G. Mennen Williams, who beat out Republican incumbent Kim Sigler last year for the governorship of Michigan, got powerful support from organized labor in his drive for election.
Consequently, while Williams raked over his opponent's administration and policies on all fronts, he was especially critical when the issues concerned his labor following.
One of these issues, the University of Michigan's Workers' Education Service, was batted around the state for many weeks both before and after the campaign, and the university found itself right in the middle of a scuffle which involved not only the two gubernatorial candidates, but the opposing forces of management and labor.
The Workers' Education Service had been under the university's extension division since 1944, conducting classes for workers in such subjects as labor law, collective bargaining, and even parliamentary procedure.
Last May, an employee of the General Motors Corporation appeared in Washington, D. C., to make some statements before a House subcommittee on Labor. This employee, Adam J. Stricker, Jr., claimed that "subversive" and "Marxist" ideas were taught in one of the Workers' Education Service classes.
In the course Stricker referred to, one text was the report of President. Truman's Council of Economic Advisors, and to show the union's point of view, the instructor passed out--on request--two union pamphlets.
These pamphlets were sharply critical of Charles E. Wilson, head of General Motors.
As reported by the Michigan C.I.O. News, Stricker told the subcommittee: "In this particular class that I attended, all the instructor did was to put percentages on the blackboard. I am sure that members of the class don't known arithmetic. Well, to discuss the Economic Report of President Truman with people who don't know how to count, they ought to teach them about the Constitution."
Stricker's charges were denied by Alexander G. Ruthven, president of the university. However, General Motors complained to Governor Sigler, who asked for an investigation.
The Education Service closed as usual during the summer. At the opening of the fall term, on September 24, the Board of Regents announced that the workers' program would be suspended until a thorough examination could be completed.
A few days later, the Michigan Daily, the college paper, commented severely on the whole affair. An editorial stated: "Very evidently, some of the large Michigan corporations are working to destroy the service this university has offered....
"Surely if these companies were really sincere in their desire for better unions, they would now be backing the university service instead of attacking it, or remaining 'innocently' silent."
The U.A.W. also attacked General Motors, in a statement by Victor G. Reuther, union educational director, which said: "The privileges of education and the right of a university to educate fairly and honestly are being denied, because of the selfish position taken by one corporation...."
In October, during the heat of the Williams-Sigler campaign, the Workers' Education Service issue blew wide open. On October 16, the Board of Regents said that the service would be resumed before the end of the year, retaining those parts of the program "deemed appropriate for the university to offer."
Four days later, "an administrative shift" ousted Arthur A. Elder from his job as the service's director. Elder was also state head of the American Federation of Teachers.
Reuther immediately charged that this "shift" had "killed the service," and that "no amount of double-talk can now conceal the complete submergence of the Board of Regents and Governor Kim Sigler to the General Motors Corporation."
Reuther had connected-Sigler's opposition to the workers' service with purported G. M. contributions to the Governor's campaign fund. Sigler denied this on October 22. The extension program, he added, "is not being given up. It is being changed here and there...."
The Governor also retorted to charges by Williams, his opponent, that he was playing politics with the workers' service. "This election," he commented, "is a question of whether the radicals, reds, and pinks, who have hitched on to the Democratic Party, or the Republicans" will win. He was defeated 11 days later.
The university administration tried to smooth things over with the U.A.W., but without success. President Ruthven stated that the program would be the same as before, but Reuther declared the whole plan to be "completely unacceptable."
Both parties argued over the workers' service for three months more. Late in January, 1949, after some agreement had been reached. Ruthven announced the new list of teachers. The union protested that it had not been consulted: Ruthven said he reserved the right to pick instructors.
The U.A.W. decided to boycott the revised education service. When courses finally began in February, only one man appeared for the first class and none thereafter. The university then announced that the Workers' Education Service was terminated.