Striking Auto Workers Ask “Solidarity House,” When Does Solidarity Begin?
[This article and the ones that immediately follow it
are from the web site “Labor Tuesday” for January 8, 2002. This
version has been edited for Labor Standard.]
there is a lower class, I am in it—Eugene V. Debs
What’s happening to some Henderson, Kentucky,
autoworkers might not disturb the final rest of the late Walter Reuther,
president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) from 1946 to 1970. But it’s got to
have the ground heaving and shaking around the coffin of Eugene V. Debs, the
legendary workers’ leader who was born and buried just a few hours drive from
the Ohio River town that’s home to UAW Local 2036. That local is engaged in a
life and death struggle with Accuride Corp., a major supplier of steel wheels
It fact, what’s happening to the Local 2036
autoworkers should upset any worker with a shred of solidarity for other
workers. But it’s obvious that the top UAW leaders who mistakenly call their
Michigan headquarters “Solidarity House” don’t share the anguish of Debs.
Just as obvious is that the “Solidarity House” leaders have lost the trust
of their Local 2036 members, who have been striking the local Accuride plant for
nearly four years.
The authorized strike by over 400 autoworkers began on
February 20, 1998, after the workers lopsidedly rejected (371-9) a harsh,
concessionary contract offer that would authorize the company to subcontract out
any and all bargaining unit work. The UAW regional director at the time, Ron
Gettlefinger, according to the local union’s president, Billy Robinson, told
the local union three times that day, “Take ’em out.” Today, Gettlefinger
is poised to replace Steven Yokich, UAW international president, who is
retiring. That change is expected at the UAW convention in June 2002.
The strikers thought they had a strong hand. The
company has 80 percent of the heavy-duty steel wheel business, only has one
other plant (in Canada), and UAW plants get 95 percent of Accuride’s
production. All the top UAW leadership had to do, the strikers thought, was to
let the other UAW local unions know that the Accuride wheels now were scab
wheels. Billy Robinson says the strike wouldn’t have lasted more than four
weeks, if the UAW had just spread the word among the 13,000 union members at a
Louisville, Kentucky, Ford plant.
But only a month later, the workers decided the strike
wasn’t working and voted unconditionally to return to their jobs. The plan
was, “We’ll work to rule; we’ll do what we have to do [on the shop
Still, when the company proposed a new contract, the workers again voted it down (354-9). Even before the vote, however, the company counterpunched, locking the strikers out.
More Concessions Demanded
In September 1998, Accuride made another offer, retaining the earlier concessions and adding further outrageous provisions to allow the company to unilaterally change the pension and medical plans. Again, the new offer was rejected overwhelmingly. The firm continued to make new offers that got “progressively worse. For the next year, we refused to vote on anything,” Robinson says. But by then, the strikers discovered they were fighting a two-front battle. In 1999, the strikers were told by the international union: “As of the last day of August, you won’t have any strike insurance, you won’t have any sick pay.” Robinson says, “I got [UAW] Regional Director Terry Thurman on the phone. He said, ‘Tell them to go back to work.’ [I said:] ‘How the hell can I tell them to go back to work when we’ve been locked out for 18 months?’ He wanted us to tell the company, ‘We’ve lost our benefits now, so you’ve got to take us back.’” In other words, the UAW rep was advising the locked-out workers to try collective begging.
At a membership meeting, Robinson told the ranks,
“This is the saddest day of my life. I feel like the guts have been pulled out
of me. I can tell you today that what Accuride couldn’t accomplish, the UAW
International has done in one fell swoop. They’ve deserted you.” The ranks
voted once again,
and once again showed their determination to “stick together. We’re not
going back until we get what we came out for.”
The locked-out autoworkers — virtually on their own — started working to get their story out to other workers. Using the Internet and handbills, “We put out a tremendous amount of literature,” Robinson says. Of course, the Solidarity House officials knew what the strikers were doing and didn’t like it. Called to a Detroit meeting, the Local 2036 representatives were accused by the top UAW officials of not bargaining with Accuride in a “prudent and realistic way,” and were falsely charged with not holding secret ballot votes. But then the real purpose of the meeting was revealed when UAW president Steven Yokich said, “I don’t give a damn how many e-mails you put out, how many web sites you put up, we’re the most powerful union around, and you aren’t going to bother me, and you’re not the first ones we’ve cut off.” Shortly after, Yokich put an “administrator” in charge of Local 2036. Surprisingly, six month later [by now it was 2000 or 2001] the UAW reinstated the strikers’ benefits and strike pay, for a while at double the old amount of $175 a week.
