Letter from the Editors

Against the Current, No. 9, May/June 1987

The Editors

LAST YEAR THE LABOR DEPARTMENT reported the lowest number of strikes since the record keeping began. Those strikes that occurred took longer to settle than ever before. But statistics tell only a part of the story. There was a victory-both human and political-for the workers at Watsonville Cannery, called back a-year-and-a-half into a strike some had called suicidal. And in all that time not one striker scabbed.

It is certainly true that the double whammy of deindustrialization and concession bargaining has left the U.S. working class weak and disoriented. Clearly the cooperative relationship between labor and business of the World War II period has proved bankrupt in the new economic climate. Any working-class strategy must certainly face the fact that deindustrialization has provided capital with greater mobility. But it does not automatically follow that capital’s intention to permanently alter the balance of power between worker and owner is “home free.”

There are a number of lessons we can draw from the partial victory of the Watsonville cannery workers as well as the impressive organizing being done by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in Michigan and Ohio. These two struggles indicate the potential for winning real gains at the workplace. And they have done so under difficult circumstances.

First of all, cannery workers and farmworkers are low paid and predominantly Latino workers. Many are, in fact, undocumented workers painfully aware that they face arrest and deportation if they are picked up by Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) police. The employers know that too. So in the past employers routinely called “La Migra” and the strike disappeared in one fell swoop as the border patrol raided picket lines.

The Midwestern farmworkers, organized by FLOC, felt protected from arrest not only by their union, but also by religious and civil rights organizations that have supported their struggle. Likewise, in Watsonville a community-wide fight waged over several years’ time virtually outlawed such practices. As the head of the local INS office in Watsonville explained, its policy was not to raid the picket line because “we would only cause more trouble.” In fact, the 1986-87 Watsonville strike is the largest California strike to date involving Mexican workers in which there were no border patrol raids.

Last November Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Widely known as the Simpson-Rodino bill, it penalizes both the immigrant worker and the employer who hires an “unauthorized alien.”

But a restructured U.S economy, far from reducing its reliance upon an immigrant workforce, increased the demand for a relatively unskilled, high-turnover, low-wage body of workers, willing to work whatever hours are available. In light industry as well as in agriculture, immigrant workers are an integral part of the workforce — and this recent legislation will not be able to alter that reality. In fact the “guestworker” provision built into the act specifically guarantees growers a steady flow of immigrant workers. Without this guarantee, the bill could not have passed Congress.

The militant actions of the cannery workers and farmworkers are particularly relevant today. After all, if marginalized, illegal workers in low-paid industries can take some important steps forward, then it is within the realm of possibility that the working class as a whole has a chance to defeat the vicious ruling-class offensive.

Effective organizing in each case was not confined to the physical location of the cannery or the fields. For example, at one point during the cannery strike a decertification election was called. Since many of the cannery workers had gone back to the California-Mexico border area in order to find work, organizers were dispatched to the border. They pulled back enough people to defeat that attempt at a critical moment in the life of the strike. The farmworkers who pick in the Michigan/Ohio area are primarily a migratory workforce. They begin the season in Texas and Florida and work their way North, harvesting the crops. The FLOC organizing strategy takes that pattern into account.

With both the Watsonville strikers and FLOC the workers organized a grassroots corporate campaign. FLOC carried out a seven-year boycott against Campbell Soup Company. This included a divestment campaign and consumer boycott. They tagged along whenever Campbell held a promotional campaign. When Campbell’s toured a Soupmobile, there were the farmworkers and their supporters, advertising the exploitative conditions under which the products were picked.

At first Campbell refused to become involved in negotiations with the union, claiming that the issue was entirely between the growers and their workers. Campbell attempted to portray itself as merely a third party that simply bought produce from farmers. Spokespeople for the multinational suggested that a proposal for a three­ way agreement might actually violate anti-trust laws!

FLOC deliberately targeted Campbell, not the individual farms. The union realized it is the corporation that sets the contractual terms with the farmers-establishing a price per ton, outlining directions for crop handling, even setting a maximum tonnage. The farmer has relatively little economic leverage.

Campbell finally came to the negotiating table just weeks before issuing its contracts to the growers for the 1986 season. Perhaps the largest single factor in forcing Campbell to negotiate was that the National Council of Churches — representing 40 million Protestants — had recently voted to boycott Campbell products.

Within a year of signing the first three-way agreement in U.S. history between farmworkers, processors and farmers, FLOC was able to conclude a second agreement with Heinz and its growers. Clearly Heinz had learned from Campbell’s mistake-and was determined not to repeat it.

Similarly, the California cannery workers focused their attention on Wells Fargo Bank, which, in turn, bankrolled Watsonville Cannery. In the end, the bank was forced to foreclose on management, nearly $30 million in debt. For the strikers there must have been a great sense of irony in the situation: the owner had to close down while the cannery was reorganized and the workers rehired.

Of course, in each case the corporate campaign was a grassroots effort through which the workers were able to reach out and organize other trade unionists, the community as well as consumers in defense of their rights. And in each case, solidarity actions were crucial to maintaining the visibility of the workers’ cause.

