An open letter by WCH Contributor and Florida firebrand progressive truth seeker Charlie Lindamood
Archive for February 22, 2012
Workers at the plant, highly skilled in welding and building heavy locomotives, were well paid. They had been living pretty well for years. These workers were organized and represented by the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Local 27. Most earned about $35/hour. Throughout the negotiating process the company demanded concessions; it wanted to cut $18.50 off the $35-an-hour wage for over half the workforce, eliminate cost-of-living increases, retiree benefits, and the defined-benefit pension plan, and hike drug insurance costs. Somehow, their U.S.-based “parent” company had become owned by a private equity firms. The product of such companies is often blood and deprivation, hence the term “vulture capitalists.”
Caterpillar had done fairly well in its own right. The company posted a record profit of $4.9 billion for 2011, in the third quarter, Caterpillar posted profits of close to $15mil per day, a 44% increase over the previous year. In December the company forecast sales for fiscal 2012 would rise as much as 20 percent. Douglas R. Oberhelman, Chairman and CEO, age 57, is connected to 58 board members in 4 different organizations across 10 different industries, and had a total calculated compensation of $10,550,300 for FY2010 – according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Would there be any satisfying the corporate beast?
These workers had treated the Occupy London Ontario group well, and when times got bad, the Occupy folks stood in Solidarity with the workers as well. They helped organize rallies and form a Facebook “SOLIDARITY” page. The CAW acted swiftly and was supported by the London and District Labour Council and the Ontario Federation of Labour. On January 10, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, NDP MP Irene Mathyssen and NDP MPP Teresa Armstrong were down on the picket line. On January 21, a rally attracting more than 15,000 supporters was held at Victoria Park, site of the Occupy London Ont. The crowds then moved on to the Electromotive picket line where the police were forced to shut down Oxford Street.
On January 25, 2012, an engine from the ElectroMotive plant was barricaded on a siding in Ingersoll, Ontario by CAW Local 88 members. Over 100 supporters came out to prevent the movement of the vehicle which was scheduled to be painted and delivered to Brazil. The barricade ended February 1. On January 31, the Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty visited the London Chamber of Commerce. During a speech and in interviews afterward, he invited EMD to return to the bargaining table with CAW Local 27. On February 3, 2012, the entire bargaining unit is fired by ElectroMotive Canada. CAW leaders announced that the first meeting for severance package bargaining was to begin on Tuesday, February 7, 2012. Workers considered “Occupying” the factory until they received a ‘fair and just’ compensation package.
On February 6, Caterpillar announced the “closing” of the plant. They had engaged in a practice called whip-sawing with CAW members at EMD, by playing them against potential and alleged workers at a plant in Muncie, Indiana. Obviously, Caterpillar can hire workers in Muncie. The question is if they can hire the skilled labor that can build sellable, durable, functional locomotives for the wages they wish to pay. Time will tell. American manufacturing is returning to America via a huge multi-national corporation. All I can say is,”RATS!”
The return of such “heavy industry” jobs is surely a welcome sight to folks in Muncie, but….at what cost? As mentioned earlier, the “Lock-out” has become a favorite tactic of greedy corporations. It is union-busting, pure and simple. In 4 locations across the Upper Great Plains – in Minnesota and North Dakota, American Crystal Sugar is“increasing corporate profits at the cost of workers’ towns and families. In Findlay,OH, Cooper Tire has locked out 1300 USW/ United Steel Workers members, who now stand and watch as scabs go to work daily. A hundred years ago, owners used scabs and “private security firms”. Today we have scabs (they may claim to be in need, but they are undercutting a good standard of living) and entire “logistics and staffing” companies that travel around the country helping companies that wish to break a union.
I can’t help but wonder if the February 1 legislation in Indiana that made it America’s 23rd “Right-to-Work” state had anything to do with the situation in Muncie? These are the “elephants”. Remember, the “Right-to-Work” is what the Israelites had in Egypt! Stop it wherever it rears its ugly head!
reference and suggested reading links :
WCH Contributor Olivia Emisar’s writings are regularly available on her blog.
Today’s article is personal. We are insignificant average people. We live in your neighborhood. We shop at the same stores, and just like you, the only time we matter is during an election cycle.
We are sharing something personal in the hope more of us can relate to each other and put things into perspective. When politicians forget about us, America’s unions do not.
In 1975 my husband worked for a cannery during the summer that made cans for Hunt’s foods. The job was grueling, sweaty and dangerous. Men lost limbs and not everyone would last longer than a season. The minimum wage in 1975 was $2.10 an hour and my husband’s beginning wages were $11.25 an hour. This was a union job. As a recent high school graduate, his wages were higher than his dad’s.
My father in-law supported his family working as a custodian for the city and his salary was $10.50 hour. On this salary they managed to buy a house, raise four children and support ailing grandparents in a neighborhood where most people would not want to live then, or today. The kids turned out all right.
*** We lost great-grandma three years ago. She was 105.
Medicare was instrumental in meeting her medical needs and we can thank Unions and Democrats for this and the $300 a month she received through Social Security. Granted the money was barely enough to cover some basic needs, but there was dignity in her life. She was able to contribute a little something and give $5.00 to a grandchild for her birthday or good grades. She played Bingo twice a week with her own money. Unions and quality of life go hand-in-hand.
In 1977 my husband went to work for a chemical company that used to compete with Dow Chemical. Dow Chemical not only paid higher wages and provided greater benefits but a few years ago purchased the company he used to work for. His starting salary was $16.50 an hour and he worked there for thirteen years.
With the increases throughout the years, he ended with a paycheck of $22.00 an hour. This was his base salary; it did not include massive overtime – most of it forced - or bonuses. He also received a pension plan and health care for his entire family.
The job also came with a grueling shift schedule and dictatorial working conditions. The workers were on-duty during their days off and if the replacement worker did not show up at the end of the shift, the man that had already worked 12 hours straight with only a 15 minute lunch break would have to stay for part of another shift.
It was not unusual for my husband to work 16 hours straight some days. As a 24 hour a day operation, the plant did not shut down for the holidays and vacation time was reluctantly given. The caveat: If they didn’t use it, they’d lose it because they could not carry it over to the next year.
What You Need To Know
When they had a chemical spill, they shut down the factory and closed all the vents and doors to prevent any complaints about air quality for miles, but mostly it was the hefty fines they were avoiding. The workers inhaled that air 24 hours a day. The chemicals arrived in rail cars and tankers, the “small stuff” came in 55 gallon drums piled high on pallets. Most of the chemicals that arrived in the plant have been proven to be carcinogens at much lower exposure rates. These men and women were exposed to massive quantities on a daily basis for decades. Many of my husband’s co-workers are very ill or have died. They are/were in their mid-forties to mid-fifties.
The workers had no control over the quantities they handled or how much contact they had with the chemicals. Back then, safety consisted of paper masks, respirators, fresh air masks and rubber gloves. This was a non-union job.
Bad batches of mixed chemicals were trucked away. From reliable sources, much of the slush was “treated” through another chemical treatment and filtered through sand to trap the majority of the slush. The resulting clear liquid was dumped on the San Francisco Bay. Clear did not mean it was not toxic, but much easier to flush down the drain. This daily practice went on for decades.
The tankers that brought the chemicals to the factory needed clean tanks to pick up the next batch. Typically, they would stop in a field or gas station with a hose and flush out the tankers. The resulting slush was dumped in open fields on the ground. This was discussed on the movie Erin Brockovich. Same people, same tankers, same chemicals.
Perhaps finding a cure for cancer through the use of more chemicals is not such a great idea. A better implementation of time and resources might be in eliminating the cause altogether. For instance, agricultural chemicals banned in the United States were produced by this company and shipped to Mexico to use on their crops. Those crops came back for sale to the United States We thought you’d like to know.
The reason the chemical plant paid such good wages was that Union shops in the area paid $1.00 more an hour to their workers. Private companies had to compete with unionized factories in both salary and benefits. But they could easily overlook safety and there was no one there to have the worker’s back. They were on their own. Every man for himself.
At this time my father in-law was still working at his union job for the city earning almost $19.00 an hour. His son earned more but in those days, getting a city job meant stability, more paid holidays and a decent retirement after putting in over 20 of their most productive years.
In the 1990′s my husband worked for a power plant that has been written about in Jeff Sharlet’s Book, The Family. His salary was higher than what I mentioned earlier and more than enough to allow me to quit mine and raise our newborn. Six months after I quit my job, there was a horrific accident that left my husband unable to walk, let alone work.
The company was at fault, but by then, the powers that be had managed to put in place laws that prevented employees from suing the company. The power plant got away with it and business continued as usual. This was a non-union company. We were left to fend for ourselves.
If it weren’t for social security disability and Medicare, this family would be living in a cardboard box in an alley.
Today, in our area, there was a snippet on the news for people who are looking for jobs. The segment is called, “Job of the Day” and the job for today was Chemical Operator. The same job my husband had in 1977 – The starting pay is $12.00 an hour. This is a non-union job.
Unions do more than collective bargaining; they insure safety in the work place, they ensure workers are not taken advantage of and most of all, they are what made the middle class, home ownership and a comfortable retirement possible. They also provide workers with legal representation, knowledge and information they normally can’t access on their own. These perks are out of sight most of the time, but when push comes to shove, they really make a difference in the lives of ordinary people.
My father in-law is comfortably retired and his pension plan includes most of his annual salary which is supplemented by his social security. He still lives in the same house they bought in 1964 for $16,900. In 1964 he thought he could not afford the down payment on the old house. He only had $3.00 in his pocket at the time, but the Realtor worked it out so that $3.00 was his down payment. Great true story.
No one should have to fight to earn living wages. A power plant or chemical plant worker should, by today’s standards, be earning at least $56 an hour. The work is dangerous, the hours are grueling and the toll on their bodies is incomprehensible to white collar workers, let alone the 1% who benefit in the trillions of dollars from their blood and sweat.
Unions matter more than people realize and this is a good thing for the 1% because they are hell bent on destroying what is good in America. The longer we remain unaware, the more time they have to make sure Unions don’t recover and workers are left to fend against them on their own. All for a goddamn profit.
There is a big difference between surviving and living. Unions make living possible.
PEACE – Olivia
“They’re telling workers they’ve got to step back and do with less. What does that mean? Not having a car? Not being able to make the payments on their house? Not being able to send their kids to college? Not having any money for recreation? I thought that what’s it all about–to make the life of the worker decent and with dignity and the ability to enjoy the things of society like culture and recreation. Now they’re saying we’ve taken too much from the corporations.” —Alice Peurala 1928-1986.
