Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Revolutionary Workers’ Collective

RWC Strike Sum-Up: Trade Union Tasks


First Published: The Communist, Vol. IV, No. 18, August 14, 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The following article, written by the Revolutionary Workers’ Collective, continues the strike sum-up began in the last issue.


We adopted the slogan, “unite the many to defeat the few” as the basis of our work within the local during the strike. The local represents workers in several shops, but workers at our plant make up about 60 per cent of the local’s membership. Despite that fact, the bureaucrats - most of them drawing salaries of over $30,000 per year, have traditionally ignored our plant. Approximately 20 years ago, the union set up a “District” structure which has the effect of almost totally insulating the paid union officials from the control of the rank and file. They set up a District organization as an umbrella organization over the affiliated Northern California locals representing workers in scores of shops from South San Francisco to the San Joaquin Valley. All of the business agents and organizers work for the District, which is run by delegates elected from each of the 11 locals. The greatest part of the locals’ funds are paid into the District, and the locals have few employees of their own. The result of this structure is that the Directing Business Representative maintains absolute authority over the District’s funds and employees, all of whom owe their jobs to him. The rank and file will never be able to run the union unless they are able to either disassociate the local from the district structure so that they can control their funds and the business agents who are supposed to represent them, or work with members in other locals to take over the district structure.

The Directing Business Representative and his cohorts worked to sabotage the strike from the beginning. No effort was made to organize a strike committee until just before the strike and the only union meeting called to prepare for it was a chaotic proposal meeting at which all of the 70 or so demands put forward by individual workers were simply listed without any effort made to select priorities. The result of this was that the key demands were lost in the huge list and the negotiating committee –appointed by the chief shop steward – was without rank and file guidance. Throughout the strike, the business representatives worked to confuse and demoralize the rank and file. Soon after the strike began, when workers rejected by a margin of 1100 to 100 the company’s first offer, the Directing Business Representative, without consulting the negotiating committee, invited a federal mediator to meddle in the negotiations. The negotiating committee ran him out. A few weeks later he called a meeting of the striking workers to “consider a new offer”, although at the time he called the meeting no offer had been made. The company finally presented its offer the night before the meeting, with the result that the negotiating committee was unable to fully analyse it and make an informed recommendation to the rank and file. Nonetheless the offer was rejected by a 850 to 100 vote. Throughout the strike, the union officials also collaborated with the company’s use of the courts to help break the militancy of the rank and file. Soon after the strike began, the company got a temporary restraining order which severely limited picketing and demonstrations near the plant. The union lawyers did not show up in court to oppose the order, nor did they appear a few weeks later when the judge issued a preliminary injunction incorporating the same restrictions. Over 100 strikers jammed the courtroom ”for the second hearing, never having been told by the bureaucrats that the union was not fighting the court action.

The rank and file understood that the court orders would mean nothing as long as they remained united and forceful. The injunctions were disobeyed when mass picket lines blocked the entrances to the plant after union members learned that scab work was being done by the company’s supervisory personnel. The company went back to court, again without opposition from the union, to obtain contempt citations against about 100 rank and file activists. These citations could have resulted in the arrest and jailing of many key strike activists, but members of a law collective which works with the RWC intervened on the strikers’ behalf and were able to stop the proceedings.

Finally, the union forced acceptance of the company’s last offer by implementing an unprecedented mail ballot instead of the procedure required under the union constitution. Previously all company offers had been considered at special union meetings and voted upon by secret ballot after discussion. The mail ballot procedure was implemented despite a petition protesting it signed in one day by over 900 strikers. Rank and file members tried to get a court injunction against the mail ballot, but this time the union lawyers showed up in court, and the judge ruled, as usual, against the rank and file.

