The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.63/No.16           April 26, 1999 
Lessons Of The 1979 Newport News Strike  

Members of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) walked out at the Newport News, Virginia, Shipbuilding and Drydock Company on Jan. 31, 1979. Exactly one year earlier, the Steelworkers won a union representation election among the 17,500 production and maintenance workers at the country's largest shipyard. But Tenneco, the oil giant that owned the company, refused to recognize the union and negotiate a contract.

The following selection is from "A new stage in revolutionary working-class politics," a report by Socialist Workers Party national secretary Jack Barnes adopted by the party's National Committee on April 29, 1979. It took up the importance of the strike in Newport News, which had ended just six days earlier, and the SWP's participation in this battle.

The entire report is published in The Changing Face of U.S. Politics: Working-Class Politics and the Trade Unions, by Jack Barnes. It is copyright (c) 1994 by Pathfinder Press, and is reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.


We began to take a look at the Newport News organizing drive at our last plenum back in December [1978]. We didn't know too much about it then, but it looked pretty important. This outfit called USWA Local 8888 had organized a big shipyard of 18,000 workers in right-to-work-for-less Virginia, and now they wanted recognition and a contract. Nobody else in the radical movement seemed to pay much attention to it or care much about it. But we said that it looked like the single most important strike coming. It turned out we were right.

As the strike unfolded, many aspects were similar to the coal strike last year. Of course, there are differences between the composition and character of the UMWA and Local 8888, but that's not so important to us as the similarities.

The union ranks took a measure of democracy at a crucial turning point and altered the outcome of the strike. In making a tactical retreat, and preparing to enter the next battle in the best possible position, they changed for the better what they had to face on the job.

The Wall Street Journal hit wide of the mark here, too. Before the union ranks met and voted they already had 8888 laid out on a morgue slab. They were gloating.

But the workers, a little union democracy, and a tactical misjudgment by the cops and Tenneco all came together to change things. And we got a glimpse of the future.

The workers reversed the rout that the USWA bureaucracy had set them up for in accepting Tenneco's back-to-work conditions. The workers staved off going back under conditions that would have cut them apart in the worst possible way, making the next stage of the battle far more difficult. The decision to return to work is not the end of a war, remember. It's just the first battle.

Those 8888 militants learned some big lessons when the cops attacked their picket lines and tried to bust up their headquarters last week. They call it Bloody Monday now.

And seeing those club-swinging cops roaming around smashing the heads of Black and white strikers made a few other workers in the Tidewater area take a new look at the strike, too.

Effects of civil rights movement
The Newport News battle tells us a lot about the effects of the civil rights movement, the role of the Black struggle. It's a big mistake to look at what happened in the South over the past twenty years in too narrow a framework. It's not just that some important civil rights were won, narrowly construed.

There were elements of a social revolution in the South; Jim Crow was smashed. The South today is more desegregated than many of the big northern industrial states; studies have shown that.

This was a big victory for our entire class, Black and white. It means that there has been a sort of leveling-out process in some of the conditions of the class struggle throughout the country. The South is more like the rest of the country than ever before. The big difference today is not the Jim Crow system and all the social, political, and economic features that flowed from that. That was the big difference from the defeat of Reconstruction through the 1960s.

The big difference today is that the southern working class is still much less unionized than in the North. That is one of the legacies of Jim Crow, and the class-collaborationist policies of the labor bureaucracy. But, as Newport News showed, the battles that demolished Jim Crow have created much more favorable conditions for solving this important remaining difference as well. It's a big challenge confronting American labor-and the entire union movement will be fighting from a position of weakness until it is met.

A great deal was changed in the South by the civil rights movement. The consciousness of the working class was dramatically changed. Not only Black, but also white workers became more capable of moving in a class-conscious direction; their attitudes were profoundly altered. They became more capable of seeing their common class interests with Black workers-which is absolutely necessary to move forward. There was a rise in the self-confidence of the Black workers. The composition of the workforce changed, as more and more Blacks fought their way into industry. There has also been a rise in the number of women workers, like everywhere else. Finally, there is a lot more industry in the South today. In addition to the textile and other traditional southern industry, there are more auto plants, steel mills, electrical assembly plants, rubber factories, and so on.

