Members of DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission are working together with UE – the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America – on the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a project to give voice and power to workers organizing for higher pay, paid time off and better workplace protections during the Covid-19 pandemic. That UE would team up with socialists in a shared initiative speaks to a potential that could be more widespread. As we celebrate Labor Day it is worth exploring left-wing unionism as part of the labor movement as a whole. Perhaps doing so can help inform us of what we need going forward.
Since neither unions nor working people live and function in a social vacuum, no union in the country is immune to, or entirely free from, the corruptive influence of business unionism. As long as ‘corruption in high places’ persists, the strong temptation of business unionism will continue to pose a constant threat to the labor movement and its members. Faced with these conditions, the best any union can do is to practice preventative medicine – aggressive economic and political struggle to protect and improve the lot of working people and their families, hand in hand with education in the principles of rank-and-file trade unionism
James Mattles and James Higgins wrote those words in a 1974 history of UE. A machinist by trade, Mattles was one of the union’s founders in 1936 and its General Secretary from 1962 - 1975. The book’s title Them and Us expresses UE’s philosophy, and so it is no surprise that it is also the name of a recent booklet issued by the union to explain the concept of rank-and-file unionism and its relevance for working people today. The premise is that, call it what you will, there is a class struggle between capital (“them”) and labor (“us”). Business is acutely conscious of that reality and acts accordingly while workers are weakened every time the labor movement forgets the existence of such a divide.
The booklet is divided into five sections – aggressive struggle, rank and file control, political independence, international solidarity, uniting all workers – which, when taken together, define workers’ side of the class struggle. Aggressive struggle begins with a strong steward system as the framework for members to address workplace disputes, contract negotiations, and political action through union mobilization, rather than allow legalistic procedures control the process. This is only possible through rank and file control, which UE maintains by having a small staff, officers paid no more than the top scale negotiated for members, and vesting power in worksite-based autonomous locals, enabling members to control their own affairs. That autonomy, in turn, is rooted in UE’s national policies defined by those last three principles (political independence, international solidarity, uniting all workers), which provide ways of looking at workplace issues from the lens of solidarity.
Opposing racism, therefore, is not limited to opposition to workplace discrimination but includes opposition to attacks on immigrant communities and to police violence, and support for affirmative measures to create an equal society in all areas of life. The principle is not upheld as an abstract call removed from the “real” business of unionism; rather, the struggle for social and economic equality is understood as central to creating and sustaining union strength at the workplace. So too, political independence and international solidarity mean more than trying to keep a plant from moving overseas, prevent a public service from being privatized, or funding a job retraining program (though, of course, it does mean all those as well). Domestic and global policies are, consequently, judged from the perspective of whether a given policy structurally strengthens or weakens labor relative to employers, whether a policy contributes to building mutual support among working people, or continues to put private profit over human need. As policy this means UE supports the Green New Deal, police defunding, and Medicare for All. Or, looking abroad, the union has denounced the coup in Bolivia, asserted solidarity with Palestinians, and established ties with similarly independent unions in Mexico, Japan and elsewhere.
UE today – with about 35,000 members divided roughly evenly between manufacturing, the public sector, and private service-sector workers – acts on those principles. In 2019, the union fought and won a victorious nine-week strike at Wabtec (a locomotive components plant, formerly part of General Electric) in Pittsburgh, conducted a one-day demonstration strikes at ABB (a circuit-breaker and high-voltage equipment manufacturer owned by Hitachi) in Western Pennsylvania, and another one at Lanterman Regional Center (a disabilities service provider) in Los Angeles. The union also mobilized members for public actions short of a strike in actions by coffee shop workers in California, food coop workers in Wisconsin, and public university campus employees at several schools. And UE continuously organizes, as recent victories of federal contract workers at the Kentucky Consular Center, rail crew drivers in California and Nevada, and William & Mary University workers in Virginia all attest.
UE’s on-going strategic thinking, and trust in and support for rank-and-file initiative, was demonstrated in 2008 at Republic Windows in Chicago when workers occupied a plant about to be shut down – an occupation that led to the workers taking over ownership of the plant. The co-op that workers formed remain unionized and UE is part of a broader initiative of other coops that see being unionized as key to maintaining their integrity.
