The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
The Unions' Drive to Organize, or How to Ensure Defeat:
The Example of TTH

Jul 21, 2001

On February 14, 2001, the UAW (United Auto, Aerospace and Agricultural Implements Workers) filed signature cards, requesting that the NLRB organize a representation election for workers in four units at TTH (The Toledo Hospital). These four units RNs, support services, technical and skilled maintenance included 3,300 workers. It was never clear exactly how many workers had signed a card for the union, but a UAW spokesperson announced soon after the filing that the union had collected almost as many cards as there were people working in the four units which filed. Even taking into account exaggeration and the difficulty of record-keeping during a campaign which stretched out for almost 11 months, it's obvious that the UAW had collected cards from significantly more than half, if not even two-thirds of the workers in the four units.

And yet, seven weeks later, two-thirds of the workers voted ... against joining the union.

"The Most Anti-Union, Vile Behavior..."

Explaining the loss at Toledo Hospital, the UAW's regional director for western Ohio accused Toledo Hospital and ProMedica management of "the most anti-union, vile behavior I've ever seen from any organization." And the UAW filed a protest with the NLRB listing dozens of objections to the hospital's conduct.

Certainly, the hospital carried out an intensive anti-union campaign, directed by the law firm of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, which specializes in helping employers defeat union organizing drives. According to the UAW, the hospital paid $450 an hour billed by the lawyers in this firm who helped direct the anti-union campaign. The hospital's bill must have amounted to tens of thousands of dollars, if not more.

The hospital tried to cut the ground from underneath the union's feet by publicly announcing long-awaited wage increases; simultaneously, some of its managers spread rumors that raises and improvements might be threatened if the union were voted in. It also got rid of a merit pay system which workers had detested, and it had promised to add a 401(k) plan to its meager pension program.

At the same time, the hospital carried on a campaign openly directed against the union. There were the usual warnings: that workers would be forced to strike against their wishes; that they would give up more in dues than they would get back. One leaflet issued by the hospital went so far as to calculate down to the penny (!) how much money workers would accumulate if the money they would have to give the union in dues were to be invested instead in the hospital's hypothetical 401(k) plan. Asking, "Can the UAW guarantee you the same return on your union dues?" the hospital declared that people earning $8 an hour would have $62,060.14 after 30 years; while those earning $20 an hour would accumulate $155,211.21. Of course, this transmutation of a few dollars into a pot-of-gold depended on the smoke and mirrors of the stock market; as well as on a hospital promise to set up and maintain a 401(k) plan. The hospital is not well-known for keeping its promises.

But the hospital's trump card was a letter sent out just one week after the union had filed its petition with the NLRB. The president of the hospital proclaimed: "...on February 14, 2001, a small group of The Toledo Hospital facility employees came to my office seeking immediate recognition of the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representative for over 3,300 TTH employees. If I had accepted their demand, this union would have automatically represented all RNs, Support Services employees, Skilled Maintenance and Technical employees. Employees in those four units would have immediately been subject to the risk and uncertainty of the collective bargaining process without the opportunity to exercise their most basic and fundamental American right...the right to vote in a secret ballot election. I am happy to announce that your right for a secret ballot election has been protected! Today we agreed with the Regional Office of the NLRB to have a secret ballot election sometime during the first week of April."

It may seem laughable that a TTH official could put herself forward as the defender of democratic rights for the workers particularly since she did so by ignoring the fact that the "small group" who came to her office came in bringing signature cards which represented the vast majority of the workers at the hospital. Laughable, perhaps, but no one noticed the joke since the union left it up to the hospital to explain who was in the meeting and what had happened. Hospital management was left free to put its "spin" on this story.

And spin the story it did for the next six weeks, following the letter up with a number of employee meetings in which videotapes and other material were presented, the main aim of which was to portray the union as undemocratic and corrupt, interested only in putting its tentacles on another group of workers who would have no rights, only an obligation to pay dues.

