by Bill Onasch
Time For the Shove
The blitzkrieg victory for private sector Right-to Work in Wisconsin should trigger alarm bells—but not send us hiding in the cellar. It follows similar recent setbacks in Michigan and Indiana and there are credible threats driven by the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in several more states.
Four years ago, Wisconsin introduced an RtW equivalent as part of an expansive public sector collective bargaining “reform.” In the birthplace of public sector unionism, those unions–except for Fire and Police–were limited to bargaining only for cost-of-living raises and nothing else. This suppression of long-standing fundamental labor rights set off a semi-spontaneous outpouring of workers and students—especially in Madison–that included occupying the state Capitol and mass demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands.
After allowing some steam to be blown off, national labor statespersons intervened. But it wasn’t to throw union resources in to building and expanding by any means necessary the impressive solidarity from below. On the contrary, in collaboration with the Democrats who had just lost an election they asked the protests to stand down and instead work for recall elections. The Democrat losers lost twice again—in the recall and the next general election this past November.
Since the public sector unions no longer had any power, thousands quit paying dues. It’s been reported that AFSCME has now lost over half of their membership and the teacher unions have been virtually wiped out of nearly every school district other than Milwaukee, Madison, and Superior.
The consequences for private sector unions in the Badger State will not likely be that severe. But already embattled unions now coming under RtW will tend to circle the wagons still tighter while continuing to pray for rescue by valiant Democrat “friends.”
But their “friends” in the Obama administration are busy leading the attack on public education, demolishing the US Postal Service, and using the Affordable Care Act that could not have passed without labor’s support to wreck union negotiated health plans. Nor have they abandoned their hope for a bipartisan deal to slash the “entitlements” of Social Security and Medicare for the next generations.
“Friends” at City Hall in my home town are imposing another wage freeze on municipal employees while declaring war on the Amalgamated Transit Union—and they are going unchallenged in the coming city election.
The fresh attacks around RtW, while not themselves life threatening, take place as union density has already dropped alarmingly—as has political influence. This palpable Perfect Storm formation has once again drawn attention of pundits questioning the relevance, even viability of America’s unions.
This, to be sure, is a hardy perennial, like the crocus poking through the snow. I still reject their dire conclusions. I see some hopeful countervailing trends I will touch on later. But we cannot afford to ignore many of the inconvenient truths the chattering classes weave in to their pre-obits.
We need to first remaster lessons once better understood. It’s high time we review and revamp all strategy and tactics in preparation for answering bully’s push with a solidarity shove.
So, upon further consideration, I decided promised suggestions for how to defeat or survive RtW deserve much more explanation and historical context than can be included with other topics in our typical Week In Review format. It’s pretty long—but there will be no additional charge for this Extra.
For decades, labor educators have identified two contrasting styles in American unions— “Service” and “Organizing” models. The dominant Service “takes care” of members in much the same way as a law firm on retainer. “The union” negotiates contracts on behalf of members and monitors the administration of the agreement with the employer. There’s not much sense of “ownership” by the members, union meetings are generally sparsely attended, and little is asked of the ranks other than staying current on dues and assessments.
The counterposed Organizing model views the union ranks as a valuable asset ignored or underutilized by the Service unions. They often devise goal oriented strategic plans to involve members in campaigns—both internal on the job and external to unionize more workplaces.
Some unions have struggled with a sort of Dissociative Identity Disorder trying to combine both models. During the reign of Andy Stern in the Service Employees International Union SEIU became admired for their mobilization of the ranks in innovative demonstrations and street theater in support of union objectives. Ken Loach made an award winning film, Bread and Roses, based on the struggle of mostly immigrant workers in the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles.
But Stern also used his absolute power to introduce Service on steroids. Many traditional local unions were dissolved in to mega-locals with jurisdiction over as many as a dozen states. Access to live stewards and business agents was largely replaced with the great corporate contribution to a service economy—the Call Center. Members could dial a toll-free number to speak to an operator equipped with scripts to answer FAQs. You could conduct all of your union business in a fuzzy robe and slippers.