These forms of engagement are rooted in union history-- from the early 20th century, workers in the electrical industry expressed their militance through the Socialist Party, through the IWW, and later in the 1920s and 30s, through the Communist Party. In addition, scores of workers expressed their discontent and their hope through support of any and all unionizing activity. These union pioneers built independent locals at various plants, joining forces out of need in the face of intransigent management opposition to unionism. GE, in particular, was a powerful corporation with an ownership ever active as an anti-union force in national politics. Fledgling union locals emerged in other parts of the electrical manufacturing and radio assembly industries as well. UE’s foundation as an industrial union rooted in solidarity distinguished it from the old AFL craft model where autonomy allowed for exclusion and division, but it also distinguished it from many other unions that formed the CIO that had top-down structures limiting local autonomy. Moreover, because its left-wing politics flowed upward from the shop floor, the connection between organizing, bargaining and social justice political activism had deep roots, contributing to UE’s survival as a union, as a class struggle union.
By the end of World War II, UE was the third largest industrial union in the country. Its leadership rejected Cold War politics and the politics of social compromise which became dominant in CIO leadership after the massive 1946 strike wave brought anti-labor and anti-Communist politics to the forefront of the nation. By contrast, mainstream CIO leadership, fearing repression, accepted (in practice, if not words) the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. Joining in the anti-Communist hysteria, unions and union members who had formerly been allies were condemned; UE was one of 11 unions expelled by the CIO as Communist-dominated (meaning refusal to endorse Harry Truman for president in 1948, opposition to the Marshall Plan and NATO, calls for peace, and refusal to compromise on the fight against Jim Crow segregation). The CIO created IUE (International Union of Electrical Workers) as an alternative to UE and raids soon began, aided and abetted by government repression as national and local UE leaders faced prison or deportation, and were subject to McCarthy-inspired public hearings for the same politics they had held a decade prior.
Principles intact (it was one of the first unions to voice opposition to the Vietnam War), the UE survived, though much reduced in strength and numbers. After the worst of the hysteria was over the 50s turned into the 60s and a slow revival began. The culmination came about in 1969 when UE and IUE reestablished relations when they jointly struck GE in 1969-70, defeating management that had benefited from union disunity. Unity was genuine; UE did not compromise its independence or outlook, respected other unions’ differing outlooks, and entered negotiations as equals. UE started to grow again, but then lost ground along with every other manufacturing union due to the tide of plant closings in the 1980s and 90s. But unlike others, UE never retreated from its commitment to organizing the unorganized – organizing not through expensive campaigns with consultants and data points dictating every step, but organizing based in the workplace, on collective action built on solidarity. That is to say, based on the principles put forward in Them and Us.
The 1934 strike is memorable because above all it demonstrated the power latent in the rank and file. The rank and file not only manned the picket lines and did the sacrificing – as it must in every strike – but it also made the big decisions and determined the strategy. ...
Ultimately the power of any union that serves as an instrumentality of the workers rests on the courage and conviction in its ranks. That is one fundamental truth that has not altered since 1934, nor will it alter in times to come.
We on the waterfront have tried to live in the light of that truth. We have viewed the test of leadership as the ability to pose the issues and alternatives in the sharpest, clearest terms so that the rank and file could exercise its judgment and render its decisions.
Harry Bridges, a dock worker from Australia and founding president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), wrote those words in 1949 when the West Coast longshore strike (and San Francisco general strike) he refers to were still living memories. His comments were meant as a warning for labor to hold onto principles threatened by a more sophisticated kind of reaction than the police violence and vigilantes unions had previously confronted. The ILWU, another of those unions expelled from the CIO, left with its principles intact.
ILWU’s strength on the waterfront, its victory in winning and holding onto union-run hiring halls, and a coast-wide contract with an employers’ association enabled it to hold onto its full jurisdiction, despite ongoing attacks -- five times the federal government put Bridges on trial in an attempt to deport him, other members were arrested as Communists or subjected to Subversive Activity Control Board or House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. The union faced – and continues to face – loss of jobs due to implementation of new technologies. As recently as 2002, dockworkers across the coast were locked out while then-president George W. Bush accused the union of being a national security threat. Just last year, a court fined the ILWU $93.6 million – an amount that would have bankrupted the union – because of a job action in Portland, Oregon. Eventually the fine was lowered to a still substantial (but not life-threatening) $19 million.
