Labor History

New Tactics for Labor-Part II

By Jeremy Brecher


In the face of employer attack, the proportion of workers in unions fell from 27 percent in 1978 to 15 percent in 1996. Many changes contributed to declining union membership. The traditional industrial, cultural, and demographic base of the labor movement in white ethnic urban industrial communities was eroded by suburbanization and deindustrialization. Many middle-income people—most of them white—moved from cities to suburbs; so did most large modern workplaces. People of color—African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos—were concentrated in inner cities. Whole metropolitan regions became divided into zones of different classes and ethnic groups. In the Silicon Valley, for example, the homes, labs, and offices of engineers and scientists gravitated to the northwest near Stanford University, while unskilled, largely immigrant production workers were concentrated around San Jose. The working class was divided geographically, racially, and economically into those with low-paid, insecure jobs concentrated in centers of poverty in inner cities or other ghettos (predominantly immigrants and people of color) and those with substantially better-paid and more secure jobs (predominantly white and suburban).

The decline of U.S. economic dominance, the rise of international competition, accelerating capital mobility, and slow economic growth eroded unions’ bargaining power. The restriction of workers’ legal right to organize and strike, the growth of non-union industries, declining public support for unions, and a broad cultural emphasis on individualism and consumerism rather than community and participation contributed to organized labor’s decline as well.

But the long-term decline of organized labor was also due in substantial part to internal characteristics of the labor movement itself. These were not primarily characteristics of individual leaders; indeed, many of the problems went back for a century or more to the era of Samuel Gompers. Top-down control created a gulf between most union leaders and the rank and file. The assumption that it was the members’ job to pay dues and the leaders’ job to take care of union business led to apathy rather than active involvement; many unions had increasing difficulty even getting quorums for meetings. The tradition of national union autonomy blocked solidarity among workers even in the same workplaces, companies, industries, and communities. This tradition often made the AFL-CIO appear less the representative of the American working class than a vehicle for protecting the special interests of individual unions (or their leadership). Organized labor, dependent on government protection and an alliance with a business-dominated Democratic Party, was rarely willing to challenge legal limitations on worker action and solidarity. The expectation of cooperative relations with management, in which the role of the union was to administer an established contractual compromise, left unions disarmed when employers "declared class war."

These long-standing problems were compounded as the leadership of organized labor and the institution as a whole lost the vigor to defend their individual and institutional interests, let alone those of their members or the working class as a whole. Most existing unions showed little facility for reaching out to a changing workforce increasingly composed of African Americans, immigrants, and women, or for working on a global scale. The move toward cooperation with management on management’s terms only reinforced the impression that unions provided workers nothing worth fighting for.

A minority of labor activists, local union leaders, and national union officials were unwilling to embrace the new forms of labor-management cooperation and began seeking alternatives. Recognizing that conventional strikes, in which workers simply quit working and waited for management to concede, were leading only to disaster, some sought supplemental arenas of action within the workplace itself or in wider communities. Many in the labor movement felt that the abandonment of the PATCO workers by the rest of the labor movement was a catastrophe, and some developed new forms of solidarity that crossed existing union boundaries. In response to globalization, some labor activists began to move beyond national horizons to develop a labor strategy for the global economy. As hired guards, detectives, police, the National Guard, injunctions, and court orders were used regularly against strikers, some began utilizing the techniques of non-violent civil disobedience. Many of these "new" tactics represented rediscoveries of techniques used in the past but largely forgotten in the era of class compromise.

The Inside Game

Employers are always dependent on workers’ skills, knowledge, and cooperation, and workers have often used this fact to gain some informal power on the job. The Industrial Workers of the World—the Wobblies—advocated "the conscious withdrawal of efficiency" or "striking on the job," a tactic that they were often accused of carrying to the point of "sabotage." Slowdowns and work-to-rules were standard tactics of the Congress of Industrial Organization campaigns of the 1930s. These tactics were revived as conventional strikes grew less and less effective.