These descriptions of how officials interact with the ranks are useful. But they are in most—though not all–cases nuances of difference within a stolid bureaucracy. They are nothing like the bold alternative strategic path that led to the CIO split from the AFL–driving the organization of millions of new union members during labor’s upsurge from 1934-47.Too often even “Organizing” examples are more sizzle than sustenance today.
With a few honorable exceptions, our only class based mass organizations in the USA no longer have—as many unions once practiced–an adversarial mission to protect and advance the needs of the working class.
Emphatically not class conscious in either the sociological or pop culture use of the term, the mainstream are instead narrowly focused on pursuit of peaceful coexistence with employers who provide their dues paying base. They try to convince their courted management “partners” that they can deliver “value added” to the business–all too eager to give back past gains that once made American workers the envy of the rest of the world. They also curry favor with perfidious “friends” in one of the two major parties controlled lock, stock, and barrel by the bosses.
The class collaborationist antics of most top echelon union bureaucrats has provided fodder to boss propaganda that unions are an unneeded third party special interest group rather than advocates selected by and accountable to the workers. Many workers today question whether they need to pay dues to get wage cuts and slashed benefits. Our unions have gone from being long vulnerable to now live targets for Right to Work initiatives—and even worse.
It is not enough to denounce Scott Walker and the other evil Republican Governors who are busting our chops pushing RtW. They are, after all, loyally serving the interests of the class they represent. While the Democrats are happy to take our money and votes they serve the same master as the GOP and our fight isn’t theirs either. We have to put our own house in order. We need to outflank or replace those many officials of our own who forget where they came from and are clueless about where to lead us.
The first step in recovery is recognition of this grim reality. Also indispensable is understanding how we got in to this mess. Only then can we mobilize effective defense that can prepare a counter-offensive in the unmerciful class war being waged against us.
An Unforgettable Bloody Lesson
My interest in and attitude toward unions was initially shaped by my late father, William Henry Onasch, also known as Bill. (Thankfully I have a different middle name and avoided being called Junior.)
The very first lesson was at age five. Both my mother and I were surprised one afternoon when my dad showed up unexpectedly wearing a bright red headband. My initial thought was that he was playing like an Indian. But as my mother unwrapped it we were shocked to see it was still damp blood. I was able to find on Google an AP wire story datelined Kansas City, Kansas April 24, 1948 that reported,
“Police, ordered to stop mass picketing in the packinghouse strike here, wrecked a CIO hall yesterday in a 10 -minute skull-cracking charge which sent 10 persons to hospitals. Following the bloody police attack on strikers at the strikebound Cudahy Packing company plant, a temporary restraining order was issued against illegal picketing there….the entire Kansas City, Kan force rushed the union hall near the plant a few minutes after they had cleared the streets of pickets. They rushed the union hall after Police Captain Eli Dahlin had attempted to tell the strikers over a safety car loudspeaker that the police were not going to take any more guff in the 39-day-old strike at Cudahys, Wilson and Company, and Armour and Company. Ralph M Baker, district director of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, said the police were guilty of common brutality and ordered union members at the eight smaller packing plants to walk out. Baker said that 100 other persons were injured but none seriously enough to be hospitalized….Broken glass littered the floor. Some union members jumped through windows to escape club swinging policemen. Women screamed. Chairs were overturned. Blood was splattered on walls and floors.”
At least some of the screaming women were striker’s wives and daughters running a strike kitchen. They were forcefully shoved aside as cops who could have shown the Vandals a trick or two smashed crockery and pots. That’s where my dad got his red headband. It was my first exposure to labor relations and law and order.
The Full Impact of Taft-Hartley
This skull-cracking assault was in response to an industry wide strike of CIO packinghouse workers, the first major national walkout after passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. It was in sharp contrast to previous successful strikes coordinated with the AFL Meat Cutters in 1946 and 47. In Minnesota, the Governor sent the National Guard rolling in to South St Paul to sweep pickets from the streets. The strike had to be settled far short of its objectives.