One meeting featured a videotape of a speech delivered by Steve Yokich, current UAW president, during which he talked about the fact that the UAW, facing difficulties in maintaining its numbers in the auto industry, had turned its attention to other parts of the workforce among which were hospital workers. The hospital played this film clip only to ask, "If they can't do anything for their own people, what can they do for you? They don't know anything about hospitals, they just want your dues money."

Did the hospital engage in dirty tricks? Yes and that should come as no surprise. But the loss in a union organizing drive particularly one in which the workers change their opinion in as clear and drastic a way as what happened at Toledo Hospital cannot be explained simply by a company's unwillingness to recognize a union, nor by its use of dirty tricks. If those things were decisive, workers never would have been able to form unions in the first place.

A Democratic Union? Actions Speak Louder than Words

For people working in the union campaign, it should have come naturally to answer the attacks: "WE are the union all of us who want it and are working for it. WE make the decisions. WE are for workers' democracy where those who work make the decisions." Dozens of workers had been active in the campaign, yet those workers did not find the way to pull together to answer the attack as a team to demonstrate that the union was NOT something imposed on the workers from the outside. Apparently, nothing in the way the campaign was carried out suggested this to them.

During the course of the "official" campaign, which lasted almost 11 months, there were only three meetings for all the workers at the hospital and all three of these were organized around speeches given by the organizers and by "friendly" politicians explaining the benefits of belonging to a union. There were no meetings where workers could raise the problems they faced everyday on the job and figure out what to do about them. Nothing in the daily functioning of the organizing campaign brought the workers to understand that they were the union.

This lack of an every-day democratic functioning was not unique to the organizing campaign at Toledo Hospital; it is the normal state of affairs in the UAW and in most unions today. Grievances are settled between union officials and company officials, with the workers usually informed only after everything is decided. Negotiations for new contracts are carried out in secret. Strikes are called by or called off by the tops of the union.

An issue that elicited a strong reaction from workers in the hospital concerned an Accuride strike in Kentucky that the national UAW leadership had called off, ignoring the strikers' wishes to continue. During the last weeks of the TTH campaign, some of the Accuride strikers were in Detroit, protesting at UAW headquarters over actions taken by top UAW leaders to cut off strike pay and remove local officers when the workers continued to organize "without authorization" against a company lock-out. What a plum to fall in the lap of TTH management! They used it with glee, proclaiming, "first, they'll force you out on strike, then they'll dump you. And you'll have nothing to say about the matter." This cost the organizing campaign dearly.

The Workers Need No Permission to Start a Union

The first leaflet put out by the Voluntary Organizing Committee, announcing the official commencement of the organizing campaign at Toledo Hospital was signed by 321 workers, including a few from Flower Hospital. This was not a small number. It constituted what might have been the framework of a functioning union inside the hospital. Certainly not all of those 321 workers were ready to be union activists inside the hospital. But among them, there must have been enough so that the union had the means to start functioning in the hospital right away, helping other workers to find the ways to deal with the real problems they face. During the campaign, the problems went on as before: the lack of staffing on the nursing floors, the dirty needles that endanger the people who remove the trash, the disrespect workers face from the medical staff and from management, outrageous discipline, etc. The union activists in the hospital, organized together to address some of these problems, might have pulled other workers with them. There were plenty of opportunities to demonstrate to the other workers the advantage of having a union.

But this was not what the UAW organizers proposed to the hospital activists; it was not the aim of the UAW's organizing campaign to build a functioning union inside the hospital. Its aim was to fulfill the legal obligations which would require the NLRB to order an election to designate the UAW as the "bargaining agent" for the workers at the hospital. The main, actually almost the only activity which was proposed to these 321 workers was to collect signatures from their fellow workers requesting such an election and talking to them, often by phone, to convince them to sign.

