The Signs of Resistance

The Editors

TWO HIGHLY SIGNIFICANT labor struggles have concluded as this issue of Against the Current was in preparation.  The mobilization of Puerto Rican workers against the privatization of the phone system there-a forty-one-day phone workers’ strike highlighted by a two-day island-wide general strike-and the fifty-four-day conflict at two General Motors plants in Flint, which led to the near-total shutdown of the entire GM system in North America, are analyzed by correspondents Rafael Bernabe and Kim Moody in this issue.

In the terms on which these struggles ended, neither can be described as a triumphant breakthrough for labor.  In Puerto Rico, the mass movement has failed to achieve its major objective, and is likely to recede for a period.  At General Motors, the outcome reflects a largely predictable compromise in which the United Auto Workers has slowed, but not stopped, the pace of GM’s drive for speedup and job-slashing.

We would argue, however, that these strikes’ significance is much greater than the outcomes alone might suggest.  The larger lesson is this: Workers in crucial and strategic industries have begun to resist the near-universal conventional wisdom of the current period.  Everyone “knows,” after all, that this is the age of privatization and deregulation, that government ownership of public utilities is a dinosaur and that private business provides more efficient and lower-cost service.

Yet just as French and more recently Danish workers have refused to accept the free-market doctrine that “There Is No Alternative,” that spirit of resistance is penetrating into the U.S. labor movement.  In the Puerto Rican case, the much higher traditional level of labor combativeness intersects with popular national pride in their telephone system, and anger that the government wants to give it away. The July 7-8 strike by sixty unions was timed for the 100th anniversary of the United States annexation of Puerto Rico.

Indeed, it’s quite clear that the level of popular support for maintaining public ownership of the Puerto Rican national telephone system is vastly greater than the relatively low vote at present for independence.  This is understandable, given the fear that independence would entail vast deinvestment and economic collapse.  Clearly, then, it’s through an ongoing struggle against “the selling of Puerto Rico” that the Puerto Rican left and a socialist-oriented movement for national self-determination can be revived in the United States’ largest colony.

Meanwhile, everybody “knows” that international competitiveness requires GM to shed excess capacity and “outmoded work rules”-mainly, the ones that afford workers a decent chance of surviving to retirement age with vital organs and body parts more or less intact.

The business press was pretty well unanimous in demanding that GM push this fight to a conclusion that would teach the United Auto Workers the necessary lessons about present-day economic realities.  Further, argued Business Week, investors demand that GM “get efficiency gains by working closely with the UAW rather than battling on the picket lines.” (“If Ford Can Do It, Why Can’t GM?” Business Week, June 29, 1998: 36)

It turns out that there’s another economic reality, too: GM’s vaunted “just-in-time” and lean production system makes the entire network vulnerable when a couple of locals, like Yertle the Turtle in the Dr. Seuss story, decide that they’ve just had enough.  The system that assumes the possibility of pushing workers just beyond the limits of human endurance breaks when workers act as human beings.

An even less anticipated development in the GM strike, in Michigan particularly, was the degree of public sentiment in support of the union’s resistance-even though the UAW leadership did nothing to organize popular outreach, as the Teamsters had done for last year’s UPS strike.  By moving the dies out of a Flint production plant, GM intended to intimidate the workers in the city where the UAW was born, but instead infuriated them-and demonstrated to the public that the Flint workers had to strike in order to preserve any jobs at all.

These struggles have been the lightning strikes of the hot summer of 1998, but we suspect they are the signs of even bigger storms to come.

Ron Carey, the finest President the Teamsters ever had, was expelled from the union the last week in July by order of the government-appointed Independent Review Board.  With this action the IRB completed the process that began with Carey’s disqualification from the 1998 election rerun.

Meanwhile the federal election monitor has allowed James Hoffa Junior, whose initial campaign was also found to have committed serious transgression of campaign financing rules, to run again.

Expelling Carey from the union constitutes such unfair, excessive and public punishment that the IRB can only be seen as capitulating to the powerful anti-labor forces within the US political establishment and, in particular, to the unremitting pressure exerted over the last couple years by the Wall Street Journal, as well as by the resurrected Hoekstra congressional committee and other right-wing forces, whose goal is assuring Hoffa Junior’s victory in the election this October.

Eagerly anticipating this result, United Parcel Service has announced it is unilaterally canceling its contractual promise to add two thousand fulltime jobs. UPS’s lying pretext is that overnight package delivery has not returned to pre-strike levels; the real reason, of course, is that UPS knows that no contract need be honored if the union can’t or won’t enforce it.

It is particularly painful-as previous coverage in this magazine has detailed-that the fatal wounds to Ron Carey’s militant and democratic reform administration were in large part self-inflicted, due to the sleazy operations of fast-buck operators (“consultants”) who couldn’t care less about the interests or the activism of the union rank and file.

The future of the Teamsters today-and indeed a big part of the future of the labor movement in the years to come-rests with the rank-and-file struggle organized around Tom Leedham’s presidential campaign and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union.  Following the election and the TDU convention shortly afterward, ATC will cover the entire struggle and the lessons activists have drawn from it.

ATC 76, September-October 1998