In all of these struggles we attempted to help unite the great majority of members against the trade union traitors. We worked mainly through two forms; the bulletin subcommittee of the official strike committee and a caucus. The official strike committee was selected by the chief steward and was dominated by fairly conservative, white, skilled workers. Many of them were passive members, content to leave strike organization to the union bureaucrats. Members of the rank and file, particularly shop stewards, progressive workers, and communists, organized a “volunteers committee” to help the strike committee. As members of the volunteers committee, we stressed work on the strike bulletin, which was published about 15 times during the strike. We used the bulletin mainly to publicize key contract demands and the progress of negotiations as well as to help organize events such as rallies, pickets, and fund-raising activities. The bulletin was very effective as a mass organizer as it was distributed to all strikers as they stood picket duty. This would give us the opportunity to talk with many people we had not known previously, allowing us to gauge the mood of the rank and file and to recruit people into the caucus. Our work also demonstrated to the rank and file that communists did more than talk–that in fact we were–the hardest and most consistent fighters for their interests. Struggles around the publication of the bulletin also provided lessons. The bureaucrats put every possible obstacle in the way of publication: reproduction facilities were not available, there was no money for paper, the union lawyers had to approve everything in writing to avoid libel suits, etc. etc. These stalling tactics, plus the bureaucrats’ betrayal during the negotiations, eventually won even a majority of the strike committee to support the publication of a bulletin criticizing the paid union officials, although many of them backed down when the bureaucrats counterattacked. In sun, our work on the bulletin committee was very positive in that: (1) It helped to unite the rank and file around the strike demands and the need to fight for them in a united and militant way; (2) It helped us make contacts with the broad rank and file, particularly important since we were so new in both the plant and the union; (3) It allowed us to demonstrate both that we were committed fighters for the rank and file and that we were sincerely interested in strengthening the union and its role; and (4) It helped us to expose and isolate the trade union bureaucrats.

The caucus united at the height of the strike a broad range of rank and file activists. It was multinational in fact and included experienced and young workers, with a broad range of political beliefs represented. It had four principles of unity: (1) We want a democratic union; (2) We need our union to fight for our interests on the shop floor; (3) We demand decent working conditions; and (4) We stand against all discrimination. Throughout the strike, caucus members were among the most militant and active rank and filers. It published several leaflets, most of them attempting to explain and popularize the importance of the strike demands, and consistently criticized the trade union mislead-ership. The caucus worked to actively mobilize the rank and file for strike activities. Within the caucus, however, there were a series of disputes over tactics, many of them with us on one side and the Bay Area Communist Movement (BACU) and the August Twenty-ninth Movement (ATM) on the other.

The disputes within the caucus reflected an overall lack of clarity about the nature and role of such a caucus, a lack of unified strike strategy, and differences concerning the correct approach to the trade union bureaucrats. During the early stages of the strike, both ATM and BACU took the position that there was no need for a caucus, that communists and progressive workers could work exclusively through the official strike committee. We took the position that an independent forum not dominated by the bureaucrats was needed and that a caucus built during the strike would lay the basis for future internal union struggles and an organization through which progressive forces could contend for power in the union. The basic issue in this dispute was the organizations’ differing views on the nature of our unity with the trade union officials during the strike. We took the position that we would unite with the bureaucrats in the struggle against the company but that we considered them to be at best vacillating and at worst back-stabbing allies and that we needed to insure our independence in order to carry on struggle with them when they sabotaged the strike effort. As the discussion of the bureaucrats’ role during the strike shows, our analysis was correct. It was necessary on several occasions during the strike to mobilize the rank and file against the company without the cooperation of the bureaucrats, as was done when workers demonstrated in violation of the injunction. It was also necessary to mobilize against the bureaucrats as was done in the struggle over the mail ballots or prior to the earlier votes on the company’s proposals when the bureaucrats failed to take a stand on the offers and we organized to promote “no” votes. The caucus was the vehicle through which these mobilizations occurred. Other groups in the plant – particularly the anti-discrimination committee and the union Negotiating Committee – on occasion played independent and progressive roles in organizing and mobilizing workers.

The caucus’ weaknesses reflected economism. While its agitation was different from that of the strike Bulletin Committee, it was not very different. In the main its leaflets stressed the contract issues, discussing them at greater length than was done by the strike Bulletin, and they consistently criticized the bureaucrats. But seldom were the issues taken to a higher level, linked to an overall understanding of capitalism. The material basis for the bribery of the bureaucrats was not discussed. It pointed out how the company used racism to divide workers but did not explain its material basis. In most cases, it was not possible to tell whether you were reading a caucus leaflet or a strike bulletin.

