Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Committee for a Proletarian Party

The NASSCO Workers Struggle: For a Fighting Union–A Communist Perspective


Written: December 1980
First Published: Committee for a Proletarian Party Bulletin, No. 1, April 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The recent events at National Steel and Shipbuilding provide some valuable lessons in class struggle from which all working people can learn. The most general lesson is realizing the great power of the working class when it is combined with militant and progressive labor leaders.

As a local communist group in San Diego, the Committee for a Proletarian Party is issuing this brief bulletin as a means to analyze these events and spark discussion among people in the trade union movement. All working people can feel pride and inspiration from the battle NASSCO workers have been waging. The struggle also reveals some mistakes and weaknesses that need to be identified and summed up.

These workers have made their gains under the leadership of labor leaders who have dared to depart from the well-worn path of business unionism. Business Unionism is the approach taken by the great majority of union officials in this country. It is based on selling working people the idea that their interests as a class coincide with the interests of the capitalist owners of companies like NASSCO.

Union officials following this business union approach may try to flex some muscle during contract negotiations, but once the contract is signed fixing the rate of pay and benefits, they basically let the company call the shots on how the work should be done. At a shipyard like NASSCO, which has been notorious for bad health and safety conditions, letting the company have this kind of power is a life-or-death issue.

Some of the more recent union leaders at NASSCO, in the larger locals like the Ironworkers and the Machinists, had begun to develop a more militant, class-struggle approach to the problems of working conditions in the yard. This approach has involved being aggressive about taking the company on about health and safety. Where company-created hazards have existed, production has been held up until safe working conditions are restored.

As communists, we unite with this approach which recognizes that the class interests of workers and capitalists are in basic conflict. But we are also concerned that working people do not narrow their attention just to the economic struggle (wages, benefits, working conditions) in their particular workplace. When working people take an active role in struggling with major social and political issues they increase their strength and help both themselves and all oppressed people worldwide. This means taking stands that offer solutions for discrimination, war, pollution and other problems that nobody can really afford to ignore.

We believe in supporting labor leaders who take this broader approach on these kinds of vital issues. We will unite with such leaders when they support reforms that make genuine improvements in areas that really effect people’s lives, such as decent housing, quality education and secure jobs. But these changes do not go far enough. As communists we believe society’s main problem is the capitalist system itself. While joining together with other progressive people to achieve common goals, we will always uphold that the only real solution is socialism and political rule by working people, not capitalists.

The Wildcat Strike

By taking more of a class-struggle approach to their problems, the shipyard workers at NASSCO realized why the company would never willingly put out the money for better working conditions. To increase profits and expand investments, capitalists have to pay workers lower wages and benefits and keep down the expenses needed to provide safe and healthy conditions. Therefore, workers have to fight both to maintain any gains they have won and make any new advances.

When new union leaders emerged at NASSCO, some of whom were communists, they worked to build strong and democratic unions and to actively and aggressively represent the interests of the rank and file. The company responded with a systematic attack to cripple their effectiveness. The company hired a well-known union-busting law firm to coordinate the attack. Supervisors were sent to special classes to learn how to neutralize and undermine the active stewards. The company restricted the time these stewards could spend on union business, and tried to stonewall all grievances. This tactic was designed to force the union to take all its grievances to expensive and time-consuming arbitration.

The last straw in this series of attacks was the suspension of an Ironworkers shop steward for alleged “insubordinate language.” A protest was organized against these attacks at NASSCO’s public launching of the destroyer tender Cape Cod on August 1. The protestors distributed an informational leaflet describing the working conditions in the yard. During the official ceremony they chanted slogans like “we built the ships!” and “politicians lie while workers die.” This demonstration was important as an effort to publicize the conditions in the yard and promote the right of working people to free speech.

The company used this protest as a pretext to fire 17 of the most active union representatives. This represented an all-out assault on the unions which demanded an immediate, united, and militant response If the protestors had followed the grievance procedure, they could have presented a strong defense of their actions just on the basis of free speech. But, waiting for arbitrations could have taken up to a year, and this delay would have been to the company’s advantage. Therefore, the only realistic option was to strike.

Workers in the yard overwhelmingly supported the wildcat strike. Production was virtually shut down for three days. There were the usual accusations by the company that the strike was “illegal”, but the circumstances leading up to it show that it was fully justified and deserved the support of all working and progressive people. According to national labor law, there is a strong basis to argue that the action was a legally warranted unfair labor practice strike.

As could be expected, NASSCO attempted to turn public opinion against the strike and called in the government to protect its “rights of private property.” The San Diego Police Department moved in quickly to clamp down on the strike, and the strikers were threatened with a court injunction ordering them back to work. The news from the media was heavily slanted to tell NASSCO1s side of the story.

There were also internal factors which weakened the strike. A number of the union leaders failed to realize that spontaneous militance wasn’t good enough; they didn’t spend enough time getting the strike well organized and communicating regularly with the rank and file. Some workers objected that there was no official membership vote to wildcat, but historically a lot of the effectiveness of wildcats is based on quick reaction and taking the company by surprise. But, after the strike was begun, the leaders should be criticized for failing to hold nightly informational meetings to keep the rank and file on top of the latest developments.

