The Spark

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

Strikes

Jul 30, 1994

On June 25th, several unions organized a demonstration in Decatur Illinois to mark the fact that workers at Staley Corporation had been fighting against a lockout for one whole year. In this same month, a national walkout started at the Caterpillar corporation, the culmination of a series of brief local strikes stretching back nine months, while General Dynamics was struck when the company refused to back off its demands for various concessions, including co-pays on health insurance.

Given the trend of last decade and a half – with fewer and fewer strikes, and with the readiness of union after union, contract after contract, to give up further concessions – these strikes are conspicuous for the workers' militancy and/or the apparent determination of the unions involved to draw a line beyond which the companies can't go.

"Let the Power of Labor Come Down on Staley"

In October of 1992, with the old contract expired, the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company presented a "best and final offer" to Local 837 of the Allied Industrial Workers union, representing workers at Staley's Decatur Illinois plant. With local leaders advising not to accept this take it or leave it offer, workers refused it.

Staley began to impose a series of drastic changes in working conditions, unilaterally establishing contract provisions it had sought: 12-hour rotating shifts; increased productivity and abrogation of health and safety standards; elimination of seniority protection. Staley also announced its intention to reduce its workforce by several hundred workers immediately; with subsequent reductions which would bring the number down to only a few hundred. During this whole period, Staley had been firing or otherwise disciplining workers for very tiny infractions of shop rules.

Union officials counselled that a strike would be an invitation to disaster in this situation; instead local leaders organized a work-to-rule campaign inside the plant. The union also brought in Ray Rogers and his Corporate Campaign, a kind of "consulting firm for labor." Corporate Campaign began to organize a public relations campaign, aimed at supporting a consumer boycott and embarrassing Staley, in front of the public, its financial supporters, suppliers, and clients. Corporate Campaign had played a similar role in several earlier strikes, including the 1985 year long strike at Hormel.

Finally, in June, a number of local unions brought people into Decatur to support the Staley workers in this campaign. A solid line was set up in the streets of Decatur, stretching from the Caterpillar plant to the Staley plant. The next day, June 27th, 1993, Staley locked out the 760 workers from the Decatur plant. Using management from the Decatur plant, management and some workers from its other plants, as well as scabs hired in for the occasion, Staley made it clear it intended to keep production going.

While some workers moved away, looking for other work, many others became active. At first, they threw up big picket lines to prevent scabs from going into the plant, but the company, as could be expected, got the necessary injunctions to free up their gates. (At some point in here, Local 837 of the AIW joined the United Paperworkers International Union and became Local 837 of the UPIU.) The union organized demonstrations, along with UAW locals at nearby Caterpillar plants and UMW locals then on strike in the area. The unions involved began to characterize Southern Illinois as a "war zone". Always insisting that this was a lock-out, and not a strike, the Corporate Campaign forces, along with union officials, carried out a broad campaign publicizing "unfair" and "illegal" actions of the company, taking out newspaper ads, demonstrating at company headquarters, as well as at the headquarters of other companies connected to Staley. The workers themselves began to travel around the mid-West, bringing news of the lockout to any union which would invite them in. And, as in the Hormel strike, a whole network of "solidarity activists" was created, drawing in some other unionists, and a number of leftists. Locals of some other unions were called upon to "adopt a locked-out family", that is, contribute money to the monthly support of one strikers' family.

Nonetheless, according to Staley's estimates which it announced on the one-year anniversary of the lock-out, it is now producing more than it was before the strike, with several hundred fewer people. The fact that the union disputes whether the quality is as high as it was before, but doesn't really challenge the production numbers testifies to the fact that the company has been able to use its scab workforce to put out some kind of production.

This is not to say that the outcome has been decided. It's obvious that the issue is not simply or even essentially one of whether or not Staley can keep this one plant's production going. If that were the issue, it's clear that Staley would win, hands down. Staley is a large corporation; it has other plants doing the same or similar work; it has links in Decatur itself with a so-called "rival" which puts out the same type of products. It could get its production out of other plants. The issue of the scabs in Decatur is as much an issue of morale as anything – that is, Staley wants to convince the Decatur workers they have no possibilities left. The problem for Staley is not production, per se; it is to break the determination of the Decatur workers to go on resisting; to convince them they have no prospects left.

Certainly, to be locked out for more than a year without any sign that the company is backing off could take its toll. We've seen that happen before in similar strikes, when companies were determined to break the spirit of their workforce, their union or both. At Hormel, for example, after almost 13 months on strike, the international union forced the strikers back, opposing both local officials and the expressed desires of the workers. But while the length of time the workers were out played some role in the ability of the international officials to break the strike, so did the fact that the workers saw nothing to do other than what they had been doing, without any sign that their activities were bringing them closer to a settlement. There was no one active in the strike who proposed a different policy from the one which seemed, after months to be going nowhere.

