Open Letter from “Impact” to Rank-and-File Labor Activists


The following document is from Impact: The Rank & File Newsletter, Volume IX, No. 1 (April 2001). It was signed by “the IMPACT editorial board, together with Jim Brophy, Marty Glaberman, Eric O’Neil, and Peter Rachleff.”

Impact lists its board and contributing editors as follows:

Editorial Board: Jim Jordan, Alice Lynd, Staughton Lynd, Bob Schindler, Jack Walsh.

Contributing Editors: Chris Farrand (Cleveland), Rose Feurer (Chicago), Marty Glaberman (Detroit), Lessley Harmon (Leavittsburg, Ohio), Tom Laney (St. Paul), Eric O’Neil (Cincinnati), Shirley Pasholk (Cleveland), John Perotti (Youngstown, Ohio), Stan Weir (Southern California).

Impact describes itself this way:

“IMPACT is a publication of the Workers’ Solidarity Club of Youngstown, Ohio. Its purpose is to build solidarity among rank-and-file workers in the Mahoning Valley and throughout the country.

“We welcome submissions and encourage rank-and-file workers to tell us what’s happening in your workplace, in your union, in your lives. Poems, cartoons, as well as regular articles are encouraged.

“Correspondence can be sent to: IMPACT, P.O. Box 2125, Youngstown, Ohio 44504. Phone: (330) 652-9635. Subscriptions to IMPACT are $20 per year. If you can’t afford $20, pay what you can. Donations are welcome. Copies are also available by the bundle.”

A commentary on the Impact Open Letter by Labor Standard Editorial Board member Charles Walker accompanies this reproduction of the letter.

Dear friends,

This is a fraternal letter. We do not wish to attack anyone or to attack the work that anyone is doing.

We are a small group, most of whom live in a single city, Youngstown, Ohio.

We recognize that hundreds of colleagues associated with entities such as the Association for Union Democracy, Labor Notes, and Teamsters for a Democratic Union, have expended years of sacrificial effort on behalf of values that we all share.

Nevertheless, certain nagging questions have become more and more insistent for us, and we think we should share them. These questions include:

1. For thirty years reformers in the labor movement have focused their energies on electing new top officials in existing national unions. Thus the campaigns for Arnold Miller in the United Mine Workers, for Ed Sadlowski in the Steelworkers, for Jerry Tucker in the Auto Workers, for Ron Carey and Tom Leedham in the Teamsters, and for John Sweeney in the AFL-CIO. Has the strategy of electing new top leaders produced the results for which we hoped? Can this strategy ever be expected to lead to a decisive break with the existing economic system? Isn’t what we have been doing just a warmed over Social Democratic strategy that the 20th century again and again proved to be a blind alley?

2. Now that shutdowns and layoffs have once again become the order of the day, isn’t it time to recognize that existing unions and union reform movements in both the United States and Canada have no answers whatever to the problem of shutdowns? The “union density” of the nation’s labor force continues to fall, because whatever organizing success is recorded at workplaces that cannot move (government offices, hospitals, etc.), these gains are more than offset by job loss in the manufacturing sector.

Yet union representatives go on mouthing the same tired rhetoric that failed completely twenty years ago: foreign producers are “dumping,” the plants of other countries are “subsidized,” we need to help “our” company by emergency loans or legislation.

Doesn’t the Left in the labor movement need to say that as long as we continue to accept management prerogative and no-strike clauses in our contracts, the companies can legally continue to do what they are doing?

We think that the labor movement should, at a minimum, aggressively explore employee buy-outs and the use of eminent domain.

Indeed, experience in Youngstown, in several Canadian workplaces, at the

Coca Cola company in Guatemala, and elsewhere, suggests that we must be prepared to initiate and support factory occupations protesting shutdown decisions. Like the workers at the Daewoo auto plants in South Korea, when private owners abandon plants that can still be productive we should demand worker or community ownership.

3. In those unions where reform movements have succeeded in electing new national officers, have we not failed in creating a critical Left opposition to remind these leaders of their election promises and to hold them accountable to the rank and file?

