The State of Labor
She organized a New Jersey steel company in 1937 and later took care of an unwanted pregnancy by working "doubly hard" night shifts at a West Coast shipyard factory during World War II. He would immediately call his Communist Party contacts after leaving American Federation of Labor (AFL) strategy sessions and was later blacklisted out of a prestigious position at a San Francisco daily newspaper.They are the remaining tribal elders, old people in every town with stories of an unyielding vision that unionizing was the only means to deal with the bossman. Nowadays, Labor Day is a three-day weekend to bid adieu to summer and perhaps catch one of the sales plastered across most newspapers' pages. In other words, Labor Day is used to SELL things so people will BUY things. What happened to the person who MAKES the things?That's a question to ask your local labor elders who can recount a time when thousands of people marched in hundreds of American cities on Labor Day to celebrate their jobs. That's an unusual concept for the '90s, a time when work is something to flee at 5:00 or, be electronically ensnared to with e-mail, cell phones and fax machines.Fighting over money tends to be one of life's rawer struggles for power and in the arena of capital vs. labor, collective voices in the workforce have historically been heard. Sixty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a close 5-4 decision, upheld Americans' right to organize and bargain collectively, and join a union. The justices issued five decisions in April 1937 regarding workers' rights when the Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act) was ruled constitutional and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was upheld as a mechanism to consider labor-management grievances. Three of the five landmark decisions 60 years ago involved unions which also figure prominently in '90s labor battles -- The Newspaper Guild, the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers of America.The Detroit newspaper strike is now more than two years old and remains a labor action largely invisible to the rest of the country given the fact it involves two of the nation's media giants, the Gannett and Knight-Ridder corporations. A June 21 demonstration of over 120,000 people from 45 states received scant national attention even though the NLRB ruled June 20 that the two companies that publish the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press in a joint operating agreement bargained "in bad faith" with six newspaper unions representing more than 2,500 employees. The unions have offered to return to work, but have now been locked out.On August 1, the NLRB's federal injunction request to require Detroit Newspapers Inc., the joint operating company, to rehire the workers was heard by a U.S. district judge and a ruling is expected within a month. Company officials are quoted as reacting to the NLRB's initial "bad faith" bargaining decision with, "As we have said over and over again, we bargained in good faith at all times."Curious words from a corporate group whose managerial predecessors framed the first Wagner Act case. Sixty years ago an Associated Press (AP) employee was dismissed for joining The Newspaper Guild and organizing other workers. The Supreme Court justices dismissed AP's claim that restricting the company's right to hire and fire was an attack on freedom of the press (a popular publisher ploy that dates back to the 1920s and '30s when newspaper owners fought to exclude newsboys from protective child labor legislation). In fact, the justices pointedly said, "The newspaper publishers fear the reporters and editors might color the news. Under our constitutional right to a free press, nobody can do that but the owner of the paper."According to various reports, Michigan Gov. John Engler has remained non- committal about the Detroit newspaper strike, a much different position from the state's governor 60 years ago whose involvement in the United Auto Workers (UAW) sit-down action averted a bloody catastrophe.It was in 1937 that sitting down in the workplace, at the very point of production, became an effective unionizing and bargaining tactic. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 400,000 American workers that year sat down during 477 strikes, which forced a halt to work activity and made the infusion of scabs impossible.In late 1936, organizers with the fledgling United Auto Workers (UAW) had targeted General Motors plants in Flint as the first of auto's Big Three where the union would organize the industry's mass production workers. According to Irving Bernstein's The Turbulent Years, at that time, GM was considered the world's biggest manufacturing company and in 1937, its gross profit was $1.6 billion. GM had made money every year since 1921, according to Bernstein, and in 1937 its share of the auto market was 78 percent. Part of GM's response to organizing efforts was paying detective agencies $994,855.68 to spy on its employees from January 1934 to June 1936, according to Congressional reports. UAW leaders were under constant surveillance and their home and office phones were tapped by GM's spies.UAW leadership strategy went awry on December 28,1936 when 7,000 Cleveland auto workers sat down at a Chevrolet plant because of the (still enduring) issue of piece rate reductions. Two days later, Flint workers sat down in several GM plants, which forced a near national halt to production. It was Fisher One in Flint that riveted the nation's attention as over 5,000 workers spent six weeks in the factory.According to Bernstein, 200 volunteers delivered three daily hot meals, actors performed labor plays; strikers boxed and wrestled; workers were