"Let's Get CAT Back on Track"

Ever since the collapse of a five-and-a-half month strike in early 1992, Caterpillar has been carrying out a veritable war against the workers in its agricultural implements plants. That strike had started when Caterpillar, the largest maker of agricultural and earth moving equipment in the world, refused to accept the same contract which other implements makers had already accepted. It ended after Caterpillar resumed production and finally announced it would permanently replace all strikers who did not return. The UAW International ordered the strikers back without a contract, and the company imposed its final offer, one which included a two-tier arrangement on wages, with newer workers earning just over half of what older workers were earning; heavy amounts of overtime; and a series of takeaways in benefits.

The UAW proposed to returning workers that they continue their fight by "working by the rules" and refusing all voluntary overtime. It's impossible to tell from the outside how effective this campaign was. In any case – if we judge by the number of people employed at Caterpillar when the earlier strike began with the number employed today when this one began – the company has apparently been able to cut over 3,000 jobs in that period, while still getting out production.

Once the strikers were back, Caterpillar began to fire or otherwise discipline hundreds of workers. This disciplining was directed particularly toward those workers who were union representatives or people who have been union activists. Generally, the reasons given for the discipline were petty; for example, wearing a T-shirt which carried a slogan ridiculing one of the company's executives led to several workers being fired. These attacks are undoubtedly aimed at demoralizing the workers, but they are perhaps also the sign that Caterpillar is trying to root all union activists out of the plant, with the further implication that Caterpillar's final aim may be to get rid of the union entirely. The UAW seems to believe that is where Caterpillar is going.

Facing that possibility, the UAW began to file complaints with the NLRB, charging Caterpillar with unfair labor practices. By this June, the NLRB had accepted 92 such complaints for investigation. The union organized a series of brief local strikes in support of these complaints. In the period since last November, there have been nine such strikes. Local Caterpillar unions in the area close to Decatur, where the Staley workers were on strike, also organized a series of rallies which brought the two groups of workers to demonstrate together and otherwise support each other's activities.

On May 7th, the UAW brought 15,000 unionists to Peoria, where Caterpillar is headquartered, to support the Caterpillar workers. At that point, the union declared that it wanted to return to the conditions in place before the old contract expired in October 1991. And it wanted wages to be increased to reflect an annual increase for the three years since, equal to the amount of the increase in the last year of the old contract. The UAW also demanded that all discharged and disciplined workers be reinstated with cleared records and back pay. To this end, it proposed that Caterpillar agree to "baseball style" binding arbitration, if Caterpillar wasn't ready to accede to these demands.

The main concrete proposal the UAW leaders made at this rally was for everyone to address themselves to the U.S. Senate which was then considering a bill which was presented as a way to prevent companies from permanently replacing strikers, (S-55 – the Worker Fairness Act). Union officials repeatedly insisted that if such a bill had been passed, Caterpillar would not have been able to threaten replacing its workers, and the outcome of the 1991-92 strike would have been different. This same view has been repeated for the past year in UAW publications.

When the UAW called the new nearly company-wide strike on June 21 of this year, it insisted that this strike did not concern contract demands, but was aimed only at getting reinstatement for those workers who have been disciplined; and it insisted that a provision in federal labor law prevents an employer from firing workers who are striking in support of complaints to the NLRB. In other words, Caterpillar would supposedly be prevented from doing what it threatened to do last time, that is permanently replacing workers.

Caterpillar, however, insists that the strike is over contractual demands – in other words, that strikers could be replaced. In any case, on the day the strike began, Caterpillar announced its intention to keep production going and to hire replacements for those workers who continued on strike, declaring, however, that it has no intention of "permanently" replacing the strikers. To be more precise, it declared that a proposal to hire permanent replacements is "premature" – right now. Caterpillar seems to be taking the same stance it had in the first strike, trying to bring back the workers who don't want to strike, and holding out the threat of replacing those who won't cave in.

At the end of the first week, the UAW said that almost all of its 14,000 members in 6 plants in Illinois, one at Denver Colorado and one at York Pennsylvania were out. The company claimed that only 10,000 had respected the strike call, that 4,000 had continued or returned to work. In any case, there is no dispute that nearly 1,000 people in two other plants continue to work; their plants are covered by local contracts containing no-strike clauses, and so the union did not call them out.

It appeared, at least from the outside, that morale among those who did come out – whatever their number – was high. It's obvious they were still ready to take on Caterpillar, despite what they have been through. It seems as though picket lines have been shrinking, but that in itself is not a proof that the strikers have lost their morale.

In the sixth week of the strike, the UAW International Executive Board voted to triple the strike benefits the union is paying out to Caterpillar workers, bringing this up to $300 a week. It is an exceedingly unusual move, particularly this early in a strike. And it reinforces the sense that the UAW had already otherwise conveyed, that it is unwilling to let a company decimate its local union structures, and that it will do everything it can to support this strike.