In 1981, as Reagan was attacking the air traffic controllers, Moog Automotive in St. Louis, Missouri, demanded major concessions from its UAW workers, a diverse group that was about half black and half white, half male and half female. Management brought in a union-busting law firm and, according to information leaked to the union, pre-screened 400 potential strikebreakers. Jerry Tucker, then a staff member of UAW Region 5 in St. Louis, recalls:

" The tendency amongst some of the bargaining committee was to say, ‘Well, the hell with them. We’ll just muscle them.’ But this was a plant that had no long-term orientation for strikes and struggle. It simply would have destroyed them. There were already strikes going on in the community where 10,000 workers would show up to take the jobs of three or four hundred workers who were out on strike. This is 1981, and in each and every one of the cases, those strikes had been broken."

Instead of striking, Tucker and the local union leadership proposed that union members vote down the proposed contract but stay in the plant and conduct a job action designed to "cause the company to rethink its position." The union recruited local leaders, both official and informal, to form a "Solidarity Committee" outside of the official union structure to wage the in-plant campaign; by constant recruiting it grew from a small initial nucleus to 100 of the 500 union members in the company. The strategy, according to Tucker, operated at two levels: "Individuals were going to have to depreciate productivity, and then there were going to be concerted and collective activities to do the same." He told workers that "each individual was going to have to find ways to re-evaluate their work procedures so as to get the company’s attention."

Weekly meetings of the Solidarity Committee, supplemented by departmental meetings, shared information on the state of the struggle and planned the coming phase of action. Workers began following every possible rule, performing every procedure according to the book, and taking their time about it as well—in a process the workers came to call "running the plant backwards." "When a machine operator put a machine down, then the maintenance crew would come in and make sure it stayed down," Tucker explained. Workers wore union buttons and T-shirts, distributed leaflets in the plant, and sang union songs during breaks and lunchtime. The union anticipated the company would respond with firings and asked each worker to contribute $5 per week to a "solidarity program." When the company fired seven workers, this fund gave them support and the UAW provided regular strike benefits.

The union called meetings during the work day that stopped production, and other meetings occurred impromptu. The foundry workers, described by Tucker as "a bunch of big, mean, dirty-looking guys," went to demand a meeting with their foreman. When the foreman ordered them back to work, their spokesperson, known as Pee Wee, said, "No, we’re going to have a meeting with you." "No you’re not," the foreman said. "Who’s going to stop us?" Pee Wee asked. The foreman sat down and listened to the foundry crew’s concerns. Skilled trades workers similarly confronted the vice-president of engineering in his office.

After nearly six months, the company’s attorney called Tucker and said, "You’ve won. The company wants it over." Moog accepted the union’s original bargaining position and full amnesty for workers.

The in-plant strategy rapidly spread from Moog to UAW plants from St. Louis to Texas, with many local variations. Workers at Bell Helicopter in Ft. Worth, Texas, for example, adopted the slogan "Worker in trouble—all workers assemble" and distributed metal sports whistles to all workers in the plant. When two workers were "taken upstairs" for refusing overtime, whistles started blowing and soon 500 workers were crowding around the offices, leading management to call in the Ft. Worth police.

The inside strategy spread nationwide and was adopted by workers in many different unions. Its use was not limited to single plants or even single companies. A campaign by cement workers, for instance, involved more than 100 locations with half-a-dozen or more employers. When the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO published a manual on workplace actions called The Inside Game, demand was so strong that 100,000 copies were eventually distributed.