The fires of steelmaking burned all along the southern shores of Lake Michigan when Alice Peurala entered US Steel’s South Works in 1953. Today most of those fires have gone out and with them the thousands of jobs that were once the economic support system for theSoutheast Chicago-Gary region, a region that has still not recovered in 2012.
Contrary to what you may have read, this was not a “loss” of manufacturing, like dropping one’s car keys in a parking lot or having a few coins slip between your couch cushions. This was deliberate theft and vandalism by what we now call the 1%. By failing to properly invest in modernization, failing to see the impact of globalization, failing to see the importance of a national industrial policy as their foreign rivals did, and turning a deaf ear to their own workers, the steel company owners helped create the economic disaster that we have today. The United Steel Workers (USW), the union that represented most of the steel mills, was trapped in an organizational structure and bargaining model that was unprepared for the employer onslaught.
A Woman Who Refused to Take No for an Answer
When Peurala entered Chicago’s South Works mill in 1953 there were few women employed there. Most of the women who had steel jobs as a result of WWII had left those jobs when the men returned home. The women who remained faced gender discrimination in hiring and promotion. Still, Peurala found that most of the male steelworkers she encountered were pretty decent and helped her learn the tricks of the steelmaking trade that allowed her to do the job.
Having been an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, Chicago steelworker Alice Peurala knew that the 1964 Civil Rights Act covered gender as well as race. So in 1967, when she was denied a promotion from her job in the Metallurgical Division to a better job in one of the product testing labs, she decided to fight. The union would not take her case, so she went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).The product testing lab job was a day job, which would give her her more time to be with her daughter in the evenings. She had been told that since the job required overtime and heavy lifting, she was ineligible as a woman. The EEOC determined that the company had lied about the heavy lifting, the onerous overtime, and the education requirements. They recommended that she sue.
She found a lawyer willing to take her case, the young Patrick Murphy , who freely admitted that he knew little about civil rights law, but dedicated himself to the case anyway. After much foot-dragging, and many objections from US Steel attorneys, a compromise settlement was reached with pressure from the judge. Peurala would be next in line for a product tester’s job. Then when US Steel tried to circumvent the settlement, the judge hit the roof and Peurala finally got her promotion in 1969.
It was not just a victory for her personally, but a victory for all women in manufacturing. It was also a victory for democracy in the workplace. The 1974 Consent Decree that was signed by 9 major steel companies, the steelworkers union and the EEOC was a major step forward in the battle against racial and gender discrimination in the industry. Cases like Alice Peurala’s lawsuit helped make that possible. As a socialist, Peurala understood how divisions within the working class weakened the power and moral authority of the labor movement and she was determined to change that.
She was one of the tough, smart working class leaders who emerged from the 1960’s determined to erase decades of discrimination and challenge the iron-fisted dictatorial control of the steel company owners. They would also challenge the leadership of the United Steel Workers of America and fight for reforms within the union itself. Peurala would eventually be elected the first woman president of a steelworkers’ local, but tragically at a time when Corporate America decided to dismantle US manufacturing, sell it off in pieces and move much of it abroad.
A Life of Work and Struggle
Peurala was the daughter of Armenian immigrants. Born in 1928 in St. Louis, she grew up in a family that was well acquainted with persecution. In the wake of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey, her father deserted the Turkish army and came to the USA on a false passport. Her mom never did find out what happened to her parents in the wake of the killings. While her mom stayed at home, her dad worked as molder in a foundry and served as shop steward in the union. Her family was pro-union and politically involved in trying to recover Armenian lands from Turkey, as had been promised by President Wilson after World War I. Like the children of most immigrant families, Peurala was well acquainted with hard work, taking her first job at 14.
“I think probably when I was at the end of the eighth grade, when I was about 14. I started working as a cashier in a movie house. And then I worked summers in little two by four factories. I remember working when I was about fifteen or sixteen the whole summer. One was a place where they made soles for shoes. And it was a messy job, you did everything by hand. You had all these things that you cut out and you soaked them in different solutions.Your hands would get messy and the solutions would smell terrible.
I used to think in later years it was probably dangerous to your health. I didn’t think it then because we were making money. It was only young people working there. There was a place where they made small tool parts and that. And then I worked in a Venetian blind factory after school. That’s when I was in high school. I went [to work] at four and worked until ten everyday. And then I worked all day on Saturday. They really ended at about twelve, but because I was a high school student they let me go home at ten.”— from an interview by Elizabeth Balanoff
After finishing high school, she took a job in retail and plunged into the world of organized labor, making friends with union organizer Bernice Fisher, one of the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality(CORE). Besides her union activism, Peurala joined sit-ins against racial discrimination as a member of CORE. Her union was affiliated with the teamsters district headed up by Harold Gibbons, a progressive socialist-minded anomaly in a union better known at the time for its ties with organized crime. Gibbons encouraged women’s union activism through labor education, attendance at union meetings and writing articles for the union publications.
A very independent-minded young woman, Peurala left her home in 1950 and traveled to Chicago, much to the dismay of our parents who expected her to stay home until she was married, as was the custom for “good” Armenian girls. She took jobs in Chicago retail stores and factories, each time working as a union organizer, sometimes winning union representation and sometimes not. The conditions in some of the workplaces were terrible, especially where the workers were women. In a candy factory where she worked briefly, the women who had been there for years seemed permanently hunched over from the constant bending that their jobs required.
Because of her left-wing views she was accused of being a communist and had to fight red-baiting charges during a union representation battle at a large Stewart-Warner auto parts plant. There were periods of when she was out of a job because of her union organizing work and she relied on unemployment compensation and the support of her union friends.
Alice Peurala in South Works
She eventually married, took a job at US Steel’s South Works as a metallurgical observer, had a child and then quickly divorced the father because of his alcoholism. A single mom on a swing shift with a young daughter, she could not do union work for several years. Fortunately she found a woman who would do childcare for her on a very flexible schedule. Her steelworker wages allowed her the expense of childcare plus enough left over to get by. She found work in the steel mill an interesting challenge.
“I found the steel mill very interesting when I first went in it, very unique. I guess it was a challenge in a way. I didn’t think too much about the female-male ratio, about my being in a plant that was mostly men except that there were men on the job who still, even though women had been hired in the steel industry during the war and there were some left (many of them had gone).
There were two other women on the job that I was on and I know when they hired me they told me that in that particular occupation in the steel mill they had hired women during the war and there were a number of women still left on that occupation. It seemed to be one that women stuck with. So the other women that were in the mill at that time were not on the occupation I was on. They were either pit recorders ingot buggy operators or oilers. A lot of them were oilers. They had stayed since the war.”– from the Balanoff interview.
After her victory in the lawsuit, Peurala started becoming more active in the union. She joined Steelworkers Fightback, a rank and file steelworker insurgency group which developed a large following in District 31 of the steel workers union. Led by a third generation steelworker named Ed Sadlowski, Steelworkers Fightback introduced a progressive militancy into the steel industry that had not been seen since the early days of the CIO. Sadlowski was elected Local 65 president in 1964 at the age of 24 and became District 31 director in 1973. He was unsuccessful in his bid for the national presidency in 1977.
Although steelworkers had finally achieved a modest middle class lifestyle, the work could still be quite dangerous. There was constant harassment by supervisors and the mills were rife with racial and gender discrimination. The national steelworkers’ leadership had pushed through the Experimental Negotiating Agreement (ENA), a no-strike clause in exchange for concessions for the company on wages and other issues. Steelworkers Fightback was against the ENA and thought that the national union needed more democracy and more rank and file participation.
After several attempts at union office in Local 65 which represented US Steel’s South Works, Peurala was elected to the grievance committee in 1976.
“Being a griever is very time-consuming and it’s very exhausting. When you are not working, you’re fighting grievances for workers that are getting suspended and fired. You become involved in those human beings who are being fired and need their jobs. You rack your brain to do your best in representing them and it takes a lot out of you. You’re also working within the union, trying to make your grievance committee more effective…I have spent a lot of years in the union fighting for certain things. For example, we passed resolutions against the war in Vietnam, probably one of the few steelworkers’ local unions that did. I felt pretty good about that. So many people that I personally like, and thought a lot of, really didn’t think it could be done.”—- from the Balanoff interview
Despite the 1974 Consent Decree, gender discrimination still dominated the mills. Women were being forced to take sick leave for pregnancy and made ineligible for unemployment of medical insurance. There were reports of women feeling compelled to have abortions to survive economically. Women steelworkers suspected that the companies were using pregnancy to rid themselves of women they never wanted to hire in the first place.
There were problems with promotions. Puerala felt that the company was hiring inexperienced women off the street to do jobs they couldn’t handle instead of promoting experienced women from inside the plant. They could then get rid of them before their promotion periods were up.The new hires were being set up to fail. Another insidious tactic was suddenly enforcing rules that had been ignored for years when women were hired. According to Local 65 member Roberta Wood:
“There was an informal agreement between the men working the blast furnace that they could exchange assignments if they didn’t want to work a specific job on a particular day. They traded jobs and took turns on the worst assignments. In the rush to prove that women can’t do the job, the company came down hard and stupid. They showed us the rules from the book. This caused a a lot of resentment toward the women. I think the company knew it would.”—from conversations with Mary Margaret Fonow
Inexperienced women felt pressured to prove themselves in situations that could be dangerous. Diane Gumulauski was seriously injured that way:
“While I was working on the lids (the coke ovens), I was told to move these 100 lb lead boxes. I wanted to prove i could do it. That all women could do it. After the third lift, I ripped open my intestines and had to be rushed to the hospital. It took surgery and a three month recover period. What I didn’t know at the time was that no man would have lifted that much weight. They would have asked for a helper or simply refused.” —from the Fonow conversations.
Peurala responded to Gumulauski’s story in anger:
“We can’t allow men to decide what women’s rights are. They aren’t the ones who’ll get hurt, we are. If those bastards try that trick again, tell them where to shove it. The men never put up with this shit.”
Puerala helped to organize the Local 65 Women’s Committee as well as the District 31 Women’s Caucus. Steelworker women activists plunged themselves into a wide variety of campaigns from fighting for stronger affirmative action enforcement to improving the decrepit state of the women’s washrooms. They formed alliances with feminist groups across the region, refuting the right-wing smear that feminism was only a movement for privileged white women. They became active in the newly formed Coalition of Labor Union Women(CLUW).
