Q: What was it like when you first came to America?
A: When we came over from Scotland, we moved into an upper flat. The landlord came to my father and said. "Will you please move in." Because people were beginning to tear down the porches and the bannisters for firewood. We moved in just on the basis that we pay the rent when my father became sufficiently employed. We paid up by the last year of the Depression.
Q: How old were you?
A: In '30 I'd be 14.
Q: Did you work after school?
A: No, there were no jobs to be had. The only jobs you had in those days were -- the milkman would need help and you'd go on the route with him. You went around with the fruit peddler, too -- used to pay a dollar a day. The only other kind of employment you could get was on snowy days; you'd get your shovel and go out to the wealthier neighborhoods. You'd walk miles to get there. In Detroit in those days it was Boston Boulevard. They had enormous driveways and sidewalks. And you'd ask if you could shovel their snow. It was those kinds of odd jobs you got but nothing of any permanence. Once in a while one of the stores would want some help in carrying boxes or throwing stuff out. You're talking about somebody giving you a dollar. There was nothing to be had in those days -- nothing -- not in our neighborhood anyway. Nobody worked. It was all jobless auto workers -- exclusively auto workers.
One of the great ironies, when you started pulling out of the Depression -- this would be even from '34 on -- there was a big racket. You had the spectacle of the sons of Polish immigrants. They would go to the chief of police in Dearborn, a guy by the name of Brooks. They'd pay $50 to get a job. Here were these kids getting jobs for the first time in their lives and their fathers with 15 or 20 years seniority still being laid off. But that was life. That's the way you got hired at Ford's -- by paying off the chief of police who, I suppose, shared it with the employment manager.
Now, I eventually got my first real steady job -- I was 20 -- at a place called the Ever- Hot Heating Company. What we did is build hot water tanks. You just had to insulate the tank to keep the heat in. You put a sheet of metal in and then you stuffed in between the boiler and the metal. You stuffed it one of two ways -- with either cotton or rock wool. It was a dirty job. And that was when I first joined the union, and I got discharged.
Q: That was the first job you had?
A: First steady job. I had worked in an old machine shop, for example, before that. It was Bryant Motor Sales, but he ran an old machine shop in the back. He was married to Henry Ford's sister. That's how he prospered -- had a going concern -- in 1936. I was let out there -- I suspect -- because I started talking about the union. I only worked there for three months. But then I went to Ever- Hot Heating Company. One of the memorable events there was during the campaign of 1936. They'd call us in to meetings and try to brain-wash us for Alf Landon. You didn't dare to talk back. The owner used to come in there and give the pitch that we were "on the road to socialism." Everybody just sat there. It wasn't wise to take them on on that issue because we were trying to join the union. Nobody said anything, and I think they really were stupid enough to think that they were converting us. It reminds you of the rich people with blacks -- "Well, my blacks, they don't believe in this equality and the civil rights movement."
Q: "They love me."
A: "That's nonsense -- they love me." But the day after the election -- I'll never forget -- we plastered that whole shop in the Roosevelt landslide. And they finally got the message.
One other thing about that shop -- shows you about the indignities of that time. The toilet was square in the center of the shop, and from about your waist up was plain glass. So when you go in the toilet you were exposed to everybody, except, you know, from the waist down. So the boss could see you at all times.
Q: When did you go to work (at Chrysler)?
A: About a month after that election. You always remember your seniority date -- my seniority date is December of 1936.
Q: That was quite a month.
Yes -- lots of sit-down strikes -- yes. You know, I'm really glad I lived during that period. Don't forget where you come from.
Q: That's important?
A: That's crucial. I was at a forum the other night. They were talking about really understanding unemployment and what it means to a person. It's frustrating and humiliating when you are ready and able and willing to work and can't find employment. I said I was unemployed in 1938 for 11 consecutive months. I can remember it as though it was yesterday. Such a searing, unforgettable experience. Damned near lost my seniority -- you lost your seniority after a year. By this time I was married. Every time you went into the shop there was some goddamned rumor. "Did you hear about the layoff coming? Did you hear about the layoff?" You spent half your time worrying about a goddamned layoff. Terrible. Terrible.
