Striking Auto Workers Ask “Solidarity House,” When Does Solidarity Begin?


[This article and the ones that immediately follow it are from the web site “Labor Tuesday” for January 8, 2002. This version has been edited for Labor Standard.]

                                                      While there is a lower class, I am in it—Eugene V. Debs

What’s happening to some Henderson, Kentucky, autoworkers might not disturb the final rest of the late Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) from 1946 to 1970. But it’s got to have the ground heaving and shaking around the coffin of Eugene V. Debs, the legendary workers’ leader who was born and buried just a few hours drive from the Ohio River town that’s home to UAW Local 2036. That local is engaged in a life and death struggle with Accuride Corp., a major supplier of steel wheels for trucks.

It fact, what’s happening to the Local 2036 autoworkers should upset any worker with a shred of solidarity for other workers. But it’s obvious that the top UAW leaders who mistakenly call their Michigan headquarters “Solidarity House” don’t share the anguish of Debs. Just as obvious is that the “Solidarity House” leaders have lost the trust of their Local 2036 members, who have been striking the local Accuride plant for nearly four years.

“Take ’Em Out!”

The authorized strike by over 400 autoworkers began on February 20, 1998, after the workers lopsidedly rejected (371-9) a harsh, concessionary contract offer that would authorize the company to subcontract out any and all bargaining unit work. The UAW regional director at the time, Ron Gettlefinger, according to the local union’s president, Billy Robinson, told the local union three times that day, “Take ’em out.” Today, Gettlefinger is poised to replace Steven Yokich, UAW international president, who is retiring. That change is expected at the UAW convention in June 2002.

The strikers thought they had a strong hand. The company has 80 percent of the heavy-duty steel wheel business, only has one other plant (in Canada), and UAW plants get 95 percent of Accuride’s production. All the top UAW leadership had to do, the strikers thought, was to let the other UAW local unions know that the Accuride wheels now were scab wheels. Billy Robinson says the strike wouldn’t have lasted more than four weeks, if the UAW had just spread the word among the 13,000 union members at a Louisville, Kentucky, Ford plant.

But only a month later, the workers decided the strike wasn’t working and voted unconditionally to return to their jobs. The plan was, “We’ll work to rule; we’ll do what we have to do [on the shop floor].”

Still, when the company proposed a new contract, the workers again voted it down (354-9). Even before the vote, however, the company counterpunched, locking the strikers out.

More Concessions Demanded

In September 1998, Accuride made another offer, retaining the earlier concessions and adding further outrageous provisions to allow the company to unilaterally change the pension and medical plans. Again, the new offer was rejected overwhelmingly. The firm continued to make new offers that got “progressively worse. For the next year, we refused to vote on anything,” Robinson says. But by then, the strikers discovered they were fighting a two-front battle. In 1999, the strikers were told by the international union: “As of the last day of August, you won’t have any strike insurance, you won’t have any sick pay.” Robinson says, “I got [UAW] Regional Director Terry Thurman on the phone. He said, ‘Tell them to go back to work.’ [I said:] ‘How the hell can I tell them to go back to work when we’ve been locked out for 18 months?’ He wanted us to tell the company, ‘We’ve lost our benefits now, so you’ve got to take us back.’” In other words, the UAW rep was advising the locked-out workers to try collective begging.

At a membership meeting, Robinson told the ranks, “This is the saddest day of my life. I feel like the guts have been pulled out of me. I can tell you today that what Accuride couldn’t accomplish, the UAW International has done in one fell swoop. They’ve deserted you.” The ranks voted once       again, and once again showed their determination to “stick together. We’re not going back until we get what we came out for.”

The locked-out autoworkers — virtually on their own — started working to get their story out to other workers. Using the Internet and handbills, “We put out a tremendous amount of literature,” Robinson says. Of course, the Solidarity House officials knew what the strikers were doing and didn’t like it. Called to a Detroit meeting, the Local 2036 representatives were accused by the top UAW officials of not bargaining with Accuride in a “prudent and realistic way,” and were falsely charged with not holding secret ballot votes. But then the real purpose of the meeting was revealed when UAW president Steven Yokich said, “I don’t give a damn how many e-mails you put out, how many web sites you put up, we’re the most powerful union around, and you aren’t going to bother me, and you’re not the first ones we’ve cut off.” Shortly after, Yokich put an “administrator” in charge of Local 2036. Surprisingly, six month later [by now it was 2000 or 2001] the UAW reinstated the strikers’ benefits and strike pay, for a while at double the old amount of $175 a week.