Despite their effectiveness, inside strategies raised serious issues for conventional trade unionism. For one thing, they tended to create structures that bypassed existing leadership and lines of union authority. Jeff Stansbury, a reporter for the UAW’s Solidarity magazine, wrote: "You need to set up something like the solidarity committee, because in most cases you cannot rely on the existing leadership. You cannot even necessarily rely on the activists of a local, because those activists tend to have been formed under more rigid or predictable circumstances than occur in a slowdown." But empowering workers in the workplace in this way creates a source of power that can potentially be used outside of or even against official union channels. Further, the "inside game" can be used not only to force a company to sign a contract, but also as an alternative to wildcat strikes while a contract is in force, causing further problems for unions that see enforcement of contracts on both employers and workers as central to their function. While inside strategies were increasingly adopted as an alternative to hopeless strikes, the extent to which workers were genuinely encouraged to take their own initiative varied greatly from struggle to struggle.

Community-Labor Coalitions

For much of its history, the labor movement has been rooted in communities as well as workplaces. But the AFL-CIO in the era of George Meany was, in the memorable image of labor historian David Montgomery, like a great snapping turtle, "hiding within its shell to shield the working class from contamination" and "snapping out" at those outside forces that ventured too close. Starting in the late 1970s, unions at the local level began reaching out for allies and participating in a wide range of labor-community coalitions. While no one has tallied them, such alliances must number in the thousands.

Many of these alliances started out as vehicles for strike support; indeed, major strikes without community-labor support efforts became the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps typical was the strike against the International Paper Company centered in Jay, Maine. In Jay, a weekly union-community meeting regularly attracted more than 1,000 people. Caravans of strikers fanned out across New England, building support for a "corporate campaign" against companies with ties to International Paper. In Boston, the caravaners created a network of support groups that included local progressive unions, church groups, university students and employees, and even Central American solidarity organizations. Some of these developed into permanent strike support groups, ready to support workers’ struggles as they arose.

Local unions increasingly participated in issue coalitions that used public education, lobbying, and direct action confrontations to push concerns ranging from plant-closing legislation to expanded medical programs, housing, voter registration, and electoral reform. In New Haven, for example, a Community Labor Alliance, which grew out of a support campaign for striking Yale workers, pressed for increased contributions from Yale University to the city; use of city pension funds to finance housing; withdrawal of university investments in South Africa; and development of a local school lunch program to provide both nutrition and employment. Many local and state coalitions developed throughout the country to push for legislation regulating plant closings.

Local unions also became involved with community-based economic development. Several dozen coalitions developed to resist plant closings and deindustrialization by promoting worker buy-outs, local economic development authorities, and other means of saving and creating jobs. The Naugatuck Valley Project in western Connecticut, for example, an organization composed of more than 60 local unions, church groups, and community groups, helped workers buy a local plant, found alternatives to the closing of other local companies, started an employee-owned home health aide company, and organized tenants to create permanently affordable housing. A similar coalition, the Tri-State Conference on Steel, campaigned to save steel plants through worker buyouts, developed plans for regional reindustrialization in the "rust belt," and promoted the creation of a public economic development authority, the Steel Valley Authority, as an alternative to private development.

New forms of labor-community cooperation also emerged in the electoral arena. A pioneering effort to put such efforts on a permanent footing was Connecticut’s Legislative Electoral Action Program. LEAP is a coalition initiated by UAW Region 9A and the Connecticut Citizens Action Group, a statewide community organizing and lobbying organization representing low-income and moderate-income people. LEAP’s member organizations came to include the International Association of Machinists, Service Employees International Union, District 1199 (New England Health Care Workers Union), the Connecticut Federation of Teachers, and environmental, women’s, gay and lesbian, African-American, Puerto Rican, and other organizations. LEAP recruited long-term activists to run for state legislature and provided them with training and volunteers. Those elected with its support formed a Progressive Caucus in the Connecticut legislature. A "Northeast Coalition Project" helped set up similar coalitions in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and elsewhere in the Northeast. A similar organization, the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action, grew out of a coalition of unions, peace groups, and religious groups campaigning to convert military industry to civilian production. The Rainbow Coalition led by Rev. Jesse Jackson, while shunned by most national labor leaders, received considerable labor support at a local level, especially in African-American communities.