To survive, ILWU, after a 1937 strike consolidated the gains won in 1934, began a “march inland” to organize warehouses feeding into the docks. As a Pacific Coast union, it organized (mainly Asian-American) longshore workers in Hawaii in the 1940s, building outward to become the largest union on the islands, winning contracts for plantation workers (and negotiating for those workers to be hired at unionized hotels that sprang up as developers took over the land in the 1990s). In 1980, the Seattle-based Inland Boatmen’s Union, with its own history of militant independence, merged into the ILWU where it maintains its separate existence within the union – as do Canadian workers, part of the ILWU because they negotiate with the same coastal employers' association, but as a fully independent body within the whole. And the ILWU continues to organize large and small groups of workers from employees at Anchor Steam brewery to coffee shop workers to coop employees to miners (a 2010 dispute at the Boran mine in California’s Mojave Desert against the Rio Tinto conglomerate – with the union winning a decent contract after surviving a lockout -- indicates ILWU’s willingness to fight for its members anywhere). As many small businesses and warehouses spring up and close down, the ILWU constantly organizes to maintain a strong membership base – the union today has about 45,000 members.
Longshore, however, remains its core. The nature of waterfront conditions allowed for centralized bargaining, while dealing with port survival and transport issues requires a degree of labor-management cooperation, which doesn’t exist with private employers such as those UE predominately represents. The ILWU’s importance as a labor force in statewide politics on the West Coast meant that it was less isolated even during the McCarthy-era than other expelled left-wing unions.
What the ILWU shares with UE is in remaining a rank-and-file union rooted in strong autonomous locals, a strong steward system, relatively small staff and accountable officers (also paid on a scale based on what members earn). Local democracy, however, never descended into an “ourselves alone” mindset because it is based on an expansive notion of solidarity. In 1952, at the height of anti-Communist Cold War repression and during a period when labor peace was everywhere being heralded, the union adopted 10 principles to guide its work. The fourth principle gives a clue to the nature of the whole:
To help any worker in distress must be a daily guide in the life of every trade union and its individual members. Labor solidarity means just that.Unions have to accept the fact that the solidarity of labor stands above all else, including even the so-called sanctity of the contract. We cannot adopt for ourselves the policies of union leaders who insist that because they have a contract, their members are compelled to perform work even behind a picketline. Every picket line must be respected as though it were our own.
Those principles have been behind ILWU’s solidarity action ranging from boycotting goods produced in Chile after Salvador Allende’s overthrow to current actions against environmental destruction in port areas, to defense of seafarers who have been stuck at sea due to the cornavirus pandemic. Those principles were again expressed when the union shut down all West Coast ports on Juneteenth (June 19) to mark the celebration of the end of slavery – June 19, 1865 was the day when slaves in Texas learned of abolition; the last to be so notified. The shutdown and march followed an action on June 9 when the ILWU stopped work for 9 minutes to honor George Floyd, nine minutes the amount of time the Minneapolis police officer who murdered him knelt on Floyd’s neck.
Angela Davis spoke at the ILWU Juneteenth rally, and noted the union’s long history of solidarity – its opposition to the internment of Japanese during World War II, its support for King and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, its solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1970s, solidarity with the movement for justice for Palestinians against Israel’s apartheid-like practices; its stance in support of the anti-capitalist Occupy movement, solidarity with imprisoned Mumia Abu Jamal. She summed up that legacy thusly:
Whenever the ILWU takes a stand, the world feels reverberations. Thank you for shutting down the ports today, on Juneteenth – the day when we renew our commitment to the struggle for freedom. You represent the potential and power of the labor movement.
Unity can never mean unanimity; it can only be based on mutual respect, despite differences, in a shared struggle. Neither the labor movement specifically, nor working-class struggle as a whole, is built by cheerleading one set of experiences to put down another – to the contrary, such an approach misses what is key: trust in the rank-and-file and a commitment to solidarity can be found in all wings of the working-class movement, however varied their respective histories or structures. The ILWU emerged out of a bitter split with the International Longshoremen’s Association, a union long tarnished by ties to organized crime and a fierce anti-Communism. Yet the ILA has also a long tradition of militant struggles on the docks and in warehouses, a history of black-white unity alongside a history of racism addressed by struggle internal to the union – of cooperation as well as conflict with the ILWU. The distance traveled over decades can be seen in the fact that the ILA joined with the ILWU on June 10 to stop work and kneel for 9 minutes to honor George Floyd and in condemnation of police brutality.
