Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Labor’s Survival/Labor’s Revival
Working Papers on the Trade Unions

Edited by Susan Cummings & Jonathan Hoffman for the Trade Union Commission of the Proletarian Unity League



The shop campaign we want to talk about took place in an extremely conservative political atmosphere. Our Local union leadership condoned, and sometimes encouraged the Company’s widespread racist and sexist practices. Though one of the old CIO industrial unions, the nature of the work and employment patterns in the industry ensured strong connections with the building trades. There had been no established progressive voice in the Local for decades. Our shop was 90 percent white. The 10 percent oppressed nationality workers included Afro-Americans and West Indians, as well as other oppressed nationalities. A tiny number of women worked in the plant.

Black workers had been at the plant in real numbers for about 12 years. Throughout this time they had faced hostility and indifference from the all-white union leadership and many other whites; widespread harassment by foremen; and a whole range of discriminatory company policies in hiring, training, transfer and promotion rights. Oppressed nationality workers as well as women workers were excluded from the more skilled and more desirable jobs.

Oppressed nationality workers, women, and other equal rights supporters in the plant had been unable to counter this discrimination. Their numbers were small. The ranks of minority workers had grown only recently and they were divided up among a number of languages and .nationalities. The limited local job opportunities for oppressed nationality workers, combined with the relative attractiveness of wages in the plant, discouraged conspicuous organization. A number of the more militant, progressive workers had left the shop because of company harassment.

As we begin our story, the setting was grim. The Company had entered a period of economic setbacks. There had been large-scale lay-offs which further deflated an already low union spirit. The Local leadership was complacent about deteriorating conditions. They also continued to dismiss many issues of discrimination and equal rights as nonexistent and attacked others as divisive. Challenging this situation, a group of women workers had been organizing for some time just to secure management compliance with state equal opportunity laws. Shortly thereafter, dissatisfied workers managed to elect a couple of left candidates to union positions in the plant’s most harassed departments – departments in which oppressed nationality workers were concentrated.

The Story

Shortly after the elections the Company began systematically firing minority workers. This wave of firings took place as part of an effort to tighten overall discipline in the plant. Lacking union representation, Black workers were the focus. As stewards and activists in the affected departments, we began to sift through the facts surrounding the firings, gathering people’s statements and publicizing what was going on. We decided to grieve these firings as discriminatory – the first such grievances in the Local’s history. The grievances targetted both individual instances of racism and statistical patterns. The Company and the union hierarchy categorically denied both kinds of charges.

As the firings continued, efforts to grieve them under the contract attracted the attention of many oppressed nationality employees in the shop. With our encouragement, a group of about fifteen to twenty long-term Afro-American workers organized themselves to confront management representatives. Unfortunately no one, including the activists, had a very clear idea on how to follow up the first confrontation. A few meetings took place, but most of the workers didn’t see what would come of them. No one got in touch with local community groups for their support. And though some fired workers filed individual charges, in the early stages no one thought through a full legal strategy against the Company.

During these opening months of the campaign, activists began to talk with progressive white workers about the cases. We hoped to establish some white support for the fired workers so that when the campaign heated up, progressive whites would help get out the pro-equal rights position. We felt that taking the struggle to the whole Local union membership right off might provoke a vicious right-wing reaction. Instead we tried from the start to build interest and support for the fired Black workers among white progressives but concentrated first and foremost on working with minority workers to fight the firings.

From among the most progressive oppressed nationality workers we helped to bring together a core of activists – including fired workers and in-plant people – prepared to see the struggle through. But a core was not enough. We had to get the goods on the Company: careful facts and figures plus people willing to charge “discrimination.” The newly elected progressive white stewards were young and unproven: they had to demonstrate that they were serious about sticking it to the Company on its racism, without getting more people fired or unnecessarily risking physical attacks. Beyond this, the majority of oppressed nationality workers in the shop would need to rally around the fired workers and the in-shop activists. They certainly knew they were getting shafted by the Company, but the Company had been dealing dirty for years. What was not immediately apparent was that this time we could win. Finally, some conservative oppressed nationality workers had to be convinced that there was a legitimate grievance against the Company.

