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Thirty-Five Years of a Not-Boring Labor Movement

Editor Jane Slaughter speaks at the 2014 Labor Notes Conference.

Editor Jane Slaughter’s talk at the 2014 Labor Notes Conference.

It’s been 35 years since the founding of Labor Notes—a good time to look at how the labor movement’s challenges have changed over the last 35 years.

Labor Notes was founded the same year that employers discovered you could get concessions, that a signed contract wasn’t written in stone: you could plead poverty and open it up and force workers backwards.

How many of you can remember when it was considered automatic that each contract would be better than the one before? It wasn’t easy for the labor movement to force the employers to that place, but we were there for a few decades. In auto, for example, we got a 3 percent raise every year plus COLA. Ninety days after you hired in, you were at top pay.

Today in an auto plant, you could work 90 years, you will never get to top pay.

Today union bargainers approach each new negotiation with dread—what are they going to want us to give up this time?

A Boring Labor Movement

But Labor Notes was actually founded in early 1979, in February, before the secret got out on givebacks (when Chrysler threatened bankruptcy and asked for and received concessions).

The labor movement then was actually kind of boring in many ways. At that time we didn’t foresee that the next 35 years were going to be fighting one concession after another, one trade agreement after another, one bad court ruling after another, more states going right-to-work, hysteria against immigrants.

Rather, what we saw was employers taking advantage of workers in all the “normal” ways—speedup, keeping pay down, lack of respect—and unions that weren’t doing enough about it.

We saw unions that didn’t belong to their members, that had become these big lumbering bureaucracies—with high salaries for leaders who’d been out of the shops for decades, who in some cases were comfortable with their employer golfing buddies.

It was not on any union president’s mind: how can I get my members more involved? And frankly, it wasn’t on a lot of members’ minds either. The union wasn’t something most members thought about a lot. Hopefully it would get you something in the contract, and it would be there if you got in trouble at work. It was “the union they,” not “the union we.”

The Troublemaking Wing of the 1970s

But of course, there were some union members who did care deeply about their union and about using it to fight their employers, and that’s what gave birth to Labor Notes.

Coal miners were wildcatting thousands of times a year over safety and grievances and getting a Black Lung bill. They had a reform movement inside their union, Miners for Democracy, and they had elected one of their members as their union president. When Jimmy Carter got a Taft-Hartley injunction to stop their strike in 1978, they said, “Taft can mine it, Hartley can haul it, and Carter can shove it,” and they kept on striking.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union had been formed around getting a decent Master Freight contract. There was a reform group in the Auto Workers called the United National Caucus. Steelworkers were demanding the right to a rank-and-file vote on the Basic Steel Contract, a right they didn’t have, and they had come close to winning their union presidency.

But none of these groups in steel, coal, auto, and trucking were in touch with each other or even knew about each other. We had our land lines.

So we thought a monthly newsletter with news about these different movements could maybe help those movements to… become more of a movement. People could feed off each other. They could see they were all part of the same troublemaking wing of the labor movement.

And they did. In 1981 the first Labor Notes Conference was held, 400 people in Detroit. It felt big, at the time.

By that time, though, the labor movement had gotten a whole lot less boring—in some happy ways and some not so happy ways. The movements inside unions were growing, and sometimes winning, but the employers had gone on the offensive.

At that first conference we talked about how to fight concessions. Tony Mazzocchi called for a labor party. By the time of our second conference, in 1982—well, the title of it was “Organizing Against Concessions.”

The pattern had been established that we’re still living under today—each negotiation is a time for employers to see what they can get back. And in between contracts too.

The “Trust Us” Programs

And then employers kept coming up with more schemes to make the labor movement an interesting place to be. More things to fight them on. Remember labor-management cooperation programs? Yes, back in the ’80s, and extending into the ’90s, our bosses actually tried to convince us that we had more in common with them than we had in conflict.

The idea was that workers would give management their ideas about how to run the workplace better, and that would make everyone so happy that productivity would go up, and everyone would benefit.

This was accompanied by lots of management crocodile tears: “Oh, we’re sorry we never listened to you in the past. But now we’ve changed. Trust us.” Union officials would go around with company officials and give joint presentations to conferences, and dare their listeners to try to guess which one was which.

Nowadays most employers don’t bother. They just say they want more power over your work life, and more of your paycheck, because they can. Even if they’re superprofitable, like Boeing or UPS.

Of course, plenty of people at the time saw through that hooey. They were called troublemakers, or dinosaurs: they were stuck in the past, they wouldn’t think outside the box.

