Stories of solidarity unionism

ORAL HISTORY projects are a favorite tool of social justice educators for good reason. They democratize history, help us to understand the lives and decisions of the 99%, and thereby build bridges into the past. That is precisely the motivation of Alice and Staughton Lynd in their collection of firsthand narratives, Rank and File, first published in 1973 and re-released (with additional narratives) by Haymarket Books in 2012. The Lynds’ intended audience is “rank-and-file workers, and…young people who are seeking long-term service in the labor movement.” In Rank and File, workers recollect lessons they learned from leading struggles for economic and social justice from the 1930s to the 1990s. The Lynds’ goal in collecting these stories is to demonstrate the need for “solidarity unionism,” and to share the knowledge of those who have built the union movement from the bottom up.

By “solidarity unionism” they mean “the idea that in the absence of effective national organizations from which they can seek help, rank-and-filers—worker and union activists who don’t hold paid leadership positions—turn to each other and reach outside the workplace, into other workplaces in the community, to create horizontal networks for mutual support.”

The opposite trend in the union movement, business unionism, has “the goal of signing collective bargaining agreements complete with management prerogative and no-strike clauses; the dues check-off as the means of funding union bureaucracies; the protection of jobs in one’s own nation at whatever cost to workers in other countries; and the capitalist system that puts profits before people.” These two strategies have battled it out for control over unions since their inception.

In addition to collecting interviews in the 1960s and 1970s, and then again in the 1990s, the Lynds were partisans of solidarity unionism and participants in the struggles of many workers, organized and unorganized. They were advocates for workers against discrimination, plant closings, and occupational health and safety hazards both as organizers and as lawyers. Many of the people they interviewed were pro-union to the core, but found that bureaucratized unions had to be completely transformed (as in the case of the Teamsters, which Vicky Starr (a.k.a. Stella Nowicki) transformed to organize white-collar staff at the University of Chicago in the 1970s) or gone around (as in the case of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union in the 1990s in Chinatown, New York, which the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association had to circumvent).

One set of questions that organizers always grapple with is, “What are the factors that lead people into struggle?” There are some common threads that connect the workers in the Lynds’ interviews. Many were radicalized simply by the experience of working difficult, demeaning jobs and “finding themselves involved in struggles often not of their own making, rethinking what they had taken for granted.” One of John Anderson’s formative experiences was while trying fruitlessly to make money selling various products door to door, he noticed piles of rotting apples in the orchards surrounding Lancaster, Ohio, a city in the grips of Depression-era hunger.

Many were radicalized by the experience of racial or ethnic division and how it undermined solidarity. Either they experienced discrimination themselves or noticed it in society and thought that it was wrong from an early age. Ed Mann, a longtime activist in Youngstown, Ohio, and president of a United Steelworkers local from 1973 to 1979, remembers going to the YMCA to box with his Black friend and getting turned away as a politicizing moment. Christine Ellis, who came through Ellis Island as a child in 1913, remembers an “important episode” in her early years living in Ohio when mostly immigrant striking miners reached out and won native-born scabs from the South over to their cause and defeated the mine operators who had been pitting them against each other.

Sylvia Woods, who grew up in a union household in New Orleans, went to Universal Negro Improvement Association meetings with her father when she was a child. At age ten, she suddenly decided to stop singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in school, explaining to the principal that it couldn’t be the “land of the free” if Black people weren’t allowed to play in the local park. “If the land is free and the flag is mine, how come I can’t do like the white kids?”

While working in a Chicago laundry in the 1930s, she led a work stoppage against the company for hiring a “white forelady over all the Black women.” She describes how later, when working at Bendix aviation making plane carburetors, a fellow white worker, Mamie Harris, first tried to convince her not to run for union office in the local. Later, Mamie stood up for a Black worker who was being hired into an all-white skilled department, saying “anybody that doesn’t like it that a Black person comes in this shop can leave right now.” Woods’ experience seeing white workers willing to fight for Blacks convinced her of the possibility of interracial solidarity.

For people active in today’s labor movement, reading the accounts of the narrators is a refreshing reminder that workers’ struggles have, at times, had an incredibly spontaneous element. When organization at a workplace is strong, and workers have a sense of confidence in their own power, workers simply stop working when they feel that a wrong has been done. At the same time, organizers usually had a strong strategy and action plan. 

“We started talking union,” said Vicky Starr writing as Stella Nowicki, who organized meatpacking workers during the Depression. “The thing that precipitated it is that on the floor below, they used to make hotdogs and one of the women, in putting meat into the chopper, got her fingers caught.” Starr was part of a team of people from the Young Communist League who went into factories to organize them.  She describes how

three of us “colonizers” had a meeting during our break and decided that this was the time to have a stoppage and we did. All six floors went on strike. We said, “Sit. Stop.” And we had a sit-down. We just stopped working right inside the building, protesting the speed and unsafe conditions. We thought that people’s fingers shouldn’t go into the machine, that it was an outrage. The women got interested in the union.

Like Vicky Starr, most of those interviewed in the book had high expectations for the working class, in most cases informed by a historical worldview. Some of the interviewees had been organized socialists or members of socialist clubs, and some others were simply around left-wing ideas and people. John Anderson, for example, who got a job as a metal finisher at Briggs manufacturing in Detroit in 1933, first joined and became an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the IWW. He went to work at Flint’s Fisher Body in 1936, joined the United Auto Workers, and as chairman of Local 15’s organizing and strike committees, he was one of the leaders in the Flint sit-down strike. In 1938, he joined the Socialist Workers Party. (He later joined the International Socialist Organization.)

In every case, they had come to understand the larger historical context, the logic of capitalist exploitation, and the divide-and-conquer role that racism plays. For the most part, sustaining a lifetime of organizing and being willing to take risks wasn’t hard for people who saw themselves as fighting for a different kind of society. As Anderson explains:

I became immune to the fear of physical danger when I was active in the struggle of the workers. I think this was true of many of the radicals who led strikes and carried on political activities for the left-wing parties.

We’re reminded that each generation of working-class radicals has faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles, from organizing amidst crushing unemployment, to facing deportation, to having to fight a two-front battle against the bosses and labor leaders who aren’t interested in fighting. For the most part, developing and maintaining a vision for a better world helped the storytellers continue to fight. 

As Sylvia Woods puts it,

The main thing I would say is that you have to have faith in people. You know, I had very little faith in white people. I think that I had faith in black people. But you have to have faith in people, period. The whites, probably a lot of them feel towards blacks like I felt. But people, as a rule, come through….  I have seen it done. Like Tennessee. He hated black people. A poor sharecropper who came up here to earn enough money to go back and buy the land he had been renting. After the plant closed, he went back there with a different outlook on life. He danced with a black woman. He was elected steward and you just couldn’t say anything to a black person. So, I have seen people change. This is the faith you’ve got to have in people.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story