Today most focus is on the notorious section 14(b) of Taft-Hartley that allows states to ban union shop agreements in most of the private sector. Overlooked is the fact that this most repressive labor legislation in the “Free World” also outlawed all of labor’s most effective tactics. Mass picketing to block workplace entrances was verboten. So were Hot Cargo clauses in union contracts allowing transport workers to refuse to handle goods to or from companies on strike. Secondary boycotts of third party merchants and distributors peddling scab products became illegal. Violations carried both civil and criminal penalties.
And the new law authorized the President to impose an eighty day “cooling off” period before or during a strike. President Truman gained some cheap points with union officials by vetoing the law–that everyone knew was certain to be overridden by the reactionary Congress. But Truman also used this “cooling off” feature more than any other President.
There were other odious provisions ultimately thrown out by the courts—but not before they caused irreparable harm. Coinciding with the launch of the Cold War, was a requirement that every union official had to sign an affidavit swearing they were not a Communist. Unions not complying with this provision were barred from NLRB representation—or decertification– elections. Falsifying an affidavit was punishable as perjury.
This set off an ugly wave of red baiting cultivated by liberal Democrats like Hubert Humphrey and clergy directing the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. Eleven unions were slandered as under Communist control, driven out of the CIO–and mercilessly raided. Only two—the UE and ILWU–still today survive these boss inspired attacks.
There had initially been widespread sentiment for resisting what was called the “Slave Labor Law.” The Typographical Union proposed an Emergency Congress of All Unions to devise a battle plan. There were thriving local labor party movements among auto workers in Michigan and Ohio. But above all was the thundering voice of John L Lewis, the inimitable leader of the United Mine Workers and major enabler of the CIO upsurge in mass industries.
But by that time most of the top union officials resembled the scarecrow encountered by Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. In disgust, Lewis declared both the AFL and CIO now reminded him of the allegory of lions led by asses–and took the Miners down an independent road of defiance.
Labor’s First Responders
It was only as a teenager that I coaxed my dad to tell me a lot more about his experiences before and after the watershed police riot.
During the Great Depression, Dad didn’t mind all that much when my grandfather reluctantly requested he drop out of pricey and stern Lutheran high school and go to work to help feed his several siblings still at home.
After a few temp jobs he got hired on at the Armour packinghouse in Kansas City’s West Bottoms straddling the Missouri-Kansas state line. The CIO Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee had just won recognition there and was cranking up a campaign to win a first contract. My dad was in the thick of the fight–including an illegal but highly successful department sit-down that won equal pay for women sausage stuffers–and later served as a shop steward.
Unions have always had stewards of one kind or another but it was new CIO unions that fought to have an elected steward for every foreman. While their role in contract negotiations was slim or none, this army of thousands was often able to establish a form of dual power with management in the workplace.
Cutting up carcasses of slaughtered animals is unpleasant—and often the foremen were too. Bill H approached every work day as a wary meeting of Them and Us. He saw himself as a seasoned noncom, training the new recruits in the union way and keeping his platoon functioning as a disciplined team.
Never easy, this approach was particularly challenging in the diverse workforce consciously assembled by Armour to play on divisive prejudice. My dad had already put his job on the line in actions winning gender pay equality. He didn’t hesitate to also preach the need for Black and white unity, and solidarity between immigrants and native born. Sometimes he had to physically defend himself against racists calling him a n—-r lover—and stopped going to large family holiday gatherings to avoid similar confrontations.
He told me he felt an important corner had been turned when couples of all colors and ethnic groups shared without incident the floor at a union dance. It was held in the hall of a Croatian fraternal group mostly made up of socialist immigrants working in the various packinghouses.
Like most workers, my dad thought a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay should be the default setting for the pace of production. But if the company tried to chisel on conditions, or if foremen treated the workers disrespectfully, the tempo took an abrupt downward turn. Like all good stewards he understood their power was at the point of production. He rarely wrote up formal grievances knowing that going up the step ladder not only delayed justice but risked being lost or traded away. His approach was settle it right here, right now.
The Last Line Defense Against RtW
The best of the CIO inspired steward systems were not only the union’s First Responders to grievances in the workplace; in places like Kansas where Right-to-Work was implemented they became the last line of defense in the attack on the union shop. They were a visible example of what the union could do for workers who stuck together.