District 31 made a major push for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), sending hundreds of steelworkers, both men and women, to state legislatures to lobby for equal rights. While some local media tried to make a joke out of “burly male steelworkers” campaigning for women’s rights, steelworker women didn’t think it was funny at all. They understood the important of working class solidarity against social injustice. Peurala herself was also active in the anti-war and the reproductive rights movement.
Once dubbed “Alice in Wonderland” by men who thought a woman could never lead a largely male steelworks local, Alice Peurala won the presidency of the Local 65 in 1979.
“I did not win as a woman. I campaigned as a candidate who would do something about conditions in the plant that affect 7500 people—men and women…People in the plant looked on me as a fighter. I think it demonstrates that the men in the plant will vote for someone who is going to for them, make the union work for them.” — from Rocking the Boat
But Peurala’s victory came when the American steel industry was about to collapse. In an atmosphere of fear caused by mass layoffs, she was was narrowly defeated for re-election in 1982, but was re-elected in 1985. But by 1985, the local was down to 800 members and Alice Peurala faced a new enemy.— cancer. On June 21, 1986, her steelworker’s heart went silent and the working class lost one of its finest and most steadfast leaders.
A Legacy To Remember
“You know what the trouble is, Brucey? We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.”–Frank Sobotka, The Wire
Today the dismantling of US manufacturing is usually blamed on “greedy unions”. That’s nonsense of course. For a brief period, from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, a little more than one generation, a significant number of unionized industrial workers achieved a modest middle class lifestyle. But even then the nature of the work could take a heavy toll on mind and body. Their middle class status was always precarious, with workers only one layoff or bad accident away from serious economic troubles.
As cracks in the American economic dream began to appear in the late 1970’s, the unions representing America’s industrial workers made concession after concession in an effort to save jobs, concessions that were largely unsuccessful in doing that. Somehow it was always the workers who were expected to give up hard won gains or even their jobs, while top management and financial investors never seem to worry about how to pay the mortgage or put food on the table when hard times hit.
Neither government nor private enterprise stepped up to the plate to create effective job retraining for laid off workers. The high-tech and service jobs that were supposed to replace manufacturing proved to be largely illusiory or low-paid.
Both management and union stumbled, but “greedy workers” were not the problem. American manufacturing management was a victim of short term thinking and a lack of imagination. It did not understand the importance of a government industrial policy. It was clueless about how to operate in a global marketplace. It was organized in a topdown dictatorial bureaucratic manner. Sadly, America’s manufacturing unions were organized in much the same way.
For all of our brave talk about “democracy” we don’t apply it to the area of economics. As a nation we were right to criticize the dismal results of Soviet style centralized industrial “planning.” We failed to see that having our industrial “planning” done by a relatively small number of centralized corporations run as virtual dictatorships wasn’t much of an alternative. The industrial unions clung to much the same model and many workers gradually became alienated and saw them as little more than a kind of insurance policy, resulting in low levels of rank and file involvement. When the time came to fight for survival, most workers just were not well prepared.
This lack of a democratic culture within US manufacturing was grossly inefficient. Alice Peurala spent an enormous amount of her time battling company enforced racial and gender discrimination. One of the best grievance handlers at South Works, she also spent entirely too much time fighting back against petty harassment of workers by supervisors who were trying to impose an atmosphere of fear and intimidation demanded from the top. She also spent an enormous amount of her time battling the entrenched leadership of the steelworkers’ union, which was leading rank and file steelworkers to disaster.
Manufacturing is more than just machines and processes. It is also about living breathing people with minds. Imagine if working class leaders like Peurala had been able to apply their formidable abilities toward improving the manufacturing process with genuine worker involvement instead of having to fight for clean washrooms. What a goddamned waste of working class talent, time and energy.
Throughout her life, Alice Peurala was devoted to the idea of democracy. She was on the right track. If we are to revive manufacturing as well as the rest of our economy, we will need to do it differently than in the past. Until we learn how to apply democracy to our economics we will continue to be trapped in an inefficient, wasteful, polluting system that degrades our humanity and the planet we live on.
I never met Alice personally, but saw her at a number of rallies around Chicago back in the day. A steel worker friend of mine who did know her said that in addition to being a a tough smart negotiator, she also played a mean hand of poker.
Interview with Alice Peurala by Elizabeth Balanoff
Harold Gibbons from Wikipedia
Alice Peurala Regains Reins Of Steel Union Local By James Warren.
Alice Peurala, 58, Steel Union Leader By James Warren
The Role of Management in the Decline of the American Steel Industry by Robert E. Ankli and Eva Sommer
Chicago’s Southeast Side Industrial History by Rod Sellers
Union women: forging feminism in the United Steelworkers of America by Mary Margaret Fonow
Originally posted to Bobbosphere, also republished as feature in Daily Kos “Community Spotlight”
WCH Contributor Patrick Murfin’s writing can be found regularly at the blog Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout
An important labor milestone nearly slipped by me. A few days ago, the anniversary of one of the most storied battles of the ruthless pre-World War I class war occurred. It was on January 27th.
Just a year after cotton and woolen mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts launched their epic Bread and Roses struggle over assigning workers to tend more machines, workers in the specialized silk industry in Paterson, New Jersey found themselves faced with a similar problem. Local employers announced the impositions of the four loom system in January, 1913.
Previously the mostly women workers tended two looms with children helping by winding bobbins, sweeping scrap, and pushing heavy carts of finished materials. Men, mostly immigrants, filled more skilled jobs maintaining and setting up the delicate machinery. The new system not only put people out of work, but those who kept their jobs got no additional compensation for essentially double the work. And hours were lengthened to make up for lost time as machines were fouled and shut down as exhausted workers could not keep up. Those additional hours came at no raise in daily pay.
As in Lawrence, there were skeleton organizations of AFL craftsmen and a small IWW branch engaged mostly in education and general agitation but workers had no effective recognition. Weavers at the Doherty Silk Mill got together and elected a four-man grievance committee to lay out the hardships to the bosses. When they presented themselves at the mill office, committee members were peremptorily fired. The next day, January 27, 800 workers at the mill went out on strike.
By the end of the week the strike had spread to 300 mills large and small in Paterson and its immediate vicinity. Recognizing the need for experienced leadership, the strikers called on the Industrial Workers of the World.
Many of the same figures who energized the Lawrence Strike came to do the same in Paterson including IWW General Secretary-Treasurer William D. “Big Bill” Haywood, the Italian IWW leader and anarchist Carlo Tresca, the fiery young speaker Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. They joined the seasoned German IWW organizer Adolf Lessing who was already on the ground.
The Wobbly leadership empowered the strike committee and helped it organize mass pickets at the mill gates as well as provide logistical support for the strikers. Flynn organized special meetings of women, both strikers and the wives of strikers. As in Lawrence, the strikers were met with mass attacks by police and assaults, even gunfire, from armed thugs employed as guards by the larger mills. Over the course of the strike three workers would be killed by the gun thugs, and two more would die later of their wounds..
The IWW leaders recognized that they had to make the strike broader. Another 1000 mills and dye houses in the area were still working. And new silk centers in Pennsylvania with more modern equipment, many owned by the same companies that controlled the Paterson mills, could continue to meet their commercial needs. They called a general strike of the industry for the end of February. It was successful in the Paterson area where virtually all shops downed tools and joined the strike. Eventually more than 20,000 were out.
Authorities responded with mass arrests; Haywood, Tresca, and Flynn were all nabbed as were hundreds of rank and file members. Over the course of the strike over 3,000 were arrested and most sentenced to ten day jail terms. The IWW’s General Defense Committee went into overdrive trying to raise money for lawyers and to support the families of jailed strikers.
The spreading strike naturally attracted the attention of the press. While mainstream newspapers and magazines almost universally ran scare headlines condemning the strikers, left wing journalists came to tell the other side, including Jack Reed, the renegade socialite and future patron of the avant- garde Mabel Dodge, and a young Walter Lippmann. Reed was swept up in the street arrests and sentenced to jail. He wrote columns on the inhumane conditions in the hellishly crowded jails which were smuggled out and printed in leading New York newspapers. Exasperated authorities released him early.
Returning to New York, Reed and Dodge, who were having an affair, hatched a plan to bring the stirring story of the Paterson Strike to the stage to raise popular support for the struggle and money for the strike fund. They did not think small. They rented Madison Square Garden. Dodge provided seed money and prevailed on her circle of artistic friends to help. Reed, one of the founding members of the Provincetown Players, put together the program and wrote most of the script. His close friend Eugene O’Neill, who had joined the IWW Marine Transport Workers Union during his days as sailor on tramp steamers, is thought to have written some of the dialogue.
An enormous electric light bulb sign was erected over the Garden featuring the shirtless figure of a worker, one arm raised, rising above a skyline of smoking mills. The same figure, drawn by IWW poet, illustrator and editor Ralph Chaplin also adorned the program book. For many years it would be used as the cover for the union’s famous Little Red Songbook.
For a few electric moments there was a terrible unity between all of these people. They were one: the workers who had come to show their comrades what was happening across the river and the workers who had come to see it. I have never felt such a pulsing vibration in any gathering before or since.
Unfortunately the Pageant was not a financial success. In fact it was a disaster. There were not enough limousine liberals to fill the expensive seats in the enormous building. Seats in the $1 and $2 range meant to be affordable to better paid workers had to be largely filled at the last minute by less well off working people who paid a dime or were even let in free. The program lost money for the Strike Fund.
Reed and Dodge did not stick around to try and clean up the mess. The day after the show closed, they boarded an ocean liner for a trip to Europe.
The IWW had exhausted virtually its entire treasury on the strike. Socialist Party locals had also raised money, but by midsummer they were tapped out as well. Without the support of a strike fund to keep food on the table, workers began to drift back to work. The bulk of them returned in July. The IWW Textile Workers Industrial Union, which had never been able to spread the strike into an industry wide action that it knew was key to winning, officially called an end to the strike and sent the last stragglers back to work in September.
None of the strikers economic demands were met. Moreover the larger companies used the prolonged strike to force smaller, “less efficient” mills into bankruptcy. There were fewer jobs to go back to. On top of that, the country was sliding into another one of its periodic financial panics.
What is a labor victory? I maintain that it is a twofold thing. Workers must gain economic advantage, but they must also gain revolutionary spirit, in order to achieve a complete victory. For workers to gain a few cents more a day, a few minutes less a day, and go back to work with the same psychology, the same attitude toward society is to achieve a temporary gain and not a lasting victory. For workers to go back with a class-conscious spirit, with an organized and determined attitude toward society means that even if they have made no economic gain they have the possibility of gaining in the future.
