My Life as a Union Activist

Against the Current, No. 216, January-February 2022

Rob Bartlett

Some former members of the SWP rail fraction in Chicago, 1984. From the left, Norman Christofferson, Guy Miller, Antonio DeLeon (deceased), Vinny Longo, Tina Beacock, Rob Bartlett, David Rollins (deceased), Bill Banta (deceased), bottom, Carl Finamore and Norine Gutekanst. Linda Loew

I DROPPED OUT of college in 1971, got a job as a janitor at the University of Wisconsin and became an AFSCME member. I didn’t have much of an idea of what I was going to do within the union, but quickly discovered a “radical” caucus that put out a monthly newsletter and was active within AFSCME Local 171. This local represented many of the support workers at the university including hospital and janitorial workers among others.

I soon became a steward representing janitors working the night and afternoon shifts. This was right around the time that public employee unions were granted rights in Wisconsin to collect fair share dues from all workers represented by public employee unions (since rescinded under Wisconsin Act 10 and the federal Janus decision).

It was relatively easy to get the vast majority of workers to become union members in my area. My decidedly atypical appearance of long hair wasn’t much of a deterrent to the mostly rural men I worked with who didn’t have a lot of interest in taking on any responsibility in the union. It was easy to convince people, since they were going to be paying what was in essence union dues, that they might as well become union members and have the right to vote on contracts, attend union meetings (few did so outside of the more highly organized hospital unit), and vote on contracts.

Two observations from that time have stayed with me. First was the small number of workers who played an active role in the union, and second was how being in a concentrated work area where many people worked in close proximity to each other was a boost to activism and involvement.

It was an interesting time and caucus to join as there were members of what seemed like most political groups present including members of the Communist Party, Workers World, the Socialist Workers Party, International Socialists, Spartacists and members of various new communist (Maoist) groups.

I became recruited by an internal tendency in the Socialist Workers Party to the idea that radicals needed to work within the “working class” and that the type of jobs that we needed to get were in “key” or basic industries, where we could influence the coming radicalization which we were convinced was just beginning. This was not the majority “line” in the SWP who were still focused on working in the student movement that remained strong as the Vietnam War continued.

After working there for two years I was convinced to move to Chicago, a center of industrial unions in the Midwest, where there were jobs in steel, auto, and transportation which were seen as having strategic value. Not only could strikes in these sectors have an outsized impact on the economy, but they also represented CIO-style unions that contained both “skilled” but more often unskilled workers who were racially diverse.

My political current thought the much more radical African-American workers would lead the coming upsurge and we strived to be present in both integrated workplaces and industries where there was a history of struggle and class consciousness.

The Railroad Union Experience

I applied at steel mills, UAW organized shops and on several railroads. I took a job on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad as a brakeman in 1974. I ended up working there for 16 years.

I had looked for a job as a brakeman because the consolidation of several rail craft unions (switchmen, conductors, trainmen and firemen) into the United Transportation Union (UTU) included an agreement by the union heads not to allow union members to vote on contracts, which previously had been allowed in some of the predecessor unions. A nationwide movement of operating craft workers was organized called the “Right to Vote Committee.”

At its founding in 1969, the UTU had 230,000 members in the United States. Today its successor union represents about 70,000 operating craft rail workers. The Right to Vote Committee’s reason for existence was eliminated in 1975 when the UTU changed its constitution to allow members the right to vote on contracts. Without that issue, the national rank-and-file-opposition caucus dissolved and politics within the union were conducted on either a local or system (railroad company) basis.

As railroad employment fell from more than one million at the end of World War II to 170,000 today, mergers took place among the 14 or 15 craft unions that existed when I started working in 1974. But they never merged to form an industrial union that represented all railway unions. A couple of examples are the Teamsters, who have now incorporated the unions for Engineers and Maintenance of Way workers, and UTU, which merged with the Sheet Metal workers union to form SMART. These mergers were necessitated by the rationalizations that railroads introduced to cut the workforce through technology.

The basic industries that much of the left prioritized were being undermined by the very forces of capital itself. Even in transportation, where there was no ability to offshore the work, the workforce declined and the unions didn’t have any consciousness on how to unite into a more capable force defending work conditions.

As radicals coming into the working class from colleges, we had a goal of recruiting workers to “class consciousness.” We had knowledge gathered mostly through reading about struggles in the 1930s, 1919, the Russian Revolution, and the writings of those who radicalized through the experiences of the IWW and CIO, but we didn’t have a lot of allies who had gone through the CIO in the 1930s still on the job.

We understood the advantage of industrial unions in uniting all workers in a company or a plant so they could engage in more effective job actions and we had some understanding of how racial oppression differentiated workers in their motivation to fight.