The origins of the 8888 organizing drive directly reflected these important changes in the South. The vanguard was made up overwhelmingly of Black workers inside the yard. They sensed what these changes meant. They sized up how they could take advantage of these changes to put together a new struggle, in a new way, and with broader forces-white and Black workers, men and women. They took the initiative to draw the USWA into the fight.

A lesson in solidarity
The Newport News workers also learned something about the importance of solidarity. Although the support they got from unionists around the country fell far short of the potential had the USWA officialdom energetically pursued it, the workers nonetheless got a taste of what solidarity can mean.

They also got a taste of what the bureaucracy will never mean by solidarity. They never mean solidarity inside the labor movement or with the oppressed. The bureaucrats' solidarity is with the capitalist government. They try to teach the workers to look to the government, to look to the National Labor Relations Board, to look to some mediator, to look to the courts. That's what USWA president Lloyd McBride and the entire USWA officialdom tried to drum into the heads of the 8888 workers.

But from their own experiences with the cops, the capitalist politicians, the courts, and the NLRB, the Newport News workers began learning something about where they must really look for allies, and why. The process is just beginning. It's still being thought through. It's not all totally understood. There are still hopes that the courts or the Carter administration will come through with some real assistance.

But the question is posed right out in the open. This, too, presents the bureaucracy with difficulties. George Meany personally sent letters to AFL-CIO affiliates telling them to hold no Newport News solidarity activities without an explicit go-ahead from the USWA officialdom. The deliberate intent of this was to put the kibosh on solidarity, including in cities where union support meetings were already in the planning stages.

McBride gave his infamous press conference where he said there had been a "tactical blunder," an unfortunate misunderstanding. Some people, McBride said, were incorrectly portraying the Newport News strike as part of a crusade to organize the South.

"I don't look on this as a crusade," McBride insisted. "We are not interested in broadening the dispute beyond our efforts to get a contract."

But without a crusade to organize the South, it will be much more difficult to get a contract. That's another lesson the Newport News workers are learning. They have everything to gain, and nothing to lose, from projecting their fight as a struggle for workers throughout the South and throughout the country.

How the SWP participated
Our party was the first and the only group on the left to size up correctly the stakes at Newport News. I couldn't believe my eyes in reading the opponent papers over the past couple of weeks. Papers such as the Guardian hardly ever had datelines from Newport News. They didn't send reporters, let alone teams, down there, except for one or two short trips. They didn't understand the importance of going through this experience with the workers there.

The Militant, on the other hand, was looked to by literally hundreds of strikers as the only prostrike newspaper-the paper that told the truth, that told their side of the story. A good number of them were quite interested in discussing other ideas in the Militant with the party and YSA members who were down there.

We didn't leave our views about solidarity on the level of propaganda and education. We acted on our views. We helped build solidarity not only inside the Steelworkers union throughout the country, but in the UAW, the Machinists, and elsewhere. This was a valuable educational experience, another step forward for our union fractions and for our fraction, branch, and local leaderships.

At each stage of the strike, we sent teams of socialists down to Newport News. We didn't send just reporters and sales teams, but socialist steelworkers as well.

We always acted responsibly. We used our heads. We knew that the ability to shut down production in the shipyard depended on shifting the relationship of forces more and more to the advantage of the strikers, and that was a political question, not a narrow tactical one. We didn't pretend to come in from the outside to dish out tactical proposals to get the strikers out of a jam. We didn't launch into tirades against the USWA leadership, or urge the 8888 workers to do that. We didn't tell them that we had some magical tactic, such as smashing a few scabs, that would solve their problems and bring Tenneco to its knees.

We carefully avoided all these traps. Instead, we concentrated on doing what we could to help shift the relationship of forces in the strikers' direction. We helped get out the truth about the strike both through our industrial fractions and through the Militant. We analyzed the strike correctly, and filled the Militant with all the other social and political lessons that the workers needed to think out and discuss.

We did this openly as socialists. We were down there as fellow workers who wanted to do what we could to support 8888 and to discuss our views with anyone who was willing to listen.

As a result, there are thousands of people down there who have read the Militant. Some of our subscribers pass the paper around a little bit, too. We've met a lot of people who are interested in what we have to say-both about the strike and about many other things.

This kind of receptivity to the Militant by workers in the midst of an important strike struggle is something new. We haven't seen it over the past three decades.

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