But once again the UAW bureaucratic bullies are threatening the locked-out workforce. Robinson says they’ve been told, “If you don’t ratify that contract, the IEB [International Executive Board] will pull your charter.” Further, the UAW officialdom told the workers it would stop paying their strike benefits on January 15, 2002, despite a nearly $900 million strike fund surplus.
To date, the workers have voted six times to reject the increasingly concessionary proposed contracts. The last time they voted, with two-thirds of the membership participating, the workers voted the contract down by a 97 percent majority. Robinson says that if they give in to Accuride and the UAW tops, no more than 110 workers would get back inside the plant. And those that did get back in would be subjected to intense scrutiny. Those who didn’t meet the company’s “acceptable performance” levels, Robinson says, “would be laid off regardless of seniority.”
It’s not clear why the workers were encouraged by the
international union to strike Accuride, if the UAW in Detroit didn’t intend to
back them up. Perhaps the UAW tops misjudged the situation, thinking that
Accuride wasn’t serious about its concessionary demands. After all, bluffing,
even to the point of going out on strike is not unheard of. Sadly, there’s
another explanation more consistent with the UAW bureaucrats’ actions since
the strike began. That is, the UAW tops figured the ranks would accept the
concessions once they had missed a few paychecks. Emil Mazey, a onetime UAW
bigshot, once spelled that notion out: “I think that strikes make ratification
easier. Even though the worker may not think so, when he votes on a contract he
is reacting to economic pressures. I really believe that if the wife is raising
hell and the bills are piling up, he may be more apt to settle than
otherwise.” (Mazey was quoted in the 1972 book The Company and the Union
by William Serrin.)
If Accuride and the union bureaucrats thought they could use economic leverage against the workers’ families to force the Local 2036 members to buckle, they’ve got to be wondering what kind of union workers they’re dealing with. Of course, Debs isn’t wondering. He knows and he’s cheering them on!
Out of the Jungle:
Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class by
Thaddeus Russell (New York: Knopf, 2001), 272 pp., $26.00.
Reviewed by Charles Walker
The unionization of the strategic long-haul trucking
industry, which began during the Great Depression (1929–39), virtually
guaranteed the Teamsters union an industrial importance perhaps only rivaled for
a time by the United Auto Workers Union (UAW). The uses of the Teamsters
substantial economic and social weight since the 1930s varied with changes in
its top leadership, but it always remained the U.S. labor movement’s 800-lb
The union’s ineffectual (some would say passive)
response to the deregulation of the freight industry greatly weakened the union
in its primary jurisdiction; but as the 1997 UPS strike demonstrated, the union
still has the capacity — when it summons up the will — to give the bosses a good
fight and its members a valuable victory.
No single Teamster’s identity is more linked with the
union’s fortunes than that of James Riddle Hoffa; the charismatic, enigmatic,
tenacious, “Jimmy” Hoffa. Years before his unsolved “disappearance,”
Hoffa’s life was already the object of myth-making. His presumed death at the
hands of mobbed-up union rivals only added to the Hoffa lore, real and imagined.
In a sense the Hoffa charisma lives on. Thirty-five years after he was
imprisoned, never to return to the union, his son, a small-time lawyer with no
obvious abilities for union leadership, heads the Teamsters union, in no small
part because of the rank-and-file’s continuing admiration for his father.
The roots of the elder Jimmy Hoffa’s tenacity and
legacy are the subject of Thaddeus Russell’s Out of the Jungle. It is
not so much an attempt to illuminate (as the book’s dust jacket has it) “the
life of one of the most mysterious, compelling, and important figures in modern
American history” as it is an effort, in Russell’s words, to write an
“anti-biography.” By that Russell means that his account is an examination
of the “multitude of social forces — material and ideological — that emerged
and evolved during [Hoffa’s] lifetime.”
Some of those social forces — certainly the severity of
the 1930s economic calamity — made organizing unions “an act of simple
desperation.” Hoffa, like millions of workers during the 1930s, had little to
lose and much to gain by signing up in 1931 with a union. Hoffa’s personality
(belligerent says Russell) seemed to make him a natural leader for those times.
Perhaps, but Hoffa had much more going for himself. For example, the Minneapolis
Teamster leader Farrell Dobbs wrote that in 1938 Hoffa was “eager to learn and
quick to absorb new ideas. This enabled him to make important
contributions…” (Quoted in Dobbs’s 1973 book Teamster Power; for
more on Dobbs, see below.)
