modest practice of the Politburo of renaming ancient cities after its dubious heroes.
A trade-union committee from the big Gorki Aftozavod (auto plant) was waiting for us at the station. Their dress was not much different from that I had seen when, in 1933, as a member of a group of American technicians, I had arrived at Gorki to help tool the plant to make Model-A Fords. I presented my credentials and introduced the other members of the Free Trade-Union Aid Committee, of which I was the chairman. I remembered the head of the Russian committee, Dmitri Malchin, as one of the more advanced technicians with whom I had worked in 1933. He greeted us, his deep voice reflecting sorrow over the past and hope for the future, saying, "When you were here before, the fever was to build. Now it is to rebuild—not only our cities, our factories, but more important, to rebuild our lives so that once again they belong to us and not to the state."
As we walked past the old hot-water tank that stood in the corner of the station, he remarked, "Three wars and three revolutions have not changed the Russian love for tchai (tea)."
On our way to the plant, which was built 10 miles from Nizhni Novgorod, on the banks of the Oka River, with machines and tools purchased from American automobile manufacturers, I outlined the purpose of our mission.
Our committee was one of a number of teams which had been dispatched to all parts of the new Provisional Russian Republic by the International Confederation of Free Trade-Unions, to assist in the building of free trade-unions and aid in the general work of economic rehabilitation. As president of the Automotive Division of the International Metalworkers Federation, I had been designated to head the team that was to work with the newly formed free trade-union group in the auto industry.
Gorki Aftozavod was to have been the Soviet version of the Ford River Rouge plant, but it gained its distinction building tanks rather than automobiles. A near miss by an atomic bomb severely damaged the plant and measurably hastened the collapse of the Soviet military machine.
Unthinkingly, I asked Malchin how the world had treated him since we had last seen each other. His face tense, he replied, "Let's not talk about the dark past. We who have managed to survive live and work for the new tomorrow. Eleven years in a Soviet slave labor camp broke my body; but, thank God, they could not break my spirit."
• • •
Later I learned how it had happened.
It was during the Stalin-Hitler pact. The Communist party secretary and trade-union officials were driving the workers for more and more tanks. At a meeting, a leader of the Stakhanovite movement from the central trade-union headquarters in Moscow had proposed that all workers speed up their already killing production pace and work additional overtime hours, without pay for the additional hours, as a token of esteem for Comrade Stalin, their beloved leader and defender of the working class.
The party and the trade-union, both, called upon key workers to pledge themselves to outproduce their fellow workers under a system of "Socialist competition" in which each worker, under the lash of propaganda and the threat of terrorism, was driven to outwork and outsweat the other.
Everything went well until they called up Dmitri Malchin. His sense of fairness and decency was in open revolt against this inhuman speed-up. He attacked the Stakhanovite movement as a vicious sweatshop system that pitted worker against worker and which inhumanly attempted to drive workers for greater production under the guise of patriotism. His speech was cut short. He arrived bruised and beaten at the Siberian labor camp to undergo "political re-education."
Malchin, like millions of other Russian workers, had hoped that the Bolshevik Revolution which destroyed the tyranny of the czar would also end the exploitation of man by man. But they now learned that a new and more terrible system of tyranny and exploitation had been created—the exploitation of man by the totalitarian police state.
Following his liberation at the end of the war, Malchin returned to Gorki, and the workers, remembering his courage, elected him chairman of the Auto Workers' Council of the All-Russian Democratic Labor Federation.
Our committee spent the day going around the plant and discussing technical problems and new machine-tool requirements; surveying housing needs; and reviewing with the medical personnel the supplies they most needed. We wound up the afternoon by meeting with the Educational Committee of the trade-union group, who outlined their adult education program and pleaded with us for a motion picture projector and educational films on how a free democratic labor movement functions.
In the evening we met with the local union executive board, plant committee and shop stewards to discuss grievance procedure; how a free trade-union participates in the determination of the speed of the assembly line; methods for working out proper wage scales by job classifications; the economics of the auto industry. We reviewed the progress which the American workers and other free trade-union groups had made in the field of pensions, hospital-medical care programs, vacation pay, overtime provisions and other collective bargaining matters.
In introducing me to the meeting, Malchin said, "As the head of the Russian Automobile Trade-Union group, I have the pleasure of presenting the head of the American Automobile Workers' group.
"In a sense," he said, "we are opposite numbers. But," he added quickly, "we are not on opposite sides."
There was a burst of applause.
This idea of no opposite sides, no opposing power blocs in the world, no inhuman dedication to the production of more and more weapons of destruction was understood by the men from the machines and assembly lines. They had got the idea of one world, of one side, of people everywhere working together to build a good life, of striving together to fashion the future in the image of peace and freedom.
I assured them that there never had been opposite sides so far as the common people of the rest of the world and the people of Russia were concerned, and that they had been the first victims of the madmen of the Politburo who had brought upon the world the war that no one wanted. There was a flash of pride in their eyes when I told them that people everywhere were grateful for the wave of strikes and demonstrations by Russian workers which had helped bring the Stalin regime to its knees and the war to an end without the mass bloodletting of a full-scale land invasion. I welcomed them into the International Confederation of Free Trade-Unions and into the family of free nations.
In his closing remarks, Dmitri said, "You used to tell us of your troubles in America with company unions. Before Stalin was through with us, he had coerced the entire working class into a system of huge political company unions. In America you had to fight with the boss to win bargaining rights, but you got them. With us, the factory manager wasn't the boss; it was the MVD in various disguises, including that of the political commissar assigned to police every local organization. Either you said 'yes' to him—or 'good-by' to your family. The whole structure of trade-unionism was an elaborate fraud, designed to impose the will of the Communist party on a mass level
"Now with free trade-unions," he continued, "we can bargain on wages, working conditions, the speed of the assembly line; knowing that our demands can be backed up with the right to strike which free labor enjoys in other countries throughout the world."
That evening's conference produced plans for International Confederation оf Free Trade-Unions assistance which are newsworthy only as part of the far greater reconstruction program in Russia now being advanced under United Nations direction. More important than its details is the spirit which pervaded both these discussions and all other forms of planning activity with which I came in contact. The Iron Curtain has been torn down—not only between the West and the people of Russia, but between the minds of men within Russia. The thirst for freedom, for self expression and self-government has been sharpened, not quenched, by the long night of denial.
While the outlines of the new commonwealth now rising from the rubble of dictatorship may be long in taking final form it is already clear that the free Russia labor movement, now building a firm foundation in liberty, will be among its strongest bastions.
Already, down an improvised assembly line, one can see truck bodies taking shape. Already there is talk that in five years—perhaps even three—cars for ordinary folks will be coming off the same line. Nothing is beyond belief in the encompassing miracle of freedom.
It was in idle afterthought, as Dmitri walked me through the station on the day I left, that I asked him what had really happened to that fellow Stakhanov. He grinned broadly and scratched his head in mock effort at recollection. "I must have been away at the time, being 're-educated,' but the соal miners tell me he gave his life to Stalin—he drowned in his own sweat." — THE END