Q: When did you become active in trade- union politics?
A: Oh, immediately, I used to go to meetings before I held any office. We had a couple of demonstrations in those days, in Lansing, and I took on the task of helping organize that. And then my final step was running for steward on the second shift. You know, that's a responsible job.
Q: How old were you then?
A: I'd be about 21 then.
Q: You were already in DeSoto?
Q: You left Dodge? Dodge and DeSoto, they were both Chrysler?
A: Yes. That's why I could transfer. Hell, I wasn't working in DeSoto all that goddamned long when I was laid off practically all of 1938. But in any event, I became steward, then steward on the first shift, then recording secretary, then I ran for president. I think I was 26 when I was elected president.
One of the amazing things about the UAW -- there was a damned youth movement! Having Walter (Reuther), a snot-nose of 28 walking in and telling General Motors where the hell to get off.
Yeah, yeah. When I ran for president of the local union, we called it the "Youth Movement" the whole slate. And the underlying theme was sort of, "Let's turn out the old- fogeys." Those "old fogeys" must have been all of 38 or 40 years of age. I really cannot believe that I'm the age I am. I have to keep reminding myself.
Q: Other people keep reminding you -- at first you resent it and then you get used to it. What caucus were you in?
A: Well, in those days we had no political factions. There were no Communist Party people of any kind. In '46, '47, '48 -- even later than that -- they were wrong, but guys were throwing the Communist Party members out of the plant. I remember going to one of those meetings trying to dissuade them, saying, "It's not right. They're communists, but they've got a right to work in the plant." And they'd say, "I have a brother in Korea."
Our plant had a peculiar history. There were no blacks in there. Not a single black. It was a lily-white plant until Roosevelt's executive order, whenever that came out -- 1943, 1944. I remember going to the 1942 (UAW) convention in Chicago. This was the first really good civil-rights speech I heard. I went back home determined that we were going to get the company to hire some blacks. We put the pressure on them -- went to some governmental agencies -- and they started in hiring blacks. Of course, as janitors. Again, the plant was ethnic. It was like the neighborhood -- an awful lot of Poles. The menial tasks that the janitor had -- you had to pull the chips out of the bed of the machine. It was a dirty job. That was left to the janitors.
I'll never forget the first guy we upgraded and put him on the machine. The Polish guys were really screaming at me. "I'm not going to work next to this guy." And I said, "What the hell you talking about? He's 25 feet away from you! He was rubbing shoulders with you yesterday when he was cleaning your goddamned machine! You didn't say anything to me then." I just cut them off at the knees. That was the best way to deal with it. I didn't have any problems. I remember I was in the plant when we had the riots in Detroit, and we didn't have one single incident -- not one.
Q: Let's go back a minute. Your dad -- he was a socialist?
A: Yeah; he was a member of the Socialist Party. Drive my mom crazy.
Q: Especially -- Glasgow was a hotbed of dissent?
A: Oh, sure, sure. My mom used to tell these stories. She used to go to the theater with my dad. After the performance, everybody got up and sang the national anthem ("God Save the Queen"). My dad, he wouldn't stand up. She'd say, "Well, whyn't you do it for me? You're embarrassing me!" And he wouldn't. Felt strongly about things like that. But when he came to America, he just fell in love with this country. My mom missed Scotland for years and years, of course. She didn't want to come here at all. All her family was in Scotland, Very close-knit, you know, nine or 10 kids, Used to gather in the parlour and sing, that sort of thing. But my dad loved this country from the beginning.
Q: Was he a member of the union?
A: My dad? Oh, yeah. He was in the sit- down at DeSoto's.
Q: You were both working for DeSoto?