The essential lesson is that the process of weakening and breaking unions is not inevitable. Despite the objective pressures operating to intensify the work day and reduce the wage package, it is possible to fight back effectively. But in order to do so, the working class must break out of the confines of “playing by the rules.”

In both Watsonville and among the Midwestern farmworkers, the tactics they adopted were denounced as “illegal.” But it was through these militant tactics that they were able to forge an effective unity and mobilize community support. Watsonville Canning and FLOC are not the most strategically-placed workers in the U.S. workforce, but their determination to find a way to win under difficult circumstances is clearly a beacon showing the way forward.

* * * *

FRANK BARDACKE’S account of the winning of the Watsonville Canning strike illustrates how the class and community-based solidarity of the strikers created the conditions for victory-victory in a situation where today’s conventional wisdom would have predicted a defeat through a combination of brute force and attrition.

The battle of the P-9 workers in Austin, Minnesota, also goes on, although the strike has been officially terminated by the UFCW International. Madeline Krueger, an activist in the Austin United Support Group, provides us with a glimpse of how the unionists and their families organized their struggle and how they continue. Roger Horowitz gives a brief update on the P-9 situation.

On a national scale, with the largest and one of the worst bureaucratic machines of the U.S. labor movement, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), a rank-and-file organization of Teamster for a Democratic Union (TDU) has marked a decade of organizing for democratic, militant unions. Daniel Sampson sketches TDU’s development and outlines some of its recent activities around such issues as the drug-testing rip off, and the relevance of TDU’s example to the emerging anti-concessions trend within labor.

Taken together, these elements-the solidarity and community evidenced in the Watsonville and P-9 strikes, the self-organization evidenced in the United Support Group in Austin, TDU’s response to the need for national rank-and-file organization in a far-flung union-point toward a strategy for recomposition of a labor movement now in profound decay.

A further critical component of such a strategy is, of course, independent working-class politics. The absence of such politics has vexed students and participants of U.S. labor struggles for decades. Mike Davis’ book Prisoners of the American Dream throws substantial light on the causes of this lack, and is reviewed here by Joel Rogers.

Other reviews include Marty Glaberman on Harley Shaiken’s important study of workplace technology, Lizzie Olesker’s assessment of the controversial Lizzie Borden film on prostitution-as-work, Working Girls, and Howard Brick on Robert Heilbroner’s recent work.

* * * *

THE U.S. GOVERNMENT has put hundreds of its own citizens on a hit list-in particular, all of those who work as civilian volunteers in Nicaragua, helping that country to rebuild in the face of a U.S.-sponsored terrorist counterrevolutionary war. The murder by U.S.-armed contras of Benjamin Linder and two Nicaraguan companions, Sergio Hernandez and Pablo Rosales, in northern Nicaragua was followed by contra leadership announcements that other international volunteers in Nicaragua face the same fate. For its part, the White House and State Department placed the blame on the victim-for being at the scene of the crime.

“A Life Worth Living” is Alan Wald’s tribute to Ben Linder’s life and work. It is also being published in the June issue of Agenda, an Ann Arbor monthly. We urge our readers to support the fund established to honor Linder’s memory and provide ongoing material aid to the Nicaraguan people.

While Nicaragua is much in the news, El Salvador remains less so. David Finkel spent a week with other solidarity activists observing the May 1 activities of the Salvadoran labor movement, the UNTS, and presents a brief account of the march in the western city of Santa Ana, an area where little popular organizing has been possible since the massacre of the early 1930s.

Margaret Randall, a poet and chronicler of women in Third World revolutions, is also on a hit list. She faces deportation from her native land because of the political opinions expressed in her writings. Randall describes the legal and emotional realities of a life filled with work in constant danger of disruption.

The “Baby M” surrogate mother case profoundly disturbed and alarmed all feminists. While the class and gender bias of the court’s treatment of Mary Beth Whitehead was blatant enough, the struggle to formulate a progressive and socially-just attitude toward the surrogate motherhood issue is difficult and divisive. What is the meaning and content of parenthood? In this society, should the Baby M case be regarded as a question of contract, or as an issue of custody? What about the nature of surrogacy itself? Johanna Brenner and Bill Resnick address these controversial issues as part of a debate which will undoubtedly continue among socialists and feminists for some time to come.

In previous issues we have indicated ATC‘s commitment to developing perspectives on culture. Margarethe von Trotta’s film Rosa Luxemburg presents a portrayal of a sensitive and loving human being who was also one of the great thinkers, agitators and leaders in the cause of working-class socialism. Pat Kirkham’s critical appreciation of van Trotta’s film praises the human characterization of “Red Rosa” while regretting the film’s blurring of her political vision and of the working-class movement which inspired it.

This issue also includes a substantial “dialogue” section. Two exchanges respond to material in our issue devoted to Nicaragua (ATC #7), while other contributions take up the historical consequences of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact and the current question of whether socialist goals are advanced by calling for independent political action.

May-June 1987, ATC 9

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