Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Defending minority workers caucuses: Lessons from a Chicago steelworkers local

First Published: Unity, Vol. 3, No. 23, December 5-18, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In growing numbers, oppressed nationality workers are forming caucuses in their unions to fight for their special demands, strengthen their role in union affairs and struggle for equal treatment from the union leadership as well as the boss. Most of these caucuses have arisen spontaneously, a necessary response by minority workers to conditions they face on the job and in the unions.

Their emergence has touched off an intense struggle in many unions. Some claim the caucuses are “divisive,” undermining worker solidarity and union strength. Others maintain their fight against national oppression plays a progressive role and helps workers of all nationalities to unite against the employers.

The battle lines were sharply drawn at the October meeting of United Steel Workers Local 15271 in Cicero, Illinois. The meeting was packed with rank and filers concerned about an attempt by the local leadership to discipline the president of the local’s Latinos Unidos caucus on charges of “dual unionism.” The struggle which raged that night is being repeated in union halls across the country.

Local 15271 represents the 1,500 workers at the Danly Machine Co., which makes huge presses used to stamp out auto bodies. Though located in a lily-white Chicago suburb, the plant has a large number of Blacks and Latinos, and discrimination has always been a big issue there. Though job assignments are supposed to be based on seniority and ability, in actual practice the decision is up to foremen who invariably stick Black and Latino workers in the lowest job classifications, usually the welding shop. Latinos Unidos was organized in large part to struggle against such practices by the company.

Bureaucrats saw “dual union” menace

Nicanor Rodriguez, president of Unidos, was deprived of a higher job classification in a shift change last year. He filed a discrimination claim against the company, which was denied in the grievance procedure. He appealed the decision and, while waiting for the arbitrator’s ruling, took his case before the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOQ. Since the EEOC requires that any complaint be filed within 180 days, Rodriguez could not wait for the arbitrator to rule before going to the EEOC.

The EEOC supported Rodriguez’ claim and ordered that he be given the higher job classification. Rodriguez then asked the union to fight for the back pay he had lost while his case was pending. Chief steward Lou Cozzie told him that as far as he was concerned the union was out of the picture when Rodriguez took the case to EEOC. Not content with that, the clique that runs Local 15271 brought dual unionism charges against Rodriguez, citing his leadership of Latinos Unidos as well as his decision to “bypass” the union grievance process in favor of the EEOC.

A trial committee, hand-picked by the union president, recommended that Rodriguez be kicked out of the union for a year, a move that would have cost him his job as well. They even wanted to bill him $3,000 for the cost of his “trial”!

Rank and file saw otherwise

The attack on Rodriguez brought many members of the local actively to his defense. Rank and File, a caucus initiated by Black workers at Danly, publicized his case in its newsletter. The caucus argued that Latinos Unidos, by fighting discrimination and promoting participation of Latino workers in the local, actually strengthened the union and deserved the support of the entire membership. Rank and File also vigorously defended the right of minority and women workers to make use of the EEOC as well as the union grievance process, pointing out that the EEOC itself was won at the cost of “beatings, jailings and lives” in the 1960’s.

When the trial committee presented its verdict to the members for approval at the October union meeting, they got a rude shock. To support their charge that Latinos Unidos was organizing in contradiction to the union, they read the by-laws of the caucus to the meeting. The effect was the opposite of what was intended: rank and filers took the by-laws as confirmation that Latinos Unidos was committed to building a stronger union. Speaker after speaker rose to point out that the attack on Rodriguez only served to Danly by dividing the membership at a time when unity was badly needed for the contract struggle coming up in April.

One white worker pointed out that his grandfather had spoken little English when he arrived from Poland. A foreign language club in his union had helped him learn about the union and get started in the U.S. The worker argued that Latinos Unidos, by providing Spanish translations, likewise helped promote Latino participation in the union.

The meeting ended with an overwhelming vote to repudiate the trial committee’s decision and overturn all charges against Rodriguez. The leadership clique is appealing the membership’s vote to the international, but there is no question that their racist policies have been dealt a major blow.

Who really “divides workers”?

Union bureaucrats who have consolidated their power by icing minority workers, and rank and filers generally, out of union affairs have reason to fear caucuses like Latinos Unidos. But experience is proving that such caucuses advance the workers movement by opposing discrimination and drawing minority workers into struggle. In many instances they are taking the lead in fighting for the demands of all workers.

In St. Louis, the Concerned Auto Workers, a caucus of Black UAW members, is actively fighting both company discrimination policies and an impending shutdown which threatens to idle thousands of workers. The caucus also takes up a number of community issues and is an active force in the local Black Liberation Movement.

In San Francisco, last summer’s massive strike of 6,000 hotel workers got a major shot in the arm from the activities of the Latinos Unidos and United Filipino Workers groups in Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders’ Union Local 2. Both caucuses were able to organize and tap the energies of minority workers in a way that the Local 2 leadership, historically indifferent to the concerns of minority workers, had never been able to do.

Some left forces, blinded by their own cynicism and chauvinism, have failed to recognize the progressive role such caucuses can play. At best they regard them as being “at a lower level politically” than a multinational workers’ caucus. At worst, they embrace the arguments of the Local 15271 bureaucrats and claim the caucuses are “dual unionist” and “divide the workers.” But it is the racist policies of the bureaucrats, not the organized efforts to combat them, which keep workers divided. Genuine workers unity depends on support for the struggle against national oppression by workers of all nationalities.