Recently, Industrial Worker reached out to Toni Gilpin to discuss her book, The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland. Gilpin is a labor historian, writer and activist who holds a PhD in American History from Yale University. The Long Deep Grudge is about the Farm Equipment Workers Union and its organizing at International Harvester, a manufacturer of agricultural tools. The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.
Industrial Worker: Why do you think this moment in labor history is important to study?
Toni Gilpin: The Long Deep Grudge begins back in the 19th century, moves through to the late 20th century and considers what ails the labor movement today, so there’s a lot of working-class history packed into this book. That big sweep is necessary to tell the story of the combative relationship between corporate behemoth International Harvester and the radical Farm Equipment Workers Union (FE).
International Harvester was one of the United States’ founding industrial empires — once the fourth largest corporation in the world, with a reputation for anti-union animus. International Harvester pioneered sophisticated union-avoidance tactics that remain standard business practice today. The FE, which from its founding in the 1930s was connected to the Communist Party, not only managed to organize International Harvester, but also built an exceptionally militant, solidified and effective union. How the FE was able to do that — and what, ultimately, led to the union’s demise — has implications for labor activists, especially class-conscious ones, today.
Capitalist hegemony relies on obscuring the fact that the exercise of organized might — not individual initiative or generosity from on high — is what has led to the expansion of rights and improvements in material conditions for ordinary people. To understand their own power, therefore, workers need to know their history.
What is the biggest lesson from your book that you think unionizing workers should internalize?
“The philosophy of our union,” one FE leader said, “is that management has no right to exist.”
Any union that abides by that maxim would be of interest to organizers.
One lesson I’ll emphasize is that the ideology of union leadership matters and has consequences for union behavior, both in the short and long terms. In sharp contrast to the cooperative ethos increasingly embraced by the labor establishment following World War II, the Marxist FE leadership maintained a combative perspective, rooted in an understanding of profit and surplus value, that found expression in the union’s contracts and on the shop floor. Between 1946 and 1954, at the dozen or so International Harvester plants represented by the FE, there were over 1,000 work stoppages. That’s an astronomical figure — not just these days, but back then too, far eclipsing rates for other unions.
The Communist Party-oriented FE leadership had no objection to signing contracts with management, and it’s worth noting that, in the FE’s case, those contracts — and even the no-strike provisions they contained — did not result in a reduction of militancy. Quite the contrary, as many of the contract clauses served as a wellspring of rank-and-file activism.
The FE also maintained a top-to-bottom commitment to interracial unionism that was extraordinary for its time, especially since its membership was over 80 percent white. From the outset, African Americans served in the FE’s top leadership — at a time when unions with far higher percentages of Black membership, like the United Auto Workers or United Steelworkers, had no such representation.
From its founding — and as opposed to many other unions — the FE championed the right of African Americans to secure skilled jobs and contract terms, like plant-wide seniority, that were most likely to benefit Black workers. The FE embraced what I call “lived solidarity”: the belief that continual collective struggle in the workplace against management involving Black and white workers is essential for forging class cohesion and combating racism.
This was most evident at the FE’s local at the International Harvester plant in Louisville, Kentucky. The FE’s experience in Louisville makes clear that, even in the most hostile terrain, it is possible to overcome long-standing racist divisions. To do so, organizers must be both patient and relentless with workers, while maintaining an unwavering commitment to equality. How the FE built the marrow-deep sense of solidarity felt by Black and white workers in Louisville, and its consequences both in the plant and the community, has much to inform organizers today engaged in anti-racist and class-conscious struggle.