An important vehicle for generating community-labor cooperation has been Jobs with Justice. Jobs with Justice was started in 1987 by a group of national unions within the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO to mobilize support for workers’ rights struggles that went beyond individual unions. The effort was built around a card individuals signed pledging that "during the next year, I’ll be there at least five times for someone else’s fight as well as my own. If enough of us are there, we’ll all start winning." Within a few years, Jobs with Justice developed an identity of its own, organizing rallies, supporting picket lines, and providing material aid to labor and other struggles in hundreds of communities, many of them areas where unions were weak. In some communities it has initiated Workers’ Rights Boards composed of prominent citizens who evaluate and hold public hearings on alleged denials of workers’ rights.

Local coalitions also became vehicles for several massive national coalition efforts. The unexpectedly successful campaign to block the appointment of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court brought together "Jewish attorneys and law teachers and NAACP community activists, white male labor leaders and feminists, libertarians and politically liberal baby boomers, consumer advocates, environmentalists, and small-business leaders." The struggle against NAFTA brought together not only local labor, environmental, farm, religious, human rights, and many other activists, but linked them with activists in Mexico and Canada.

Corporate Campaigns

For much of its history, the labor movement used sympathetic strikes and boycotts to pressure employers. These techniques brought the power of dispersed supporters to supplement the power of those workers involved directly. But the no-strike clauses in union contracts and the restrictions on secondary strikes and boycotts in the Taft-Harley Act severely impeded such expressions of solidarity. Since the late 1970s, unions have developed "corporate campaigns" as a way to pressure companies without violating contracts or the Taft-Hartley Act.

The first corporate campaign to receive wide national attention was developed in 1976 by Ray Rogers and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to force the giant textile firm J.P. Stevens to negotiate a contract with workers who had organized a union in its plants in North Carolina. Since fewer than a tenth of J.P. Stevens’ plants nationwide were unionized, the company could easily beat a strike by moving work to its non-union plants elsewhere. The union had organized a consumer boycott, but only about one-third of the company’s products could be directly boycotted by consumers.

Rogers reasoned that a corporation was essentially "a coalition of individual and institutional interests that can be challenged, attacked, divided and conquered." The campaign’s "power analysis" identified the interlocks between J.P. Stevens’ board of directors and other businesses, particularly the banks and insurance companies that provided its financing. Most of the workers were black women, and alliances with civil rights and women’s groups were actively and successfully developed. Then publicity, demonstrations, and letter-writing campaigns focused on demanding that banks and insurance companies withdraw their support from J.P. Stevens. Supporters ran slates against incumbent officers at corporate annual meetings. They began laying the groundwork for pulling the billions of dollars in union pension funds and members’ insurance policies out of companies that supported J.P. Stevens.

In 1978, J.P. Stevens’ board chair and another top official were forced off the board of Manufacturers’ Hanover Trust Company. Then the chief executive of Avon resigned from the J.P. Stevens board. Finally, the chief executives of New York Life and J.P. Stevens resigned simultaneously from each other’s boards, twenty-four hours after the head of New York Life proclaimed that such resignations would never happen.

Five years after the campaign began, J.P. Stevens agreed to accept unionization. Labor journalist A.H. Raskin wrote in the New York Times<D>, "Pressure on giant banks and insurance companies and other Wall Street pillars, all aimed at isolating Stevens from the financial community, helped generate a momentum toward settlement that could not be achieved through the 1976-1980 worldwide boycott of Stevens products or through more conventional uses of union muscle such as strikes and mass picketing."

Corporate campaigns became a common feature of labor struggles over the subsequent decade-and-a-half. In the era of the "dis-integrated corporation" and networked production systems, corporate campaigns made it possible to target a corporation’s entire network. Many corporate campaigns focused not only on labor issues but on environmental, civil rights, and other abuses committed by targeted corporations. Some were little more than anti-corporate publicity campaigns; others were serious attempts to raise the costs of company behavior.