In the following year, the Local leadership dropped one discrimination grievance after another. Despite this, we continued to focus our research and agitation against the Company. We resisted the urge to attack the union for its role, terrible though it was, because we lacked the strength to take on the union and the Company simultaneously. Our tactics won support from a couple of other white union officers in the departments most affected by the firings. These officers’ support was based partly on more tolerant attitudes toward the different nationalities in the plant, partly on a desire to support any fight against the Company, and partly because their own jobs as elected union officials were affected. They began to realize that a successful fight against the firings of minority workers would strike a blow at management efforts to clamp down on discipline for everyone. Gaining even limited support from among moderate union officers boosted the organizing work. More people saw that things need not shape up as a bloody showdown with oppressed nationality workers and a handful of white progressives on one side and the Company, the union leadership and most whites on the other.

Another turning point came when our dogged pursuit of a few middle-of-the-road workers paid off and they made official statements to the government investigating agency about the racist circumstances surrounding several of the key firings. Securing these statements gave a lift to the fired workers. They were also damning enough that the local media responded to our efforts to get coverage, and news of minority workers’ efforts to regain their jobs began to appear in the major local newspapers. The statements also prodded us to intensify efforts to seek a Federal Office of Contract Compliance investigation of Company personnel practices.

The agency’s investigation coupled with the press coverage helped legitimize the struggle in the shop. Official recognition made the issues “real” in a way that shop flyers alone could not. And the publicity and government involvement made it easier to talk about the firings to more white workers. Activists also began to use the federal agency investigation as a means to extend the anti-discrimination campaign from the racist firings to wider patterns of discrimination. We encouraged women workers as well as other minority workers to add to the official complaints against the Company. When several dozen people went to be interviewed by government representatives on company time at the Company’s main office, both the agency and management were overwhelmed by the strength of the response. The agency had announced earlier that it had found “nothing serious” wrong, but now made a major turnabout and issued a preliminary report condemning the Company’s overall hiring, firing, promotion and discipline procedures. The Company reacted by offering a few promotions and cleaning up racist graffiti on the walls. When minority workers then organized to visit various newspapers in groups to fill in the “human side” of the agency’s statistics, the Company granted some further concessions.

The union’s reactionaries, however, had plans of their own. Local leaders now opened up a series of attacks on the stewards active in this struggle, at one point in collusion with management. The attacks disrupted the campaign for a time, but solid backing of the stewards by both Black and white workers ended the confrontation. With their base a bit more secure, the stewards now pressured the leadership to try to get some racist supervisors fired. The leadership also decided to stay neutral on the government discrimination review underway, whereas originally many union officials had begun to spread rumors that the review would lose jobs for whites and destroy the seniority system. Meanwhile we talked to more white workers about the firings. We argued that job posting – critical to breaking down the Company’s racist patronage system in transfer, upgrade and promotion – would also benefit a majority of white workers. We did not appeal to white workers to support demands to rehire the fired workers, post jobs and so on, simply because “we need racial unity.” Instead, we sought to show the specific, material implications of each demand for the workers as a whole.

Inactivity followed the flurry caused by the government’s preliminary report. The government and the Company began a decisive stage in the negotiations which could lead to either a settlement or to litigation. They finally reached a settlement that covered, at least minimally, all the most critical demands. Unquestionably, the settlement represented a victory for workers in the shop. The Black workers were rehired. The settlement also provided for stringent hiring procedures and percentages for minorities, partial job posting and internal promotion goals, and a disciplinary procedure to be used against supervisors charged with racial or sexual discrimination. Pro-equal rights forces in the plant suffered no serious losses and had struck a blow in the war against cynicism and demoralization. Oppressed nationality workers had made gains in the fight against discrimination despite the danger of a right-wing backlash and other unfavorable circumstances. And in a shop where white racist sentiment had long gone unchallenged, some white workers had joined in opposing specific forms of discrimination.

What Did We Learn?

Over the years, many trade union activists have thought that unity would be built in the labor movement by focussing only on the immediate economic issues Black and white workers have in common. But unless white workers join in struggle against racist discrimination and the system for preferences for whites, strong multinational unity is impossible. Rather than being a private matter between the companies and the oppressed nationality workers, the elimination of various forms of favoritism has direct short and long-term benefits to white workers. The anti-discrimination campaign we were involved in brought out useful lessons for implementing this general approach under what have become increasingly unfavorably national political circumstances.