By the third day of the wildcat, the leaders had decided to change tactics and urged the strikers to return to work in order to “take the fight inside.” This decision was based on a correct assessment that external pressures coming from the united action of the courts, police, and company, as well as the strike leaders’ own lack of organization would cause the strength of the strikers to be eroded as time wore on.

Once back in the yard, the rank and file soon recognized how important it was to continue their militant struggle. NASSCO dropped even the facade of being concerned about health and safety conditions. The direct result of this company negligence was the tragic deaths by suffocation of two young machinists, Michael Beebe and Kenneth King. These deaths only served to confirm people’s opinions that the wildcat strike had indeed been fully justified and necessary.

Soon afterwards, NASSCO was aided by the FBI in an effort to stem the tide of public opinion which was becoming more sympathetic to the strikers. Utilizing a provocateur, Ramon Barton, FBI agents arrested three of the fired union members for allegedly conspiring to blow up company transformers. These three activists were either members or supporters of the Communist Workers Party (CWP). Thus, the real purpose of the company and the FBI became clear: use red-baiting to try to split the ranks of the workers and try to portray communists as crazy bomb-toting terrorists.

The Election Campaign

With the struggle getting more intense in the yard, the members of the Ironworkers union turned their attention to the upcoming elections in December that would decide the future direction of their union. Ironworkers Local 627 is the largest union in the yard, representing 3,000 of NASSCO’s 5,000 wage workers. The top offices in the union were at stake in the local elections.

Some of the candidates were among the workers fired before or during the wildcat, which now totalled 28 people. The wildcat itself became the biggest dividing issue. Four major slates emerged, with two of them, “Strongback” and “Unity Ticket”, upholding the strike, and the other two, “Cherokee’s Committee for a Democratic Union” and “For a United Union,” speaking out against the wildcat.

The Strongback ticket was openly endorsed by the Communist Workers Party. A number of its leading candidates had been sympathizers of CWP for awhile and were the leaders of the union who were most publically identified with the strike. Reynaldo Inchaurregui, the Business Agent of the local and leader of the “Committee for a Democratic Union”, resorted to the tactic of red-baiting to try to discredit the Strong-back candidates. He was joined in this effort by the company as well as the FBI, who put their informer, Ramon Barton, on TV to accuse Miguel Salas, the Strongback candidate for Business Agent, of being a CWP member.

Despite these reactionary tactics, Salas and the other top candidates of Strongback won the election with 37% of the vote. The turn-out for the election was the largest in the local’s history, with over 1,000 voters. These results were positive in the sense that the voters for Strongback did not let the issue of red-baiting weaken their support for whom they recognized as the most militant leaders in the union.

The Trusteeship

On January 7, one day before the officers were to be installed, the Ironworkers International placed Local 627 in trusteeship. Trusteeship ensured the International direct control over all the affairs of the local. Thus, the ironworkers now faced the same situation as the machinists, who had already seen their own local thrown into trusteeship.

The move by the Ironworkers International meant, as it did with the machinists, that the members of the local were stripped of all their democratic rights. One of the main reasons for the trusteeship was to prevent what were perceived as militant and communist union leaders from taking power. The timing of the trusteeship also was intended to give the International total control over the upcoming negotiations for a new contract.

Leading members of three of the election slates, Strongback, Unity, and United Union, came together in a united front to oppose this direct attack on union democracy. However, some of the members of the slates kept out of the united front effort because they refused to work with Strongback or CWP. But refusing to work with the Strongback caucus, which won the most votes in the election, only plays into the hands of the International and the company by weakening the efforts to build a broad fighting unity among all possible workers in the yard.

The Role of Communists in General

The Committee for a Proletarian Party believes that working people are really cutting their own throats when they refuse to vote for communists because they are communists. A number of people voted for Strong-back candidates in spite of the fact they thought they were voting for communists. There is definitely a progressive aspect to this latter kind of vote; still, our own position is clear: union leaders who provide real leadership to the class should be elected because they are communists, not in spite of it.

Not all people who identify as communists turn out to be good leaders. They are subject to the same temptations as other working people to put their own careers above the interests of the working class as a whole. But they have the weapons provided by their ideology and their organization which encourage them to dedicate their lives to wholeheartedly serving the revolutionary interests of the working class and oppressed people of the United States and the world. Unlike pro-capitalist parties like the Democratic party where the decisions come from the top, in a communist party the working class takes an active role in seeing the correct policies are established and mistakes are criticized.

Historically, communists have proven to be the best overall leaders that the working class has produced. In the 1930’s, for example, they were in the forefront helping to organize the new industrial unions and leading broader struggles against unemployment, racism, and fascism.

By the 1950’s, however, during the McCarthy era, the capitalists and the government launched a vicious red-baiting campaign which successfully drove most communists out of the labor movement and destroyed most unions under communist leadership. One of the reasons for their defeat was that communists had become too conservative and developed many illusions about the U.S. capitalist class playing a progressive role in the world. They no longer sought to lead the working class in militant class struggle against the capitalists or link this struggle with the revolutionary goal of socialism and workers’ political rule.