Some forces on the left at the time believed that white privilege prevented members of the white working class from acting as a revolutionary force, and focused their efforts on workers of color. A parallel current in the left believed that the possibilities of social transformations were only likely in the third world; the working class in advanced capitalist countries couldn’t become particularly radical.

These different appreciations shaped the strategies of various leftists who sought to bring socialism to the working class in the United States and should be subject to a critical summing up of the mistakes that all socialist currents made.

Changing Work

It was much more interesting to work on the railroad than as a janitor in a university building. As an operating craft employee, I would either work with a crew of three to four people, or I might be a switch tender in an isolated location. Even though we all shared the same challenges of our job categories, it wasn’t always easy to have a common space where collaboration and resistance could occur.

Today, many of the jobs that I once worked with three other people now have only a single person. For example, working in a switching yard coupling a track of cars required a crew of four people prior to 1973, but today a single person wears a backpack that controls the engine remotely while they walk the track and align the coupling mechanism to make “joints.”

When I started, work was divided between people and there was significant “downtime” when the two or three people on the engine could talk, even have political conversations. There are only a few locations on the railroad now where people work in a larger shop, particularly engine maintenance facilities and car repair.

There might be between 20-50 people on a shift so there is some capacity to have a shared work experience. People working on section hand gangs (rail maintenance) may also have larger numbers of people working together as well.

Before I get into politics on the railroad, one of the things I most enjoyed about working there was how when you wanted to or had an incentive to really work together as a team, you get a flavor of how work in the future should function.

Working in most jobs means getting there on time — don’t be late, your job depends on it — as well as the respect of those you work with. It also usually means working your eight hours and then going home. On the railroad there was a time when that didn’t apply.

I remember working in a switching yard where when you started the day, you would get some tracks to switch out, do that for two or three hours, then have a coffee break, then get some more work and come back to the yard office for lunch. There was no mandated time at which you had to take lunch, although if they worked you too long then they had to pay overtime for it.

After lunch, the yardmaster would give you the amount of work to be done and give you the choice of doing it and going home early if you could finish it early. Then the crew could make a decision about how much time the work would take and whether it was worth it to work harder than normal and get eight hours pay for maybe seven or six-and-a-half hours of work.

It was called “going for the quit.” Then you didn’t do stupid things or take risks, but tried to be as efficient as possible, get it done and go home. I doubt that practice exists anymore.

Rail Unions Then and Now

The rail unions are craft unions with a divided workforce that seldom works together in bargaining and even competes with members of the same union on different railroads. There would be internecine squabbles over the number of cars exchanged between companies.

When you would bring up ideas of solidarity, for example when the Penn Central and other east coast railroads were being consolidated to form Conrail, abandon redundant track  and eliminate jobs, and urge that we work together to help preserve their work rules, the answer would be along the lines of “that’s Conrail, that’s not us” — sort of like the popular phrase today to “stay in your lane.”

Nonetheless, the union is where you try to defend your working conditions and fight to protect people from being fired for arbitrary reasons.

The job of a union officer usually meant little in the way of privilege — except for the local chairman who would represent members who were brought up for investigation by the railroad, and got paid release time to do that work. In a local as large as mine (about 500 members), that might mean almost a full-time job. Other officers were mostly placeholders and had few real tasks.

After being on the job for about eight years I ended up being elected vice-president of the local. It didn’t give me any real power and I was hardly so eloquent in my advocacy that holding an office meant much in terms of representing radical aspirations of the membership, but to be taken seriously in any workplace an activist has to be willing to take responsibility for day-to-day work, sometimes boring, sometimes a matter of losing or keeping a job.

In periods of real consequence you can be a voice for a broader strategy in a contract campaign either before or during a strike. Being a critic from the outside and unwilling to do anything to improve what you criticize is a sure path to irrelevance in your workplace.

Would I advocate that a radical should go to work on the railroads today? Probably not as an individual, and certainly not if your commitment was rather short term. You need years in a workplace to begin to understand who you are working with, the characteristics of the union you are a member of, who in the workplace others listen to, what sort of goals you want to accomplish and what your strategy will be.

SWP Perspectives

I started working with about seven other members of the SWP on different railroads in Chicago in 1974 and we really didn’t have enough density to do much of anything cooperatively. By 1980, the SWP told its members to take jobs in rail as an area of concentration and we ended up with about 16 people working in different crafts and railroads across Chicago.

One could make the case that Chicago is the most important U.S. rail hub where all the East and West coast railroads end, and that gives a potential power if there were to be a concerted job action to really affect the economy. It would also require being willing to defy the provisions of the Railway Labor Act and the courts that ban strikes.

The mandate of the fraction was to be a propagandistic one. We were to sell the newspaper and literature of the group and try to recruit workers on that basis. It was a total failure. Over the four to five years that the fraction existed before I was expelled from the SWP, we lost more members who quit the organization after they took a rail job than we recruited from the job.