Before the campaign, much of the leffs work against discrimination in our shop, including our own, provided lessons by negative example. Skirting important issues does not lead to solving them: yet the left had often soft-pedalled discrimination issues or tried to deal with them through general demands for union democracy and against company “favoritism.” Nor does mouthing overly advanced slogans and disregarding tactical problems accomplish very much. Correcting some earlier weaknesses, this time around we stayed clear of abstract sloganeering and analyzed the concrete conditions facing the workers. We didn’t substitute broadsides about the Bakke case for the hard work of carrying out a mass campaign to challenge discrimination in our shop.

What follows are some conclusions we drew from this experience.

POLITICIZE THE LEGAL STRUGGLE. Legal suits can be combined with mass organizing – you don’t have to choose one or the other. Some left-wing activists bemoan the bureaucratization of trade union struggle in the US and issue calls for direct mass action against the company or for defiance of the government. But the US trade union movement is not on the verge of repudiating legal channels. Activists should make use of union grievance machinery or the courts, including when fighting discrimination. But we need to figure out how to politicize these established channels for resolution of labor-management conflict and use them to our best advantage.

Arbitration boards, government agencies and the courts are not neutral. Functioning overall to reinforce the domination of labor by capital, at best they represent the interests of enlightened, corporate liberalism. They work to eliminate or constrain the worst corporate injustices and abuses so as to guide the reproduction of the system overall, insuring that it functions with a minimum of disruption. Arbitrators, government agencies, and the courts are susceptible to political pressure. If the workers show that they are not going to let an issue die, this becomes an important factor in a final ruling or decision. Not always the key factor, but significant enough to sometimes tip the scales in the workers’ favor.

This campaign centered on certain grievances and administrative charges. But mass pressure significantly influenced the course of the legal case, for example, when we organized a big turnout to testify to government representatives on company time. The feds were ready to wind up their investigation without really speaking to the workers about discriminatory company policies. Workers’ personal testimony prevented a whitewash.

Keeping up mass pressure also meant keeping the issues alive in the shop. If you choose the legal route, you have to be prepared for a long haul. Legal suits around discrimination can take several years to be settled. This case, which involved the Federal Office of Contract Compliance and the EEOC, dragged on for over a year. We worked hard to sustain momentum through inevitable ups and downs. We wrote a number of flyers, developed a network of people to distribute them, and continued to talk up the struggle. We used every new development, every new piece of information to build the case against the Company’s policies. Information and arguments in the flyers served as ammunition to use with other workers. The leaflets and discussions helped to reinforce a loose sense of organization in the shop around discrimination issues.

LOOK BEYOND THE PLANT GATES. Workers had often been demoralized about the possibility of successfully challenging racist discrimination in our plant. In the course of this campaign, activists saw that they could break the stalemate by going outside the four walls of the shop. We applied outside pressures and expanded the maneuverability of pro-equal rights forces.

We found that using the union grievance machinery alone to pursue the firings would not work. The Local leadership kept abandoning the grievances after they were filed. Fired workers turned to the EEOC and later we sought a discrimination review from the Federal Office of Contract Compliance. Government agencies provided more favorable terrain to pursue a remedy than the union apparatus because the EEOC and FOCC were mandated to remedy discrimination – at least this was their mandate prior to the Reagan administration – while our Local’s union leadership did not have even that. We worked hard to get media coverage of the issue. Confirmation by the government and the press of our charges gave activists greater credibility among the workers and more leverage, including with the union. At one point we went to the International when the Local leadership was being particularly uncooperative and advised them to rein in the most vocal, racist Local union officers or face legal charges themselves.

Now the challenge is to see that the agreement is enforced. The media and the government won’t help us out here. Enforcement will demand continued shop-floor organizing among both oppressed nationality and white workers. The “post-victory” organizing looks to be every bit as difficult as the campaign itself.

NARROW THE TARGET. A campaign that targetted both company and union simultaneously would never have succeeded. The left-wing stewards exerted pressure on the union leadership behind the scene. But the campaign never put them on the hotseat publicly. Concentrating on winning support from the small number of more progressive union officers, we left the door open for anyone else who wanted to come along and lend a hand. This tactical approach denied fuel to the fire of the extreme right-wing in the union leadership who were looking to stir up the feeling among their fellow union officials that the left “faction” was out to get them. The absence of an oppositionist tone to the campaign made it easier for moderates to give limited support. As we brought the union leadership to a position of relative neutrality on the discrmination review, we gained greater freedom of movement in the shop. Such freedom would have been impossible if the leadership had been churning out a barrage of racist rumors and launching one attack after another.