The union in the KCK packinghouses adopted a practice of inviting new hires and their families to an Orientation Dinner at the Golden Ox Steakhouse in the Stockyard District. Over prime beef they explained not only how the union works but a little history about how life was in the plants before the union—and the battles fought to win the improved conditions. The union leaders acknowledged the legal right to not join the union. But they expressed hope that the new workers would agree that it was vital to be organized all for one, and one for all. They would then pass around application cards–and always got a better than 99 percent signed.
Not all Kansas unions had that high level of success but RtW didn’t prove to be the union slayer hoped for by the right-wing. After more than a half-century of RtW, union density in Kansas is 0.9 percent less than neighboring Missouri where the union shop, for now at least, remains legal. Missouri’s northern neighbor, Right-to-Work Iowa has a higher union density than the Show Me state. While there has been a steady, alarming drop in union density nationally in the private sector this has mainly been the result of mass job elimination in union bastions due to technology, runaways, outsourcing and offshoring—not through freeloaders opting out of union dues.
The only way the bosses finally rid themselves of aggressive, adversarial unions in the KCK packinghouses was to restructure their operations around new smaller plants scattered throughout rural areas in the Midwest and Prairie states. They closed both the stockyards and plants in the big packing centers such as Chicago, South St Paul—and Kansas City.
Obstacle to Organizing?
One of the arguments used by the tea pot Governors in the latest drive to expand RtW is that it will zap both existing unions and organizing, thus attracting new employers to a union free environment. While companies routinely demand—and get–taxpayer provided incentives there is little evidence to support RtW being a major factor in corporate decisions to launch or transfer operations. But since 1947, RtW has been seen by too many union officials as an insurmountable obstacle to organizing.
One union that was never daunted is the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE). I was employed at UE-organized Litton Microwave in Minneapolis, Changing the Way America Cooks, from the mid-Seventies to mid-Eighties. UE still had a CIO-style steward system and, being my father’s son, I came to be elected as a plant Chief Steward, and later Shop Chairman for all four plants in the unit. Litton didn’t like our union, and probably didn’t much like me. In 1978 they began to move hundreds of our jobs to a new plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
It was UE policy to pursue runaway plants. In the Seventies GE and Westinghouse turbine runaways were organized, and brought back in to national agreements, in RtW South Carolina and Florida. As soon as the ground was broken for construction of the new plant, the national leadership assured the Minneapolis Local that Sioux Falls would be their top organizing priority–but cautioned to do it right would take some time. It in fact took about 21/2 years.
I was pulled out of the shop in Minneapolis on union leave and sent to Sioux Falls for the last six months of the campaign. Ironically, the feature film at the only downtown movie house when I arrived was Norma Rae. I could easily fill a book about how we overcame expectations of friend and foe alike to win the biggest union victory in manufacturing in South Dakota history. But this is not the time and place for such an extensive account. I cite it mainly as an example of a relatively small, independent union, with limited financial resources, that was able to win impressive organizing campaigns in presumably conservative RtW states. The UE is one of the honorable exceptions to which I earlier referred.
I will offer one more even bigger, and more recent achievement—the 2008 victory at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, then the world’s biggest pork plant, employing about 6,000. In the December 14, 2008 Week In Review I wrote,
“Both bosses and most union officials are convinced workers can’t be organized in ‘right-to-work’ states, especially not in North Carolina. In addition to the usual obstacles put up to union organization Smithfield had assembled a workforce of immigrant and Black workers and not so subtly tried to manipulate tensions between them. Two prior organizing attempts in 1994 and 1997 had been crushed. To their credit, neither the Smithfield workers nor the UFCW gave up. About three years ago, the UFCW turned to the Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO Food & Allied Service Trades (FAST) to head up a bold new Justice at Smithfield campaign–the remarkable Gene Bruskin. I know Gene from his indefatigable work in launching and building US Labor Against the War. He somehow summoned the energy to turn the Tar Heel situation around too, combining an effective corporate campaign embarrassing the company throughout the world with rebuilding a powerful organization on the shop floor….Last Thursday the votes [an NLRB election] were tallied and the union prevailed 2,041 to 1,879. The Tar Heel campaign shows we don’t have to wait for an Employee Free Choice Act that will likely never come. With the right perspective, sufficient resources, and dedicated energy, workers can be organized right now, anyplace. Hats off to the Smithfield workers and our old friend Gene Bruskin.”