Despite the fact that communists in this country became conservative and started to give up struggling for revolution, why did the capitalists still consider them such a threat? The reason is that when communists do act as revolutionaries, they represent the genuine interests of the working class which is to take political control of society.

The strengths of communists are that they take a basic class-struggle approach to labor struggles. They are willing to use militant tactics and to challenge the laws written by the political puppets of the capitalists that are designed to keep working people under their thumb.

Communists fight for the interests of the working class as a whole and don’t take a narrow view of just looking out for the interests of a few trades. Communists also struggle for the long-term, political interests of working people, and not just a few short-term economic gains. In addition, they also recognize that international borders should not be allowed to divide U.S. workers from other working people around the world because we are all fighting one international capitalist system.

Of course, not everyone who calls himself a communist consistently acts like one. Some leftists who may have the best of intentions cannot be considered communists because they take reactionary political positions on important questions. These leftists may have the wrong idea of what a socialist society is, the wrong strategy for making a revolution in this country, or the wrong conception on how a communist party is supposed to provide leadership to the working class.

The Role of the Communist Workers Party

The members of the Communist Workers Party, like those of other communist organizations in the U.S. struggle to serve the interests of the working class and other oppressed people. A number of them, for example, played a prominent role in mobilizing the rank and file at NASSCO to boldly and militantly battle with the company. The policies of the Strongback caucus itself are developed under the leadership of the CWP.

The CWP members who develop the most respect from their fellow workers tend to give people the impression that communists are just good class fighters, in the sense that they are militant on day-to-day economic issues. But the leadership of communists involves much more than just being militant or winning good union contracts. For example, burning issues like war preparations and the immigration rights of undocumented workers, which have a big effect on people’s daily lives, cannot be separated from economic struggle.

The CWP has other serious problems besides what we call “economism”, focusing the attention of working people on strictly economic struggle and divorcing this struggle from the revolutionary political struggle by the working class for state power. In their public actions, CWP often clearly puts the interests of their own Party above the interests of the working class. They engage in adventurist acts as publicity stunts to gain attention primarily for their own organization. They try to be impressive to other working people by striking a “militant” pose, but often their reckless actions just make them end up looking irresponsible and foolish.

Frequently, CWP members act like they have all the answers and are too arrogant to listen to other people’s advice. They act sectarian in the sense that they are unwilling to work with other progressive people unless it is on their own terms.

Part of the problem that leads CWP to act like a frenzied sect is their analysis of the objective conditions in this country. They believe that the decade of the 1980’s will witness a great economic and political crisis in the USA, and the only choice for people will be either fascism or socialist revolution. Even though it is very small, CWP believes that unless the working class comes to its senses and follows CWP’s leadership, it is doomed.

This whole super-militant approach that a group like CWP is taking is called “ultra-leftism.” Typically, a group like this overestimates the conditions that will create a revolutionary situation because it needs to justify its adventurist actions. It acts sectarian towards other progressive people and elitist towards the masses of working people because it has an over-inflated view of its own importance. When a group like this tries to give leadership to working people, it gets out of touch with the level of struggle of the rank and file, it causes unnecessary divisions among the ranks of the working class, and it ends up strengthening the position of more reactionary political forces. What is most serious is that it tends to fan anti-communism by discrediting communist leadership in the eyes of the working class.

Because CWP has serious problems with arrogance and sectarianism, however, doesn’t justify other communists and progressives being just as sectarian by refusing to work with them or their sympathizers. To objectively treat the CWP as though it were as much an enemy as NASSCO will inflame splits in the ranks of the shipyard workers, weaken opposition to the trusteeship, and play into the hands of the company.


In the present struggle at NASSCO, the infighting which is based on putting in first place the narrow self-interest of one’s own organization poses a major problem. The greatest strength that the workers at NASSCO have is their own solid fighting unity and the support of other working people and progressives.

If other communists, socialists, and militants don’t like the leadership being offered by the CWP, then they have an obligation to the working class to provide better leadership. Because CWP and the leaders of Strongback do have significant support among the shipyard workers, other union leaders have a responsibility to work with them. If they have criticism of Strongback or CWP, they should air them in the spirit of striving for the strongest possible unity of the rank and file.

The history of struggle at NASSCO is already rich in lessons for all of us. Under the leadership of militants and communists who strive to put the interests of the class above all else, these shipyard workers can build a real model of class-struggle unionism and use these gains to help strengthen, in their own modest way, the political and economic position of the working class as a whole.

The Committee for a Proletarian Party supports this kind of unionism as one part of the long range goals of communists. There is no kind of unionism by itself which is going to provide a real long-term solution to the exploitation of the working class. If class-struggle unionism helps to strengthen the working class’ position against the capitalists, then it can contribute to building a real revolutionary movement of the working class to overthrow the capitalist system and. construct a socialist society. Only under socialism do working people have the means to collectively decide the direction their society will take and how they will participate in it.