In the Teamsters, for example:

(a) Teamsters President Ron Carey took part in the decision early in 1997 to order striking newspaper workers in Detroit back to work without giving them a chance to vote on the proposal. The New York Times reported at the time that this decision was made by Carey, president Morton Bahr of CWA, and other international union officers on the occasion of Clinton’s second inauguration in Washington DC. Eric Chester wrote in the Industrial Worker (reprinted in Impact v. 5, no. 3, June 1997): [L]ast summer union leaders began secretly discussing a plan to end the strike. This fall, as Carey sought reelection in a hotly contested campaign, he neither explained how he would win the Detroit strike nor did he reveal the ongoing discussion to end it. Once the election was over, and the votes counted, Carey joined two other international presidents in unilaterally ending the strike with an unconditional offer to return to work. This decision was not only made without consulting the rank and file, but over its adamant objection.

(b) Election of stewards and BAs [“business agents”] has been a basic principle of Teamsters for a Democratic Union since it was founded a quarter century ago. Convoy Dispatch, the TDU newspaper, states in the first sentence of the “Rank & File Bill of Rights” that it reprints each month: “All business agents and stewards should be elected.” But Tom Leedham, the current reform candidate for president of the Teamsters, said to one of the authors of this Open Letter that he thought there were a “lot of good arguments” for appointing rather than electing staff representatives. And we are told that at the 1999 TDU convention, the International Steering Committee (ISC) of TDU argued against including the right of locals to elects BAs and stewards in its platform at the 2001 Teamster Convention.

(c) On February 8, Leedham denounced current Teamsters President Hoffa for failing to agitate more vigorously to prevent Mexican truckers from hauling goods throughout the United States. (More about this below.) We understand that committed activists can differ in good faith about such issues. But the issues should be openly debated, not only within organizations of the labor Left but also — to the extent possible — within local and national unions, and certainly within publications intended for a broad audience of rank-and-file activists. TDU and Labor Notes have rarely if ever voiced concern or invited discussion about the stands taken by Carey or Leedham on any of the foregoing issues. It is one thing to support a “progressive” individual for national office. It is something quite different completely to abandon the freedom to criticize.

The current strategy of many friends of labor seems to require rank-and-file workers to check their brains at the door.

An Historical Myth: Walter Reuther as a “Social Movement Unionist”

The strategy of seeking to elect “progressive” national union leaders rests on certain historical myths about the alleged contributions of a number of big name labor leaders in the past. We will examine one of these myths.

(This critique appeared in an earlier issue of Impact. Those who read it then may wish to skip to the next section of the Open Letter.)

Walter Reuther is a man in whose parents’ home socialist leader Eugene Debs is said to have visited, a man who did assembly line work in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Here, if anywhere, should be the model of a so-called “social movement unionist.” Many friends of the labor movement say, If only we could go back to Walter!

It is generally agreed that Walter Reuther converted the UAW from a union famous for its freewheeling faction fights to what the UAW Public Review Board has called a “one-party state.”

Reuther’s failure to go to bat for African American members of the UAW is set forth in Indignant Heart by Detroit auto worker Charles Denby (“Mathew Ward”), and in many other places.

Marty Glaberman, Nelson Lichtenstein, and others have demonstrated how Reuther systematically undermined the ability of auto workers to do battle with the company on the shop floor through direct action.

But perhaps the single most devastating rebuttal to the Walter Reuther myth is the story of what he did to prevent the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) from being seated at the 1964 Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City. This story can be found in two recent books, neither of them anti-Reuther: Nelson Lichtenstein’s biography of Reuther, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit; and the second volume of Taylor Branch’s work on the life and times of Dr. King, Pillar of Fire.

At the UAW convention in March 1964, it was arranged that UAW general counsel Joseph Rauh would represent the MFDP at the national convention of the Democratic Party in August. The MFDP asserted that its delegates, rather than the segregationist “regular” Democrats from Mississippi, should be seated at the convention.

President Lyndon Johnson was determined to prevent this. Johnson discussed the Mississippi situation with Reuther on June 24 and 26. Whatever his previous views on the matter, Reuther adopted the president’s agenda.

MFDP prospects soared on August 22 when Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta, testified before the convention credentials committee. The next day Johnson telephoned Reuther, who was in the midst of bargaining with GM. Reuther broke off his Detroit talks, chartered an airplane, and rushed to Atlantic City. He arrived at 3:00 a.m. and spent the rest of the night with Hubert Humphrey (who wanted to be vice president), Walter Mondale, and White House operatives. They agreed that the MFDP would be required to accept a “compromise”: the Mississippi regulars would continue as the official delegation and the MFDP would have two “at large” delegates named by Johnson. The two MFDP delegates acceptable to the White House were Aaron Henry, a black pharmacist associated with the NAACP, and Rev. Edwin King, the white chaplain of Tougaloo College.