The strike was a virtual last hurrah for the Textile Workers IU. There were a few other scattered actions during the balance of 1913, but the financial panic made calling strikes an exceptionally risky business. By 1916 the IWW General Administration suspended the charter of the Industrial Union for lack of membership. Active local branches continued with a direct affiliation to the GA. There would be precious little further activity in what had been a key IWW industry.
Instead the union turned its attention more and more to the extractive industries of the west — the wheat and grain harvests,California agriculture, Pacific Northwest fruit, copper and other hard rock mining, coal mining, large scale construction projects, and the lumber industry. With the exception of the mining industries, most of the workers in these industries were single transient men moving from job to job, even from industry to industry. These were tough, militant men, but the absence of home guard workers with families and large numbers of women dramatically changed the legendary fighting union.
The American Dream Then and Now – Unions, the Middle Class and The Once-and-Future American Corporate Elite
by Charlie Lindamood, WCH contributor and Florida firebrand progressive truth seeker.
I remember growing up in the 50′s and how I’d hear idealistic phrases like “lots of money doesn’t mean you’re rich..owning land is being rich!” Owning land meant you would always have a place that was yours,and its value would increase with time even if your personal wealth decreased. It was the American dream..own land, a home, raise a family, or not…but always, always pay your taxes.
That was then and this is now…now we “are” our ancestors, we have a new legacy to leave our children. We are experiencing what it is like to be on the verge of losing “the dream.” Some have already lost the dream. They paid their taxes. They played by the rules..and yet they find themselves, their families, their belongings, out on the street…wondering where they wiill sleep, or when they will eat. They are further victimized and accused by some of wanting to be victims, even that they deserve to be victims! Oh yes..they must enjoy sleeping in their cars, being known as food stamp recipients, wanting to hold signs and beg.. Now they are persecuted for being laid off or losing their jobs.
There used to be one common denominator that all American citizens had in common..work! Work was supposed to get us “a pot in every kitchen and a chicken in every pot”. The exact wording was “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” from Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign.
America, the land of the free, the words advertised. Work for a fair living wage. But that is not how it was “then.” There was no living wage, there was no fairness in the workplace. There was no guarantee that there would be a light at the end of tunnel…retirement. Back when the dream started there was no “middle class,”just the working class.
What really went on was this: You did your job, got your pay and hoped someone else didn’t offer to do it more cheaply, or was willing to work longer hours, even work seven days a week.
“Back in the day” is how our children and grand kids refer to our generation…”Back in the day” they ask, “did you have unemployment, foreclosures, homeless families, school closings and no health care”?….To answer that question we, the children of the fifties and parents in the sixties, have to be humbly grateful for the one fabric of cloth that grew bigger and longer and sheltered so many under their tent – labor unions.
It took many years and many generations of American workers to build and maintain the middle class. It took the uniting of many laborers from many diverse trades to come together and make a difference.
Labor Unions began as early as 1827, in the USA. The first U.S. Labor Organization was The Mechanics’ Union Trade Association.This Union recognized all laborers, regardless of their trades. They recognized that they all shared common problems that could only be solved by “united efforts as a “class”…they stood together as one and changed the intimidation of their employers’ demands from ”take it & like it” to “won’t take it & don’t like it.” They spoke in unison and stood together in solidarity.
My Dad was a proud member of the CWA (Communications Workers of America) Union, my Mom, the IBM (International Brotherhood of Machinists) , my sister AFL-CIO , (American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations) me, CWA. .It was wonderful because workers knew where they stood; rules, honor and integrity were practiced in the work place. If a dispute or grievance came up, you went to your Union Steward without fear or anger. A meeting and discussion with management usually ended with both parties content and their pride intact. I knew exactly how much money I could expect to make, when I would receive a raise and what was expected of me by my employer.
My employer, Ma Bell & AT&T, made billions of dollars annually in profits. Would they have made those “billions ” if it had not been for the work of the employees?
The Beginning of the End
Over the years corporate owners became so wealthy they chose not to acknowledge who made them “billionaires.” They chose not to give credit to the American workers, the middle class, for making their Corporate trademarks and their products known proudly, around the world as “made in America!” They chose to ignore the fact that the integrity and pride of the American worker went into the production of their wares.
The Corporate Owners found ways to cut corners, hide profits, and purchase special interest favors from those with government legislative powers. Republican legislators put themselves forward as having more in common with corporations and understanding their desire for the aggregation of corporate power.
Corporate disdain for unions, organized labor and the middle class, all of whom are represented by the Democratic Party, provided incentive for a negative campaign against American workers and labor unions. A turning point in their campaign occurred in the wake of President Reagan’s action against 11 thousand Professional Air Traffic Controllers..in 1981. After intervening , Reagan threatened that if they did not return to their jobs within 48 hours they would be terminated. They didn’t return and were fired.
This action set off a chain of events that redefined labor relations in America.
Emboldened by Reagan’s actions, corporations began to propagandize sthat it was the “greed” of the American workers that forced this action! and threatened that if the other labor unions who sought to redress grievances and improve their conditions in similar fashion would suffer a similar fate.
PATCO went on strike because of the long hours and short staffing. Many Air Traffic Controllers were diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, heart disease, nervous breakdowns and depression, but nothing was done to correct the under staffing and long stressful shifts that were the underlying causes for these documented medical conditions.
Whenever attacks are made upon workers, then and now, Corporate America tries to blame problems it encounters on organized labor. Instead of fostering an atmosphere of cooperation with workers, CEO’s often hide profits in foreign banks. They grudge paying living wages and still try to hire workers at the lowest wages possible, often in third world countries, and refuse to acknowledge the workmanship that went into creating their popular and well known brands. They deride the existence of the middle class and see NAFTA as a chance to move their corporations wherever they are greeted by what they consider hospitable conditions, which translates into the places in which they will encounter the least resistance to complete control of their workplaces by corporate management.
This is changing slowly as corporations find that costs in their third world havens become higher. They find that now they must play the “American” card once more as they seek to move back to the USA. And even with the still-less-than-robust, although slowly improving economy, American workers are not likely to give them the carte blanche and total control that they see as their right.
When push comes to shove, corporations may find that they need to change their modus operandi drastically if they wish to be acknowledged as “American” again.
Anthracite was “discovered” in America by Connecticut settlers in what is today known as the Wyoming Valley of PA. Depending on who is telling the story, it was 1762, or it was not. Some say that a hunter, named Necho Allen in what is now the Coal Region, fell asleep at the base of Broad Mountain and woke to the sight of a large fire because his campfire had ignited an outcropping of anthracite coal. Some say it was simply discovered in outcroppings along the river. 90% of the known anthracite deposits in the world exist in a ten county area of eastern and northeastern PA. Placed side by side, these would encompass an area roughly the size of Manhattan.
It has been said that Judge Fell of Wilkes-Barre first burned anthracite as a “home heating fuel” in 1808. He found that a coal fire needed an air source from beneath – unlike wood – to burn continuously. To solve this problem, he designed a grate which held coal in a raised position where air could flow from underneath and around, allowing for complete combustion. Henceforth, the popularity of “hard coal” as a residential heat source grew steadily. From the late 1800s through the 1950s coal was the most popular heat source in the U.S.
The growing demand for coal led to a growing demand for workers. This led to immigrants flocking to the “Coal Region”. Among the earliest were Irish, and they were among the first to be abused and exploited as workers. This also made them the first to fight back. The first coal miners union, the Workingmens’ Benevolent Association, (WBA) was formed in 1868 at Saint Clair. In 1869, 108 miners were killed in a fire in the “Avondale Mine Disaster”. As worker abuse and working conditions continued without improvement, trouble and violence grew. An alleged secretive group, the ‘Molly Maguires’ were blamed for trouble and were reportedly tied to the “Ancient Order of Hibernians.” They were treated as miscreants and criminals. Ten members of this group were eventually hung – June 21, 1877.
The WBA would fail in 1875, along with the similar and parallel Miners and Laborers Benevolent Association which also collapsed in light of competition and stockpiling by the larger companies. These “social organizations” would, however, lay the footings for the United Mine Workers. Ever growing markets led to further demand, which led to greater need for labor. This time the eastern European economies had been hit hard and many of Polish, Slovak and Lithuanian descent had come to dig coal for a living. Poor conditions continued, and by the late 1890s men and boys, miners up and down the length of the “Coal Region,” were struggling for better pay and working conditions. In September of 1897 as striking miners marched from town to town seeking to build support and solidarity among other miners, a confrontation occurred near Lattimer.
19 were killed, as many as 50 wounded, nearly all shot in the back (some more than once) by sheriff’s deputies, who sought to “gun down the striking scum”. In the four months that followed, the UMW added about 15,000 new members. Unionism had set in.
The UMW had seen successes in the Midwest and in western PA in the bituminous or soft coal fields. Led by the fabled John Mitchell, miners in the “Hard Coal Region” had struck, and with political pressure on the operators, the strike was resolved favorably for the miners. The operators resented the miners’ success and vowed not to allow it again. By 1902, however, when Mitchell led the miners’ pleas for better working conditions, the operators rebuffed every attempt. Eventually, Mitchell called the strike and 147,000 miners went out. Coal production was decreased by nearly 96% in what has been called the “Greatest Strike Ever”.
Operators hired more of their ‘Coal and Iron Police’, (PA charged $1/officer for commissions) who had the full force of law, and violence led to further determination among the striking miners. Soon the entire compliment of PA’s National Guard – 10,000 strong – were sent to help police the situation. When this still failed to resolve the strike, and with winter and a heating season approaching, the situation drew the attention of Pres. Teddy Roosevelt. He refused the operators’ direct requests to squelch the workers, having personal regard and respect for hard work. He engaged JP Morgan to enforce his coal operators to agree to an arbitration deal. The owners weren’t happy, but after 163 days, the UMW called off the strike. The arbitration lasted from November until March, with gains for the miners, but still no official recognition of the union as bargaining agent.
Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL, said the strike was “the most important single incident in the labor movement in the United States.” A memorial dedicated to John Mitchell was erected in Scranton, PA, in 1924. The “Great Strike” legacy continues to be important, people still gather around the statue to celebrate “John Mitchell Day” on October 29, in remembrance of Mitchell’s success in the anthracite strike.
