Issue 188 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
The US labour movement suffered a serious setback at the end of May when a strike by rubber workers--the longest ever against a major tyre manufacturerended in defeat. After a bitter ten month battle against the Bridgestone/Firestone company, the United Rubber Workers announced that the union would end its strike unconditionally, offering to return to work under the very same contract the workers struck against. The contract includes mandatory 12 hour shifts running seven days per week and pay rises tied to productivity increases. But there is no guarantee any of the strikers will get their jobs back, since the company has already replaced most of the union workers with scabs.
In the US bosses can fire workers who go on strike, permanently replacing them with scab labour. This has been a favourite union busting tactic of the bosses since the 1980s. According to labour law, employers can schedule a vote for the scab workforce to decertify the union one year after a strike begins. When campaigning for president three years ago, Clinton promised workers that he would pass a law banning the permanent replacement of strikers. Once elected, he never mentioned it again.
Over 4,000 rubber workers from five union locals (branches) across the Midwest walked out last July, but fewer than half of them remained on strike in May. The rest had either crossed the picket lines or belonged to the two union locals in Decatur, Illinois, and Akron, Ohio which had already voted to return to work. By the end of the long winter most of the strikers had no income--the union stopped paying out $100 per striker benefits in February.
In spite of these difficulties many rubber workers stayed committed to fighting. When the local representatives voted in May, the workers were deeply divided and the leaders from two of the five locals voted to continue on with the strike. 'No one wants to go back,' said Bob Peters from Local 310 in Des Moines, Iowa, which voted to stay out. Ken Bryant, another member of Local 310, complained bitterly after the vote, 'It wasn't the union membership that decided this. I want the people who donated the beef and the turkeys and supported us through all the months to know that we didn't vote to do this.'
These workers are right--this strike shouldn't have gone down to defeat. The potential for building solidarity with other workers was there all along, but the union leadership never made a serious attempt to mobilise active support even among the union's own 93,000 members. Mass pickets were few and far between because the union placed far more emphasis on building a consumer boycott.
But the union made another crucial mistake: it organised the strike as a racist campaign against the Japanese owned company--as if American owned companies are any kinder to workers. Official union placards compared the strike to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour 54 years ago. And a war of words broke out between the union and the company over which better represents 'American values'. Newspaper ads paid for by the company claimed that Bridgestone/Firestone is 'America's Tyre'. The union retaliated with full page ads, condemning the 'Japanese owned' firm because it 'destroys American values, violates American rights'.
In short, the United Rubber Workers leaders didn't provide the kind of leadership that could win the strike. Decades of business unionism have left most union leaders more afraid of unleashing the pent up anger of workers than of surrendering to the bosses. Meanwhile, the rubber workers themselves were ready to fight, but not confident enough to lead that fight themselves. This lack of leadership is the main reason why the labour movement as a whole hasn't yet begun to reflect the massive growth in class consciousness over the last five years. Even now union membership continues to decline, with only about 15.5 percent of the labour force belonging to unions.
The union movement is at a turning point which has provoked something of a crisis even in the uppermost echelons of the labour bureaucracy. Over the last few months the top leaders of the AFL-CIO, the main union federation, have been engaged in a power struggle. The leaders of 21 unions, representing 54 percent of the AFL-CIO's membership, have banded together to unseat AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland.
Kirkland, who has held the post for the last 16 years, is clearly an obstacle to rebuilding the labour movement. He set the tone for his regime when he refused to support the 1981 strike by air traffic controllers--a landmark strike crushed by Ronald Reagan, which launched the era of union busting that continues today. His strategy has revolved primarily around channelling millions of dollars in union dues towards fruitless lobbying of Democratic Party politicians.
The dissident faction, however, doesn't represent a decisive break with the past. It is led by John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and longtime loyal lieutenant in the Kirkland fiefdom. Nevertheless, Sweeney's arguments do represent a step in the right direction: if the AFL-CIO is to survive, it must begin to aggressively organise the huge proportion of unorganised workers into unions. Kirkland reluctantly resigned as AFL-CIO president last month, nominating his second in command, Thomas Donahue, as his successor. As a result of this turmoil at the top, for the first time in its 40 year history the AFL-CIO will have to choose between more than one candidate for president at its convention in October.
But even though change is welcome in the AFL-CIO's top leadership, it is the growth in confidence from below that will play the decisive role in turning the labour movement around. And over the last couple of years there have been a number of important struggles which have pointed the way forward--none more so than a series of auto industry disputes that led to quick victories by workers. The first was a strike by workers at General Motors' Buick City factory last October which after three days forced the company to cut down on overtime. Doing whatever it takes to stop production is the way to win against even the most powerful employer.