After the loss in the election, the union quickly shut down its campaign headquarters, saying only that it was protesting to the NLRB. What could the activists who had worked so hard to get the union do in the meantime? Just wait to see what the NLRB has to say? Apparently, since nothing was proposed to them. Obviously those appeals can go on for months or years, and they usually lose. But no matter whether sooner or later, no matter whether the appeal wins or loses, there is a lot that can be done: and first of all to overcome the demoralization which set in after the loss particularly among the most active people. The issue is not a legal one. The same thing which could have been done during the recent campaign still remains to be done: to try to pull together the people who had been active, to discuss among themselves how to engage the other workers to begin addressing their real problems, whether of discipline or conditions or even wages. In so doing, they could start to build up a union inside the hospital, one which the workers can have confidence in. Then a new election, whenever it comes, won't be the stumbling block that this one was.

Instead of that, the UAW proposed nothing other than a statement by the regional director that he would call on other workers and unions to carry out a boycott against both the hospital and against an HMO owned by ProMedica, TTH's parent company. It is the usual useless gesture which either accomplishes nothing or, worse, turns workers at the boycotted company against unions permanently.

Shrinking Numbers

The UAW, like other unions, has been able to organize some workplaces including St. Vincent's Hospital in Toledo and Sparrow Hospital in Lansing Michigan. But its inability to organize Toledo Hospital is not unusual. For two decades, the UAW has been unable to bring in enough new members just to replace those who left.

In the year 2000, for example, the UAW organized 21,900 new members. Nonetheless, it suffered a net loss of 90,600 members, following upon a net loss of 83,900 in 1999. At the end of 2000, the UAW's dues-paying membership stood at only 672,000 members, down from its highpoint of just over 1.5 million members in 1979.

The usual explanation given for this precipitous decline is the decline in employment in the auto industry the one- time heart of the UAW. In fact, this is what Yokich was explaining in the speech which TTH caught on tape. The degree to which the UAW leadership seems to have given up in auto is reflected in the fields that Yokich referred to as offering exceptional opportunities for union organizers: not only hospital workers and government workers, but also graduate student teaching assistants and casino workers!

In fact, the auto industry itself ought to offer exceptional opportunities for organizing. Actual auto industry employment grew by 100,000 workers during the 1990s, bringing the total up over a million workers. BUT the number of union members in auto shrank by 51,000. This industry, which was once close to being totally organized, by 1999 had only 48% of the workers organized. Even as recently as 1990, 61% of the industry was still organized. The UAW is obviously less and less able to convince the workers in what was once its very center to join the union.

The same situation holds across the board in the biggest of the industrial unions. In manufacturing, the rate of unionization has been on a steady decline for the last 20 years, today standing at less than 15%, down from over 35% in 1979. It begs the question to talk about the decline of manufacturing jobs all the more so since the unions are implicated in the decline of that employment: they have not challenged the bosses when the big productivity increases of recent years took the form of more profits for the bosses rather than shorter hours of work for the workers. The unions haven't been able to organize the workers who are there.

Paying Lip Service to the Auto-Lite Strike

Ironically, in the very days when the election was taking place at Toledo Hospital the final touches were being put on a monument which the City of Toledo, the UAW, and others were about to dedicate on the site of the old Auto- Lite plant. Torn down in 1999, the plant was the site of the famous 1934 Auto-Lite strike, the first truly victorious strike carried out by the newly organized union of auto workers. Not only did the 1934 victory at Auto-Lite pave the way for the rapid growth of the auto workers union, it also along with the three Minneapolis teamsters strikes, the great Southern textile strike and the San Francisco general strike in the same year opened the door to unionization in mass production industries. The American bourgeoisie had steadfastly refused to recognize unions in these industries; and by the early 1930s, the corporations were refusing to deal even with the old AFL unions which grouped the skilled workers.

Simply to force the company to leave them free to organize their union, the Auto-Lite workers had to strike. When they did, it wasn't just nasty words or slanders they faced; they immediately came up against a company lockout, scabs, court injunctions, massive police lines, sheriff's deputies, tear gas and finally several thousand National Guardsmen who advanced on the workers with fixed bayonets and set up machine guns aimed at the picket lines. By themselves, the workers who started the strike at Auto-Lite, numbering at the beginning less than 400 out of a workforce of 1,500, may have gone down to defeat. But their actions brought other workers with them, from Auto-Lite itself, but also from other workplaces in the Toledo area and most importantly from the Toledo Unemployed League which not only helped keep the unemployed from scabbing but brought more forces into the fight on the side of the strikers.

