From Campus to the Unions

Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992

Nicholas Davidson

CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS were just starting and tensions between the union and company were growing. The union was seeking significant wage increases, changes in work rules, and greater union control over hiring and job selection.

The company was demanding a three-year wage freeze, the transfer of a large percentage of health care costs to the workers, and a change in contract language which would void the union contract if the company was sold or taken over in a merger.

The work force was majority women, 70% African American, 20% Latino, 10% White and Asian, and their full-lime wages barely kept them above the poverty line.

A year before negotiations began, the work force had been 90% African American, and their strong union solidarity had always been reinforced by racial pride and homogeneity. But the boss was not stupid. As the contract expiration date neared, the company had begun a conscious program of hiring immigrant Latino workers, many of whom did not speak English.

In an effort to undermine the workers’ unity, the company played on the fears and prejudices of both groups of workers. The company fostered African American resentment at what they saw as Latinos taking jobs away from the Black community.

Black workers complained that the Latinos would lower union standards because, since they had worked for low wages in Mexico (or elsewhere), they would be satisfied with less of a wage increase or even a wage cut. They complained of company favoritism toward the Latino workers.

The African American workers demanded a policy in which grievance meetings between the union and company would be held only in English, and they complained when union meetings were translated into Spanish They demanded that the union take action to stop the hiring of “wetbacks.”

The Latino workers, for their part, had similarly negative views of their African American co-workers. They complained about company favoritism toward the African American workers. They would make insulting jokes and remarks in Spanish about the lazy “negritos.”

In fact, many of the Latinos did work harder and avoid conflict with the boss because of their residency status: Many of them were going through the Amnesty Program of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which banned them from receiving any federal aid for five years after applying for legal residency. For them, there was no “safety net” if they lost their job.

The crucial camaraderie among workers, in which they watched out for each other, warned each other when a supervisor was coming and had an unspoken pact that no one should work too hard because that just increased company expectations of everyone, had been weakened. The company strategy for undermining worker solidarity was succeeding at least for the time being.

And who was the union field representative trying to deal with this hairy situation? Me! A recent college graduate, with lots of good ideas and good intentions about “workers power” and “socialism from below.”

Organizer’s Visions And Realities

My organizing experience included campus organizing against apartheid, Central America solidarity work, mobilizing against draft registration and ROTC, some anti-nuke work, and general rabble-musing common among student radicals. I had lots of experience “sitting in” at the administration building demanding university divestment, but none whatsoever in dealing with a worker-boss union conflict And I was scared!

So why was I there? Why had I left familiar surroundings for the unknown world of labor organizing?

The biggest reason was that I saw the power that labor has to achieve many of the goals that I supported as a student. Workers, and their labor unions, have resources, a large membership and can have a great influence on the economy. I realized that students alone don’t have the power to make fundamental changes in society happen.

The war on Iraq is a recent case in point Many U.S. students mobilized quickly against the war. The rapid growth of an antiwar student movement was exciting. But it didn’t have the strength to stop the war.

Who knows if any social movement of any composition could have done it? But if there had been a progressive labor movement actively opposing the war, at least the balance of forces would have been a little more equal.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that nearly all issues that student activists care about also affect workers, but links are not made by either side. Take the example of the environment Once the issue is expanded to in-dude toxic substances in the workplace and the community, the interest of workers is clear. Environmentalists, many of them students, too often see workers employed in polluting industries as the enemy, rather than looking for ways to build alliances.

One suggestion from the union side has been the proposal of Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) official Tony Mazzocchi for a “Superfund for Workers,” to be funded through taxes on polluting corporations.

As a step towards reducing workers’ fear of losing their jobs, the Superfund would guarantee them a liveable income if their plants are shut down, provide them with a new education, and create environmentally-safer jobs for them. As a precedent Mazzocchi points to the GI Bill, which helped soldiers reintegrate into society after World War II.

The point is that workers don’t like working and living with dangerous toxics anymore than anyone else. By taking workers’ concerns into account, environmentalists can turn a bitter enemy into a powerful ally.

Confronting Racism and Sexism

An alliance between student activists of color and the labor movement can also be beneficial to both. Union membership includes large numbers of people of color, who are largely excluded from leadership roles. However, those disenfranchised groups have a great deal of potential power, also flowing from the inherent power of unions.

Unions have a checkered history, on the one hand pushing forward racial equality and civil rights (particularly the CIO), and on the other excluding workers of color from good-paying jobs. Student activists of color who have joined the labor movement have helped overcome racial obstacles to local union leadership, and helped turn some labor unions into important vehicles for greater racial and economic justice.

An important element of the successful Justice for Janitors campaign of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been the involvement of many leaders and organizers of color who come from student activist backgrounds.

