Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

David Kline

Corrupt local kicked out at Stewart-Warner: Birth of a rank-and-file union

First Published: The Call, Vol. 8, No. 49-50, December 24, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Chicago–This city’s cigar-chomping, Mafia-connected labor bosses got a huge shock Oct. 24.

On that day, 1,500 angry production, maintenance and warehouse workers at the Stewart-Warner plant here told their old union to get lost and voted in a new one. The decertification of a powerful local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) was an unprecedented move in Chicago labor politics.

Why did Stewart-Warner workers do it? And what will happen to them now? These are questions that union activists here and elsewhere are asking.

The basic reason for the decertification move, say nearly all the workers, is that IBEW Local 1031 was undemocratic and failed to represent the workers. Local 1031 is actually an amalgamated local the 2,700 employees from Stewart-Warner comprised only about one-quarter of the local’s membership.

Local 1031 is also run with an iron fist, and that fist is attached to business agent Dick Deason. If an elected steward did not please Dick Deason, then Dick Deason had a habit of replacing that steward with one of this own appointees who did please him.


Rank-and-file workers not only thought the union was undemocratic; they suspected it was in bed with the bosses. Over the years, in fact, a succession of sellout contracts left the members more and more behind in the face of company attacks and worsening inflation.

Still, with all the problems, decertification was only considered as the last resort. Seven years ago, a reform group known as United IBEW Workers started organizing around day-to-day battles against management as well as for reform of the union. They succeeded in electing some more progressive stewards.

In the spring of 1977, though. United IBEW Workers ran an unsuccessful campaign against the bureaucrats in a local-wide election. Afterwards, Deason dismissed all stewards who had supported the reform slate.

Then in the summer of 1978, the reformers again tried to throw out the Deason gang–this time by petitioning international IBEW leaders for a separate local for Stewart-Warner workers. The petition was denied and the rank and file was still out in the cold.

The decertification effort, then, was a response to continuing demands from the rank and file for a democratic, fighting union that could win decent contracts and protect the members from the bosses’ abuses.

This decertification did not–as in some decertification cases–represent an anti-union effort spawned by company agents. In fact, Stewart-Warner management was solidly behind the IBEW incumbents and opposed to the challengers in the United Workers Association (UWA).

Victory might not have been won by the UWA reformers had it not been for the fact that activists used the decertification effort not just to confront the IBEW bureaucrats, but also to mobilize workers to resist attacks from the company.


Decertification activists, for instance, used the UWA structure to take up the case of Mary Lowry, a Black worker fired on trumped-up charges because of her militancy. In this way, workers could see very concretely the two choices–the UWA’s fighting posture vs. the IBEW’s do-nothing response.

As the voting drew near, Local 1031 misleaders were so discredited that they launched a red-baiting campaign. They claimed that the movement against the 1BEW was “communist inspired.”

In fact, there were some communists active in the decertification effort. But for the most part, rank and filers could see that the communists among their fellow workers were an asset in the fight for a democratic union, not a liability. Further, workers saw Deason’s red-baiting as a diversionary tactic to blunt criticism of the IBEW for its betrayal.

In their own work, however, CPML members and other left-wing activists were self-critical of some of their mistakes during the campaign. Early on in the decertification drive, for instance, CPML organizers were somewhat hesitant to take up the decertification effort. Not investigating the true situation carefully enough, they were concerned that decertification might serve the bosses’ purposes by leaving Stewart-Warner workers without a union at all.

Once they saw the real nature of the decertification drive as a desire for real unionization by the most militant workers, though, they got actively involved and even played a leading role in a number of areas.

Today, nearly two months after the sweetheart relationship between IBEW officials and the Stewart-Warner bosses was broken up, important challenges confront the workers.

Foremost is the question of how to win a decent contract. Currently, UWA leaders are negotiating with management. But given the inexperience and relative weakness of the UWA, workers are asking what it will take to make their union strong enough to beat the bosses.

The first step, of course, is to unite the whole membership-including the one-third of the workers who voted for the IBEW. Major steps in this direction have already been taken, especially by implementing broad democracy:

•For the first time in any Stewart-Warner worker’s memory, steward elections were held in all departments last month.

•Union dues and contract demands were not set by any elite group of leaders. Rather, hundreds came to a union meeting where they decided on these questions and elected their own negotiation committee.

•Union committees are now open to any rank-and-file member. Workers, in fact, have already set up four such UWA committees dealing with discrimination, health and safety, fired workers and strike preparations.

•Plans are being developed for improved training of stewards so they can better represent workers right at the shop floor level.

•The UWA intends to use its newspaper and various union-sponsored social events to keep the membership informed and involved in running their affairs.

•Open debate and discussion is being carried out on whether or not the UWA should affiliate with an international union at some point, to gain the added strength that a big industrial organization can provide.

•Activists hope to see the UWA get involved in and give support to broader social issues beyond immediate shop concerns. These include the fight against racial discrimination, support for Puerto Rican independence [there are more than 1,000 Puerto Rican workers at Stewart-Warner], and aid to important working-class struggles throughout the Chicago area.

Truly, after all those years under Deason’s boot, people have responded to the new democratic spirit at Stewart-Warner like a breath of fresh air. And by every measure, it is this rank-and-file unionism, this democracy, that can infuse the UWA with strength far beyond what the IBEW ever had here For the first time, there is a united and militant union that knows what it wants here.

To be sure, the union is still inexperienced, and a variety of ideas on the direction for the UWA exist within its leadership.

But things have already begun to change.

Less than a month after the IBEW was booted out, the bosses fired a Black union steward, Equhart Randall. Immediately, the union helped workers in Randall’s department organize a boycott of overtime, demanding he be hired back. Within a week.

Randall was back on his job.

Remember, in all the 29 years of Local 1031’s rule at Stewart-Warner, no one could recall that a minority worker, after being fired, ever won his job back because of union support. But in just four weeks under rank-and-file control, the union had achieved this important victory.

There is a lesson to keep in mind, say activists. The best guarantee for a strong UWA–and for a UWA that won’t itself have to be decertified 29 years from now–is for the rank and file to democratically control their own union.