By the end of the 14-week strike, most strike activists were showing strong signs of fatigue. The energy needed to attend the constant series of meetings, picket lines, and other events was waning, and this all took a toll on the caucus. The numbers of people attending meetings shifted greatly from meeting to meeting, with sometimes as few as the hard core 12 to 15 and at other times 35, 40, or more. Without saying that they were doing so, both BACU and ATM stopped building the meetings and then argued that the small attendance showed that it was no longer viable. Red-baiting took its toll as well. Management people, the union bureaucrats, and same reactionary workers labeled it as a communist organization. We thought that it was important to confront the red-baiting head on, particularly since many of the workers in the caucus were asking questions about it and wanted to know whether it was a communist organization. (They wanted to know whether they were being “duped” as some told them they were.) We raised the question at a meeting, with one of us explaining that she was a communist and why she was working in the caucus. She also explained the difference between a communist and a mass organization and that the caucus was the latter. Finally, she discussed the role of red-baiting and the need for all workers to unite against it. While this discussion was generally well received by the workers, neither ATM nor BACU spoke tip on the issue at all. Their silence was well noted by several of the workers, who understood that the ATM and BACU cadre were communists but could not understand why they refused to state their views openly.

By the end of the strike, the caucus was very unclear about its future direction. A few meetings were held and there were discussions about putting out a simulation of the strike. These proposals got lost, however, when several members, particularly BACU and ATM cadre, took the position that it should dissolve Meetings became more and more dominated by discussions among the communists, and worker attendance fell. Finally, it was dissolved, without ever having put out a summation of the strike or its role in it. Since then, several caucus activists, particularly a group of progressive stewards and ourselves, have come together with others in the plant to begin putting out a newsletter. This newsletter is beginning to build again some of the unity among the progressive rank and file which existed during the strike. When, towards the end of the strike, we first proposed that such a newsletter be planned, ATM and BACU disagreed, stating that conditions were such that the publishing of the newsletter would be a left error. Events proved them wrong. The first few issues of the newsletter were very well received in the plant and showed that the progressive forces were not dead. ATM and BACU have now indicated their support for the newsletter and have begun to help with it. At this point there is an active group of people working on the newsletter, and plans are being discussed to use it as part of the basis for a mass caucus.

Overall, we think that our work within the union and broad rank and file during the strike was positive. We helped to lead the economic struggles in a militant direction, relying on neither the trade union officials nor allowing the situation to be dominated by legal processes. We continually exposed the unity of the bureaucrats and the company and united the majority of the rank and file in struggle for greater democracy within the union. Our work constantly demonstrated the power of multi-national unity – the hard core of caucus activists included blacks, whites. Latinos, Filipinos, and Chinese workers – and the commitment of communists to the struggle. The major weakness of our work was its economism – our failure to consistently raise the political consciousness of the workers by putting out independent communist agitation and propaganda to the majority of striking workers in written form.


In evaluating our work during the strike from the perspective of the struggle with the company, we will attempt to answer the following questions: (1) Was the strike a success for the workers at the company? 2) Did out work contribute to the advances made? and 3) Did our work during the strike help to advance the workers understanding of the company as an example of a multinational corporation and its role in the world during the period of the decline of capitalism.

1. The strike was a very limited success for the workers at the plant.

Before, during, and after the strike there was a great deal of confusion on how to evaluate the success or failure of this strike, or any strike. Often, discussions took place which implied that the strike would be a success only if the company accepted all or most of the workers’ 70-odd contract demands. Another approach was based on a comparison of the wage gains won during the strike with the wages lost during it. We think that neither of these approaches is correct. The view that says that we must win everything fails completely to take into account objective conditions. In every case, we could formulate strike demands based upon our appraisal of an ideal contract and in no case under objective conditions today could we “succeed” in accomplishing them. The success we would have would be based upon the relative strengths of the companies and the workers involved, each of which would depend upon many factors. On the other hand, the practical economic comparison fails to take into account the many issues other than wages posed by the strike.

We think that in deciding whether the strike was a success economically we have to compare the final settlement with the positions of both parties at the beginning of the strike and at different points during the strike when proposed settlements were being considered and also with strike settlements in analogous situations during this period of time.

Based upon this analysis, the conclusion we reached is that the strike settlement represented a small victory for the economic struggle of the rank and file. The victory was far from complete, however, and we pin the blame for the losses incurred on the misleader-ship of the trade union officials.