Russell’s main claim is that intra-union and
inter-union rivalries for power were and are the essential levers for advancing
unionized workers’ interests. In this case, “[C]ompetition from CIO unions
was a principal determinant of the IBT’s ascendancy from a tiny craft union to
the largest and most [powerful] labor organization in the United States.” In
other words, established union leaderships not goaded by internal and external
challenges to their relatively privileged positions are not going to fight for
their members and certainly are not going to contribute to a meaningful
expansion of union power by organizing larger unions.
The critical problem with Russell’s argument is not
that intra-union and inter-union rivalries are not a powerful dynamic in labor
history, but that Russell implicitly subordinates the importance of the rivalry
between bosses and workers (the class struggle over the division of the socially
produced wealth) to the rivalry between union leaderships. However, given the
profoundly bureaucratized labor officialdom’s muzzling of the class struggle
in the U.S. from the beginning of World War II to the present (there were
exceptions, e.g. wartime strikes by mineworkers, the postwar strike wave),
Russell’s case is superficially appealing.
But in Russell’s eagerness to make his case he
overlooks facts that don’t support his case. For example, Russell asserts that
it was the electoral challenge raised by James P. Hoffa to Ron Carey that
prompted Carey to call the electrifying 1997 strike against United Parcel
Service, the nation’s largest trucking corporation. “Creating a dramatic
confrontation with the company was the only chance [Carey] had to stay in
Russell admits that “many at the time” credited the UPS victory to the personal militancy of Ron Carey and the new “democratic culture” of the union under Carey’s leadership. But Russell argues that really the UPS victory “was produced instead by the myth of Jimmy Hoffa [Sr.], the power of competition, and the hunger and courage of the rank and file.”
The key fact that doesn’t fit Russell’s argument is
that for nearly forty years Carey had been a thorn in the side of UPS. He was an
aggressive shop steward, and an aggressive union officer. He fought the company
on picket lines and in the courts. Further he fought the international union
over his right to fight UPS. UPS itself was reason enough for Carey to fight.
The record clearly indicates that fighting UPS had become second nature to Carey
long before his stunning election victory that placed him in the union’s top
post, beginning in 1991.
Viewed in the light of Carey’s entire record,
Russell’s argument is not merely wrongheaded; it’s insulting to the stand-up
Teamster leader and the ranks he so proudly and honestly served. Russell also
gives a distorted account of the circumstances under which the feds ousted
Carey. One can’t help wondering how his account might be different now that a
jury has vindicated Carey.
It’s obvious that some types of inter-union rivalry
clearly do not advance workers’ interests. For example, the Teamsters’
violent attacks on the farm workers’ organizing drives (in the 1960s and ’70s) helped neither farm workers nor rank-and-file Teamsters. On the
contrary, if the Teamsters would have broken off collaboration with the bosses
in the food-processing industry and joined hands with the farm workers, chances
are that a Teamsters and United Farm Workers union alliance could have
overwhelmed the anti-union forces in California’s fertile central valley,
which remains an anti-union stronghold with high unemployment and widespread
This reader’s teeth were set on edge by Russell’s fawning admiration for Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother who hounded Hoffa and the Teamsters, starting in 1956 when he was chief counsel for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Also on that Subcommittee was then-Senator John F. Kennedy. Senator Kennedy was a major proponent of the Kennedy-Landrum-Griffin legislation of 1959, which closed a major loophole in the anti-worker Taft-Hartley Act by banning hot-cargo actions, a close cousin to outright secondary boycotts that capitalized on workers’ solidarity. Russell likens Kennedy, “the earnest and moralistic counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s” often-discredited witch-hunting committee, to a “crusading priest.” Absent is any mention of the “moralistic” Kennedy’s wiretapping of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
At one time, Russell probably knew better about the
likes of the Kennedys. And he probably heard something about class struggles and
unions. I say that because Russell’s stepfather was a rank-and-file leader of
the unionized truckers’ 1976 wildcat strike opposing then-Teamsters President
Fitzsimmons, who had called off the first nationwide freight strike after only
two days. Russell’s
stepfather, an outspoken socialist, left a university, as did others, to enter
the union. In the wake of the wildcat effort former students and other truckers
went on to organize the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).