IUE had its own fraught and contentious history – created as a top-down union to fight UE, it was deeply divided in a structure that lacked rank-and-file control yet also lacked strong central authority. A failed go-it-alone strike in 1960 reflected that weakness which General Electric was happy to exploit. Yet the union – with strong roots in Catholic social justice and Social Democratic traditions alongside unambiguously reactionary locals and careerist leaders -- stood out as a proponent of racial justice within the CIO in the 1950s and of women’s rights in the 1970s and, as noted, eventually overcame its anti-Communist prejudices to work with UE in the successful 1969-70 strike. Thereafter IUE was a militant voice within the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department. Unable to survive plant closings, it eventually merged into CWA where it became the Communications Workers’ manufacturing division.
CWA, emerging out of the weak National Telephone Workers Union, an association of independent locals that had initially been management dominated “company unions” until those were declared illegal by the Wagner Act in 1935, formed itself as an independent union and joined the CIO soon after its 1949 founding. At its start, it was a somewhat conservative union -- virtually all white and disproportionately Protestant, meaning not a lot of Irish, Poles, Hungarians, Italians, almost no Latinos or Asian-Americans -- reflecting the hiring policies of AT&T and Bell Laboratories, (a federal regulated monopoly when there were such things). CWA became ever more militant in response to worker discontent, conducting a number of strikes to enforce pattern bargaining and establish a floor for workers throughout the industry. Previously weak management-dominated locals gained independent strength in regional and divisional structures. An historic 1970 EEOC lawsuit over AT&T’s blatant systematic discrimination – locking all women into low-paying jobs, hiring only a small number of black workers and almost none in skilled trades, keeping Latinos out of the workforce all together -- led to a mandate for the company to change its hiring practice. Management quickly complied, changing the composition of the workforce over night, no doubt hoping for worker disunity. But CWA members and union leaders proved better than that, forming innovative and effective equity committees which transformed internal union culture for the better. That, in turn, helped CWA navigate the fallout from the 1982 anti-trust breakup of AT&T (neo-liberalism proving unfriendly to regulated monopolies) and become one of the most progressive unions in today’s AFL-CIO, pursuing policies that IUE within it fully embraces and sees as consistent with its own heritage.
Different, but similar, we can trace postal workers, nurses and teachers from the 1930s through the present -- initially conservative workforces, they each became more militant, more socially aware as workers, in the process transforming their unions and their union program, as seen by their leadership today in the respective campaigns to save the Postal Service as a public service, as advocates for public health, in defense of public education. We can chart similar courses for other workers, from tech experts to farm workers. UE’s philosophy of “them and us” speaks to the reality all unions, all workers, face.
UE and the ILWU are relatively small unions. They have faced their own internal battles, have weathered multiple storms – making choices some members considered ill-advised, suffering setbacks, being forced to deal with the unforeseen consequences of some bargaining or policy decision or another. That is to say, they are living organization, as complex and changing as are their respective memberships, trying to find a way forward in a capitalist society persistently hostile to every form of worker representation, wholly antagonistic to every attempt to assert working-class power.
Moreover, while they share much, they are different too, reflecting, the different industries within which they are based, reflecting their different memberships. By definition, rank-and-file unions are not cookie cutter-style replicas of each other; rather, they will be as diverse as the people who comprise them. What lies in common, however, is a commitment to democratic membership control, their commitment to militant action and organizing to defend members and workers throughout the industries they represent, their commitment to an expansive solidarity that leaves no worker or community out, and to a global solidarity willing and ready to challenge U.S. military and trade policies that hurt workers abroad and at home. That is to say, they are independent in the truest sense of the word – pursuing policies on behalf of working people independent of corporate power or government dictates.
Their survival shows that such unionism is possible, shows that democracy and solidarity go hand and hand. UE’s project with DSA provides a further reminder too, that socialist strength can only grow and be sustained if it is rooted amongst working people and connected to on-going struggles, that it is not dependent on resolutions divorced from what people do, how people live.
As Mattles and Higgins wrote in 1974 in the conclusion of Them and US:
Labor leadership, new or established, does not create movements. It is the other way around. Seeds for change in the labor movement are sown among rank-and-file workers by the conditions forced upon them. It is from this ground, from among these seeds. That new leadership springs to lead the struggle for change