Newark, California – On Nov. 29, about 200 workers in Local 355 of the Sheet Metal Workers International Assn. won a 5.3% wage increase and ended their 26 day strike against National Steel Corp. This settlement was a clear victory because the company had consistently refused to offer any wage increase at all. The strike was between a small corporation and a weak union, but it had real significance as an example of the rapidly developing class unity among workers of different nationalities, as well as an example of the growing independence and initiative of the rank and file.
The work force at National Steel is about 50% white, 30% Chicano and the remaining workers are mostly Portuguese. For years National Steel, like the roughly 100 other small shops in Local 355, has used racist hiring practices and discrimination on the job to keep the workers under control. One aspect of the strike itself was the company’s active recruitment of the black workers to replace the strikers. But despite these efforts to divide, the workers developed an iron unity in response to worsening conditions on the job and the company’s arrogant stance on the negotiations. Furthermore, the strikers developed an understanding of the use of scab labor, never losing sight of the company as the real enemy. As one workers said, “If there was enough work to go around, the company wouldn’t be able to use these brothers against us.” (Unemployment rates in some Bay Area minority communities are as high as 33%.)
During the 3 and a half weeks of the strike, the men had to survive without income because the union leadership had blocked several rank-and-file efforts to establish a strike fund in the local. And though potential support existed in the many other 355 shops in the area, the union leadership did nothing to inform the rank and file. But in spite of these hardships and isolation, the workers stuck together even when it seemed the strike might go on for months. On Nov. 22 they unanimously rejected a proposal by the company which offered a token wage increase attached to a provision for reinstatement of 70 workers with all others to be placed on a “preferential rehire list.” The workers instructed the union officials that “all would go back or none would go back” and stuck firmly to their wage demands.
In response to the militancy of the workers, the company ran immediately to the courts. On the basis of the fascist Taft-Hartley Act, the local court quickly granted the company permission to hire strikebreakers. The court also issued stiff injunctions against effective picketing. With strikebreakers walking freely in and out the gates and freight moving at will, the workers complained bitterly that the courts and police protect only the rich owners and don’t care what happens to the workers.
The company also experimented with a plan to bust the union out of the shop. National Steel filed a suit claiming that it no longer had a contract with Local 355 and that the union no longer represented its “employees” (strikebreakers). But here the company was so far out of line that the strikers saw this action as just a desperate bluff to make them give in. Whether seriously intended or not, the company’s attack on the union was a complete failure.
National Steel was badly hurt, while the strikebreakers, due to the company’s disorganization, got out little production and in fact they made a lot of junk and ruined some machinery. The company gave in because it saw it couldn’t break the spirit, unity and determination of the strikers. Though a suit against the company for unfair labor practices through the NLRB definitely helped, without the unity of the men, this action would have been too little and too late.
The most serious weakness of the strike was that it was carried on only within the limits set by the Pay Board. The spontaneous unity that developed among the workers was enough to defeat the company but not enough to challenge the wage-freeze. Though the original demands of workers did exceed 5 and a half percent, the advice of their union leaders who fully accepted the terms of struggle offered by the capitalist class was not challenged. The future success of the workers’ strikes and economic struggle depends upon their willingness to oppose the government’s anti-labor policies and the growing awareness that the “Wage-price” freeze is a weapon long used to crush the workers’ movement. This consciousness is developing in opposition to the class collaborationism of the trade union bureaucracy and will develop further as the general workers’ struggle links up more closely with the revolutionary movement to defeat U.S. imperialism.