Employment in the mines of the “Hard Coal Region” peaked at 180,000 in 1914. Production topped out at over 100 million tons per year in 1917. Mitchell and the UMWA struggled and fought for recognition. By 1922 another major strike hit the region’s operators, this time miners from anthracite were joined by miners elsewhere in the “bituminous” coal fields. When the issues were resolved then, the miners’ work stoppage had shorted production by 40 million tons, and everybody enjoyed success except those who counted on this fuel to keep warm from winters wrath. The UMWA was recognized, strong, and “here to stay”.
On January 22, 1959, a hole broke open in the bed of the Susquehanna River near Pittston, PA – actually at Port Griffith. To the miners below it was imminent danger; to the industry that had been “King” it was another large step toward the end. Twelve men would perish, 69 would survive, while 33 of those would be amazingly, incredibly, heroically rescued; saved for their families and the future. The mine was called ‘River Slope’, it was owned by Knox Coal Co. Much would be learned following this disaster, much would be found that contributed to the tragedy.
That January 22nd morning had seen the river levels rise amid a customary “January Thaw”. Ice floes were moving along a swollen river and all seemed normal to the world. Suddenly a hole broke open in the ceiling of the River Slope Mine shaft. Water began pouring in, opening a growing hole in the riverbed. Icy, cold, cold water. Miners heard the thunder, and knew instantly, instinctively that something had gone wrong. Utterly, horribly, irreparably wrong. For those who would get out, life would never be the same; for the others, life would no longer be. Water seeks its own level.
Meanwhile in River Slope on January 22nd, an estimated 2.7 million gallons of water per minute poured into that mine shaft and other nearby, connected, and adjacent shafts. Ice blocks described by some survivors as being nearly the size of cars were finding their way into the tunnels. Men scurried, seeking safety and a travel route to the surface. Three of the six men working directly in the River Slope shaft fled to safety. Thirty three more workers from adjacent shafts caught the last elevators to the surface. Forty five men remained to find safety, escape, or death. A huge whirlpool, a swirling vortex had formed along the river’s edge, as water poured into the mine shafts below.
Knox Coal Co had leased the River Slope Mine from the Pennsylvania Coal Co, along with other mining rights in the Pittston/Port Griffith/Wyoming Valley area. State mining regulations called for a suggested thirty foot “buffer” of ground to remain between the river and any mine shaft. Knox had mined River Slope to within twenty inches. When warm temperatures and thawing, melting conditions swelled the Susquehanna on that fateful day, there was no stopping it. No turning back. The men that remained below ground (with a chance of escape) got separated into two groups. One group of 7 men included a surveyor who had maps and was familiar with a route to an abandoned shaft that would provide passage to the surface.
Upon reaching the abandoned shaft (now cluttered, if not filled, with debris), they began digging and removing debris on their journey upward. Thirty feet up they broke into an open shaft, but found the walls nearly straight up and nobody could hear their calls for help. Eventually one man, Amedeo Pancotti, volunteered to attempt the climb of another 50 feet of near vertical wall. Slowly and in adverse conditions, Pancotti reached the top, was found by rescuers on the surface.The passageway provided the means for the rescue of the last of those who would survive this disaster. Eighty one men had gone to work that morning, now less than a regular work shift later 69 had escaped. Heroes had risen to the call. conditions below ground worsened, and hopes for survival of the missing dwindled.
Meanwhile in Pittston and Port Griffith, at River Slope Mine, the community had gathered. It was known by all which 12 men remained beneath ground. The visible sight of the river pouring into the mine shafts was horriifying. Rescue efforts were being implemented as fast as possible. Efforts were made to fill the hole, stop the swirling vortex. Dirt and fill were dumped in, at one point, railroad cars were pushed in, anything to fill the space that was allowing the water to flow in. On January 13, five deep-sea divers arrived to aid in the search and rescue efforts. Pumping efforts didn’t start until January 26, but continued through July 24, long after it was accepted that those 12 brave souls were lost forever.
Coal remained “King” throughout the “Hard Coal Region” throughout the boom times of the Roaring Twenties, throughout the Great Depression, throughout WWII and well into Ike’s two terms in office. Corruption and violence had run various cycles, with each having their high times and each taking a turn at being in control. Immigrants, diversity, religion and the UMWA were life in the “Hard Coal”, not a way of life, they were life. In the investigations that followed the Knox mine Disaster, it was discovered that as well as the many safety and operations violations, there were some corruption problems within the system. Seven officials of Knox Coal were indicted and charged with violations up to and including manslaughter. None were convicted of the deaths, while three were convicted of the lesser charges. At least one man who held ownership participation in the operation while holding office as a UMW District 1 official was included among those convicted.
While coal is no longer king, there is no denying the role it has played in the history and heritage of Pennsylvania, and of the country. Corruption and violence, some of it perhaps the fault of the union, figured in this checkered history. But the violence and corruption began long before the union existed in that area, and has prevailed far past any real union power there. It is there, somewhere deep. It is not limited to coal.
After all, had it not been for the presence of the UMW, young boys would still be working in the mines, breakers, and collieries there – for the enrichment of robber barons bent on exploitation. Long live the UMWA. Their struggle goes on.
We strongly suggest a visit to Knox Mine Disaster
The following links were used in this article :
by Andy Piascik, a long-time activist who has written about
working-class issues for the Industrial Worker, Z Magazine, Union
Democracy Review, Labor Notes and other publications.
One hundred years ago, in the dead of a Massachusetts winter, the
great 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike—commonly referred to as the “Bread
and Roses” strike—began. Accounts differ as to whether a woman striker
actually held a sign that read “We Want Bread and We Want Roses, Too.”
No matter. It’s a wonderful phrase, as appropriate for the Lawrence
strikers as for any group at any time: the notion that, in addition to
the necessities for survival, people should have “a sharing of life’s
glories,” as James Oppenheim put it in his poem “Bread and Roses.”
Though 100 years have passed, the Lawrence strike resonates as one of
the most important in the history of the United States. Like many
labor conflicts of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the strike was
marked by obscene disparities in wealth and power, open collusion
between the state and business owners, large scale violence against
unarmed strikers, and great ingenuity and solidarity on the part of
workers. In important ways, though, the strike was also unique. It was
the first large-scale industrial strike, the overwhelming majority of
the strikers were immigrants, most were women and children, and the
strike was guided in large part by the revolutionary strategy and
vision of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Beyond its historical significance, elements of this massive textile
strike may be instructive to building a radical working class movement
today. It is noteworthy that the Occupy movement shares many
philosophical and strategic characteristics with the Lawrence
strike—direct action, the prominent role of women, the centrality of
class, participatory decision-making, egalitarianism, an authentic
belief in the Wobbly principle that We Are All Leaders—to name just a
few. During the two months of the strike, the best parts of the
revolutionary movement the IWW aspired to build were expressed. The
Occupy movement carries that tradition forward, and as the attempt at
a general strike in Oakland and solidarity events such as in New York
for striking Teamsters indicate, many in Occupy understand that the
working class is uniquely positioned to challenge corporate power.
While we deepen our understanding of what that means and work to make
it happen, there is much of value we can learn from what happened in
Lawrence a century ago.
A town on the brink of labor unrest
The city of Lawrence was founded as a one-industry town along the
Merrimack River in the 1840s by magnates looking to expand the local
textile industry beyond the nearby city of Lowell. Immigrant labor was
the bedrock of the city’s development. Early on, French Canadians and
Irish predominated. By 1912, when Lawrence was the textile capitol of
the United States, its textile workforce was made up primarily of
Southern and Eastern Europeans—Poles, Italians and Lithuanians were
the largest groups, and there were also significant numbers of
Russians, Portuguese, and Armenians. Smaller immigrant communities
from beyond Europe had also been established, with Syrians being the
largest. Though very small in number, a high percentage of the city’s
African-American population also labored in textile.
Mill workers experienced most of the horrors that characterized 19th
century industrial labor. Six-day workweeks of 60 hours or more were
the norm, workers were regularly killed on the job, and many grew sick
and died slowly from breathing in toxic fibers and dust while others
were maimed or crippled in the frequent accidents in the mills. Death
and disability benefits were virtually nonexistent. Life expectancy
for textile workers was far less than other members of the working
class and 20 years shorter than the population as a whole. It was a
work environment, in short, that poet William Blake captured perfectly
with the phrase “these dark Satanic mills.” Living conditions were
similarly abominable: unsanitary drinking water, overcrowded
apartments, malnutrition and disease were widespread. Thousands of
children worked full time and were deprived of schooling and any
semblance of childhood because families could not survive on the pay
of two adult wage earners. Constituent unions of the American
Federation of Labor (AFL) had no interest in organizing workers who
were immigrants, “unskilled,” and overwhelmingly women and children.
The local of the United Textile Workers (UTW) had a small number of
members drawn, true to the AFL’s creed, exclusively from the
higher-skilled, higher-paid segment of the workforce.
The IWW was also in Lawrence. The Wobblies led several job actions in
1911 and its radical philosophy resonated with mill hands far beyond
the several hundred who were members. Faced with lives of squalor and
brutally difficult work, despised by their employers, the political
sub-class, the press, and mainstream labor, textile workers, once
introduced to the IWW, came increasingly to see that militant direct
action was both viable and necessary. Many had experience with
militant working class traditions in their native lands—experience the
IWW, in contrast to the AFL, not only respected but cultivated. Though
there was an undeniable spontaneity to the Lawrence strike, the
revolutionary seeds the IWW planted in the years before 1912 were also
Workers walk out on strike
The spark was lit on Jan. 11, 1912, the first payday since a law
reducing the maximum hours per week from 56 to 54 went into effect on
Jan. 1. Because mill owners speeded up the line to make up the
difference, workers expected their pay would remain the same. Upon
discovering that their pay had been reduced, a group of Polish women
employed at the Everett Cotton Mill walked off the job. By the
following morning, half of the city’s 30,000 mill hands were on
strike. On Monday, Jan. 15, 20,000 workers were out on the picket
line. Soon, every mill in town was closed and the number of strikers
had swelled to 25,000, including virtually all of the less-skilled
workers. The owners, contemptuous of the ability of uneducated,
immigrant workers to do for themselves, did not bother to recruit
scabs, certain they would prevail quickly. By the time they realized
they had a fight on their hands, the strikers were so well-organized
that importing scabs was a far more difficult proposition.
Several days after the strike began, workers in Lawrence contacted the
IWW’s national office for assistance, and Joe Ettor and Arturo
Giovannitti were dispatched from New York to help organize the strike.