divided into squads of 15 men under a "captain" with six hours of daily strike duty.Michigan Gov. Frank Murphy had previously served as Detroit's mayor and during the earlier, hungry days of the Depression had committed resources to providing relief for the vast unemployment of the time. As the Flint sit- downs continued, Murphy sold his GM stock and brokered meetings between UAW and GM officials, along with ordering the state militia not to intervene violently. By February 11, 1937, the UAW agreed to leave the Flint plants with GM's agreement to recognize the UAW as the bargaining agent for the auto workers.It was the Flint sit-downs that led to the birth of the UAW and paved the way for organizing workers throughout the auto industry, one of the key mass production sectors that helped form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The UAW was also behind one of the five worker cases involved in upholding the Wagner Act. The union filed a lawsuit against Detroit's Fruehauf Trailer when the company fired nine UAW activists after obtaining their names from a company-paid informer who infiltrated the local's leadership.Sixty years later, GM is now Mexico's largest employer with 54 plants employing 75,000 workers, according to Jerry Paar, a labor educator with Indiana University's Labor Studies Division. "In 1993, GM employed 260,000 unionized American workers and the company's 1999 projections are for 166,000 American workers," Paar said. "I've got paycheck stubs of GM employees in Mexico who are 13 and 14-year-old girls who work 9-1/2 hours a day, six days a week and are paid 30 cents an hour -- you do the math."Last year GM employees in Dayton, Ohio, struck over what Paar described as a calculated managerial strategy to undercut employee job security through "outsourcing," getting auto parts produced by outside suppliers instead of within the auto factory. "You've got workers within a plant competing for their jobs with people on the outside," Paar said. "Also, keep in mind that 46 percent of all manufacturing in the U.S. is now sub-contracted."One industry that has experienced not just restructuring, but wholesale decimation is steel, a field of commerce that formerly lit up the night skies of cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago. And belching out of those smokestacks wasn't just industrial grime, but cold cash that lined workers' pockets and flowed into urban economies. In the last two decades, "there's been a substantial loss of American steel jobs because of U.S. government policies," Paar said. "The dumping of foreign steel in this country, particularly Russian steel, has been a major hit on American workers."After protracted struggles and following the UAW's sit-down success in Flint, the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC) signed an agreement with the giant U.S. Steel on March 2, 1937. However, the smaller steel corporations, known as "Little Steel," were vehemently opposed to their workers organizing and refused to sign a bargaining agreement with SWOC. It was a case involving Jones and Laughlin Steel Co.'s firing of 10 union members in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania that the U.S. Supreme Court used in its 1937 Wagner Act decisions. The J&L case was cited to justify their ruling that the Act did give the federal government regulatory power and enforcement of labor practices involving interstate commerce such as the shipping of steel.That particular J&L plant was known as "Little Siberia," according to Bernstein because company president Tom Girdler had built his business reputation by having "his own military force ... suppressed freedom of speech and assembly and ... owned much of the housing." In fact, Girdler segregated his workers' living arrangements by their nationalities, resulting in 13 different housing groups. Girdler left J&L to become president of the Republic Steel Company, formed by Cleveland financier Cyrus Eaton.The month following the Wagner Act ruling, Girdler equipped the Republic Police Department with $50,000 in munitions, including 552 guns, 245 shotguns and 2,707 gas grenades, according to Bernstein. Also, he retained the services of the now internationally-renowned public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton.Girdler also tactically provoked a strike May 20 in the Little Steel industry when he shut down a steel mill in Massillon, Ohio. Supportive steel workers struck various plants, closing steel mills throughout the Midwest. And it was at Republic Steel's South Chicago Mill on Memorial Day 1937 that Girdler's corporate viciousness merged with municipal brutality. Over 1,500 strikers, their families and supporters showed up for a SWOC rally to protest Chicago police restrictions on picketing.At the rally's conclusion, groups of people moved to form a mass picket line at Republic's main gate. As they marched towards the entrance, they were met by Chicago police who refused the picketing request. According to eyewitness accounts, police began firing point-blank into the crowd after a marcher tossed a tree branch towards the cops.Ten marchers died in the hail of gunfire, seven were shot in the back. Of the 30 marchers wounded by gunfire, three were under the age of 18, one was a woman and nine were "permanently disabled," according to Bernstein. Approximately 60 other marchers required hospitalization or medical treatment for their injuries. A mass funeral for the victims, of what is now known as "The Republic Steel Massacre," was held June 2 in Chicago.Sixty years later, SWOC's successor, The United States Steelworkers of America, ended the nation's longest steel strike against the Wheeling- Pittsburgh Steel Corp., approving a new contract on August 