PAY ATTENTION TO WHERE PEOPLE ARE REALLY AT, NOT WHERE YOU’D LIKE THEM TO BE. The left often argues the central importance of fighting racist discrimination, but has difficulty figuring out approaches that actually combat it. Some have ended up ineffectively expressing their outrage, while others have restricted themselves to general education on the need to fight racism. And others have tried to organize forms of struggle appropriate to the 1960s and early 1970s in a period that is markedly different. The particular conditions of struggle of the early 1980s demand new and creative methods. Several things about this campaign are relevant here.

First, feeling that you are being screwed is different than being prepared to make a political issue of it. Given the low level of struggle in the shop overall, we needed to transform sentiment against the firings and other discriminatory policies into effective political action. The shop flyers and loose network of agitators in the shop drew oppressed nationality workers together and deepened convictions that there was a systematic pattern of harassment and denial of rights.

Second, we assessed what tactics workers in the shop would support and did not try to initiate more advanced forms of organization and struggle appropriate tc other circumstances. For example, some activists pushed for an organization to deal with racist discrimination in the shop. Among them, some hoped to form a multinational pro-equal rights organization, while others wanted an oppressed nationality caucus. In principle both forms can be useful. But in our situation a multinational equal rights committee was unrealistic. A caucus of oppressed nationality workers seemed more promising, yet the level of commitment among the activists varied quite a bit. Formal meetings of minority workers occurred only for a brief time. We concluded that pushing for a minority caucus would be self-defeating. Instead, workers met to work out specific tactics at different points: a mass letter, a group visit to the newspapers or to pressure certain politicians and so on. Ifs wrong to assume that if you can’t have a caucus then you can’t have a struggle.

Our campaign depended upon cooperation between the stewards, activists among the fired workers, and a loose grouping of oppressed nationality workers in the plant. The struggle only advanced from one phase to the next when we had secured for that step the support of those most directly affected by the campaign: the fired workers and the majority of oppressed nationality workers in the shop.

Our grouping had credibility in the shop. Union members felt we were serious about discrimination and serious about seeing the struggle through. We weren’t going to go off half cocked. Middle-of-the-road minority workers slowly gained confidence that this struggle might go somewhere with their participation and joined in. When the campaign reached a critical stage – when the government agency showed up for a discrimination review – we were able to “call in our chips” with sympathetic but up till now inactive workers. Activists laid it on the line that people make public complaints to the agency representatives. Because we had done careful groundwork, many workers came through. If instead we had constantly bombarded people to do more, we probably would have lost them.

BEGIN WHERE YOU CAN BEGIN. We didn’t rely on white support to kick off this campaign and we sought it on a wide scale only after progress had been made in solidifying oppressed nationality - and women - workers behind it. On the left, there were differences with this approach. Some insisted that we make multinational organization and support a precondition for every step taken. But if we had made white support – even the limited white support we eventually got - a precondition for waging this fight, the campaign would have failed.

This campaign did not enlist the support of large numbers of white workers for determined anti-racist struggle. Yet, even here, there were gains. We convinced a small percentage of white workers that they had a stake in minority workers winning this battle and that they should support this struggle. We gained a hearing for an anti-racist view among the majority of whites who had not wanted to hear it before. We got at least union acquiescence in the discrimination charge (though never official union support), and this acquiescence allowed the stewards involved to pursue the cases. We neutralized the most extreme racists so that we suffered no serious losses - physical attacks, loss of union position, further firings - and did not have to contend with constant racist harassment by these goons. The role of the left-wing stewards was quite important to achieving these goals. Respected as hardworking and conscientious on day-to-day issues they had a good basis for gaining the ear of moderate white union officials and workers on the discrimination issue.

White workers can be won to support particular struggles and demands aimed at ending discriminatory practices even though they may still harbor white chauvinist prejudices. We agitated with white workers about what stand they should take on a particular case of discrimination that others were already fighting, and why. We tried to demonstrate, as the campaign progressed, how a positive outcome to the discrimination struggle would directly and indirectly benefit most whites as well as oppressed nationality workers. We succeeded in convincing some white workers how minority workers’ challenge to the closed, racist patronage system that excluded them from upgrades, promotion and transfer opportunities would provide opportunities for the vast majority of “unconnected” white workers whose interests also lay with opening up the system. Progress in building anti-racist sentiment was modest, but certainly more substantial than anything previously accomplished.