Though Ettor would spend most of the two-month strike as well as the
rest of 1912 in a Lawrence prison, the work he did in the strike’s
early days was indispensable to victory. Radiating confidence and
optimism, Smilin’ Joe had the workers form nationality committees for
every ethnic group in the workforce. The strike committee consisted of
elected reps from each group, and meetings, printed strike updates and
speeches were thereafter translated into all of the major languages.
In addition to the democratic nuts and bolts, Ettor brought an
unshakable belief in the workers to the strike. The IWW had a faith in
the working class that is markedly different from the often
self-serving proclamations of union organizers of today who are mostly
out to build their organizations. In contrast to the all too common
practice of organizers “taking charge,” Ettor displayed a fundamental
belief in the ability of workers to do for themselves. He,
Giovannitti, and, later, Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, made
every aspect of the strike a learning experience. As the strikers
worked to achieve greater power in the short term by winning their
demands, many came to see that the society could not function without
workers and that there was no job or task that was beyond the
collective skill of the working class. Ettor, Haywood, and Flynn also
provided a vision of workers managing society, underscoring that it
was an achievable goal. Without ever downplaying the particularities
of the strike or of the strikers’ lives, they boldly proclaimed their
opposition to the capitalist system and encouraged the Lawrence
workers to explore what that meant. In practice, the vision of a new
world played out in the decision-making process, the support services
the strikers established with the help of contributions from around
the country (soup kitchens, food and fuel banks, medical clinics, free
winter clothing and blankets) and in direct action on picket lines, in
the courts, during the strike’s many rallies and parades, and in the
IWW’s insistence that all negotiating be done directly by rank and
Perhaps the most important of the IWW’s contributions was its
incessant emphasis on solidarity. The only way to victory, they
emphasized, was unity and the only way to unity was to respect the
language and culture of each nationality group. Ettor, Haywood and the
other Wobblies understood that solidarity did not mean dissolving
differences; it meant enriching the experience of all by creating
space for each to participate in their own way. They encouraged the
workers to view each other that way and emphasized again and again
that the only people in Lawrence who were foreigners were the mill
owners (none of whom lived in town). With each passing day, the
strikers’ solidarity increased. They came to understand that
solidarity was not just the only way they could win the strike; it was
also the only way to build a better world.
So inspired, the strikers rose to every challenge. They circumvented
injunctions against plant-gate picketing with roaming lines of
thousands that flowed through Lawrence’s streets and turned away
would-be scabs. After early incidents where some scabs were attacked,
they embraced Ettor’s emphasis on nonviolent direct action without
ever diminishing their militancy. When Massachusetts Governor Eugene
Foss—himself a mill owner—pleaded with them to return to work and
accept arbitration, the workers refused, recognizing the offer as a
ploy that would leave their demands unaddressed. Whenever strikers
were arrested (as hundreds were), supporters descended en masse to
Lawrence’s courtroom to express their outrage.
The involvement of women was absolutely crucial to victory, beginning
with the rejection of the self-destructive violence of some male
strikers. Though the IWW’s record on promoting female leadership was
spotty at best, Ettor and the other Wobblies in Lawrence were sensible
enough to let the women’s initiative fly free. The presence of Flynn,
the “Rebel Girl,” was a factor, but the large-scale participation of
women resulted overwhelmingly from the efforts of the women
themselves. Knowing all too well that violence always reverberates
hardest on those on society’s lowest rungs, women strikers called the
men on their beatings of scabs and their fights with police and
militia. It was women who moved to the front of many of the marches in
an effort to curtail state violence against the strike (though the
police and militia proved not at all shy about beating women and
children as well as men). It was also the women who led the way in the
constant singing and spontaneous parading that was such a feature of
the strike that Mary Heaton Vorse, Margaret Sanger and numerous others
remarked at length about it in their accounts of Lawrence. And it was
the women who made the decision to ship children out of town to
supportive families so they would be better cared for. A common
practice in Europe unknown in the United States, the transporting of
children drew much attention to the strike, first because it revealed
much to the world about living conditions in Lawrence and later
because of the stark violence of the police who attacked a group of
mothers attempting to put their children on an outbound train.
State violence was so extreme that it actually reverberated in the
strikers’ favor, as there were outcries from around the country over
the police killings of a young woman and a 16-year-old boy as well as
the large-scale beating of women and children. There were also
national howls of outrage when strikers were arrested for “possessing”
dynamite in what turned out to be a crude frame (it was later
determined that a prominent citizen close to the mill owners had
planted it). Similarly, the Stalin-esque jailing of Ettor and
Giovannitti without bail as “accessories before the act of murder” in
the police killing of Annie LoPizzo, was widely criticized and served
only to spur the strikers on.
In the end, in the face of the state militia, U.S. Marines, Pinkerton
infiltrators and hundreds of local police, the strikers prevailed.
They achieved a settlement close to their original demands, including
significant pay raises and time-and-a-quarter for overtime, which
previously had been paid at the straight hourly rate. Workers in
Lowell and New Bedford struck successfully a short while later, and
mill owners throughout New England soon granted significant pay raises
rather than risk repeats of Lawrence. When the trials of Ettor,
Giovannitti and a third defendant commenced in the fall, workers in
Lawrence’s mills pulled a work stoppage to show that a miscarriage of
justice would not be tolerated. The three were subsequently acquitted.
Longer-term, the strike focused national attention on workplace
safety, minimum wage laws and child labor. Though change in these
areas was still too slow in coming, it did come and it came much
sooner because of Lawrence. Locally, patriotic forces campaigned
vigorously against “outside agitators” in the years after the strike
and IWW membership eventually slid back to pre-strike levels. Still,
despite tremendous repression, the IWW maintained a solid local
chapter in Lawrence until the state effectively destroyed the
organization with a massive campaign of jailings, deportations,
lynchings and other violence after U.S. entry into World War I.
However, just as it was never the IWW’s objective to gain official
recognition from employers, its accomplishments should not be measured
by its membership rolls or the limited span of it organizational
presence. The goal was to build a revolutionary movement of the
working class and the Wobblies implemented the strategy for achieving
that end in Lawrence. This is not to say the IWW was without
weaknesses in building lasting organization; it was and there are
lessons for Occupy and all future movements to learn from those
weaknesses. However, the IWW’s weaknesses are ones that virtually
every radical group from the Knights of Labor to the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic
Society (SDS) share. These weaknesses speak more to the difficulty of
building a revolutionary movement than to specific organizational
flaws. The fact that the Wobblies were not able to sustain the great
work they did over a longer period does not detract from the
thoroughgoing way they imbued the Bread and Roses strike with
revolutionary values, strategy and vision.
Lessons from the Strike
There are several aspects of the Lawrence strike that may be helpful
to building a radical working class movement today. One is the
symbiotic relationship between the strikers and the IWW. Since at
least the bureaucratization of the Congress of Industrial
Organizations (CIO) 70 years ago, unions have approached organizing
workers with the goal of building membership rolls, as opposed to
building working-class power. The type of organization workers may
want, not to mention what they may want beyond organization, has been
largely irrelevant. The choices that workers are presented with are
quite limited: join one or another top-down union, or else fight on
alone. The best features of pre-union formations—direct democracy,
easy recall of representatives, requirements that all officers remain
in the workplace, widespread rank-and-file initiatives, and so
forth—are almost always killed quickly after affiliation. Workers will
reject top-down approaches and embrace unionism that speaks to their
needs if they are given the chance. The fact that they are not
presented such an option is neither accidental nor inevitable; it is
because the union bureaucracy is as threatened by an independent rank
and file as any employer.
Workers are not even really free to join the union of their choosing.
Once an exclusive bargaining representative is chosen, no matter how
that’s determined, the affected workers cannot join any other labor
organization, often at the risk of expulsion and loss of employment.
The IWW, rather than seeking to ensure itself a steady flow of dues
revenue, sought to challenge capitalism. Through direct action,
particularly strikes, the working class would learn how to fight
capital and in so doing would discover and develop its own potential
until it was strong enough to wrest control of work away on a massive
scale. That goal remains. To build such a movement today and on into
the future, we will either have to do away with many of organized
labor’s entrenched ways or increasingly circumvent mainstream unions
altogether, much as is happening so far with Occupy.
The flip side of the IWW/striker relationship in Lawrence is that the
workers did not strike to gain unionization or even to get a contract.
They struck over specific demands while understanding the need to
change the balance of their relationship with mill owners. Early on,
they sensed intuitively what they came to understand explicitly as the
strike lengthened: that politicians and the courts were against them
almost as completely as the bosses and Pinkertons were. When Governor
Foss offered arbitration in an attempt to end the strike without
addressing any of their demands, for example, the workers refused.
Their distrust extended not just to the owners but to the machinery of
the state, not to mention the top-down UTW—whose head attacked them
relentlessly throughout and whose members scabbed from the outset. The
strikers embraced the IWW philosophy of doing for themselves while
utilizing its highly developed solidarity network because their
experience showed them it was the only way they could win.
A second possible lesson from Lawrence is a feminist approach to
organizing. Though the IWW too often adopted an approach premised on
rugged (male) individualism that relegated women to secondary roles,
that was not the case in Lawrence. Rather, its radical approach
encouraged women strikers and supporters to act in highly creative
ways. Whenever women workers in Lawrence struggled with the men for
full participation, Flynn and the other Wobblies sided with them. It
is impossible to imagine the strikers winning otherwise, and though
Ettor, Haywood, and Flynn’s efforts on this score were not
insignificant, it was the tireless work of thousands of rank and
filers that proved decisive
The degree to which women took to heart Ettor’s declarations that
striker violence would inevitably boomerang a hundredfold was also
crucial. Few believed that a non-violent approach would cause the
state to reciprocate, certainly not as the strike progressed and state
violence escalated, nor did it necessarily mean that an absolute
principle of nonviolence was appropriate in all situations. In
Lawrence, however, it was clear early on that the strikers would lose
if the physical confrontations that have been so prominent in the
almost apocalyptic vision that many men through history have brought
to the class struggle continued. The women, more than the men,
understood that the complete withdrawal of their labor was the
strongest blow the workers could strike. In the end, it was the
ability to keep the mills almost completely non-functional for two
months that won the strike.
Women were also at the heart of the singing and parading that
characterized the Bread and Roses strike. Surrounded by enemies, with
death a very real possibility, the Lawrence strikers, the women most
of all (much like the black liberation activists in the Deep South in
the early 1960s, also mostly women), sang to foster strength, courage
and solidarity. Their songs and that tradition echo as loud and true
as a drum circle through Occupy.