New Threats

But once again the UAW bureaucratic bullies are threatening the locked-out workforce. Robinson says they’ve been told, “If you don’t ratify that contract, the IEB [International Executive Board] will pull your charter.” Further, the UAW officialdom told the workers it would stop paying their strike benefits on January 15, 2002, despite a nearly $900 million strike fund surplus.

To date, the workers have voted six times to reject the increasingly concessionary proposed contracts. The last time they voted, with two-thirds of the membership participating, the workers voted the contract down by a 97 percent majority. Robinson says that if they give in to Accuride and the UAW tops, no more than 110 workers would get back inside the plant. And those that did get back in would be subjected to intense scrutiny. Those who didn’t meet the company’s “acceptable performance” levels, Robinson says, “would be laid off regardless of seniority.”

It’s not clear why the workers were encouraged by the international union to strike Accuride, if the UAW in Detroit didn’t intend to back them up. Perhaps the UAW tops misjudged the situation, thinking that Accuride wasn’t serious about its concessionary demands. After all, bluffing, even to the point of going out on strike is not unheard of. Sadly, there’s another explanation more consistent with the UAW bureaucrats’ actions since the strike began. That is, the UAW tops figured the ranks would accept the concessions once they had missed a few paychecks. Emil Mazey, a onetime UAW bigshot, once spelled that notion out: “I think that strikes make ratification easier. Even though the worker may not think so, when he votes on a contract he is reacting to economic pressures. I really believe that if the wife is raising hell and the bills are piling up, he may be more apt to settle than otherwise.” (Mazey was quoted in the 1972 book The Company and the Union by William Serrin.)

If Accuride and the union bureaucrats thought they could use economic leverage against the workers’ families to force the Local 2036 members to buckle, they’ve got to be wondering what kind of union workers they’re dealing with. Of course, Debs isn’t wondering. He knows and he’s cheering them on!


Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class by Thaddeus Russell (New York: Knopf, 2001), 272 pp., $26.00.

Reviewed by Charles Walker

The unionization of the strategic long-haul trucking industry, which began during the Great Depression (1929–39), virtually guaranteed the Teamsters union an industrial importance perhaps only rivaled for a time by the United Auto Workers Union (UAW). The uses of the Teamsters substantial economic and social weight since the 1930s varied with changes in its top leadership, but it always remained the U.S. labor movement’s 800-lb gorilla.

The union’s ineffectual (some would say passive) response to the deregulation of the freight industry greatly weakened the union in its primary jurisdiction; but as the 1997 UPS strike demonstrated, the union still has the capacity — when it summons up the will — to give the bosses a good fight and its members a valuable victory.

No single Teamster’s identity is more linked with the union’s fortunes than that of James Riddle Hoffa; the charismatic, enigmatic, tenacious, “Jimmy” Hoffa. Years before his unsolved “disappearance,” Hoffa’s life was already the object of myth-making. His presumed death at the hands of mobbed-up union rivals only added to the Hoffa lore, real and imagined. In a sense the Hoffa charisma lives on. Thirty-five years after he was imprisoned, never to return to the union, his son, a small-time lawyer with no obvious abilities for union leadership, heads the Teamsters union, in no small part because of the rank-and-file’s continuing admiration for his father.

The roots of the elder Jimmy Hoffa’s tenacity and legacy are the subject of Thaddeus Russell’s Out of the Jungle. It is not so much an attempt to illuminate (as the book’s dust jacket has it) “the life of one of the most mysterious, compelling, and important figures in modern American history” as it is an effort, in Russell’s words, to write an “anti-biography.” By that Russell means that his account is an examination of the “multitude of social forces — material and ideological — that emerged and evolved during [Hoffa’s] lifetime.”

Some of those social forces — certainly the severity of the 1930s economic calamity — made organizing unions “an act of simple desperation.” Hoffa, like millions of workers during the 1930s, had little to lose and much to gain by signing up in 1931 with a union. Hoffa’s personality (belligerent says Russell) seemed to make him a natural leader for those times. Perhaps, but Hoffa had much more going for himself. For example, the Minneapolis Teamster leader Farrell Dobbs wrote that in 1938 Hoffa was “eager to learn and quick to absorb new ideas. This enabled him to make important contributions…” (Quoted in Dobbs’s 1973 book Teamster Power; for more on Dobbs, see below.)