I remember two people who joined the organization although others were loosely part of our “periphery.” It wasn’t just the fault of what I thought was a narrow and somewhat sectarian approach; our analysis of the way the country was moving was just flat out wrong.

The end of the Vietnam War led to the end of the antiwar movement where all groups including the SWP recruited most of their members. The group had grown from several hundred members in the early 1960s to almost 2000 in the late ’70s. The end of the war necessitated that the SWP find different arenas in which to organize and recruit.

For a period, there was a focus on community struggles around school busing and community control issues, but a decision was also made to “go into industry” in the late ’70s — much later than many other left groups that had also grown out of the antiwar movement. The projection was that the student radicalization was also in parallel with the rise and radicalization of the African-American community. Now we had enough people to place our members into industries where the radicalization was expected to continue to blossom and expand.

While I don’t remember specific predictions of success, I think it was just assumed that the politicized and skilled people who joined the SWP would continue their success in this new arena. The SWP did have a small number of members who were veterans of the struggles of the ’30s and had kept some activity within the union movement. Several of the historic leaders of the SWP like James P Cannon and Farrell Dobbs came out of the working class, but the new leadership that replaced them in the 1960s were all from campus work.

The student radicalization of the antiwar movement and the organization of the Black community never resulted in a broad radicalization within the working class as a whole. I don’t think we were wrong to try to enter the working class — we won’t change society without the broad working class taking the lead in social transformation — but we were delusional in our expectations. This is totally necessary work, but it must be done patiently and with a long-term commitment.

What Kind of Job?

As part of a long-term commitment, I would argue that the job should be sustainable in terms of compensation and working conditions.

Working a very low-wage job for the purposes of helping in an organizing drive may be doable, but I would ask the question of how imminent is a vote, how committed is the union that is leading this, how long can you work in this job? A year? Indefinitely?

Secondly, the work environment — in terms of access to your co-workers — is key. If you work on the railroad as a clerk and you have a choice between working a control tower by yourself, or in an office with 20-30 people, it’s a no-brainer, even if the job in the tower is easier.

Also, if you’re a brakeman working in the yards within Chicago and the concentration of African-American workers is higher in the city yard compared to the suburban yards, maybe you want to work in the city yard. Or if you live in the city and those yards are more convenient in terms of commuting, you still might want to go to the suburban yards where maybe 60-70% of the workforce is located.

Those are decisions that are both personal and political in nature. After the rail strike that we lost, I made the assessment that due to my low seniority (12 years), I was probably never going to have a very stable job unless it was the midnight shift, and as I was just starting a family this was not something that I wanted to do the rest of my life.

So I got a crazy idea that if I finished college maybe I could become a teacher and finally have regular hours and a weekend like 60% of the people in the United States. I went back to school parttime and eventually I ended up a high school teacher.

Others in DSA have made the case for getting a job as a teacher. Teachers have a wonderful position in society. We provide a totally necessary function that affects almost all parents and we are able to articulate just what is wrong with education in terms of what resources are needed to truly give everyone an equal, quality education.

When you work on a railroad, issues of public safety are important but it isn’t as easy to reach out to the community to talk about why having variable working hours might lead to accidents on the job — which could be as catastrophic as the train in July, 2013 carrying very volatile Bakken oil rolling down a grade, derailing in the middle of the night in the small town of Lac Megantic in Quebec, incinerating the town center and killing 47 residents when it exploded.

The problem for union leaders is that to reach out and build understanding and solidarity requires time and effort — and also the confidence in your members that they can be spokespeople for the union. It also means that they give up some control to rank-and-file members, something they are loath to do.

In the recent charter school strike in Chicago, while on the picket lines with their rather young staff, I encouraged teachers to tell me their stories of how decisions made by the charter operator were having a really negative effect on the education of the students. When city aldermen visited the picket line I was at, I introduced them to selected teachers and just asked them to tell their story.

We all have stories and when we tell them, our struggle is much harder to deny. It also becomes more than just our own personal struggle, but one that we share with everyone else we work with. The lessons I have learned are:

1) To be effective you have to be real and be part and parcel with those you work together with. You’re not a temp, but a person who should be willing to be there for the long haul.

2) You can’t be a critic from the outside, you have to be part of the struggle, messy though it might be. It is much better to participate in the class struggle than only read about it, although you do need to have some sort of a plan. You can’t be dogmatic about what you are doing; you need to be willing to reflect on your successes and failures and continually rethink your strategy.

3) You need allies with whom you can work and learn together in how to be more effective in building democratic and inclusive structures and spaces.

4) There is (to paraphrase Darwin in his summing up of his theory of evolution) “a grandeur in this view of life.” I would say this in the view of being activists with the purpose of working to achieve the self-liberation of workers. The stakes are high in terms of the eco-catastrophe that we face and I am convinced that the only social force capable of stopping this is the working class.

January-February 2022, ATC 216

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