At a midday meeting on August 24, Rauh was instructed to bargain for nothing less than a number of seats equal to those of the regulars. However, as Rauh approached the room where the credentials committee was meeting, he received a message to telephone Reuther. Reuther told Rauh: “Here’s the decision. I am telling you to take this deal.” Reuther added that if Rauh did not do what he was told, he would terminate Rauh’s employment with the UAW. (Branch, p. 469; Lichtenstein, p. 394.)

Reuther was calling Rauh from Humphrey’s bedroom suite, where Humphrey and Reuther were meeting with civil rights leaders. Reuther reminded Martin Luther King how much money the UAW had provided his organization. “Your funding is on the line,” Reuther said to Dr. King. “The kind of money you got from us in Birmingham is there again for Mississippi, but you’ve got to help us and we’ve got to help Johnson.” (Branch, p. 469; Lichtenstein, p.394.)

At this meeting, Reuther told Robert Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that Negroes who got the vote often misused it to elect irresponsible people. Humphrey told the group that Fannie Lou Hamer would be unacceptable as a delegate: “The President will not allow that illiterate woman to speak from the floor of the convention.” (Branch, pp. 469–470.)

The negotiations in Humphrey’s bedroom dragged on. Meantime, at the convention center, the credentials committee accepted the so-called compromise. On the other side of the boardwalk, frantic knocks and cries of “It’s over” caused participants in the meeting to move to the suite’s TV set, on which Mondale was presenting the compromise to reporters as a finished deal.

Moses whirled to accuse Humphrey and Reuther. “You cheated!” he exclaimed, convinced that the two had held sham talks as a diversionary trick. Moses literally slammed the door on Hubert Humphrey. (Branch, p. 470.)

The next morning, the MFDP delegation gathered again to see if anyone had had second thoughts and wanted to accept the compromise. Rauh, Senator Wayne Morse, Aaron Henry, Bayard Rustin, and others urged acceptance of the compromise. Dr. King was neutral. All three MFDP candidates for Congress — Victoria Gray, Annie Devine, and Fannie Lou Hamer — as well as Bob Moses and other SNCC staff, opposed the deal. “We’re not here to bring politics to our morality,” Moses said, “but to bring morality to our politics.”

Moses was one of many civil rights workers who felt that Atlantic City was a bitter turning point for the Mississippi movement and all of American politics. (Branch, pp. 473–475.)

Lichtenstein sums up as follows: “[T]he legacy of this work would roll on and on. For SNCC and the generation for whom it spoke, there was an enormous sense of betrayal that extended from Johnson, Humphrey, and Reuther at the top to all those well-established civil rights advocates, like Rauh, Rustin, and Wilkins, who had advocated MFDP acquiescence.”

In the bitter debate that consumed Movement circles, Lichtenstein goes on,

Reuther became the symbol of “realpolitik” and the devious use of power.

Bayard Rustin argued for a broad Reutherite coalition, saying: “We must think of our friends in labor, Walter Reuther and the others, who have gone to bat for us. If we reject this compromise, we would be saying to them that we didn’t want their help.” Moses, as Jim Forman recalled it, replied: “He didn’t want anyone telling him down in Mississippi about Walter Reuther needing help, Reuther hadn’t come to Mississippi.” (Lichtenstein, p. 395.)

Looking back Rauh said of Atlantic City: “Reuther always thinks he knows more than anybody else when he gets into a fight like this…. Walter Reuther made the greatest mistake of his life.” (Lichtenstein, pp. 394, 395.)

Internationalism

Probably we all can agree that in order to combat transnational corporations and their strategy of globalization, we must build international working-class solidarity. Surely we all long for the day when workers for GM in Mexico, Lordstown, and St. Catherine’s, Ontario, will strike together on behalf of common contract demands. (This doesn’t mean that workers in each of the three countries should demand the same wages. The goal must be to narrow the differential between $1 an hour in Mexico and $20 an hour in the United States. This would benefit all workers involved.)