The key battle occurred on May 23, six weeks after the strike had started. The strikers' forces had increased to the point that they had thousands of people massed on picket lines. When scabs and supervisors from inside the factory began throwing down big pieces of metal onto the crowd, a woman picketer was hit and seriously injured. The pickets stormed the plant, lobbing paving stones, bricks and parts torn from the factory itself through Auto- Lite windows. By the time the sheriff gave orders to close down the plant, and get the scabs out, every plant window had been broken. The National Guard was sent in to bring the scabs out, and fired on the strikers. In the next few days, more workers from around the city came down to help the strikers. As the workers and unemployed, now numbering 5,000, began to surround them, the National Guard units began to fall back. Auto- Lite, faced with a relationship of forces which favored the workers, quickly capitulated at the urging of the very same city and state officials who had earlier sent in the different police and military forces against the workers.

Toledo was the place where workers first forced a mass production company in the auto industry to deal with them and grabbed one of the very earliest victories in any industry during the "Great" Depression. The struggle at Auto-Lite set off a series of other strikes in Ohio: the 1935 Chevy strike in Toledo, which was also successful, and in its wake a series of strikes at auto plants in Cleveland, Norwood, and Cincinnati, as well as at Atlanta Georgia. The actions taken in Toledo in 1934 opened the door through which the massive sit-down movement of 1936 and '37 then passed. And they breathed life into the newly forming auto workers union. (An interesting postscript to the battles in the streets of Toledo is that many of the National Guardsmen who had been called into Toledo in 1934 were among the chief organizers of strikes in the next few years in central Ohio where they had come from.)

The NLRB A Guide to Organization? No, A Roadblock

In 1934, there was no NLRB, no government sanctioned vote to decide whether or not a union existed. The Wagner Act (the National Labor Relations Act), which established the legal framework within which the union movement has since functioned, did not yet exist. In fact, the Wagner Act was brought into existence in 1935 precisely because the most conscious section of the bourgeoisie and its political representatives read the handwriting which the strikes of 1934 had written large on capitalism's wall.

Repeated editorials in the New York Times all during 1934 called for the government to find other means to bring the burgeoning workers' movement back under control, given that the repressive forces the bourgeois state threw against the 1934 strikes not only had not been able to stop the movement but, in some cases, gave it further impetus.

The Wagner Act was one of those means. This legislation has long been presented as an important gain for the working class, even as a gift which Roosevelt gave to the working class. In fact, the Wagner Act was directly aimed at resolving the problem the workers had created for business. The Preamble of the Act made this abundantly clear:

"Experience has proved that protection by law of the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively safeguards commerce from injury, impairment, or interruption, and promotes the flow of commerce by removing certain recognized sources of industrial strife and unrest, by encouraging practices fundamental to the friendly adjustment of industrial disputes....

"Experience has further demonstrated that certain practices by some labor organizations, their officers, and members have the intent or the necessary effect of burdening or obstructing commerce by preventing the free flow of goods in such commerce through strikes and other forms of industrial unrest or through concerted activities which impair the interest of the public in the free flow of such commerce. The elimination of such practices is a necessary condition to the assurance of the rights herein guaranteed." As Sidney Lens, commented in his well-known book on the labor movement: "it was in effect a trade of union recognition for a toning down of labor militancy." But it was labor militancy that won the day in all the important victories of the 1930s.