Unfortunately, the union is asking the workers to bank on a supposed "guarantee" that they cannot be replaced in such a strike, and it has clearly given the workers to understand that the NLRB will stand behind them. Maybe so, but the NLRB has not shown itself particularly friendly to labor. Doug Fraser, retired president of the UAW, has already declared, "I hope they know what they are doing. It's horribly risky." Of course, there's always a risk when you fight.

"It's not as much as the company wanted..."

The day before the Caterpillar strike jumped off, the UAW directed 2,000 workers at General Dynamics Land Systems operations in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania to walk out. The company was demanding substantial concessions and refused to back off of them: among other things, the company was demanding that workers pay 20% of the costs of their medical insurance, up to a limit of $4,200 a year for those with a family; it also demanded reductions in vacation and sick time, as well as a cap on total pension costs for each worker.

In advance of contract negotiations, the UAW announced that it intended to preserve fully paid medical care. They pointed to the stand the union had maintained during the auto negotiations last fall, when the Big 3 auto companies had made a similar demand. In fact, the UAW stand was not so solid then, since the union handed back 32 cents an hour of Cost-of-Living Allowance money, to help the companies defray the cost of medical insurance. But 32 cents an hour, which at straight time totals about $700 in a year's time, is a mere drop in the bucket compared to General Dynamics' demand for $4,200 and some dollars.

In any case, the union pulled the workers out, and they stayed out for five weeks, while the union continued to insist that it would not agree to give up the principle of full medical coverage.

It's hard to tell what the union believed about the situation – whether it believed that if it said it was drawing a line that General Dynamics would back off. Or was it a way to make an issue of something they thought they could win? Or was the UAW calling a strike whose main purpose was, as is the case in so many officially called strikes, to get the workers to take a contract they didn't want? Whichever, the UAW certainly didn't organize the kind of fight which would have been required to throw back a company determined to take concessions. In contrast to the strikes at Caterpillar and Staley. the General Dynamics strike demonstrated little activity or engagement – little more than the minimal activity expected of an ordinary strike, with workers showing up a few hours a week for picket "duty" and once a week to draw their strike benefits check from the union, while they wait out the company.

When the smoke cleared after five weeks on strike, the union had agreed to give up a part of its medical coverage. It proposed that workers ratify a contract which apparently required the workers to pay 10% of the total cost for medical coverage. A union spokesperson admitted that the union had "conceded to share some of the health care costs, although it's not as much as the company wanted us to..."

They Need Concessions because They Are So ... Profitable

When the first demands for concessions were heard, at the end of the 1970s, they were explained as being a temporary necessity to get an "ailing" or non-profitable company back on the road to success. But concessionary demands have become such an ordinary state of affairs, that no company even bothers to justify them anymore.

These three situations are good cases in point. Not one of the three companies is in anything that could, by the wildest stretch of the imagination, be called a weakened position.

Caterpillar is the largest earth moving equipment manufacturer in the world. The weak dollar has allowed it to push aside its main competitor, Japan's Komatsu corporation. Today, Caterpillar controls between 30% and 50% of the U.S. market for its different product lines. Moreover, in the two years since 1991, it has increased its share by at least 10%, and in one case by 50%. For 1993, it doubled the dividend it had paid out on its common stock in 1992.

Staley is the largest producer of corn syrup and sweeteners in the U.S. State Farm, one of the largest insurance companies in the United States, is linked financially with Staley, as are several big banks. Staley itself was attractive enough that Tate & Lyle, PLC, bought it up in 1991. This British multinational firm also produces cane sugar and beet sugar, with plantations and refineries in the Caribbean, Australia and Europe, as well as in the U.S. Tate & Lyle's sales last year amounted to over 5 billion dollars.

As for General Dynamics, among other things, it produces the M1A1 and M1A2 battle tanks for the military. It has long fed at the trough of the U.S. Defense Department, with its almost unlimited access to tax moneys. Of course, General Dynamics says that now the Cold War is over, this trough is shrinking. In fact, Defense Department outlays are not shrinking, they just are not going up as fast as they had been. And shrinking trough or not, General Dynamics has managed to keep half a billion dollars of cash on hand – and this after awarding their top executives tens of millions of dollars in bonuses in 1993. General Dynamics former chairman received 18 million dollars in retirement perks and annual compensation last year. The return on stockholders' equity for 1993 at General Dynamics was a whopping 75%, compared to the average 10% for the large corporations.

So, no, the demands of these companies for concessions did not derive from a weakened financial position. We have reached the point that the most profitable companies demand concessions simply because they think they can get them – and because they know they will have the support of the rest of their class when they confront their workers.