12. The 10-month strike involved 4,500 workers at eight plants in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Like the UPS strike, a major contention for the steelworkers was the company's decision to change its pension plan. Wheeling-Pittsburgh officials pushed for a revised plan in which pension amounts would be based on financial market conditions, not a specified amount, although that is now back in the steelworkers' contract.Labor Day 1997 provides a time to reflect as the nation's largest labor strike in decades continues with over 185,000 Teamsters walking United Parcel Service (UPS) picket lines over issues facing most of today's workers, such as part- time work and pensions. Educator Paar, who works regularly with UPS workers, says, "UPS is a military organization, it's one of the most repressive employers with no talking rules, intimidation of workers, company snitches. It's a pretty brutal place and 2-1/2 times more dangerous than comparable jobs. Management's position on part timers is another response to lean production measures of intensifying work.""The UPS strike is clearly the most important strike of my lifetime; it's bigger and more important than the 1959 steel strike," said Chicago labor lawyer and author Tom Geoghegan. "This is a fight for [the] valuing of work. People are very focused on money issues that are affecting an increasing contingent of American workers."Increasingly, corporations like UPS and Wheeling-Pittsburgh appear to be undercutting their employees' living wage and benefits by assembling job packages that management maintains are necessarily dependent upon and reflective of external market conditions. "Since 1980, defined benefits and pension plans have dropped from 50 percent of contracts to one-third in 1997," said labor lawyer Geoghagen. "Pensions are a big labor issue."One has to wonder about the alleged vagaries of the financial market, particularly in a case like Wheeling-Pittsburgh when the corporation's major shareholders include Mellon Bank, American Express Financial Advisors in Minneapolis, Merrill Lynch, Dewey Square Investors and Barclays Bank.In both the steelworkers' strike and the Detroit newspaper workers' lockout, the unions have employed 1990s' public relations tactics coupled with a 1930s spirit of activism. In its "streets and suites" campaign, striking steelworkers visited corporate shareholders' investment houses in New York City, Boston, Santa Monica, New Jersey, Connecticut and Wisconsin. At these stops, members of local unions marched and demonstrated with the steelworkers. Strikers and their supporters also took their campaign to several of the financial CEOs' suburban dwellings.Locked-out Detroit newspaper workers, who are also Knight-Ridder shareholders, attended the corporation's 1997 annual stockholders' meeting in Philadelphia and according to various reports, dominated the question- and-answer session. A contingent of Detroit workers traveled to the East Coast this past spring and rented caps and gowns for Harvard University's commencement so they could talk with Harvard Professor James Cash regarding his position on the Knight-Ridder board of directors. (Recently, Cash was also appointed to General Electric's board of directors, another major media conglomerate.)In New York, a representative from the Teamsters (one of the locked-out unions) ended up jogging 3-1/2 miles so he could brief Peter Goldmark, a newspaper board of director, about the Detroit situation during Goldmark's exercise run. Former First Lady Rosalyn Carter skipped her final meeting this year as a member of Gannett's board of directors. In fact, Carter announced previously she was leaving Gannett's board before her term expired and various reports indicate she was actively lobbied by Detroit workers and religious leaders.Earlier this summer, Staughton Lynd, long-time labor activist, lawyer and historian, said he thought "the horizontal spirit of organizing from the '30s was enjoying a renaissance." Lynd cited groups such as Jobs For Justice and increasing vocalness by religious leaders around the country regarding economic justice issues for American workers as examples of horizontal ties and organizing within communities.In his 1991 book, Which Side Are You On?, Geoghegan discusses American labor's dilemmas and experiences with class consciousness and the schism that existed between political activists of the 1960s and '70s and labor union members. "Class consciousness is a category that works better in Great Britain than in the United States," he said in a recent interview. "I think a term like solidarity does work in the culture, a sense of solidarity with each other as fellow human beings and I see a sense of solidarity coming back into our culture. You can't do a strike alone."When asked about today's lack of economic opportunities, Lynd responded rhetorically with, "Where is all this heading? The underlying problem is that the capitalistic economy no longer needs your work."The work that is available is increasingly part-time with less skills and less job security. "You go into restaurants and hotels and see college graduates who are waiters, what are these people doing?" asked Geoghegan. "We're creating a lot of parking valets, maids and butlers. More people are groveling to each other. What's the difference between a crude Victorian class structure and this?"Labor educator Paar agrees with Lynd that the '90s, like the '30s, represents "a fundamental restructuring of the economy of corporate America," but with a key difference. "In the '30s there was reaction and response," he said. "Today there isn't a response and reaction to the restructuring. There is not the outrage like there once was. Where is the outrage?"