February is Black History Month, a time to acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishments of African-Americans throughout our nation’s history. This year we celebrate some of the many African-Americans who contributed to the union’s enormous commitment to civil and human rights, and we give our thanks for their sacrifice, vision and hard work. Here are highlights of their noteworthy contributions:
World War II was the start of Lillian Hatcher’s many years fighting for social justice. While doing defense work at Briggs Manufacturing in Detroit, she noticed that African-American women were passed over for promotions to riveter positions. Determined to do something about it, she joined UAW Local 742 and the Double Victory Club, an African-American group that advocated for equal rights in the war industries. She eventually was promoted to a riveter position.
From there, she won election to Local 742’s executive board and soon after was appointed an International representative with the UAW’s newly formed Women’s Bureau, the first African-American woman to be appointed a UAW International representative. Through the next decades, she served on countless social justice boards and committees, including the U.S. Labor Department’s War Production Board and Advisory Council to the Women’s Bureau, the United Nation’s Education and Economic Council, and in the UAW’s
Fair Practices and Anti-Discrimination Department. She also served as a delegate to the 1961-62 Michigan Constitutional Convention where she helped establish the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Hatcher was an active member of the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women, the Democratic Party, and numerous other civil and women’s rights groups.
Gross became a UAW member in 1949 when he joined UAW Local 560 at Ford Motor Co. in Richmond, California, and began a 62-year long affiliation with the UAW that included a string of groundbreaking positions. In 1950, he became the first African-American elected to the local’s bargaining committee. Four years later, as chair of the local’s housing committee, he helped create the Sunnyhills cooperative development in Milpitas, California, the first labor-sponsored, planned, interracial community in the United States. It was especially noteworthy in a city that, according to U.S. Census data from 1960, was 94 percent white, with 6,179 white residents and 277 blacks.
In 1961, Gross was elected to the Milpitas City Council, a first for an African-American. In 1966 and 1968, city residents elected him mayor, the first African-American mayor to represent a predominantly white California town. He answered the UAW’s call to come to Detroit to serve as the UAW’s assistant director of the Civil Rights Department in 1971, and stood strong with the UAW at key civil rights demonstrations across the country, bringing his pursuit of justice and racial equality to all of his work with the UAW until his retirement in 1986. Following his death in 2012, the City of Milpitas honored the civil rights champion and UAW leader by naming a street in the Sunnyhills development after him.
Marc Stepp also was moved to strive for social justice after what he saw during World War II. He was drafted into the Army right after beginning work at the Chrysler Highland Park Plant. In the Army he saw the authoritarian regimentation of the military which led to his belief that unions are key to individuals having a strong voice in an organization. When he returned to Chrysler, he began years of devotion to union ideals and held numerous leadership positions in UAW Local 490. From 1974 to 1989, he served as vice president of the UAW Chrysler Department. After negotiating steep concessions in the 1979 contract when Chrysler faced tremendous financial difficulties, Stepp lobbied Congress for $1.5 billion in loan guarantees for the company, and then oversaw difficult negotiations for another round of concessions from membership totaling $462.5 million. Always a firm believer in workers having input on the job, in 1980 he helped create the UAW/ Chrysler product quality improvement program, and helped develop modern operating agreements at several Chrysler plants to pave the way for better cooperation between management and workers.
His desire to serve didn’t wane after retirement; he became executive director of urban affairs and community relations at the University of Detroit.
Nelson “Jack” Edwards
Jack Edwards would eventually be called Walter Reuther’s “point man for civil rights.” The road to that designation was filled with dedication to civil rights and the UAW for many years. His achievements for workers are remembered because of the improvements he won at the negotiating table for foundry working conditions and safety equipment. He helped establish the UAW’s Independents, Parts and Suppliers Council, and later became the council’s director. From 1962 to 1970, he served as a UAW International Executive Board member at large, as UAW vice president from 1970 to 1974 and as the first African-American elected to the UAW International Executive Board. In 1963, he went to Birmingham, Alabama, at the request of Walter Reuther to help with the civil rights struggles there. In 1964, Edwards was elected vice president of the NAACP, and later co-founded the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
Locally, he served in the Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh administration as a member of the City Commission on Community Relations. In 1973, he was appointed to the Wayne County Stadium Authority. When he passed away in 1974, Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks attended his funeral, and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young was one of the funeral’s speakers.
Ruben Burks’ long history of unionism and advocacy for social justice started in 1955 when he began working as an assembler at the former General Motors Fisher Body Plant 2 in Flint where he joined UAW Local 598. He steadily rose through the ranks of the local, serving in various leadership posts, including shop committeeperson and executive board member. In 1970, then-UAW President Walter Reuther appointed Burks to be an International representative in Region 1C. By 1989, he was the director of Region 1C and held that position for three terms. In 1998, he became the first African-American International UAW Secretary-Treasurer, a post he held until 2002. He also used his skills to help the Flint community, including holding a leadership post in Flint Genesee County Economic Development, and becoming the first labor leader to chair the Board of Trustees of the United Way of Genesee and Lapeer counties in 1991. He also was director of the Flint Urban League, director of Goodwill Industries of Flint, an advisory board member of the University of Michigan-Flint, and a leader with the UAW-General Motors Community Health Care Initiative in Flint. Burks was also involved in the Special Olympics, March of Dimes, Red Cross and Easter Seals. He received an honorary degree in Community Development from Mott Community College in recognition and appreciation of his contributions to the Flint community.