Common interests between student feminist activists and unions are also clear. The issue of pay equity has been raised by several unions (particularly public sector). The general issue of women’s economic independence is directly linked to their earning power, which can be greatly improved through unionization. Furthermore, organizing the unorganized will increasingly mean organizing women workers.

The unions could also be a great ally in the fight over abortion rights, if they could be forced to commit to it Feminist student activists could have an important impact on that internal union debate if they participated in the labor movement. Feminist student activists of the 1960s and 1970s who joined the labor movement are playing a leading role in the current debate within the labor movement over abortion rights. They need help!

Finally, many student activists consider themselves socialists of one sort or another. At the heart of a socialist perspective is the belief that capitalist society will be overcome primarily through the efforts of working people to gain more control over their lives by establishing democratic control in the workplace. (As the banners of recent New York City union demonstrators asked, “Who elected Wall Street?”)

A Lost Legacy?

For this reason, the labor movement has been a central arena of socialists’ activism. Yet the labor movement today is not as “sexy” as it was decades ago. The sit-down strikes of the 1930s, and the explosive rise of the CIO, transformed American society at least as much as any social movement of the twentieth century. Sixty years later, workers are under attack and on the defensive.

The labor movement is largely conservatized and unwilling to address issues beyond those which narrowly affect union members (i.e. collective bargaining), and they generally don’t handle those very well any more either. Declining membership and bureaucratic leadership are typical of most unions.

Yet these weaknesses in the workers’ movement do not diminish its relevance to the struggle for social change. Students and the labor movement can be good for each other. Student radicals who entered unions in the 1960s and 1970s are playing an important role in the progressive wine of the labor movement today. Students joining the labor movement can push for more militancy, and inclusion of other issues in labor’s agenda. And most student activists can learn an enormous amount from working class people.

At the same time, activism confined to the college campus is often cutoff from the majority of the population. By closing the gap between student and labor activists, both can become stronger and more effective agents for social change.

How can students get involved? Here are a few suggestions:

a) Do some research into the unions in your area and find out which are doing interesting stuff. Call up Labor Notes in Detroit—they usually have an overview of which unions are doing good work.

b) Get a union job and become active in the union.

c) Organize a union where you work Call around to the unions that cover the kind of work you do, and see if they’re interested.

d) Volunteer with a union. Offer services they might need—computers, leafletting writing translation, stuffing envelopes, etc.

e) Get anorganizing jobworking for a union.

A Victory!

So what happened to the African American and Latino workers described above? Well, tensions continued to rise to the point where fists fights were breaking out between Black and Latino workers. Something had to be done quick.

The first step was to talk with leaders among both groups. They knew perfectly well that the situation was playing into the boss’s hands, and they wanted to do something about it.

A social event was needed to break the ice between the two groups, so a potluck/dance party was organized at the union hall. The leaders of both groups worked hard to turn their people out It was an overwhelming success. Over one hundred workers, nearly one-half of the work force, attended. People stayed into the early morning hours, dancing to rap, funk, disco, salsa and cumbia.

That laid the groundwork for the next big step forward. One of the union’s solidarity-building devices was to have “sticker days,” in which workers would wear pm-union stickers to work The first time we tried it, the company freaked out; 90% of the workers were wearing them, African American and Latino alike, in English and Spanish.

As the workers were gathering to punch the time clock, company supervisors came out of the office and told them that if they didn’t remove the stickers they would all be fired immediately. (This was illegal, but in situations like this the law is not the main concern!)

Then something remarkable happened. The workers looked around at each other. They looked back at the supervisors. Then they all sat down! They refused to go to work unless they could wear the stickers!

The supervisors, who had never been confronted with this kind of solidarity before, withdrew into their office They made their decision, walked back out, and singled out a Latina worker who spoke little English They told her that unless she took off her sticker, she would be fired. They were counting on racial divisions to break the workers’ unity.

The woman stood her ground and told them, in halting English, that they had better fire her because she wasn’t going to takeoff that sticker. Immediately after she said this, an African American woman walked over to her side and said, “And you’d better fire me too, because I’m not taking off my sticker either!”

The supervisors withdrew into the office again. Realizing they had lost, they came back out and told the workers to go to work, with the stickers on.

After that, the workers were well on their way to winning the contract fight By standing together, despite their differences, they had proved to themselves and the boss that they had the power to win. The new contract they eventually ratified included no concessions on health care, yearly wage increases and binding language which protected union representation even if the company were sold.

And this brings me to my reason for staying in the labor movement once I joined it. It’s exciting and incredibly rewarding! Yes, there are many moments of fear and frustration. But the labor movement has introduced me to some of the most courageous people I have ever met. And it has given me greater victories to celebrate than any I had experienced before.

January-February 1992, ATC 36