Lastly, Lawrence was the first major strike along industrial lines.
Not only did the strike reverberate throughout textile mills, it made
real the IWW goal of organizing wall-to-wall. The violent suppression
of the IWW forestalled capital’s day of reckoning, but the seed had
been planted. When industrial organizing exploded two decades later,
it was thoroughly Wobbly-esque, especially in the sit-down strike with
its explicit challenge to private ownership. Again, the degree to
which Occupy implicitly understands the importance of such approaches
is one of its great strengths. The massive withdrawal of labor, the
large scale Occupation of workplaces—these are lessons of Lawrence,
direct and indirect, that Occupy (as well as movements of the future) must
carry forward and would do well to consider more deeply. In so doing, we can
perhaps begin to create a world where everyone has both sufficient
bread to eat and “life’s glories” as vivid as the reddest roses.
Much has been written about the Lawrence strike. Here are just a few
of the better accounts:
“Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology,” edited by Joyce Kornbluh
“The Rising of the Women,” by Meredith Tax
“The Bread and Roses Strike of 1912,” by Julie Baker
“Bread & Roses,” by Bruce Watson
Previously seen at:
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)
January 11, 2012
This story will appear in the March 2012 issue of the Industrial
WCH Contributor Patrick Murfin’s writing can be found regularly at the blog Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout
Times are tough. You’ve probably noticed. But economists, who study figures and trends and who evidently never leave the precincts of the universities, government agencies, and banks that employ them, tell us that the “sharp recession” following the gigantic train wreck of the mortgage driven collapse four years ago ended more than two years ago. Since then we have officially been in a “weak recovery.”
Now they worry that because of the artificial “debt” crisis and the stalemate between Congress and the President which destroyed confidence in the “full faith and credit” of the Federal Government and led to a down grade of the national credit rating, that we may be in danger of a “double dip” recession. Or maybe not. They’re not sure.
What we do know is that the Stock Market is so jittery that those graphs in the business press of stock prices resemble the jagged pen strokes on a seismograph during an earth quake. And, by the way, real earth quakes, hurricanes, floods, and droughts are harassing us making things even worse.
But here in Woodstock, in big cities, suburbs and countryside across the country it doesn’t feel like a recovery, even one in danger. If our government and press were more honest they would pull out a shunned, feared word from the past that best describes what is happening to real people—Depression. That’s what it is when official unemployment hovers around 9.1%—much higher in rust belt cities, perpetual pockets of rural poverty, and in minority communities. That is only the people who are receiving jobless aid and are “actively looking for work.” It does not include those who need full time employment but can only find part time work or those who are so “discouraged” that they have given up looking.
The long term unemployed have become a new kind of pariah. When companies do hire many actually stipulate “no unemployed” in their ads and many more have it as an unstated policy. It is assumed that they will have become lazy on “the dole,” bitter and unreliable on the job, and out of touch with changes in technology and the demands of the new “high productivity” work place where one worker is expected to do the work of two or three and be glad of it.
Those who find work typically find it at wages vastly beneath what they earned before. Many carry crushing debt loads acquired when they were confident in those old wages and in an investment in “inevitably rising home values.” The result is ruin and bankruptcy. But even bankruptcy now often does not offer the relief that it once did. On the very eve of the collapse and at the insistence of banks and credit card companies, bankruptcy laws were tightened to make it more difficult to erase “obligations.”
High schools, colleges, and technical schools disgorge new workers into market place every year. Some will be snapped up as a cheap alternative to expensive older workers. But there is not enough room for all. Many simply fail to launch the careers for which they have trained for which they have often gone deeply in debt and settle into patched together jobs in low paying service and retail positions. The basements of a stressed out parental generation are filled with their children unable to live their lives.
That’s if those parents still have basements. After four years evictions are on the rise again as un and under employment take a toll on even those who did not take out those notorious risky mortgages. Whole neighborhoods become virtual ghost towns. And with a glut of boarded up houses on the market, the value of homes has plummeted wiping out the major repository of wealth for the middle class.
So if thing are so bad, some folks say, why don’t we see those bread and soup lines or the last Great Depression, old ladies in rags peddling apples on the street, armies of jobless men roving the country by rail and highway, the Hovervilles? Two reasons: There was a “social safety net” in place to provide some cushion—unemployment insurance, food stamps, a web of public and private charity services and assistance. That kept people hitting bottom and hitting the streets right away. Second, you aren’t looking.
Now that safety net is not only fraying, it is under open attack. The long term unemployed are losing their unemployment benefits. Each extension of emergency coverage became more and more contentious in Congress. At least twice partisan bickering allowed the extensions to expire leaving hundreds of thousands each time suddenly without resources. Now with the Republican majority in the house ever more assertive, there is little likelihood any more extensions will be forthcoming. Meanwhile many states, particularly those in the hands of rabid ideological Republican governors and legislatures, are cutting back even minimum benefits.
Meanwhile in those same states, and others in dire financial distress due to collapsing tax revenues, the whole social services network is under attack. Budgets of state and private agencies are slashed or even zeroed out. In Illinois the state does not even bother to pay budgeted obligations. Taking advantage of what might be their only opportunity, assistance of all sorts is slashed in the name of “shrinking government”, fiscal emergency, and improving the morals of the lazy and shiftless. As a result there is about to is an explosion of the not just impoverished but the beggared. And many of these will not be the poor that “ye shall always have with ye,” but be folks were hard working and solidly middle class just a blink of an eye ago.
As for those who have lost their homes. Some found rental, but with stagnating wages, debt and continued unemployment as well as a stain on available rental units, that option is becoming tougher for many. Children, even whole families have moved back in with parents. Parents on hard times come to their children. Siblings and extended families are called into play. But nerves fray and tensions arise. People double up two or three families in a unit. This used to be the hallmark of emigrant families and the bugaboo of municipalities around McHenry County. Now it includes many of the formerly middle class. Younger folks have learned to couch surf, live rootless lives on the charity of friends, relations, and even strangers.
Still more and more are becoming actually homeless. You may not see the Hoovervilles, but tent cities are spring-up around the nation. In McHenry county right now there are half a dozen rag tag camp sites hidden out of the way in snatches of remnant woods. There have always been some during the months when PADS is closed, mostly inhabited by the hard core drinkers and substance abusers. Now there are “respectable” folks and even families. But you have to look because just like in the old days, the cops will shag the camps out if they get complaints, sometimes confiscating tents, sleeping bags, and possessions. In some places squatters are moving into the empty homes left rotting after foreclosure. And look for out of the way parking spaces for the armies of folks living in their cars.
In the last Great Depression government responded in hundreds of ways to the emergency. Some things worked, some didn’t. But massive public works programs and employment programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration provided jobs and hope for millions.
Conservatives claim that these programs, along with regulation of banking and the stock market, did not end the Depression. But in fact fueled by such assistance recovery was fairly robust until 1936 when Congressional Republicans pushed for “fiscal responsibility” and got the administration to agree to slash spending. That resulted in a second recession that didn’t end until defense spending exploded on the eve of the American entry into World War II.
This time except for one modest “stimulus package” which did boost employment on infrastructure projects, no attempt has been made by the government to get people to work. On the contrary, government on all levels is itself contracting throwing thousands upon thousands on the unemployment rolls. This year layoffs of state, municipal and other local government workers have outpaced job losses in every other categories. Instead of being an “employer of last result” government is adding to the emergency.
Even those who remain employed face wage freezes and often deep slashes accompanied by givebacks on benefits like insurance. They are told they are lucky to have a job. The same people are working longer hours, much of it uncompensated, and are pressured to forgo vacations or sick days so they can do the work of laid off fellow workers.
The result is a rapidly declining standard of living across the board. Even the aloof intellectuals in their ivory towers have begun to notice the “disappearance of the middle class.” Actually this is just an acceleration of a trend that has been going on for more than 20 years. Americans have been the proverbial frog in the pot, not noticing as the water is heated slowly to a boil.
This has led to the most massive transfer of wealth in the country’s history, mostly from the formerly middle class the very top sliver of society. You have probably read the statistics on the growing share of the wealth by the top 10, 5, or 1% of society. The super wealthy get away with it by boldly buying influence in both political parties and be relying on the hapless Tea Party for a patina of populist support. The Tea Party is made up mostly of folks who think that their interests are the same as the top plutocrats, but are often the unwitting victims of their rapacious greed.
I could go on and on but you get the picture. The big question is why, by in large, all this is happening without, until recently, much resistance. There are a lot of theories, including the “bread and circuses” notion that we have been anesthetized by mesmerizing popular culture. Another is that generations of growing cynicism about government has led to a sense of hopelessness. Why bother, folks say, it’s always been this way, we can’t change it. The result has been what was called the cocooning of America—a withdrawal to a closed home and family. But now those homes are at risk and pressures are fraying families.
Of course there is also the ocean of money being spent by the ultra wealthy—the Kotch brothers being the current poster boys–and a powerful bought-and-paid-for media symbolized by Fox News and Rupert Murdoch to influence popular opinion, stifle opposition voices, and even to prevent the poor, minorities, and students—all suspected Democrats—from voting at all.
Whatever the cause, it has worked. In Europe and much of the rest of the world austerity measures have been met by explosive popular protest in Greece, Spain, Italy, France, and Ireland among other places. Even the recent riots in Britain, portrayed in the media as simple hooliganism run amok, was rooted in social alienation and a sense of hopelessness among the young even if it was less politically explicit as other protests.
Until Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker stirred up the hornets’ nest by threatening to call out the National Guard to crush opposition to his draconian “emergency budget” by teachers and other public employees, a wave of assaults on working and poor people nationwide went unchallenged except for polite and toothless descent by the usual suspects. But the popular resistance in Wisconsin, including weeks of occupation of the state capital, massive demonstrations, and the political action of a recall movement, has set an example that needs to spread
Folks, it really is time for the barricades. I know such talk makes a lot of liberals nervous. We are, after all “peace people” and adverse to noisy and rowdy confrontation. We are glad to take a moment to sign an internet petition, write a letter to the editor or to a Congress person, hold a sign at a dignified vigil, and certainly to vote. But that is not enough. The emergency is too dire.
It’s not that I object to those tactics—I use them all. And I don’t advocate abandoning conventional politics—which just leaves the field in the hands of the crazy and rapacious. Nor do I believe looking for ideological purity and forming a new party, doomed to minority status and failure, is a good idea. The Democrats might be “weak sisters” and on the take from some of the same oligarchs that fund the Tea Party and right wings Astroturf groups, but at least they are willing to apply the brakes to the worst trepidations and give us breathing room to demand more.