On a strictly economic basis, the strike settlement, which provides a $1.00 increase over three years for most classifications plus the same cost of living increases as that provided in the last contract can be seen as both a victory and a defeat. It is a victory in that the $1.00 which was offered in the proposal which was accepted is substantially more than the 70 cents initially offered.

On the other hand, the strike settlement does not protect workers from inflation and will probably mean a net loss in purchasing power by the end of three years. For example, assuming that the cost of living will rise 25% in the next three years (a modest assumption), the wages of a worker who was paid $6.50 at the expiration of the last contract will rise by 25% as well, but for workers earning $7.50 it will be 22%, and for workers earning $8.00 it will be only 20%. Thus, most workers will suffer losses in buying power over the next three years as a result of this contract. This is an example of the way in which the bourgeoisie shifts the burden of the crisis of capitalism to the working class. If inflation rises by more than 25% over the next three years (and the increase for the 1974-77 period was about 33%), the loss suffered by the workers will be greater.

The contractual wage increases also fall below the national average for the first half of 1977 for contracts covering plants with 1,000 or more unionized workers. For a worker earning $7.50 per hour at the end of the old contract, the three year increase represents a 13.3% gain, compared to an 18.0% national average for the first half of 1977, 19.2% for contracts negotiated in 1976, and 23.4% for 1975.

The contract also included small increases in the value of other economic benefits: medical coverage, a new inexpensive vision plan, and pension benefits. But more important to both the rank and file and to the company were the struggles over contractual changes related to working conditions: the grievance procedure, health and safety on the job, seniority rights, temporary layoffs, mandatory overtime, job posting, etc.

One of the most important issues relates to temporary layoffs. In its first proposals, the company insisted on the right to make “temporary layoffs” of indefinite duration, for any number of reasons without regard to seniority. Only after the rank and file rejected the company’s offer did it agree to language that would restrict temporary layoffs done without regard to seniority to a maximum of five days. Such layoffs can take place only when there is a power shortage. Originally the company wanted to be able to “temporarily” layoff employees whenever there was no work for a particular worker’s machine.

A second key issue concerns grievance handling. Management insisted that foremen should have the right to decide when a worker could call his/her steward and that it could discipline stewards who spent more than five hours each week on union business. This time limitation was removed in the final contract. The company successfully proposed that there be three Chief Stewards instead of one. This is a change which could weaken the union unless it makes clear which of the Chief Stewards is really in charge. The positive aspect of this change is that each Chief Steward will be paid for handling grievances in the second step for 18 hours each week plus the time spent in third step meetings. In the event the company wants to suspend the rights of a steward or chief steward for “abuse of privileges,” it may do so pending resolution through the grievance procedure.

In sum, the final contract won through the strike has many shortcomings and inadequacies. No doubt, if the workers had been in a stronger position, the contract would be better. For example, because only one of its, many plants in the United States was shut down, with only about 2.5% of its domestic workforce out, the company could weather a fairly long strike, although it was clear by the end of the strike that the company was hurt by the loss of production. More importantly, the role of the union weakened the workers considerably. The company knew that the union wanted a quick settlement and that the union was far from putting all of its energy behind the strike. The bureaucrats failed to focus key demands, mobilize the rank and file’s militancy, or fight the company in the courts. With strong leadership from the union, it is likely that the strike would have been settled earlier and more favorably.

On the other hand, the fact that the rank and file won as much as it did and that the company was forced to withdraw most of its “take-away” proposals as a result of the 14-week strike must be seen as positive. Acceptance of the earlier proposals would have meant both a dramatic reduction in the workers’ buying power over the three years of the contract and a real weakening of their seniority rights and union representation. The company’s strategy to force the workers to make these concessions was defeated.

The determination of the rank and file takes on added significance at a time when the employers are on the offensive against the working class throughout the country, and particularly in the Bay Area. The Union has been weakened here as a result of the employers’ refusal to accept decent contracts and the actions of many employers in running away to right to work states. Increased unemployment among Bay Area workers is a further threat to those working.