A: Yeah, both working for DeSoto. He was there before I was. He was the chairman of the shop committee for a few years -- this would be in the '40s now. Then after that, he became a management safety man, and there he stayed until he retired. Any good safety man, if you're conscientious, you're concerned about the workers. Absolutely there was no conflict between that (management) job and the union. In fact, to the day he retired, he had a very close relationship with the union guys.
Q: He was a one-man bridge?
A: Yes, and in a stamping plant where you could do a hell of a lot of good. There were a lot of amputations. A lot of safety measures that could be taken. So you could do some very constructive and worthwhile work.
Q: Tell me about your schooling?
A: When we first came to the country, I went to Holy Redeemer in southwest Detroit. Then when we moved to a Polish neighborhood, I transferred to public school. I don't know what parochial school I could have gone to in that particular neighborhood -- St. Andrews, Our Lady of Angels -- they were all half English and half Polish.
But in any event, I did a very foolish thing. I got restless and wanted to get out and do something more active. I quit in the 12th grade. Foolish. I should have finished.
Then I got caught up in what a lot of kids get caught up in -- my first form of social protest. In that neighborhood, there are always a lot of evictions -- people unable to pay their rent. The way the system worked, the landlord had to get a bailiff to get the people out of the house. They used to just move the furniture out of the house and put it on the sidewalk. The landlord had to pay $2 a room. So a group of us would get together and move the furniture back in.
Actually, a lot of people had to live as we did, I suppose. Used to live in places without paying any rent. And when my dad got his job back, he paid off every penny. The rent was something like 15 or 20 bucks a month -- it was an upper flat.
These were just two-family flats. In this Polish neighborhood they were well kept, so we had nice houses. We had three bedrooms -- little tiny bedrooms but we had three bedrooms. We had to make do. A lot of times we didn't have coal. We used to take newspapers. I used to go down and soak them in the wash tubs down in the basement. You soak 'em and twist them and they became like logs. You'd burn that paper. Everybody lived the same way, I suppose. My father was a fairly well educated man, a voracious reader, like all of us became.
Q: What did he read? What books did you have in your house?
A: Everything. I used to use the library a lot. I don't know why we didn't get cut off. Maybe we did get cut off. We used to get Colliers, the Saturday Evening Post. I can't remember any radical literature being around. We didn't have that many books in the house. As I said, I used to use the library. And my mom was a great reader, too.
Q: Your family must have been an exception in that neighborhood?
A: Yeah -- in that neighborhood. My mother to her dying day -- she read and read. My dad used to read political books and was always very, very current on events -- and intensely interested in politics.
My father was the kind of man who was very, very soft and considerate. Never yelled at us. Never struck us. He struck me once one time -- I beat up my brother and he whacked me -- that's the only time. But it was a very gentle upbringing -- was very, very tolerant. I often wondered in later years whether he was an agnostic or an atheist. He was one or the other but never mentioned it in the home. My mom went to church. We used to be devout Catholics all through the years. He used to drive her -- she never drove -- used to drive her to church and take a paper with him or a book to read while she went in the church, and then drive her back. Never tried to discourage us from going to parochial school, from going to church. Never mentioned it. The only religious arguments would be when company would come over, and I'd overhear. My father, I remember, used to argue with people about the very existence of God. It was very intriguing to me. I'd overhear it from my bedroom or some other room.
He was a very gentle and tolerant man. He was born in India. My grandfather was a colonel in the Black Watch. My father used to talk about him. A typical army officer -- the supreme disciplinarian. He'd call him to dinner and if you got there late, you just did without dinner. My dad went to school 10 or 11 months a year away from home. So there was no family relationship. I think that really helped form him in his attitude towards family. He did the very opposite -- a very close- knit group, very protective, very gentle. You can't say no discipline, because I would rather have had him hit me sometimes than to be worried about whether or not he'd be ashamed of me for something I did. That's a tough discipline -- when you respect somebody so much and they disapprove of what you're doing. That's tough discipline.