Raised in a socialist household, Russell says those early political influences were swept aside by a “painful but ultimately liberating revolution in my personal and political life” that allowed him to “break out of an ideological prison I had built for myself.” Unfortunately, Russell’s breakout route from his imagined “ideological prison” only led to the “warden’s office” (that is, acceptance of the capitalist status quo). There Russell remains, partially confused by a disturbing world that has yet to resolve the class divisions that hobble humankind’s further progress.
WHO WAS FARRELL DOBBS?
During the darkest days of the Great Depression (1929–39), rank and file Teamsters waged a historic strike struggle that transformed the greater Minneapolis region into a union stronghold. Farrell Dobbs was both a militant strike leader and a central strategist of the key organizing drives (in an eleven-state are in the upper Midwest) that led to the Teamsters union becoming the largest labor organization in the U.S.
As has been noted elsewhere, “Dobbs was a revolutionary socialist as well as a crack Teamster organizer.” Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa once said, “I wouldn’t agree with Farrell Dobbs’s political philosophy or his economic ideology, but that man had a vision that was enormously beneficial to the labor movement. Beyond any doubt, he was the master architect of the Teamsters’ over-the-road operations.”
President Franklin Roosevelt and treacherous Teamster bureaucrats drove Farrell Dobbs from the Teamsters union on the eve of World War II. Framed-up on sedition charges under the notorious Smith Act, Dobbs was imprisoned for twenty-four months during the war. Years later, in 1957, the Supreme Court held that key portions of the Smith Act violated the First Amendment.
More than 600
unions and progressive organizations vainly pressed Roosevelt for an
unconditional pardon for Dobbs and the rest of the “Minneapolis Eighteen,”
seventeen other socialists and trade unionists who stood trial with Dobbs,
including socialist leader James P. Cannon. In his autobiography, Jimmy Hoffa
wrote, “In labor halls throughout America, the name of Farrell Dobbs was more
than well-known. It was keenly respected.”
Krug Winery Stomps Workers
It’s not only brawny industrial corporations that
punish their workforces with demands for concessions. Case in point: The Napa
Valley Krug winery folks, who would have you believe that the good life is so
much better with a few gulps of their upscale fermented grape juice under your
Last year Krug’s celebrated the Fourth of July with a
lockout of their production workers. It seems the workers found Krug’s demands
for concessions — including contracting out their jobs — too bitter to swallow,
and voted no.
One union connoisseur remarked, “The Krug concessions
exhibit a briny nose, a full-bodied gluttony, bringing to mind deep southern
magnolia aromas and the haunting, redolent tang of Delta plantations. Truly a
noteworthy complement to Krug’s vintage authoritarian ways.”
The workers are asking that wine tipplers hold off
buying Krug products for the duration of the company’s lockout. We’ll drink
Sweeney Gets an “A” in History
“We have declined in union density from representing
one worker in three to now representing one worker in eight. This decline has
taken place in good times and in bad times. In fact, the brutal reality is that
when the economy grows, we stay still, and when the economy declines, we lose
more members than the economy loses jobs… That single fact is the harshest
judgment history can make on our collective leadership of the labor movement.”
—President John J. Sweeney, at the AFL-CIO Convention, December
The Trucking Bosses’ 2001 Scorecard Shows Some Major
“Trucking won several major regulatory victories in
2001, beginning with the rollback of a mandatory worker protection program that
would have cost the industry billions of dollars annually to implement.
President Bush agreed with business groups that the rules were ‘too costly and
too vague’ to implement.
“The rules were intended to protect more than 102
million Americans at more than 6 million job sites from serious, sometimes
crippling, injuries resulting from lifting, using awkward postures, the use of
force, repetitive motion and vibration.”
—Transport Topics, Dec. 31, 2001
Obit for a Union Paper
Labor, a newspaper voice for workers in
Racine, Wisconsin, for 60 years, published its final edition on January 4, 2002.
The paper, which once was a weekly with 25,000 subscribers, went biweekly last
year, and its circulation was down to 4,000, due mainly to the decline in the
city’s manufacturing base. David Newby, president of the Wisconsin State
AFL-CIO, says the paper’s demise is especially disappointing because such
papers are “important sources of union news that members do not get from the
Tyson Manager Smuggled Immigrants
Tyson Foods manager pleaded guilty January 7 to bringing to the U.S.
undocumented workers for the poultry giant and providing fake identity papers.
He’s expected to testify against five other former small-fry managers and a
former vice president, who face prison terms if convicted. Prosecutors charge
that Tyson underpaid the workers. It’s not clear that prosecutors are seeking
indictments and possible jail terms for current higher-ups at Tyson, a major
bipartisan political contributor.