To depend on the procedures of the Wagner Act implies accepting delay after delay, adding up to months and even years even in the best of cases when a company doesn't use various legal pretexts to completely stall the process. First, 30% of the workforce must sign cards in order to petition the NLRB to organize an election; then the NLRB in conjunction with the company and the union must hammer out an agreement as to which workers are eligible and how the "bargaining unit" will be set up; an election date is set; under supervision by agents of the NLRB, the workers vote; only if the majority of the workers vote for one union is the company required by law, that is to discuss the workers' demands with the workers' representatives, in this case, the union. The election can be bypassed if the workers present signature cards from over half the workers eligible to be in the bargaining unit on the condition the boss agrees to certify the union by a "card check." Of course, as we saw at Toledo Hospital, few companies are ready to make such an agreement at least not unless they have been facing workers organized and already acting to enforce their own demands. And management at Toledo Hospital knew it wasn't facing that.

Although these delays often help fritter away the workers' resolve, what undermines the workers militancy more are the two legal assumptions on which the Wagner Act turns: one, that unless the workers go through these steps, one after another, they can't even begin to act for themselves; and two, that they cannot have a union unless the majority of the workers vote for it.

If the strikers at Auto-Lite had subscribed to this idea that you can't have a union unless and until you have a majority, they never would have had a union. It was not the majority that first joined the union. Nor was it the majority that first went out. It was a minority which was determined to put forth demands to the boss, demands which it's true were in the interests of all the workers, but which the majority did not yet feel strongly enough to stand up for. If those 400 strikers had waited for the majority to join them before they walked out there never would have been a strike. If they had waited for a government agency to say they had a union before they could require a boss to speak to them, they never would have won their demands. It was through the fight they launched that they brought the majority with them and in so doing changed the relationship of forces such that the boss was compelled to answer their demands and government officials saw the necessity of pushing the company to do so. When the workers, through their struggles, forced the company to recognize the union they had built, a "secret ballot" was not required to determine whether or not the union existed. The workers had voted in the most practical way workers have with their feet.

Even after the Wagner Act was passed, when the workers supposedly had been given the "right" to form a union, the bosses weren't ready to recognize these newly developing unions until the workers proved by their actions that they were determined to have their demands met. It required the sit-down strikes of 1936 and '37 the vast movement of several million workers occupying the workplaces to convince the bosses that they must respond to the workers' demands.

Henry Ford held out the longest. After GM and Chrysler capitulated, Ford declared, in 1937, "We'll never recognize the United Automobile Workers Union or any other union." But when he was finally forced to do so, he jumped to make use of the provisions the Wagner Act had set up six years earlier. In the last year leading up to the big Ford strike of 1941, the union in fact did exist in Ford plants even though neither Ford nor the government recognized it. Whereas the union activists had once been small in number and forced to act very clandestinely to avoid immediate discharge, workers now joined the union in significant numbers, openly wore union buttons, paid union dues and chose committeemen to represent them. They engaged in work actions in the shop which forced Ford management to discuss with those committeemen and to answer some of the workers' demands and this in the company where 1/10 of the workforce were thugs belonging to Harry Bennett's secret Ford police. The leaders of the UAW, including people like Walter Reuther who attached himself to the Ford campaign, counseled the workers against job actions, and especially against any strike that might turn Roosevelt and Michigan's governor against the union. The goal they gave to the union activists at the Rouge was to continue gaining support quietly until they could petition for an election which would give the union legal standing.

Nonetheless it was a strike that settled matters. When Ford fired several committeemen, then refused to bring them back, workers in one plant stopped work. The strike spread. Finally, the whole Rouge, this monstrous enterprise, was brought to a standstill. UAW leaders "authorized" the strike the day AFTER it started. It did not take long for Ford to give in. But when he did agree to recognize the union, as well as to bring back most of the workers who had been fired, he did so only on the condition that the workers agree to go through an NLRB supervised election, and that the status of the remaining fired workers be decided in a hearing carried out by the NLRB. Despite recommendations by most UAW leaders to accept this proposal, a very large minority of the strikers voted against it. In the enormous meeting where the issue was decided, some workers demanded, "Why do we have to do this? We already won." Many more were upset that not all of the fired workers were to be brought back. In both cases, they were reassured that the vote and the hearing were only formalities.