Those troublemakers had to spend a decade or more explaining to fellow workers why they shouldn’t be like Charlie Brown and Lucy: don’t believe her when she says “trust me.” She is definitely going to yank that football away one more time.

At least today the employers have got it all out on the table. They’re not pretending to make nice.

How the Work Gets Done

But through these programs, employers were paying very close attention to how work actually got done in the workplace, on the shop floor. We should take note of that. They are super-aware how much their profits depend on getting us to work harder.

So UPS, for example, goes to the trouble of telling its drivers exactly how to carry their truck keys—on their pinky—because they’ve figured out it will save x /100ths of a second at each stop, and those seconds add up. Every UPS truck is equipped with more than 200 sensors that monitor drivers’ every move. Every driver is expected to follow 72 pages of “methods.”

Meanwhile unions, at the top, have generally been way behind on caring about what the workday is like. It’s like, you’re getting a paycheck, kwitcher bellyaching. I actually once heard a UAW president say that it didn’t matter if companies were getting auto workers to work harder, because they hadn’t been working very hard in the first place.

In this context I’d like to take a minute to acknowledge two personal friends who got the Labor Notes Troublemakers award in 2010 and 2012. Charley Richardson, a labor educator who never forgot his own days in the shipyard and who spent his life teaching workers how to defend themselves against brainwashing and speedup. And Jerry Tucker, who was the master of knowing just how the workplace worked and helping workers figure out how to “run the plant backwards.” A moment of appreciation for Charley and Jerry.

Employers’ Dream

At the same time that employers were thinking hard about the details of the workplace, they were also thinking big. They were thinking about how to increase the power of the 1%—as if they didn’t have enough!—over all aspects of society.

So in 1994 we got NAFTA, with Bill Clinton putting on the full-court press to bribe Congresspeople to vote for it. Today we’re fighting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which makes NAFTA look like small potatoes.

One result of NAFTA was to strengthen corporate freedom to run away and invest anywhere they wanted, with the resulting loss of jobs. And another was the displacement of more than 1 million campesinos and 1.4 million more Mexican workers whose jobs depended on agriculture—so that millions of Mexicans and other Latin Americans felt obliged to come here to make a living, the biggest wave of immigration to the U.S. since the early 1900s.

It took a while, but the labor movement finally got its head on straight and now we feel privileged to welcome those who’ve come here. It was an unintended consequence from the 1%’s point of view, but today our labor movement is actually stronger because of those new members, and the worker centers they’ve created and the different energy they bring. In the spring of 2006 they pulled off the largest political strikes in the history of the U.S., when a million people were in the streets, to protest an ugly anti-immigrant bill.

We didn’t think, in 1981, about needing translation at a Labor Notes Conference. Welcome to all our newest sisters and brothers.

No Right to Exist

The last difference I want to mention, between the labor movement of 35 years ago and today, is that back then, it was assumed that unions had a right to exist. Employers didn’t like us, they tried to keep us out of unorganized workplaces, but once the union was in, they would at least come to the table.

Now, all bets are off. They want us not just out of their own workplaces but out of politics, out of political influence. Dead. So Michigan is now a right-to-work state. Michigan, my friends—birthplace of industrial unionism. We had 17 percent union density and still the legislature passed right-to-work.

Unions are in such a perilous state that it’s natural that people would think of any means necessary to shore up numbers. Get the union’s foot in the door any way you can—even with a sweetheart agreement—and at least you’re in the door.

But though we can understand that desperation, we all know that way is not going to save us. For one thing, there aren’t enough employers left who would even agree to a sweetheart agreement. For another, it’s too hard to transform a union that started out as a handshake between guys at the top.

So…. what is the way forward?

Learning From the Unorganized

I won’t attempt to answer that in the next two minutes. If you went to all the workshops over the next two days, you’d have the answer.

The simple answer is that a lot of folks are showing us the way who aren’t even union members yet. Young immigrants like Reyna Wences who we’ll hear from on Sunday are chaining themselves to deportation buses, saying, “no, you’re not taking my parents or my friends away.” A thousand “Moral Monday” North Carolinians got themselves arrested last year for human rights. They said, “no, you are not taking us back to the days of Jim Crow.”

What these folks know is that you have to exert power through your willingness to get in the way of business as usual. Working people can get somewhere when we go outside the usual channels, because those channels were set up for us to lose.

We have to dig our own channels. That’s making trouble, sisters and brothers. That’s union.

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