The following are remarks shared by MMP Co-Founder Todd Wolfson at MMP’s 9th Annual Community Building Dinner in memory of Detroit based movement leader, General Gordon Baker.
General Gordon Baker passed away on May 18 of this year, but his vision, strength, humility, and legacy will be with us and the world we aim to build for a long time. General Baker, or Gen as he was called, was born in Detroit in 1941 and he was a factory worker. He did back breaking work to build cars in the sprawling auto factories of Detroit, during the boom and bust of that industry in the 1960s and 70s into the 80s. But Gen was more than a factory worker, he was a leader and a visionary.
In 1968, Baker and others led a wild cat strike in the Dodge Main Plant in response to a speed up of the lines. 4000 workers struck and they successfully shut down the factory. In response to the wildcat strike, seven workers were fired, including Gen. And while the strike was multiracial, black workers were the ones that were disproportionately punished. Following this, black workers, with Gen at the lead, founded the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). DRUM aimed to take on the Dodge plant because of their attacks on working people, while also opening a second front of struggle, against the United Auto Workers union, because they were not representing or defending black workers that were unfairly punished and consistently receiving the worst jobs in the factory, usually in the foundry.
Can you imagine the struggle Gen and others within DRUM waged? They were fighting with the auto industry and the political powers of Detroit on one-hand (and some say there was an assassination attempt on Gen’s life in that period) and then on the other hand they were fighting against UAW union leadership, one of the largest unions in the country.
However its important to note that while Gen struggled against the racism in UAW, he and DRUM members believed that the struggle was to win the union, and to make it an instrument of all working people. The powerful work that Gen led in DRUM led to Revolutionary Union Movements (or RUMS) emerging across Detroit with the development of FRUM (FORD), CHRUM (CHRYSLER) and even the United Parcel Revolutionary Union Movement (UPRUM) and many others. Forecasting MMP, Gen and his brothers and sisters, recognized the power of the media as a critical principle of their organizing strategy and for every DRUM FRUM and CHRUM that emerged, there was a newspaper that worked to educate, organize and radicalize. One time when we went to visit GEN he explained how workers were coming to him for help in this period and he said we can’t build your union but we do have this printing press and ink!
Building on the success of DRUM, Gen and others founded the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The League brought together the leadership of the RUMs to build a different level organization that both organized in factories and also in the community. A few years after it was founded, the League dispersed and folks took on different projects, and the last time we saw Gen, he and other UAW retirees were fighting for single payer healthcare.
Gen and his fellow organizers recognized that in order to win they must fight for the rights of black workers, who were badly dehumanized in the auto plants and not represented by the union. At the same time Gen believed that winning the struggle of the black worker in the plants was a key piece of a larger struggle to unite and win the class. Gen often discussed the power of Ford River Rouge Local, Local 600 within the UAW. He would detail how it was one of the best, most integrated and most powerful locals in the country, because of the struggle of black workers to integrate it and make it an instrument for all workers.
To me Gen was an amazing working class leader and and an unparalleled historian and thinker—The kind you so rarely encounter in this work. He could hold a crowd for over an hour telling the history of Detroit and struggle, and he did it with such grace, style and humility. He was so easy and inspiring, which was born on confidence, because he had been through so much. But at the same time that he was humble he was also incredibly fierce. In the mid-1960s, Gen was one of the first African American’s in the country to be drafted and refuse service. He was ultimately released from military duty because the military saw him as a “security risk.” And above all of that Gen was clear about the struggle ahead of him and ahead of us. He said of organizing in the factories, “we realized that in the auto plant, at the point of production, that was the only place we were valued in this society, so it was the place we decided to stand up and fight.” I am very thankful for Gen and all that he has given me and many this room.