How Missouri Labor Once Defeated RtW
In 1978, a front group for the National Right-To-Work Committee, against the advice of the state’s senior Republican leaders, put RtW on the ballot. This unexpected attack caught union leaders, accustomed to lobbying “reasonable” legislators, flat-footed. Early polling showed 2-1 voter approval with even a majority of union members supporting the ban of the union shop. A disoriented labor movement desperately needed help and they got it from a UAW staffer from St Louis who had been working in the union’s Washington office—the late Jerry Tucker.
Four years ago, Labor Notes published a brief retrospective by Jerry on how that campaign was turned around. This began with the United Labor Committee, that linked AFL-CIO unions with then unaffiliated UAW, Teamsters, and United Mine Workers, anteing up some serious money for what was essentially a state-wide election campaign.
More importantly, even the Service unions had to scrape the rust off their seldom used apparatus to mobilize the ranks for determined battle—and they got, as is usually the case, an enthusiastic response.
But you didn’t have to be a math wizard to recognize that union members alone would not be enough. Jerry helped put together a broad coalition throughout the state of allies in the civil rights movement, churches, organizations of family farmers, and even small business operators. Millions were spent on effective campaign advertising. The RtW stooges were thoroughly smacked down in public debates.
In the biggest off-year election turnout in Missouri history sixty percent voted to reject RtW.
A Fleeting Glimpse of the Trident
Regular readers will recognize in the 1978 Missouri victory key elements of what I have dubbed the Trident Strategy of class struggle. Workers and allies were mobilized in the workplace, communities, and at the ballot box—and they won an important objective.
It should have sounded a new upbeat theme for labor’s cadence. It could have been a logical segue in to a serious discussion about the need for a labor party.
But with the crisis over Jerry Tucker was dismissed with sincere gratitude and grateful leaders got back to normal–keeping a low profile while schmoozing, begging and funding politicians of the boss parties and searching for win-win solutions with the boss on the job. A stunning success for our side became a One Hit Wonder.
Jerry Tucker, however, was not a business-as-usual kind of guy. Even though Jerry was on a career path in the union bureaucracy that assured prestige and generous compensation, his objections to growing UAW trends of “partnership” and concessions got him sideways with the one-party rule of the Administration Caucus founded by Walter Reuther. He committed the unpardonable sin of running against the Caucus slate for International Executive Board—and winning. The Caucus limited their damage by defeating him for reelection and Jerry became persona non grata in his union.
But over the remaining three decades of his active life he was very grata to numerous local unions, rank-and-file caucuses, and groups such as US Labor Against the War and Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Health Care, for his strategic advice and organizational savvy.
When the old Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers launched a probe called Labor Party Advocates Jerry was one of the first to sign on. By the time it filtered down to my pay grade so did I. That’s where I got to know Jerry Tucker and another remarkable maverick in union leadership—the late Tony Mazzocchi.
The Labor Party Project
Tony Mazzocchi often sardonically introduced himself as a “union bureaucrat.” He did spend most of his adult life on a union payroll. But he was hardly typical of most in that career. Along with old school adversarial unionism he also advanced a much broader social, political, and environmental vision than any of his peers.
He supported the civil rights movement and opposed the Vietnam war long before most officials. He was widely respected in the labor movement for his leadership in the successful fight to get OSHA passed. But he didn’t stop at the boundaries of the workplace. Long a collaborator with prominent ecological scientist Barry Commoner, he thought the unions shouldn’t be part of the broader environmental movement—they should lead it. Tony was a masterful spokesman for Just Transition promising to provide jobs to those who lost theirs in protecting the environment. This, of course, has become more important than ever to measures needed to stop global warming.
Years of experience in lobbying politicians convinced Tony that labor was going nowhere fast without a party of our own. Labor Party Advocates got some wind in its sails when President Clinton ruthlessly drove through NAFTA, establishing a beach head in what became known as Globalization. Several significant national unions committed substantial resources and dozens more union bodies endorsed. Community chapters were also formed in many cities. At a June, 1996 Founding Convention in Cleveland 1400 enthusiastic leaders and activists launched the Labor Party around a sound, if incomplete program.