Russell’s main claim is that intra-union and inter-union rivalries for power were and are the essential levers for advancing unionized workers’ interests. In this case, “[C]ompetition from CIO unions was a principal determinant of the IBT’s ascendancy from a tiny craft union to the largest and most [powerful] labor organization in the United States.” In other words, established union leaderships not goaded by internal and external challenges to their relatively privileged positions are not going to fight for their members and certainly are not going to contribute to a meaningful expansion of union power by organizing larger unions.

The critical problem with Russell’s argument is not that intra-union and inter-union rivalries are not a powerful dynamic in labor history, but that Russell implicitly subordinates the importance of the rivalry between bosses and workers (the class struggle over the division of the socially produced wealth) to the rivalry between union leaderships. However, given the profoundly bureaucratized labor officialdom’s muzzling of the class struggle in the U.S. from the beginning of World War II to the present (there were exceptions, e.g. wartime strikes by mineworkers, the postwar strike wave), Russell’s case is superficially appealing.

But in Russell’s eagerness to make his case he overlooks facts that don’t support his case. For example, Russell asserts that it was the electoral challenge raised by James P. Hoffa to Ron Carey that prompted Carey to call the electrifying 1997 strike against United Parcel Service, the nation’s largest trucking corporation. “Creating a dramatic confrontation with the company was the only chance [Carey] had to stay in power…”

Russell admits that “many at the time” credited the UPS victory to the personal militancy of Ron Carey and the new “democratic culture” of the union under Carey’s leadership. But Russell argues that really the UPS victory “was produced instead by the myth of Jimmy Hoffa [Sr.], the power of competition, and the hunger and courage of the rank and file.”

The key fact that doesn’t fit Russell’s argument is that for nearly forty years Carey had been a thorn in the side of UPS. He was an aggressive shop steward, and an aggressive union officer. He fought the company on picket lines and in the courts. Further he fought the international union over his right to fight UPS. UPS itself was reason enough for Carey to fight. The record clearly indicates that fighting UPS had become second nature to Carey long before his stunning election victory that placed him in the union’s top post, beginning in 1991.

Viewed in the light of Carey’s entire record, Russell’s argument is not merely wrongheaded; it’s insulting to the stand-up Teamster leader and the ranks he so proudly and honestly served. Russell also gives a distorted account of the circumstances under which the feds ousted Carey. One can’t help wondering how his account might be different now that a jury has vindicated Carey.

It’s obvious that some types of inter-union rivalry clearly do not advance workers’ interests. For example, the Teamsters’ violent attacks on the farm workers’ organizing drives (in the 1960s and ’70s) helped neither farm workers nor rank-and-file Teamsters. On the contrary, if the Teamsters would have broken off collaboration with the bosses in the food-processing industry and joined hands with the farm workers, chances are that a Teamsters and United Farm Workers union alliance could have overwhelmed the anti-union forces in California’s fertile central valley, which remains an anti-union stronghold with high unemployment and widespread poverty.

This reader’s teeth were set on edge by Russell’s fawning admiration for Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother who hounded Hoffa and the Teamsters, starting in 1956 when he was chief counsel for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Also on that Subcommittee was then-Senator John F. Kennedy. Senator Kennedy was a major proponent of the Kennedy-Landrum-Griffin legislation of 1959, which closed a major loophole in the anti-worker Taft-Hartley Act by banning hot-cargo actions, a close cousin to outright secondary boycotts that capitalized on workers’ solidarity. Russell likens Kennedy, “the earnest and moralistic counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s” often-discredited witch-hunting committee, to a “crusading priest.” Absent is any mention of the “moralistic” Kennedy’s wiretapping of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At one time, Russell probably knew better about the likes of the Kennedys. And he probably heard something about class struggles and unions. I say that because Russell’s stepfather was a rank-and-file leader of the unionized truckers’ 1976 wildcat strike opposing then-Teamsters President Fitzsimmons, who had called off the first nationwide freight strike after only two days. Russell’s stepfather, an outspoken socialist, left a university, as did others, to enter the union. In the wake of the wildcat effort former students and other truckers went on to organize the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

Raised in a socialist household, Russell says those early political influences were swept aside by a “painful but ultimately liberating revolution in my personal and political life” that allowed him to “break out of an ideological prison I had built for myself.” Unfortunately, Russell’s breakout route from his imagined “ideological prison” only led to the “warden’s office” (that is, acceptance of the capitalist status quo). There Russell remains, partially confused by a disturbing world that has yet to resolve the class divisions that hobble humankind’s further progress.


