The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.62/No.30           August 24, 1998 
Socialist Workers Meet To Discuss Political Opportunities In The Trade Unions Today  

CHICAGO - Communist unionists from seven industrial unions met in three cities August 1-2. Their discussions focused on organizing to take advantage of the new opportunities opened up by the acceleration of labor resistance and on electing new steering committees of the socialist workers in each of these unions. The meetings came three weeks after an Active Workers Conference held in Pittsburgh, which confirmed that socialist activists are beginning to get involved in the new struggles that are unfolding.

The participants discussed the need for engaging in activity with other fighters wherever resistance develops - from skirmishes on the plant floor to solidarity with strikes. Examples include the recent strikes of General Motors workers at two plants in Flint, Michigan; the growing ferment in the airlines; the three-month-long strike at Titan Tire in Des Moines, Iowa; the recent strike authorization vote at GM's Saturn plant in Tennessee; and the rejection for the second time of a proposed contract by Anheuser-Busch workers.

Another important challenge addressed by the activists was putting more effort into strengthening the presence of socialist workers in the coal mining industry and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), as well as in the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).

Activists from the United Transportation Union (UTU), UFCW, and Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) met in Chicago. Members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) met in Cleveland, and those from the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and UNITE gathered in Newark, New Jersey. Members of each union met separately, but also came to together in joint sessions where they heard and discussed reports prepared by the SWP's Trade Union Committee.

Struggles in airlines and aerospace
In a report to the meeting of communists who are members of the IAM, Nan Bailey, who works at an aerospace plant located near Seattle, described the growing resistance to employer attacks among workers organized in the IAM. This, she said, includes the recent turnout of workers at Northwest Airlines to vote down a concession contract, work stoppages at TWA, and the 19,000 gate agents and reservations workers who voted to join the union at United Airlines.

Northwest flight attendants organized by the Teamsters, Bailey reported, are holding picket lines August 7. And Northwest pilots are in a 30-day cooling off period, leading up to a possible strike. "There is a potential, which we should encourage, for these fights to come together," Bailey said. "These struggles open up new opportunities for socialist workers to do union work."

In the meeting of UAW activists, John Sarge, an auto worker from Detroit, described the significance of the workers' fight at General Motors. The unionists who recently struck two auto parts plants in Flint, idling nearly 200,000 workers in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, Sarge reported, forced the owners of GM "to postpone their showdown with the UAW." The central issue in the fight-GM's drive to slash its payroll and impose more onerous work rules-remains unresolved. The resistance is going to continue, Sarge said.

Willie Reid, who works at an auto parts plant in Detroit, described the efforts by activists at her workplace to organize support for the strikers in Flint.

The meeting of socialist workers in the OCAW stressed the importance of the fight being waged by oil refinery workers at Crown Petroleum in Houston. In a separate report to the meeting on this struggle, Tom Leonard, a long-time unionist and leader of the SWP, described the two-and-one-half-year lockout of the workers at the plant and the civil suit against union activists launched by Crown management. "Socialist workers have joined with other unionists to help in this fight," he said. "The stakes are high for the refinery workers at Crown and for the entire labor movement."

Not a `propaganda nucleus'
One of the main themes of all the meetings was captured by Joel Britton, an OCAW member from Chicago, when he explained, "We are a component of a larger vanguard of the working class with responsibilities to fighters. What we do can do damage to fellow fighters unless we are competent, careful, and disciplined." He stressed that this is very different from being "a propaganda nucleus" in the unions. That's not what is meant by doing "mass work," he said.

Britton said this means that when there's a strike in the area, "we should be getting to know the strikers and introducing them to other union fighters." When this is done effectively, he said, workers will continue to be in touch with each other following the strikes. "If we go through a strike without getting to know fellow fighters and keeping in contact with them, we aren't doing what we should." One of the consequences of effectively participating in union struggles is that worker-bolsheviks will have broader political discussions and will find people interested in the socialist press and other literature.

During a public forum on labor resistance in Chicago, Rich Stuart, who was attending the UTU meeting from Birmingham, Alabama, described two trips he made with other union activists to Spring Hill, Tennessee, where 5,000 Saturn workers overwhelmingly voted in favor of strike authorization on July 19. On the first trip, he said, the group from Birmingham and Atlanta got into discussions with many workers and learned how their illusion of having it made as Saturn workers is being shattered by worsening conditions. "We got to know some people," Stuart said, "and during the next week we contacted one of the workers. The next weekend we arranged to meet her and we got to know each other better." As a result of engaging in this solidarity effort, he said, information was obtained for articles in the Militant and several dozen copies of the paper were sold, including a six- month subscription.

Two Caterpillar workers from Peoria, Illinois, who spoke on the panel at the forum welcomed Stuart's suggestion that they get to Spring Hill too to share the experience of their long struggle against their employer.

Many local fights were described at the seven meetings. Dan Fein, a meatpacker in Atlanta, described a slowdown at work one Saturday when the bosses attempted to squeeze eight hours' production out of workers in six hours.

Maggie Trowe, who works at a packinghouse in Marshalltown, Iowa, reported that workers had forced the company to provide a bus from Des Moines to the plant. More recently, however, the bosses are trying to get rid of the bus, and the workers have been protesting this through the union.

