Local 236 A Model of Union Solidarity
Joseph Brennan D.S.W., M.Div.
Unfortunately, many missed Dr. Toni Gilpin's presentation on Local 236 of the United Farm Equipment Workers. This is my attempt to summarize the presentation for our KLI records, and for the inspiration of union members currently struggling for a just wage and safe working conditions. I realize that these lines may need some corrections and I would appreciate such for the sake of recording a valid history of those events.
Local 236 no longer exists, nor does the International Harvester Company, nor, in fact, does the building in which production took place. What lives on is the history and memory of one union's example of worker solidarity and dedication to the struggle for dignity and union representation. What was once described as one of the strongest unions in the nation became that because of the strength of the membership, and the willingness to share that strength as one.
Two of the outstanding leaders of 236 were Jim Wright and Jim Mouser, one white, the other Afro-American. The solidarity between these two men was to exemplify the unity that existed for ten year among union membership. In a city ruled by racial segregation, 236 stood out as a model of what could be achieved, and what was achieved, in the racial brotherhood created by the workers. The relationship that existed between black and white workers earned for them the self designated title of "the most perfect union".
At the time, International Harvester was one of the four largest corporations in America. The Louisville plant was the fifth largest tractor factory in the world. There was a nondiscriminatory policy in the plant. In 1947, the union received a seventy percent approval by the workers who also agreed that the one way to avoid racial pay differentials was to unite against the management. Members also agreed to fight the pay differential between Northern and Southern company plants. This resulted in a thirty day strike in which workers marched in protest, dressed in their former military uniforms. They blocked streets with their own cars. Some were arrested, but the eventually the company capitulated.
The company demanded higher levels of productivity. If one worker faced company threats of being fired, the workers determined that all were being equally charged, and all walked out. "They can't fire us all". The company could not create a racial wedge. Segregated rest room signs were quickly torn down. Similar action was taken for separated eating facilities. Blacks and whites socialized in each others' homes. When Jim Wright was fired all the workers walked out.
Solidarity was demonstrated in the community. The union organized an inter-racial picnic in segregated Cherokee park. Police intervened and suggested the picnic take place in the predominately black Chickasaw park. The union later obliged and two hundred white union members attended the activity in Chickasaw park. This did not deter the membership from once more having its picnic at Cherokee park. Similar union activities were held at the segregated Brown hotel which continued to remain segregated until the late fifties.
What aided solidarity were bonds that exceeded racial differences. Among the rank and file most of the members were young. Three fourths were World War II veterans were they learned the value of freedom and equality, and dignity. They would not tolerate disrespect, and they were reared in rural communities. Company offensive actions were met with "That just isn't fair". A Woman's Auxiliary was formed in June of 1949, followed by a successful integrated union dance. Women brought their children to join in the picket line in 1952. For many years the union seemed invincible, the strongest in the nation. Then came the ultimate conflict.
Those were the days of fear of the communists, the Joe McCarthy era. The union's leftist leanings promoted severe opposition. The union was expelled from the AFL. Union leaders pled their Fifth Amendment Rights when under questioning. The company provoked a long strike in order to break the union. Wright and Mauser were arrested no fewer than thirty times. In 1955, the union faced its ultimate demise. Wright went on to continue union organization for the UAW, Mauser eventually found work in sales.
While 236 had a short life, it did prove what could be done. Racism, which was used as a tool to separate the workers and destroy the union, could be conquered. The union was years before its time in its struggle for workers' rights, for civil rights, for human rights. It stands in history as a memorial to the true meaning of Solidarity.