For the first few years it appeared the Trident was actually being forged. The Labor Party was unequivocally class based. Affiliated unions representing workers on the job were the bedrock foundation. Workers not in an affiliated, or any, union could join community chapters and thousands signed up as individual members.
The second convention, also attended by 1400 in Pittsburgh in 1998, adopted an electoral policy that was crystal clear in its aims. It opened, “The Labor Party is unlike any other party in the United States. We stand independent of the corporations and their political representatives in the Democratic and Republican parties. Our overall strategy is for the majority of American people — working class people — to take political power.”
But that promising start could not be sustained over the long haul. It was not a case of lack of worker interest. Even after Tony Mazzocchi passed away in 2002, some good work was done around single-payer health care and free higher education campaigns and the inspiring establishment of the South Carolina Labor Party.
But mergers and leadership changes eroded an essential ingredient to any genuine labor party—material support by unions. The Labor Party was slowly reduced to such a starvation diet that it ultimately had to be put down. In 2012, Mark Dudzic and Katherine Isaac, the principal national officers who did their duty to the end, wrote a comprehensive, honest balance sheet aptly titled, Labor Party Time? Not Yet. They said,
“We would be hard-pressed to identify a period of U.S. history where the need for a labor-based political party was greater than it is now. After all of the events since the financial meltdown of 2008 – the ‘Wisconsin Winter,’ the ‘Occupy Wall Street Autumn,’ another ‘lesser of two evils’ election season – the next logical step might seem to be the launching (or re-launching) of just such a party. Yet the short-term prospects of an independent, pro-worker political movement emerging on the American scene are virtually nonexistent.”
The authors invited comments and I posted a lengthy one on this site, Labor Party Time? Maybe Not Yet–But Don’t Hit the Snooze Button. There was no refuting the truth that had to be painful to Mark and Katherine. I only offered a suggestion that we fall back to the Labor Party Advocates precursor to keep a network together until labor party time. This resonated with only a few local areas.
Mark Dudzic is now the coordinator of Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Health Care. When I last saw Katherine she was part of a new talented team brought on board by the Amalgamated Transit Union to train Locals how to reach out to transit riders and others in the communities to save and advance public, union transit. They are still very much part of the Movement and we will know where to find them when our turn comes.
And Those Promising Countervailing Trends?
Just as the low paid, unskilled workers in mass industries were the vanguard that built worker power in the 1930s, today’s working poor in Fast Food, Home Care, Logistics, and Big Box Retail are front and center today. The post-Stern SEIU in particular has done a good job in both assisting such workers in strikes and building working class solidarity in the communities.
A companion movement of labor-community coalitions has made some progress already in fighting for municipal and state fifteen dollar minimum wage. The most prominent leader in this trend is Kshama Sawant, a socialist elected to the Seattle City Council.
The Chicago Teachers Union continues to offer valuable lessons about effective rank-and-file control as well as mobilization.
There are old adversarial stalwarts such as the UE and National Nurses United and new efforts to bring that perspective in to a union dear to my heart—the Amalgamated Transit Union.
And these union countervails are also involved in the growing mass movement around the overarching crisis of climate change. The Labor Network for Sustainability is a valuable asset in this struggle we cannot afford to lose.
Such efforts affirm life still exists in the labor movement. They keep reasonable hope alive and deserve our solidarity.
Finally, Some Conclusions About RtW
* Without a doubt, Right-to-Work is a serious attack on worker rights and union functioning. It needs to be fought tooth and nail.
* RtW is not, however, a boss coup de grace. We should not allow union officials to use RtW as an excuse for inaction. I’ve cited a few examples among many of how unions have survived and even flourished in RtW states as well as evidence that new workers can be organized.
* Organized labor’s dependence on Democrats to stop RtW has been disastrous. Not only is this party a concealed weapon of boss rule—they are also losers. Never has there been such widespread public contempt for the two party shell game. We have to be self-reliant on all fronts of struggle. We need to have a party to our own.
That’s all for this Extra.
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