In addition, the company had its individual reasons for trying to weaken the rank and file at this time. It is in a period of reorganization when it is to its advantage to be able to lay off and/or more people around without regard to seniority rights. It was in its interest to destroy members’ seniority rights and to weaken the system of union representation generally. By their determination the rank and file defeated most of these efforts.

2. Our work contributed to the advances made.

Prior to and at the beginning of the strike we assumed that we would provide little leadership to the rank and file struggle. We took it for granted that the bureaucrats and core of union activists would provide day to day guidance. Instead, what we found was an almost complete lack of both leadership and rank and file organization. As it became clear that there was a real vacuum of leadership, we took a more assertive role and wound up playing an important role in the day to day struggle.

The most important aspects of our work were providing information to the rank and file and mobilizing people for strike activities. Through work on the strike bulletin committee and the publication of caucus leaflets we continually informed the rank and file as to the importance of certain demands, the contents of company offers, and the progress of negotiations. In this way we helped arm the rank and file with the information needed to sustain its commitment to the strike and to evaluate and reject the company’s offer.

With regard to our mobilizing activities, we took the initiative, along with members of the strike committee and other caucus members, to help mobilize the rank and file to demonstrate at court hearings and outside the plant to block scab work. We also mobilized people to attend union meetings to demand information from the bureaucrats and to make decisions concerning the conduct of negotiations and the use of the union strike funds. Overall, our work as participants in and leaders of the economic struggles was positive.

3. The strike did little to advance the workers’ understanding of the company in particular and imperialism in general.

The strike provided many opportunities for education about the imperialist system and the need for socialism. Many workers wondered why a company so prosperous fought so hard to avoid signing a decent contract. The time was ripe to discuss the decline of capitalism and the relationship between the general crisis of capitalism and the periodic crises. The world-wide struggle against imperialism could also be discussed, particularly with reference to the company’s role in countries like South Africa and Brazil and its partnership with the Japanese imperialists. The strike also demonstrated the role of the state as both the police and the courts sided with the company continually. In short, the lessons were there to be drawn, but the communists in the plant, including ourselves, failed to draw them out in any kind of broad or deep way. Instead, we confined ourselves to verbal propaganda with a relatively few workers and economist agitation in caucus leaflets. These leaflets included a few references to broader issues posed by the strike, but they were at the level of: “We can see how the police and the courts always side with the companies,” and “We share with the people of South Africa a common interest in fighting this company.” These points, while too infrequent, were well made in. economic agitation directed at the broad masses. Our failure, however, was in neglecting to develop materials at a higher level to be used for raising the political consciousness of the class conscious workers in the plant. As a result of our rightism and the rightism of other communists, the lessons to be summed up from the strike remain for most workers at a perceptual level and have not been raised to the level of political understanding. The result of all this is that opportunities have been lost to consolidate workers around an overall understanding of capitalism and to win people to a higher level of commitment to struggle.


The overall gains coming from the strike were: (1) many rank and file workers have a greater understanding of their own power and the victories that can be won through unified action; (2) The trade union bureaucrats have been further exposed and isolated as traitors to the rank and file; (3) The understanding of many workers that they cannot look to the courts for assistance against the company has been strengthened; (4) We have begun to lay the basis for the development with communist initiative and leadership of a broad rank and file organization to fight for workers’ rights in the plant and to win leadership of the local from the bureaucrats; and (5) A small group of class-conscious workers was temporarily won to the need to study Marxism-Leninism and to work with communists in an illegal form of organization to give long-term leadership to the struggle within the plant. The basis for future advances in this work has been laid.

Overall, our main weakness during the strike was the failure to do independent communist written propaganda and agitation at various levels to raise the level of political consciousness of all strata of workers at the plant. A secondary error lay in our sometimes spontaneous style of work in the mass movement, our failure to develop and maintain an all-sided grasp of objective conditions, and our failure to continually develop and revise a long-term strategy based upon an analysis of objective conditions during the different stages of the strike.

For the future, we see three main areas of work: (1) The consolidation of a core of intermediate and class-conscious workers which will engage in both study and organizational work and the winning of that core to communism; (2) The development of written communist propaganda and agitation for limited distribution to class conscious workers in the plant and (3) The building of a broad mass caucus to struggle for leadership in the union and develop a powerful and militant shop floor organization, beginning with the developing shop newsletter.