The Whole Country Is a War Zone

The unions at Decatur coined the phrase, "Southern Illinois is a war zone" to describe what is happening. It's absolutely true, and not only in Southern Illinois, but across the whole United States. But when you are in a war, you have to pick up the armaments of war, in this case, the armaments of class warfare.

What the unions have proposed is to outwait these giant firms, to go out, and then wait for the lack of production to hit these firms in the pocket book. At the same time, they have been publicizing what the companies have done; making use of whatever small protection might be built into the law; demonstrating; calling on other unions to bring out their members in support and to give financial aid to those caught in the middle of a fight. Effectively, by what they propose, the unions help create the illusion among the workers that they can depend on the government, or on public opinion, or on the financial and moral support from other unions – on anything and everything except their own class forces.

What they have done may be, as in these cases, useful or even necessary. The problem lies in the fact that the unions involved have called on the workers to do no more than these things. And this is all the more striking, because the workers have demonstrated, at least at Staley and Caterpillar, that they are ready to do more, and that they could conceive of linking themselves to other workers beyond their own company or workplace.

In none of these three strikes did the union call out all the workers from the company involved. Under the pretext that other workers were bound by contracts, the unions left them to the side. But even if these corporations had been completely shut down, there would still be a problem. These companies are parts of much bigger financial empires with many other sources of income. They are tied to other large corporations, to banks, insurance companies, etc. The financial groupings benefit from a wide range of sources for their profits. And even if an individual company loses income while a strike is going on; that amount pales when compared to how much it gains by taking large concessions from their work force, concessions which continue year after year. Of course, if their competitors would act the way we are told the capitalists act, that is always in a competition with each other for market share, then a strike might be more worrisome for them. But despite the fact that the large corporations do compete with each other, when it comes to confronting their own workers, ordinarily they find support from their "competitors".

When the workers begin a fight, they are not fighting just one company. More exactly, they are not being attacked by just one company standing alone. They have multiple enemies. The problem is that the workers stand alone, while the bourgeoisie brings its forces together to carry out this war. And this includes first, and above all, its forces in the state apparatus.

Less than two months after the rally held in Peoria to support passage of S55, the Senate Democrats answered by letting the bill die. If all the Democrats had voted to force a vote, they had enough Republican votes with them, so that the Republicans who were opposed would not have been able to "filibuster" the bill to death. But the Democratic Party leadership did nothing to lean on its recalcitrant members. Clinton left them alone. He barely made any statements in favor of passing the bill. Of course, this is not to say that the bill, if it had been passed, would have changed everything: for years, without any such law, no large corporation tried to replace strikers – they weren't ready to do so given the state of mobilization of the union movement. But what the Democrats did – in fact, didn't do – for labor shows how illusory are the hopes the unions ask us to have in the Democratic Party.

Were the unions really surprised when the Democrats made little effort to get this bill through? They shouldn't have been. After all, look at what the NLRB has done since it has been taken over by Democratic appointees: the UAW itself admits that while "workers hope the pendulum at the NLRB will soon swing back toward the center [!] after 12 years on the right once the new Democratic appointees settle in there, so far the balance remains lacking, with new NLRB leaders allowing staff to seek $1.3 million in fines against the United Mine Workers for alleged picket line activity during last year's coal strike." The UMWA characterizes this action as "a reactionary ploy to satisfy board critics". A ploy? Is that what it was when the Clinton Administration went into court to reinforce the demand for an earlier fine of 52 million dollars imposed on the UMWA for picket line activity during the Pittston strike? Was this also just a ploy, aimed, perhaps at calming the critics of the new Democratic Administration? (In that case, better watch out, because it's obvious that the Clinton Administration is more worried about offending its critics on the right than it is about the unions who give it its main electoral support.)

Certainly, no one could claim that the situation for workers who want to fight, nor for their unions is easy today. But the problem with the top leadership of the unions, even when they do decide to lead a fight, is that they don't even raise the possibility of asking other workers to join in the fight, with their own forces, and for their own goals.

Union militants who want to resist the continuing drive of the bourgeoisie to take ever more concessions from the working class have to make an accurate estimate of what they are up against: that is, all the forces of the whole capitalist class. They must note carefully how these forces stand behind the company they want to fight. Starting from such an estimate, those who want to fight must draw the conclusion that they too must have forces – not just supporters, but troops joining in the fight, taking on their bosses for their own demands, as well as taking on the capitalist class more generally for the demands which cut across the working class.

Would workers respond to such proposals? If it seems impossible to imagine such a fight today, where one section of the working class joins other sections in struggle, it's only because it's been so long since any group of workers who started a fight. But given the disastrous results of fighting separately, results which keep repeating themselves, what could be more logical than to try to break out of the multitude of individual cocoons in which the contract system has placed the working class? In any case, the problem is to propose it to those workers ready to make a struggle, and let them make the effort to bring other workers with them.