As capital has gone global, so has labor solidarity. One of the first U.S. labor battles in which international support was critical involved workers at the West Virginia facility of the Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation. In what Business Week<D> described as "an unprecedented global campaign that’s likely to be emulated by other labor groups," the United Steel Workers of America "enlisted foreign unions" to force the employer’s hand.

In 1990, Ravenswood, formerly part of Kaiser Aluminum, was purchased by a group of three investors, one of whom was Swiss-based investor Marc Rich, a fugitive from the United States, where he was wanted for tax evasion and fraud. Less than a year after buying the company, the new management locked out Ravenswood’s 1,700 workers and hired replacement workers.

Local 5668 of the United Steel Workers launched an aggressive and ultimately successful 19-month campaign to defeat the lockout and win an acceptable contract. The campaign included strong rank-and-file participation to spread word of the strike around the country and to target end users—companies such as Coca-Cola and Stroh’s Brewing Company that used Ravenswood aluminum in their cans.

Strong international pressure focused on Rich and his associates may have tipped the balance in favor of the workers. Under the direction of Joe Uehlein, special projects director for the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department, a sophisticated campaign was developed to research Rich’s financial holdings and embarrass him throughout the world. Uehlein credits strong support from USWA president George Becker, from the International Trade Secretariats, which links unions in the same industries internationally, and from Swiss, Dutch, and Eastern European unions. The USWA hired a full-time European coordinator for the campaign. According to Business Week<D>, the final victory came when "East European unions disrupted Rich’s expansion efforts in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Russia." Soon after, "a top Rich employee who owns most of Ravenswood’s stock kicked out the aluminum producer’s chairman and replaced him with another Rich associate. The company then agreed to restart contract talks with the union."

International support played a role in a growing proportion of labor struggles in the 1990s.

Non-Violent Civil Disobedience

Throughout its history, the core tactics of the labor movement have been largely non-violent. Strikes, demonstrations, and picket lines have involved a withdrawal of cooperation—disobedience to established authority—and an appeal for support from the wider community. Despite this, workers’ actions have been met with violent repression thousands of times and violence in response to repression has been common.

Over the course of the 20th century, social movements from India to Poland to the Philippines have developed forms of disciplined non-violence that have provided a kind of political jujitsu for dealing with repressive violence. Rather than either submitting to repression or responding violently, these techniques resist established authority—for example by blocking roads, occupying buildings, or demonstrating in violation of injunctions—without doing physical harm to company guards, police, soldiers, or other human beings who attempt to restore "law and order." Such disciplined non-violent resistance became an important part of American political practice with the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1968, predominantly black sanitation workers in Memphis struck for union recognition. This labor struggle soon became the focus of local civil rights groups, which conducted marches and rallies to demand the workers’ rights. It was in the midst of supporting this strike that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Since that time, disciplined non-violent civil disobedience has increasingly been adopted in major labor struggles. Non-violent civil disobedience has helped neutralize repressive violence and the fear it is intended to instill, called public attention to the justice of workers’ demands, and made clear the willingness to accept personal sacrifice in the interest of broader human purposes that underlies the solidarity of workers.

None of these tactics guaranteed success. Some managers became so frustrated with organized "inside game" workplace strategies that they locked out entire workforces and hired replacement workers to defeat them. Many strikes, such as the one by International Paper Company workers in Jay, Maine, were defeated despite exemplary community support. Many corporate campaigns have been clear failures, and few since the J.P. Stevens campaign have been clear successes. International support by itself has rarely if ever won a strike. Many labor struggles in the 1980s and 1990s have been effectively broken despite civil disobedience on a substantial scale. But these methods did provide workers pinned down by the employers’ offensive ways to begin recovering the initiative.                                            


This article is drawn from the new concluding chapter Jeremy Brecher has written for the 25th anniversary edition of Strike!, published as the first book in the South End Press Classics Series. Next installment: "Resisting Concessions."