But it will take a vast popular movement to stop the assault on the working and middle classes and demand a truly new deal. I don’t mean an armed insurrection—that would be crushed more ruthlessly and effectively in this country than by any third world dictator. Not only to the oligarchs have all the guns, they know how to command those who know how to use them.
I do mean filling the streets, not just for a one day March on Washington, but day after day on Wall Street, in Washington, in state capitals, at the very doorsteps of the rich and powerful. We must become a force that cannot be ignored.
It does not take everyone. Research has shown that when as many as 10% of a population becomes deeply and passionately committed to a new idea or cause, it is well on the way to becoming mainstream within a surprisingly short time. The right wing think tanks figured that out. The triumph of the Tea Party in elections two years ago is a prime example. But people frustrated by the economy mostly did not know what the Tea Party—and more importantly their masters—really were up to. Most people just voted for change, any change. It is our moment to win them back. But we can only do that by being visible and vocal.
I promised to say how getting mad and getting off our butts to confront our—and I unapologetically use the term—class enemies is a spiritual practice. I refer you to that widely admired Jewish preacher of a couple of millennia ago—the guy we call Jesus.
He often spoke of the poor and of our responsibility to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner. In fact the New Testament contains so much of this attributed to Jesus that the Religious Right, playing a supporting role to the oligarchs and Tea Party, recognizes that this undercuts their flirtation Ayn Rand every-one-for-themselves sociopathic narcissism. One group recently announced plans to issue an edited Bible expurgating the offending passages or bowdlerizing them so that believers “won’t get the wrong idea about Christ.”
Many liberals embrace those sayings by Jesus but imagine that his admonition to “love your enemy” means not confronting them. But there was another side to the gentle Jesus—the one who showed up at the Temple one morning:
“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves…” –Mathew 21:12, King James Version.
Some folks think of this a just a religious protest against the Pharisees. But it was more than that. It was an attack on the power system, both Roman and Jewish, which oppressed the people. An obscure itinerant preacher would never have roused the fear and ire of both enough to be crucified.
Carl Sandburg said it best in his poem, To a Contemporary Bunk Shooter, a blistering attack on evangelist Bill Sunday. The poem ends
You tell poor people they don’t need any more money
on pay day and even if it’s fierce to be out of a job,
Jesus’ll fix that up all right, all right–all they gotta
do is take Jesus the way you say.
I’m telling you Jesus wouldn’t stand for the stuff you’re
handing out. Jesus played it different. The bankers
and lawyers of Jerusalem got their sluggers and
murderers to go after Jesus just because Jesus
wouldn’t play their game. He didn’t sit in with
the big thieves.
I don’t want a lot of gab from a bunkshooter in my religion.
I won’t take my religion from any man who never works
except with his mouth and never cherishes any memory
except the face of the woman on the American
I ask you to come through and show me where you’re
pouring out the blood of your life.
I’ve been to this suburb of Jerusalem they call Golgotha,
where they nailed Him, and I know if the story is
straight it was real blood ran from His hands and
the nail-holes, and it was real blood spurted in red
drops where the spear of the Roman soldier rammed
in between the ribs of this Jesus of Nazareth.
So here is my spiritual advice for the day: Fellow Worker Jesus, Live like him. Let it be so.
Publisher’s Preface: This blog is dedicated to Labor History and Issues. It is the end result of the efforts of a few (in the broader scheme of things) extremely dedicated people. I was born in a union home, unto a union family, have campaigned under the FIRM belief that the only good times in America were those when working people freely negotiated, collectively with ownership- not by community standards- to improve their lot and standard of living. I recognize that like government and religion, unions are NOT always perfect. Today’s post is one of dissent. It is a piece that our editorial staff advised against posting. In the final analysis, I made a decision; a decision that we would post the piece, air the “dirty laundry” and let the chips fall where they may. We have no intentions of being divisive; quite contrarily, WCH works as hard as anybody on the web to support SOLIDARITY and our staff are ALL believers! We believe that the most important feature of any union is its members. To all union members we wish the best. To all union powers we wish that you protect your members, especially when they are vulnerable. Enjoy this fine piece – it is from the author’s heart and full of passion!
Sunday Morning Sermon, brought to you by Tom Laney – WCH contributor & 70 yr old from Colfax, WI, longtime UAW rank and filer whose grandaughters stand up to bullies on their school bus!
We are the answer!
Isn’t it time to revolt against all the dog-eat-dog, company unionism that has nearly saturated our plants over the past 20 years? YES! It is time to start acting like a real union again!
The modernist uaw leaders have it all wrong. (I spell the “new uaw” in lower case because it’s not worthy of our history.)
Competition against ourselves doesn’t work for us. The “new uaw” reps pound away with a very Big Lie:
That the new uaw’s “reality.” The uaw’s “real world,” of worker against worker is supposed to benefit the rank and file, the “common” man and woman. In fact, dog-eat-dog has destroyed our locals, union, towns and country. These new anti-worker, anti-community leaders place the blame for the uaw’s weakness on us, the general membership, because we don’t support our leaders.
This view is wrong. Democracy, Solidarity, Love of the Common Good and the necerssity willingness to battle in The Good Fight is the true union philosophy.
True Unions wage the eternal Good Fight for the Good Society where we have Good Jobs for All.
Corporate competitive values—greed, isolation, dog eat dog—will never replace real unionism. They only define uaw sellouts and uaw company unionism. Adopting the corporate competitive agenda means undermining everything unions stand for. It means racing to the bottom against other autoworkers who ought to be our friends. It means conceding everything the real UAW ever fought for. The extension of this competitive view is that finally, the “winner” of all this dog-eat-dog will have nothing left that’s union.
The new uaw is a sham. It’s thrown away the values of workers for corporate values. It is a company union more interested in speeding workers up than slowing them down.
Its contracts put local unions into dog-eat-dog competition which divides locals and erodes all the hard-fought gains of other generations.
As the uaw moved towards company unionism in the late 70′s, union members all over the country fought to retain shop floor unionism, fair job pace and the entire union floor culture that made life on the line much more livable than it is today.
The uaw attacked shop floor unionism with favoritism, appointed jobs and fear. Lots of fear. “Do the work or they’ll close the plant,” we heard often.
It attacked seniority because seniority is the cornerstone of shop-floor unionism and shop-floor unionism does not allow speed-up and job cuts.
It attacked the generational unity between workers with wage tiers for new hires and cushy jobs—which should go to senior workers or be filled by election—for their friends.
The fact is, most union members still hold the same principles and values that formed unions in the first place.
Good people see mutual support, friendship, solidarity, equality and democracy as the things they value most about their family, social and work lives. You can prove this by just looking around your job.
There are people circulating get-well cards for sick, or more likely, work-injured co-workers.
There are people welding retirement boxes for folks who are finally getting out.
There’s someone listening to a friend talk about a family member who’s ill and consoling them better than any professional counselor.
Women telling racers to slow down and let the foreman worry about the extra work.
There’s a guy with an arm on a buddy’s shoulder who just lost a loved one. A teary-eyed tradesman circulating a card for a worker we lost.
Someone showing off pictures of the new baby. There are the heat merchants riding the Packer fans.
And there are always people standing up to the boss, taking a friend’s side or defending a union right. It has always been this way.
It will always be this way because that is the way most people really are.
With all our problems and confused company unionists you can still see friends all over the place. This is the real union.
These values of friendship and solidarity have been under organized attack for a generation and have taken some hits for sure. But these values used to run the shop floor and can again if we battle for them. These values at one time made it nearly impossible for the company to cut out jobs.
It is not that way now but it should be and will be whenever we see the uaw for what it’s become and begin to organize ourselves plant to plant.
THE UNION LIVES!
The job. This is where the union is despite 20 years of the most intense work and huge expenditures by the company and the new company uaw to persuade us that we should not be friends but enemies and competitors -
Not mutual supporters but individuals looking out for No. 1.
Not job fighters but doormats.
Not extenders of unionism but serfs in the new uaw’s feudal system.
A long time ago the friendships of ordinary autoworkers led to the organization of the real UAW.
The real UAW cut its teeth on removing wages and working conditions from competition, fighting speedup, running slowdowns, sit-downs and strikes to win contracts that were the envy of workers around the world.
Its politics were anti-corporate and pro-worker. The drive was for the full-employment economy with good union jobs for everyone.
Real unions take the fear out of standing up to powerful, greedy corporations. Strength in numbers, solidarity were the watch words of the real UAW.
In the 1970’s and after, when the Big Three auto makers were losing ground to foreign manufacturers, there were company-union committees. The UAW started to side more with ithe employers and often gave back wages and changed work rules to help the company.
Then the new uaw put the fear back in. Speed-up and work injury sky rocketed. Jobs were cut. Plants closed. Work was de-unionized. Strikes were discouraged by insuring that workers who fought back lost.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
The only people who can organize us again are real autoworkers.
All the uaw’s institutions, the conventions, councils, sub-councils have become lessons in thought control, places where the deal’s already done, places where good reps go to be laughed at, ignored, disappointed, disparaged and defeated. We are never going to win there.
So where could we win? To win we need to link the good union folks across our plant on every shift. Everyone would be encouraged if they’d just look for unionism in all the supportive things autoworkers do for each other everyday.
That’s where the hope is. That’s where we can get the confidence we need to act union.
Every job fight should be supported.
Every good job should be defended.
Every bad job placed in the strikeable grievance procedure.
Every attack by the company, every move by the uaw should be reported to the entire membership.
NO ONE FIGHTS ALONE!
Some years ago, Ricky Brown suggested we put real autoworkers on the road to other plants to talk to other real autoworkers about solidarity.
I think most of us would want to help them. They would most likely want to help us.
A simple message like, “We are 10 chassis frame-line workers sent here by our co-workers to appeal to you to stop the competition between our plants.
We appeal to you for friendship and solidarity.
We are here to unite everyone to keep all our plants open. Please help us find a way to do that. We’ll be here at the end of your shifts to talk. This is the way our union was started.
It is the way to start a national union conversation about how we can work together again, how we can raise wages for all new hires, stop favoritism, protect union work rules and work pace, and renew the union culture that should run our plant floors.
It is the way to step outside the competitive box the uaw/Ford folks put us in.
It is the way to give people hope.
It is the way to give people confidence in each other.
It is the only way to start acting like a union again.
It is the way to a society based in friendship and democracy where everyone gets a good job.”