The protest at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle represented a huge first step in the needed direction. However, as one of us wrote to Labor Notes at the time, we have to recognize that the Steelworkers union was in Seattle to keep imported steel out of the United States (no matter what happened to steelworkers in Brazil or Korea) and the Teamsters union was there to keep Mexican truck drivers from crossing the border. Many rank-and-file members of these and other unions had an exhilarating experience captured in the phrase, “Teamsters and sea turtles together at last.” Their unions, however, pursued projects that — despite appearances — had nothing to do with international working class solidarity.

This issue presents itself again in connection with the recent decision of an arbitration body that Mexican trucks must be permitted to haul throughout the United States.

Tom Leedham’s statement on the issue declares:

“Hoffa is only now learning a lesson that Teamster members learned throughout the deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1980s — it doesn’t pay to cozy up to anti-union politicians.

“Before Hoffa, our union organized to stop cross-border trucking — building alliances with communities around safety concerns on our roads, building rallies, placing real pressure on politicians. Hoffa’s idea of political pressure is a photo opportunity with George W. Bush.

“Even though Bush told Hoffa before the election that he intended to open the border to Mexican trucks, Hoffa failed to organize around the issue during or since the election.

“Whether the cross-border agreement is implemented in stages or all at once, the damage is already done. Large Teamster employers like Roadway Express are already announcing the opening of new terminals in Mexico. Hoffa has lost this battle badly. But it is Teamster members who will pay the price for his weak leadership.”

A longtime rank-and-file Teamster activist puts the case for Leedham’s position this way: “Are we to let Mexican COMPANIES get away with driving down the best conditions so Mexican drivers will never enjoy them and U.S. drivers will lose them? Mexican drivers do not fill out logs and their hours of service are not limited. They are not trained to handle hazardous materials or to do pre and post trip inspections. They are not protected from the companies when they refuse to drive an unsafe truck. Not to mention the wages and job conditions disparity issue. Of course not doing more to help Mexican workers and their unions achieve these conditions is where U.S. unions have failed. Finally, I am very concerned about my family and me being on the highway with an overworked driver at the wheel of an unsafe truck. So until Mexican companies are forced to abide by standards U.S. workers have fought for decades to achieve, it does not seem reactionary or anti-labor to say no Mexican trucks hauling goods in the U.S.”

We at Impact have discussed this among ourselves. One of us used to drive for Delphi Packard and hauled parts to the Mexican border. He has observed trailers that entered Mexico with new tires coming back with shiny, bald ones. We all agree that Mexican drivers in the United States should be required to take the same physical examinations required of drivers who are residents of the United States, and Mexican trucks must be subject to the same inspection that the Department of Transportation and state agencies require of other trucks.

But we are deeply uneasy about the position that Mexican trucks should be banned from hauling across the border. How does this square with the new AFL-CIO position that illegal immigrants from Mexico who work in the United States should be legalized? A hundred years ago AFL president Samuel Gompers argued that Chinese immigrants should not be allowed into the United States, because Chinese workers were willing to work for wages that no worker in the United States would accept, and the Chinese and other immigrants from unacceptable countries brought disease (a threat to “safety”) into the country. How does a ban on Mexican trucks differ from Samuel Gompers’ opposition to Chinese immigration?

As we discussed the matter, here were some of the views expressed: It is racial profiling to assume that if a truck is driven by a Mexican it is unsafe. Many if not most trucks on highways in the United States are unsafe, no matter who is driving them: under pressure from the employers to make money, drivers routinely haul overweight loads and falsify their logs so as to drive when they are exhausted. The goods that Mexican drivers haul into the United States are often parts or products whose manufacture was exported to Mexico as a result of NAFTA. We recognize that Carey was one of NAFTA’s most vigorous opponents in the labor movement, but it is still a shame to have the candidates for president of the Teamsters union competing as to who fights the hardest to keep Mexican fellow workers out of the United States.

Alternatives

It is easier to be critical than to be positive. Alternatives to the current strategy of seeking to elect top national union leaders will have to be developed in practice. We in the Workers’ Solidarity Club of Youngstown have developed the following ideas over twenty years of struggle and experiment.