Greg McCartan, a garment worker in Boston, described how workers at Sterlingwear, a factory that produces coats for the U.S. military, were inspired by the transit workers strike in Philadelphia and organized to send a message and a financial contribution to the strikers.

Gale Shangold a garment worker in Los Angeles, reported that workers at Hollander Home Fashions joined a protest by meatpacking workers at a nearby plant who are fighting to be organized into the UFCW.

Shangold also reported on several struggles of textile workers in the South, including organizing victories at Tultex in North Carolina and two Levi-Strauss plants in Texas and Kentucky. The National Labor Relations Board has called for a new vote at the giant Fieldcrest-Cannon textile complex in Kannapolis, North Carolina. In response to these developments the meeting of socialist workers in UNITE decided to help organize a team to North Carolina to meet some of the fighters and reestablish contact with unionists there who communists knew when there was a branch of the Socialist Workers Party in Greensboro.

At the Hexcel plant in Seattle, Nan Bailey reported, members of a union women's committee have been fighting a company attack on flexible hours needed to make it possible for them to arrange childcare. Committee members have also organized support for strikers at the nearby Jet Tool plant. Bailey reported that the committee meets once a week. She said the formation and activity of this committee is part of the broader pressure on the IAM officialdom to respond to the growing pressure on workers. Bailey urged participants in the meeting to probe the possibility that similar committees exist in other cities.

Bosses' counteroffensive
The meetings of union activists also discussed that side by side with workers' resistance is the counteroffensive of the bosses who can't and won't give up. Bailey explained that this was shown most starkly on July 1 when the growers in Watsonville, California, sent goons to beat up strawberry pickers who are organizing into the United Farm Workers. Along with this physical intimidation the employers have organized a pro-company "union," which is being counterposed to the UFW.

A union-busting outfit in the airlines known as the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), Bailey said, is cranking up a similar counteroffensive. Just days before the contract vote at Northwest, AMFA announced it had collected enough cards from Northwest mechanics to call for a vote on whether they wanted to split from the IAM and join AMFA. And at United Airlines, just as 19,000 workers joined the union, AMFA opened up a drive for a similar election.

Participants in the meeting discussed how socialist workers can most effectively help push back the AMFA attack. Ernie Mailhot, a shipyard worker in Miami who was a leader of the Eastern Airlines strike a decade ago, emphasized the need to expose AMFA's false claim that it is a craft union. "AMFA should not be characterized as a union of any kind, but as a union-busting outfit that poses a mortal threat to workers' ability to fight the airline companies," Mailhot said.

"AMFA has been around since the early 1960s and it has never had anything to do with unionism. It does not participate in strikes or other union battles. Instead it does the work of the companies by sowing divisions among workers as they go into battle."

During the joint session in Chicago, several participants explained the significance of the struggles of Black farmers and the importance of working-class fighters linking up with them. In the Washington, D.C. area, rail worker Stu Singer reported, Black farmers have been able to work together with members of the UFCW in some protests. James Harris, a rail worker from Atlanta, described the impact Black farm activists, most of them working farmers, had on the NAACP convention in Atlanta last month. He said that one of the main organizations of farmers who are Black, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, is meeting in Epes, Alabama, August 14-15.

The joint sessions focused on a discussion of the need to redress the imbalance in the concentration of socialist workers in various unions. In Cleveland, Mike Fitzsimmons explained that during the last decade of retreat in the labor movement and in the SWP, there was a drift toward becoming a three-fraction movement. Well over 80 percent of socialists in industrial unions are in the UTU, USWA, and IAM. Special efforts, he said, will be necessary to rebuild the forces of worker-bolsheviks in the UMWA, UNITE, and UFCW.

Fitzsimmons reported that several months of organized sales and discussions with coal miners in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia confirm that some hiring is going on in the coal mines. Fitzsimmons said that SWP and YS members in San Francisco and New York have taken some concrete steps to reestablish a fraction of socialist workers in the UFCW. Similar steps have to be taken in relation to UNITE.

In his summary to the meeting of OCAW activists, Britton stressed that getting more SWP and YS members into UNITE and the UFCW, and working toward that goal in coal, is necessary to be part of a much broader layer of the working class.

Also at the joint sessions an appeal was made for monthly pledges to the Maritime Fund. This fund, set up five years ago, helps to make it financially possible for Tom Leonard, who lives on a meager Social Security payment, to be able to prepare material on his experiences and those of the party in the maritime industry in the 1940s and '50s.

As he has worked on this project, Leonard has followed and become involved in various elements of the unfolding working- class struggles. This project, which aims to deepen socialist workers' understanding of their movement's heritage, is converging with applying its lessons in the current battles. The fund helps finance travel for Leonard to national meetings and conferences, as well as equipping him with a computer, E-mail, and other tools he needs. The new pledges totaled $555 a month, which added to the previous pledges brings the fund to over $1,300 a month.

Separate presentations were made on the $400,000 capital fund needed for Pathfinder's print shop to acquire computer- to-plate technology. So far more than $235,000 has been pledged to the Fund.

Doug Jenness is a member of the United Steelworkers of America. Contributing to this article were: Elizabeth Stone (IAM), Maggie Trowe (UFCW), Alyson Kennedy (OCAW), Ted Leonard (UNITE), and Cindy Jacquith (UAW).  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home