WHO WAS FARRELL DOBBS?

During the darkest days of the Great Depression (1929–39), rank and file Teamsters waged a historic strike struggle that transformed the greater Minneapolis region into a union stronghold. Farrell Dobbs was both a militant strike leader and a central strategist of the key organizing drives (in an eleven-state are in the upper Midwest) that led to the Teamsters union becoming the largest labor organization in the U.S.

As has been noted elsewhere, “Dobbs was a revolutionary socialist as well as a crack Teamster organizer.” Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa once said, “I wouldn’t agree with Farrell Dobbs’s political philosophy or his economic ideology, but that man had a vision that was enormously beneficial to the labor movement. Beyond any doubt, he was the master architect of the Teamsters’ over-the-road operations.”

President Franklin Roosevelt and treacherous Teamster bureaucrats drove Farrell Dobbs from the Teamsters union on the eve of World War II. Framed-up on sedition charges under the notorious Smith Act, Dobbs was imprisoned for twenty-four months during the war.  Years later, in 1957, the Supreme Court held that key portions of the Smith Act violated the First Amendment.

More than 600 unions and progressive organizations vainly pressed Roosevelt for an unconditional pardon for Dobbs and the rest of the “Minneapolis Eighteen,” seventeen other socialists and trade unionists who stood trial with Dobbs, including socialist leader James P. Cannon. In his autobiography, Jimmy Hoffa wrote, “In labor halls throughout America, the name of Farrell Dobbs was more than well-known. It was keenly respected.”


LABOR BRIEFS

Krug Winery Stomps Workers

It’s not only brawny industrial corporations that punish their workforces with demands for concessions. Case in point: The Napa Valley Krug winery folks, who would have you believe that the good life is so much better with a few gulps of their upscale fermented grape juice under your belt.

Last year Krug’s celebrated the Fourth of July with a lockout of their production workers. It seems the workers found Krug’s demands for concessions — including contracting out their jobs — too bitter to swallow, and voted no.

One union connoisseur remarked, “The Krug concessions exhibit a briny nose, a full-bodied gluttony, bringing to mind deep southern magnolia aromas and the haunting, redolent tang of Delta plantations. Truly a noteworthy complement to Krug’s vintage authoritarian ways.”

The workers are asking that wine tipplers hold off buying Krug products for the duration of the company’s lockout. We’ll drink to that!

Sweeney Gets an “A” in History

“We have declined in union density from representing one worker in three to now representing one worker in eight. This decline has taken place in good times and in bad times. In fact, the brutal reality is that when the economy grows, we stay still, and when the economy declines, we lose more members than the economy loses jobs… That single fact is the harshest judgment history can make on our collective leadership of the labor movement.”

                    —President John J. Sweeney, at the AFL-CIO Convention, December 2001

The Trucking Bosses’ 2001 Scorecard Shows Some Major Victories

“Trucking won several major regulatory victories in 2001, beginning with the rollback of a mandatory worker protection program that would have cost the industry billions of dollars annually to implement. President Bush agreed with business groups that the rules were ‘too costly and too vague’ to implement.

“The rules were intended to protect more than 102 million Americans at more than 6 million job sites from serious, sometimes crippling, injuries resulting from lifting, using awkward postures, the use of force, repetitive motion and vibration.”

     Transport Topics, Dec. 31, 2001  

Obit for a Union Paper

Labor, a newspaper voice for workers in Racine, Wisconsin, for 60 years, published its final edition on January 4, 2002. The paper, which once was a weekly with 25,000 subscribers, went biweekly last year, and its circulation was down to 4,000, due mainly to the decline in the city’s manufacturing base. David Newby, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, says the paper’s demise is especially disappointing because such papers are “important sources of union news that members do not get from the commercial press.”

Tyson Manager Smuggled Immigrants

A former Tyson Foods manager pleaded guilty January 7 to bringing to the U.S. undocumented workers for the poultry giant and providing fake identity papers. He’s expected to testify against five other former small-fry managers and a former vice president, who face prison terms if convicted. Prosecutors charge that Tyson underpaid the workers. It’s not clear that prosecutors are seeking indictments and possible jail terms for current higher-ups at Tyson, a major bipartisan political contributor.