Why is it that national trade unions will never be able to play a leading role in our movement to get rid of capitalism and substitute something better for it? Because national trade unions are irrevocably linked to capitalism. They will inevitably find ways to make their peace with profit-making corporations. They will always stop short of fundamental social transformation. They are and will remain Social Democratic, meaning: their historical project is reform not revolution; their nature is to try to make capitalism livable. This is a necessary project but, as Rosa Luxemburg said, it is a labor of Sisyphus: it could go on forever and never really change the system.

It is tempting to suppose that the evils of bureaucratic business unionism in North America have been avoided by more radical, socially-minded union movements in South Korea, or Brazil, or South Africa. May we voice a concern that we not suppose these pastures greener than our own? Peter Rachleff of Macalester College in St. Paul has written an article, as we understand it soon to be published in Labour/ Le Travaille, wherein he describes and analyzes a strike in winter 1999–2000 at a Volkswagen plant in Uitenhage, outside Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Sadly, his heavily documented story is one all too familiar to activists on this side of the Atlantic. The company demanded the so-called flexibility required to remain competitive in a global economy: continuous run production, compulsory overtime without advance notice, 12-hour shifts and 70-hour workweeks, and so on. The National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) agreed to all these changes without giving the workers an opportunity to vote them up or down. New shop stewards were elected in protest. NUMSA suspended the stewards. Hundreds, eventually thousands of workers wildcatted on their behalf, and formed a crisis committee made up of representatives from nine local plants. The Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) supported NUMSA, as did President Mbeki. Rachleff details at length what he calls “a widening gap…between leaders and members in unions.”

So what is the difference between the path of our labor movement’s Founding

Fathers, like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther, and the path that many of us are trying to walk today?

Those in the tradition of the Founding Fathers are preoccupied with taking power in national unions. Local union office is seen as a stepping stone. The rhetoric is of “taking back our union,” when, in reality, no national union — not the Mineworkers, not the Auto Workers, not the Steelworkers, not the Teamsters — has ever been controlled by its rank and file.

In contrast to the practice of national, bureaucratic, top-down trade unions, we champion the idea of self-activity. National trade unions, as they existed in Great Britain, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe in the early 20th century; as they exist in the United States and Canada today; as they have existed anywhere in the capitalist world and will exist in the globalized world economy, are inherently opposed to the self-activity of rank-and-file workers. This is true regardless of what persons may hold the top offices in those unions. The first principle of a resistance movement against globalization must be not to concentrate energy on campaigns for national union office, any more than we make campaigns for national political office our first priority. Of course it makes a difference who wins these campaigns. That doesn’t mean we should spend our time working in them. Like the Zapatistas, we should influence national electoral campaigns by our nonelectoral self-activity at the base.

We believe that local union activists over and over again find themselves choosing between two ways of reaching out to the larger labor movement. One way is to align yourself with national union headquarters or, at most, with other locals of the same national union. This is the path of union electoral politics, of collective bargaining campaigns for dollars and cents objectives. Without denying the need for those activities, we encourage exploration of another path as well.

The other path takes its inspiration from the astonishing recreation from below throughout the past 130 years of ad hoc central labor bodies: the Paris Commune of 1871; local workers’ councils known as “soviets” in Russia in 1905 and 1917; the Italian factory committees of the early 1920s; solidarity unions in Toledo, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and elsewhere in the States in the early 1930s; workers’ councils in Hungary in 1956 and Poland in 1980–1981; and lest we forget, France in the fall of 1995, when a working class, the trade union density of which is as low as in the United States, mobilized itself through institutions outside the trade union movement, repeatedly took to the streets, and forced the government to abandon a plan for social retrenchment at the expense of the workers.

These were all horizontal gatherings of all kinds of workers in a given locality, who then formed regional and national networks with counterpart bodies elsewhere. Local unions can provide continuity between the moments when such ad hoc bodies come out of the ground like mushrooms. Indeed local unions have the potential to be important building blocks and organizing centers for more spontaneous formations.

The Left in several Latin American countries has seen the need to begin the building of a new society locally, from below. In Mexico, the Zapatistas have artfully promoted from below the goal of national democratization without themselves entering into the electoral process. The Brazilian Workers Party has recently elected mayors of Săo Paulo and about 175 other communities. In San Salvador, Mayor Hector Silva has been elected to a second term on a platform of participatory democracy. We must find ways to do likewise. Autonomous local labor parties would be a natural outgrowth of autonomous ad hoc central labor bodies, bringing together all kinds of workers in a given community.