These procedures may have been formalities in 1941 at Ford, since Ford had no hope of defeating the union in this election, nor even of keeping the fired workers out on the street. But making the victory that the strike had won contingent on the vote and making the recall of the fired strikers contingent on an NLRB hearing helped establish the framework in which the unions would subsequently raise questions of the workers' organization and their demands. It also conveyed the idea that the workers were not strong enough themselves to settle their own demands; that they needed the services of a neutral arbiter, in this case the NLRB as though the bourgeois state could be neutral in the class war which counterposes the workers to the capitalists.

All of these procedures pushed the workers to forego depending on their own forces, pushed them to turn their back on the struggles they had made when they formed their unions, and on what they need to do still today if they are to organize to defend themselves.

New Versions of the Same Old Way to Lose

Across the whole union field today, unions keep searching for new ways to organize, but coming up with the same tired old answers, just in different form.

In the July issue of America@Work, the AFL-CIO described a new law passed by Milwaukee County, a so-called "labor peace ordinance." The AFL-CIO explains the ordinance this way: "In return for allowing union organizers to distribute information at the worksite and prohibiting employers from giving employees misleading information about unions, unions agree to refrain from strikes, boycotting and picketing." The AFL-CIO did not speak about this law to denounce it. In fact, it held it up as a model. It was this law, said the AFL-CIO, which permitted 600 home care workers to organize in the SEIU.

What is this, but to give up, in advance, all possibility that the workers would use the very means with which they can best defend themselves? Today, the workers are hemmed in by labor law, NLRB rulings and union contracts all of which require the same renunciation. With a few exceptions, there is only a short period every three or four years during which you can legally decide to fight; only a few reasons for which you can legally organize a strike; and with only a few other workers that you are legally allowed to do it. The unions have given up in advance the possibility of bringing with them the forces they need to confront the corporations, big and little. This is why the corporations don't bother to deal with the unions anymore. By handcuffing the workers, the unions give the corporations no reason to fear them.

To rely on the good will of the bosses, as the unions are doing today, is to renounce in advance the possibility that the workers can defend themselves even on the most basic, day-to-day level. One of the biggest impediments the unions face today in attracting new members is the obvious fact that they have not been able to protect wages and, more important, jobs in the workplaces which are unionized. For decades, the unions' main argument when trying to organize other workers was to point to the difference in wages between union and non-union workers. But when the union cannot even defend the jobs of their own members, this argument is not very convincing.

Certainly, there was a period the "good old days" which the bureaucrats still toast when companies like GM almost automatically extended the existing union contract to newly opened plants.

But the progress the unions made during this period, the improvements the workers made in their situation did not come because the bosses wished to be correct, to be "neutral," to leave the decisions about unions up to the workers themselves. This so-called "neutrality" was simply a reflection of the terrible fear the workers movement of the 1930s had instilled in the capitalist class, reinforced at a certain period by the struggle of the black people in the 1950s and '60s.

For the workers' movement to move forward today, for new unions to be built which speak to the workers' needs, the workers will have to throw off the ideas to which the union bureaucracy subscribes today. Under a much more difficult situation, workers built the CIO unions in the 1930s by taking on the big corporations. Through their struggles, the working class changed the relationship of forces which, in ordinary times, always favors the bosses. The minority which was ready to struggle first (and when has it not been true that one part of the working class is in advance of the others?) this minority pulled the others with them through their struggles. And those who came later pulled still others after them ignoring the dividing lines which the NLRB would set up, according to which company you work for and which skill you practice at work.

The working class today has to regain confidence in its own forces, and that can be done only through the workers' own activity and struggle. If there are workers today who want a union, they can begin to gather other workers around them; begin to function like a union, addressing the real problem that workers face every day; test out their own capacities; win the trust of still more workers through the fights they make. Today, the relationship of forces favors the bosses. It can be changed. The possibility to do so lies within the grasp of workers like those at Toledo Hospital who were ready to stand up for themselves and for the rest of the workers around them.